Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Daring Bakers - April Challenge - Cheesecake!

This month has been absolutely unbelievably busy - thanks mostly to Chase's school and work schedule. Yeesh. So after last month's day long challenge of making lasagna absolutely from scratch, I was glad to see that this month's challenge seemed a little less demanding of my time.

The April 2009 challenge is hosted by Jenny from Jenny Bakes. She has chosen Abbey's Infamous Cheesecake as the challenge.

Wooo! Cheesecake!

I can't say I ever crave cheesecake, but I do enjoy it when it's in front of me. I've had several different types of cheesecake:
New York Style - very dense - and is a little difficult for me to eat because it's so rich
A Creamy type cheesecake (is there a name for this?) - this recipe is just that! Take the concept of "cheesecake". Imagine it's perfected form. Got it? That's this stuff. SO GOOD.
Jell-O Cheesecake - This stuff tastes good(ish) - and is a breeze to throw together - plus, no baking! - but in the end, is it really cheesecake?

To elaborate on this month's cheesecake challenge...the goal was to take a simple recipe and make it a "showstopper". I don't think I succeeded visually, but I'll attribute that to my brain being overrun by the pollen. (My car can attest to the loads and loads of pollen in the air. It once was silver, but now it's - Yellow!!) But the flavor (what little I could taste thanks to my POLLEN reaction (i.e. allergies)) was wonderful!!! My favorite dessert in the world is green tea ice cream with fresh blackberries. So for this challenge, I tried to translate that into a cheesecake.

Here's the recipe I started with:

Abbey's Infamous Cheesecake:

2 cups / 180 g graham cracker crumbs
1 stick / 4 oz butter, melted
2 tbsp. / 24 g sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract

3 sticks of cream cheese, 8 oz each (total of 24 oz) room temperature
1 cup / 210 g sugar
3 large eggs
1 cup / 8 oz heavy cream
1 tbsp. lemon juice
1 tbsp. vanilla extract (or the innards of a vanilla bean)
1 tbsp liqueur, optional, but choose what will work well with your cheesecake

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (Gas Mark 4 = 180C = Moderate heat). Begin to boil a large pot of water for the water bath.

2. Mix together the crust ingredients and press into your preferred pan. You can press the crust just into the bottom, or up the sides of the pan too - baker's choice. Set crust aside.

3. Combine cream cheese and sugar in the bowl of a stand-mixer (or in a large bowl if using a hand-mixer) and cream together until smooth. Add eggs, one at a time, fully incorporating each before adding the next. Make sure to scrape down the bowl in between each egg. Add heavy cream, vanilla, lemon juice, and alcohol and blend until smooth and creamy.

4. Pour batter into prepared crust and tap the pan on the counter a few times to bring all air bubbles to the surface. Place pan into a larger pan and pour boiling water into the larger pan until halfway up the side of the cheesecake pan. If cheesecake pan is not airtight, cover bottom securely with foil before adding water.

5. Bake 45 to 55 minutes, until it is almost done - this can be hard to judge, but you're looking for the cake to hold together, but still have a lot of jiggle to it in the center. You don't want it to be completely firm at this stage. Close the oven door, turn the heat off, and let rest in the cooling oven for one hour. This lets the cake finish cooking and cool down gently enough so that it won't crack on the top. After one hour, remove cheesecake from oven and lift carefully out of water bath. Let it finish cooling on the counter, and then cover and put in the fridge to chill. Once fully chilled, it is ready to serve.


Recipe Edit # 1

: The Crust

My goal was to make a fresh tasting Green Tea Cheesecake with blackberries. I needed a crust that didn't overwhelm those flavors. So rather than graham crackers, I crushed up some Vanilla Wafers. I figured they'd be just buttery and sweet enough - but still pretty plain so as to not detract from the green tea and blackberries.

Recipe Edit # 2: The Cheesecake

I kept this part of the recipe mostly the same, except I added 2 tbsp. of matcha green tea powder (dissolved in equal parts water) to the filling. It may have been too much (green tea should be subtle - too strong and it just starts to taste bitter), but I can't really tell because my taste buds aren't working properly.

Here it is all baked up:

A couple of air bubbles - but no cracks! (This is thanks to being baked in a water bath.) Cracks in the surface of a cheesecake are a very common but purely superficial blemish.

Recipe Edit # 3: The topping!

Oooo! blackberries!

For the topping, I just took some frozen blackberries, mixed them with sugar, a pinch of cinnamon and some vanilla, and then cooked it all until it broke down.

I entertained the idea of piping whipped cream around the edge, but I suspected it might be overkill. Instead, I served the whipped cream on the side - that way it wasn't a mandatory part of the dessert.

I'm glad I didn't pipe the whipped cream on the cheesecake, because It would have been tooooo much. And it didn't add anything. The cheesecake was absolutely wonderful by itself! The crust was perfect, and the cheesecake was so creamy and sweet - with a wonderful green tea flavor. And the blackberries complimented it so! It was wonderful!

Thanks Jenny, for an awesome challenge, and for giving me a new "go-to" cheesecake recipe!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Wheatfield with Cypresses - Part 1

I visited a friends' house earlier this week. In his house, I saw a painting I painted quite a few years ago. It didn't look half bad! I'm afraid I haven't painted in the past couple of years. I think I just forgot I could?

Anyways. I was inspired and super excited to paint this weekend, and I'd love to share my progress with you!

When I'm a little "rusty" with a skill, I stick with subject matter that is "safe". For me, my fallback is definitely Van Gogh. I absolutely love his strokes and his color. Most of all - I love his composition. There's just something about the way he sets up his paintings that almost makes me want to cry.

I decided to paint this painting:

This painting is called "Wheatfield with Cypresses" - as you can see by the title of this post.

To begin to reproduce a painting like this, the first thing I do is to break up the painting (and my canvas) into sections.

To break up the image of the painting, I just folded the paper with the printed painting on it into 16 sections. I then took my canvas, and divided it up into 16 sections as well:

Now I can sketch the design! It's a lot easier to resize (the print out I had of this painting is not quite 8.5" x 11", but the canvas is 18" x 24") an image and sketch it when you have it divided up into different sections.

Here's the finished sketch:

As you can see, the sketch looks quite a bit like the original painting - at least shape and spacing wise.

Now we're ready to paint!

I must say, I can't really explain how I paint - except that I almost never wash my brush and I just pile the paint on the canvas. I really let the paint do most of the work. It's so darn pretty!

Here's the first section of color I painted - a teal/cerulean sky:

OOoooo!!! Color!!!!

And up close:

EEee!! I love that texture! The only down side is that it takes forever to dry.

Next I added some of the clouds:

I love watching the canvas transform from a blank blah to a dizzying array of colors and shapes!

Here are the completed clouds:

Look at that color! The movement! Now mine is nothing like the master Van Gogh....his has unmatchable movement and color - but mine is still kinda pretty to look at :)

Close up!

The only reason I paint is to see the beautiful colors!!! This is just so exciting!!

Now the mountains need to be painted:

Ah-hah.....everything is starting to come together. The blue mountains ground the sky - and give you a starting point. See those clouds above the horizon of the mountains? Before the mountains were painted, they just kind of disappeared and blended in with the sky. But now they definitely have a strong identity.

Well - that's all I have completed so far.

I'll update with my progress! Hopefully I'll have time to finish this during the week sometime.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Seedlings for Earth Day!

In honor of Earth Day today, I'm going to show you my little seedlings!!

I'm afraid only four varieties of the ten I planted have sprouted, but I think I found the culprit!

Here is how my seedies have been living:

As you can see...the seeds to the right of the red line just aren't getting much light! I only ever see my seeds in the morning and at night - so I was sure they would get enough light at sometime during the day - because the position of the sun would change...but I guess they didn't. The only seeds that have sprouted are the ones on the left side of the rack.

So - I moved the rack!

Happy seedlings all around! I'll keep you informed of their progress.

In the meantime, here are the sprouts that I woke up to this morning...

One little basil sprout (arrow added for emphasis):

One Parsley Sprout reaching for the sun...(there are more getting ready to shoot up though!)

Two Dill Sprouts (plus one unfolding in the center of the pot)

And loads of little sage seedlings!!!

And since we're on the subject of plants, I have to show you my little spider plant baby! I took him from a momma spider plant.

Here's an illustration of a Spider Plant (from Google.com):

As you can see...there's the parent spider plant in the pot. On the long offshoots are the offspring of the plant, which if you remove can then grow roots and become independent plants! Because of the way it reproduces, and it's ease of care, spider plants are super fun to give away.

So here's my spider plant:

Right now, he's in a little dish of water. He needs to grow some roots before I can plant him.

Soon, his roots should show up on this little nub:

I can't wait to plant him!

Also, here's Mr. Spider Plant's next door neighbor....

A real Shamrock! They open during the day, when the sun is out, and they close up at night.

When Chase and I worked at The Lost Savant, before it closed, we made friends with this awesome lady named Edna. She worked at the Fountain City Art and Crafts Center (next to Fountain City Park) and she made this plant holder herself! I think it's beautiful. When Chase and I moved into our first (and only) apartment, she showed up at the Savant with this little plant!

Unfortunately, it has "died" a total of two times - most recently, when we moved into our house. The leaves died and there was no hope. Or was there?

I watered it religiously and eventually, a little shamrock popped up out of the soil! It turns out that Shamrocks grow from a bulb. Lucky for me!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Aldi Recession Dreams

Earlier this week, my mom and I were headed to a quilting class together (so much fun!), and before the class we decided to check out the new low-cost (recession friendly) grocer, Aldi, on Schaad road, just off Clinton Highway in Powell. We didn't know much about it, except that you had to bring your own bags. We took in one big bag. We were both pretty confident that we wouldn't find much that we couldn't find somewhere else.

Boy, were we wrong! It's not that they had unique items or anything, but it seemed like every item I saw, from the moment I walked in the door, was the cheapest I'd ever seen!

I was pretty skeptical. I mean, cheap isn't necessarily good. If the food is crap, it doesn't matter how cheap it is, I don't want to eat it. And practically everything at Aldi is an Aldi brand - which I am not familiar with at all. So the first trip with my mom, I bought a couple of items in which quality is very important to me:

-Butter - I always.always. buy Land o Lakes butter. I even did an experiment once where I used two different butters (WalMart vs. Land O Lakes) to make the exact same cake and buttercream recipes. Land o Lakes won hands down, in both categories. I think the WalMart butter had more water in it or something, because the texture was just all wrong. Anyways, so far with the Aldi butter, it's not exactly the same as Land O Lakes, but it's no where near the awful quality of WalMart generic butter. And at $1.49 a lb. rather than $3.79 for Land o Lakes, I think it's a fair trade.

-Parmesan Cheese - I use Parmesan all the time - mostly because I really love Alfredo sauce, but I also have a soft spot for plain noodles with butter and cheese. yummm. So the flavor of Parmesan is very important to me. Kraft Parmesan has a very strong, distinct flavor, and is light on fillers and "anti clumping" type agents. Aldi's flavor was a little milder than Kraft's, and the texture was just a little more powdery, but overall, I think it's a good bet.

-Bacon - Okay, this needs a bit of an explanation. I really don't eat bacon all that much, but whenever I cook bacon, I'm sure to save the bacon fat for gravy and sauces. You'd be surprised at how the bacon fat renders off of various grades of bacon. Some bacon fat (better bacon) is white and solid, and others (cheaper) are browner and more soft. I definitely prefer the whiter, solid fat. I don't really know why. ? The Aldi bacon was definitely as high a quality as Oscar Meyer, in my opinion. The fat rendered practically identically.

So, after tasting these items, I was sold on Aldi's quality. I read some more about them and found that most people came to the same conclusion I did. All of their dairy products are extremely reasonably priced, and of very good quality. The dry grocery is also very good, but some may prefer their old familiar standbys from another grocer. The frozen foods are also good. I have heard mostly good things about the meat dept. and mostly bad things about their limited produce selection.

I heard especially good things about their chocolate bars. hehe. I grabbed a dark chocolate bar for 25 cents on the way out the door, but I've yet to taste it.

As you can surmise, Chase and I excitedly went shopping at Aldi's this afternoon for our weekly groceries. Listed below are some items on which I found Aldi's had exceptional pricing. These are not all the items we bought, and we had to make a second trip at Kroger for our produce, but it was incredibly worth it. We only spent $50.00 on groceries this week. UN-believable. I thought it was honestly unachievable to stick to our grocery budget AND eat three meals a day.

Aldi Price Kroger or Wal-Mart Price $ You Save % You Save
Nacho Tortilla Chips $0.99 Nacho Tortilla Chips $3.00 $2.01 67.00%
Eggs – 1 Dozen – Large $0.49 Eggs – 1 Dozen – Large $1.39 $0.90 64.75%
Butter – 1 lb. $1.49 Land o Lakes Butter – 1 lb. $3.79 $2.30 60.69%
Corn Flakes $1.59 Corn Flakes $3.59 $2.00 55.71%
Crispy Oats Cereal (Cheerios) $1.59 Cheerios $3.59 $2.00 55.71%
Macaroni & Cheese $0.35 Macaroni & Cheese $0.79 $0.44 55.70%
Pure Vanilla – 2 oz $1.99 Pure Vanilla – 2 oz $3.99 $2.00 50.13%
BBQ Potato Chips $1.29 BBQ Potato Chips $2.50 $1.21 48.40%
Croutons $0.95 Croutons $1.79 $0.84 46.93%
Can of Peas $0.49 Can of Peas $0.82 $0.33 40.24%
12 Grain Bread- 1Loaf $1.69 12 Grain Bread- 1Loaf $2.68 $0.99 36.94%
Parmesan Cheese – 1 canister $2.39 Kraft Parmesan Cheese $3.69 $1.30 35.23%
American Cheese – 16 slices $1.49 American Cheese – 16 slices $2.29 $0.80 34.93%
Pasta Entree $0.79 Pasta Roni $1.19 $0.40 33.61%
Sugar – 5 lb $1.99 Sugar – 5 lb. $2.99 $1.00 33.44%
Bacon $2.49 Bacon $3.49 $1.00 28.65%
Milk – 2% - 1 Gallon $2.19 Milk – 2% -1 Gallon – Generic $2.99 $0.80 26.76%
Small Pizza $0.99 Totinos Pizza $1.19 $0.20 16.81%

Average % Saved: 43.98%

So most of our groceries were an average of 44% less!!! AMAZING!

Here are some things you need to know before you go gung ho at Aldi's:
- Bring your own bags. I heard they have them there, but they charge 10 cents a piece for them. I never even saw them at the checkout....
- Bring a quarter to rent a grocery cart. Don't worry - you'll get it back once you return your cart to it's home.

Have fun!!! And save money!

Edited to Add: The chocolate bar. was. amazing.! It tasted like a $3.00 gourmet chocolate bar...with those wonderful fruity notes. and for just 25 cents!! unbelievable!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

busy busy busy!

I've been so busy lately...working, helping Chase keep his cool when he has a 10 page paper due the next day...but I've managed to finished lots of fun projects!

First - and I'm so excited about this I can't believe I didn't post about it immediately after I finished it:

I finished my very first hand pieced (but not hand quilted - still workin' on that) quilt!

It's for our niece - who will be born in the next couple of months!

There's cute green fabric with little butterflies on it, brown polka dotted fabric, a nice pink fabric with one of my favorite patterns, and some ivory fabric with little white stars.
As I mentioned earlier, I hand pieced the whole quilt top together (that's all the squares). Then I took the quilt and all my supplies up to my mom's house - cause she's a much better quilter than me! She helped me make the quilt sandwich (quilt top, batting, and backing) and then I quilted it on her brand spankin' new machine! For my next project, I'm definitely going to hand quilt, but I just didn't have the time to spare for this project.

I think it turned out so cute, and it was the perfect weight and felt so soft! I hope our niece loves it to pieces!

Also, for the baby shower, I was asked to make cupcakes!!! Woooo!!! I love making cupcakes. I just like looking at them! They're so cute and colorful and happy!

For these cupcakes, I used my favorite Red Velvet cake recipe from alpineberry who says she got the recipe from marthastewart.com, but I have never been able to find this exact recipe on marthastewart.com, so I always refer to her blog.

Anyways, I very much wanted to have pink velvet cupcakes for the baby shower, but I'm afraid the final concoction didn't even come close to pink. The cupcakes were more a dull red. So I was a little disappointed that they turned out such an ugly color. But they still tasted great, despite being slightly dry from being a little overbaked.

At least the frosting was to die for! I love this cream cheese frosting recipe. It's so light and fluffy and yummmmmyyyyy!!

I'll give you the recipe - but only if you ask nicely. Just shoot me an e-mail and it's all yours. Trust me. It's heaven.

Also, I started an herb garden!!! I planted all the herbs from seeds just yesterday, so nothing's peeking out of the soil just yet, but I'll keep you updated.

Let's see....on the top shelf, from left to right, we've got Parsley, Basil and Rosemary, the three herbs I use most. And a sake set!? How'd that get there?

And on the bottom shelf (from left to right) is Sage, Dill, Mint, Chamomile, Lavender, Chives, and Cilantro.

I hope these seeds sprout!

And since it's been so nice out (save for the temperature), I've been sitting outside with the puppies a lot.

Not that it's all that exciting - but it's definitely pleasant. Gershwin is always on the lookout for other dogs and squirrels and rabbits and Busby is always watching Gershwin. Aren't they cute!? (Please forgive Gershwin's awful haircut. It's my own dreadful handiwork.)

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Meat and Three's anyone?

I first heard of the concept of a "Meat and Three" about 2 years ago.

I think that hubby and I were perusing the website:
looking for a good fried chicken joint and trying to plan our next road trip (Yes, we plan our road trips around food - and it's SO worth it.).

In our browsing, we must have happened upon the listing for a restaurant like Arnold's Country Kitchen and read the first review, "Best Meat and Three...."

And then the realization! If I want macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, mashed potatoes and green beans, I go to a meat-and-three!! (named as such because one commonly orders a meat and three sides)

Wow. I'm gettin' hungry already.

But since Chase and I first discovered Meat-and-Three's, we've been on a mission. A mission to find the most awesome southern food around. And we've found some amazing places!

I'd love to tell you about the local restaurants, but first, I have to tell you about the Pièce de résistance: Arnold's Country Kitchen. (see link above)

Hubby and I got Fried Chicken, Mac and Cheese, Mashed Potatoes and Black eyed peas.

oh. my. gosh.

Best fried chicken I've ever had! Best Mac and Cheese I've ever had. Best mashed potatoes I've ever had. Best everything!! Best sweet tea too.
Yes - they're in Nashville, but that's not really that far away from Knoxville. And it's so worth it. Please. Do yourself a favor. Put Arnold's Country Kitchen as a destination next time you're headed out West on I-40. You won't regret it!

Now for more local fare! (in order or preference)

Chandler's Deli
Located off Magnolia Ave., right across the street from Pizza Palace (which was featured on Food Network), I can't say enough good things about this restaurant and it's staff. I think when I first ordered there, the owner served me. He was so kind and friendly! He inquired if it was my first visit, and where I was from. As we were leaving, he apologized to Chase and I for the dinner fare, stating, "We got a lot more sides out at lunchtime, and everything's fresh...be sure to stop by at lunchtime." How could he have possibly thought that the food we got was anything less than excellent!?! In lieu of napkins, a roll of paper towels on the table and to drink - amazing Sweet Tea and Kool-Aid in a huge iced tea dispenser - the experience was everything we'd hoped it would be and more! The food was second only to Arnold's.
Oh - and cost? Hubby and I each ate (I got fried chicken ($3.00 for a breast, $1.40 for a thigh or leg) mac and cheese, and mashed potatoes - and Hubby got something similar...but with different sides) for around $14.00. That's including drinks and tax!

Big Fatty's
These guys are located on Kingston Pike, close to Gourmet's Market and Carpe Librum in Bearden. They have all your standard meat and three fare, and seem to have a knack for takin' it up a notch. For example: a plain ol' grilled cheese not your thing? How about a grilled cheese with caramelized onions, mushrooms, and bacon. Oh yeah! Now you're talking.
This food packs some serious flavor. Their spinach maria is amazing, and their cheesy potatoes sinful. The only downside to this cute little spot is their price. We can never get out of there without spending at least $25.00 for the two of us.

Cracker Barrel
I hate to include a corporate entity on this list, but hey - they have their pluses. I'm sure I don't need to provide you with any sort of info on this place as you've probably eaten there countless times with your family on Sunday after church.

S & S Cafeteria
This cafeteria is also located in Bearden-in the Kroger shopping center closest to campus. I don't have much to say about this place because my memory of it is pretty un-spectacular. I'm sure it's because the food was un-spectacular and bland to say the least. Don't waste your time, or your money - unless you just have no choice. Who knows - maybe I just caught 'em at a bad time. Either way, it's a gamble I'm not willing to take.

And since we're talking about local food, I gotta give some shout-outs!

King Tut's
-Prepare yourself. This place is unlike any other. I can't even describe it. Oh - wait! I can give you this much - Best Greek Salad in Knoxville!!! (If you want to read more about this hole in the wall adventure offering exciting Mediterranean fare...click here.)

-Indian food! I love their paneer. I'm sure it's not the best Indian food, but I am sure it's the best that Knoxville has to offer.

Louis' Original Restaurant
-This is a spaghetti joint. Don't go here and order something that's not spaghetti and expect it to be amazing. But do be excited about their amazing, one-of-a-kind meat sauce and their awesome onion rings!

Elidio's Pizza
-Authentic New York Style Pizza! And the price sure is right! My favorite pizza. ever.

Chez Guevara
-I love fish tacos. I lovelovelove fish tacos. These are the best fish tacos I've ever had. Also? The best spinach queso ever. I hear their margaritas are unbeatable. If fish tacos aren't for you - don't despair! Take a bite of the Elvis Burrito: Chicken, black beans, (and some other stuff I can't remember) all covered in spinach queso. YUMMM.

Oh! And don't forget - make yourself heard and support local business - Review your favorite businesses on Yelp.com!