Southern Praline Pecan Cake

I was turned on to this recipe by a friend this past week and I must say this cake is dreadfully sinful! Sinfully delicious! I’ve personally eaten half of this cake and I just took it out of the oven 24 hours ago. Apparently this recipe has been floating around the internet for a few years but I never came across it, so I don’t mind sharing it because some of you may not have seen it and I can promise, everyone needs to try it. Easy, super delicious, what more can you ask for? You start with a boxed mix but don’t follow the directions and you add a tub of store-bought icing but it goes IN the batter instead of on the cake. Give it a shot! If you love pecans, this will surely please.

For the cake:

  • 1 box butter pecan cake mix
  • 1-15oz tub Coconut-Pecan Frosting
  • 4 eggs
  • 3/4 cup oil
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans (I love pecans so I didn’t really measure at any point)

For the sauce;

  • 1-14oz can sweetened condensed milk
  • 2 tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans

Preheat the oven to 350F. Spray a 9×13 baking dish with nonstick cooking spray. I personally use the ones with flour for baking, like Baker’s Joy or generic equivalent. In a medium bowl or the bowl of your stand mixer, if you have one, combine the boxed cake mix, eggs, oil and the tub of frosting and run the mixer to combine well. Fold in the pecans and then pour into your greased baking dish (I used a pyrex one). Bake about 40 minutes or until golden brown and when a toothpick comes out clean. The cake would be perfect to eat at this point but the sauce puts it over the top!

To make the sauce, melt the butter in a small saucepan. Add the condensed milk and stir while heating through. Add the remaining 1/2 cups of pecans and cook, stirring, for another minute or so, then remove from the heat. Now at this point you can cut the cake and spoon the sauce over it, or do as I did and just pour the sauce all over the top of the cake. I think this is best because the sauce soaks down into the cake, sort of like making a tres leche cake.

 

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Italian Sausage Stuffed Peppers

Most of you know that I’m executive chef for a university in central Alabama. Most people don’t realize that when someone garners years of experience and works for a major contract foodservice organization, as opposed to a private restaurant, the days spent working in the actual kitchen are few and far between. About the only time I get to cook and be creative is for catered functions, or occasional dinners at the university president’s home. I spend 10-12 hours each day putting out fires, like most all of you do, and 90% of my work week involves management instead of cooking.

Lately my creative juices have been non-existent, and I haven’t had a blog post in quite some time. For those of you that follow me, I apologize. I’m working hard to rejuvenate my creativity, and outside of a long trip somewhere the cell phone won’t pick up, I’ve been getting inspirations in many of the same places you do, magazines and blog posts. This recipe is my adaptation of a similar one published recently in Southern Living, the only magazine I’ve maintained a constant subscription to since I was old enough to have a checking account. Like all recipes I try, I use the recipe as a starting point and I add or delete from it based on my likes and knowing my tastes. You too should adopt this practice as long as you understand the basics of cooking, what flavors compliment what items, etc. Not only is this recipe beautiful on a plate, it’s quite tasty and would really impress at a dinner party, but it’s also easy enough to prepare on a week night after work. If you aren’t already a fan of Aldi, I highly recommend them if they are in your area. Aldi has jewel peppers, 3-4 per pack, for what a standard grocery store charges for 1 pepper, so you don’t have to settle for green ones to make this dish (green being the cheapest and least tasty). I’m portioned this recipe for 4 servings with each serving being 1 half of a pepper, so it’s easy to do at 1.5 times or 2 times depending on your crowd size. I hope you give it a shot and enjoy!

  • 2 candy jewel bell peppers (orange, yellow, red) or you may use 2 green if you prefer though they are not as sweet and flavorful
  • 1/2# spicy Italian sausage, removed from casings
  • 1/2 small onion, chopped
  • 1/4 cup chopped celery
  • 1 cup quick cook grits (not instant)
  • 3 cups boxed chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1 cup half & half
  • 1 cup+1/4 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
  • 2 tsp dried Italian seasoning
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 dozen cherry tomatoes, cut in half (I grow a variety of heirloom cherry tomatoes in a variety of colors and if you can find some of those at a Farmer’s Market they really are great, but store bought red or yellow ones work fine)
  • 1 tsp minced garlic (I use the jar but fresh works just fine, not dried or dehydrated though)
  • Juice from 1 lemon
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 Tbsp chopped fresh basil or 1/2 tsp dried basil leaves

Starting at the bottom of the recipe, combine the cherry tomato halves and remaining ingredients in a bowl and set aside to marinate.

Preheat oven to 350F. Place the peppers in your microwave and cook on high for 2-3 minutes depending on your wattage. You want to soften them slightly. Remove from microwave and slice them in half lengthwise, cutting through the stem so that each half has a half stem attached. Remove any seeds and membranes, set aside.

In a medium saute pan over medium heat, brown the Italian sausage until completely cooked (no pink showing). Remove the sausage from the pan with a slotted spoon or spatula and turn the heat up to medium-high. Add the onion and celery to the sausage oil and cook until tender, 3-4 minutes, shaking pan so contents don’t burn. If your sausage was especially lean (not often the case), you can add a dash of olive oil to the vegetables to saute properly. Add sauteed ingredients to the cooked sausage (including any oil left in your pan) and hold.

In a medium saucepan, bring the stock and half & half to a slow boil. Whisk the grits into the liquid and continue to whisk for 30 seconds to ensure they don’t stick to your pot. Turn the heat down to medium-low or low and partially cover with a lid (tilt one side so it can vent). Cook the grits for 5 minutes, stirring often. Be careful around the grits. They will bubble like lava and are about as hot if any pops out on to you. The lid keeps your stove from being a total mess (those of you with smooth top electric ones especially don’t want to clean cooked on grits off your stove). When the grits are thickened and smooth, remove from the heat. Stir in the 1 cup of shredded cheddar cheese, 2 tsp Italian seasoning and then add the Italian sausage mixture to the grits. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Spoon the grit/sausage mixture into the bell pepper halves and arrange on a baking pan or in a baking dish. Top the peppers with the remaining 1/4 cup of shredded cheese and bake for 25-30 minutes, until peppers are shriveling and tops are golden. Remove from the oven and let stand for 2-3 minutes before serving. After plating each pepper, top each pepper with some of the marinated tomatoes and enjoy!

Praline Pecan Tartlets

Image

It’s hard to believe, but I’ve made it over 1 year smoke free. After nearly 30 years of being a smoker, I finally kicked that habit. Those of you that have stopped smoking know this and the smart people out there that never picked up the nasty habit might not, but like others my metabolism went in the toilet when I quit. I ate no more than when I smoked but weight just piled on. I went from my smoking weight of 195 to 225 before I managed to peel off 20 pounds this past summer. Still, the battle of the gut is a constant struggle with me. Working in the food industry, I am surrounded by it 12 hours a day, everywhere I turn! A lead cook will want me to try some sauce (made with butter and whipping cream of course), or my baker will prepare some new treat that I can’t resist tasting, so I’m always interested in bite-sized desserts and treats. These tasty little morsels allow those of us that can quickly consume 1000 calories in a matter of minutes, to enjoy the deliciousness of something decadent and still keep our daily caloric counts in check.

A slice of a common pecan pie like you’d make at Thanksgiving averages about 500 calories (that’s if you slice your pie into 12 servings). If you’ve purchased your pecan pie that number can double, as most thaw-and-serve pies have crusts made with lard.These tasty little phyllo cups have 75 calories each, so you can limit your intake and not feel so guilty. The crispness of the baked phyllo cup with the sweetness of the praline filing and the toasted pecan is just delectable. These are perfect for a party, tea, reception, shower or just to keep in a Rubbermaid container around the holidays. They make great treats for gift giving, especially when pared with some homemade cookies, and they are extremely simple to make. Give them a try and I’m sure you’ll love adding these to your holiday baking repertoire.

For every 15 phyllo cups (available in the frozen pastry section of most any supermarket), you will need:

  • 1 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 1 tbsp+1tsp dark brown sugar
  • 2 tbsp honey (you can slightly adjust the flavor to your taste depending on the type of honey you use but I personally just get regular amber honey when I make these tartlets)
  • 1/4 tsp pure vanilla extract (sometimes I substitute 1/4 tsp Jack Daniels whiskey in place of the vanilla, especially around Christmas)
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans

In a mixing bowl, combine all ingredients except the pecans and mix well. Fold in the chopped pecans. Arrange phyllo cups on a baking sheet, then spoon mixture into the phyllo cups (a heaping teaspoon is a good size to fill the cups). Any extra filling can be evenly distributed between your phyllo cups.

Bake in a 350F preheated oven for 10-15 minutes, until the filling sets, the pecans begin to brown the the phyllo cups brown around the edges. Transfer baked cups to a cooling rack and begin your next batch. Be sure to cool these tartlets completely on a cooling rack. If you cool them on a pan or plate they will become soggy on the bottom and you loose that wonderful crunchiness of the phyllo pastry. Screen Shot 2017-03-18 at 7.13.15 AM

Red Velvet Strawberry Layer Cake

RV cake

 

It has been entirely too long since I’ve posted to my blog and for that I’m truly sorry. My life at work has been extremely hectic of late and after 10-12 hour days for months on end plus 2 hours of commuting per day, I just haven’t been myself lately. One of the reasons it’s been so hectic at work is that I’m no longer just the executive chef for our operation, but now I’m also the catering manager. My work day doesn’t end until the catered events end these days and that’s why I’m living at my job.

The bright side to this is that I have recently totally revamped our catering menus at work including dumping all of the common desserts and replacing them with quality, scratch made desserts. Included in that endeavor is this unbelievably delicious take on a red velvet cake that we now offer at work. The photo above is a partial that was sent out on a dinner and so many of my friends commented and asked for the recipe that I thought I’d share it with everyone.

This is a scratch-made cake, not made from a box, so it takes a few more ingredients but it’s well worth it. This is the kind of cake you don’t mind paying $40 for at a bakery. I’ll be sharing some of the other cake recipes we’re offering in the coming weeks, but for now, you can’t go wrong with this delicious red velvet cake!

Ingredient:

  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 4 large eggs at room temperature
  • 2 tbsp red liquid food coloring
  • 1 tbsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1-8oz container of sour cream
  • 2 1/2 cups White Lily soft wheat flour (or similar cake flour)
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp table salt
  • Shortening

STRAWBERRY GLAZE:

  • 3/4 cup strawberry preserves
  • 1/4 cup Amaretto or other almond liqueur

STRAWBERRY FROSTING:

  • 3/4 cup butter, softened
  • 5 cups powdered sugar, sifted
  • 1 3/4 cups diced fresh strawberries, divided
  1. Prepare the cake layers. Preheat oven to 350F. Beat first 3 ingredients at medium speed with an electric mixer until fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating just until blended after each addition. Add the red food coloring and vanilla, blending at low speed until just blended.
  2. Stir together the sour cream and 1/2 cup of water until blended. Sift together the flour and next 3 ingredients. Gradually add the butter mixture alternately with sour cream mixture, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Spoon the batter into 3 greased (with the shortening) and floured 9″ round cake pans (about 2 1/2 cups of batter per pan).
  3. Bake at 350F for 20-24 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool in pans for 10 minutes, then remove from pans and continue cooling on a wire rack until cooled completely (about 30 minutes).
  4. Prepare the glaze. Pulse strawberry preserves in a food processor until smooth, transfer for a microwave safe bowl. Microwave strawberry preserves on high for 30-45 seconds or until melted. Stir in the almond liqueur. Brush 1/4 cup warm glaze over the top of each cooled cake layer, reserving the last 1/4 cup of glaze.
  5. Prepare the frosting. Beat 3/4 cup softened butter at medium speed for 20 seconds or until fluffy. Gradually add 5 cups of sifted powered sugar and 1/2 cup diced strawberries, beating at low speed until creamy. Add 1/4 cup diced strawberries, 1 tbsp at a time, until the frosting reaches the desired consistency. Reserve 1 cup of strawberries for garnish.
  6. Place 1 cake layer, glazed side up, on a serving platter. Spread 1/3 of the frosting over the cake layer; sprinkle with 1/2 cup of strawberries. Repeat with the second cake layer, then top with remaining cake layer. Spread remaining frosting over the top, drizzle with remaining strawberry glaze and top with any remaining diced strawberries.

Serves 12-16 depending on the way you slice it.

Sparking Citrus Punch

mimosapunch

About a month ago, we took the plunge and got married. After 11 years together we figured the trial run had come to an end and it was time to make it official. My mom held a nice, small reception for us and featured her holiday champagne punch, which several of our guests requested the recipe for. This punch is really a virgin punch with a champagne option. We serve the punch in the punch bowl and a chilled bottle of champagne next to the punch bowl for anyone that wants to liven it up. Simply get half a glass of punch and top off with champagne, or drink the punch as it is. It’s a sparkling punch to begin with, thanks to the soda in the recipe. It’s very easy to make and a hit at every party, so I thought it would be a nice addition to the blog.

  • 1 12oz can of orange juice concentrate
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice
  • 1 46oz can pineapple juice
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 cups boiling water
  • 1 can crushed pineapple
  • 3 liters of lemon-lime soda

To make your concentrate, dissolve the sugar in the boiling water, then mix with all other ingredients except the soda.

Portion the concentrate into quart sized ziplock bags and freeze until needed (we will make a double recipe to keep extra concentrate in the freezer for any time we want to make some punch).

To serve, put the frozen concentrate in a punch bowl and pour the chilled soda over it. If you want a virgin punch, serve as it is, or, as I mentioned above, serve with a bottle of champagne to let your guests make their own alcoholic version, glass by glass.

Oyster Crab & Shrimp Dressing

oysterdressing

It’s Christmas Eve and I’ve had a lot of requests to share the recipe for the seafood dressing I’m making for dinner tonight. If you love crab cakes, think of this as a crab cake casserole with extra seafood added. I adapted this recipe from Cobb Lane restaurant’s Crab & Shrimp Au Gratin recipe. Years ago I worked with Mikki Bond, the previous restaurant owner, and she shared her recipe for this delicious dish in a Cobb Lane cookbook. I’ve added a few things to make my own holiday dressing which is in my frig and soon to be in my oven!

  • 2 cups medium shrimp, chopped
  • 2 pints oysters, cut in half
  • 1/4 cup dry sherry
  • Salt and pepper
  • 4 cups She Crab Soup
  • 1 pint lump blue crab meat
  • 1 bag Pepperidge Farms bread crumbs/stuffing mix
  • 2 tbsp lemon pepper
  • 1 tbsp Cajun seasoning blend
  • 2 tsp Old Bay seasoning
  • 1 tsp Tabasco sauce
  • 2 tbsp Worchestershire sauce
  • Juice & zest from one lemon
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • Paprika (for garnish)
  • 4 tbsp melted butter

Preheat the oven to 400F

Saute the shrimp and oysters in hot butter for 2 minutes. Add the sherry, salt and pepper and remove from the heat.

Spray a casserole dish with butter spray. Mix together all remaining ingredients except for the cheese, paprika and butter. Add the shrimp and oysters to the dressing mix and spoon into the casserole dish. Top with cheese and Paprika, drizzle with melted butter and bake for 20 minutes or until bubbly on top.

If you don’t want to make the She Crab soup, mix together the following and substitute for the soup:

  • 2 cans cream of mushroom soup + 1 can half & half
  • 1 small carton of sour cream
  • 1/4 cup Worchestershire sauce
  • Dash of Tabasco
  • 1/4 cup dry sherry
  • 1/2 tsp lemon pepper

Asian Grilled Chicken Thighs

asian thighs

 

Today is a beautiful Sunday! Fall is in the air with high temps in the South running in the upper 60’s and I have stumbled upon newly found energy to do things around the house. Grass has been cut hopefully for the last time, cars washed, clothes are washing, I just finished vacuuming and I’m about to fire up the grill for dinner and make some tasty Asian grilled chicken thighs.

You could use any cut of chicken, but we’ve been buying a lot of boneless, skinless chicken thighs. Not only are they reasonably priced, darker meat seems to have more flavor (along with more fat, but then again, fat IS flavor). The recipe for this dinner is all in the marinade and the longer it marinates, the better the flavor. I’m going to skip cooking instructions because the way you cook chicken is entirely up to you. I’ve roasted chicken this way and it’s been delicious, but today I want to take advantage of the weather, so I’m using the grill.

Soak any chicken you prefer in the following, then simply cook and enjoy! It’s also a great way to make “Teriyaki” wings for a tailgate!

Marinade:

  • 1 cup low sodium soy sauce
  • the juice from 2 Navel oranges
  • Juice from 1 lemon
  • 4 Keffir lime leaves or you can substitute the juice of 2 fresh limes
  • 1/4 cup grated fresh ginger or 1 tbsp ground dried ginger
  • 1/4 cup sesame oil
  • 1 tbsp minced garlic
  • 1 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro

Combine all ingredients. Add chicken to big Ziploc bag, cover with marinade and put in the frig. The longer it marinates, the better, but at least 1 hour if you can’t let it go overnight.

Discard the marinade and cook the way you’d like!

Macerated Fresh Berry Parfaits

maceratedberries

It’s been a month since I’ve posted anything, and for those of you that follow my blog I apologize. Most of you know I’m executive chef for a liberal arts university and we’ve been doing a lot of catering work leading up to summer graduation, which was yesterday, so my time has been short the past month.

As is customary for every graduation on campus, I create/prepare an upscale dinner for the board of directors and the guest speaker from graduation. Last night’s meal was a filling one, beef tenderloin with portobello-Madeira sauce, roasted purple and pink potatoes and sauteed broccolini, so for dessert I needed something light. Since fresh berries are plentiful right now, I made a simple fresh berry parfait. The guests were really impressed with the flavors and wanted to know just what I did. They were shocked when I told them, because this is so simple to do. It’s a way to heighten the flavors of the fresh fruit without covering it up, so while berries are everywhere you should pick some up and give this a try!

  • 2 cups fresh strawberries, halved or quartered depending on their size
  • 2 cups fresh blueberries
  • 1 cup fresh blackberries
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 3 tbsp fresh squeezed lemon juice
  • 3 tbsp Grand Marnier or similar orange liqueur

and for the simple creme anglaise:

  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 4 egg yolks, beaten
  • 1/3 cup sugar

To prepare the fruit, simply put all washed and cut fruit in a large bowl. Sprinkle with the sugar, lemon juice and liqueur. Let marinate in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour.

To make creme anglaise:

  1. In a small, heavy saucepan, heat the cream and vanilla until bubbles start to form around the edges of the pan.
  2. While the cream is heating, whisk together the eggs and sugar until smooth. Slowly pour 1/2 the hot cream mixture into the eggs, whisking constantly. Gradually add the egg yolk mixture back to the pot of remaining cream, whisking constantly, and cook until it thickens and will coat the back of a spoon.
  3. Remove from the heat and chill.

To assemble the parfaits:

Spoon fruit mixture in a parfait glass, alternating between layers of the macerated fruit and the chilled cream anglaise. Serve cold.

 

Grapefruit Jam

jambottle

 

Lately I’ve been on a preserving kick, making jams and jellies, putting vegetables in the freezer and at the moment, gathering everything up for some homemade pickles. Everything I’ve done this year was to preserve something I had around the house, or was given, or had too much and needed to save some. Yesterday I saved 7 over ripe ruby red grapefruit from the trash can by making grapefruit jam. I love a good grapefruit and I figured people make jams, jellies and marmalades out of everything else, so why not try it. Turns out it is delicious! You could make this recipe with any citrus fruit, or a combination of several different ones. Like everything else I do, this was easy and well worth the try.

First you need to section the grapefruit. To do that, cut the ends off so your grapefruit will have a flat area to sit on. With a sharp knife, go all around the grapefruit removing the skin. This is also how I peel cantaloupe, watermelon, oranges, honeydew melons.. anything with a round shape you’d like to peel easily.

sectioning

After you’ve removed all of the skin, using a sharp knife, work in between the membranes to remove the segments from the pith. Work over a heavy bottom sauce pan so that all of the juice and fruit pieces fall into the pan. Then squeeze the juice from the membranes before discarding them. Be sure to remove any seeds that may have fallen into the pot.

sectioning2

Measure out the amount of fruit/juice you have before cooking (my 7 grapefruit yielded 4 cups of fruit and juice). Bring the fruit mixture to a boil over medium high heat. Once boiling, add half as much sugar as you had fruit (for my 4 cups, I used 2 cups of sugar). Continue to boil until sugar is dissolved. Next add 1 pack of liquid fruit pectin. They say you don’t need it with grapefruit, but you do. Then add 1 tbsp butter (this keeps foam from forming on the fruit mixture while it’s boiling. Continue to boil at a rapid boil (one you can’t stir down) for at least 10 minutes. As the grapefruit get hot, they change in color to a beautiful golden orange mandarin color.

jam1

This is what your mixture should start to look like. To test, put a saucer in the freezer to chill, then take a spoonful of the jam mixture and spread on the plate. If it sets up and doesn’t run you’re ready to can. If it runs, continue cooking longer.

To can the jam, get whatever size jars you’d like to use (I used 8- 1/2 pint jelly jars because that’s a good size to give out to friends). In another stock pot, bring water to a boil. Boil the jars, rings and lids to sanitize them. To can the jam, get a jar from the hot water and set it on a plate. Spoon the jam into the jar, leaving 1/4″-1/2″ head space at the top. Place a top on it and crank on a ring. Once you’ve filled all of your jars, drop them back into your pot of boiling water, ensuring the tops of the jars are covered, and process for 5-6 minutes. Remove from the hot water and let the jars cool on a towel or in a box. As they cool, you’ll hear them seal. They will “pop” all night. Now you’re ready to share or enjoy. Once you’ve opened a jar and broken the seal, be sure to refrigerate it.

Spicy Southern Collard Greens

collards

 

Lately I’ve been asked by several people, how to cook fresh greens, specifically kale and collards. I’ve already posted some kale recipes, so today I’ll share how I cook collard greens. One of the advantages of a grandmother that was raised in the country was learning how to cook all the vegetables that grew in the family garden. This recipe for collards is a little spicy, but that’s how I like mine, so if you want something with less kick, just let me know and I’ll share another recipe. This serves approximately 10 servings out of 1 pound of collards.

  • 2 qts chicken stock (can be canned, homemade or made from bouillon cube)
  • 1# collards, washed, stems removed and leaves chopped (you can eat the stems, however I tend to only eat the stem that’s near the leafy part as the stalk can be quite woody)
  • 1/4# (4oz) Applewood smoked bacon, diced
  • 1 cup red onion, chopped
  • 2 1/2 tsp minced garlic
  • 3/8 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp Kosher or sea salt
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1 1/4 cup chopped tomatoes (canned or fresh)
  • 1/4 tsp sugar

In a dutch oven, cook the bacon until crisp over medium heat. With a slotted spoon, remove the bacon and reserve. In the bacon grease over medium/low heat, sweat the onions until tender and translucent. Add the garlic and cook until fragrent, 2-3 minutes. Add the collard greens and saute for a few minutes, then add the chicken stock, seasonings, tomatoes, sugar and the cooked bacon. Cook the collard greens over medium heat at a slow boil for 45 minutes to 1 hour and enjoy. Country folk call the liquid in the pot, pot liquor, and they crumble their cornbread up in it. I realize cooking the greens this long really cooks out a lot of the nutrients, so if you’re shooting for the vitamin factor, you can eat the greens after 20-30 minutes, but for a true Southern style pot of greens, you want to cook them to death. That’s when the flavors blend for the real deal.