Sunday, September 21, 2014

Tuxedo Cake

Day 85

Copyright, Doug Kapustin Photography, 2014
Tuxedo cake, anyone? What a lovely dessert to make for a birthday or special event! I think I’m going to make this one again when our book club meets. 

The recipe is quick and easy, with shortcuts galore. Enjoy!

Tuxedo Cake
1 pkg. (2-layer size) devil's food cake mix
1 pkg. (3.9 oz.)  Chocolate Instant Pudding
¼ cup milk
1½ pkg. (8 oz. each) Cream Cheese, softened
½ cup butter, softened
1½ tsp. vanilla
6 cups powdered sugar
3 oz. Semi-Sweet Chocolate, divided
½ of 8-oz. tub Whipped Topping (Do not thaw.)

Heat oven to 350. 

Prepare cake batter and bake as directed on package for 2 (9-inch) round cake layers, blending dry pudding mix and milk into batter before pouring into prepared pans. (Batter will be thick.) Cool cakes 10 min.; remove from pans to wire racks. Cool completely.

Meanwhile, beat cream cheese, butter and vanilla in large bowl with mixer until blended. Gradually beat in sugar. 

Cut each cake layer horizontally in half. Stack on plate, spreading ¾ cup cream cheese frosting between each layer. Spread remaining frosting onto top and side of cake.

Microwave whipped topping and remaining semi-sweet chocolate in microwaveable bowl on HIGH 1- ½ min., stirring after 1 min.; stir until chocolate is completely melted and mixture is well blended. Cool 5 min. Pour over cake, letting excess drip down side. Garnish with chocolate curls if desired. Keep refrigerated.

Recipe from Kraft, at

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Sweet Potato Pound Cake

Day 84 

This week’s recipe is from my good friend and trusted cooking mentor, Deborah. She posted it for friends recently on Facebook, and she shared that she had great success with it. Her pictures and description made my mouth water, so I couldn’t resist giving it a try. Whenever Deborah posts a recipe and tries it, I know it will be one that I can use and trust.
Copyright, Doug Kapustin Photography, 2014

Originally, the recipe is from, where you can also find many other delicious dishes if you’re so inclined. This pound cake is dense, moist, and filled with the perfect blend of fall flavors. It’s a real must-try for this time of year!

I made my favorite caramel glaze to pour atop the cake, and you can decide if that’s something you want to add. The glaze recipe is below, in case you’re interested. Both Deborah and I agree that having a glaze really does enhance the cake’s flavor. 

Thanks, Deborah, for your friendship, your culinary expertise, and for your commendable Christian parenting to two of the best students I’ve ever had the pleasure of teaching! 

Sweet Potato Pound Cake 

3 cups all purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
¼ tsp nutmeg
¼ tsp mace (optional)
¼ tsp cinnamon 
1 cup unsalted butter (softened) 
2½ cups sweet potato (cooked mashed)
4 eggs
1½ tsp vanilla
1½ cups granulated sugar
¼ cup light brown sugar (packed)
1 cup of Chopped Pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and dust with flour a Bundt pan.

Mix flour, baking powder, baking soda, nutmeg, mace, and cinnamon in a medium sized bowl.
In a large bowl, beat at high speed with electric mixer, the unsalted butter, granulated sugar and brown sugar until light and fluffy.

At low speed, add sweet potato and eggs one at a time until well mixed.

Beat flour mixture into the sweet potato mixture. Add vanilla and mix.

Pour batter into Bundt Pan. Add Pecans evenly on top of mix. 

Bake for approximately 45–55 minutes.  Cool in rack, pecan side up. Glaze if desired (see below).  Serve warm or cold and can be frozen.

Caramel Drizzle/Glaze:
1 – 14 oz can sweetened condensed milk
1 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons butter
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

In a medium saucepan, combine condensed milk and brown sugar; bring to a boil over medium-high heat, whisking frequently. Reduce heat, and SIMMER for 8 minutes, whisking frequently. Remove from heat; whisk in butter and vanilla. Let cool for 5 minutes before using. NOTE: Make sure you drizzle the caramel while it’s still HOT. *

*When cooled, the caramel does somewhat harden.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Chocolate Mocha Gooey Butter Cake

Day 83

Think brownies, but then think bigger. Today’s dessert is the easiest I’ve tried in a long time, but it’s so smooth, rich, and delicious that it’s very deceiving when  served. You know how, sometimes, a dessert just tastes complicated? This is too delicious to be so quick and painless, you think. You’ll get that very same feeling with this dessert, but it will prove to be just as easy as promised. 

I served it with store bought vanilla ice cream, which was a nice touch. Talenti and Haagan Daaz make excellent vanilla bean ice creams with minimal ingredients. If I had the energy and had planned ahead a bit better, I like to think
Copyright 2014, Doug Kapustin Photography
I would have made homemade coffee ice cream as the topper. The best coffee ice cream I’ve ever had is a recipe from Ree Drummond that I’ve only found in her book The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Food from my Frontier. Look for it at your local bookstore; it’s worth the shopping trip. 

When I first tasted this chocolate dessert, my well-exercised culinary imagination conjured up a thick-crusted, upside-down chocolate chess pie, if such a thing existed. The texture and flavors are similar, to be sure. As thoughts go, each bite brought to mind some fond memories of my grandmother’s chocolate chess pie—a dessert I’d request frequently when I visited my grandparents’ house. This was my mother’s mother, who really was quite a good cook, but perhaps not quite as good as her husband, my grandfather. Between the two of them, they could lay a spread on the table that could have served as the quintessential cross-section of the American South at dinnertime. Country fried steak or pork chops, fried chicken, chicken livers, biscuits, cornbread, slow cooked beans and greens, and a sideboard of pies and cakes of every variety. It’s hard to imagine that all of these could be served for the same dinner, but they were, at least on special occasions. My grandparents, Nanny and Pawpaw, I called them, were old-fashioned, country Southern cooks. I remember Pawpaw telling me that he began making biscuits at four years old, when his mother gave him a stool on which to stand so he could reach the block for rolling out biscuit dough. I desperately wish I had paid better attention to their cooking styles as a child, but I was concerned with other things, of course. 

At any rate, holiday or Sunday meals at Nanny and PawPaw’s were delightfully bloating and story-worthy affairs. There were days afterward of endless recounting, trying to remember how certain conversations or strange and awkward episodes began. We were always privy to some major burst of someone’s anger, as well as a moment or two of shocking or hilarious misplaced showmanship. Looking back, I’d love to have another opportunity to experience a family meal there because, no matter what, there was no other place any of us would rather have been. 

I suppose the reason I’m reminiscing about these meals and reunions today is that our family lost a very special person last week. My uncle—my mother’s brother Robert—died at home, with his loving wife and one of his sons by his side, following an extended battle with Fronto Temporal Degeneration (FTD). This is a form of dementia, although distinct and faster in its decline than all other types, from what I’ve learned.  Most assuredly, FTD is a terrible, quickly debilitating disease that robs a person of independence, both in mind and in body. It is a disease that, as it progressed, must have been very horrific to watch and even harder to nurse.  God bless his wife and bedside nurse, Judy, for selflessly and lovingly caring for him through this surely trying and often hellacious experience. 

I know I can speak for our entire family when I say that we would give anything to rewind the years together to enjoy a delicious and surely eventful meal around Nanny and Pawpaw’s table, set upon the stage of their 18th century historic home. Uncle Robert would have been the center of the room—the veritable star of the show, so to speak—using his light-hearted, fun-loving, and gentle-spirited demeanor to entertain every single attendee. 

Robert, we miss you. I’m sorry we didn’t spend more time together when you were here with us, and I’m praying today that you are feasting at the Lord’s table with all of your pets, friends, and loved ones who passed before you. You were a treasure. 

Chocolate Mocha Gooey Butter Cake*

1 egg, lightly beaten
½ cup butter, melted and cooled
1 -2-layer-size pkg. chocolate cake mix
1 -8 -ounce package cream cheese, softened
2 eggs
1 -16-ounce package powdered sugar
½ cup butter, melted and cooled
¼ cup chocolate fudge topping
2 tablespoons very strong brewed coffee or espresso**
1 teaspoon vanilla
Powdered sugar (optional)

In a medium bowl, stir together 1 egg and ½  cup melted butter. Stir in dry cake mix until combined (You may need to work the mixture together by hand, as it will be thick). Press evenly into the bottom of a greased 13x9x2-inch baking pan. Bake in a 350 degrees oven for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a large mixing bowl, beat cream cheese with an electric mixer until fluffy. Add 2 eggs, one at a time, beating on low speed after each addition just until combined. Gradually add 16 ounces powdered sugar, 1 cup at a time, beating on low speed until smooth. Slowly add ½ cup melted butter, the chocolate topping, coffee and vanilla, continuing to beat on low speed until just combined. Pour batter over baked cake crust.

Bake for 35 minutes*** more (center will not appear to be set). Cool completely in pan on a wire rack before cutting into bars. If you like, sprinkle with additional powdered sugar. Cut into bars.

* The recipe was pulled from an older magazine I found; I had torn it out months ago and couldn’t remember the magazine name, but I researched it and found it at this link, also:

**I used 2 tbs. instant coffee powder mixed with two tablespoons water to make the strong coffee for the recipe. 

***The second time I tried this recipe, I baked it about 30 minutes instead of 35 to have a softer dessert, and I liked it better. You might want to try it the original way first, then bake for less time the second time to compare. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Cowgirl Quiche from The Pioneer Woman

Day 82

Today’s recipe is perfect for a relatively quick meal that suits almost any occasion, from rustic to elegant, family dinners to dinner parties.  Using leeks instead of onions elevates the flavor just enough, and prosciutto that has been broiled until crisp adds a country ham flavor that is delectable. With quiche, the possibilities abound. 

I generally serve this quiche with lightly steamed green beans and cold tomatoes, tossed in a traditional French vinaigrette. If interested in this side, try the vinaigrette recipe as well; it is simple and will probably make it to your regular recipe rotations!

Copyright 2014, Doug Kapustin Photography 

I can’t say enough wonderful things about Ree Drummond, The Pioneer Woman. Her recipes, her blog, her Basset Hounds (!), and her homeschooling country life speaks to the unfulfilled desires of my own life. If you’ve never visited her website or blog, give it a try. Every single recipe she shares is worth trying, and I’ve tried so many of them that I could be her sous-chef. (Ree, if you ever accidentally happen upon my blog, I’m cheap labor!) 

So anyway, go adopt a Basset Hound. Or any dog that needs a home, really.  And give it treats and hugs. Then, make and enjoy this quiche. 

French Vinaigrette recipe: 

For one salad recipe, in the bottom of salad bowl, mince 2 cloves of garlic and mash with salt and pepper according to taste preference. Add the juice of one large lemon and 1 heaping teaspoon of Dijon mustard. Stir with a fork until an emulsion is made.
Photo by Maggie Kapustin
Add 1/8 - 1/4 cup (based on your taste preference, so start with 1/8) really good extra virgin olive oil and mix again. Mix salad or greens in the same bowl, tossing until all is thoroughly coated. 

Note: Red wine vinegar can be used in place of lemon juice if you prefer. 

Cowgirl Quiche

16 oz. white mushrooms,* cleaned and cut into quarters
2 medium leeks, washed thoroughly and chopped
2 tbsp. butter
8 eggs
1½  cups heavy cream
2 cups Swiss cheese, grated
salt and pepper to taste
8 slices prosciutto* (thin slices-rough chop) or good ham
9" pie crust or crust for a deep dish pie

Variations: I have used baby Portobello mushrooms instead of white and cooked, chopped bacon instead of prosciutto. When using prosciutto, I have also broiled it first until crisp, just to change its texture. 

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Finely chop the cleaned leeks and soak in a cold water bath. Drain. Saute them over medium heat in butter for 8-10 minutes, or until they begin to brown slightly and caramelize. Add mushrooms. 

In a bowl, whisk the eggs and cream together, stir in the cooled mushrooms, leeks, cheese, prosciutto, salt and pepper

Pour into a pie shell, cover loosely with foil and bake for 45 minutes at 400. Remove the foil and continue baking for an additional 10 minutes.

Remove from the oven and allow it to sit 10 minutes before cutting.

(Recipe borrowed from book, The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Food from my Frontier)

Thursday, August 21, 2014

No-Bake Peanut Butter Bars

Day 81

Here’s a delicious, fast recipe we can all stand behind. Who doesn’t love peanut butter cups? These bars will remind you of a very decadent and rustic version of  your favorite packaged candy, for sure.

This is the perfect recipe to make as an after school treat for your little ones, or it could offer an opportunity to cook in the kitchen with your kids. Since it’s a no-bake dish, it lends itself nicely to young learners. 
Copyright, Doug Kapustin Photography , 2014

I can’t say enough nice things about this one. Originally, I think I saw someone post it on Facebook, so I gave it a try. Over and over.  For weeks. My family simply can’t say no to these, and I suspect yours will feel the same. Enjoy!

No-Bake Peanut Butter Bars

1 cup salted butter, melted
2 cups graham cracker crumbs
¼ cup brown sugar
1¾ cups powdered sugar
1 cup peanut butter
½ tsp. vanilla extract
11 oz. bag milk chocolate chips

Combine all ingredients, except chocolate chips, in a medium sized bowl. Stir until the mixture is smooth and creamy. Pour peanut butter mixture into a 9x13 pan. Melt chocolate chips in the microwave for 1-2 minutes, stirring every 20-30 seconds. Spread chocolate over peanut mixture, carefully, with a spatula. Refrigerate for at least 3 hours. Cut while cool and serve immediately or store in fridge. 

*Note: For a change, I have substituted 1 cup of the graham cracker crumbs for 1 cup of finely ground quick-cooking oats to give more texture, and it worked nicely. Just use a food processor to grind the oats to the texture you desire. 

Friday, August 8, 2014

Hazelnut Chocolate Covered Toffee

Day 80

I wholeheartedly admire the *real deal* pastry chefs and candy makers out there. I haven’t the patience for the mandatory perfect timing and delicacy of their work, unfortunately. This is a skill and passion I’d like to cultivate, and taking classes for both are on my to-do list, for sure. 

Truth be told, when I read a recipe that calls for any from-scratch dough beyond that of the biscuit or pie crust varieties, I move on. Similarly, when I see a candy recipe that requires a thermometer and constant stirring, I feel tired just reading about it.
Photo by Maggie Kapustin
 In an effort to take a teeny, tiny baby step to begin changing my frame of mind, I tackled an easy chocolate and nut covered toffee from a Southern Living recipe book. If you aren’t familiar with recipes from Southern Living, I urge you to try a few. In my experience, they are consistently test-kitchen approved, home kitchen trustworthy and definitely as tasty as promised. I have this wonderful book, Southern Living: 1001 Ways to Cook Southern that I hope to eventually try, cover to cover, although 1001 recipes are a tall order! 

At any rate, the toffee turned out delicious, despite my ancient and not-so-accurate candy thermometer, purchased second-hand and immediately stored in a drawer until a few weeks ago. When you try this one, make sure you have a working thermometer; they are a cheap investment and are so useful, particularly if you enjoy gifting friends and family with bite-sized holiday treats. 

Give homemade toffee a try and see what you think, and please don’t be timid about it; I promise it’s as easy as the recipe promises! These crunchy candies comply with all of the “regulations for deliciousness” as stated in the Sweet Addicts Handbook (Gosh, I wish such a handbook existed!). That is to say, they are capable of sticking to your teeth for days, and they’re so sweet they’ll make those very same teeth ache, to be sure. I crumbled the last few chunks, as we neared the end of the tin, and used them as brownie sundae toppers, which I highly recommend. 


Hazelnut Chocolate Covered Toffee

1½ cups chopped, toasted hazelnuts, divided
1 cup sugar
1 cup butter
1 tbs. light corn syrup
1½ cups milk chocolate chips

Spread 1 cup of hazelnuts on a 9x9 (approximate) area of a lightly butter-greased baking sheet. 

Bring sugar, butter, corn syrup, and ¼ cup water to a boil in a heavy saucepan over medium heat, stirring constantly. Cook until mixture is golden brown and a candy thermometer reads 290-310 degrees (about 15-20 minutes). 

Pour sugar mixture over hazelnuts on baking sheet.

Sprinkle with chocolate chips; let stand 30 seconds and gently spread melting morsels over top. Sprinkle with remaining hazelnuts. 

Chill 1 hour. Break into rough pieces. Store in airtight container. 

(Original recipe before modifications: Mildred’s Toffee, courtesy of Southern Living 1001 Ways to Cook Southern cookbook, 2010)

Friday, August 1, 2014

Mini-Molten Brownie Pies

Day 79

This summer, I’ve been looking for easy and quick recipes, especially desserts. I watched a rerun of The Barefoot Contessa recently, where Ina Garten shared that it’s easier to undercook brownies just a bit to make “molten” centers rather than to go to the trouble of making the traditional gooey
Photo by Maggie Kapustin
chocolate lava. I tried her idea—baking brownie mix in mini- graham cracker pie shells, served warm with scoops of vanilla ice cream—and loved it! I think you will too. Sometimes, it’s nice to try recipes that are simply assembling rather than from-scratch creating, especially when we need a quick, no-fail idea.

Mini-Molten Brownie Pies

8 individual graham cracker pie shells 
1 box Ghirardelli Double Chocolate Brownie Mix 
1 cup hazelnuts, chopped
2 pints Talenti TahitianVanilla Bean Gelato

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Prepare brownie batter according to box directions. Pour batter evenly into pie shells that have been placed on foil-lined baking sheet and sprinkle with hazelnuts. Bake for 25 minutes and cool for 20 minutes before topping each pie with scoops of ice cream. Serve immediately. 

(To make ahead, allow to cool, then store in airtight container. When ready to serve,  simply reheat pies in the microwave for 30 seconds before topping with ice cream and serving!) 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Peanut Butter Cake with Chocolate Cream Cheese Icing

Here’s a real winner if you love peanut butter and chocolate. In a cake. Honestly, who doesn’t?  This cake is amazing and delicious and rich and creamy and buttery and toothache sweet and just absolutely perfect. But, what else would you expect from Ree Drummond? She’s The Pioneer Woman and she can cook like nobody’s business.

Copyright, Doug Kapustin Photography, 2014
You’ll see. And you’ll agree after this recipe. Although I had watched Drummond’s show on
Food Network from time to time, it was my Aunt Bettye who introduced me to her recipes. (Note: I always trust Bettye’s suggestions because, well, this lady can cook “like nobody’s business” too! Thanks Bettye!)

For Mother’s Day, my daughter just bought me the book The Pioneer Woman Cooks which I highly and strongly recommend. You’ll find recipes for everything from salsa to adult coffee to Mountain Dew fruit cobbler. Also for Mother’s Day, my stepdaughter bought me this lovely cake stand and glass lid, specially designed for tall cakes. Naturally, I use it every single day for showcasing family desserts and for tempting all passers-by. It works and I love it. The two combined gifts could not have been better suited to me, and another plus for me is that The Pioneer Woman has Basset Hounds too! Even if you don’t buy her book, you must check out her website .

So, back to the peanut butter cake-- I modified the original recipe slightly, and the information about that can be found after the recipe, with links to the originals. 

Try this one as soon as you can; you’ll be glad you did. 

Peanut Butter Cake with Chocolate Cream Cheese Icing 

2 cups All-purpose Flour
2 cups Sugar
¼ teaspoons Salt
½ cups Buttermilk
2 whole Eggs
1 teaspoon Baking Soda
1 teaspoon Vanilla
1¾ stick Butter
½ cups Peanut Butter
1 cup Boiling Water

16 ounces cream cheese, softened
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, softened
6 tablespoons whole milk
6 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted
1- 1/3 cups cocoa powder
¼ teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons vanilla extract


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. 

In a large bowl, stir together flour, sugar, and salt. Set aside. 

In a small bowl, whisk together buttermilk, eggs, baking soda, and vanilla. Set aside.
In a medium saucepan, melt 1¾  sticks butter. Stir in peanut butter until smooth. Add boiling water, let the mixture bubble up for about 10 seconds, then remove from heat.

Pour the peanut butter mixture over the flour/sugar mixture and stir until halfway combined. Pour in the buttermilk mixture and stir gently until the batter is smooth. Pour the batter into 2-9 inch cake round cake pans and smooth the surface. Bake for about 20-25 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in center comes clean, then remove it from the oven. Cool cake completely before layering and icing (see icing recipe below). 
In a medium bowl, using a mixer set at medium speed, beat the cream cheese, butter, and milk together until smooth. Add the sugar, cocoa, and salt and continue to beat until blended.
Reduce mixer speed to low, add the vanilla, and beat until smooth. Cover and chill for at least 30 minutes before using. 

Important Notes: 
Original cake recipe from Ree Drummond’s The Pioneer Woman Cooks and also at the following link:

My version of Ree’s recipe was modified only by using two round cake pans instead of a sheet or jelly roll pan, and I changed the icing since it’s a layer cake. It is sooo worth noting that I have tried her original recipe too, with her icing, and it is absolutely scrumptious—perfect for family desserts. I like changing the format and layering the cake for get-togethers just because the transport is easier and presentation is a bit fancier. 

My go-to chocolate cream cheese icing recipe is an old standby from Country Living magazine that can also be accessed below:

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Oatmeal White Chocolate Cranberry Cookies

Day 77

Alright everyone, Maggie’s daughter Taylor here, and it’s my turn to jump into the driver’s seat! I have recently been on a cookie-baking kick, and until now, all of my cookies have been mediocre at best. This one, however, knocked my socks off. Because I was so thrilled about sharing the recipe, my mom passed over the keyboard and decided to let me do the talking! So that being said, stop what you are doing, and go bake this cookie. You won’t regret it!

Photo by Taylor Fowler
Now I won’t lie to you, I find those little pre-made squares of chocolate chip cookie dough on aisle seven to be delicious. Just plain delicious. And trust me, I know how tempting it is to pick those up, especially when you have little time, a tight budget, and a sweet tooth begging for a treat. However, these cookies are not only super easy, but you also (most likely) have the majority of the ingredients. Seriously! All I had to pick up was two ingredients. So instead of reaching for those preservative filled “cookies”, run away as fast as you can and pick up the few items you need for this recipe. 

These cookies might sound like a heck of a mouthful—yes, they have more than one add-in, but that is great! They are so rich in texture and flavors, you won’t be able to stop eating them. I would even recommend eating them for breakfast with some coffee or tea. They are perfect for any time of year, but especially summer because of their light, slightly fruity bite. Yum! Now that my mouth, and hopefully yours, is watering, let’s get cooking!  

Note: I will say that I did not make up this cookie, I got the majority of it from Trisha Yearwood, on Food Network’s website, but I revised it. Now here is what you will need for my similar version! 

Oatmeal White Chocolate Cranberry Cookies

½ cup unsalted butter, softened
½ cup packed dark brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
1 tbs. vanilla extract
1 large egg
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
½ cup old fashioned oats 
1 cup dried cranberries, chopped
¾ cup white chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.  Using an electric mixer, mix the butter, the brown sugar, and the white sugar together until smooth. Then add the vanilla and egg, and continue to mix. Combine the flour and the baking soda in a separate bowl and sift them together. Then spoon this mixture slowly into the mixing bowl while it is running. When this is creamy, drop in the oats, chopped cranberries, and white chocolate chips. Then drop heaping tablespoons of the dough onto the baking sheet, two inches apart. Cook for around 13 minutes, or until the top is slightly golden brown. I personally prefer these cookies slightly undercooked, so that they are gooey inside, so if you prefer overcooked—add time.  Then let them cool on the sheet for a few minutes, then transfer them to a wire rack. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Cucumber Watermelon Feta Salad

Day 76

Here’s another recipe for your Independence Day menu! The combination of watermelon, feta, and cucumber with a vinaigrette does not sound very appealing at first, I realize. But, once you give it a try, you’ll see that the flavors blend beautifully and that the taste is absolutely superb. The flavor of the feta changes when combined with the melon, as you’ll notice that it’s softer than usual.  Feta’s trademark saltiness is perfect for the melon.

Copyright, Doug Kapustin Photography, 2014
The cucumber adds a crunch and a bitterness to cut the intense sweetness of the melon too. Somehow, the vinegar-based dressing with garlic and olive oil is the perfect touch. It is now, officially, one of my very favorite summer salads.

I see similar variations of this recipe in magazines and cookbooks almost daily. Most recently, Country Living had a version that is like the one I’m sharing today. I’ve tried several different vinaigrette variations, and I truly prefer the one below. I hope you like it too!

Happy July 4th to you and yours! May we remember the sacrifices that were made and that continue to be made every day to allow us the freedom to safely gather together and to live the American Dream. Please, let’s all hug and thank a soldier and a veteran this week, and let’s also be humbled and grateful for all they’ve done to keep us safe and free! 

Cucumber-Watermelon-Feta Salad 

2 English cucumbers, washed
4 cups seedless watermelon, cut into cubes
1 cup feta cheese, crumbled
5 tbs. red wine vinegar
6 tbs. extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. black pepper

In a salad bowl, mix red wine vinegar, garlic, salt, pepper, and olive oil. 

Using a mandolin or a sharp knife, thinly slice cucumbers, leaving peelings on. 

Place cucumbers in vinaigrette and toss to coat thoroughly. Add watermelon and gently mix. Serve within 30 minutes of adding watermelon, and just before presenting, garnish with feta cheese. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Ranch Picnic Pasta Salad

Day 75

More picnics and barbecue fare! This recipe is a fun twist on the traditional macaroni salad often served at outdoor events. Potato salad and macaroni salad are staples because they are delicious, of course, but also because they are creamy. That smooth texture is a nice contrast to the tastes of alcohol and grilled meats and veggies, and it makes us feel like we had a perfectly balanced meal, taste-wise. 

I love July 4th picnics. Not only is it a wonderfully patriotic day, it’s also a day to spend time with friends, outside, enjoying pools, fireworks, and grilled food. When we receive July 4th party invitations, I always try to bring one pasta- or potato-based salad and one fresh and light salad. This year, I’ll definitely be contributing my Ranch Picnic Pasta Salad and maybe a cucumber-watermelon-feta salad (that will be my next blog post, for sure!).

Copyright, Doug Kapustin Photography, 2014
This recipe is one that I created based on the many macaroni and creamy pasta salads I’ve eaten over the years. It’s quick and easy, and it uses a very helpful shortcut that includes bottled ranch dressing rather than homemade. Mind you, I made two pasta salads, one with bottled ranch and one with mayonnaise and seasonings. Honestly, the bottled ranch dressing, although not as healthy, held up much better for picnic presentations, so I’ll be recommending it in today’s recipe. Feel free to make your own, though, if you aren’t comfortable using a prepared variety. 

The first homemade macaroni salad I remember was made by my grandmother on my mom’s side. She added lots of mayonnaise and even diced tomatoes straight from her garden. It had flecks of color from carrots, tomatoes, onions, and green peppers, and I remember that it was very simple but satisfying. Another quite different but absolutely incredible picnic pasta salad was one I remember eating at July 4th celebrations for my father’s side of the family. Daddy’s brother, Hunt, and Hunt’s wife, Nancy, used to invite the family to their house in town for July 4th. Everyone would bring a dish, but Nancy would do most of the cooking, much to our delight. Each Independence Day, she would make a different pasta salad that was en vogue that year. Nancy must have scoured cooking magazines constantly in the days before the Internet because her food was always new and exciting with the perfect blend of modern and traditional ingredients. Come to think of it, Nancy might very well be the best cook I’ve ever known. To my knowledge, she has no formal training, but she could have cooked with the likes of Julia Child or any Food Network chef had she been given the opportunity. 

Nancy tackled the extremely complicated recipes in magazines and cookbooks that most of us skip right over; you know the ones I’m referring to—those with directions (and no explanations) like “make a simple roux” or “after blanching” or “braise then thread with saffron”. I can’t tell you how many times I have had to spend an hour Googling words or looking at other recipes to understand directions like that. Nancy is fearless, though. She has always jumped right in, and the results have been consistently incredible. Once, she invited my father and I to dinner, for which she has prepared an herbed beef roulade, oven roasted root vegetables, and broccolini salad, long before anyone really used the hybrid kale/broccoli vegetable. Dessert was her sherry-soaked fruitcake that melted in our mouths. Nancy prepared these dishes with ease, and served them with her standard, humble modesty that is such a classic—and classy— trademark of her character. I miss her delicious food, to be sure. 

Today, Nancy isn’t often in the kitchen, as she is fighting the battle of her life against a dreadful cancer. She continues to exude grace and charm, even on her hardest days, and I’ve never known such a fighter. When we see our friends and loved ones battling a devastating illness, it isn’t easy to understand. Truth be told, it angers us. But, perhaps the most difficult part of the equation is that nagging question of why such lovely people are caused so much pain and suffering. We have to leave those questions and their answers in God’s hands, but it’s not so simple. Although I don’t see Nancy nearly enough these days, in my mind she is still pouring over Bon App├ętit and Food and Wine magazines, ear-marking recipes that she’ll try when she feels up to it. I just hope I get an invitation to that meal because there’s no doubt in my mind that it will be smashing! 

So, this recipe, albeit way too easy to compare to any of yours, is dedicated to you, Aunt Nancy. And, as soon as you’re back in the kitchen, I’ll be the first to jockey for the honor of being your sous-chef in training! Maybe I’ll even learn to make your beef roulade. I love you!  

Version with farfalle pasta

Ranch Picnic Pasta Salad

1 box rotini or farfalle pasta, cooked al dente and drained
1 jar Marie’s Creamy Ranch dressing (from refrigerated produce section of supermarket)
2 medium cucumbers
20 grape tomatoes
1 red onion, finely diced
½ cup fresh dill, chopped
1 yellow bell pepper, chopped 
3 cloves garlic, minced
Salt and pepper to taste

4 slices of cooked bacon, crumbled (optional)*

While pasta is still hot, add ½ jar of the ranch dressing and mix thoroughly. Refrigerate until cool. 

Meanwhile, peel cucumbers only in sections using a vegetable peeler, leaving strips of green  for color and texture. Chop cucumber into bite-size pieces. Slice each grape tomato in half, length-wise (it’s just prettier that way).

Once the pasta is cool, add the remaining ranch dressing and all of the other ingredients. Stir gently until well combined. If you prefer an even creamier pasta salad, don’t hesitate to add just a bit more ranch dressing if you have it (or just add a little mayo mixed with garlic and onion powder). Refrigerate until ready to serve.  Sprinkle with crumbled bacon just before serving, if desired. 

*Bacon crumbles not pictured.