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    You can keep your raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, because excessive delicious baking is one of my favorite things! I never really cared for gingerbread cookies, but my little friends wanted to make them, and I am not one to pass up a chance to bake! I found this recipe from McCormick, and was very pleasantly surprised. The cookies have a mild flavor, rather than the spicy gingerbread cookies I was used to, and the smooth and creamy cream cheese frosting really balances out the gingerbread.
    The cream cheese frosting also works for cakes, or you could also use it as a delicious dip for strawberries or graham crackers. Mmm....

Ingredients for the Gingerbread Cookies:
3 c flour, plus more for rolling
2 t ground ginger
1 t ground cinnamon
1 t baking soda
1/4 t ground nutmeg
1/4 t salt
3/4 c butter, softened
3/4 c brown sugar, firmly packed
1/2 c molasses
1 egg
1 t vanilla extract

Directions:
    Combine flour, ginger, cinnamon, baking soda, nutmeg, and salt in a large bowl. 

    In another large bowl (I used my stand mixer), mix the butter and brown sugar until fluffy. Then add molasses, egg, and vanilla extract, and mix well. Gradually add the dry ingredients until everything is well mixed. Take the dough out of the bowl, and flatten it a little bit, into a thick disk between two sheets of plastic wrap. Put the whole thing in the fridge, and let it chill out for at least 4 hours, or overnight if you're tired...

    When the dough is ready, it will be pretty stiff. If it crumbles a little bit, don't worry, it will go back together as you work with it. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and roll out the cookie dough to about 1/4 inch thickness on a floured surface. As the dough warms, it becomes stickier, so don't be afraid to add more flour to the work surface. I had to add a lot, but don't worry, it won't compromise the flavor. Cut the dough into cookie shapes with your favorite cookie cutters, and place them on a cookie sheet. 

     Bake for 8-10 minutes, until the edges juuuuuuust start to brown. If you've ever heard the story of the Gingerbread Man, you know not to open the oven door early! When you do take them out, let them cool on the pan for just a minute, and them move them to a wire rack. If you leave them on the pan, they may stick and become almost impossible to get off the pan in one piece. Let them cool completely before even thinking about frosting them. Trust me. Their sad, melty little faces will fill you with guilt if you frost them while they're still warm.

For the Cream Cheese Frosting:

Ingredients:
8 oz. cream cheese
1/2 c butter, softened
3 c powdered sugar
2 t vanilla extract

Directions:

    Mix together butter and cream cheese. Slowly add powdered sugar and vanilla extract, and mix everything together until the texture is consistent. 

    I scooped it into a ziplock bag, cut off a corner, and piped it onto the cookies. And then I ate all the leftover frosting with a spoon because it's flipping delicious!

 
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    We've been having these potatoes at least twice a week. Seriously, it's like 5 minutes of work, and they're great. I make them with either red potatoes, or sweet potatoes, and they're both wonderful. This is absolutely the best way that I have ever had sweet potatoes. They are sweet, but not sugary. Try them next Thanksgiving instead of the usual sweet potatoes, but watch out, because once you try them this way, you might not go back!

As written, this recipe serves 4 people.

Ingredients:

2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into bite size pieces
OR
3-4 large red potatoes, cut into bite size pieces

1 small onion, chopped (I like sweet or yellow for this)
1 T olive oil
garlic salt or Lawry's seasoned salt
pepper
Italian herbs (optional)



Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Put potatoes and onion in a large bowl, add olive oil, season with garlic salt, pepper, and Italian herbs, and stir to coat everything evenly. Make sure it's all coated in oil so it doesn't burn.

Pour everything into a baking pan, and bake at 350 for an hour.

When the potatoes are soft, they're done.

They go really well with roasted chicken, steak, meatloaf, or really anything that needs potatoes!


 
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    Roasted chicken is an easy meal that requires very little skill and effort, and delivers delicious results. And, when you roast the chicken on top of a bed of veggies, you've got a whole chicken dinner in one pan! Does it get any easier than that?






What you need:

For the Brine:
1-5 hours
1/2 c kosher salt
water
a big bowl that can hold the whole chicken, and still fit in the fridge

For the Chicken:
1 whole chicken (remember how much it weighs before you throw away the bag!)
1/2 stick butter, softened
4 cloves peeled garlic
1/2 lemon, sliced
12 inch sprig of rosemary, cut into 3 pieces
1 shallot, cut in half or quartered
2 ribs celery, chopped
1 onion, sliced
3 carrots, peeled and chopped, or baby carrots
garlic salt
pepper
Italian seasoning (optional)
red potatoes, quartered  or sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2 inch cubes (optional)

For the gravy (you know you want it):
1/4 c flour
1/2 c water
ALL the drippings from the bottom of the roasting pan, without the vegetables

What you do:

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     First, always ALWAYS brine the  chicken. Unless it says that it's kosher, then the brining has been done for you. The brine ensures that you will have a moist and flavorful chicken. In other words, it's mandatory! To brine the chicken, remove the insides, and rinse the chicken under cold water. Place the chicken in your brining bowl, add 1/2 cup of kosher salt, and cover the chicken completely with cold water. Put the bowl in the refrigerator for at least an hour, but no more than five hours.

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   When the chicken is done brining, take it out, rinse it in
cool water, and pat it dry with paper towels. Then, for a crispy and delicious skin, put it back in the fridge and let it sit for at least an hour, or as long as overnight.

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       Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

     Next, make a pile of veggies in the bottom of the roasting pan. Add the carrots, onions, celery, and potatoes, and make a nice delicious bed for the chicken to sit on. Place two of the rosemary sprigs on the veggies, and then put the chicken on top, breast side up. Cooking the chicken on top of the veggies enhances their flavor, and the veggies and rosemary lend their flavor to the drippings, which will result in a better gravy later.
    Cover the whole outside of the chicken in the softened butter. The top, bottom, and every little bit of it. Slather it on, and cover it completely. It's okay if it's not even, just get it all on there. This helps the skin get nice and crispy. Then, season the chicken all over with pepper, Italian seasoning, and just a little bit of garlic salt. Remember, the chicken soaked up some of the salt from the brine, so you don't want it to be too salty. 
    Next, fill the chicken with the shallot, garlic cloves, a sprig of rosemary, and the lemon slices. These flavors will spread throughout the chicken while it cooks, and will also add to the gravy later.
    Now, place the chicken in the preheated oven, and let it cook at 450 degrees for 10-15 minutes. This will give you a nice crispy skin. Then, turn the oven down to 350 degrees, and cook it for 20 minutes per lb.
    This is really the only place that things can go wrong, because math is involved... I have made mistakes in this department before, so I made a handy little guide for our reference. 
    

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    Check the chicken thigh with a meat thermometer, making sure not to touch a bone, and when it is 165 degrees, it's done. Take it out of the oven, and place it on a plate or carving board, covered with aluminum foil, and let it rest for 10 minutes while you make the gravy. This allows the juices to redistribute throughout the chicken.
    Take the veggies out of the roasting pan, and cover them. Try not to eat them all in the process, and watch out for stray husbands and kids, too.



To make the gravy:

    You can make the gravy right in the metal roasting pan, or pour the drippings into a pan. Heat the drippings on the stove over medium high heat and bring to a boil. In a small bowl, mix 1/4 cup flour with 1/2 cup of water, and whisk into the pan of drippings, It won't need any more seasoning, because it will have all of the flavors of the chicken, veggies, butter, and herbs. Once the flour mixture is blended with the drippings, you've got yourself some gravy!

    How easy was that? 

    If you still need more delicious veggies, you can serve it with asparagus, or mashed cauliflower. And don't forget the bread! 

    After you carve and eat the chicken, you can make your own chicken stock for soup, or chili. I love to use mine in risotto. All you need to do is place the chicken carcass in a large pot, and cover it with water. Add a small chopped onion, a few chopped carrots, a couple of chopped stalks of celery, and a few cloves of garlic. Bring it to a boil, and then let it simmer, covered for a few hours. Strain out the veggies and chicken, and the liquid you have left is your stock.

Top image courtesy of Apolonia / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 
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    This is probably the most amazing loaf of bread you will ever make. It's crispy and crunchy on the outside, and soft and hearty on the inside. And, with only four ingredients, and almost no work involved, it's as easy as it is delicious. You will never pay for fancy bread in the store again. My kids call it "Tomorrow Bread" because it rises overnight. So if you know you're going to want bread tomorrow, start it tonight!



Ingredients:
6 c all purpose or bread flour, plus a little bit more for kneading
1/2 t yeast
2 and 1/2 t salt
2 and 2/3 c cool water.

Directions:
    Combine all dry ingredients, and then mix in the water. I use my Kitchenaid stand mixer with the dough hook, but this dough is soft enough that you could do it by hand with a wooden spoon. When it becomes consistent, cover it with plastic wrap, and let it sit for 12-24 hours.

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    When it looks like this, all bubbly and gloopy, it's ready for the next step. It will be really sticky. Fold the dough over on itself on a well floured surface a few times, constantly dusting with a little bit more flour.
    
    When it's no longer sticky, place the ball (or glob) of dough seam side down on a well floured dishtowel (not terrycloth) or cutting board, and dust it with more flour on top. Cover it with a cloth napkin, or dishtowel (again, not terrycloth) and let it sit in a warm place for another hour and a half to two hours, until it's almost doubled in size.

    Place a large (4-8 quart) oven safe pot with a lid (or a Dutch oven) in the oven, and preheat the oven to 425 degrees. When the oven is hot, CAREFULLY take the VERY HOT pot out, and flip the dough over, into the VERY HOT pot. If the floppy glob of dough didn't land perfectly (it probably never will) shake the VERY HOT pot a little and the dough will straighten out. Don't worry if it isn't straight, it will even out while it's cooking. 
    
    CAREFULLY place the lid on the VERY HOT pot, and bake for 40 minutes with the lid on. Then, remove the lid, and bake for an additional 15-25 minutes. When it's a beautiful golden brown, take it out of the pot, and let the bread sit on a wire rack to cool. 

    To store the bread, place it cut side down on a cutting board, and it will keep for a few days. 

    Sometimes I add two heads of roasted garlic, or 4 cloves of minced garlic when I'm mixing the ingredients together. You could also add herbs or cheese, or substitute 3 cups of whole wheat flour and add 3 T of honey or molasses.

    I originally found this recipe here. She has tons of pictures, and really explained all the steps in-depth.

 
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    Holy deliciousness, Batman! These are the best tamales I have ever had, so I had to share the recipe! I made them with the chicken from my Chicken Taco recipe in the slow cooker, and they were phenomenal. You can also use seasoned ground or shredded beef or pork. Either way, with this masa, your tamales will be amazing!

Makes about 10 tamales

Ingredients:
For the Masa:
Corn Husks
2 c masa harina
10 oz chicken or beef stock
1/2 c shortening or lard
1 t baking powder
1/2 t salt

For the filling:
1/2 packet taco seasoning
1 c salsa
2 boneless skinless chicken breasts

Directions:

    Place chicken, taco seasoning, and salsa to the slow cooker and cook on high for 4 hours or low for 8 hours. When that's ready, soak corn husks in warm water for 10-20 minutes while preparing masa.

    In a large bowl, mix masa harina, stock, shortening, baking powder, and salt thoroughly, until a soft, crumbly dough forms.  This is the masa. I like to use my stand mixer because I can, but you can mix it by hand, too. 

    When the masa is both soft and crumbly, it's ready to go. Take out a softened corn husk, and flatten a handful of masa out on it.  Then, put a couple of tablespoons of chicken in the middle. Fold the sides of the corn husk in, and then fold in the top and bottom. You can tie it off with butcher's twine if you've got it, but I just peel off part of one of the corn husks and tie it around like you are wrapping a delicious little package. 

    Steam the tamales for an hour, and top with sour cream, salsa, cotija cheese, whatever you like; or just eat them plain because they are perfect, just the way they are.
    

 
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    As the list of ingredients in store bought tortillas grew, and filled with preservatives, I decided to make my own. It's very easy, fun, and they taste much better than if you had bought them at the store! I make them so often that I got a tortilla press, but you can definitely make them without one.

Ingredients:
3 c flour
1 c water
1/3 c shortening, vegetable oil, butter, or lard
1/2 t salt

Directions:
    Mix all ingredients in a large bowl. I like to use the dough hook on my Kitchenaid stand mixer, but you can do it by hand, too. When it turns into a smooth ball of dough, it's ready to be cut and flattened.

    Cut the dough into 6 equal pieces if you want larger burrito sized tortillas, or 12 pieces if you want soft tacos. 
   
     If you have a tortilla press, this is the time to break it out. Otherwise, you can roll the pieces of dough flat. I have also used the bottom of a clear glass Pyrex pie pan to flatten the dough. This works well, and since it's clear, you can see how big the tortillas are getting. Put the dough between two cut out pieces of a freezer bag or wax paper, and flatten it. Flatten one, and while it's cooking, you can flatten the next one.
    
    To cook the tortillas, heat a flat-bottom pan on the stove over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, put in the first tortilla. Cook for 20-30 seconds on each side. They will puff up with air bubbles, and brown slightly when ready. 

    You can use them for home made quesadillas, or fill them with Carne Asada, Chicken, or Fish. And don't forget the Salsa!

 
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    I had forgotten how good pesto can be. That is, until I had more basil in my garden than I knew what to do with. Then, it was tortelloni with pesto, pesto chicken pizza, pesto on bread, pesto in everything! It all starts with a great pesto.

Ingredients:
3 c basil leaves
4 cloves garlic
1/4 c pine nuts (toast 'em if you  like)
1 c grated parmesan cheese
1/2 c olive oil

Directions:

    Pulse all ingredients in a food processor until they form a paste. 

    If you're not going to use all of it at once, make sure you pour a little olive oil on the top before you put it in the refrigerator, because the basil will turn brown when it's exposed to air. 

    For a fantastic Pesto Chicken Pizza, top your favorite pizza dough with pesto, a cut up cooked chicken breast, some artichoke hearts, and some shredded mozzarella.

 
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    This is a super simple marinade, made from things you probably already have. What makes it magic, though, is that you save the marinade after you take the salmon out, and once you cook it on the stove, it becomes a savory sauce to serve over the salmon.  





Ingredients:

1/3 c brown sugar
1/3 c soy sauce
1/3 c water
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 lemon, juice only
1 t cornstarch (for the sauce)
1 T butter (for the sauce)

Directions:

    Mix together everything but the cornstarch and butter in a bowl or food safe ziplock bag, add the salmon (skin side up so the meat is in the marinade), and let it sit in the fridge for at least 2 hours.

    Remove the salmon from the marinade, and cook it according to your preference. I prefer to grill it on the charcoal grill, but baked or broiled would be great, too! While the salmon is cooking, pour the marinade into a saucepan, add the butter, and bring it to a boil. Let the marinade boil and reduce, stirring occasionally, for at least 5 minutes. Wisk in the teaspoon of cornstarch, mix it completely, and remove from heat.

    Pour the sauce over the cooked salmon, and serve.

    I like to serve this with rice to soak up all the extra sauce. Mmm...


Image courtesy of [image creator name] / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 
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    You know how some nights all of a sudden it's 5pm and the kids are hungry, you haven't had time to go to the grocery store yet this week, and you're not about to eat another fast food burger? One night like this, I raided the pantry and the freezer in the hopes that SOMETHING in there had to be edible, and this is how Tuna Tater Tot Casserole was born! It went over so well that now I make it by request.





Ingredients:
1 bag of frozen tater tots, about 16 oz.
1/4 c butter
1/2 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 c milk
10 oz canned tuna, drained (2 small cans)
1/2 c shredded cheddar cheese
got any vegetables? frozen peas, carrots, corn, green onions, spinach...
salt and pepper, to taste
parmesan cheese

Directions:

    Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

    Put the tater tots in a casserole or baking dish, and bake them for about 20 minutes, stirring them up halfway through. 

    Meanwhile, melt the butter in a saucepan over medium-high heat, and saute the onions for a couple of minutes, then add the garlic and saute for another couple of minutes. Add the milk, bring to a boil, and remove from heat.

    When the tater tots are done, pour the butter, milk, onions, and garlic into the baking dish (watch out, it's hot). Add the tuna, shredded cheddar cheese, salt, pepper, and any cooked vegetables, and mix it all together, chopping up the tater tots. Sprinkle parmesan cheese on top, and throw it all back in the oven for about 10 minutes at 400 degrees.

    

 
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    This is another inexpensive, easy meal with a big payoff. Chicken and cheese are stuffed into large shells, and drizzled with a creamy alfredo sauce. I added spinach and basil, and we all loved it.








Ingredients:
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 stick of butter
1 lemon, juice only
1 packet dry Italian Dressing mix
2 c chopped fresh spinach
2 T chopped fresh basil
1 c ricotta cheese
1 c shredded mozzarella
1 box large shell pasta
1 jar alfredo sauce (I used Classico's Sun-Dried Tomato Alfredo and it was AMAZING!)
parmesan cheese

Directions:

Place butter, chicken, lemon juice, and Italian dressing mix in the slow cooker, and let it cook on low for about 8 hours. When the chicken is fall-apart tender, shred it with forks, and stir in the spinach, basil, ricotta, and mozzarella.

Heat a pot of salted water, and boil the shell pasta according to the directions on the package, and heat the alfredo sauce in a saucepan until it's ready to serve.

When the shells are soft, drain them, and fill them with the cheesy chicken stuffing. Pour alfredo sauce on top, and sprinkle with parmesan cheese. Serve hot, and enjoy!

You could also use marinara or vodka sauce, or mix the alfredo sauce in with the cheesy chicken, and serve it over spagetti or macaroni noodles.