Holiday Gift Guide for the Kitchen

Hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving full of good food, family and friends!

Now that my favorite holiday has passed we can turn our attention to the next one that is rapidly approaching….Christmas!  If you have a special someone who’s into cooking, or trying to get more into cooking, then read on for my favorite kitchen tools and gadgets!  These are some of my favorite products that I use all the time and would definitely recommend having in any kitchen.

I’m assuming most people will have the basics:Holiday Gift Guide for the Kitchen (A Seat at the Table)

Mixing bowls that can double as serving bowls if needed.  Nested, multiple sizes, and light enough that they’re easy to hold when full, are my requirements.  I also usually avoid metal ones because they transfer heat too easily.

Measuring spoons and cups, I like these since their funky shapes fit into containers better than just regular round ones.

Good knives:  Chef’s knife and a pairing knife.  These are the two knives I use for everything.  Well and a serrated knife for bread.  Everything else I do in the kitchen can be done with a good chef’s knife and a good pairing knife.  I got both of these as gifts and they’ve been absolutely amazing (thanks, Chris!).  I get that it’s an investment, but you’re going to be using them pretty much everyday, so get good ones.  I wouldn’t bother with a whole block set because you don’t need that many different kinds.  You also MUST keep them sharp!  There’s nothing worse than a dull knife.  If your knives can’t easily cut through the skin of a tomato, and it squishes the tomato instead, your knives are not sharp enough.  I’ll do a feature soon on how to sharpen your own knives, but until then, call your local hardware store and ask if they do it in store or if they have a recommendation for someone who does.  It’ll make all your cooking so much easier!

Some other suggestions for tools that I love in my kitchen:

Onion goggles.  I got these last year for Christmas and I have to confess that they have been life changing.  If you’re an onion crier like me, you’ll be saved with these goggles.  You might not look the coolest, but at least your eyes won’t be burning and you won’t be sobbing into your onions either.  Get them.  Get an extra pair for guests.  Give them to everyone you know.  They’re fantastic and I haven’t shed a tear over onions, shallots, or scallions ever since I got mine.

To keep your knives handy, I recommend a magnetic knife rack, just make sure you think about where you’ll hang it before you get it.  It needs to be handy, but out of the way.

Cookie scoop.  If you bake cookies even once a month, I’d recommend these cookie scoops.  I like having a 2oz and a 4oz.  The 2oz scoop is perfect for scooping cookie dough.  Make your dough, scoop all of it into dough balls, freeze and store in freezer bags, it’s the perfect way to have fresh-baked cookies on hand whenever you want.

Cupcake carrier.  If you like to bake for others this carrier is the perfect way of transporting your baked goods.  There are individual cupcake spots, as well as just a flat surface for things like cookies, brownies or bars.  The tray has handles that makes getting your baked goods out of the box easy, and the handles are reversible so you can have two layers.

Microplane.  A microplane is great for zesting and grating.  It’s perfect for citrus zest, easy to grate garlic, and great for grating fresh nutmeg.  It might seem like an unnecessary piece of equipment, but if you’re getting into cooking you’ll definitely be needing it sooner or later.

Pastry brush.  Ok, this isn’t something I use frequently, but whenever you need to “brush” something, an egg wash or what not, this is the perfect tool.  This is definitely a tool for bakers, but can be used to glaze meats or tofu too.

Bigger items:

Griddle or super-size (this is what I have).  If you’re a pancake lover, or want to pretend you’re a short-order cook at home on the weekends, a griddle is just what you need.  I never make pancakes on anything else, since it’s so convenient to have the griddle next to you at the table ready to serve hot pancakes immediately.  It’s also great for bacon, eggs, french toast, grilled cheese, grilled peanut butter sandwiches…  It’s not something I use all the time, but is definitely convenient if you like to serve brunch.

Immersion Blender.  This isn’t the exact model I have, but they seem to have discontinued it.  An immersion blender is great for pureed soups.  I love the whisk attachment, it’s much faster than my handheld electric mixer for beating egg whites or whipped cream.  It’s quiet, easy to use, clean and store.  I haven’t used it for smoothies, but I assume it’d work pretty well.  This price tag is kind of steep, so I’d wait for a sale; but if you’re interested in soups, dressings or an excellent whisk, an immersion blender is a handy tool.

Dutch Oven.  These pots are great.  They’re wonderful for slow cooking meats, they can go from stove to oven, they can be used just as a plain pot too.  They’re also ridiculously heavy, so you  can get your workout done in the kitchen too!  Got to love a multipurpose tool!  Le Creuset is the most well-known, I think the one I use is actually a Martha Stewart brand from Macy’s and about 1/2 the price.  It’s an investment, but definitely something you’ll enjoy using, and is built to last.

Stand Mixer.  This is for the serious bakers out there.  I got mine last year for Christmas and I love it.  It’s definitely not essential and I could do pretty much everything with a handheld electric mixer, but if you bake a lot you’ll definitely appreciate the hands-free nature.  This is also great for making bread, since it has a dough hook and you don’t have to knead by hand.

What are your favorite kitchen gadgets and tools?  Anything you’ve started using recently and don’t know how you lived without for so long?

**I’m not being compensated for any of these recommendations, they’re just products I use and like (or are similar to products I use).  All opinions are my own.

Autumnal Butternut Squash

This semester I’ve been taking an online nutrition class.  It’s been really fun and interesting.  Our last project of the semester was to try 5 new, whole foods, meaning foods that haven’t been overly processed.  As a child who grew up with a strict one-bite rule, I’m a big fan of trying new things and was eager to tackle this assignment.  Coming up with 5 foods that I’ve never tasted was a bit of a challenge, but I’ve managed to come up with quite a few things and hope to continue challenging myself to try new things.

One of the first things I thought I should try was fennel.  I’ve avoided fennel because I’m not a fan of licorice or anise flavored things.  So with a brave (and skeptical) heart, I bought my first fennel bulb.  Fennel is a good, low-calorie source of vitamin C, fiber and potassium.  The whole fennel plant is edible, the leaves can be use as a fresh herb, and the stalks are good for soups, but I focused on the bulb.  Raw fennel does smell very strongly of licorice, but doesn’t have too strong of a licorice taste, it’s mostly just crunchy like celery.  And when I cooked it in this dish, it was very pleasant.  The sweet notes from the butternut squash, cranberries and apples pairs nicely with the floral and more mellow flavor of the cooked fennel.  We served this dish to some family friends and once I told them about the fennel they could taste it, but otherwise it just adds a nice complexity to the dish.  We served this with pork, but it would also be great as a Thanksgiving side dish.

Autumnal Butternut SquashAutumnal Butternut Squash (A Seat at the Table)

Serves 6

Adapted from Foodie Crush

  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 large shallot, diced
  • 1 fennel bulb, diced
  • 1 large butternut squash, peeled and diced (I cheated and got the pre-cut kind from the grocery store), about 4 cups
  • 2-3 Tbsp fresh sage, chopped
  • 1 cup dried cranberries
  • 1 large tart apple (I used pink lady, but granny smith would work great too)
  • 3/4 cup water (or apple juice if you have it on hand)
  • salt, to taste

In a large cast iron pot, heat olive oil over medium-high heat.  Add shallot and fennel and sauté until softened.  Add butternut squash and sauté for a few minutes.  Add remaining ingredients.  Reduce heat to medium-low and let simmer with the lid on for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Check for seasoning and doneness, add more water if needed.  Serve hot or at room temperature.

Fresh Apple Bundt Cake

This cake is a great way to use the fresh fruit of autumn.  This cake is super moist and filled with apple-y flavor.  Dusted with a little powdered sugar, it’s the perfect balance of sweet.  Perfection is this cake with a cup of tea or coffee, or really get into the holiday spirit with a cup of hot cider!

Fresh Apple Bundt CakeFresh Apple Bundt Slice (A Seat at the Table)

Serves 12

Adapted from Iowa Girl Eats

  • 1/2 cup butter, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup canola oil
  • 1 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup natural unsweetened applesauce (1 proportioned cup is the perfect size)
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 3-4 small apples (I used pink lady, but granny smith would work too), peeled, cored and diced in 1/2″ cubes (3 cups total)
  • powdered sugar for dusting

Preheat oven to 350°F.  Generously spay a bundt pan with cooking spray and set aside.

In a large bowl, beat together butter, oil, and sugar until pale yellow.  Add applesauce and beat until well mixed.  Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition, then add vanilla.Fresh Apple Bundt (A Seat at the Table)

In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, cinnamon, baking soda, baking powder and salt.  Add dry ingredients to wet in three batches, reserving a few Tbsp to toss with the apples, mix until just combined and then fold in the apples.  Pour batter into prepared bundt pan and bake for 48-55 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.  Check the bundt halfway through and if browning too quickly, cover with foil.  Allow cake to cool for at least 1 hour before flipping out of bundt pan and on to your platter.  Once cake is cooled, sprinkle with powdered sugar if desired.

Stuffed Bell Pepper Soup

This is a great soup!  I adapted the recipe to include more veggies and I left out the rice.  I was going to add in some barley, but my pot was too full!  But honestly I don’t think anyone missed it.  Everyone went back for seconds, and I was glad I’d made enough that we’d have some leftovers too.  This is easily scaled up or down depending on your gathering.  But I think leftovers would freeze excellently.  This soup does have a bit of a kick to it, but it was prefect for a fall night.  My 9-year-old-cousin loved it and thought it was just the right amount of spicy…she did keep calling it chili, but as long as she thinks it’s good chili that’s fine by me!

Stuffed Bell Pepper SoupStuffed Bell Pepper Soup (A Seat at the Table)

Serves 12

Adapted from Barefeet in the Kitchen

  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 6 carrots, peeled and diced
  • 3 celery stalks, diced
  • 5 large bell peppers, diced
  • 2 cans black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 48 oz low sodium beef stock
  • 3 cans diced tomatoes
  • 2 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 Tbsp poultry seasoning (or Italian seasoning)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes

In a large pot, sauté onion in olive oil over medium-high heat until translucent.  Stuffed Bell Pepper Soup meal (A Seat at the Table)Add ground beef and break apart the beef while it cooks.  Add carrots and celery and continue to cook for a few minutes, season with salt and pepper.  Add remaining ingredients, cover and let simmer for about 1 hour, stirring occasionally.  Soup is done when peppers are tender.  Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.  Serve with shredded cheese, sour cream, bread, rice or as is and enjoy!

Lemon-Rosemary Roasted Chicken Breasts

I don’t usually do a lot of cooking on the weekdays.  I usually try out new recipes on the weekends when I have more time and have had a chance to pick out a new recipe, and do the grocery shopping for it, etc.  However, this week my uncle and cousin are staying with us while their house is undergoing some renovations.  So obviously when company is over (even though it’s family), it’s time to pull out the stops and cook a real, hearty meal.  This recipe definitely fits the bill.  It’s a great one-dish meal that’s mostly hands-off, leaving plenty of time for other things.  This is also something you’ll want extra of since it’s great as leftovers too, or would be easily turned into a soup.

This is easily customizable with the vegetables you have on hand.  I think sweet potatoes would be delicious in this, celery would also be good and add some green.  Mix it up, just make sure that your vegetables are roughly the same size so they cook evenly.

My cousin, Naomi, also discovered that she likes parsnips by eating this dish!  So it’s a great way to introduce new vegetables!  It’s always a thrill for me when someone discovers that they like something new!

Lemon-Rosemary Roasted Chicken Breasts with Roasted VegetablesLemon-Rosemary Roasted Chicken with Roasted Vegetables (A Seat at the Table)

Serves 8

  • 1 acorn squash, seeded and cut in 1 1/2″ chunks (I left the skin on and it was soft enough to eat)
  • 5 small new potatoes, quartered
  • 6 parsnips, cut in 1 1/2″ chunks
  • 6 carrots, cut in 1″ chunks
  • 2 red onions, cut into large segments
  • 4 large chicken breasts
  • salt and pepper
  • olive oil
  • 1 tsp rosemary
  • 2 lemons, thinly sliced
  • 1 cup chicken stock (optional)

Preheat oven to 400°F.  Grease the bottom of a large roasting pan with cooking spray.

Spread vegetables over the bottom of the pan.  Drizzle with olive oil and just a sprinkle of kosher salt.  Top with chicken breasts.  Drizzle chicken breasts with olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper.  Flip breasts over and season the other side with salt, pepper, and rosemary.  Top chicken with lemon slices and squeeze a little lemon juice over the chicken.Lemon-Rosemary Roasted Chicken Breasts (A Seat at the Table)

Roast the chicken for about 45 minutes.  Check to see how things are cooking, if vegetables seem to be drying out, add chicken stock.  Continue to cook until chicken is cooked through.  This took about 1 1/2 hours for me, but they were some awfully big chicken breasts.

Cranberry Upside Down Pumpkin Cake

This was a fantastic cake.  It was the first thing to sell out at Carroll Cafe on Friday, and I have to say that it is a great recipe.  The orange zest adds a fresh note that pairs wonderfully with the cranberries, the pumpkin keeps the cake moist and tender.  The fresh cranberries are tart and juicy, surrounded by a sweet sugar topping.  I just might have to say that this is the perfect fall cake.

And incase you’re intimidated by making an upside down cake, this was my first attempt at one.  It was surprisingly easy and even though some of the cranberries stuck to the bottom of the pan they were easy to scoop off and put back on the top of the cake and once it was sliced you couldn’t even tell.  So give it whirl, you won’t be disappointed.

Cranberry Upside Down Pumpkin CakeCranberry Upside Down Pumpkin Cake (A Seat at the Table)

Serves 12-18

Adapted from Bakeaholic Mama

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 Tbsp pumpkin pie spice
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1 (15oz) can pumpkin puree
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 Tbsp orange zest (about the zest of 2 oranges)
  • 1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, browned

Cranberry Topping:

  • 4 Tbsp unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 2 1/2 cups fresh cranberries
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar

In a small saucepan, melt butter over medium-high heat until it becomes golden and nutty smelling, about 10 minutes.  Remove from heat and allow to cool while preparing the dry ingredients.

In a mixing bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and pumpkin pie spice.Cranberry Upside Down Pumpkin Cake slice (A Seat at the Table)

In a separate bowl, mix sugars, pumpkin, eggs, vanilla extract and orange zest together.  Fold dry ingredients into the wet until just incorporated.

Slowly mix in cooled brown butter.

Preheat oven to 350°F.  Grease a 9×13″ pan with 4 Tbsp unsalted butter.  Arrange cranberries in an even layer in the bottom of the pan.  Sprinkle sugar on in an even layer.  Pour cake batter over the cranberries.  Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center and comes out clean.

Allow cake to cool for about 20-30 minutes, then flip cake out onto a serving platter.

Pumpkin Pie Cupcakes and November’s Carroll Cafe Menu

Carroll Cafe will be this Friday, November 8th.  There will be a fantastic line-up of treats once again!  The menu includes:

Fresh Apple Bundt Cake
King Arthur Brownies
Cranberry Upside Down Pumpkin Cake
Monster Cookies (gluten-free)
Brown Sugar Oatmeal Cookies

Hope to see you there!

And just in time for the next Carroll Cafe, here’s the last recipe from last month’s concert.

These cupcakes are pretty fantastic.  They’re definitely decadent and have the best of both worlds:  dense, custard-y pumpkin pie flavor, and sweet, rich yet slightly tangy, cream cheese frosting.  There’s just the perfect hint of cinnamon.  You can’t go wrong with these, they’re the perfect fall treat, and would also be a huge hit at any Thanksgiving if you’re looking for something a little different than pie.

Pumpkin Pie CupcakesPumpkin Pie Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Frosting (A Seat at the Table)

Makes 12 cupcakes

Adapted from Pioneer Woman

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 4 tsp baking powder
  • 1 Tbsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp nutmeg
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 8 Tbsp (1 stick) butter, frozen and grated
  • 2 heaping cups pumpkin puree
  • 1 cup evaporated milk
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 Tbsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 400°F.  Grease 1 muffin tin and set aside.

In a large bowl, sift flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and salt.  Cut in (or grate frozen) butter into dry ingredients until fully incorporated.

In a separate bowl, mix together pumpkin, evaporated milk, eggs, and vanilla.  Pour pumpkin mixture into flour mixture and fold gently until just incorporated.

Scoop into muffin tins, filling almost to the top (they don’t rise very much).  Bake for about 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.  Allow to cool 15 minutes before removing from the pan.  Allow to cool completely before frosting.

Cream Cheese Frosting:

  • 2 pkgs (16oz) cream cheese, room temperature
  • 6 Tbsp unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon (or more to taste)
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

Beat cream cheese until smooth, then beat in the butter.  Add powdered sugar and cinnamon, then add in the vanilla extract.

Caramel Apple Cookies

These cookies were made for Carroll Cafe and were quite the hit.  The toffee bits add a sweet touch, the apple is a little chewy, and the almonds add a little crunch.  These are definitely a unique option and are definitely something I’d make again.  While I don’t remember the last time I actually ate a caramel apple, these definitely easier to eat, and who doesn’t love a cookie!

Caramel Apple CookiesCaramel Apple Cookies (A Seat at the Table)

Makes about 1 dozen cookies

Adapted from Bakers Royale

  • 14 Tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/3 cup packed dark brown sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 cup diced apple (4oz, about 1 apple)
  • 3/4 cup chopped salted roasted almonds
  • 1/2 cup toffee bits

Preheat oven to 350°F.  Line baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

Heat 10 Tbsp butter in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring until browned with a nutty aroma, about 5 minutes.  Remove from heat, strain and whisk in the remaining butter until melted.

Add sugars, salt, and vanilla to bowl and whisk until fully combined.  Add egg and egg yolk and continue whisking until smooth and no sugar lumps remain.  Let mixture stand for 3 minutes, then whisk for 30 seconds; repeat 2 more times until mixture is shiny.

Sift flour and baking soda together, then stir flour into the butter-sugar mixture.  Fold in apples, almonds, and toffee bits.

Scoop batter onto prepared cookie sheet and bake for 10-14 minutes, until cookies are golden and set.

Fall Harvest Oatmeal Cookies

Is it possible that it’s November?!?  Where does the time go!  I hope you all had a wonderful Halloween.  If you didn’t get enough sweets already, here’s a wonderful fall cookie to try to remind you of the season…because clearly if I eat enough of these it’ll be easier to remember it’s already November….right?

These cookies were the fastest dessert to go at Carroll Cafe, and for good reason, they’re fantastic.  I based this off of my favorite oatmeal cookie recipe with a few seasonally appropriate additions to really make them special.  Pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds add a little extra crunch (and are full of super good for you vitamins and minerals!), dried cranberries for a little tart, chewiness, and dark chocolate because….well, what’s not better with chocolate?

Fall Harvest Oatmeal CookiesFall Harvest  Oatmeal Cookies (A Seat at the Table)

Makes about 1 dozen large cookies, 2 dozen normal size

Adapted from Betty Crocker’s Cookie Book (pg. 2)

  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup butter, room temperature
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 1/2 cups old-fashioned oats
  • 1 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries
  • 1/2 cup chopped dark chocolate
  • 1/4 cup pumpkin seeds
  • 1/4 cup sunflower seeds

Heat oven to 350°F.

In a large bowl, beat sugar and butter together until smooth.  Add baking soda, cinnamon, vanilla, salt, and eggs, and mix well.  Stir in the remaining ingredients.

Scoop batter onto ungreased baking sheet, about 2 inches apart.  Bake for about 9-12 minutes, or until set and just beginning to turn golden around the edges.  Allow cookies to cool on a wire rack (if you can wait).