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

Salted Caramel Brownies

brownies

I’ve been home on vacation through the holidays. Part of the joy of being the executive chef for a Southern university is getting holidays off with the students. Being home has rejuvenated some of my creative juices, so today I decided to make some homemade, not from a bag or box, brownies. Salted caramel seems to be the flavor profile this season so I knew I wanted to try that with these brownies. They turned out delicious and were so easy to make that I wonder why so many people rely on Duncan Hines? My only gripe is that I like my brownies a little more chewy; these are a little cakey but still delicious and will be wonderful with some ice cream for dessert tonight!

  • 1 cup unsalted butter, cubed
  • 2-4oz bars of semi sweet baking chocolate (I used Ghirardelli but any will do)
  • 6 large eggs
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 3 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1 bag (24 candies) Werther’s soft caramel chews, unwrapped
  • Coarse sea salt

Preheat the oven to 350F. Spray a 13″x9″ glass baking dish with Baker’s Joy cooking spray with flour (or similar). Line the dish with parchment paper leaving enough to go up the sides, then spray the parchment paper again with the cooking spray.

In a microwave safe bowl, add the butter and the baking chocolate and cook on high for 1 1/2 minutes, stirring every 30 seconds, until smooth.

The the bowl of a mixer, combine the eggs, sugar and salt and mix on high for 3 minutes, until light and fluffy. Add the flour, cocoa and vanilla and mix to combine. Stir in the caramel candies and the melted chocolate/butter mixture, then spread the batter in the baking dish.

Bake for 20-25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Remove from the oven and sprinkle the top liberally with sea salt. Let cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then lift the brownies out by the parchment paper and let cool completely on the wire rack. Once cooled, remove from the parchment paper and cut. Store in an airtight container.

Roquefort Cognac Cheese Log

cheeselog

 

One of the many new duties I have as the executive chef for the University of Montevallo is to handle all catered events at the president’s home, Flowerhill. Here’s an easy but delicious cheese log we offered at one of the holiday parties this year. You should add it to your holiday table for a party or family gathering! We paired our platter with fresh, lightly steamed vegetables but a quality cracker works just the same.

  • 1 pound softened cream cheese
  • 2 sticks of unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 pound roquefort bleu cheese, crumbled (or any bleu will do)
  • 1 tbsp garlic powder
  • 3 green onions (scallions), thinly sliced including the tops or 1 tbsp dried chives
  • 3 tbsp cognac
  • 1/2 cup sliced almonds or pecan pieces (your choice)
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley, minced

In the bowl of a stand mixer using the paddle attachment, add the cream cheese and butter and mix until smooth and well blended. With the machine running, add the bleu cheese, garlic powder, scallions and cognac and run until all ingredients are well combined.

Lay out a large sheet of plastic wrap on the counter. Pour the cheese mixture onto the plastic wrap and form what looks to be your log. Roll the log in the plastic wrap and then continue to form your log until desired look is achieved. Refrigerate the log for an hour to set up.

On a second sheet of plastic wrap, put nuts and parsley in a thin layer. Remove the refrigerated log from its plastic wrap and roll the log in the nut and parsley mixture to coat the outside. At this point you can serve, or store the log in the refrigerator until ready to use. The log will keep, refrigerated, until consumed, or until the cheeses pass their original expiration date.

The log can also be frozen prior to adding the nuts. Then simply unthaw under refrigeration when ready to use, roll in the nuts/parsley and serve.

Makes 2 logs approximately 12″ long.

Chicken & Dumplings Casserole

chicken-dumpling-casseroleChicken and dumplings is a southern staple, and always a great seller at work. Lately I’ve had a problem though with some customers complaining that they didn’t get enough dumplings (no one ever complains about getting too many). It’s hard to satisfy everyone’s love for the dumplings with spreading them around so everyone gets some, so I started looking for an alternative. That’s when I ran across this recipe on the internet and thought I’d give it a try. Everyone loved it! Now they want the recipe.

This has the be one of the easiest recipes I’ve ever tried and it worked flawlessly. It was delicious! The trick to this recipe is not to stir any of the layers together.

  • 4 cups cooked, shredded chicken (you could use the chicken from a store-bought rotisserie roasted chicken and skip the step of cooking chicken for a shortcut)
  • 4 tbsp melted butter
  • 2 tsp black pepper
  • 2 tsp poultry seasoning
  • 2 cups baking mix (like Bisquik… I used the Pioneer version in the one at work)
  • 2 cups milk
  • 2 cans cream of chicken soup
  • 1/2 cup chicken broth or water

In a 13″x9″ glass baking dish, pour the melted butter. Top with the chicken, then the seasonings.

Combine the milk and baking mix and pour over the chicken. DO NOT STIR!

Combine the soup and broth/water, pour over the baking mix and again, DO NOT STIR!

Bake at 350F for 45 minutes, until bubbly and browned. Let rest on the counter for 10 minutes before serving (this will ensure it’s not runny).

 

Sweet Potato Pancakes

Earlier this week, we served baked sweet potatoes in the cafe with some grilled pork chops, and at the end of service I had about a dozen baked sweet potatoes left. I didn’t have enough to make a casserole and we had just served sweet potato pie, so I turned those tasty baked sweet potatoes into sweet potato pancakes for breakfast.

This morning we awoke to a hint of fall in the air. One of those mornings where you throw open the windows and air out the house. We don’t get mornings like this often in the deep south, not this early in the year. I found myself craving some of these pancakes but we had no maple syrup and maple syrup is what you need to compliment them. I don’t recommend using pancake syrup. In fact, many times I’ll eat them with no syrup at all. Just some melted butter and a sprinkle of brown sugar.

If you are accustomed to only making pancakes from a box, give this recipe a try!

 

  • 1 1/2 cups sifted all purpose flour
  • 3 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1 1/4 cups mashed cooked sweet potatoes (I prefer to use baked sweet potatoes but you can use the canned ones if you prefer)
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 1/2 cups half & half (milk is fine, I just always buy half & half because I use it with my coffee)
  • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup melted butter

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, salt and nutmeg. To the dry ingredients, add the remaining ingredients and mix well. Spoon or drop scoopfuls of the batter on to a hot, greased grilled or teflon coating frying pan. Cook until edges begin to dry out and air bubbles are popping on top of the pancake, then flip and cook opposite side until golden brown.

Serve with pure maple syrup or drizzle with butter and sprinkle with dark brown sugar.