Retirement Brownies

Retirement has to be one of the most magical words in our language! When a person retires, they quit the hustle and bustle and hopefully do all the things they have placed on their bucket list. It’s the stuff of dreams to us working folk who are still years away from it, the proverbial carrot that moves us along when we are frustrated in our career, and reminds us that financial diligence now will quite literally pay dividends later.

Superman and I talk about our dreams and plans for retirement regularly. Do we like our current investments, or should we diversify more? Will we stay in this house? In this state? How often do we want to travel? Do we want to be snowbirds? How will we balance grandkids with our desire to travel? What if one of our parents needs to live with us? Do we buy a Lincoln or a Bel Air convertible for fun? Talking about what we desire in our retirement helps us to stay focused on our financial goals, and ensures we are on the same page when it comes to when and how and where. Plus, it’s really fun to imagine a life where every day is Saturday.

I love what retirement signifies- all the years of hard work, sacrifice, and financial planning that enables a person to stop living their life around their job, and start living their life around living! To shift gears and focus their time and attention on the things in life that truly matter. Things like enjoying time with family, that long-overdue Italian vacation, playing with the grandkids in the middle of the day in the middle of the week, and being the boss of your own time. And then there’s the smile that always accompanies the “When is your last day?” conversations. I LOVE that smile. It holds promise, adventure, peace, freedom. Retirement is a milestone in life, and I love to see and hear the excitement and joy that just oozes out of the soon-to-be-retired.

This week, a great guy that Superman has worked with for many years is retiring. Superman came home and said this gentleman had 5 days left. You could fit the rest of his working life into just one hand. Now that’s exciting! I asked him to find out what he would like for his celebration snacks. Superman told him I would like to make him whatever treats he would like- as in walk into a bakery and pick whatever you want. Without hesitation, he said brownies. Well, brownies it is! And these brownies had to be the best brownies ever- they were, after all, retirement brownies.

Truth be told, I cannot think of a single time I have sent Superman into work with brownies. What kind of person doesn’t send in brownies? They are one of my favorite things in the world, how could I have never sent them in? Well, I send things that are grab-and-go, and my brownies are very soft and crumbly, and I try to steer away from items that are a potential mess. Maybe that’s why, but I’m not really sure. My go-to treats are cookies, muffins, and their favorite treat ever- Crack! Don’t worry, I will be doing a post on Crack in the next couple months. You will understand, then, why it is called that. Getting back to what I was saying… I was so excited to make brownies for such a special occasion, so happy that this man knew exactly what he wanted, and really loved that he felt comfortable making a request. I love to bake for any reason, or no reason at all, but something like this is special. I see it as the last time I will bake for this man, and I want it to be the most delicious, baked send-off ever. I know it’s just brownies, but to me it’s so much more than just food.

The next day I went to the store to get a fresh container of Nestle cocoa powder, grabbed my favorite brownie recipe, and got to work. My favorite brownie recipe of all time is from Nestle. They do, after all, make the very best chocolate (N-E-S-T-L-E-S, Nestles makes the very best, choooooocolate). It’s their Chewy Cocoa Brownies, which cannot be beaten. They are soft, chewy, super chocolatey, and plain ole YUM! I used to make these pretty often in my huge oven-safe skillet. I would immediately serve a slice in a bowl, add a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and some chocolate syrup. We call it Skillet Brownie, and it is still one of my family’s favorite desserts of all time. You really should try it that way if you want an amazing restaurant-style treat at home.

I hope you aren’t sad that my amazing brownie recipe isn’t mine after all. There are some things in life that are so tasty they don’t need to be recreated. This recipe is one of those things. If you are looking for a little something extra, feel free to spice it up with 1/2 C chocolate chips, some mini M&M’s, or my favorite addition- peanut butter swirled into the pan right before it goes in the oven. For this occasion, however, I’m going to stick with the original, and dust with powdered sugar at the end for some presentation.

Nestle’s Chewy Cocoa Brownies

  • 1 2/3 C Sugar
  • 1 1/2 sticks Butter, melted
  • 2 T Water
  • 2 Large Eggs
  • 2 tsp. Vanilla
  • 1 1/3 C Flour
  • 3/4 C Nestle Tollhouse Baking Cocoa
  • 1/2 tsp. Baking Powder
  • 1/4 tsp. Salt
  • 3/4 C chopped Nuts (optional)
  • Powdered Sugar for dusting

PREHEAT oven to 350º F. Grease 13 x 9-inch baking pan.

COMBINE granulated sugar, butter and water in large bowl. Stir in eggs and vanilla extract. Combine flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt in medium bowl; stir into sugar mixture. Stir in nuts. Spread into prepared baking pan.

BAKE for 18 to 25 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out slightly sticky. Cool completely in pan on wire rack. Sprinkle with powdered sugar. Cut into bars.

***I made a double batch of batter and baked in a 9×13 for 30 minutes. I like thick brownies, and a double batch of batter in the pan accomplishes that. DO NOT OVERBAKE! I took the pan out of the oven the second they were baked through and set it on the cooling rack until it was completely cooled. Then dust with powdered sugar and cut into squares. There is some kind of magic that happens when you allow a pan of brownies to cool completely before slicing. (I’m not talking about personal willpower to just let them sit there, but that should be noted as well)

Normally, I would send the brownies in a Rubbermaid container and let the guys grab and go. Covid-19 made that a frowned-upon thing, so I put 1 brownie into each sandwich bag (x24) and made grab and go possible again. It should be noted that when Covid-19 hit I stopped sending in treats for 3 weeks because I was unsure of how to proceed. I knew the guys would eat them no matter what, but how would the management team feel about it? Then one day Superman came home and said there was a lot of discussion that day about how to get the treats back. The guys decided that it would be acceptable to have treats again if I was willing to put them in Ziplock bags. They seriously crack me up! These guys are used to getting treats every week, and a 3 week drought was apparently hurting their collective sweet tooth. I will not try to deny that it made me feel really good. I try to do my little part to help the 12 hour shifts seem a little less long, and the time away from family and nice weather a little more bearable. Those are my boys in there, after all, and I want them to know they are appreciated.

It takes everything within me to not eat a huge spoon of batter.
The swirl on top evens out the batter and gives a nice presentation.

Well, our retiree was very happy and his sweet tooth was satisfied. My kids were bummed that I didn’t make them their own pan of brownies, so that’s probably tonight’s agenda. When I make this recipe in the future, I will think of our new retiree and send up a prayer that he is healthy, smiling, and enjoying his well-deserved life of perpetual Saturdays. And that wonderful thought will nourish my heart.

My Mommas and Their Recipes, Part 1

Mother’s Day. The day we celebrate our moms, are celebrated as moms and mourn the moms we have lost. I have been blessed in my life to have several bonus moms- friends of my parents, my friends’ moms, and moms of the heart from many of my life paths. These women have blessed me with love, patience, counsel, and loved me like their own. Each of these incredible women have written on my heart, and made a huge impact on my life. I dedicate these posts to this amazing group of women, and thank them from the bottom of my heart for generously blessing my life.

I am going to start with my mom, Kris, since she is the reason I am here to write this blog. She well remembers my 9lb 13oz delivery. I am her middle child in birth weight and birth order. Let me just say she is a great cook! She would tell you right away that her mom was a better cook, but I have a lifetime of meals as evidence. She didn’t teach me to cook, but I learned to cook by watching her. Not exactly a recipe-follower, she would add a bit of this and a bit of that, and make something great. Growing up, friends sometimes said our house smelled like syrup. Well, my mom made us a hot breakfast every day, so pancakes were a very popular morning meal. I just remember that the house always smelled like something good was cooking. Breakfast, dinner, sometimes even late night chocolate chip cookies right out of the oven, delivered to us in our bedrooms on a napkin, as a special treat. She makes 2 things that I detest- sausage stratta and split pea with ham soup. So gross, so very gross. Other than those 2 things I will eat anything she makes.

When she and my dad first got married, she didn’t really know how to cook. For the first 2 weeks of their marriage, they had chef salads for dinner. A little later, when she was in the groove, it is said that she did something blasphemous with peas. My mom likes peas, my dad doesn’t. He does, however like her split pea with ham soup- I realize that doesn’t make sense, but that’s just how it is. Kris ruined a perfectly good tuna noodle casserole with the addition of some peas. The dinner, casserole dish and all, sailed out the door never to be seen on the dinner table again! It is a story, best told by my dad, that brings hysterical laughter as he recounts that infamous day. You would never look at him and think he would ever do such a thing, but I swear it’s a true story.

It was a tradition in my family to have your favorite food and cake on your birthday, and I have passed that on to my own kids. My middle 2 kiddos LOVE chicken and dumplings, so do I. They have asked my mom, Nana, to make them for their birthday dinner a couple times, and she does. See, I cannot make my mom’s chicken and dumplings. Though I try really hard, I never get dumplings, I get dough balls, and that’s gross. The chicken/broth part is the same, (amazing!) but I have never figured out the dumplings. This is why they ask her to make it for their birthdays. I accept their reasoning, agree with them, and forgive them for their treason.

When I was about 14 or 15 my dad was laid off for several months, so my mom worked a few nights a week as a banquet waitress during that time to make up the difference. Feeding 5 kids is very expensive! On nights she worked, she didn’t make dinner before she left. My dad’s solution was to say, “Girls, cook dinner.” In all fairness, I think the only things my dad knew how to cook back then were pancakes and stuff on the grill. Since my 2 older sisters were involved with sports and friends, I cooked dinner. I did not do a great job by any means, but I eventually figured it out and no one died of food poisoning. Sure there were flops- lots of them. An apple pie with waaaaaay too much salt (probably should have been sugar), and some very very well done meat and vegetables reared their ugly heads, but eventually I did alright. I even got brave enough to try my hand at baking, which is when the apple pie of death came to be. Through all of my mistakes and successes, I learned what do, and what not to do. The experiences I had during that time are why I love to cook and bake so much now. None of my siblings enjoy cooking or baking like I do, and I am so grateful that I learned to cook and bake when and how I did.

When I asked my mom for her chicken and dumplings recipe she said, “I don’t have one. Should I make one up?” No, Mom, you don’t have to make one up. But then I asked her to because this recipe is just too good not to share. So here it is, exactly as she sent it to me.

Kris’ Chicken and Dumplings

3 lb stewing or roasting chicken (thawed). Remove as much skin as possible. Using a large kettle, add chicken stock or water, celery, diced onion, salt & pepper. Cook with breast side down. Bring to a boil, then simmer.

When meat is fork-tender, remove from kettle. Allow to cool a bit, then clean meat from the bones, cut into bite size pieces. Remove celery and cut into bite sized pieces, then put back in broth. Add 1 or 2 cans cream of mushroom soup undiluted (depending on how much broth you have) to the broth and stir well. Bring to a slow boil.

Using Bisquick Mix (a little more baking soda flavor than Jiffy Mix) mix 3 Cups mix with 1 Cup milk. Drop by rounded serving spoons into boiling stew. Cover and reduce heat to low. After 10 minutes, remove lid and continue cooking for 5+ minutes. Move dumplings to covered casserole dish. Stir any lumps of dumplings remaining to thicken sauce. Add chicken back to stew and heat through. Serve immediately.

Quinn would love to be the official chicken taste tester. She’s been hovering around the stove for the last hour with puppy dog eyes.
I cannot explain how incredibly delicious this is.! Even Little Guy, who is sooooo picky, liked it. I’ll be eating this for lunch until it’s gone. YUM!!!

Well, miracle of miracles, I only had 3 dough balls and the rest were absolutely perfect dumplings! The secret is to not crowd the broth and make the dumplings in 2 batches. Well worth the time to end up with delicious perfection. Thanks, Mom, for the incredible recipe. Love you.

Takeout during Quarantine, because we want out favorite hangouts to be open when we can go out again

I had it all planned, a steaming bowl of stew and a thick, buttered slice of homemade bread for dinner. I was gathering all of ingredients when Superman called and said he was on his way home from work- 3 hours early. So my plans got moved to tomorrow, which is fine. The best laid plans and all that. Tomorrow’s forecast is more rain, which had put me in the soup and bread mood in the first place. Could I still have made soup and bread? Yes. Or I could have made something else. But we decided to get takeout instead.

I suggested Mustachio’s, which is our local bar/restaurant. They have a ribeye steak sandwich that Superman loves. We have ties with this family- he and my dad were Union Electricians together forever, Superman worked at the station with him until he retired, I used to teach with their daughter, and our older kids went to school with their grandkids, and we all live in the same town. Phew! See? Small town living at its finest. We also really love the place. They have great food, it’s cozy, we are sure to see several people we know every time we go in, and we love supporting our friends’ business. We have attended several parties on their enclosed patio, and we do a family dinner there every month or 2.

During the craziness of Covid-19 and quarantine, we have made it a point to order takeout about every week or 2 from one of our favorite local establishments. We get pizza delivery from our favorite, Geo’s Pizza, or as it’s called in our house, Fifi’s Pizza. We get amazing grinders from Bellacino’s a town over. Sometimes you just need to see something other than your walls, so the short drive is a bonus. Carson’s Tap House also has great burgers and appetizers, which are a real treat. These places are important to us. The owners, employees, and customers are important to us. We want our favorite establishments to make it through this crisis, and when the world opens back up, we will continue to support them because they are a part of our community, and we love our community. And while I’m on the subject of love, don’t forget to tip your server. We all need a little extra love right now, and tips really do make a difference.

But what if your finances have been impacted by Coronavirus? What if ordering takeout is not an option for you right now? Can you still help somehow? ABSOLUTELY! *Leave a review on their website, FaceBook, or Yelp page. Tell about a great experience you had there. The things that you love about it are most likely the things others will love about it. *Send a note to the owners/staff. As in “snail mail.” Receiving an encouraging note in the mail is one of the greatest gifts in life! Thank them for your great experiences there, encourage them during this hard time, and tell them you’ll be there when all of this is over. *Suggest one of your favorite hangouts if getting takeout comes up in conversation. Do some word-of-mouth advertising for them. You may not be able to order right now, but maybe your friends can. *Pray for local businesses and those who work there. We can all use extra prayers right now.

Our takeout order was, by the way, DELICIOUS!!! As much as I love love love to cook, I also enjoy a night with more time to snuggle on the couch with Superman. No mess, no cleanup, just great food and conversation with my family. That nourishes my heart.

Taking a Meal to a Grieving Family, because it’s more than just food

I have said this many times about myself- food is my love language. Plow our driveway in the winter? Here’s a batch of dinner rolls. Have a new baby? Here’s a couple meals to throw in the freezer. Come home from vacation? Here’s breakfast, half and half for your coffee, and dinner. This is how I was raised. My mom brought a meal to everyone she knew when life events happened, and that is part of who I am. She never discussed the “why” with us, she modeled the behavior and probably never thought twice about it. But as I watched her bring a meal to those she loved, something became very clear- it’s more than just food. Sound familiar? If you read the tag line of my blog, you now know where that’s from and what it means. A meal can be so much more than food when it is given in love.

I have been on both sides of this gift, and it is one of my very favorite things in the world. As the receiver, I am humbled and so appreciative of the kindness and generosity of my food angel. We have been blessed with meals each time one of our babies was born, after I had surgery, and even just because. After your baby is born, the last thing you want to do is put him/her down to go cook dinner. Having an oven-ready meal is truly the best! Bring it in a disposable container and you’ve made my Christmas list forever. Post-surgery meals are such a blessing. Healing from surgery is painful and just plain exhausting. Knowing there is a delicious meal ready for the oven is a life-saver. Friends usually bring their signature dish, so you are sure to be treated to an amazing meal. And there’s always left-overs for lunch the next day, Mm mmm! My mom normally asks if there’s anything that sounds especially good, and I always say the same 2 or 3 things that have been my favorites since childhood. I am super spoiled because when both of our moms come visit and bring a meal, they usually tidy up the kitchen too, knowing how a sink full of dishes raises my blood pressure. God Bless our Mommas!!

So how is it more than just food? It’s love, caring, excitement, support, and help. We can’t always make a situation better, ease pain, or mend a broken heart, but we can show up in the lives of our loved ones and hand over delicious nutrition that feeds the body as well as the soul. Food given in this way says “I love you” and “I am here for you” and “I am so excited to welcome this baby” and “My heart breaks with yours.” It’s the effort and the time taken to prepare and deliver the meal that shows your love and support in a physical, nutritious way. There are many life situations that words cannot help, but our actions shout through the chaos, and whisper support in lonely hours.

I’m in one of those moments as I write this. In my life I have been blessed to have many extra sets of parents- a couple I love and respect, and can go to for advice or encouragement at any time, and be accepted like their own child. We just lost half of one of those amazing couples to a long battle with cancer. I’m lost! We knew it was coming, we were praying that God would be merciful and end his suffering, and yet I am in a shocked fog. With Covid-19 keeping us housebound, there will be no wake, no funeral, no “normal” way to gather and grieve and support and remember, and laugh. There is no closure for the foreseeable future, and my heart desires the comfort I know is in the arms of my childhood friends who are all part of our huge, made-up family of friends. I need to cry with them, grieve with them, and remember old times and old stories with them. I want to wrap my arms around my extra mom and their kids and tell them how sorry I am, and that I loved their dad so much. I want to join with them in grief and in celebrating the life of a good and faithful servant. But we can’t. For now.

When God closes a door, he opens a window. We cannot gather together, but I can reach out with messages and phone calls and cards. And I can put my love into food and leave it on a doorstep with a prayer for peace that passes all understanding. I can pray that The Comforter will comfort my loved ones in their time of grief. When I take a meal to loved ones who are grieving, I pray that God will do and be all of the things that they need, and I trust that He will.

What do I take? In my experience, the first few days after a death brings the most food to the house. So I like to wait a few days before I make my delivery. Keep it simple! Bringing a dish that requires attention is not helpful, which is why pasta always seems to be popular. Pan of pasta, loaf of bread, bag of salad, done! Think, refrigerator to oven to table to eat. If cooking isn’t exactly your forte, try pre-made club sandwiches with a couple bags of chips and some soda. Throw one meal’s worth of half-sandwiches in a disposable container with small jars of mustard and mayo. Voila! Soup is another great idea, since it can be heated up for all to eat, or a bowl as needed. I once received a gift card for pizza delivery, and it was a God-send about 3 weeks later. Snacks are also a great idea- chips, crackers and cheese, fresh fruit- things you have to go out to the store and get. And don’t forget the coffee and half and half, and paper plates so that dishes are minimized.

A gallon of milk, loaf of bread, package of bacon, a dozen eggs-breakfast at their leisure. This can actually be a great thing when the family all works together to make breakfast. The teamwork aspect brings smiles to faces and leads to positive conversations at the table. Breakfast can be overlooked in the meal delivery world, so try that. I often make breakfast pockets out of crescent roll dough that I fill with cooked & crumbled bacon or sausage, scrambled eggs, and cheese. Cook until the crescent is just done (don’t overcook) so they can be re-heated in the oven/microwave/toaster oven in just a few minutes. I cool and separate with parchment paper and throw in a gallon ziplock bag. These are great for throwing in the freezer for later, or eating the next day.

As you peruse your recipes, look for tried and true dishes that can be delivered in oven-ready fashion, or are heat-and-eat. While you’re at it, make a double batch and have it for your own dinner, or give the second one as a freezer meal for a later date. I normally rotate between the same 5 things when delivering a meal because I am confident in the ease of cooking and consistent flavors. Some days I have time to make homemade bread or rolls, other days I head to the store and grab a great looking loaf of bakery bread and some real butter. Remember, it’s more than just food, so put your love into the meal, and your loved ones will feel your support with each bite.

Melt in your mouth Steak and Mushrooms with Seasoned, Grilled Potatoes

One of my friends sent me a meme a couple years back that said “I love cooking with wine, sometimes it even goes in the food!” Well, this recipe is kinda like that. A bottle of red met its end with this recipe, and some of it even went in the food!

This is Big Poppy. I’m driving, and that thing on my thigh is my Omnipod insulin pump, but none of that is important. Carlos, as he’s know to others, is one of my very dearest friends’ dad, and he was here visiting from El Salvador about 3 years ago. Big Poppy was 87 years old then, and has since passed away, leaving my friend with a huge hole in her heart and some amazing memories. Truth be told, it was at times a very challenging month that he stayed with her. He laid down the law right away about what he was not going to be eating, like no chicken, and no pasta. We all know beef can be expensive, and to a single mom it can be even more challenging. He was also having some memory issues, and sometimes it stressed everyone to suddenly have Grandpa in the house ordering people around and having a schedule and habits that were different. And then there was the Spanglish he spoke… But even with the challenges, it is a month my sweet friend will forever cherish, and the greatest amount of time her boys got to spend with their grandfather from so far away. Being able to have that time, those conversations, the experiences, and the discovery of quirks she never knew existed was a gift that she will hold on to for the rest of her life.

It was probably about half way through the visit when we were talking on the phone and I could tell she was tired and just needed a break. So I invited them out to our house for lunch and a boat ride. Knowing Big Poppy’s menu requests, I made filet mignon with mushrooms and grilled summer vegetables. Let’s just say he was very excited to see a big ole steak on his plate, that carnivore! He scarfed lunch down while flirting like a teenager with me, and telling us hysterical stories. He even ratted-out his own daughter about a couple things to her boys-they LOVED that! When lunch was done he wanted to have his picture taken while sitting in the captain’s chair on our boat. His smile beamed! Then he saw the jetski and wanted a ride. I think my friend had a heart attack right then and there and tried to talk him out of it, but you don’t talk Poppy out of anything. So I put on my swimsuit, grabbed us both lifejackets, and promised her I would’t throw her dad off the back. It was the most special jetski ride I have ever taken. Poppy held on to me for dear life, but he wasn’t scared. He was taking the opportunity to flirt a little more and snuggle. He kept telling me to go faster, but I wouldn’t because I didn’t want to have to explain how he ended up in the water right after I had promised I would return the 87 year old man in one piece. Needless to say, he loved the jetski, and the smile on his face was the biggest I had ever seen. Big Poppy was on top of the world that day. He made sure he had all the pictures printed before he went back to El Salvador so he could brag to everyone and show them the proof.

It was, so I am told, the highlight of his trip. When Big Poppy was in the hospital right before he passed away, my friend went to El Salvador to see him. He told every nurse the story of the jetski and made her show the pictures. He was still so excited about it! Knowing how much that meant to him is something that blesses my soul. That nourishes my heart. He didn’t tell stories about the incredible steak and mushrooms I made for him, and I have forgiven him for that, but that day was so much more than food. When we share a meal with friends or strangers, wonderful things happen. God had His hand in that day, and it is something I will always be thankful for.

Melt in your Mouth Steak

  • Steak of your choosing (I used Ribeye and Filet Mignon)
  • 1 Bottle red wine, divided (I used a sweet red)
  • 1/4 C Worcestershire Sauce (yes, I had to google that spelling)
  • 2 pinches of dry thyme (I prefer fresh Thyme and Rosemary, but they weren’t available at my local grocery store)
  • Put steaks in a gallon ziplock bag, sprinkle with thyme, add wine and Worcestershire sauce.
  • Get out as much air as you can from the bag and kneed it a bit to make sure everything is mixed and coated well.
  • Put in refrigerator to marinate (at least 2 hours or up to a day before grilling)

**About 30 minutes before the steaks go on the grill, I start the mushrooms and peel and slice the potatoes for the grill.

Sliced potatoes and a glass of red wine

Steak Mushrooms

  • slice 16 oz of white button mushrooms, or you can purchase the pre-sliced kind
  • over medium heat, melt 4 T butter and add 1/4 Cup Worcestershire Sauce
  • Add mushrooms to this mixture and stir to evenly coat
  • Pepper to taste (don’t salt yet because Worcestershire may be salty enough)
  • Lower heat to low/medium low, cover with lid, let slow simmer, stirring occasionally
  • When steaks go on the grill PUT THE MARINADE INTO MUSHROOM PAN, stir, cover, and continue to cook mushrooms over low/medium low heat until steaks are done

Seasoned, Grilled Potatoes

  • 1 lb Red potatoes, peeled, rinsed, and sliced 1/4 inch thick
  • 4 T butter
  • 1T Herbs de Provance
  • salt and pepper

Place sliced potatoes in the middle of a long piece of tin foil 18″ long or so. Sprinkle potatoes with Herbs de Provance, salt, and pepper. Cube 4T butter and place over potatoes. Bring sides of foil together over the middle and crimp/roll down. Roll ends inward so butter does not leak out. Place on the grill when you start it, so potatoes can begin cooking. You can also cook in the oven at 425 for 35 minutes. Serve right out of the foil packet.

I tried to get a photo of everything perfectly placed on the plate, but my family couldn’t keep from devouring their dinner, so… Make it yourself and send me your picture-perfect plate in the Comments section.

This was the only pic I could get

Easy, Cozy Chili and Cornbread

Yesterday was cold. Like the windy, damp, cloudy, brrrrr kind of cold. So what’s a Midwestern girl to do? Make some chili and cornbread of course!

I’m one of those people who gravitate to a steaming bowl of comfort food when it’s cold or rainy. On days like that, all I wanna do is curl up with a book and blanket and make soup and bread. Soup and bread, or any of the foods I consider comfort food, warms my soul in a physical way that begins when I decide what to make.

Comfort food is something that I have discovered means different things to people. Sometimes it’s Grandma’s famous recipe. Other times it’s what your mom made every holiday. One person told me their comfort food was Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup from the can because that’s what their mom made every time they were sick. Another said roast with potatoes and carrots because it was his favorite thing his grandma served when the family gathered for Sunday dinner. It’s so much more than the actual food; it’s the emotions, memories, smells, and feelings from your life’s experience that actually season the food. So whatever your comfort food is, savor every morsel and memory.

The chili I make is one of many forms of comfort food to me. Super simple, has only a few ingredients, and requires attention at the beginning, but is mostly self-sufficient after that. You can have this meal on the table in 45 minutes if you need to, and I have needed to, but I prefer a 2 hour chili if possible. You’ll see what I mean…

Easy, Cozy Chili

  • 3/4 stalk celery washed and sliced
  • 1 1/2 lbs ground beef
  • 3T dried minced onion or 1/2 onion chopped
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 large can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 can tomatoes with green chilis (Rotel)
  • 1 can beans rinsed (kidney, pinto, cannellini)
  • 1 package chili seasoning
  • 1 large can tomato juice

I begin with most of a stalk of celery, washed and chopped. Throw that in my heavy dutch oven with about 1/4 C water, cover, and put on medium-high heat to begin steaming. I let that do its magic for about 5 minutes, stirring once or twice and making sure there’s liquid so it doesn’t scorch. Then add ground beef, minced onion, salt and pepper and chop up. I cannot live without my Pampered Chef Mix N Chop. Seriously, I have 2 and I would take more in a heartbeat. It makes cooking ground beef (turkey/chicken/pork) so easy, and there are no huge chunks of meat after this baby does its duty. It also chops the big celery chunks- bonus! Trust me, you NEED this in your kitchen. I drop my heat to medium, cover and let cook for a few minutes, uncover and give a chop and a stir, cover and let cook for a few, uncover and give a chop and stir, you get what I’m doing. **In a hurry? When meat is cooked and celery is tender, drain excess grease and continue adding ingredients. **Have some time before dinner? Drop the heat down to low and let slow simmer and tenderize for an additional 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally and being careful to not let meat scorch. Allowing the meat to slow simmer gives your the most tender ground beef and takes the flavor over the top. I could make a meal out of this after the slow simmer, and maybe I have. Me, a bowl of meat, and a spoon. Don’t judge me! After you try it you’ll get me.

After the meat is tenderized to my liking, I drain the excess grease, add the crushed tomatoes, can of beans (rinsed), can of tomatoes with green chilis, and packet of seasoning. Then comes the tomato juice. Stir all of that together and bring back to a low boil/simmer. Turn the heat down to low, give a stir, cover with the lid, and let the flavors marinate and become delicious, cozy and comforting. I like to let mine do this for at least 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure nothing gets stuck on the bottom and burns.

It is at this point that I start my cornbread. This cornbread could get me in a lot of trouble- the eating it all by myself and not sharing kind of trouble. It’s just so flipping good! So what makes it so amazing? 3 little ingredients. I am not a believer in reinventing the wheel for no good reason, so I use the little boxes of Jiffy cornbread mix. They are tried and true, and I bump their goodness up with my additions and create cornbread nirvana.

Lisa’s Cornbread

  • 2 boxes Jiffy Cornbread Mix
  • 2 eggs
  • 2/3 Cup milk
  • 2T sour cream (optional)
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg
  • Honey or agave syrup

Spray 9×13 pan with cooking spray. Preheat oven to 400. Add eggs, milk, sour cream, and nutmeg to mixing bowl and mix until combined. Add cornbread mix and stir until incorporated. Pour into 9×13 pan and drizzle honey or agave syrup over the top. Bake 15-20 minutes until just cooked and toothpick comes out clean. DO NOT OVERBAKE! Remove from oven.

The finished product

My favorite way of eating this is to put cornbread in the bottom of the bowl, add chili and a dollop of sour cream, and stir. Plus a piece (or 5) of cornbread on the side with some butter on top. The nutmeg in the cornbread adds a subtle little flavor that balances nicely with the spice from the chili. And on its own? Oh yikes, you have no idea how addicted you are gonna be to this cornbread! My husband is a chili with cheddar cheese and oyster crackers, with buttered cornbread on the side kind of guy. I’ll allow it cause he’s adorable.

This makes great leftovers for lunch, or even another night of dinner. You may need to make more cornbread though. Ours never lasts longer than the next day. I promise this chili and cornbread will warm your body and soul. Comfort food for the dreary-day win!

Grandma Emily’s Butter Cookies

This recipe is at least 60 years old, but that doesn’t mean it’s history. This recipe is like the famous kind of history, and it is a recipe that has become associated with me because of how often I make these incredible cookies. I have never been able to find out where the original recipe came from, none of Grandma Emily’s kids have any idea. So who is Grandma Emily? Well, she’s not my grandma. Grandma Emily was my mom’s best friend’s mom. Did you follow that? Grandma Emily was a wonderful woman and sweet sweet grandma to all. I will always remember for making these ah-may-zing cookies, which our family calls Cut-Outs.

These are NOT sugar cookies. They are butter cookies, made with butter. Butter, which is the secret to life, (a Johnson Team motto) makes these cookies light and airy and delicious. This recipe does require refrigeration time of at least 2 hours, the original recipe says overnight. I take it out of the fridge 30-40 minutes before I need it so it can warm up ever so slightly so it’s easier to roll out.

One more story before I share the secret of these soon-to-be-your-favorite-cookies. Years ago I kept my dear friend’s pre-school aged daughter, Rebekah, 2 afternoons a week. Rebekah was my buddy when she was in pre-school. She hung out with me when she came over, not with the other kids. We baked cookies every time she was at the house- her favorite kind was Cut-Outs made in different shapes with colorful, delicious frosting. Rebekah took a plate of cut-outs home with her each time for her family. One day she shared one of her cookies with her Papa and said the funniest thing that we still laugh about to this day. “Papa, Lisa makes cut-out cookies every day. She does! EVERY. DAY!” Ha Ha. Well, I don’t, but in Rebekah’s 3 year old mind I did. So adorable!

Butter Cookies

  • 3 sticks butter, softened
  • 2 Large eggs
  • 1 C sugar
  • 2 T milk
  • 1 T vanilla
  • 3 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 4 C flour, divided

Cream butter, eggs, and sugar until white in color. I use my big KitchenAid mixer for this recipe with the paddle attachment. I whip the butter on its own for a few seconds before I add in the eggs and sugar. Scrape down the bowl once or twice during this process. Then add the milk, vanilla, baking powder, and salt to the bowl. Continue to mix until well incorporated. Scrape down the bowl again.

Add 3 C flour to the wet ingredients in the bowl and mix well. Scrape down the bowl, then add the 4th cup of flour and mix again. **Don’t get in a hurry and forget the 4th cup of flour. I did that once, ONCE, and let’s just say the cookies were not the same. To make sure I never repeat that mistake, I add the 3 cups to the mixer and immediately measure out my 4th cup and set it right next to the mixer. A full cup of flour on the counter is hard to overlook.**

4th cup of flour ready to go

When the dough has mixed well, transfer the dough to a gallon Ziplock bag for its time in the refrigerator. You certainly can cover your mixing bowl and throw it in the fridge, or transfer it to another container to put in the fridge, but a Ziplock bag takes up very little space, and the cleanup from it is nonexistent, which I love. I smoosh the bag flat and get the extra air out, then seal. I use a Ziplock bag because that is what my mom used, and I appreciate her genius in that. Off to the refrigerator it goes for at least 2 hours, but Grandma Emily would put it there overnight.

We are fancy here at the Johnson’s

Take dough out of the fridge 30-40 minutes before you want to roll out the dough. This will allow you to manipulate the dough easily, rather than try to flatten it when it’s hard. You will need some flour to dust under your dough, and for your rolling pin. I find that I have to flour the rolling pin often. Roll until it’s about 1/4″ thick. If the dough is too thin, they will bake too fast, and you are in danger of burning the cookies. Too thick and they will take forever to bake and not have the correct texture. We are going for the perfect cookie-to-frosting ratio here, and 1/4″ dough will get that accomplished.

Once your dough is rolled out to 1/4″ thickness, grab a cookie cutter, dip it in some flour, and begin cutting out your cookies. I I always challenge myself to cut the exact amount of cookies to fill my sheet with my first roll-out. There’s no reason for this, but I find myself doing it every time and feeling victorious when it happens. Confession- I sneak a bite of dough as my victory trophy, it’s a wonderful treat.

Bake at 350 for 13-15 minutes until cookies are no longer doughy feeling, but not browned. I HATE over-baked cookies. I’m a soft cookie kind of girl. Over-baked cookies go in the garbage at the Johnson house. Take the cookie sheet out of the oven and place on cooling rack for about 5 minutes to cool some before transferring cookies to the cooling rack to cool completely. Continue until all cookies are baked and cooled. I like to to place cooled cookies into an airtight container until I frost them, just to make sure they stay as soft as possible.

Frosting the Cookies

This frosting recipe is the only one I use for these cookies. When I decorate cakes I use this same recipe, but I add a bit more powdered sugar so the frosting is a little more sturdy for piping and decorations. I love how this frosting stays soft, yet hardens enough so you can stack the cookies for packing. And, it’s DELICIOUS!!

My mom has used this recipe for my entire life (don’t ask how many years that is) and makes it a bit different than I do. I use her recipe, but with my tweaks. I previously told you that I change something in every recipe I use, and my mom does not exactly love when I do that to her recipes. I can’t help it. If I think an addition or substitution would improve the flavor, I do it. Sometimes it’s fantastic and my recipe changes, other times it’s not a winner and I revert to the original recipe until I try something new again.

Decorating Frosting

  • 1/2 C water
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 C Powdered Coffee Creamer (I use vanilla flavored creamer)
  • 2 tsp vanilla (I use clear vanilla if I want to make white frosting)
  • 3/4 Cup Butter Flavored Crisco (I use regular Crisco if I need white frosting)
  • 1 bag powdered sugar

Put all ingredients into mixing bowl. I use my small KitchenAid for this with the whisk attachment. It’s the perfect sized mixer for this amount of frosting. **NOTE: I start off with about 3/4 of the powdered sugar and mix on the lowest setting so powdered sugar does not fly out of the bowl and make a huge mess. When I am no longer in danger of flying powdered sugar, I add the rest and begin mixing on the lowest setting until it is incorporated enough to not go flying.

Scrape down the bowl a couple times to ensure all ingredients are being incorporated. I like to get lots of air into my frosting and make sure it is creamy as possible, so I put it on the highest speed and leave it for about 5 minutes until it’s whipped and mixed into yummy deliciousness.

So fluffy and beautiful

Tinting and frosting

I use small glass bowls when I tint my frosting, and put about 1 C of frosting in each. Because it is glass, I can look on the bottom side and make sure I got all of the white frosting so there are no surprises later on. Since we were making Easter cookies, we wanted pastels, so we used 3 drops of liquid food coloring to make yellow, green, and blue. Pink required only 2 drops of red food coloring. You can use a regular butter knife to spread the frosting, but I like to use dip spreaders because they work better for little kid hands, and they actually do a great job. One dip spreader per color as long as no one licks it, not saying anyone would ever do such a thing, but just so it’s said. Generally, I put about 1 heaping Tablespoon on each cookie to start, and scrape extra back into its color if it’s too much. If you have never spread frosting on cookies before, it is not difficult to get the hang of it, but there is a trick or two to getting the frosting to go where you want it to. By cookie #3 you should be an expert, and if you aren’t you can just eat the cookie right then and there and destroy the evidence YUM!

Flower cookies are a bit trickier than eggs because of the petals. Too much power behind your spreader and you could lose a petal. Eat the evidence and blame the dog, or use a bit of frosting as glue and no one will ever know. I hold the cookies in my left hand and frost with my right. Being able to twist and turn the cookie is very helpful, I do not recommend trying to frost cookies flat on a surface.

You can use piping bags and decorator tips to put the white outline and decorations on, but for simple things like this that are more about the fun family experience than looking picture perfect, I use a sandwich size Ziplock bag. Put about 1 cup of frosting into one half of the baggie and smoosh the frosting toward one bottom corner. Spin the top of the baggie so it resembles a piping bag. Make a small cut near the corner to create a hole for the frosting to come through. Using one hand to hold the bag steady and do the piping and the other to apply pressure to the bag, trace outlines, make dots, even write on the cookies. This is another thing that you just need a couple minutes to get the feel for. If you make a mistake, you can use a toothpick to pick off the rogue frosting, or the end of a knife. The rogue frosting is required to be eaten to atone for the mistake- house rules.

Use you imagination, have fun, laugh, and make cookie decorating a fun and delicious experience for everyone. One of the best things about decorating cookies with kids is that nothing has to be perfect because the fact that it was made by a kiddo makes them the most adorable and best tasting cookies ever. I have decorated cookies with almost every child I know, and I have never had a child not enjoy the experience. Sometimes I bake the cookies, make and tint the frosting, and package it all up to be delivered to families so they can do the fun stuff together without the prep. Hearing about how much fun they all had decorating cookies together is one of my most favorite things. And I know that Grandma Emily would love knowing that people are still enjoying her cookies after she passed away. Thank you, Grandma Emily for the gift of your amazing recipe.

Little Guy loves him some cut-outs!

Easter Egg Fun

Since Easter is Sunday and it is Thursday, I finally let my Little Guy open the PAAS egg coloring box kit. He’s been drooling over it for about 5 days, and today was the day. We waited for Big Sister (18) to finish what she was doing and then the fun began.

I made 2 dozen eggs in my Instant Pot in about 20 minutes. I LOVE LOVE LOVE the Instant Pot! I got these great attachments/inserts from Amazon, and they work like a champ to be able to get the eggs out without breaking eggs or or burning me. Use the Egg setting for 13 minutes, add about 1 C of water to the Instant Pot, close the lid, and go prepare the dye.

Big Sister was in charge of the 1T vinegar per cup, (and later the 1/2 C water) Little Guy added the dye tablets. I was responsible for the mish-mosh collection of coffee cups to get all 8 colors going at once. The tablets fizzed while we watched and “ooh” “aahh” the fiz while the eggs cooked. When the eggs were done we released the pressure and took out the inner pot and put it in the sink so we could run cold water over the eggs. This took 2 fillings of cold water to get them nice and cold.

And then the magic began. We always write our family members’ names on an egg so we all have our own special egg. Then there’s the silly pictures and goofy things that are written and drawn on the extra eggs to see if anyone can figure out the mystery. We had a fun time laughing, joking, and creating fun while the eggs soaked and the colors transformed the eggs. *I admit I love the robin’s egg blue color the best. That color egg has always been my favorite.

While dying, Big Sister decided to add a little Sharpie to the egg fun. She has more artistic talent in her pinky fingernail than I have in my whole body. Of course, Little Guy wasn’t long in asking for the Sharpie so he could show his own skills. This is our kind of eggs. Nothing fancy, no stress for the perfect eggs. Just good fun and colored fingertips. And that’s how we do it on the Johnson Team.

Happy Easter everyone. Blessings to all!

Breakfast for Dinner

When was the last time you ate a delicious breakfast at home? I’m not talking about a smoothie as you get ready, or a granola bar as you get dressed.  I mean really making a great breakfast for yourself and/or your family.  

Why not have breakfast for dinner?  It’s one of my very favorite things to make for dinner.  Maybe it’s because of the juxtaposition of what I have accepted as “morning” foods and “evening” foods.  Maybe because it’s out of the ordinary. Maybe because I really REALLY love breakfast foods. The hassle and hustle of busy mornings getting ready for school and work sometimes make it impossible to have a real, descent breakfast.  So why not have a great breakfast when you  can actually enjoy it? Whatever reason you decide to give it a go, you will be so glad you did.  Breakfast food (and I do NOT mean a bowl of cold cereal) is warm, and simple, and comforting. Think of all the possibilities!  Pancakes, bacon, toast, scrambled eggs. That is some serious Heaven right there. Give me a plate of fresh scrambled eggs and toast and I will hum happiness as I eat.  Sprinkle a little shredded cheese in the pan while the eggs cook and you will have me eating out of your hands. Do ya feel my fondness?  

Scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, bacon, and toast is one of the best dinners possible.  Easy prep, easy cleanup, easy to love. It’s a meal the whole family can work together to get on the table quickly, and it’s a great way to make the kids feel part of the whole thing.  

Fried Potatoes (feeds 4-6) Cook time: 20-25 minutes

2 cans whole potatoes (open can and drain)

3 Green Onions- sliced thin

4T Butter or oil of your choice (I like Avocado oil)

Salt & Pepper

I like to use my large deep skillet for fried potatoes.  Over medium heat melt butter (or oil of choice) and add sliced green onions.  Using an egg slicer, slice whole potatoes and add them to the skillet. When all potatoes are sliced and in skillet, season with some salt and pepper.  Give a stir with a pancake turner, put lid on the skillet, and let cook for 5 min. Uncover and flip potatoes, making sure your heat isn’t too hot. We wanna get a little crisp, not burn. Cook for 5 minutes covered.  Uncover and flip potatoes. Do you need another T of butter or oil? You may. Just remember we are not actually frying the potatoes like a deep fryer would, they just need something to crisp in.  Cover and cook another 5 min. How do they look? Everyone likes a different level of crisp, so you may be done, others will need another 5-10 min based on personal taste.  We are a crispy fried potatoes kind of family, so we need lots of cook time. 

Sausage in a skillet takes 10-ish minutes to cook.  Bacon in the microwave (which is how I cook it cause I hate when my house smells like bacon for a week) takes 5-10 min depending on how many batches you make.   Since you want everything done about the same time, plan your production schedule accordingly.

Scrambled eggs with cheese 

2 eggs per person

1T shredded cheddar cheese per person

½-1T milk per person

Butter to cook eggs in (or cooking spray if you like that option)

Crack eggs into bowl, add milk and shredded cheese and mix with a fork until incorporated.  

Pour into a large skillet over medium-low heat with butter melted. Season with salt and pepper.

**Good scrambled eggs are cooked slowly, not overcooked, and need almost constant stirring so they cook evenly.   Dedicate a few minutes to these eggs and I promise you will be an eternal fan of cheesy scrambled eggs.  

I like to scrape the bottom cooked layer of eggs off to the sides of the pan and let the uncooked eggs fill the center.  This is the constant stirring part. Just keep it movin’! Tumble and flip and stir.