Mac and Cheese, Part One

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This post was originally supposed to be called “Mac and Cheese, Three Ways” – but it was getting so long that I cut it in half (stay tuned for Part Two tomorrow).  My sister and her husband had their first baby a couple months ago, and while I tried really hard to come up with some creative ideas for freezer meals, I had a difficult time getting past everyone’s favorite comfort food. So I decided if I couldn’t be original, I would be excessive instead: I stocked their freezer with, among other things, three different macaroni and cheese casseroles for the first few post baby months (they may have only lasted a few weeks). Number three was the one I was most excited about (more on that tomorrow), but I decided to start with a Barefoot Contessa classic. (Coincidentally, Ina’s new cookbook comes out today – it’s called “Make It Ahead” – and while I’m pretty excited about it, I’m not sure that there’s a better make ahead recipe than this mac and cheese).

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Much like last week’s lasagna, I’m not sure that macaroni and cheese is fancy enough to warrant it’s own blog post. However, up until a couple years ago, my grandmother was the only person I knew of who made mac and cheese that wasn’t from a box (that list has now expanded to my grandmother, my friend Lindsay, and myself).  So I’m posting this relatively basic recipe in the hopes of inspiring those of you who haven’t yet realized how easy and delicious homemade mac and cheese can be.  Don’t be intimidated by the béchamel – it used to really scare me, but it’s so easy. SImply melt your butter, add some flour, pour in the milk, and whisk whisk whisk.  It will take a few minutes to thicken up, but once it does you’ll feel like Julia Child. Add salt and pepper, and nutmeg to taste – I usually add whatever the recipe calls for (because I’m a rule follower), but I know a lot of people don’t care for nutmeg in a dish like this so feel free to use less or none at all.

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Add the cheese to the béchamel while it’s still hot and let it melt.  (If I could only give you one tip for making this recipe, it would be to buy your gruyère at Trader Joe’s – it’s literally half the price of any other store. A second tip would be to use Tillamook extra sharp for your cheddar, yum.)  Combine pasta and sauce and scrape into your prepared baking dish. See, it’s really so simple. And so delicious – you’ll never make mac and cheese from a box again. Not that you ever did.

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Ina wants you to make homemade bread crumbs – which are super easy, but I often don’t have bread on hand so I like to use good store bought breadcrumbs or panko. I like to toast mine on the stovetop beforehand (with a little olive oil or butter), but it’s not a necessary step by any means.  If you want to make your breadcrumbs from scratch, cut the crusts off of five slices of bread (or a hunk of baguette) and process in the food processor until the pieces are the size of small crumbs (duh).  Mix the crumbs with melted butter and then sprinkle on top of the casserole before baking.  Casserole can be prepared ahead of time and then baked before serving, or baked and frozen for tired moms and dads to defrost and reheat as necessary.

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One year ago: Crunchy Baked Pasta with Sausage (or Squash) and Greens

Mac and Cheese, previously: Melissa Clark’s Carroty Mac and Cheese

Barefoot Contessa’s Mac and Cheese, from Barefoot Contessa Family Style

Ingredients:

Kosher salt
Olive oil
1 lb. elbow macaroni or cavatappi
1 quart milk (4 cups)
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, divided
1/2 cup all purpose flour
12 ounces gruyère, grated (4 cups)
8 ounces extra-sharp cheddar, grated (2 cups)
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg (or less, to taste)
4 small tomatoes, sliced (optional – I skipped this step)
1 1/2 cups breadcrumbs, fresh (5 slices bread, crusts removed) or store bought breadcrumbs or panko

To Make:

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Drizzle olive oil into a large pot of boiling salted water. Add pasta and cook according to package directions (on the shorter side if they give you a range; you want the noodles al dente as they’ll continue to cook in the oven). Drain well.

Meanwhile, heat the milk in a small saucepan (don’t let it come to a boil). Melt 6 tablespoons of butter in a large (4 quart) pot and add the flour. Cook over low heat for 2 minutes, whisking constantly. While whisking, add hot milk (slowly) and cook for a minute or two more, until thickened and smooth. Off the heat, add the gruyère, cheddar, one tablespoon salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Add the cooked macaroni and stir well. Pour into a 3-quart baking dish. Arrange sliced tomatoes on top of pasta (if using). Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter, combine with the fresh bread crumbs, and sprinkle on top (I like to melt the butter in a frying pan, add panko breadcrumbs, and toast before topping the casserole with them). Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until sauce is bubbling and casserole is browned on top.  

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Roasted Tomato Basil Soup

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Well, we’ve been into fall for three whole days now – can you believe my restraint in not posting 100 pumpkin recipes already? We’re still in that in-between stage, weather wise, but even though it’s not quite soup season, it’s still tomato season and I have a lot of tomatoes to use up.  We’re now twenty months into this blog and this is my tenth soup recipe – far and away my biggest “category.” But really, can you think of a better one-pot meal to get you through the cold and rainy months looming on the horizon?  My barista told me this morning he’s been waiting for the rain for the past five months – by February I’ll deny saying this, but I’m kind of with him, and this soup is one of the main reasons why.

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I thought I had found my favorite tomato soup many years ago – it’s easy, it’s (relatively) healthy, it lets me use up all of the tomatoes I have coming out my ears in August, and it’s from the Barefoot Contessa so you know it’s delicious.  But after making it a couple dozen times over the past month or so, I thought I would mix things up and look for a couple new recipes. And what do you suppose I found? Another Barefoot Contessa option.  It’s not radically different from the first one, but she roasts the tomatoes before adding them to the soup and it really deepens the tomato flavor.  And it calls for white onions rather than red, which means you can use the bags of pre-chopped onions from Trader Joe’s (I’ll do almost anything to avoid chopping onions). Ina never disappoints.

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Roasting is a great way to use up any tomatoes you may have leftover from your summer harvest – simply roast them with oiive oil, salt and pepper, freeze them (with their juices), and then use them for soup all winter long.  And once you run out of frozen tomatoes, roasting the not-so-delicious varieties that they sell at the supermarket in January will make them taste (almost) as good as your home grown ones. I think the basil also makes this soup extra yummy – it calls for sixteen times the amount of basil that the other soup does (sixteen times!! I did this math a couple times just to make sure that’s correct). I initially thought maybe the “four cups” was a typo – but it’s not and it’s amazing. You don’t even have to chop it, just pull the leaves from the stems and dump them in. Don’t skimp on the basil if you can help it (I did a full four cups the first time I made this and it was delicious, and then I was a little short the second time and while of course it was still yummy, I wished I had made the effort to go back to the store and get another bag).

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Add a can of tomatoes (San Marzano is ideal), a box of chicken stock (veggie stock or water to make it vegetarian), the basil and thyme, and then dump in the roasted tomatoes – including all the oil and juices that accumulated in the pan. Simmer for 40 minutes or so and then blend – you don’t even have to add cream (put the calories you save towards your grilled cheese). Ina tells you to use a food mill, but I don’t have one so I use my immersion blender. I suspect a Vitamix would work great as well, or a regular blender or food processor. This soup will freeze nicely – so I would suggest making a double batch, some for now and some for later. You’ll thank me the next time it’s nasty outside and you’re craving a grilled cheese and tomato soup (per the forecast, next week). Happy soup season!

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One year ago: pumpkin chocolate chip cookies and pumpkin granola 

Soup, previously: white bean and kale, split pea, cream of fresh tomato, pumpkin black bean, curried butternut squash, cauliflower leek, minestrone, roasted sweet potato and apple, red lentil

Roasted Tomato and Basil Soup, from The Barefoot Contessa

Yield: 6-8 servings

3 lbs ripe tomatoes (Ina suggests plum), sliced in half
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons gold olive oil
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
2 cups yellow onions, chopped (1 large/2 small)
6 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 28-ounce can plum tomatoes, with juices
4 cups fresh basil leaves, packed
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1 quart chicken stock or water

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F. Toss the tomatoes with 1/4 cup olive oil, salt, and pepper. Spread mixture in one layer on a baking sheet and roast for 45 minutes.

In a large dutch oven or soup pot, heat butter and two tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Sauté the onions, garlic, and red pepper flakes for 10 minutes, until the onions start to brown. Add the canned tomatoes, basil, thyme, and chicken stock. Add the roasted tomatoes, including the liquid on the baking sheet. Bring to a boil and simmer uncovered for 40 minutes. Pass through a food mill fitted with the coarsest blade or purée with an immersion blender (or in vitamix) until smooth.

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Friday Faves, Seahawks Edition

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Happy Super Bowl Weekend, everyone! I don’t know about you, but this Seahawks fan is pretty excited about the game. As much as I wish I could be in the stands in East Rutherford on Sunday, it turns out that’s a hard ticket to come by (sad face), so I’ll be cheering on my Hawks from Seattle. True story: the last time the Seahawks went to the Super Bowl (incidentally, also the first time they went to the Super Bowl), I went to a game-watch party at a friend’s house in Seattle.  I had purchased a Hasselbeck jersey that year, but although I tried to look the part, I wasn’t really a true fan.  Some girlfriends and I somehow got the idea that we’d have a better chance of getting a pizza delivered to our house rather than delivered to the party, so we left at halftime under the guise of – wait for it – going to Sunday night mass. No wonder the Hawks lost – that had to have been some pretty bad karma. Although we did watch the second half (bad calls and all) from the comforts of our own couch, with an entire Papa John’s delivery to ourselves.

all photos from martha stewart

all photos from martha stewart

Fast forward eight years later, and I take my game day menus a lot more seriously. I don’t have a jersey this time, but I’m going to attempt the entire spread from this month’s Martha Stewart Living, along with a couple other staples. I’m not really a chicken wings kind of person, but apparently they’re a must-have for any football event, so I thought Martha’s tequila-lime drumettes looked relatively simple and healthy. I also don’t eat hot dogs (barf!), but I loved the look of these “pigs in a blanket” with sausage and frozen pastry dough, sprinkled with flaky sea salt and poppy seeds. And just so that I can have something to eat too, her “love dip” and chocolate pretzel bark.

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The next question then becomes, what to do for dessert (apparently I’m not counting the pretzel bark as dessert). The cookie and cupcake possibilities are endless, but in the interests of time I’ll probably just do some basic blue and green cupcakes and then decorate them with the toppers I bought off Etsy last year right before our ill-fated game against Atlanta (multiple options here).   If you want to get really fancy with either your cupcake decorating, or just decorating in general, check out these tips from Seattle’s resident cupcake and party guru, Jennifer Shea of Trophy Cupcakes & Party (I guess I’ll be making a trip to Home Depot for some Astro Turf tomorrow!).   A tip if you’re planning on decorating your “Beast Mode” cupcakes with Skittles (as I hope you are): don’t put the skittles on the cupcakes until right before you put them out, as the candy coating will bleed all over your frosting.  Same goes for brown Peanut M&M’s on cupcakes with green frosting (you know the ones where you pipe frosting “laces” onto the M&M’s so they look like footballs? So cute, but they also bleed).  I learned that lesson the hard way last season, although my candy-bleeding tragedy paled in comparison to the tragedy of the game itself.

my favorite way to decorate

my favorite way to decorate

Some of my other game day favorites and inspirations include:

If anyone has any favorite Super Bowl party recipes, I would love to hear them in the comments. I’m also always open to fun games or prop bets for anyone who’s watching the game more for the commercials and/or halftime show.  Wishing everyone a wonderful Super Bowl Weekend – Go Hawks!!

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Homemade Pesto, Two Ways

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I’ll never forget the first time I went to Italy, in 2002, and discovered “pesto genovese.” I had read that the Cinque Terre was the birthplace of pesto, and thus rationalized ordering gnocchi alla pesto at every meal for weeks. A classic basil pesto, made of just seven ingredients, it was somehow so much more delicious there than anywhere I had ever had it here – and remains more delicious than any I’ve had since (but for a couple trips back).

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I plant basil every spring, use it throughout the summer, and somehow have an abundance turning to flower in August.  As such, last week I decided to make a batch of pesto to freeze (one of my favorite uses for pesto, aside from just using it as a pasta sauce, is to use it as a garnish for minestrone soup all winter – freezing small amounts in an ice cube tray is the perfect way to have homemade pesto on hand year round).  And as long as I was in the pesto spirit, I tried a kale pesto recipe that had been on my to-do list as well. While the classic pesto is always delicious (although nowhere close to the Italian version), the kale version is pretty dang good too, and you can feel that much better about yourself.

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Classic basil pesto, Barefoot Contessa version: pine nuts, walnuts, garlic

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Blend in the parm, basil, salt and pepper, and then add the olive oil until it reaches the consistency you’d like. Ina calls for a fair amount of oil, I used less. I do wish I had blanched the basil leaves, as some recipes recommend – it helps remove any bitter flavor and helps the leaves maintain their bright green color as well.

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Basil Pesto, from Barefoot Contessa

1/4 cup pine nuts
1/4 cup walnuts (you could use all pine nuts for a more traditional pesto, or all walnuts for a cheaper and healthier alternative)
3 tablespoons garlic, or 9 cloves (I used a little less)
5 cups fresh basil leaves, packed
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 cups good olive oil
1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

Place the pine nuts, walnuts, and garlic into the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Process for 15 seconds, then add the basil, salt, and pepper. With the processor running, slowly add the oil through the feed tube and process until the pesto is thoroughly puréed. Add the parmesan and purée for another minute.  Use immediately, or store pesto in the refrigerator or freezer with a thin film of oil on top (any exposure to air will turn your beautiful bright green sauce brown within minutes, it’s just heartbreaking).

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This kale pesto is pretty similar to the basil pesto recipe, only it uses all walnuts, and lemon juice to brighten it up a bit. I used the bagged kale from Trader Joe’s because I was too lazy to drive to another grocery store, but its a lot easier to cut out the stems when you’re working with whole leaves.  Here you definitely need to blanch the kale leaves, and remove the stems, or it will be too bitter.  Even if you aren’t a kale lover, this is a delicious and super healthy pesto that could be used as a sauce (thinned with water), a dip or a spread.

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Kale Pesto, from The Sprouted Kitchen Cookbook

1 small bunch lacinato or Tuscan kale, stemmed and chopped (about 4 cups)
2 cloves garlic
1/3 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese (I used a little more)
Juice of one lemon
1/2 cup lightly toasted walnuts
2 tablespoons water
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 to 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil (or a little more)

Blanch the kale leaves for about a minute, then transfer to a strainer and run cold water over them to stop the cooking. Once the kale has cooled, squeeze out the excess water and set aside. You should have about a cup and a half of kale.

In a food processor, combine the garlic, parmesan, lemon juice, and walnuts and pulse to chop. Add the kale, water, and 1/2 teaspoon each of the salt and pepper and pulse to combine (I added a handful of basil here as well). Turn the processor on and drizzle in the olive oil until you get the consistency you like (I thinned it with a little too much water, which is why it looks like gross green water in the picture – I promise it tastes better than it looks).

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Barefoot Contessa’s Cream of Fresh Tomato Soup

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So I know we’re still at least a month too early for soup season, but since August is the height of tomato season I figured now is as good a time as any to share this recipe. I was first introduced to this soup by my friend Lindsay, so I need to give her some credit for it. When we were roommates in college, I used to cook more than Linds – and even for a number of years after college, her cupboards/freezer usually consisted of cheerios, red and black licorice, and lean cuisines (and the fridge was usually empty – I think she ate her cheerios dry). Once she got married, remodeled her kitchen, and stocked said kitchen with all sorts of registry loot, however, she turned into this amazing gourmet cook. Coupled with the fact that she has a much more adventurous palate than I do, this means I can always count on her for some fun new recipes. And ever since she introduced me to this soup, I’ve had multiple requests (and repeat requests) for it from pretty much anyone who tries it.

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I picked these tomatoes from my parents’ backyard – they’re literally ripening faster than they can eat them/give them away (what I would give for a full sun deck to grow my own!!). Everything else you can get at Trader Joe’s. Tomatoes go in seeds and skins and all – you don’t even have to peel the carrots.

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The best part about a puréed soup is that you don’t have to worry too much about dicing your veggies too perfectly – just give them a rough chop and toss them in the pot.

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Ina would love it if we all used homemade chicken stock, all the time, but that usually doesn’t happen (read: never happens) for me.

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Such a tiny bit of cream (I use half and half), it hardly counts. And who doesn’t love an immersion blender?!? Vitamix also works great here.

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In a perfect world, this soup would be topped with prettier homemade crostini – but Dave’s killer bread is so much better for us than baguette, right? Any homemade crouton or crostini really does make for a yummy topping, though – at least until its actually soup season, and we can just eat it with a grilled cheese sandwich.

Cream of Fresh Tomato Soup, from the Barefoot Contessa

Serves Six

3 tablespoons good olive oil
1 1/2 cups chopped red onion (1 large/2 small)
2 carrots, unpeeled and chopped
1 tablespoon minced garlic (approx. 3 cloves)
4 lbs vine-ripened tomatoes, coarsely chopped (approx. 5 large tomatoes)
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/4 cup packed chopped fresh basil, plus julienned basil leaves for garnish
3 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup heavy cream
Croutons or crostini, for garnish

Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Add the onions and carrots and sauté for about 10 minutes, until very tender. Add the garlic and cook for one minute longer. Add the tomatoes, sugar, tomato paste, basil, chicken stock, salt and pepper and stir well. Bring the soup to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer, uncovered, for 30-40 minutes.

Add the cream to the soup, and then process through a food mill (Ina’s suggestion) or purée with an immersion blender (I do it this way since I don’t have a food mill, and it turns out just fine – you could use a blender or a food processor as well if you don’t have an immersion blender).

Serve hot, with julienned basil leaves and croutons/crostini.  Enjoy!!

A “Comfort Food” Themed Meal: Chicken Pot Pie and Old Fashioned Chocolate Pudding

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I should begin this post by telling you all that I don’t actually eat these pot pies. One of the best things about cooking really unhealthy things is that you have much less interest in eating them after you see how much butter is used. But the people that eat them don’t know, so they can enjoy their meal, and you can feel good about making them happy (and salvaging your own arteries at the same time).

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My grandparents are both 93 years old (they’ll be 93 and a half in a couple weeks!!), and as it’s getting to be more and more work for my grandma to prepare meals, whenever I’m in town I try to make a couple things for their freezer. Last fall, as I was putting together some soups and casserole-type dishes that I thought would freeze well, I asked my grandpa if there was anything in particular he would like me to make. I’ll never forget his response – it was as though he had literally been waiting a full 93 years for someone to ask him that very question.  Without skipping a beat: “I’d like an old-fashioned chicken pot pie, the kind with the lard in the crust like my mother used to make.” (Very emphatic about the lard). It seemed like a reasonable enough request, and I had recently seen an episode of the Barefoot Contessa’s show on the Food Network where she made them, so I had a place to start. I looked up her recipe and saw that the crust did indeed call for Crisco – yum.  Three stores later – Pier One for the perfect-sized ramekins, New Seasons for an organic, free range chicken, and Trader Joe’s for everything else – I was back in the kitchen and ready to get to work. The fact that they turned out to be such a big hit is both good news and bad news – good news, obviously, because if you go to that much work you want people to really LOVE what you’ve made; bad news because now I feel like I need to constantly have their freezer stocked with pot pies. If I haven’t been down to see my grandparents in a while, I’ll often get a lovely card from my grandpa, casually mentioning that it’s been a while since they’ve seen me, and boy, they sure do enjoy those pot pies. He’ll usually include a check – not for groceries, just because. No pressure or anything.

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This recipe really isn’t hard – it’s a bit time consuming, but I take shortcuts by buying the pre-chopped onions (honestly, what did people do before Trader Joe’s?) and rotisserie chicken. That means the only prep work you really have to do is chopping and blanching the carrots (a mildly annoying but apparently necessary step), cubing the chicken and then chopping up a bit of parsley. I love just opening the bags of frozen peas and pearl onions and dumping them all in the pot. You could use store-bought pie crust for a real time saver, but this crust comes together pretty easily, especially if you have a food processor. Without the food processor, however, a pastry blender (the little handheld one you can get for $10) works just fine.

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I recently tried to mix it up a little (and skip the crust altogether) by trying this recipe from Joy the Baker. While it received good reviews, it was made pretty clear that going forward people would prefer the original. I love Joy but I guess it’s pretty hard to beat Ina. I do love the casserole idea though if you needed to feed a large crowd – whether you use Ina’s filling recipe or Joy’s. And don’t the chive biscuits look so pretty? My dad was a fan of the biscuit topping, so when I made the Barefoot Contessa version for the millionth time this past weekend I did half with the crust like usual, and then threw together a quick batch of these biscuits and topped a couple of the pot pies with them instead. The best part is now we have unbaked biscuits in the freezer for the next time we need topping for a pot pie, or strawberry shortcake. (It is worth noting that Ina’s recipe says it makes four pot pies, but depending on the size of your ramekins it will actually make double to triple that amount – this time mine filled five normal sized ramekins and four of what I call the “hungry man” sized, giant ones – but there’s usually only enough pie crust for about 6.  So you can double the crust recipe, or do some with biscuit topping). I usually bake and then freeze them, but I’m pretty sure you could freeze them assembled but unbaked – it takes so long to defrost and then reheat them in the oven, you may as well defrost and then bake.

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And since this weekend was so rainy and miserable – and going with my theme of comfort (or 70s-era) food – I whipped up some chocolate pudding too. I love Cup of Jo’s blog and her “best of” series – once anyone calls anything the “best _____” I pretty much have to make it (even if, as in the case of chocolate pudding, it isn’t something I would think to make otherwise). This really did only take 8 ingredients (plus toppings), most of which you probably already have in your fridge/pantry.  It was so simple and easy, I might now be really into making pudding (which is pretty much the last thing I need to start doing).

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If anyone has any freezer-friendly ideas, for grandparents or otherwise (I’m bringing dinner to some “new parents” tomorrow), please feel free to share in the comments. And if you’re all of the sudden craving a pot pie after reading this, I won’t judge you – every once in awhile I think you’re allowed to splurge. And the closer you are to 93, the more often!

Friday Faves

Happy (Good) Friday! I hope everyone had a fabulous week. It’s been in the 60s (SIXTIES!!) in Seattle this week, so it feels like spring is finally here. Between that and the upcoming Easter holiday, please forgive the fact that all of this week’s favorites are pastels and Easter themed. I bought myself a new Easter dress and some new Easter shoes (best part of the holiday! It’s as though I’m six years old) and am so excited for a gorgeous weekend full of celebrations – religious and otherwise.

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Way too much fun using my Easter pastels and spring brights as vases after I went a little crazy at the market.

I’m making mini strawberry tarts for my cousin’s baby shower tomorrow…..it’s not really strawberry season yet but we’re so close!

Le Panier is a French bakery in Pike Place Market….I took a little break from work the other day and found myself wandering through the market, and then somehow in line for macaroons. One of these days I’m going to teach myself how to make them, but in the meantime these are pretty perfect.

I was talked into these Joe’s jeans last week by my 93 year old grandmother, who informed me that “pistachio” is the color for spring. $69.99 at TJ Maxx, score!!

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I couldn’t decide between my go-to favorite cupcake recipe (recipe here, boxed version here), or this much healthier – but also Easter-y – carrot muffin (recipe here). So I made both – something for everyone! (Note: the carrot muffins aren’t your typical “cupcake disguised as a muffin” muffin – they are very much a muffin. And although the coconut whip is yummy, I actually prefer them without it).

I hope you all have a wonderful weekend, and that the Easter Bunny is good to you! xoxo