Thursday, April 29, 2010

In the Kitchen: Sugar Free Peanut Butter Muffins and Pudding

Today's recipes are the first of many sugar-free and naturally sweetened desserts and snacks that I'll be sharing with you here on the blog. With many sugar free recipes, there are often variations and substitutions you can make in the type of natural sweetener you use, as well as other ingredients, that will affect the flavor and sweetness of the dish, so in addition to the basic ingredients, you will see these substitutions listed along with notes on how to sweeten the dish even more with ingredients that may add sugar, for those who are trying to cut back or eat healthy but aren't ready to entirely cut out sugar.

If you're not used to eating sugar free treats, even at their sweetest these recipes may take some getting used to, but the more you cut excess sugar out of your diet, the sweeter natural foods will taste.

I especially love these muffins. I call them my power muffins! Packed with peanut butter, whole wheat and a touch of honey for sweetness, they are perfect for a grab and go breakfast, mid day snack or served with soup or salad for lunch or dinner. Drizzle on a bit on honey or natural fruit jam for a healthy dessert alternative. If peanut butter isn't your thing, try using almond or cashew butter. There are many ways to customize these muffins to suit your tastes and dietary needs.


2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1/3 cup natural peanut butter
1/3 cup honey
1/4 cup oil
1 1/4 cups original or vanilla* soy, almond or rice milk

*Note that some vanilla milks have a form of sugar in them. If you use a plain milk you can try adding 1/4 - 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract to the muffins for a little extra flavor.

You can use any kind of natural nut butter in these muffins such as almond, cashew or hazelnut in place of the peanut butter for a different taste or in case of allergies. You can also use any type of molasses in place of the honey. Try blackstrap molasses for an extra boost of iron!

Stir flour and baking powder in a bowl, set aside. Mix peanut butter, oil, honey and milk in a separate large bowl until smooth.

The peanut butter tends to clump in the middle, so I find a whisk especially useful. A glass bowl also lets you look at the bottom to see if it's mixed thoroughly.

Add the dry mixture to the liquid mixture and stir with minimal strokes, do not beat.

Batter will be a little lumpy looking. Line 12 muffin tins with paper (or grease and flour) and fill about two thirds full.

Bake in a preheated 350° F oven for 20 - 25 minutes, until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.

· · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·

Continuing with the peanut butter (yes, it's my favorite!), here is a super quick and easy recipe to create a healthy, sugar free pudding. This recipe can also be made using different nut butters such as almond or hazelnut.


1 small ripe banana
1/2 cup plain or vanilla* nonfat yogurt
1/2 cup natural peanut butter (or any nut butter)
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

*I prefer to use vanilla yogurt as it adds a little extra flavor and sweetness but do note that there may be sugar in it. If you're going for totally sugar free, use the plain. Otherwise, look for a vanilla yogurt that contains natural rather than artificial sweeteners, or learn how to make your own here!

Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor. Process first on low speed, then on high speed until smooth. Refrigerate and store for up to 4 days. Serves 4.

And find more easy and delicious recipes here.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

A Week in the 'Burgh

Pittsburgh, that is. A couple hours east of Cleveland (where I call home) and the second largest city in Pennsylvania.

As some of you know, my father was diagnosed with cancer last March. After a very long 2009 filled with surgeries, daily treatments and care taking, we thought the worst was behind us until a couple months ago when his cancer returned with a vengeance. Despite the amazing hospitals we are so lucky to have here, the procedure he needed is only performed at a few places in the country, so off to Pittsburgh we went.

Through the Hillman Cancer Center and UPMC Shadyside Hospital, my father had an operation called a limb perfusion. The procedure, which can be done on many parts of the body, even organs, is more or less a highly concentrated localized chemo treatment. It's a one time procedure and very hard on the area being treated, but spares the rest of the body from some of the nasty side effects of ongoing chemo treatments. The surgery lasted about 8 hours and he spent the rest of the week in the ICU. My mom and I stayed at a non-profit place called The Family House, across from the hospital, which was a wonderful facility. It's less expensive than staying at a hotel and is like tiny little apartments with a living room, bedroom and bathroom. The facility then has a communal kitchen and recreation areas. Some families and patients have to stay there for months at a time depending on their treatments or if they have had or are waiting for a transplant. Honestly, it was kind of a depressing place, but at the same time filled with such an amazing amount of courage and bravery.

After the day of surgery, Dad pretty much just slept all the time, so me and my mom tried to plan little trips in the area to fill the down time and keep our sanity. It's the closest thing to a vacation either of us has had or will have in a while, so we tried to make the best of it!

One day we rode the Duquesne Incline, which was pretty cool. It's a historic cable car that takes you up to Mount Washington. Even though most of the nature around wasn't in bloom yet, we had amazing that weather that week. The photo at the opening of this post is the view from the top and a shot of one of the cable cars. We had lunch at a little place with an outdoor balcony right on the mountain side.

We then walked around Station Square on the river for a bit and got to see the first of some Spring blooms.

Another day we took a short trip to the zoo, which was only about 6 miles from the hospital. They have a nice aquarium there complete with penguins, my favorite!

I didn't haul out my trusty Nikon, despite how much I love using my telephoto at the zoo, but I still got a few fun photos with my fabulous little canon point and shoot.

Sometimes I feel bad for animals who are stuck in the zoo, but at the same time, when they have nice enclosures and other animals to interact with, they probably live pretty good lives! No threats, plenty of food. Plus I think it's really pretty neat that we get to experience all these creatures that we would otherwise never see.

Look at that yawn!

If you're wondering what that weird looking sea horse above is, it's a sea dragon. I first saw them at the huge aquarium in Atlanta and was totally amazed. I was thrilled to see them here and show my mom. The one in this photo is small, per say, as here is a photo of a bigger one. Aren't they just the craziest things?

Aside from those two adventures, we just did a lot of walking in the area, mostly to the grocery store and for fresh air, but I'm glad we got to have a little fun in between.

As for Dad, he's home and on the (long) road to recovery, and I'm back to my daily care taking duties. This is the main reason I have not reopened my shop yet (which I hope to do soon!). His leg is huge, about 3 times the size of his 'good' leg, and he cannot use it at all. He did start physical therapy this week, however, so hopefully he'll be making some good progress in the weeks ahead. And though we won't know for sure until a few months from now, the doc is confident that the tumors are dead or dying and he'll be cancer free. But as with most cancer cases, only time will tell.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

In the Kitchen: Bow Tie Chicken and Spinach

I've been cooking up so many desserts, snacks and side dishes lately and I realized it's been quite some time since I shared an entree. So before I get into all the sugar-free and natural recipes I've been working on and talking about, I have one of my favorite dinner dishes to share with you. This one-skillet wonder is easy to make combining a unique blend of flavors that is equally delicious served vegetarian without the meat. You'll find a link to a printable recipe card at the end of this post.

1/2 - 1 lb chicken (optional)
1/4 lb bacon (optional)
1 cup sliced mushrooms
1 Tbsp minced garlic
2 Tbsp flour
2 tsp onion powder
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp pepper
salt to taste
14 oz low sodium chicken broth
6 oz fresh spinach
10 oz fresh or frozen corn kernels
16 oz sour cream
1/2 cup sliced green onions (optional)
crushed croutons (optional)
8 oz bow tie pasta

Healthy alternatives:
Omit bacon, flour for coating chicken, salt and croutons.
Use low sodium or no salt added broth, fat free or light sour cream and whole wheat pasta.

Saute bacon, mushrooms and minced garlic until all are cooked. Crumble bacon (or chop before cooking) and set mixture aside.

Cut chicken into bite sized pieces and coat with 2 Tbsp flour. Saute in a deep skillet until cooked through and slightly browned.

Add chicken broth, mushroom mixture, onion powder, garlic powder and pepper to skillet. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes.

Stir in sour cream, corn and spinach, cover and simmer 5 - 10 minutes until corn is cooked through, spinach cooks down and sauce begins to thicken. If you'd like a thicker sauce, add flour, one tablespoon at a time, until it reaches desired consistency.

You can also give it a taste at this point, you may want to add more seasonings to the sauce sauce as onion, garlic powder, pepper or a little salt.

Serve over cooked pasta and top with crushed croutons and green onions if desired. Add a side of fresh fruit and you have a meal that is sure to please!

And find more easy and delicious recipes here.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Crafting: Book Vases

Do you fancy yourself a Bibliophile? Or maybe you just love the look, feel and smell of old books. Either way, this one's for you! Today I'll show you how to make a 'vase' out of a hardcover book. It's the perfect piece to decorate your favorite reading nook or a book shelf and is easy to make requiring just a few tools and no special skills.

What you'll need:
Hardcover book
Craft knife (or a scroll or band saw)

The book I used I found at a thrift store for $1.00. I especially loved the green coloring on the top edge. If you feel bad destroying good books, look for ones with missing or torn pages.

Cut a piece of cardboard to the size of the book and draw your vase shape. I've created a JPG of the shape I drew and you can download it here. It can be sized up or down to fit the height of your book. If you draw your own, keep in mind it will be twice as wide when it's finished, so you'll want to make the shape much thinner than you would think for it to look proportional when cut.

Cut your template shape out of the cardboard and place it onto the first page of the book, snug against the binding. You can trace it with a pencil if you'd like to have a guidline if your template moves, but it's easiest to cut along the template. I taped mine in place at the top and bottom to hold it secure.

With a sharp knife, cut along the template, gradually slicing through all pages of the book.

Alternatively, if you have a scroll saw or band saw, you can do it in a fraction of the time! Just trace your template and go. (I recommend removing the cover before cutting the pages with a saw.) I cut half of my vase by hand and finished with a band saw, to try both techniques.

When cutting by hand, I found it easiest to move the template further into the book as I continued cutting, every 1/4" of pages or so.

Once complete, cut off the covers, leaving the spine binding in tact. Open the book and fold it backward, gluing together the first and last pages with craft glue or a glue gun. Hold for a few seconds until secure.

I used a thin pencil top and bottom to keep the shape of the center hole while gluing.

Spread out the pages and you're done! Since you do end up with a small opening along the spine, you can use this as a 'vase' for a silk flower stem or some dried pieces like I show in my opening photo. You can also create a small cluster in different sizes and shapes for a unique arrangement.

The possibilities for this project are only limited by your imagination so get creative and have fun — happy crafting!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

In the Kitchen: Homemade Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

I've been promising this recipe for at a least a month and now that I'm sharing it - I couldn't find my darn photos! At least I have the finished product, that's what really matters, because this completely from scratch recipe (frosting and all) is as easy to make as it is delicious.

On a side note, those of you who chat with me on Twitter and Facebook may have noticed me talking recently about my concerns with eating too much sugar and too many artificial and processed foods. I've begun making some changes in the items I buy and the way I cook and am 'perfecting' some all-natural, sugar-free and wholesome recipes that I hope to share with you soon. These include a sugar free carrot cake and brown rice pudding, just to name a couple desserts. I'll also be sharing what I learn about substituting whole grain and natural ingredients in your favorite recipes (and my previous recipes posted), so if you, too, are trying to make these changes in your diet - stay tuned!

But first, here's my favorite recipe for simple, good old fashioned, bare bones homemade carrot cake with rich cream cheese frosting. While it does call for all-purpose flour and refined and powdered sugar, making anything from scratch is better for you (and better tasting) than any box mix you'll find, or at least I think so, so start here and work your way up to the whole wheat, sugar free version I'll be sharing soon. You'll find a printable recipe card at the end of this post.

4 eggs, beaten
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional - but I use 2!)
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 cups finely shredded carrot (lightly packed)
3/4 cup oil

8 oz cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup butter, softened
2 teaspoons vanilla
5 to 6 cups powdered sugar

Allow eggs to stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, grease two 8" or 9" round cake pans. Line the pans with wax paper, then grease the wax paper. You don't have to use the wax paper but it makes it so much easier! For greasing, I use Pam with Flour spray, I love the stuff.

Preheat oven to 350°. In a large bowl stir flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, salt and baking soda. In another bowl mix eggs, grated carrot* and oil. Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture and stir until blended. Divide the batter between the two pans.

*Baking Tip: If your carrots are not shredded fine enough, they may sink to the bottom of your cake when baking.

Bake at 350° for 3o - 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool the cakes in the pans on wire racks for about 10 minutes then remove the cakes and cool completely on the wire racks.

To make the frosting, beat the cream cheese, butter and vanilla in a large bowl on medium speed until light and fluffy. Begin adding the powdered sugar, beating as you go, a little at a time until you reach your desired consistency. It will be thick and hard to mix as you go, but it'll get there! This recipe yields enough to frost the top and sides of two round cakes, along with some for in between the layers. (You can half the recipe if you're frosting a 13x9 cake.)

To frost the cake, make sure it is completely cooled. Lay the first cake rounded top down on a plate and brush any loose crumbs away from the surface and edges with your hands or a pastry brush. Spread about 1/2 cup frosting on top and smooth. Next place the second cake on top with the rounded side facing up and begin frosting the sides, going about 1/4" above the cake. Last frost the top. You can sprinkle the top and sides with chopped nuts if desired, but I prefer it plain and simple. Enjoy!

And find more easy and delicious recipes here.

p.s. After finishing this post, cousin Valorie reminded me that we didn't take any photos while baking this cake, so now I don't feel as bad about 'misplacing' them!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

In the Kitchen: Lemon Bars

This classic dessert is always a crowd favorite and surprisingly easy to make from scratch. The refreshing blend of sweet and tart makes it a perfect treat for the warm Spring days ahead. Chances are you have most of the ingredients in your cupboards, so pick up a lemon and get to it! You'll find a printable recipe card at the end of the post.

2 cups flour
2/3 cup powdered sugar
2 tbsp cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup butter

4 eggs
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
3 tbsp flour
1 tsp finely grated lemon peel
3/4 cup juice of lemon
1/4 cup half & half, light cream or milk
powdered sugar for garnish

Heat oven to 350°. In a large bowl mix flour, powdered sugar, cornstarch and salt. Cut in butter using a pastry blender until it looks like coarse crumbs.

Grease a 13x9 baking dish (or what I do for easier removal when making any kind of bars is line the pan with foil, then grease the foil - I use Pam with flour spray, works awesome!)

Press the dough mixture firmly into the pan and bake 18 minutes (don’t overcook).

For the filling, you'll need grated lemon peel. Using a fine grater, grate just the yellow skin of the lemon until you start to see the white rind inside. You'll grate most of the skin of a palm sized lemon to get one teaspoon.

In a medium bowl, lightly beat eggs, mix in sugar, flour, cream, lemon peel and lemon juice (I squeeze what I can out of the lemon after grating the peel then use bottled juice for the rest).

Pour filling over hot crust and bake 15-18 minutes until center is set. It won’t look much different but will turn from a liquid to solid consistency.

Cool completely on a wire rack. Cover and chill in the fridge until cold, sift powdered sugar on top before serving. Enjoy!

You can store leftovers covered in the fridge but the powdered sugar will dissolve, so you may want to cut smaller portions to sift with sugar and serve if you don't expect the entire pan to disappear in one sitting. (fat chance, right? :)

And find more easy and delicious recipes here.

p.s. That beautiful plate is made by the talented Whitney Smith.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Life Happens

Happy Friday everyone :)

I had big plans for today, but I also expected to be back home by now. I am out of town with my father who had surgery this week and as things go, complications have prolonged our trip. Long days, weird beds, hospital hours, buzzing fire alarms and wonky internet have prevented me from getting much done, so I apologize for my lack of posting today, but I'll make up for it in the weeks ahead, promise :)

Until then, happy weekend, happy easter, zeezum pasach…

xo, nicole