Friday, October 14, 2016

Caramel Apple Pie

Longtime readers of this blog will recall how last year the whole family worked together to perfect an apple pie recipe to enter into the biggest apple pie contest in the state. We braved the wind, rain, and freezing cold temperatures to be awarded 3rd place. After enduring the awful weather (it was really quite the ordeal), I was just happy we won anything at all! After tasting the pie (we had made two) back at home afterwards, Paul and I were very, very displeased with the flavor of the cinnamon we used. It tasted very strange...almost dusty. I had ran out of my good cinnamon during our baking experimentation and just used the cheap 99 cent bottle I had in the back of my cupboard. Big, big mistake. It really kind of ruined the pie for me. Paul was convinced that if we had used a decent cinnamon, we would have won the pie contest. Maybe we're just cinnamon snobs, but I don't think so because that cheap, stale cinnamon really was incredibly nasty. So, this year we were determined to tweak the recipe some more, use a decent batch of fresh cinnamon, and enter it again.

Well, things got busy and hectic and the skies were looking dark and stormy on the day of the festival so we decided against going. I had already made my pie dough and had it chilling in the fridge but agreed with Paul that I did not want to get all wet and muddy like we did the previous year. So, I let the dough continue chilling and we just did some chores around the house.

By the early afternoon, the skies cleared and the temperatures began to rise. Of course. The kids were very antsy, so we decided to pack everyone up and head down to the festival anyway. Without our pie.

Who can turn down free face painting? Matthew got a ninja turtle...

...and Emma got her favorite Paw Patrol character Skye!

We were all disappointed about not entering the pie contest this year, but we did have fun enjoying the beautiful fall weather and all the wonderful sights, sounds, and entertainment the festival had to offer. The highlight for the kids was stumbling upon a vendor that made cute old-fashioned wooden toys for the kids. For only a couple dollars, we purchased these wooden push toys that featured a hand-painted animal of choice mounted on rolling wheels with rubber feet that flap against the ground as it is propelled forward. At first, Paul was all prepared to purchase just one of these toys for Emma and Matthew to share but I intervened and reminded him about how well their sharing works out on a daily basis. So, Matthew chose an alligator and Emma chose a frog and the two of them pushed their toys all over the streets of the cute little Victorian town while we enjoyed the rest of the festival.

Poor Lucy wanted one of those toys too!

While we were all worried about Matthew and Emma not being able to share, we had completely forgotten about poor baby Lucy. I should probably preface this by saying that Lucy has been in full-blown "brat mode" for a month or so where everything in sight automatically and unabashedly hers. As soon as she saw those toys, her eyes lit up and she immediately wanted to be let down so she could have a turn. We let her down and she immediately ran over to Emma, who was happily walking along with her little frog, and grabbed the stick from her while barking: "MINE!" Lucy then took off with Emma's frog, running as she propelled the amphibian and its wildly flapping feet forward, with Emma running after her sobbing. When Emma caught up to her, Lucy promptly dropped Emma's toy and went after Matthew's alligator instead and another fight ensued. Lucy has been fighting with her two older siblings over these toys ever since. Maybe we should have purchased three of them. They really are the cutest little things. The kids have been walking with them everywhere. I think Emma is convinced that her wooden frog is an actual pet that she is in charge of "walking" on a daily basis. She likes to talk to it as she walks around the neighborhood and has named it "Eleeyah." She comes up with some weird names for her toys.

Even though we didn't enter the contest, I still made apple pie and changed a few things up to make what I think is one incredibly awesome pie. This is the recipe I would have entered this year and I'm pretty sure it would have won a blue ribbon. We'll see what happens next year. In the meantime, I couldn't wait an entire year to share it with y'all! It's amazing what a little caramel and a streusel topping can do to put a little "wow" factor in the already much-beloved classic apple pie.

Caramel Apple Pie

For the pie dough:
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour or pastry flour (I prefer pastry flour for pie dough)
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup vegetable shortening
10 tablespoons very cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2" pieces
6-10 tablespoons ice water

For the Filling:
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
6 cups of peeled, cored, and sliced apples - A good, tart apple that won't break down completely
2 tablespoons caramel apple dip/sauce or homemade caramel sauce (I've used both with excellent results)

2 tablespoons cream

For the Topping:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup cold unsalted butter
A couple generous pinches of salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

To make the pie dough, whisk together the flour and salt in a large bowl. Add the shortening, working it in until the mixture is evenly crumbly. Be sure to work the shortening in really well. You don't want large clumps of it in your dough. Add the butter to the flour mixture, and work it in roughly with your fingers, a pastry cutter, or a mixer. Don't be too thorough! The mixture should be very uneven, with big chunks of butter in among the smaller ones.

Add 4 tablespoons of water, and toss to combine.Toss with enough additional water to make a chunky, fairly cohesive mixture. It should hold together when you gather it up and squeeze it in your hand. Divide the dough in half, and gather each half into a rough disk. Smooth the disks but don't be alarmed if you have a few cracks on the surface. Smooth the disks' edges by running them along a floured surface like a wheel then wrap in plastic and chill for at least 30 minutes, or up to overnight.

To make the filling, combine the sugar, flour, and cinnamon. Stir in the apples. Combine the caramel with the milk or cream and whisk well to combine. Toss with the apples.

To make the struesel topping, whisk together the flour, sugar, salt, and cinnamon. Using your fingers, rub in the butter until perfectly combined. The mixture should be crumbly. Put into the fridge until ready to bake.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Roll our one portion of dough into a 12-inch circle (save the second piece of dough for another pie!). Gently fit into a pie pan and trim/flute the edges. I like to stick my pie crust into the freezer for a couple minutes before baking to chill, but that's really completely optional.

Brush a little bit of melted butter on the bottom of the crust in the dough pan. This helps create a barrier between the filling and the dough so that you don't end up with a soggy crust after baking. Mound the apple filling into the pie crust. Be sure to use a spatula to ensure every juicy bits makes it in there! Then, carefully top with the crumb mixture. Press firmly a bit with your hands to ensure that it adheres well to the apple filling. Place on a baking sheet and slide into the oven.

Bake for 45-55 minutes or until the top is browned and the pie juices are bubbling.

Let cool completely - and I mean COMPLETELY - on a wire rack before serving. Drizzle individual pieces with leftover, warmed caramel sauce, if desired.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Old-Fashioned Apple Cake with Brown Sugar Frosting

Over the summer, the kids and I were privileged to attend two magic shows sponsored by our local library. The magicians were both really engaging with the children and featured a reading theme throughout their show. The tricks were simple but there were a few that I have no idea how they pulled off. The kids were enthralled for both shows. Even Lucy was enchanted by all the legerdemain she witnessed! For both shows, Matthew and Emma raised their hands enthusiastically when the magicians asked for volunteers and Matthew was called up for both shows. Emma was a little upset that she got ignored, but I have a feeling that at the tender age of three, she might just be a bit too young and behaviorally unpredictable to make a good magician's assistant. So, Matthew was the privileged chosen one and I have to say that he made an excellent asset to the show because nobody laughed more heartily at their corny jokes and was more amazed by their tricks than he.

The first time Matthew was called up to the stage, he jogged right up there and listened carefully as the magician began to explain the trick. Suddenly, I noticed that he began to look a bit uncomfortable as he began to stand with his knees slightly bent and his toes just beginning to turn inwards. "Uh oh," I thought. My sister Amy was sitting next to me at the time and we both exchanged a look of terrified concern. Matthew had to go to the bathroom.

The magician continued to delay the actual execution of his trick by making some jokes and teasing Matthew. He did a couple "trial runs" of the trick where the end result was not the expected one and then he would begin to blame the error in the trick on Matthew. Of course this was quite funny and Matthew was laughing so hard that he began to start clutching at the top of his pants and doubling over in a mixture of pain and hysterics. Amy and I were both on the verge of a panic attack. I began praying to ever saint in my arsenal: "Please please, oh please, do not let my kid pee his pants onstage!"

From behind me, I heard a guy whisper to his wife, "Oh man! That poor kid has to go!"

The jokes continued and the magician seemed completely unaware that his assistant was struggling to keep the dam from exploding. Matthew was dancing about, knocking his knees together, and looked to be in complete agony. I was so on edge that I debated going onstage and pulling Matthew off. But, soon enough, the magician finally got to the trick - basically, Matthew was holding a plastic ball and he had to cover it with both of his hands and when the magician said the magic words and Matthew opened his hands no less than 10 balls suddenly came cascading out of his hands and onto the floor.  It was actually pretty cool. The magician thanked a very pained and hobbling Matthew for his help, handed him a prize, and then shooed him off the stage. Matthew bolted from the stage and ran and ran and ran until he reached the restrooms in the back. It was close, but he made it. Probably the most tense ten minutes of my life so far. Amy actually ended up filming the entire thing on my cell phone so Paul got to watch it later and cringe along with us. It provided a great laugh for all of us.

Before the second magic show, I made sure that both kids used the bathroom. Matthew's second round as the magician's assistant was far less eventful. The magician put a blue-colored scarf into his magic hat and handed Matthew a magic wand, instructing him to wave it over the hat while saying the magic words: "Abracadabra! Turn this blue scarf into red!" However, instead of a blue scarf, the magician kept pulling slices of toast out of the hat. "Matthew! I told you to turn the blue scarf into red, not bread!" This repeated over and the scarf multiplied into an entire loaf of sandwich bread before finally turning the red shade as promised. Matthew laughed so hard, I was so afraid that we would have another incident but he pulled through just fine.

Matthew's greatest magic trick around the house lately has been helping me peel apples. Peeling anything is one of those kitchen tasks I loathe the most. And if you are going to be baking anything with a bunch of apples, there is a lot of coring, peeling, and slicing to be done. Lucky for me, Matthew actually enjoys peeling and enthusiastically volunteered for the job. However, after he badly peeled his forefinger instead of the apple he was holding, Paul ordered a fancy little tool to help Matthew chug out peel, cored, and sliced apples in a matter of seconds. Matthew was especially excited about the long, snake-like peel the machine left behind once finished with an apple and took it upon himself to eat it. A little extra fiber never hurt anyone!

Our new apple peeler/corer/slicer has been so helpful in the making of all our apple confections. Including this Old-Fashioned Apple Cake with Brown Sugar Icing. This cake is a breeze to whip up - with or without a fancy-dancy apple peeler. Unlike most cakes that involve multiple steps or careful folding of ingredients to produce the desired texture, everything is dumped into one bowl and beat together until combined. The apples and nuts are then added and the mixture begins to loosen as the apples release some of their juices. The dough is spread in a pan and baked until it turns a deep golden brown and makes your entire house smell like fall. The cake is allowed to cool completely before the best, most gorgeous brown sugar frosting is spread over the top. Oh my word, such a perfect cake for this time of year! We snacked on it all week long. Emma and Lucy were especially fond of it. Simple enough to whip up on a whim during a busy weeknight yet enticing enough to serve to dinner guests, this cake has something for everyone. Don't let the fall pass you by without making it!

Old-Fashioned Apple Cake with Brown Sugar Frosting
from King Arthur Flour

For the Cake:
2 1/3 cups King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour or King Arthur White Whole Wheat Flour
1 2/3 cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 large eggs
1/2 cup (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
4 cups peeled, cored, chopped apple (about 1 1/3 pounds whole apples)
1 cup diced toasted walnuts or pecans

For the Frosting:
7 tablespoons unsalted butter
2/3 cup brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup milk
2 1/4 cups confectioners' sugar
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 325°F. Grease and flour a 9" x 13" pan.

To make the cake, mix all of the ingredients except the apples and nuts in a large bowl. Beat until well combined; the mixture will be very stiff, and may even be crumbly. Add the apples and nuts, and mix until the apples release some of their juice and the stiff mixture becomes a thick batter. Beat for about a minute.

Spread the batter in the prepared pan. Bake the cake for 45 minutes, or until a cake tester or toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, or with just a few wet crumbs clinging to it.

Remove the cake from the oven and place it on a rack to cool completely before frosting.

To make the frosting, melt the butter in a small pan over medium heat. Stir in the brown sugar and salt and cook, stirring, until the sugar melts. Add the milk, bring to a boil, and pour into a mixing bowl to cool for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, stir in the confectioners' sugar and vanilla. Beat well to create a smooth, spreadable frosting. If the mixture appears too thin, add more confectioners' sugar. Spread on the cake while frosting is still warm.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Harvest Apple Challah

There was a time in college when I ate probably 10 apples a day. I would be studying my biology and chemistry into the wee hours of the morning and I needed to be chewing something to prevent myself from collapsing in an exhausted heap on top of my textbooks. Apple slices were my snack of choice because I could easily sneak several out of the dining hall each meal thus fulfilling both my need to stay awake and my lack of a snack fund. My apple snacking made me aware of how many great varieties of apples there are, outside the ubiquitous golden delicious, red delicious (total misnomer - they are not-so-delicious), and granny smith. There are so many great-tasting apple varieties out there: Paula Red, McIntosh, Mutsu, Ginger Gold, Pink Lady, Zestar, Honeycrisp, Fuji, Gala, Empire, Cortland, Braeburn, Jonagold, SweetTango, Jazz, and so many more. Of all of these, Honeycrisp and Pink Lady hold my heart for eating out of hand, but in my pies I prefer a combination of Mutsu, Ginger Gold, and Granny Smith. 

In addition to an obsession with ketchup and pickles, my kids have inherited my love of apple because they will never turn down the opportunity to snack on one. In fact, most of the time when they are hungry, the first thing they will ask for is an apple. No need to stock up on the usual kid-friendly snacks like crackers and pretzels, my kids will gladly eat a sliced apple over those things any day! I love it. Even Lucy is making good use of her newly descended canines by hacking into as many apples as she can. It's so cute to watch her munch on an apple almost the size of her entire face.

Her shirt kept riding up, exposing that chunky little belly button (or "BB" as she calls it)

There are so many apple trees surrounding us! Emma and I usually do a bit of neighborhood foraging and pick from the apple trees planted in public spaces nearby. Sometimes the apples can be a bit wormy, but we've made some pretty tasty treats from these apples. However, if you really want to hit the apple jackpot, just drive to one of the nearby farms and they practically are giving away as many apples as you can haul away. The kids love roaming through the orchards, seeing the apple trees, and competing with one another to pick the biggest apples. It's such a fun, fall activity to do together.

We have hit up the apple orchards three times so far this fall. Each time, the farmers have told the kids that they are free to snack on as many apples as they want while picking. I don't think they expected my kids to eat quite as many as they did. Matthew alone ate about seven apples while casually picking from the trees and filling our baskets. So far, the Ginger Golds in our area have been so incredibly crisp and juicy that I am already itching to go back for more. We had over fifty pounds of apples sitting on our counter on Friday evening and today we have less than ten pounds remaining. Where did they all go? I've got so many fun apple treats to share in the coming days starting with this Apple Challah.

Sweet egg bread with large apple chunks and hints of cinnamon swirled throughout, this bread is a great snack or breakfast treat! My kids love it but that really shouldn't be too surprising since we love our bread. While trying to snap photos of the finished product, my two little princesses would not stop eating my apple props!!

And one little tiny thief in particular had trouble keeping her tiny hands off the bread. Can you blame her though? It's gorgeous!

This recipe is another that I have pulled from the dusty archives of this blog to bring to your attention once more because it is a wonderful, unique way to use all those plump, beautiful apples available this time of year! If you're a challah snob like me, you'll enjoy this fall-themed twist. I prefer butter in my challah, a true sacrilege if there ever was one, but if you must make your challah kosher, simply substitute an equal amount of neutral-flavored oil for the melted butter called for in the recipe. A nice slice of this bread with a cup of hot cider on a cool, breezy fall afternoon is a wonderful thing to enjoy!

Harvest Apple Challah

from King Arthur Flour

For the Dough:
1/2 cup lukewarm water
6 tablespoons butter, melted
1/4 cup honey
2 large eggs
4 cups (17 ounces) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon instant yeast

For the Apple Filling:
2 medium-to-large apples, NOT peeled; cored and diced in ¾" chunks
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ cup granulated sugar

For the Egg Wash:
1 large egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water
Coarse white sugar, for sprinkling

To make the dough: Combine all of the dough ingredients and mix and knead them, by hand, mixer, or bread machine, until you have a soft, smooth dough.

Allow the dough to rise, covered, for 2 hours, or until it's puffy and nearly doubled in bulk. 

Lightly grease a 9" round cake pan that's at least 2" deep. Toss the apple chunks with the sugar and cinnamon. Gently deflate the dough, transfer it to a lightly greased work surface, and flatten it into a rough rectangle, about 8" x 10". Spread half the apple chunks in the center of the dough.

Fold a short edge of the dough over the apple to cover it, patting firmly to seal the apples and spread the dough a bit. Spread the remaining apple atop the folded-over dough. Cover the apples with the other side of the dough, again patting firmly. In other words, fold the dough like a business letter, encasing the apple chunks inside.

Take a bench knife or a knife, or even a pair of scissors, and cut the apple-filled dough into 16 pieces. Cut in half, then each half in halves, etc. Don't stress this part. It's a messy process where you'll have chunks of apples and dough falling out every which way and you'll begin to wonder what the point of all this is. I was right there with you, but persevere! 

Lay the dough chunks into the pan and do your best to get everything in a single layer. Tuck and wedge any loose apple chunks in between the dough pieces. Again, don't stress.

Cover the challah gently with lightly greased plastic wrap or a proof cover, and allow it to rise for about 1 hour, until it's a generous 2" high. It should just crest the rim of a 9" round cake pan. Towards the end of the rising time, preheat the oven to 325°F.

Whisk together the egg and 1 tablespoon water. Brush the dough with the egg mixture, and sprinkle heavily with the coarse sugar, if desired.

Place the bread in the lower third of the oven. Bake it for 55 minutes, or until the top is at least light brown all over or until an instant-read thermometer registers at least 190 when stuck into the center of the bread.

Remove the challah from the oven and let cool 5-10 minutes before removing the bread from the pan and transferring to a wire rack to cool. However, if you can't wait to dig in, this bread is fantastic served warm. Especially with a drizzle of honey.

Friday, September 30, 2016

French-Style White Bean Stew

Every night when I strap Lucy into her high chair and place her meal in front of her, I have exactly five minutes before she will pick up her plate and shove it towards me while declaring: "All done!" Naturally, the rest of us are usually not finished quite so quickly and the little lady has to wait before we release her back into the wild. She finds this very displeasing and then will spend the remainder of dinner whining and demanding her freedom. It's horribly annoying and a very unsatisfactory dining experience after all the work effort that normally goes into cooking dinner.

Because of this awful habit, Lucy rarely cleans her plate. Unless we have pizza and then she is sure to polish off at least three slices (but will pick the pepperoni off). However, the girls is not opposed to trying new things. She is always wandering around the house putting random objects in her mouth. Normally I will be fussing about vacuuming or folding laundry and Lucy will wander in with her mouth wide open and her tongue sticking out while making an "Ahhhhh" sound. This means that she put something unpleasant in her mouth and now requires my help fishing it back out. Usually it's a piece of lint, a toy (!), or a bit of paper. When outside, I have to monitor her very closely because she loves to try eating all the plants she can find. I'm constantly slapping grass, pieces of the rosebush, or the hydrangeas out of her tight little fists. She won't ever touch a bit of the salad I put in front of her for dinner, but she's all about neighborhood foraging.

Lucy's random taste testing took an all time low this week while we were at the grocery store. I had written out a list of items we needed on a small piece of notebook paper and was reading off of it as we navigated throughout the store aisles. Lucy noticed my list and swiped it out of my hands. I was so distracted by my shopping that I just let her hold it. However, when it came time for me to glance at it again to ensure that I had bought everything, the list was nowhere to be found.

"Lucy, did you drop it?" I asked her as I began to visually search the floor of the aisle we had just walked down. Unable to find it, I glanced back at Lucy and noticed her mouth was full. Full of my list! She had jammed the entire piece of paper into her cheeks. I fished it out and found it almost completely dissolved and illegible. I scolded Lucy and she grinned sheepishly. When we got home from shopping, I tried to feed her a snack of Greek yogurt but she wouldn't have any of it. I guess that piece of notebook paper filled her right up!

The recipe for today is another meal that my kids wouldn't touch. But I didn't make this with their taste buds in mind. I made it for Paul. His favorite thing about the cooler months are the warm, cozy meals that are typically made during them. He loves soups, stews, chilis, casseroles, and basically anything that should be served with a side of crusty bread. This recipe for chicken cassoulet is right up his alley and it was the perfect comforting, easy, filling dinner to serve during a very stressful work week. Like I said, the kids, with the exception of Matthew, wouldn't touch it and just ate bread for dinner but the rest of us loved it. I'm a big fan of meals that can be made in one pot and this recipe fit that bill perfectly.

French-Style White Bean Stew
adapted slightly from Cook's Country Feb/March 2016

Note: The original recipe called for the stew to be served with homemade toasted croutons scatter atop each serving, but we chose to skip that and just made some garlic bread as a side.

1 tablespoons olive oil
2 (5-7 ounce) bone-in chicken thighs, trimmed
8 ounces garlic sausage or bratwurst
1 onion, chopped fine
1/2 cup canned diced tomatoes
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme
1 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 (15 ounce) can of navy beans or cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley

Pat chicken dry with paper towels and season well with salt and pepper. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in 10-inch heavy skillet or dutch oven over medium-high heat until just smoking. Add chicken, skin side down, and sausage and cook, rotating sausage occasionally but leaving chicken undisturbed, until well browned, about 5 minutes. Transfer to plate.

Add onion, tomatoes, and 14 teaspoon salt to now-empty pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and beginning to brown, about 5-7 minutes. Stir in garlic and thyme and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in broth and wine and scrape up any browned bits. Add beans and stir to combine.

Add chicken, skin side up, sausage, and any accumulated juices to bean mixture and ring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until chicken registers 175 degrees, about 10-15 minutes.

Remove lid, increase heat to medium-low, and continue to simmer until sauce is slightly thickened and liquid falls just below surface of beans, about 10 minutes longer. It's really loose when you first take it off the heat (as it is in my picture above) but will thicken upon standing. Sprinkle with parsley right before serving.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Apple Pie Bars

While sorting through my photo archive, I came across some fun pictures I had forgotten about from a visit to my parents' house a couple months ago. On this particular visit, Mom and I took my kids and a couple of my younger siblings to the zoo. We had a great time except for getting absolutely drenched by a sudden cloud burst. Highlights for the kids included petting a sting ray, watching the very active sea lions swim about, and chasing the peacocks. The Fort Wayne Children's Zoo is definitely one of the nicest zoos we have ever visited. Not too big, very clean, very beautiful, and with lots of well-cared for happy animals to enjoy!

No idea what was up with the punk faces in this photo. Matthew and Bruce just think they're so cool.

The highlight for me was making friends with this very weird little monkey.

Cooler temperatures means our days to walk the zoo are numbered before we become too encumbered by snow and frigid wind. The best part about Fall is the many varieties of local apples that are finally appearing in the supermarket and the roadside farm stands. The kids and I are going to the orchards to pick some apples later this week and Matthew has a long list of apple treats he wants to help me make and apple pie is at the top of his list. He wants me to enter the Apple Pie Contest again this year. We'll see if I have time for that!

This recipe for Apple Pie Bars is not new. I have been making these bars for over eight years now and they are still a family favorite. I posted this recipe in during the very early years of this blog and it instantly became the most popular recipe and held that spot for nearly a year. It has since been forgotten, but we love it so much and think it's such an insanely easy and wonderful treat to share with friends and family that I am pulling it out of the archives, jazzing it up with some new pictures, and bringing it to your attention once again. Since I have made these a gazillion times, we tend to like them with a bit more butterscotch chips than the original recipe calls for and the addition of one cup of coarsely chopped and toasted walnuts. The bars soften even more as they sit and really take on a gooey, apple pie texture about 24 hours after baking. That is how I like them best.

Matthew, Emma, and I made this most recent batch of Apple Pie Bars together. Lucy contributed some quality control in the form of taste-testing the butterscotch chips and diced apples. She also provided some mood music by baby-babbling her way through "Angels Watching Over Me", "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and "Let It Go" at the top of her lungs. Matthew was extremely helpful by volunteering to peel the apples for me, a task I truly abhor. Twenty minutes later, Matthew had precisely peeled exactly one apple. So I ended up having to do some peeling anyway. While I was distracted doing that, Emma started eating teaspoonfuls of baking soda and drinking the vanilla extract. I then banished her from the kitchen and finished off the baking with Matthew alone. Thus is baking with kids. Or just Emma. Most kids beg to sample the chocolate chips; Emma sneaks the baking powder and raw flour.

When fall comes around, forget pumpkin pie or apple crisp. These cookies are the first thing we pull out of our oven!

Apple Pie Bars
this recipe first appeared on the blog in 2012

1 cup vegetable oil
2 cups sugar
3 eggs
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
3 large Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and finely diced
1 cup butterscotch chips (we like to heap it!)
1 cup lightly toasted walnuts, coarsely chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Grease a 13x9 baking dish.

Using a stand mixer, beat the oil, sugar, and eggs until fully combined (about 2 minutes).  The mixture should be thick and pale yellow.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, salt, baking soda, and spices.  Add to the sugar mixture in the mixer and beat until completely combined.  Using a sturdy spoon or spatula, fold in the apples, butterscotch chips, and walnuts.  The batter should be very thick.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan.  Bake in the preheated oven for 45 minutes - 1 hour, or until a toothpick comes out with only a few, moist crumbs attached.  Be careful not to over-bake.  Let cool slightly on a wire rack.  Serve the bars warm or at room temperature.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

S'mores Cookie Bars

All summer long, Matthew and Emma begged and pleaded for me to allow them to host their best friends for a sleepover. I wasn't opposed to the idea at all, but we were so busy all June, July, and August that it wasn't until the first weekend in September that we finally were able to have our dearest friends Sophia and Bella over to spend the night. We asked Matthew and Emma what they wanted to do with the girls during their time here and they both agreed that the best sleepovers involve bonfires, hot dogs, s'mores, movies, and popcorn. Easy enough. We bought hot dogs, the biggest marshmallows you've ever seen in your life, and lit the fire outside about 45 minutes before the girls arrived so that it would be nice and hot for them to cook their dogs and roast their marshmallows.

Well, by the time they arrived, some menacing clouds had covered the sky and a nasty thunderstorm seemed imminent. Within 10 minutes of the girls' arrival, the skies opened up and we began to be pelted with a torrential downpour complete with booming thunder and large lightening bolts. And there went our bonfire. A few minutes later, we discovered we had our very own personal waterfall flowing into the basement and the kids excitedly helped Paul contain it and clean up the mess it caused. For the kids, the flood control may have been the most exciting part of the evening.

In the end, we cooked hot dogs on the stove top, ate indoors, and watched the rain put out the fire Paul had so carefully built outside. When all plates were cleaned, the kids asked, "But what about the s'mores?!" The only solution was to come up with a fun way to make the classic campfire treat inside.

Using a basic sugar cookie base with the addition of some graham cracker crumbs for authentic s'mores flavor, we made a bar cookie sandwiching the irresistible combination of chocolate and marshmallow. A breeze to put together, the entire pan was out of the oven and cooling before the kids finished getting into their pajamas, although several games of tag and hide-and-seek that certainly slowed that process! While still warm, the cookies are gooey and melty and almost need to be eaten with a fork to avoid getting sticky fingers. If you let them sit until completely cool, they take on the texture of a super soft, chewy cookie that slices really neatly. I honestly can't decide which way I liked them better. The kids went crazy for them and the girls begged to take the leftovers home. I honestly probably prefer these cookies to classic s'mores and was almost grateful to the rain for inspiring us to whip up this creative, less messy version.

S'mores Cookie Bars

1/2 cup butter
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/3 cups flour
3/4 cup graham cracker crumbs
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
10 ounces milk chocolate Hershey Bars
1 bag miniature marshmallows

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cream butter, brown sugar, sugar, egg, and vanilla together in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk the flour, graham cracker crumbs, baking powder, and salt. Slowly beat the dry ingredients into the butter mixture. Press half the dough into a greased 9x9 pan.The dough was a bit sticky but persevere! Once pressed into the pan, completely cover the dough with a layer of Hershey bars. Then, toss on enough marshmallows to completely cover the chocolate.

Take a piece large piece of parchment and spread it out on the counter. Pat the remaining cookie dough into a square approximately 8x8". Carefully (I had Paul assist me) flip the dough onto the marshmallow layer and carefully peel away the parchment. Pat and tuck the dough into the corners and sides of the pan and press lightly down to ensure that it is fully sandwiching the filling.

Place the pan in the preheated oven and bake for 30-35 minutes or until golden brown. Let stand a bit for the ingredients to settle before slicing and serving. They are a bit messy and gooey, but that's part of the fun!

Friday, September 23, 2016

Mazurka Bars

Nearly a month ago, Matthew began the first grade and I can barely believe it! The school year has treated him well so far and my worries about how little real schoolwork we did together over the summer were entirely unfounded. In the three short weeks he has been in school, I have already seen a remarkable improvement in his penmanship, reading, and spelling. He absolutely adores his teacher and reminds me on a daily basis that "Mrs. Smith is really, really pretty!" His girlfriend Lillian (yes, they are apparently still an item) also has the same teacher and Matthew was over-the-moon about that. I've had to watch those two walk to class together holding hands nearly every morning.

The morning of Matthew's first day of school, he woke up bright and early, pulled on his uniform, and then excitedly milled about until it was time to go. Unfortunately, he had to entertain himself for a good three hours before school began since he chose to get up at 5:30 AM. Not to mention, his sisters were little bums that day and I had to practically drag them out of bed in order to make it to school on time. Emma was largely uncooperative for the pictures. In fact, while I was snapping these few sweet shots of Matthew and Lucy together, Emma was lying prostrated on the pavement behind me and kicking her limbs while protesting almost everything I was asking her to do simply because she was angry that I had separated her from the comforts of her bed.

She did eventually shape up and took a group picture with her siblings. I love comparing this image of the three of them to the back-to-school photo captured the previous year. What a difference a year makes! Why must they grow?

A lot has happened during these three short weeks of the school year. The kids and I participated in a 5K benefit race for the school. Paul chickened out and chose to go biking with a group of coworkers instead. Matthew and I did a couple practice runs in anticipation of the race and I was really impressed with his endurance. The plan was that Matthew and I would jog together while I also pushed both girls in the double stroller. Matthew was so excited especially when we picked up our race packs complete with our shirts and numbers. However, when the morning of the race dawned, he was completely unmotivated when he saw that it was storming outside. Rain or shine, I was determined to complete the run so I packed all the kids up and headed out in the pouring rain to the race location.

"But Mommy! We might get hit by lightening if we run in the storm!" Matthew worried aloud.
"Don't worry Matthew! I'm sure Father David has been praying really hard for good weather. It'll clear up!" I replied.

Amazingly, as soon as we arrived, the skies cleared a bit and the rain stopped just long enough for us to complete the race before it began pouring once more. It was truly a miracle.

The race was so much fun! Matthew whined after mile one but then finished strong. Emma was an awesome cheerleader, always encouraging me to go faster and cheering the other runners along. Lucy was a miserable, cranky mess who completely started freaking out once we hit mile two so I ended up pulling her out of the stroller and jogging with her on my hip for the remainder of the race. The girls and I crossed the finish line a few minutes ahead of Matthew and it was so fun to watch him come in towards the finish line. He loved seeing us, our pastor, his teachers, and friends cheering him on as he sprinted towards the finish line. He finished 51st out of 207 and I was so proud of him! It was so much fun to participate in the run as a family. Next time, we have to get that slacker husband of mine to join us.

The final, not-so-fun notable event of the school year so far was the outbreak of lice on the noggins of two of our children. Matthew and Lucy were both infested while Emma, Paul, and me were spared. Treating lice was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my life thus far. I cleaned, sanitized, bagged, shampooed, and scrubbed every item in our house and picked through every single piece of hair on Matthew and Lucy's head until I was sure that I had eliminated every louse and louse egg. I'm no smoker, but if I were, I would have gone through at least six packs a day during what I am now nostalgically referring to as "Lice Week.". I was so stressed out that I barely slept! Thankfully, we have eliminated the problem and Matthew is back at school completely lice-free and I am making it a personal goal to never, ever allow those nasty parasites to freely munch on the scalps of my children again!

Speaking of the munchies, my kid always comes home from school absolutely starving which is why it is always helpful to have some kind of snack on hand for him. I don't know if it is the age or the fact that he is growing even taller but Matthew has had the most voracious appetite lately. Last year, it was pretty common for him to come home from school with most of his lunch untouched but this year he has been demolishing everything I pack for him. In addition, he always requests an after-school-snack. I've been trying to have some type of treat on hand for him to munch on such as these Mazurka Bars. Mazurka bars are a traditional polish dessert made for special occasions that feature a buttery crust sandwiching fresh fruit. If you've ever been to a Great Harvest bakery, these mazurka bars are reminiscent to the addictive treat they sell called Savannah Bars. With an oatmeal and coconut base, these sweet treats are topped with fresh seasonal fruit and make a pretty hearty snack guaranteed to keep you energized until dinnertime. I used peaches and blueberries in mine because that's what we had on hand, but really you could use anything - thinly sliced apples, strawberries, pears, raspberries, blackberries - the choice is yours. Just don't overload them too much or they will be soggy. Although I have not yet tried it, I'm sure using a jam or preserve of your choice instead of fresh fruit would also make a great filling!

Mazurka Bars
adapted from Cakespy

For the Pastry:
1 1/4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
6 ounces (1 1/2 sticks) cold butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 3/4 ounces (1/2 cup, firmly packed) shredded coconut
3/4 old fashioned or quick cooking (not "instant") oatmeal
2 ounces (generous 1/2 cup) toasted walnuts, cut medium fine

For the Fruit Filling:
Sliced peaches, blueberries, apples, pears, or fruit of choice, thinly sliced - enough to create a thin layer of fruit
Sugar to taste (usually a few tablespoons)

Adjust a rack to the upper third of the oven and preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Place the Flour, salt, and sugar in a mixing bowl. With a pastry blender cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in the coconut, oatmeal, and walnuts.

Place half (about 3 cups) of the mixture in an unbuttered 8-inch-square cake pan. Press it evenly with your fingertips. Cover with a piece of wax paper and with the palm of your hand press against the paper to make a smooth, compact layer. Remove the wax paper.

Taste the fruit and toss with a bit of sugar until the sweetness level is satisfactory.

Place the fruit slices in an even layer. Sprinkle the remaining pastry evenly over the filling and repeat the directions for covering with wax paper and pressing smooth. Remove the wax paper.

Bake for 60-70 minutes until the top is barely firm to the touch.

Cool in the pan before serving for neater looking cuts. Can be served warm with ice cream or at room temperature as a snack!