Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Cooking with homemade pumpkin puree

Oh my gosh! Time flies when you're having fun! I meant to publish this post within a day or two of writing about our homemade doggie treat adventure, but time just got away from me. And now that I've been sufficiently chastised by more than one person for not being quick enough about it, I'm committed to publishing this before I head to bed tonight! (Thanks for the prod, Angie & Steve-O.) :)

Because I've been making a serious effort to bring fewer processed foods into our home this year, I was determined to finally try making my own pumpkin puree this fall, rather than buying the super-convenient canned pumpkin like I've always done. (And I needed material for my blog. Hahaha)

I googled a few different options for making pumpkin puree and ended up with this approach:

  1. Buy two small sugar - or pie - pumpkins. 
  2. Using a large, sturdy knife, cut the stem straight off. 
  3. Then halve the pumpkins from the top down and scoop out the seeds and stringy stuff. Rinse off the seeds and save them for roasting separately. 
  4. Place pumpkins cut side down on a large, edged baking sheet and roast for about 45 minutes at 350 degrees. 
  5. Let cool slightly and then carefully remove the skins, using tongs or a fork if needed. The skins will peel right off. 
  6. Transfer the cooked pumpkin to a food processor or blender and process until smooth.

My two pumpkins produced about 7-8 cups of puree.

Please do this. I implore you. It's so, so simple, and you're not eating all those preservatives from the canned stuff. Plus, the best part is that your whole house will smell like Thanksgiving. It's not a spice smell, not a turkey smell, not even really a PUMPKIN smell...I can't even describe it. It's just the smell of Thanksgiving and warmth and good things on the table. Do it. Make your own pumpkin puree. And then make these dogs treats.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Ruff life

My dogs are like my kids. I won't deny it. These two rotten bastards stole our hearts the moment we first laid eyes on them. I mean, come on. How could you not love these faces?

Our sweet Cody was a hard case. Purebred perfection nearly starved to death and neglected in a small crate for the first 18 months of his life, he was a scared, skinny shadow of the dog he has become. We used to joke that he had a bellhop to cart around all his baggage. We adopted him on sight after the Big Guy's manager - who owned Cody's half-sister from the same breeder - had fostered him for a bit. Vinnie was a wandering stray who had clearly never been inside a home. He was happy enough and healthy but had zero manners and no concept of human authority. He nuzzled and cuddled with me for five minutes in his foster's home (a friend of mine) and stole my heart like the thieving bugger he is. We filled out the paperwork to adopt him from Animal Control days later. 

These guys are my heart. And yes, they're a bit spoiled. They love their "cookies", but I refuse to feed them crap food or treats. And while I can always buy treats from the local doggy biscuit bakery, I figured since I'm on this whole baking/blogging kick, why not just make them myself? Thanks to Pinterest, I found the perfect recipe to tackle two projects at once:
  1. Baking with fresh pumpkin
  2. Making homemade dog treats
The post on how to make your own pumpkin puree that DOESN'T come from a can - and what to do with it - is soon to come. Here's a teaser...

But right now our focus is on my furbabies. Here they are again while the Big Guy and I were working on their treats. They knew it was all for them.

I seriously cannot say no to those faces when it comes to yummy treats. The original author of this recipe said she started making the treats because her dog - Cleo, another lab - turned up her nose at straight pumpkin puree. I have a theory about that: it's because she was using the canned garbage! Or maybe my dogs just want anything they deem "human food," because we put a handful of fresh pumpkin puree (the homemade labor-of-love kind) in front of them, and this was the result:

I almost pulled back a nub. Here's the recipe, courtesy of I won't link you back to the original blog because, since I originally pinned it, it's now producing some suspicious voodoo, according to Pinterest and my browser. Homey don't play that. Homey goes and gets the recipe from someplace else and repins it from there. So here, use my blog to pin the recipe for yourself. 

Cleo's Pumpkin Dog Biscuits

2 eggs
1/2 cup fresh (or canned, if you want to be that dog-mom) pumpkin puree
2 Tbsp dry milk powder
1/4 tsp sea salt
2-1/2 cups brown rice flour* (you can get it in the gluten-free aisle)
1 tsp dried parsley (optional - I did not use)

Preheat oven to 350.

In large bowl, whisk together eggs and pumpkin, then stir in dry milk, sea salt, and dried parsley (if using, optional). Add brown rice flour gradually, combining with spatula or hands to form a stiff, dry dough. Turn out onto lightly floured surface (can use the brown rice flour) and if dough is still rough, briefly knead and press to combine. (Note: I did need to knead mine a bit, but it all came together nicely with a spatula to begin with. It just needed some TLC from my hands to completely meld.)

Roll dough between 1/4 – 1/2″ – depending on your dog’s chew preferences – and use biscuit or other shape cutter to punch shapes, gathering and re-rolling scraps as you go. Or, if you're not feeling so fancy (which I wasn't that night), simply use a pizza cutter to cut into long strips and then go back across to cut into 1  2" squares. Place shapes on cookie sheet, no greasing or paper necessary. If desired, lightly press fork pattern on biscuits before baking. Bake 20 minutes. Remove from oven and carefully turn biscuits over, then bake additional 20 minutes. Allow to cool completely on rack before feeding to dog.

*Brown rice flour gives the biscuits crunch and promotes better dog digestion. Many dogs have touchy stomachs or allergies, and do not, like many people I know, tolerate wheat.

The original recipe writer claimed this recipe makes up to 75 small (1″) biscuits or 50 medium biscuits. We have to go with medium biscuits in this house, because these boys need a treat they can sink their teeth into. I only got 43 out of the recipe. Close enough! Your pups will love these treats. Ours sure did!

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Rising to the occasion

Over the course of this food blogging journey, I've heard several friends say in response to my posts about yeast breads that they're intimidated by working with yeast. I'll let you in on a little secret: I was too the first dozen or so times I tried it. But then, through trial and error, I learned the trick to it. So now it's just a matter of having the time. Because I won't lie - baking with yeast takes time. I know, I hear you saying, "but I don't have time to fiddle around with yeast. Those recipes take HOURS...sometimes all day!" Guess what? I don't have time either. That has been my excuse many times for not trying a new yeast recipe. But I've discovered we do have time. I work long hours, have a second job, and I'm heavily involved in non-profit and social organizations, but I still have time. And so do you, if you really want to try. I'm not going to give you that old lame-ass line about how we make time for the things that are really important to us, because - let's be honest - unless baking is your career, experimenting with yeast recipes isn't REALLY important to anyone, including me. But it is fun for me. It's something I enjoy doing. And it produces beautiful, delicious, and sometimes impressive results. So I've learned how to make time for it, even with my crazy schedule. Its really not that hard. It's all about time management and advance planning. And not getting in over your head right away, thus scaring yourself off from ever trying again.

Start simple. Start with homemade pizza crust. I found a recipe on Pinterest that is simply amazing. And easy! It's now my default homemade pizza crust. Does this mean I'll never buy the little Jiffy or Chef Boyardee boxes again? No. That Chef Boyardee sauce is delish, and sometimes the $.50 box of Jiffy mix is just way more convenient. But if you plan ahead a little for your meals, you can enjoy a fresh, chewy, pizza parlor-style crust straight from your own oven. It bakes up best when you make and bake it fresh, but it works great frozen too. I currently have about four balls of this pizza dough in my freezer. It doesn't take any more effort to double the dough recipe when you're making it and then follow the directions at the link above for freezing it uncooked. Then, when I'm in the mood for pizza, I just grab one from the freezer, put it in the fridge to thaw overnight, and the next evening when I get home from work, dinner is done in 15 minutes.

So, what's the trick about yeast I've learned? Temperature. It is just that freaking simple. The liquid you add the yeast to must the right temperature. Too cool and the yeast doesn't "wake up" or activate; too hot and you kill the yeast. Use a thermometer if you must, but I just wing it. I've come to learn what the "just right" temp is for working with yeast. A lot of recipes will tell you it's around 100-110 degrees Fahrenheit. I dunno. It's like the perfect bathwater.

The Peter Reinhart bagels I've started making work almost the same way - make a whole bunch and store in the freezer! I made a batch this weekend and got tons accomplished at the same time. I made my sponge (or starter) Saturday morning (which took all of 5 minutes) and set it aside to work its magic for the next two hours. In the meantime, I baked a cake, took a shower, ran some errands and had lunch with the Big Guy. When we got home the yeast sponge was all bubbly and huge, so it was time to get to work on the second stage - making the dough. It took about 15 minutes to mix and knead the dough, which can be done a bit faster if you have a stand mixer with a dough hook. I usually go the mixer route, but this weekend I was feeling the "need" to knead. It felt good to work out some frustrations on a piece of dough and to actually feel this living food change texture and shape under my hands. Then it was time to rest the dough for 20 minutes (Facebook break!) and after that the Big Guy helped me shape the bagels. Don't tell him I said this, but his came out prettier than mine. Another 20 minutes rest and they were ready to be covered and put in the fridge until Sunday. When I finally remembered them this evening it was after 8 p.m. and I was fading fast (short night last night). But before my clothes were out of the dryer, the bagels were done. All it took was a little two-minute bath in some boiling water and 10 minutes in the oven. Voila! Three weeks' worth of weekday breakfast complete! I bag each bagel individually in sandwich bags and then shove as many sandwich bags as I can into a gallon freezer bag. I take a gallon bag to work with me, and when I get to work in the morning, I pull one out of the freezer, let it sit on my desk for about a half hour, and then it's ready to pop in the toaster. Easy peasy.

Since I've mastered Peter Reinhart's bagel recipe, the next goal I've set for myself is to tackle the ever-intimidating, always time-consuming Martha. I've always been of the opinion that Martha Stewart is a hack. Of course she can do all these dumb crafts and make fancy, professional-looking pastry - the woman has staff who do it for her! And if she's actually doing it herself, bully for her. She has staff to attend to everything else while she bakes! I don't have staff. I have a demanding full-time job, a second... never mind. We covered all that in the first paragraph. Simply put, she's a big old fraud. Ain't nobody got time for all that.

Enter my mother-in-law. She knows how much I love to bake and cook, so for Christmas a few years back, she thoughtfully gave me a huge recipe book: Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook. I eagerly poured over the pages looking for my first recipe to make. And then Sweet Brown's words starting rolling through my head again: AIN'T NOBODY GOT TIME FOR THAT! And it's spent the years since sitting on my recipe book shelf in my kitchen, taunting me. But now I think it's time to dust it off and tackle old Martha. I may not be a stay-at-home wife, but I know I can make time for this. I will not let this book continue to tease and berate me from the shelf. I can find the time to make croissants, dammit.

I'm sitting here on Sunday night reflecting over my weekend. This weekend I managed to do the following:
  1. Go to the gym
  2. Deep-clean my bathroom
  3. Bake a cake with this AMAZING strawberry cream cheese/buttercream/whipped cream frosting
  4. Make a batch of 16 bagels
  5. Do my grocery shopping and other errand-running
  6. Have lunch at a new restaurant with the Big Guy
  7. Go to a girls' night in party and have some fun
  8. Go to church
  9. Make pancakes for breakfast
  10. Visit with the in-laws, who dropped by to deliver some farm-fresh eggs
  11. Go to a Scentsy party
  12. Make pumpkin chocolate chip blondies (SO good)
  13. Fix meatloaf with mashed potatoes and corn for dinner tonight
  14. Fix a big pot of chili to eat throughout this week since it's Fall Festival week and I won't be home at all
  15. Wash and dry two loads of laundry and fold the leaning tower of previously done laundry
  16. Write this blog post
And I STILL got to take two naps, and I'll be hitting the sheets at a respectable 10:15 p.m. tonight. Not too shabby. See, it's all about having a plan and sticking to it. Here are a few planning tips that have made my crazy life a little bit more manageable:
  • Before going to the grocery store on Friday night or Saturday morning, sit down and plan exactly what you're going to cook for the next seven days. Assign a meal - or a dining out break - to each day. Then build your shopping list accordingly. Not only will you spend less money at the grocery store if you stick to a list, but you'll have less food waste at the end of the week if you stick to your meal plan.
  • On Friday evening, outline the "must-accomplish" tasks for your weekend. Jot them down on a scrap of paper or in your phone. Do those things first so you can have time left to play.  
  • Enlist your partner's help. This weekend's baking/cooking adventures were made possible only by the mad dishwashing skilz of the Big Guy. He kept the kitchen in tip-top shape between every recipe so I didn't lose valuable time on clean-up. And he left me alone during my naps. I love that guy. 

What are your tips for better time management? And what are your thoughts on baking with yeast? Do you do it? Why or why not? Comment below. I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Now it's after 10 p.m. and I'm beat. Good night! Gym time comes early tomorrow!