Salted Caramel Oatmeal Cookies

I don't like cookies.

It's one of my most unpopular opinions, but I stand behind it. Why have a wafer of crumbly sugar dust when you could have pie?

But these cookies. Ahhhh. These cookies. They almost make me change my mind.

Salted Caramel Oatmeal Cookies taste like fall smells. An oatmeal base (::cough:: whole grain) combines with butter, sugar, vanilla and two secret ingredients. First, you add tiny chunks of caramel to the dough, and then you top the cookies with a sprinkling of kosher salt right after baking.

I mean....

Also, please note: all that chewy goodness sticks like mad to a regular cookie sheet. For this reason, parchment paper is a MUST with these cookies. If you don't line your cookie sheets with parchment, your cookies will glue themselves to the baking sheet and you will end up with crumbs when you try to take them off. Which would turn these magical cookies back into regular cookies. Don't let that happen on your watch.


Salted Caramel Oatmeal Cookies

1 cup butter, room temperature
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup white sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1-1/2 cups flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
3 cups old fashioned oats
1 pkg (11 oz) Kraft Caramel Bits
kosher salt for sprinkling
parchment paper

Directions:
1. Preheat oven to 375.
2. Cream butter with sugars. Mixture will be fluffy in texture and light in color when combined.
3. Add in eggs and vanilla.
4. Add flour, salt, baking soda and oatmeal. Add caramel bits last.
5. Line baking sheets with parchment paper (or you will be kicking yourself in about 10 minutes). Drop heaping tablespoons of dough onto sheets and bake, approximately 8-10 minutes. Pull the sheets when the cookies are golden brown on the edges and just starting to set in the center. They will continue to cook after you remove them from the oven.
6. Immediately after taking them out of the oven, sprinkle cookies with kosher salt. Allow to cool before removing from parchment paper.

Tips:
1. That's right. Parchment paper is one of the ingredients. It's THAT important to this recipe.
2. If you are new to baking, you can always sift the flour, salt and baking soda together before you add it to the butter mixture. That ensures no lumps. But honestly, I've baked for decades, and I've never sifted my dry ingredients, and I've never had a lump. (And yes, I'm a questioner.)
3. I'm notoriously bad about letting my cookies bake one minute longer than they should. Then I end up with crunchy cookies. Gross. Don't follow in my footsteps. Pull these babies when they are just starting to set, and you'll end up with marvelously chewy cookies to accompany you throughout your week.
4. If you haven't seen Kraft's Caramel Bits before (#twss), here's a photo to take to the grocery store. I did not even know caramel bits existed until I was introduced to these cookies. Just imagine all the other uses for them.....

Summer Lovin' S'more Bars

What if I told you s'mores could be stored in your fridge? What if I promised you the taste, texture and nostalgia of a s'more but in a portable form? What if I said you don't need a campfire to indulge in one of the best parts of summer?

Because that's exactly what this recipe delivers. Gooey marshmallows, buttery graham crackers, melted chocolate, in a convenient package.

Make these for a weekend with friends at the beach, for that family reunion potluck, for the evening you'd planned a bonfire but it rained instead. Just be sure to hold a few bars back for yourself. Because you can't ever have too much summer.


Summer Lovin' S'more Bars

15 graham crackers
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
10 tbsp butter, melted
16 oz chocolate chips (semi-sweet or bittersweet)
4 cups mini marshmallows

Directions:
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Crush graham crackers by either pulsing in a food processor or placing crackers in a zipper bag and rolling them with a rolling pin. Your goal is small crumbs. You should have about 2 cups of crumb when finished.
3. In a large bowl, combine crumbs, sugar, salt and melted butter until the crumbs absorb all the butter. Scoop out one cup of the mixture and set aside.
4. Press the remaining graham cracker mixture into the bottom of a 13x9x2 baking dish. Bake for 12 minutes or until golden. Remove from oven and set on a rack to cool.
5. Place chocolate in microwave bowl and nuke on medium for 30 seconds; stir. Nuke again for 30 seconds; stir. Continue at this, in 30-second bursts, until the chocolate is completely melted.
6. Pour melted chocolate over crush and smooth with an off-set spatula.
7. Sprinkle marshmallows over chocolate, pressing gently to adhere.Sprinkle reserved crumb mixture over marshmallows.
8. Preheat broiler and place pan 2” under heat for 30 seconds or until marshmallows are golden. PAY CLOSE ATTENTION TO MAKE SURE THE MARSHMALLOWS DON’T BURN.
9. Cool pan on rack and refrigerate for 30 minutes before cutting.

Tips:
1. As I said on Sorta Awesome, these are RICH. I recommend you cut them into small squares, versus the normal size bars.
2. PAY CLOSE ATTENTION TO MAKE SURE THE MARSHMALLOWS DON’T BURN. It bears repeating. You look away for five seconds and BAM, those marshmallows are tiny little charcoal pillows on your bars. Stay vigilant.
3. I know it's hard to wait. But do NOT attempt to cut or eat these bars until they are completely cool. They'll disintegrate, and while that pile of crumbs will be mighty tasty, they won't be presentable. I've been known to stick them in the fridge and/or freezer to speed the cooling process along.
4. If your house is warm, or you're taking these bars to an outdoor gathering, you might want to check in on them occasionally. That chocolate layer can get awful melty. That's why I recommend you store them in the fridge, if at all possible.
5. I also like to say "bars" with my best exaggerated Minnesota accent, like I'm an extra in "Fargo." I commend that pronunciation to you.

Creamy Wild Rice and Chicken Soup

January. It's cold, it's dark, the holidays are over. This is the time of year when I have to reach deep to find my love of winter, when I have to replace my Christmas tree with an equal number of fairy lights, when I build fires and light candles and admit the below-zero temperatures do offer a compelling cryogenic nostril cleanse.

This is the time of year when I need soup.

And this soup fits the mid-winter bill. It features a creamy base, nutty, chewy wild rice, enough vegetables to feel virtuous without putting off the kids, chicken - and bacon. Because January demands bacon. And bacon makes all things better. Even, especially, winter.



Creamy Wild Rice and Chicken Soup

4 cups (32 ounces) chicken broth
2 cups water
3/4 cup wild rice
1/2 cup onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup chopped celery
1 cup shredded carrot

1/2 cup butter
3/4 cup flour
2 cups half and half
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1/4 tsp poultry seasoning
2 cups cubed, cooked chicken
8-12 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled
2-3 tbsp sherry

Directions:
1. In a large saucepan, combine broth, water and wild rice. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer of 20 minutes. At that point, add the onion, celery and carrots, and simmer for another 20 minutes.
2. In a separate saucepan, melt butter. Whisk in flour to from a roux. Once the roux is bubbly and combined, slowly whisk in half and half and spices. Stir until smooth. Let it simmer until thickened, about 10 minutes.
3. Add white sauce mixture to wild rice mixture. Add chicken, bacon and sherry last, just before serving.

Tips:
1. My kids find the sherry flavor in this soup off-putting. So feel free to leave it out. It's still good. But I do think it adds that extra something, that unnameable umami, that puts it over the top for most people.
2. You want to add more bacon? DO IT. It only makes the soup better.
3. You can substitute milk for the half and half. The soup will just be a little less creamy. I highly recommend the half and half, but if are stranded in a blizzard and you have everything else to make this soup but that one ingredient. Fine. You have my blessing to use milk.
4. If you shop at Costco, buy their packs of cut-up rotisserie chicken for the chicken in this recipe. It's cooked white meat, already in chunks. You just need to go through and cut it into bite-sized pieces, and cut off any skin or gristle that may have gotten mixed in when they were pulling the meat off the bones. Super easy.

Fresh Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream

Gardening experts always advise: Don't plant mint. Or if you do, plant it in a self-contained pot. Because mint is the virus of the gardening world. It spreads easily, sometimes mercilessly, and it's almost impossible to control. It just keeps coming back until it's taken over.

I don't subscribe to the experts advice. Because I like mint. (And because I'm lazy.) So I have a rather large crop of mint in my backyard, that grows larger every year. Come August, the mint is a little smug. "You are so toast, lady. I'm going to own this yard in a few shorts weeks, and there's nothing you can do about it."

Enter this recipe. It requires two cups of fresh mint leaves to make this ice cream, which results in some of the lightest, brightest, freshest mint flavor you've ever laid taste buds on. And pulling that much mint will show your plant who's boss.

And if it gets sassy again, make more ice cream. Or just smile with the knowledge that winter will be here soon enough. End game, mint. End game.



Fresh Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream

1 cup whole milk
3/4 cup sugar
2 cups heavy cream
pinch of salt
2 cups lightly packed fresh mint leaves
1 tbsp. vanilla
1/3 to 1/2 cup mini chocolate chips

Directions:
1. Add the milk, sugar, 1 cup of the heavy cream and the salt to a medium saucepan. Cook and stir over medium heat until sugar has dissolved and the mixture is warmed through. Add in the mint leaves and mix to combine, making sure all the leaves are immersed in the mixture. Remove from the heat, cover, and let steep at room temperature for about an hour.
2. Set a fine mesh sieve over a medium bowl. Pour the mixture through the sieve, pressing on the leaves to extract as much flavor as possible. Discard the mint. Add the final cup of heavy cream and the vanilla and stir.
3. Let the mixture cool slightly, then cover and refrigerate until thoroughly chilled. Freeze the mixture in an ice cream maker according to manufacturer's directions. Near the end of the churning process, add in the chocolate chips.

Tips:
1. Your ice cream might end up with a very subtle green tint, depending on your mint. Or it might stay white. If you want that classic mint green color, add a few drops of green food coloring before you put the mixture in the fridge to chill.
2. I have a Cuisinart 1-1/2 Quart Ice Cream maker and I love it. This recipe makes the perfect amount for that size of ice cream maker.
3. If you're an ice cream aficionado, you will notice I don't call for egg yolks in this recipe. That's because I don't find the texture of custard-based ice cream to be enough of a reward for the work entailed.

Spicy Grilled Pineapple

Spicy grilled pineapple might be one of my favorite summer desserts. And that's saying something, because: Pie. Ice cream. Fruit cobbler. S'mores. Pie.

This dessert shoots to the top of my list because it's SUPER easy but unique enough that it impresses people. Plus, all that caramelized goodness on top of sweet pineapple? It's hard to beat. Don't forget the ice cream.



Spicy Grilled Pineapple

1 fresh pineapple
1/4 cup pineapple or orange juice
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ginger
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. cloves

Directions:
1. Peel the pineapple and core. Cut into long wedges. You should have about 8-12, depending on the size of your pineapple.
2. Combine the juice, sugar and spices in a small bowl.
3. Put pineapple in a glass container or a Ziplock bag. Pour marinade over, and cover or seal. Marinate in fridge for 1 hour or overnight.
4. When ready to grill, remove pineapple from marinade and grill over medium-high heat for about 15 minutes, turning once, or until edges are brown and crisp.

Tips:
1. When shopping for a ripe pineapple, pull a couple of the crown leaves. If they come off easily, the pineapple is ripe. (If you can't find a ripe pineapple, leave it on the counter or the top of the fridge for a few days to let it ripen.)
2. Serve this with ice cream for an extra special treat. Top the ice cream with the extra marinade if you want your friends and family to weep with joy.
3. For a grown-up version: substitute rum for the juice. *hiccup*

Here, Taste This: Lasagna Soup

I am seasonal eater.

Perhaps this surprises no one.

I am drawn to the drama that plays out every day on the other side of my window. Spring's freshness and hope, summer's sparkle and joy, fall's glory and longing. And winter. Winter's quiet and reflection. Each season speaks to me of different flavors, different sensations. I revel in the rhythm of it. I don't want stew in summer, and even though I could technically grill in January if I'm willing to stand in the snow, something about that turns me off.

No, winter demands soup.

And this soup, my friends, is all that is right about soup. It sticks to your ribs, thanks to the pasta, and it dances on your tongue, thanks to the Italian sausage, and it is bright with seasonal veggies. (Carrots, spinach, I'm looking at you.) Best of all, it's a one-pot meal that can go from start to finish in less than 30 minutes. Just enough time to hide some fresh mozzarella in the bottom of each dish, slice some baguette and rinse some grapes.

Then sit down to a steaming bowl of the best winter has to offer. Maybe, just maybe, you'll give thanks for January.


Lasagna Soup

1 lb. hot Italian sausage
1 cup onion, chopped
2 cups carrots, cut into coins
2 cups mushrooms, sliced
2 tbsp. garlic
4 cups chicken broth
1 14-oz. can Italian diced tomatoes
1 10-oz. can tomato sauce
1 cup mafalda pasta
4-6 cups fresh spinach, roughly chopped
fresh mozzarella
Parmesan cheese,
4 tsp. thinly sliced fresh basil

Directions:
1. Brown sausage in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat.
2. Add onions and carrots; saute 3 minutes. Stir in mushrooms and garlic; saute another 3 minutes.
3. Add broth, tomatoes and tomato sauce; bring to a boil.
4. Drop in pasta and simmer until al dente, about 10 minutes.
5. Stir in spinach and cook until wilted, about 2 minutes.
6. Place fresh mozzarella in bottom of soup bowls and ladle hot soup on top.
7. Garnish with Parmesan and basil.

Tips:
1. The easiest Italian sausage to use in recipes like this is bulk sausage, usually found near the breakfast sausage are in your local grocery store. If you're worried hot Italian sausage will be too spicy (aka you're Scandinavian), it's fine to use "sweet," or regular.
2. Mafalda pasta looks like mini lasagna noodles.(I will pause here for us all to embrace the cute.) But if you can't find it - and I can't, right now - feel free to use bowtie or even penne pasta in its place. I often use campanelle, or bellflowers, just because I think they are pretty.
3. If you can find the fresh mozzarella balls known as bocconcini, use those for this recipe. It's easy to throw three or four balls of cheese in the bottom of each soup bowl and call it good. If you can't find bocconcini, feel free to dice up any fresh mozzarella you can find. It will all melt the same, and what we're after here is easy meltability. (Totally a word.) Every bowl should have its own soft little nuggets of wonderfulness.
4. Does the price of basil in the winter bring you down? (Plus, it's not exactly seasonal, is it.) Then use a drizzle of pesto in its place. You get the same fresh herb flavor at half the cost.

August


Summer is finally slowing down and stretching out, like long shadows on a lazy afternoon. June and July were energetic. Three different VBS weeks, baseball, family camp, drama, church activities. We practically ran from one event to the other, powered by the drugs of early morning sunshine and fresh cut grass.

But eventually, the adrenaline wears off and tempers wear thin. Structure, even fun structure, becomes a prison. And so we limped into August and fell head-first into a calendar filled with nothing but white space.

So here we are, week three of August. We have three weeks of summer vacation left. And I'm starting to feel my shoulders relax and come down from their perch by my ears. These are the days when I make plans with friends because the openness of our days scares me a little, when I let the kids stay up until 11:00 to watch family videos, when I say, "Oh, all right" when asked if they can have a treat after eating a paltry serving of vegetables.

This is the summer Sabbath. A time to rest, for sure. To recharge and refresh. But also to celebrate and enjoy the work of our hands. August is when I remember how much I like being with my kids when we have no demands intruding on us. It's when I treasure the simplicity of life as it is right now, when I have enough silence in my soul to behold it. Little ones in fresh-smelling pajamas. Connor and Natalie laughing over a video. The sound of lullabies competing with the hush of the trees after dark.

These are the days I wish August could last forever.