Stuffed Pasta Shells


This is one of those dishes that will always make me think of my Mom. For as long as I can remember, she has made this dish. And for as long as I can remember, I have loved it. Once I started actually making it for myself, I loved it even more when I realized how simple it is to actually make. There are few ingredients, few steps, and you can be stuffing yourself silly on melted cheesy, saucy pasta shells in less than an hour.

Stuffed Pasta Shells
4 cups shredded mozzarella cheese (16 ounces)
1 carton ricotta cheese (15 ounces)
1/2 package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained (Note: Really only use 1/2 the package, even though your frugal side will be wanting you to throw the rest in. Trust me, I tried it, and the end product tastes more like you are eating a bale of hay than some yummy Italian dish.)
1 package jumbo pasta shells. Try and find a package that wasn't completely smashed and all the shells broken.
1 jar spaghetti sauce of your choice.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Cook the pasta and drain when finished.

In a large bowl, combine the spinach and cheeses.

Stuff the pasta with the cheese and spinach mixture.

Arrange in a greased 9x13 baking dish.

Pour spaghetti sauce over the shells.

Cover and bake for 30 minutes or until heated through.

Eat.

See, I told you that was simple!!


Nanaimo Bars and The Return of the Daring Bakers!!!




What joy friends! I actually had the time, the energy, and the stomach fortitude to once again pick up my whisk and join the Daring Bakers! I never imagined that I would get so much pleasure out of spending a whole day in the kitchen whisking and kneading and throwing flour everywhere, but I really did miss not being able to make some extravagent desserts these last few months.


The January 2010 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Lauren of Celiac Teen. Lauren chose Gluten-Free Graham Wafers and Nanaimo Bars as the challenge for the month. The sources she based her recipe on are 101 Cookbooks and www.nanaimo.ca.


When I first saw the recipe, I will admit that I was a little skeptical. Seriously? A cookie bar? Come on! I joined the DARING Bakers to be just that…Daring! Of course I was going to do the recipe, but I was slightly put off by the fact that I was doing it in the first place. But after some consideration I had to remind myself that the challenge recipes aren’t just about the end product. It’s about the process, the new techniques that you learn, and working with new ingredients that is the main point here. Upon further inspection I came to realize that there were in fact parts to this challenge that I have never done before. I have never made homemade graham crackers (or crackers of any kind for that matter), and I have never melted chocolate and butter over a double boiler and then added an egg to thicken it up. Ok, so I would be learning something after-all. And, like my dear husband pointed out, I pretty much haven’t stepped into the kitchen since November, so even though this was no Dobos Torte or Macaron, this would be a good way to ease myself back into the world of the Daring Bakers. Alright, good point husband (I hate when he does that, but so thankful when he does).

Challenge Accepted.

I was quite pleased with how these little bars (and graham crackers) turned out. The crackers were infinitely better than the store-bought ones. Not quite as crunchy, with a nice slightly sweet flavor. I added a little bit of cinnamon sugar on the tops for a little bit of extra fun. Too bad its too cold for camping season, because they would be great as S’mores!

The bars themselves turned out great, too. The bottom layer is by far my favorite – the crackers, rich chocolate, crunchy almonds and exotic coconut come together for a great flavor. The middle layer I was expecting to be more of a custard, but it is actually more of a really thick buttercream. After reading some of the comments from other Daring Bakers about this layer being too sweet, I cut down the sugar to only 1 cup. I also couldn’t find custard powder, and so I used vanilla pudding mix instead. The top layer is just sweet delicious, really good for you chocolate and butter. YUM. Added together these three layers each bring their own punch to the party, and you are left with a decadent little bar. Don’t cut these as big as you would a brownie, though, or you will be in waaaay over your head. And have some water or milk close at hand as well. 





The challenge recipe for graham crackers was gluten free, which I will of course supply for you, but I chose to be cheap and use what I had at home, and that meant good old all purpose flour! After much debating, I decided to use the recipe from Smitten Kitchen (plus, I am madly in love with her, and any change to use one of her recipes always makes me giddy). You can find the recipe I used here.

For Gluten-Free Graham Wafers
1 cup Sweet rice flour (also known as glutinous rice flour)
3/4 cup Tapioca Starch/Flour
1/2 cup Sorghum Flour
1 cup Dark Brown Sugar, Lightly packed
1 teaspoon Baking soda
3/4 teaspoon Kosher Salt
7 tablespoons Unsalted Butter (Cut into 1-inch cubes and frozen)
1/3 cup Honey, Mild-flavoured such as clover.
5 tablespoons Whole Milk
2 tablespoons Pure Vanilla Extract

Directions:
1. In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade, combine the flours, brown sugar, baking soda, and salt. Pulse on low to incorporate. Add the butter and pulse on and off, until the mixture is the consistency of a coarse meal. If making by hand, combine aforementioned dry ingredients with a whisk, then cut in butter until you have a coarse meal. No chunks of butter should be visible.
2. In a small bowl or liquid measuring cup, whisk together the honey, milk and vanilla. Add to the flour mixture until the dough barely comes together. It will be very soft and sticky.
3. Turn the dough onto a surface well-floured with sweet rice flour and pat the dough into a rectangle about 1 inch thick. Wrap in plastic and chill until firm, about 2 hours, or overnight.
4. Divide the dough in half and return one half to the refrigerator. Sift an even layer of sweet rice flour onto the work surface and roll the dough into a long rectangle, about 1/8 inch thick. The dough will be quite sticky, so flour as necessary. Cut into 4 by 4 inch squares. Gather the scraps together and set aside. Place wafers on one or two parchment-lined baking sheets. Chill until firm, about 30 to 45 minutes. Repeat with the second batch of dough.
5. Adjust the rack to the upper and lower positions and preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius).
6. Gather the scraps together into a ball, chill until firm, and reroll. Dust the surface with more sweet rice flour and roll out the dough to get a couple more wafers.
7. Prick the wafers with toothpick or fork, not all the way through, in two or more rows.
8. Bake for 25 minutes, until browned and slightly firm to the touch, rotating sheets halfway through to ensure even baking. Might take less, and the starting location of each sheet may determine its required time. The ones that started on the bottom browned faster.





Nanaimo Bars — 


Bottom Layer
1/2 cup Unsalted Butter
1/4 cup Granulated Sugar
5 tablespoons Unsweetened Cocoa
1 Large Egg, Beaten
1 1/4 cups Graham Cracker Crumbs 
1/2 cup Almonds (Finely chopped - Walnuts or Pecans can also be used)
1 cup Coconut (Shredded, unsweetened)


Middle Layer
1/2 cup Unsalted Butter
2 tablespoons and 2 teaspoons Heavy Cream
2 tablespoons Vanilla Custard Powder (Vanilla pudding mix may be substituted.)
2 cups Powdered Sugar


 Top Layer
4 ounces Semi-sweet chocolate
2 tablespoons Unsalted Butter


Directions:
For bottom Layer: 
Melt unsalted butter, sugar and cocoa in top of a double boiler. Add egg and stir to cook and thicken. Don't freak out if it starts to curdle a bit. Stay calm and keep stirring with your spatula, I promise in a few moments it will magically come together and thicken right up! Remove from heat. Stir in crumbs, nuts and coconut. Press firmly into an ungreased 8 by 8 inch pan. I lined my pan with parchment paper for easy removal. 



For Middle Layer 
Cream butter, cream, custard powder (or vanilla pudding mix), and powdered sugar together well. Beat until light in colour. Spread over bottom layer.



For Top Layer: 
Melt chocolate and unsalted butter over low heat. Cool. Once cool, pour over middle layer and chill.

I found I liked them much better if they were straight out of the fridge. That way they stay nice and firm and you have a good chance of finishing your piece before the chocolate starts melting all over you.

Iced Lemon Lavender Tea Cookies




Quinetesentially girlie - that's what these cookies are! Absolutely perfect for bridal and baby showers, and especially tea parties!! When I saw them, they were in little bit sized hearts, which I think would be even more adorable. But all I had was a circle cookie cutter, so it had to do.


Iced Lemon Lavender Tea Cookies
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup powdered sugar
1/4 tsp lemon extract
1 1/2 TBSP freshly grated lemon zest (about 2 large lemons)
1/8 tsp salt
1/3 cup cornstarch
2 1/2 cups flour
1 TBSP dried lavender flowers

Cream together the butter and sugar until smooth.
Mix in the lemon extract and zest.
In a medium bowl, sift together the cornstarch and flour. Add this to the butter mixture and stir (by hand) until the flour coats the butter but isn't completely worked in. Add the lavender flowers.


Using your hands, lightly rub the ingredients together until the mixture is no longer dry. You will know when its done when it easily forms into a ball. Try not to overwork the dough or you will end up with tough cookies.
Flatten the dough into a disc and place in a plastic re-sealable bag. Refrigerate for 30 minutes (or up to 3 days)
Preheat oven to 325.
Take the fully chilled dough and place it on top of a piece of parchment paper.
Using a rolling pin, roll the dough out to a thickness of 1/4 - 1/3 inch. Cut into desired shapes with cookie cutters.


** This dough barely spreads, so you can cut your cookies pretty close together.
Remove the scraps from in between your cookies and transfer your parchment paper to your cookie sheet. As you can see from my picture, I did the exact opposite of my instructions. It works out either way, but it was soo much easier to remove the scraps than it was to remove the actual cookies. That's why we learn to follow instructions, people. :)
Reform scraps into a ball and start again. If your dough becomes too warm, refrigerate it for a few minutes before rolling it out.
Bake for 15 minutes or until the edges just start turning a golden brown.



Icing
1 cup powdered sugar
2 tsp lemon zest (about 1 large lemon)
2 tsp dried lavender flowers
1-2 TBSP lemon juice

Mix together the sugar, zest and flowers.
Slowly add the lemon juice in to the mixture until you get a smooth, fluid icing.

The easiest way to ice the cookies (that makes them the prettiest) is to dip the cookies into the icing and  then let them drip dry on a wire rack.

Maple Pecan Thumbprints



I didn't get to do any Christmas baking this year, so when my mom came to visit me we went on a baking spree! One of my favorite cookies are maple pecan thumbprints. They look so pretty and fancy, and have a great maple pecan flavor - they are really great all fall and winter long!

Maple Pecan Thumbprints
1 cup butter, softened
2/3 cup sugar
1 TBSP vanilla extract
2 1/4 cup flour
1 eggw hite, beated
1 1/4 cu[ finely chopped pecans
1/4 tsp salt

Heat oven to 375
Combine the butter, sugar and vanilla and beat until creamy.


Add the flour and the salt.
Scoop out a teaspoon's worth of dough and shape into a ball.


Dip the ball into the egg white mixture and then roll in the pecans.


Place on cookie sheet and depress slightly (I find that the 1/4 tsp works beautifully for this!)


Bake for 11-13 minutes, or until lightly browned.

Maple Frosting
1 1/2 cup powdered sugar
3 TBSP butter, softened
2 TBSP milk
3/4 tsp maple extract

Beat till smooth.

When cookies are cooled, fill the indents with the frosting.
** This recipe makes JUST enough for the cookies, so don't overdo any one cookie or you won't have enough. You can always go back in later and add more frosting.
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