Baking Hacks | Christmas Baking with Ease

I love to bake, especially around Christmas time, and after two years living in a country at a high altitude which complicated baking, I am excited to be back in the US this Christmas to enjoy the season!

tree-jpp

Over the years, I have learned some baking hacks from friends and family, out of trial and error, and by necessity. I have compiled a list of helpful hints for you to use this holiday season. If you have some of your own, please share them so we can all make this an effortless holiday baking season!

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How to Cook Farro | Stove Top

I remember seeing farro on a menu at a restaurant and wondering what the heck it was, searching google on my phone before making my decision for lunch that day. I will admit that I went with a different option but now, a year later, I find that the salad bar at work is always stocked with farro. With every salad I get, I scoop on some farro on top of my salad loaded with roasted beets and avocado and love it! I wanted to also make farro at home and try out different recipes with it as an alternative to other side dishes.

If you are curious too, follow this stove top way of cooking farro and try yourself.

How to Cook Farro

Equipment:

  • Mesh sieve
  • Medium saucepan with cover

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup farro
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 1/4 teaspoon of salt

Instructions:

  • Rinse farro in a mesh sieve with cold water and then drain.
  • Put rinsed farro into a medium saucepan along with chicken stock and salt. Bring to a boil over high heat.
  • Reduce heat to low, cover the pot, and boil for 25 minutes. The farro should be soft but still chewy. There will likely be liquid remaining at the end of the cook time, either drain out or reuse in another recipe.

Moving Overseas | Lessons Learned

I’ve been meaning to post this for several weeks now but it got lost in my draft section with all the other posts I have been writing lately. Better late than never, I suppose!

Things I’ve learned from our first move overseas:

Most importantly, no matter how much you plan, prepare, and strategize, you will never get it all done, never be as prepared as you think you should be and it will be stressful! So agonizing over everything is just not worth it…just relax and enjoy the time with your family and friends and soak in the experience.

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Hamburger Buns | Make It Yourself Series

During the first week after arriving in Rwanda, right before Christmas, I found myself searching through the local grocery stores to find ingredients for recipes that I wanted to make and bring to the parties we had been invited to. I quickly understood what everyone had prepared me for…be ready to have to go to multiple places to get all your shopping done as well as to buy it if you see it because it might not be available tomorrow. With limited supplies in our kitchen until our household goods arrived, I felt limited in what I could make. At first, I became overwhelmed, imagining two years of not having everything at my disposal like I did at home. Once that initial shock wore off and I had successfully made several dishes, I began to realize the opportunity I was now being afforded. Hamburger Buns - Dough

In the States, I would say…”I could totally make this from scratch myself!” This usually never happened because I would always over-extend myself with whatever get-together we were having and find myself having to resort to store-bought versions to preserve my sanity. Instead of giving up the recipes I am used to, I now have the opportunity to put new spins on it with local ingredients or ditch the store bought, not-all-that-good-for-you-versions for homemade ones! This internal panic…I mean discussion, has lead me to do this {Make it Yourself} series. I’ll showcase my attempts at making my own versions of some of our favorites. Here are a few things I am thinking about trying to make from scratch: potato rolls, hoagie rolls, crescent dough (you can’t make Crescent-wrapped Baked Brie without CRESCENT DOUGH!), potato chips (salt and vinegar & jalapeno are the favorites of my husband and I), dog treats (our two pups deserve to be spoiled, too), pop tarts, bagels, pretzels, hummus, and whatever else inspires me or what I discover I can’t find. But today, I will share with you my first homemade success…HAMBURGER BUNS!Hamburger Buns

Two weekends ago, we had our first get-together at our house after arriving in Rwanda. We are big fans of hosting whether it’s a cook-out or a themed party or shower. Both my husband and I enjoy planning menus, making delicious food, and treating our friends to our creations. This time we decided to make hamburgers on our charcoal grill. Of course, hamburgers aren’t a staple on many menus here and are not commonly made so buns for them are only usually made by custom order. I took this as a challenge to make my own from scratch. Although slightly anemic-looking because of lighter colored yolks in the eggs here, I was happy with how they turned out. If you find yourself without access to buns or just want to try making them yourself, try out this recipe. Hamburger Buns - Burger

Equipment:

  • Large mixing bowl
  • Measuring cups and spoons
  • Wax paper/plastic wrap
  • Aluminum foil
  • Baking sheets
  • Wire rack

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons of yeast
  • 1 cup and 2 tablespoons of water
  • 1/3 cup of vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup of sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • 3 1/2 cups of flour

Instructions:

  • Pre-heat oven to 310º (if you are at higher altitudes, or 325º if you are not).
  • Dissolve the yeast in a large mixing bowl of warm water. Make sure your 1 cup and 2 tablespoons of water is at 110º before adding to the bowl. The yeast should be fully dissolved in about 5-7 minutes.
  • Add egg and salt to the bowl once the yeast is dissolved. Add flour a 1/2 cup at a time until it becomes a soft dough.
  • Put the dough onto a floured surface. I prefer to wax paper but I realized I didn’t have any on hand so I used plastic wrap instead which worked just fine. Knead the dough until it is soft and elastic, about 5 minutes. Add additional flour if the dough is too tacky.
  • Divide the dough into 8-12 rolls (depending on the size of your hamburger patties). If you’d like perfectly round buns, be sure to pinch together any seams in the dough. Place on aluminum foil-lined and greased baking sheet. You should leave 2-3 inches between each roll.
  • * I like to sprinkle cornmeal on the baking sheet prior to putting dough on the pan but didn’t have any in stock when I made this. The cornmeal will help prevent the bottoms from sticking.*
  • Before putting the dough in the pre-heated oven, cover them with plastic wrap and let them sit for 15 minutes.
  • Take a knife and make two shallow cuts in a cross shape or two parallel lines.
  • Bake the rolls for 8-10 minutes or until the tops are golden brown. Then, transfer them to wire racks and allow to cool. Use now or freeze for later.

{A Hint of Ginger | High Altitude Baking}: At Kigali’s 5,000 feet above sea-level, I usually drop the temperature down by about 15º. Some recipes also require additional flour and liquid ingredients as well as less baking powder. I recently tried to make a cupcake recipe that I love making but my cupcakes essentially exploded into a sheet cake in the oven. After talking to other people here and researching online, I found that using about a 1/4 less baking powder than the recipe calls for is a good rule of thumb, although it will obviously depend on the recipe itself so it is a lot of winging it and hoping it turns out right!

{A Hint of Ginger | Changing it up}: If you’d like to add a little something to your rolls, you can make an egg wash and then brush it on the buns before putting in the oven. You can then add sesame seeds, salt, or any other topping or spice you’d like to add a little extra to the buns.

Seasoning Blends | Mediterranean

With all the spices in our pantry, I have several blends that I have bought pre-made, combined myself, or mixed up according to recipes that friends have shared with me such as a discontinued McCormick’s “Salt’n’Spice” mix which is great with just about anything. I find having seasoning mixes on hand or go-to blends that you can mix together, is handy for whipping up quick, flavorful meals. This blend of mediterranean flavors is one that I routinely use on fish, chicken, and even when sautéing vegetables. Try this recipe out and adjust according to what flavors you like being more prevalent.

Keep an eye out for other spice blends and pairing ideas!Mediterranean Seasoning MixMediterranean Seasoning Blend

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons of dried parsley
  • 2 tablespoons of onion powder
  • 1 tablespoon of dried basil
  • 1 teaspoon of dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon of dried thyme
  • 2 teaspoons of garlic powder
  • 2 teaspoons of salt
  • 1 teaspoon of ground black pepper

Instructions:

  • Mix all ingredients together in a bowl and stir with a fork to combine.
  • Transfer to a spice shaker and it’s ready to use or save for later.

Kitchen Essentials | And Hacks For Those You Don’t Have

As we organized our kitchen supplies before we left for Rwanda, I put a lot of thought into what kitchen utensils were the most essential to put in our shipment of household goods getting to us sooner than all the rest. We’ve really not had to put too much thought into this in the past mostly because for my bridal shower, my sister focused the theme as “Wine and Dine Me” to help us have a fully stocked kitchen. So we now have more utensils and appliances than we probably need but I have to say I use pretty much every single one of them. Those items that we don’t, like our George Foreman grill that was really handy in college but not any more, found new homes.

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Homemade Buttermilk | Tips and Tricks

I’m sure you have had similar occasions where a recipe calls for an ingredient that happens to be all out at the grocery store or is the only one you don’t already have. This has happened to me several times with buttermilk. This last time, I headed to the grocery store to pick up a number of items we needed for our menu for a get together with friends. Without a ton of time, I ran in with my list all in order to be as efficient as possible. Of course, I got to the diary department and the one ingredient that the store did not have on my list was buttermilk. Instead of worrying about having to stop at another store just for a cup of buttermilk, I remembered that I have used a trick in the past to make it yourself at home. So I didn’t fret about this grocery store inadequacy, knowing this one could be easily remedied. This definitely isn’t the case every time but for buttermilk it is. I have made my fair share of multiple trips to grocery stores when one is missing what I need. For instance, I highly recommend that if you plan on making anything Easter weekend that requires heavy whipping cream….BUY IT IN ADVANCE!! A few years ago, I actually spent at least an hour or two on Easter Sunday going from store to store {think I hit at least 4 or 5} looking for heavy whipping cream to make the dessert I just had to make for dinner at my sister’s. I managed to find some after much searching, however, at that point I did not have nearly enough time to make the dessert and actually make it to Easter dinner with my family on time. I managed to improvise  and turn out a tasty dessert but I definitely learned my lesson that day. So I recommend no one else make the same mistake I did. But back to the homemade buttermilk you are so curious to learn about.

This is simple: all you need is distilled white vinegar, milk, and a measuring cup. 

To make one cup of buttermilk, take your measuring cup and add 1 tablespoon of distilled white vinegar. Then, fill the measuring cup with milk up to the one cup mark. After stirring the mixture together, let it sit for at least 10 minutes at room temperature before using in your recipe to allow it to curdle.

Simple and easy and no need to stress when you can’t find it at the store! 

Steamed Asparagus | Microwavable Trick

Asparagus 2

There are always those times when you do not have enough stove space, do not feel like dirtying more dishes than necessary {I have a huge issue with dirtying as many dishes as possible even when making something that doesn’t require more than two!}, or have the time to sit and watch water boil. This may be because of a big holiday dinner with more sides than people eating or you want to serve in the same dish you cook in. It’s because of this that when we all learn of a better, faster, simpler way to do something it becomes cherished and passed around. That’s how this trick evolved in my house. My husband and I were over at our friend’s house for dinner. As we are catching up and chatting, the men about their things and the women about ours, I noticed my friend Ashley put a corningware dish into the microwave for a few minutes but didn’t think much of it. However, a short while later as she was serving all of us the food she made, I realized that she was simply steaming the asparagus in the microwave!!! I kept thinking to myself, why have I or anyone else for that matter never thought of this trick before! She filled me in on the details you’ll see below. A month or so later, we had my friend Ashley and her husband over to our house and made asparagus myself using her trick, which I had already used several times, with my own spin on it. I have since spread this trick to as many people as possible and even used it last Christmas at my parent’s house since there was no room on the stove to even think about steaming them in a pot. Actually, I have never pulled out a pot to steam asparagus ever since! I have even tried this trick with broccoli and it works just as well.

Equipment:

  • All you need is a corningware dish, or something comparable, with a lid and a microwave.

Feel free to explore the ingredients that you put in with your asparagus, however, here’s what I do:

  • Cut or snap off the hard bottoms of each asparagus steam and then place in dish.
  • Put just enough water to barely cover the bottom of the dish; you may need more if you are doing a lot of asparagus at once.
  • Drizzle a little olive oil on top and red wine vinegar {my addition to my friend’s original version}.
  • Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  • Microwave for 2-3 minutes. Check to see if the doneness is to your liking. If not, put in for another 2 minutes or longer until it is done.
  • That’s it!!! Simple and easy and you can serve right from the dish. 

{A Hint of Ginger | What’s your spin on it?}: If you come up with other concoctions for seasoning your asparagus {herbs, flavored oil or vinegar, etc.}, please share with all of us. I’m always looking for new tastes to try so I don’t get stuck in my way with making it the way I know works.

Asparagus

Perfectly Cooked Chicken | Every Time

In the past, I explored multiple ways to cook chicken on the stove often finding that it got overcooked and dried out or that it took FOREVER to cook through. A friend of my husband’s, who has taught me several things over the last few years, gave us the {perfect way to cook chicken} and you know what….it works every single time. I now know exactly how long it will take to cook so I can properly time everything else for our meal and ensure that nothing gets cold waiting on the chicken.

So, here’s the secret: In a non-stick skillet over high heat, heat up butter or olive oil (or a combination of the two). Season your chicken breasts however you choose and sear each side of the chicken breast on high heat for 1 minute. Then, reduce heat to medium and cook covered for 8 minutes, flipping the breasts halfway through. Finally, remove the pan from the burner and let it sit for another 8 minutes, still covered. When you are done, you will have the juiciest, most perfectly cooked chicken.

{A Hint of Ginger | Variations}: For seasonings, if you are looking to make the chicken to stuff inside fajitas, I recommend adding a spicy seasoning mixture like chili powder, garlic powder, cumin, paprika, red pepper flakes, salt, pepper, onion powder, and dried oregano. One of my favorite seasoning mixes is salt, pepper, garlic powder, and dried rosemary – tastes and smells so good! Also, if you want to add extra crunch to the outside, you can season the chicken breasts however you’d like and then dredge in flour before putting in the pan.