Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Playing with Pumpkin.

I have often wondered why pumpkin was so important for the fall and winter holidays.  Of all the squash varieties available, why this particular species?  Let’s do a bit of time travel to 7000 BCE, and a favorite winter vacation spot, Mesoamerica aka Mexico.  The Native tribes lived off the land; growing, harvesting, collecting seeds to plant for new growth and harvest.  One method used necessitated a water source, The Three Sisters of squash, beans and corn.  This method allowed each crop to help each other while growing along a river bed.  Vines of beans created a trellis upon the corn, and added nitrogen into the soil.  The trellis provided shade for the pumpkin while the pumpkin vines helped the shallow roots of corn stay stable in wind.  The corn stalks would allow the beans and pumpkins to lift off the ground slightly, so wet ground would keep them from rotting. 

Pumpkin was not so named until Europeans began exploring Mexico.  The name of this squash comes from the Greek word Pep├Án which means “Large Melon.” The French took this word for themselves as well, the English were good with it too.  American English though had to have its own pronunciation, and "Pumpkin" was formed.  Even back in the 16th and 17th centuries, settlers of North America were having fun with phonics!

Squash, including pumpkins, is normally a fall weather crop.  The large orange pumpkins are often emptied of pulp and seed, a face carved in the hard shell, and a candle placed inside.  Now do you know why?  Jack O’ Lanterns are based upon an Irish myth.  Stingy Jack drank with the devil twice, but tricked him both times, so Jack did not end up paying.  Jack’s luck ran out though; he died and heaven refused him entrance due to his track record of bad deeds.  Down to hell he fell, but the devil held a grudge and would not allow Jack admittance as well.  However, the devil gave Jack a burning ember, so his spirit could walk the earth forever, and have something to light his way.  Jack carved out a potato, placed the ember inside, and became known as Jack of the Lantern. 

While pumpkin seeds can be roasted and salted for a tasty snack, the pulp is often used to make baked goods and soups.  Americans love this squash so much, they extend its use into the next fall holiday, Thanksgiving; then into winter with Yule and Christmas.  Thankfully, due to home canning, and the aluminum can industry, pure pumpkin is available year round!  Now to my playing with pumpkin, and the goodies I enjoy baking, and most of all, eating.

Back in October 2016, my recipe for Pumpkin Bread appeared in the San Juan Record.  Since then, I have found many more uses for that recipe besides loaves of delicious cake-bread.  The same recipe can be used to make muffins!  Divide the batter into 3rds, leave one third plain; to the next 3rd, add semi-sweet chocolate chips; the last 3rd is a power punch of chopped walnuts and dried cranberries.  Want more fun?  Use enough of the batters to make 24 muffins; then put the rest into a loaf pan for an awesome mixture of pumpkin, chocolate, walnuts and cranberries.  To die for!

Here’s the basic recipe again, but need to wow the family, and guests, with a fancier treat?  Bake up Biscotti!  An Italian cookie whose name means “twice baked”, and you just have to change the basic recipe a wee bit.

Pumpkin Bread


 2 cups cooked pumpkin puree or 1 (15 oz.) can pumpkin puree
 4 eggs
 1 cup canola oil
 2/3 cup water
 3 cups sugar
 3 cups flour
 2 tsp baking soda
 1 ½ tsp salt
 1 tsp each ground cinnamon, ground nutmeg and allspice
 ½ tsp ground cloves


Preheat oven to 350; lightly butter and flour (or use baking spray) three loaf pans.

In a large bowl, mix together well the pumpkin puree, eggs, oil, water and sugar. In another bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, salt and spices; add 1/3 of dry mixture into pumpkin mixture and mix well; repeat until all dry ingredients have been incorporated into the wet mixture. Divide batter between prepared loaf pans; use a soup ladle to get three full cups into each loaf pan.

Bake for 45-50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out cleanly. Let loaves cool before inverting and removing.

Makes 3 loaves.  Or makes 30 muffins which are baked for 30 minutes (use cupcake liners for easy removal from muffin tins).

Normally biscotti is twice baked to allow each slice to crisp up, making it perfect for dipping into coffee or hot chocolate.  Not everyone enjoys very crisp cookies, so the baking time can be adjusted to allow for a softer cookie.  Do not make them too soft though if intending to dip them into melted chocolate for that fancy touch.  Again, since the main ingredient is pumpkin, favorite additions of chocolate chips, dried fruit and nuts will be perfect enhancements for the biscotti.

Pumpkin Biscotti


½ cup (4 oz.) pure pumpkin
3 tsp. flour
1 tsp each ground cinnamon, ground nutmeg and allspice
 ½ tsp ground cloves
4 large eggs
1 cup canola oil
¾ cup sugar
3 cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder

Additions, if desired: ½ cup chocolate chips, ½ cup chopped walnuts or pistachios, ½ cup dried cranberries, or go wild and add ¼ cup of two or three.


Preheat oven to 350F; line baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a small bowl, mix together pumpkin, 3 tsp. flour, spices; set aside.

In a large bowl, mix together eggs, oil and sugar.  Add pumpkin mixture from small bowl, and mix well.  Slowly add in 3 cups flour and baking powder.  If dough is very sticky, add in flour, teaspoon at a time, until it no longer sticks to the hands or bowl.

Remove from bowl to floured board, lightly work in additions (chips, nuts, fruits).  

Divide into 3rds, roll into flattened logs and place on parchment paper; score logs into 8 to 10 pieces.  Bake for 25-30 minutes, bottom will be slightly browned.  

Remove logs to cutting board to cool for 5 minutes.  At score sites, cut logs into individual pieces, place back onto parchment paper, and back into oven for 10-15 minutes.  The longer in the oven, the crispier the cookies become.  

Remove cookies to cooling rack and let cool completely.

Option: After cooling, drizzle, or dip into, melted white chocolate for a lovely contrast of color.

Makes 24 to 30 cookies.  Store in glass or metal containers, in a cool area, to allow cookies to keep their crispiness.

A tin, of these pretty cookies, will make a wonderful gift.  Enjoy and happy holidays!

Mary Cokenour

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

My Version of an Olive Garden New Item.

In the area we live in, the newest Olive Garden is either in Grand Junction, Colorado (2 and 1/2 hours drive northeast), or Farmington, New Mexico (2 hours southeast).  I know many people enjoy going to one of these when they're in one of those cities.  The commercials are often on television, and yes, we have gone there once in a while ourselves.

Readers of this food blog, and people who I have cooked for, know I focus mainly on Italian cuisine.  So, when I saw the latest "limited edition menu items" in a recent commercial, I had to admit that I wanted to try them.  Then I thought about the items, and realized they're pretty close to baked ziti, and another type of baked pasta casserole, I have made in the past.  In other words, I can make these new items at home, myself!  While my baked ziti and baked pasta casserole use a homemade tomato based sauce, these new dishes require an Alfredo sauce.

Now, and you know I do this, putting my own spin on a recipe is usually on my mind.  Olive Garden uses a "creamy seafood Alfredo sauce".  Well, I know how to make Alfredo sauce, and it uses loads of Parmesan cheese.  Smoked mozzarella is shredded and used as a topping.  Since this item is not easily found in any local markets, and traveling an hour away to a supermarket is time consuming, regular mozzarella will do.  However, I'm putting it into my sauce with the Parmesan; a rich cheesy sauce will be the result.   Oh, leaving out the nutmeg as black pepper and garlic will be the main seasonings. Even though I have rigatoni in the pantry, I opted to use tortellini. Not sounding even close to Olive Garden's dish?  It gets better, no spinach on hand, so using parsley instead.  Bread crumbs?  No thank you, a nice garlic bread on the side will do.

In essence, this is not a true copycat recipe.  All I did was basically look at the photo of the dish and try to figure out what was in it.  I didn't even look at the description, on the Olive Garden website, until I had completed my version.  Nope, not very close indeed, but we had a great dinner though, and much cheaper than eating out at a restaurant.  Basically, I was inspired to create.

With my dish, I used shrimp, but grilled chicken can be used for those who dislike shrimp.  For the pasta, tubular can be rigatoni, penne or ziti; cheese filled tortellini, or tortelloni, though make a prettier presentation.

Due to the options available to make this one casserole, it will simply be called, "Baked Mozzarella Casserole".

Baked Mozzarella Casserole


1 bag (12 oz.) medium sized shrimp
1 bag (16 oz.) tortellini (frozen or dried)
1 can (15.5 oz.) diced tomatoes, rinse & thoroughly drain all excess liquid
8 Tbsp. butter
8 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
6 cups hot milk
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground black pepper
2 tsp. garlic powder
1 Tbsp. dried parsley leaves 


Fill a 3 quart pot halfway with water, place on high heat.  While waiting for water to boil, clean shrimp; remove shells and devein.  When water begins to boil, add in tortellini and cook according to package directions.  Fit a metal colander over the pot, place shrimp inside, and steam until a light pinkish coloring.  Place shrimp, drained tortellini and tomatoes into large mixing bowl.

Preheat oven to 400F; spray sides and bottom of 2 quart baking dish with nonstick cooking spray.

In another 3 quart pot,  heat the butter over medium heat until melted; gradually add the flour, stirring until smooth.  Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture turns a golden brown color, about 6 to 7 minutes; this is the roux.

Yes!  You can make the sauce, on the stove top, right next to the pot cooking the tortellini and steaming the shrimp.

Add the hot milk to the butter mixture one cup at a time; whisk continuously to avoid burning or clumping. When mixture is completely smooth, add the Parmesan and mozzarella cheeses, whisk until smooth again; remove from heat; season with salt, black pepper and garlic powder.

Pour cheese sauce over contents in large bowl, mix thoroughly and spoon into baking dish and sprinkle with parsley.  Place dish in oven and bake for 15-20 minutes; edges around contents, and on the top will be slightly browned, and cheese bubbling.  Remove from oven and let rest for 5 minutes before serving.
Before Baking.

After 15-20 Minutes.

Makes 6 servings.

In case you're wondering, I rinse and drain the tomatoes as I don't want all that red liquid to dilute the cheese sauce, or turn it red.  The shrimp, parsley, and the tomatoes themselves should be the eye catchers throughout the white pasta and cheese sauce.

Now if shrimp isn't a favorite, grill up chicken breasts with a light seasoning of salt, black pepper and paprika; cut into bite sized pieces and add this instead.  Or choose another pasta, but make the cheese sauce as directed, add shrimp or chicken, and bake it up.

This casserole, paired with a salad and garlic bread will make a fantastic dinner for six.  With the winter holidays just around the corner, this will be a wow factor for any guests you are serving.

Happy Holidays!

Mary Cokenour

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Cake Mix Cookies Redux

I first wrote about baking cookies from cake mix on October 4, 2019, but I've since done so much of it, that I had to share the experimental results.

With the holiday season now in full swing, time to begin thinking about, and experimenting with, cookie recipes.  Each year I like to make little gift plates for those businesses I deal with often.  It is just a little thank you, and holiday cheer, to those workers dealing with all kinds of customers daily.  One advantage of being on Facebook is all the recipes, with photos, that pop up in advertising, or are shared by those on my Friends list.  One recipe I definitely decided to try out was making cookies out of cake mix; not due to being lazy, but it sounded intriguing.  Three main ingredients plus add-ins like chocolate chips, nuts, sprinkles, and dried fruits.  Too good to be true, and how tasty were the cookies really?

Asking my hubby, Roy, to pick out the flavor of the cake mix for my first attempt, he choose Red Velvet.  In case you did not know, red velvet is basically chocolate cake with a dump load of red food coloring, or beet juice.  Making the cookies using a “scratch” recipe sort of defeats the purpose of easiness though.  Looking through various recipes, I found one recipe for these cake mix cookies which claimed they were "made from scratch".  Going over the recipe, it should be renamed, "Semi-homemade", as boxed cake mix is still a main ingredient plus the addition of instant pudding.   It was a complicated, many ingredient recipe which resulted in only 20 cookies at completion.  Simply not worth my time when I was looking for fast and easy.

Here is the basic recipe for Cake Batter Cookies (using a boxed cake mix) which I found listed on the internet many, many times.

Cake Batter Cookies


1 box cake mix (15.25 oz./16.25 oz./18.25 oz.)
**oil (vegetable, canola or a blend of both)
2 eggs

** 1/3 cup is for 15.25 oz. + one ounce of flour, or 16.25 oz. total.
     1/2 cup is for 18.25 oz.

If you live in a high altitude area, like myself, add the appropriate amount of flour listed on the cake mix box.  I shifted the mix + flour, added the oil for the size mix used, and the 2 eggs; it all came together perfectly.

Additions:  1/2 cup for chips - mint, vanilla, semi-sweet, milk chocolate, dark chocolate, butterscotch, peanut butter, cinnamon or toffee.

                   1/2 cup for nuts and dried fruits; large nuts and fruits should be chopped.
                   1/4 cup for sprinkles - they are tiny, so a little will go a long way.


Preheat oven to 350F; line jelly roll pans or cookie sheets with parchment paper (keeps the cookies from sticking and burning).

In a medium bowl, mix together cake mix, oil, eggs and any additions.  I used a heavy duty rubber spatula and it blended together without any issues.  A ball of dough will form (it can be wrapped in plastic wrap, refrigerated for use after an hour, in case several different flavors are going to be baked up).

Use a teaspoon to measure out the dough, roll into a ball with fingers and place onto parchment paper.  These cookies do not spread out wide, so the dough can be pressed down slightly and a crinkle effect will be created as they bake.

Bake the cookies for 12-14 minutes, let cool slightly before removing and plating.  Sprinkle powdered sugar to enhance the crinkles, or leave as is.

Makes 3 dozen cookies if using a teaspoon to measure out.  Want larger cookies, double the teaspoon amount, or use a tablespoon to measure out the dough.  Better yet, use a 1-inch diameter ice cream scoop!

Basically, I had 3 dozen delicious red velvet cookies, with semi-sweet chocolate chips, baked and plated.  I sprinkled half with powdered sugar, and the other half were left as is.  The whole process took 45 minutes as I had only have two racks in my oven; if I had a third, the time would have been 30 minutes.

Hint:  if you cannot decide what flavors of cake mix to purchase, stock up on "White".  Then you can add cocoa powder to create chocolate; vanilla, lemon, peppermint or other flavors of extract as well.  Consider the white cake mix to be a blank canvass, you are the artist, now create!

It has been a lot of fun playing with other flavors of cake mix, and added ingredients.  Chocolate Fudge with chopped walnuts, dark chocolate and mint chips were my absolute favorite.  Roy enjoyed the Spice with chopped fresh apple, chopped walnuts and cinnamon chips. 

Chocolate Fudge with chopped walnuts, dark chocolate & mint chips.

Red Velvet with & without powdered sugar

Spice with chopped apple, chopped walnuts & cinnamon chips.

But, I had to do it, I had to see what would happen if I used a made from scratch recipe.  No, not a cake recipe; a cookie recipe that would convert the flat, crunchy cookies into thicker, cakier cookies…Chocolate Chip!  Now don’t I sound like a mad scientist working in a lab?

Taking a basic recipe for, made from scratch, chocolate chip cookies, I simply added three extra tablespoons of flour and used a Stevia baking blend instead of pure cane sugar.  Instead of spreading out flatly and becoming crisp while baking, the cookies only flattered slightly.  The bottoms were lightly crisp, but the overall texture was like any cookies that had used a boxed cake mix.  Due to the Stevia baking blend, they were not as sugary sweet, but the milk chocolate chips (instead of semi-sweet) made up for that.

Now that these experiments have been a tasty success, time to begin playing with pumpkin!

Have fun baking!

Mary Cokenour