Vegetable Lasagna with Blush Sauce + How-to Video

DSC_4470

One of the most obvious signs of growing up is when your holidays start to change. For as long as I can remember, my family has celebrated Easter morning together with multicolor baskets brimming over with chocolates and other goodies. Then, in the glow of the post-basket-opening high, we’d have a spirited egg hunt, the memories I have of which are tainted by visions of my too-competitive older sister hurling me out of the way to snatch an egg from me. Finally, we’d capped off the day with a multi-course dinner and dessert. However, this year was the first year that all of that drastically changed (and yes, I received baskets through age 18; I’m not ashamed).DSC_4301

This year, there were no bountiful baskets, my sister was in another state, my father was stuck at work until midnight, and instead of serving an elaborate meal, we made a one-dish Vegetable Lasagna with Blush Sauce. I have to say, even though the whole day was different, it was still enjoyable. I spent it with Mother Cookie, which is always a pleasure, and at the end of the day, we had a completely delicious meal to devour.DSC_4481

My Vegetable Lasagna with Blush sauce is a refreshing change from the typical veggie lasagna. Normally, they’re made with a white sauce. But mine features a velvety, creamy blush sauce that gives you the best of marinara and béchamel sauces in one. This robust, sweet yet savory sauce is good enough to drink, and it pairs perfectly with hearty helpings of eggplant, broccoli, and spinach. And to really take things over the top, we employ a generous amount of three kinds of cheese: gooey fresh mozzarella, tangy provolone, and salty parmesan. The whole dish is indulgent, filling, and irresistible.

This is a meal that will wow whoever eats it. I guarantee you’ve never had vegetable lasagna like this before. It’s made from scratch, but it’s less labor-intensive than you might think. For me, it was a wonderful meal to enjoy on Easter with my wonderful mother, and it would be just as delicious any other night of the year.

A Few Tips Before You Get Cooking:

  1. Be sure to join me in my video to whip up this delicious lasagna.
  2. Switch out the vegetables I used for whatever ones you prefer.
  3. You must use fresh herbs. Dried just can’t compare. If you use dried, don’t expect this  to have the same wow factor.
  4. The same goes for good-quality cheeses. The better the cheese you buy, the better the lasagna will be.
  5. You can assemble this ahead of time then bake later in the day.
  6. If you don’t have a shallot, sub in one yellow onion.

DSC_4169

Blush Vegetable Lasagna
By The Smart Cookie Cook

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb. lasagna noodles, cooked al dente & drained
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 shallot, finely chopped
  • 2 tsp. minced garlic
  • 2 28-oz. cans San Marzano tomatoes & their juices
  • 1 6-oz. can tomato paste
  • ½ tsp. Salt
  • 1 tsp. Red pepper flakes
  • 3 tbsp. fresh chopped basil
  • 2 tbsp. fresh chopped oregano
  • 1 ¾ cup heavy cream
  • ½ cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 1 whole eggplant, diced
  • 2 heads fresh broccoli, chopped
  • 4 cups fresh spinach
  • 1 1/2 lbs. fresh mozzarella, sliced
  • 2/3 lb. provolone cheese, grated
  • 2 cups shredded parmesan cheese

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a 9×13 baking sheet with nonstick spray. Set aside.
  2. Place broccoli in a medium microwave-safe dish and fill halfway with water. Cover and microwave on high for 2 minutes. Stir and microwave another 2 minutes. Drain and set aside.
  3. In a large saucepan, bring the olive oil to medium heat. Add the garlic and shallot and sauté until translucent and fragrant, about 2 minutes.
  4. Add the San Marzano tomatoes and their juices, tomato paste, salt, red pepper flakes, ¾ of the basil, and ¾ of the oregano and stir until well-combined. Let simmer for 5 minutes.
  5. Stir in the cream and grated parmesan until cheese is melted. Remove from heat. Use a ladle to pour a thin layer of sauce in the bottom of the prepared dish. Lay out a single layer of noodles so it completely covers the sauce. Add another layer of sauce, using about half of it. Then sprinkle half of the veggies on top, followed by half of the mozzarella, provolone, and shredded parmesan. Repeat: noodles, sauce, veggies, cheese. Press down to compact it. If you have room, finish with another layer of noodles, sauce, and cheese (no veggies this time).
  6. Bake for 30 minutes uncovered then cover and bake another 15 minutes or until bubbling and hot in the center. Sprinkle with remaining herbs then let sit for 10-15 minutes before serving.

DSC_4296

 


The Weekender: Happy Easter, Cat Beds, & Sweet Potatoes

 

Winter 20126Happy Easter to all you little bunnies and chicks! Did the Easter Bunny pay you a visit? I sure hope he brought a plethora of Cadbury Crème Eggs, jelly beans, or whatever Easter confection tickles your fancy. But if you’re still hungry even after all the treats the Bunny bestowed upon you, then get a gander at this week’s mouth-watering Smart Cookie recipes. Perhaps these will satisfy your hunger.

Let’s review, shall we?

  1. Baked Pepper Jack Cheese SticksDSC_2557
  2. 20 Easter Bunny-Approved Recipeseasterrecipes-2
  3. Fluffy Vanilla Cupcakes w/ Salted Dulce de Leche-Cinnamon ButtercreamDSC_3693-2
  4. Sweet Potato & Squash Brown Rice MedleyDSC_3109
  5. Monster Granola BarsDSC_4118

It’s not too late to consult my Easter recipe round-up for last minute ideas to firm up your holiday menu. I’ll be enjoying a heaping helping of veggie lasagna (recipe coming soon), a generous slab of tiramisu (recipe also coming soon), and some of these adorable Spring Lemon Cookies my father sent me as an early Easter present. They’re almost too cute to eat, right? Good thing I’m merciless in the face of food.DSC_4134

Perhaps I should take it easy on the sweets though. I mean, isn’t it a bad sign when your butt is big enough for your cat to utilize as a bed?photo(18)

At least I can make some healthy swaps like with that Powdered Peanut Butter I raved about in last week’s Weekender. If that stuff wasn’t awesome enough to begin with, guess what else I discovered this week? They make a Chocolate-Peanut Butter variation, and it’s DELICIOUS!

Mother Cookie made a solo trip to Wegmans this week, so I had her stock up on the stuff. She also picked up some adorable Easter treats including my all-time favorite sugar cookie shaped like an Easter egg and a chipper chick cupcake. I ate both, and I have no regrets. Yum!DSC_4037 DSC_4022

I’ll just balance out the sugarfest with the world’s most supremely-stuffed sweet potato, because this hearty behemoth is loaded with nutrients. Stop by next week to get the recipe.DSC_3862

Tell me about your Easter feast. Do you have any traditional dishes? Are you trying something new this year?

See you on Monday!


Monster Granola Bars

DSC_4118

Let’s be real: they don’t call them “Monster Cookies” because they’ve got a monstrous amount of delicious ingredients; that’s just what they want you to think. They’re really called Monster Cookies because you turn into a monster upon eating the sinfully addicting devils. You need more and more, and you’ll do anything to get them, like the Cookie Monster but with a more severe problem.

Or maybe that’s just me.

Regardless, Monster Cookies can be a monster problem if you’re watching your waistline. Cookies, delectable as they may be, are not the most satisfying treat, so you often wind up eating 20 in one sitting. Or maybe that’s just me again.

What I need is the salty-sweet goodness of Monster Cookies in a heartier snack that can satisfy my black hole of a stomach with just one or two. What I need are these Monster Granola Bars.

With crunchy pretzel bits, salty peanut butter, and chocolaty M&Ms, these ain’t your average granola bars. In fact, I must warn you that once you try one of these chewy delights, you’ll never want sub-par store-bought again. Sorry, Quaker, but I’m running you out of town with my salt-sweet monsters.DSC_4097

What I really love about these bars is that you get all the components of Monster Cookies but in a much more filling and satisfying snack. So, you only need one bar to fill you up. However, that is not to say you won’t wind up eating five of them in one sitting simply because they’re that delicious.

And don’t worry; you might think homemade granola bars would be a bothersome task, but they’re actually one of the easiest treats to make. Just mix everything together, give it a quick bake, and let it cool. The hardest part is not digging in when they’re right out of the oven and hot enough to scold your tongue, simply because they smell too overwhelmingly delicious to ignore.

Back away from the piping hot granola bars; I promise you can make it through the 20 or so minutes it takes for them to cool. And your tongue will thank you for it.

A Few Tips Before You Get Cooking:

  1. Marshmallows are the secret ingredient here that makes these nice and chewy.
  2.  Sub the almonds for whatever nuts you have on hand.
  3. These are great for kids; they love granola bars!
  4. Use the base of this recipe to build upon and add whatever mix-ins you like. For a simple variation, leave out the M&M’s and pretzels, and sub in mini peanut butter cups.
  5. Add a little more brown sugar if you’d like these sweeter.
  6. These are way better for you than store-bought granola bars since they don’t have all the preservatives.DSC_4075

Monster Granola Bars
By The Smart Cookie Cook

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups pretzels
  • 1 cup whole raw almonds
  • 2 egg whites
  • 4 cups quick-cooking oats
  • 1 cup creamy peanut butter
  • ¼ cup brown sugar
  • ¼ cup honey
  • 1 tbsp. butter
  • 3 cups marshmallows
  • 1 cup M&Ms, plus more for topping

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a 9×13 baking sheet with nonstick spray then line with parchment paper, allowing it to hang over the sides.
  2. In a food processor, pulse nuts until they start to break up. Add pretzels and pulse a few times more until everything is broken into bite-sized pieces.
  3. In a large mixing bowl, stir together the almonds, pretzels, egg whites, oats, peanut butter, brown sugar, and honey until well combined and everything is evenly distributed. Set aside.
  4. In a medium pan over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the marshmallows and cook, stirring continuously, until completely melted. Immediately pour into the oat mixture and stir until well-combined. Gently fold in the M&Ms so they don’t melt.
  5. Transfer to prepared pan. Use waxed paper to press down into a firmly-packed even layer. Press about ¼ cup more M&Ms into the bars. Bake 12 minutes or until fragrant and just turning gold around the edges. Let cool for 10 minutes then use the parchment paper to lift out the granola and place on a cooling rack to cool completely.
  6. Slice into bars. Store in an air-tight container.

    DSC_4053


Healthy Cookie: Sweet Potato & Squash Brown Rice Medley

DSC_3109

Sometime last year, the Sweet Potato Bug bit me. And ever since, I just can’t get enough sweet potatoes to combat the fierce cravings that seize hold of me. The Sweet Potato Bug is known for leaving strong addictions in its victims, and I got hit hard. I could eat a sweet potato for every meal and never get sick of it. Curse you, Sweet Potato Bug!

But I guess this new addiction’s not all bad because sweet potatoes are unbelievably good for you. In fact, they say sweet potatoes are the most nutritious thing for you in the produce section. It just happens to be a major plus that they taste delicious too. If you haven’t been bitten by the sweet potato bug yet, then I have a feeling it’s only a matter of time. On their own, sweet potatoes are awesome. But even better yet is adding them to other things, and there isn’t much that doesn’t go well with a sweet potato. You might have noticed this from all the sweet potato recipes I’ve posted lately (see: Sweet Potato & Spinach Balls, Sweet Potato & Squash Marinara Skillet, and Ma’s Sweet Potato Casserole).

With Sweet Potato Bug venom pulsing through my veins, I need as many sweet potato fixes as I can get. So, I whipped another tater-themed recipe to curb my cravings: Sweet Potato & Squash Brown Rice Medley. For me, this hearty sweet potato-packed dish was the perfect meal, but it makes a great side too.DSC_3125

The tender brown rice, fiber-rich squash, and endlessly nutritious sweet potatoes make this one very filling and satisfying dish. But there’s a difference between the kind of full you feel after devouring a bowlful of this beneficial medley and scarfing down 4 slice of pizza; this makes you feel good and content, whereas filling up on junk just makes you feel gross and uncomfortable. If both options are delicious, why wouldn’t you pick the one that’s going to make you feel as good after as you did while you were eating it?

I can’t even begin to describe the bountiful flavor of this comforting dish, especially considering the short and simple list of ingredients. Don’t you just love when that happens? No need to get fancy here; you can make this marvelous meal loaded with chunks of tender sweet potato, fresh zucchini and summer squash, hearty brown rice, a light sauce, and a hint of tangy parmesan cheese in about 30 minutes. That, my friends, is a beautiful thing.

A Few Tips Before You Get Cooking:

  1. Butternut squash can easily be subbed in for sweet potatoes.
  2. And, if you don’t like zucchini/summer squash, try using broccoli, spinach, Brussels  sprouts, or just about any veggie you desire.
  3. The leftovers are just as delicious as the fresh stuff.
  4. Reduced-fat mozzarella can be subbed in for the parmesan.DSC_3091

Sweet Potato & Squash Rice Medley
By The Smart Cookie Cook

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup brown rice
  • 1 ½ cups vegetable stock
  • 1 medium sweet potato
  • 1 cup chicken stock
  • 1 shallot, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp. minced garlic
  • 1 medium summer squash, sliced into half-moons
  • 1 medium zucchini, sliced into half-moon
  • 3 tbsp. grated parmesan cheese

Directions:

  1. Cook the rice according to boxed directions, replacing water with vegetable stock. If all the stock does not absorb, but the rice is fully cooked, then drain the excess stock.
  2. Meanwhile, place the potato on a microwave-safe plate lined with paper towels. Poke holes in the top of the potato with a fork. Microwave on high for 5 minutes then flip and poke holes in the other side with the fork. Microwave for another 3-4 minutes until tender (stick a knife through the center to test).
  3. Slice potato in half so it will cool faster. Let sit until cool enough to touch. You should be able to squeeze it right out of the skins. Discard skins (or save for a snack). Chop potato into small chunks. Set aside.
  4. Bring a medium skillet to medium heat. Add the chicken stock, onion, and garlic and simmer for 5 minutes. Add squash and zucchini. Cover and simmer until tender, about 10 minutes.
  5. Removes from heat and stir in rice, potatoes, and cheese. Serve immediately.DSC_3137

Fluffy Vanilla Cupcakes w/ Salted Dulce de Leche-Cinnamon Buttercream

DSC_3693-2

If you use the term “dulce de leche” with a non-foodie, they’ll probably think you’re exceptionally fancy and cultured. Look at you, using foreign words! But in all reality, dulce de leche is just a pretty name for thick caramel-like sauce. If you like caramel at all, there’s a good chance you will love the socks off of dulce de leche, caramel’s richer, more viscous cousin.

Every time I take my periodical trips to Wegmans, I make it a point stock up on jars of dulce de leche. You can make this stuff at home too, but I’m lazy, and the dulce de leche I buy is top-quality and tastes like a caramely dream. I keep a few on hand because it’s so wonderful to bake with (or eat with a spoon like the glutton I am). And when I found myself looking for a new frosting recipe idea, I couldn’t have been happier to see this sweet edible gold awaiting me in the pantry.DSC_3710-2

When I someday release my very scientific study on how dulce de leche makes everything better, these Fluffy Vanilla Cupcakes with Salted Dulce de Leche-Cinnamon Buttercream will be an influential piece of evidence. This buttercream is some of the creamiest, smoothest stuff you will ever try. Even after being refrigerated, it stays soft and velvety. Thank the silky dulce de leche for that.

What I love is that, even with the rich dulce de leche, this frosting isn’t too sweet. The inclusion of salt balances the sweetness out, while cinnamon adds dimension and a touch of warmth. The flavors are just perfect, pairing beautifully with the simple but delicious vanilla cupcakes.

I’ve tried multiple vanilla cake recipes, and this one is my favorite to-date. It is the fluffiest I’ve ever encountered, reminiscent of angel food. Plus, they stay nice and moist, just melting in your mouth with that frosting. What really distinguishes the cupcakes is a kiss of almond extract, providing an extra little something that will make taste-testers ask, “What is that?”

Go and impressive you friends and family with your fancy-shmancy Salted Dulce de Leche-Cinnamon Buttercream, served in swirling peaks atop cloud-like vanilla cupcakes. They’ll never know how easy they actually were to make. That impressive frosting will only take you 5 minutes!DSC_3747-2

A Few Tips Before You Get Cooking:

  1. Not over-baking is the key to a soft, moist cupcake. You’re usually better off pulling them from the oven just before you think they’re done. Most recipes say to take them out after a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, but the toothpick should actually have a few crumbs on it.
  2. You don’t have to pipe the frosting like I did in the picture. But if you’d like to, and you don’t have a piping bag, you can make one. Take a large ziplock bag and put the frosting in, pushing it down to one corner. Twist off the top and snip off the bottom corner that you pushed the frosting towards. Pipe away!
  3. You can leave the cinnamon out if you’d just like a straight-up dulce de leche frosting.
  4. Get your dulce de leche fix with my Dulce de Leche Filled Cupcakes too.
  5. I baked this same vanilla cake recipe as a whole cake too, and it came out just as fantastic. It’s a wonderful basic vanilla cake recipe to have on hand.
  6. Having the milk and eggs at room temperature may not sound imperative, but it is. It makes a big difference in the cake’s texture.

DSC_3729-2

Salted Dulce de Leche-Cinnamon Buttercream
By The Smart Cookie Cook

Ingredients:

For the Fluffy Vanilla Cupcakes
Cupcakes & cake directions adapted from Epicurious

  • 2 1/4 cups cake flour
  • 1 cup whole milk, at room temperature
  • 6 large egg whites, at room temperature
  • 1 tsp. almond extract
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
  • 4 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 12 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), softened but still cool

For the Salted Dulce de Leche-Cinnamon Buttercream
Frosting & frosting directions by The Smart Cookie Cook

  • 1 cups (2 sticks) butter, softened
  • 1 16-oz. jar ducle de leche
  • 6 cups powdered sugar
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • ½ tsp. cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp. coarse salt
  • 1 tbsp. milk or cream

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two cupcakes tins with liners.
  2. Pour milk, egg whites, and extracts into a medium bowl and mix with fork until blended.
  3. Mix cake flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in bowl of standing mixer at low speed. Add butter; continue beating at low speed until mixture resembles moist crumbs, with no powdery streaks remaining.
  4. Add all but 1/2 cup of milk mixture to crumbs and beat at medium speed for 1 1/2 minutes. Add remaining 1/2 cup of milk mixture and beat 30 seconds more. Stop mixer and scrape sides of bowl. Return mixer to medium (or high) speed and beat 20 seconds longer. It should be good and fluffy.
  5. Use an ice cream scoop to drop batter into the tins, filling them 2/3-full (just use a ladle if you don’t have an ice cream scoop). Bake 15-20 minutes or until puffed and set and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with a few crumbs. They will not brown like you might expect; in fact, if they get too golden, you probably overcooked them. Let cool for 5 minutes before transferring to wire racks to cool completely.
  6. Make the frosting: place butter, dulce de leche, and 2 cups of the sugar in the bowl of a standing mixer. Beat on LOW speed until incorporated then beat on medium speed until thoroughly blended (if you don’t start on a low speed, you’ll have powdered sugar everywhere). Add the rest of the sugar in 2 cups at a time, starting slow then increasing the speed until well-combined. Scrape down sides between each addition. Finally, add the milk, salt, and cinnamon and beat on medium speed until incorporated.
  7. Frost cooled cupcakes and enjoy. Store in an air-tight container.

DSC_3761-2