Vegetable Lasagna with Blush Sauce + How-to Video

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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.

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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.

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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!


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

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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.

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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.

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20 Easter Bunny-Approved Recipes

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In less than a week, the world’s most beloved bunny will be hopping down that bunny trail to your home and mine, baring whimsical eggs and glorious tooth-rotting confections. Side note: does anybody else find it odd that the Easter Bunny gives out chocolate versions of himself for us to merciless decapitate with our bare teeth?

Easter definitely crept up on us this year, and it falls earlier than usual, so don’t feel bad if you aren’t quite prepared. In fact, I’ve got you covered with a round-up of my 20 best Easter recipes, all Easter Bunny-approved of course. Would I cook you something that the Head Bunny himself didn’t love? Of course not.

From fresh lemon mousse shaped like little spring chicks to a cake shaped like a chocolate bunny to the perfect Easter dinner mac and cheese, there’s a little bit of everything in this line-up. You’ll want to shake your cottontail straight to the kitchen to get cooking after you chick it out.2012-11-221-2

Note: The numbers on the list correlate with the numbers on the photos.

  1. Party Bread
  2. Ma’s Baked Corn Pudding
  3. Chocolate Bunny Cake
  4. Bunny Butt Pretzel Bites
  5. Mini Strawberry Mousse Pies
  6. Bunny Rabbit Cauliflower Pancakes
  7. Nutter Butter Truffle Eggs
  8. David’s Ultimate Mac & Cheese
  9. Peter Cottontail’s Carrot Cake Bars
  10. Coconut Macaroon Easter Egg Nests
  11. From-Scratch Cheddar Green Bean Casserole
  12. Babci’s Carrot Cake
  13. Baby Chick Lemon Mousse Cookie Cups
  14. Bunny Butt Triple Chocolate Trifle
  15. Brussels Sprout Gratin
  16. Strawberry Coconut Poke Cake
  17. Brown Butter Blueberry Cookies w/ Vanilla Glaze
  18. No-Bake Twice-Baked Potato Mash
  19.  Banana Peanut Butter Cookie Pudding
  20. Extra Creamy Stovetop Mac & Cheese

And if these aren’t enough Easter eats for you, hop on over to my Easter recipe page for my complete collection.

 

What’s on your Easter menu this year?

 

 


Baked Pepper Jack Sticks

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My feeling towards most savory foods is that, if it doesn’t have cheese, it ain’t good. Of course, this isn’t always true. But you would be hard-pressed to find something that isn’t better with a little bit of cheesy goodness.

In fact, the more cheese, the merrier. I always order extra cheese on my pizza, and yet it never seems to be enough. And my favorite meal ever is my Eggplant Parmigiana because it is loaded, stuffed, and oozing with mounds of endless melty cheese. It’s like a dream come true.

Naturally, for any cheese lover, fried cheese is the bomb. There is perhaps no greater way to experience cheese then breaded in a crispy suit of golden armor and fried until it reaches molten perfection. The standard fried cheese is mozzarella, chosen for its impeccable stringiness and mild flavor. But why not kick things up a notch with some hot and spicy pepper jack?

These Baked Pepper Jack Sticks were born from two things: my love for cheese and my need to use up a block of zesty pepper jack just waiting to come out of the fridge and party. But instead of frying it, I opted for oven-baking which provided the same golden brown crust and gooey interior as frying does, but without all the fatty oil and hassle.  Some of the sticks do bust open while baking, but that’s all part of the fun. In fact I most enjoyed the ones with cheese streaming out the edges; they were extra delicious.DSC_2557

The Panko breading is delightfully crunchy while the pepper jack is creamy and molten with that great spicy kick. If you like a little heat, this is a great change from the traditional mozzarella stick. I’m giving you a one-way ticket to ooey-gooeyville to enjoy an all-expense paid stay at melty resort. Only a fool would pass up a cheese-tastic opportunity like that. So close your eyes and take a deep bite through crispy, golden breading and straight to a sea of spicy pepper jack cheese; let it take you away to cheese heaven.

A Few Tips Before You Get Cooking:

  1. These might explode a little while baking, but they’ll still taste fantastic, so don’t sweat it.
  2. Serve with marinara sauce or ranch.
  3. Check out my favorite twist on fried cheese: Fried Eggplant Parmesan Sticks.
  4. You can use regular breadcrumbs too. In fact, they’ll probably hold together a little better.
  5. If you don’t like spice, sub Monterey jack.
  6. You must double coat these or they will not hold together.

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Baked Pepper Jack Sticks
By The Smart Cookie Cook

Ingredients:

  • 16 oz. pepper jack cheese
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 egg
  • 2 cups Panko breadcrumbs
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and drizzle with olive oil.
  2. Cut the cheese into strips, about 1 inch wide and 3-4 inches long. Place the flour in a medium bowl, the milk and eggs in another, and the breadcrumbs and salt in a third. Whisk together the milk and eggs. Stir together the breadcrumbs and salt.
  3. Dip each cheese stick into the flour, followed by the milk mixture, and ending with the breadcrumbs. Make sure to entirely coat the cheese in each step. Repeat once more a second coat: flour, milk, breadcrumbs. Place on the baking sheet.
  4. Bake sticks 5 minutes then turn the oven up to broil and cook for another 3-5 minutes, or until golden brown. Enjoy!

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