Banana Cake with Light Almond Butter Cream Frosting

or a little for me, a little for you, a sweet treat for all

Some may say that the least stressful way to celebrate a birthday is with a store bought cake, and in some cases that may be true, but in my family not so much.  When you are dealing with a myriad of food allergies and restrictions, including a (heaven forbid) chocolate allergy, sometimes it really is just easier to make it yourself.  So this cake was inspired by necessity for my sister's birthday, that and a couple ripe bananas that were about to go bad.  I personally find butter cream frosting a bit too sweet as a pure flavor sometimes so I used a bit of almond extract to give it a little more depth.  And not too shabby a result if you ask me.

I used a separate pan and made a "mini cake" in order to test it and make sure it was good since it was my first try with this recipe, and my husband agreed that this could be a valuable tool on a regular basis even on tried and true recipes, you can never be too sure!  Needless to say, he was quite pleased with how it turned out.  You can, of course, put it all in the round cake pan and cook it a bit longer, but why would you?  No one even missed it...  It's good to treat yourself once in a while.

2 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup butter, room temp
1 cup sugar
2 lg ripe bananas
2 eggs, or egg substitute equivalent
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup 2% milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and use crisco to grease a round cake pan and a bread loaf pan.

1. Mix together flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl.
2. Cream butter and sugar in a mixer for about four minutes. Add eggs and beat for 2 min.  Add the bananas and vanilla and mix until combined.  .
3. Add half the dry mix alternating with milk in two separate additions. Pour into the two pans so they are about equal thickness, though the round can be a bit thicker if you are feeling generous.
4. Bake for about 25-35 minutes or until done (a toothpick comes out clean). Cool completely before frosting

2+ cups confectioners' sugar

1/2 cup light butter
½ tsp almond extract
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 to 2 tbsp heavy cream

1. In a standing mixer fitted with a whisk, mix together sugar and softened butter. Mix on low speed until well blended and then increase speed to medium and beat for another 3 minutes.

2. Add vanilla, almond extract, and heavy cream and continue to beat on medium speed for 1 minute more, adding more cream if needed for spreading consistency.


Slow and Easy Homemade Chili

or delicious warmth for the body and soul

Fall is finally here!  And what better way to welcome it than with a big bowl of chili?  Personally I can not believe that I haven't shared my slow cooker chili on here yet, it is a staple in our house in just about every season.  This is comfort food fit for a rainy day, football Sunday, or a gathering with friends - and the leftovers are fantastic if you manage to have any.

The original recipe was purely a meat packed bowl of deliciousness with a slightly spicy savory sauce but it has come a little ways since then with the addition most recently of chili beans and the periodic inclusion of pasta for "chili-mac" (both of which significantly increase the resulting volume).  I also like to dress it up quite a bit in the end as you can see in the picture below.  Some of my friends have taken this as a base recipe and added some browned stew beef to it to beef it up even more, I can only guess that this resulted in further deliciousness.  But you'll have to try some personal variations of your own to see where it can really take you.

It seems like a lot of ingredients but it's so easy it won't even feel like work.  I like to prep the meat mixture separately from the sauce the night before then toss it all together in the slow cooker in the morning.  But you could even prep it all and store it in a gallon freezer bag if you prefer to just dump once and go.  You can leave the beans out if you have picky eaters, like myself, it took me quite a few years to come around to accepting them in my bowl of chili so I can understand the hesitation.  But who, really, can resist a big hot bowl of chili on a brisk Fall day?  I certainly can't....  Check it out

1½ lbs ground beef
8 oz ground sausage (no casing)
1 tsp fresh minced garlic
4 tbsp fresh minced onion
1 can (14.5 oz) petite diced tomatoes
1 can (16 oz) tomato sauce
1 small can (6 oz) tomato paste
1 can mild chili beans (optional)
½ teaspoon white sugar
2 tsp brown sugar
½ teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1½ teaspoons ground cumin
3 tbsp chili powder

1. Place ground beef and sausage in a large, deep skillet. Cook over medium-high heat with onion and garlic until beginning to brown. Season with cumin and chili powder, once around the pan each. Continue to cook until evenly browned. Drain and crumble.

2. In the slow cooker - combine diced tomatoes, half of the tomato sauce, the tomato paste, white sugar, spices, and brown sugar until well blended.

3. Add the ground meat to the slow cooker and then pour the remaining tomato sauce over top. Stir until thoroughly mixed. Stir in a little additional water, if needed, and chili beans. Cover and cook on low for 8-10 hours.

4. Taste and add spices to taste. If there is too much liquid, turn the slow cooker to high and leave the lid off until desired consistency.


Italian Stuffed Shells: freezer friendly or table ready

or a make ahead meal to make you smile, a true comfort food delight

So, I have recently dived head first into the world of make ahead meals.  I decided after a particularly stressful week that resulted in one too many instant dinners or carry out meals that I needed some quick options for healthier meals, I can only take so much grease and powdered cheese base.  Not that I wasn't grateful, I truly appreciated all of the support my husband put in on the road and in the ready made meal realm, I just knew I couldn't take much more so I sought out an alternative solution that would ease things up on both of us.  The first thing that happened was that I fell in love with the Once a Month Mom website   The second thing that happened was that I found inspiration to convert some of my own favorite recipes into freezer meals.  And then here we are!

Freezer meals are an amazing stress reducer.  I spent 4 hours prepping 5 different dishes on Sunday afternoon and have effectively eased 4 weeks of my life knowing that I have at least one meal ready and waiting (and if I use three in one week no one will know, I won't tell if you won't...).  Add to that my weekly slow cooker meal and we are down to 3 meals a week that actually have to be prepared after work.  Not too shabby!  I feel significantly less guilty on days when I am exhausted after work and our healthy-ish eating habits are not harmed in the least.  Now, today's recipe is one of my all time favorites, large pasta shells stuffed with a delicious blend of Italian cheeses and herbs.  It works just as well the day of, two days later, or two weeks later (as long as you store it right) and the leftovers are always delicious.  It may seem like a bit of work at first, but once you find a rhythm it really is a breeze.  I make a full box of pasta with this because I like to be able to toss out the ones that don't fold the way I'd like but you can certainly get by with about half a box if you are more determined to make them work.  Give it a shot, if you love Italian comfort food as I do you won't be disappointed!

1 package jumbo pasta shells (about 16 oz of pasta)

1 (15 ounce) container low fat ricotta cheese
2 cups shredded reduced fat mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup grated reduced fat Parmesan cheese
1 tsp dried parsley
½ tsp dried basil
½ tsp dried oregano
1 tsp salt
ground black pepper
¼ cup egg beaters or 1 egg

1 jar pasta sauce, homemade or store bought
1 can diced tomatoes
1 lg can (12 oz) tomato paste
½ tsp each - basil, parsley, oregano
1 tsp minced garlic
2+ cups water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook pasta according to package for al dente, you want them to be a little firm still so it will be about 2/3 of the standard cooking time then drain.

2. While the pasta is cooking mix ricotta, mozzarella, Parmesan, filling spices, egg beaters, salt and pepper in a large bowl until well combined. Pour mixture into a freezer bag and press down towards one tip. Refrigerate for about 10 minutes to set.

3. Snip the tip off the one corner of the freezer bag and use to fill shells by gently pushing the mixture down from the other end. Then press the edges in to hug the filling and place seam side down in a baking dish.  You will have the urge to really stuff a lot of cheese in there, but you need to show a touch of restraint with this, it takes a bit less than you may think to fill  and still be able to seal the shells closed.  If the shells do not close, the cheese will escape, consider yourself warned.

4. If using pre-made sauce, pour over the prepared shells at this time. If not:, in a medium sauce pan stir together tomato paste, diced tomatoes, and sauce spices. Gradually add water until desired consistency. Heat until simmering, allow to cool to room temperature, and then pour over stuffed shells.

At this point the shells can be refrigerated or frozen as a make ahead meal*

5. Top with shredded mozzarella if desired. Bake in preheated oven 45 to 60 minutes, until edges are bubbly and shells are slightly set.

* If using within the next couple days refrigerating is fine, if reserving for a later date freezing is necessary. If freezing, remove the pasta from the freezer the night before and allow to defrost in the refrigerator.

Note: Be careful and follow manufacturer guidelines for freezer containers and reheating in the same container, you may need to transfer to a different dish depending on the product.


Home Grown Gazpacho

or my garden in a bowl

I love my garden, I love my garden, I love my garden.... With that being said, I was completely taken aback by the sheer amount of produce that I have been able to harvest from my little 4 ft x 4 ft garden bed already this year.  Every week I have had at least 3-4 banana peppers, an occasional mini chocolate bell pepper, 1-2 regular sized bell peppers, 2-3 cucumbers, a couple handfuls of bush beans, and a relatively plentiful supply of tomatoes thanks to my upside down tomato planter (the jury is still out on how I feel about this particular garden invention).  Add to that the endless supply of oregano, chives, basil, rosemary, and renegade flat leaf parsley and I scarcely know what to do with it all!  It doesn't help that I can't resist supplementing it each weekend at the local Farmers' Market, but that's another issue all in itself.  

So when my garden started mocking me every day last week when I returned from work and taunted me in the mornings with the vegetables I hesitated to harvest and add to my growing stockpile in the house, I knew it was time to take action.  So what did I do?  I pureed those suckers, that'll teach them!  Well I pureed some of them, just as an example to the others, maybe they'll grow a little slower this week... Now that is a tension reducer!  But anyway, as a result I enjoyed several days worth of a light and delicious chilled soup that I liken to gazpacho.  I do not include dried bread, though I know it is traditional, because I like how fresh the flavors taste on their own and I find the layered garden flavors with a dollop of light sour cream is really just delightful for a light lunch.  Here's what i did, check it out:

Not the prettiest picture, but you get the idea....

4 large tomatoes or 8+ roma
1 each small green, yellow, and orange bell peppers
3 sweet banana peppers
2 medium sized cucumbers, or 4 pickling cucumbers
3 tbsp dried minced onion
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tbsp fresh parsely, chopped
1 tsp fresh basil, chopped
1 tsp kosher salt
½ tsp paprika
3 tbsp olive oil
½ cup water, more if desired for thinner soup
¼ cup white wine vinegar

Hardware: food processor or blender

1. Dice up the tomatoes and add to the bowl of the food processor. Remove the seeds from the peppers and peel the cucumbers then dice have of them roughly and add to the food processor, then the other half more finely and set aside.

2. Add all of the remaining ingredients, except the reserved vegetables, to the food processor. Pulse or run on low until smooth. If you prefer a thinner base feel free to add water during this step. Taste the broth and adjust seasoning as desired, I like to add some cilantro but my husband is not a fan so adjustments with that you will have to decide for yourself.

3. Pour out the liquid into a large bowl and add the remaining vegetables. Stir well to combine, cover, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. Stir again before serving.

So easy, no heating, and you won't believe the flavors you get from such simple basic. I suggest serving with crostini and, as I mentioned above, a dollop of sour cream. But, you may find a combination that suits your tastes a bit better. As always - give it a chance, let it into your home, change as you like, and make it your own. Enjoy!