Category Archives: homemaker’s challenge

In My Mailbox: Vintage Recipes

vintage recipes, chiffon cake, old recipes, recipe boxMy pen pal Danielle has been sending me a string of vintage recipes lately and I love it! Each on is a little time capsule from days when sweets and treats were most often homemade and sometimes a little strange. (At least strange compared to what we’re used to eating nowadays.) This is my little collection from the past few letters. vintage recipes, chiffon cake, old recipes, recipe boxI’m most interested in trying this one. (I keep forgetting to add butter scotch chips to Naoto’s shopping list.) I love how it’s handwritten, creased, and well-used. It sounds very sweet, right? Maybe I need to do an Instagram Story from my kitchen so we can all be surprised at the outcome! vintage recipes, chiffon cake, old recipes, recipe boxAnd who doesn’t love a chiffon cake? I don’t think anyone makes these anymore. (Or maybe we just don’t call them chiffons anymore?) It sounds so light and fluffy. I wish I had a reason to bake a cake this week. vintage recipes, chiffon cake, old recipes, recipe boxThe fact that someone clipped this out of the newspaper and wrote, “MAKE AGAIN” on it makes me verrrrry curious. It’s called Desperations for goodness sake! I can’t picture what the finished product looks like…any ideas?vintage recipes, chiffon cake, old recipes, recipe boxHere is where I draw the line… Canned pears and pimento cheese? Topped with green pepper? Nope. (I don’t think the salad dressing looks bad though…)

I wouldn’t eat that…would you?

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Homemaker’s Challenge #5: Sushi

making sushi at homeNaoto and I made homemade sushi in December. (Naoto did all of the work, but someone had to be in charge of taking photos, right?) It’s something that’s been on our to-do list for awhile, and Naoto saw a holiday sale for sashimi-grade tuna so he brought some home on a whim. He also bought a sushi maki, the bamboo contraption that helps roll the sushi rolls. making sushi at home, seasoning riceWe made regular rice using our rice cooker and, once the rice was cooked, we seasoned it with sushi rice seasoning (sushinoko). All of the instructions were in Japanese but I think we used two tablespoons for two cups of rice. It gave the rice a little bit of a vinegar flavor, which apparently helps to highlight the fish. making sushi at home, slicing tunaWhen the rice was cool, Naoto worked on the tuna. To make sushi, you have to use sashimi-grade fish. You can’t just go to the grocery store and choose any piece of fish, leave it raw and call it sushi. (This article muddies the waters…it’s unclear what determines if fish is “sashimi-grade”. I think the bottom line is…only shop at trusted places and this is not the time to be shopping for day-old specials.) Naoto got our piece of tuna from Mitsuwa, where sashimi-grade tuna is about $32/pound (regular price). Thankfully, the small piece of fish (a little larger than a deck of cards) was the perfect size for our sushi appetizer.

Naoto sliced the tuna into 1/2 inch pieces. making sushi at homeHe cut the nori (seaweed sheets) into pieces just long enough to fit the tuna. Then he spread the rice, leaving two and a half inches at the top empty for rolling. (He also covered the sushi maki with plastic wrap. Apparently this is a restaurant tip to keep the sushi maki clean.) Keeping a bowl of warm water on hand to wash off the sticky rice was helpful, too. making sushi at home, adding wasabi and tunaAfter dabbing on a bit of wasabi, he laid down the fish about one inch up on the rice end of the nori. making sushi at home, rolling sushiNext, he rolled up the sushi tightly. making sushi at homeI don’t think it was a bad first attempt, but it was hard to get the right amount of rice. Next time, we need to work on using less rice or cut thicker pieces of tuna to make up for the rice. It’s definitely harder than it looks to get the perfect amount of rice and a nice, tight roll going on. Sushi chefs make it look too easy! making sushi at home, presley tries tunaEven Presley got into the sushi action with a taste of fresh tuna. She loved it, obviously.

All-in-all it was a lot of fun and a tasty experiment. I think we are going to devote a Hasegawa Happy Hour to sushi making soon, where we will add some more ingredients like avocado and cucumber and maybe another type of fish.

To see the other Homemaker’s Challenge posts, go here.

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Homemaker’s Challenge #4: Barrel-Aged Cocktails

oak barrel, barrel aged cocktailsI’ve been intrigued by barrel-aged cocktails ever since I had the Foghorn at Girl & the Goat last summer. When I got home and googled the ingredients, I kept coming across the Martinez which led me to the barrel-aged Martinez. I was really excited to try aging cocktails, especially once I poked around the internet a little bit more and realized you could age just about anything (minus fresh ingredients) to make a more mellow and slightly different cocktail. I researched and researched barrels vs wood chips. Aging in a barrel seemed more “authentic” and fun, but shipping wood chips was a more economical option. But when it came down to it, aging my first cocktails in a barrel just made me more excited about the project, so I went with that.

So back in December (notice the Christmas decorations in the picture above) I ordered my barrel from Oak Barrels Ltd. Their prices seemed reasonable (though, I’ve never ordered a barrel before, so take that for what it’s worth) and when I asked a question about their manufacturing process, I received a clear, friendly and positive response. Their barrels are made by a cooper in Mexico who sources the wood from American barrels. I bought the 1-liter black hoop barrel. I was going to go higher end with the galvanized hoops or the brass hoops, but the barrels can only be used three to five times before they don’t seal anymore, so I figured I would buy the least expensive barrel this time since I was just experimenting.
DSC_0043The barrel is hilariously tiny, but mighty. It holds thirty-three ounces which is enough for about eleven magically aged cocktails. I followed the directions and rinsed the barrel and filled it with water for a few days so it could swell and seal properly. Then I rinsed it some more and I was ready for mixing.

Then I used my math “skills” to create the recipe, basically dividing how many cocktails I could get out of a one liter barrel and then multiplying the basic recipe for a Martinez by that amount. Because the recipes for a Martinez vary greatly–some have a 2:1 ratio of vermouth to gin, some have a 2:1 ration of gin to vermouth, some are 50/50, I felt like I had a little freedom to play around with my recipe to make it work for the barrel size. Here’s my “recipe” for a one liter barrel:

Barrel-Aged Martinez

21 oz gin (I used Letherbee because I happened to have two bottles on hand.)

11 oz sweet vermouth

1 3/8 oz maraschino liqueur

a few dashes of orange bitters

Using a funnel, add all ingredients to the barrel. Put in the stopper and swish things around. Then let the barrel hang out on the counter for a week or two, rolling it around every day or two and strain into a bottle when it’s ready (1-2 weeks).

Once your cocktail is bottled, pour the desired amount into a cocktail shaker filled with ice and shake until chilled. Pour into a cocktail glass and garnish with an orange peel. It’s kind of nice to have a ready-made cocktail in your cabinet!


Since the one liter is such a small barrel, things aged pretty quickly. (Oak Barrels Ltd recommends 1-2 weeks of aging for this size.) I started tasting on the seventh day and ended up bottling mine on the twelfth day. I just used an empty Letherbee bottle and a mason jar for the overflow.

I think my first try was a success. The barrel aged Martinez is richer and deeper than the freshly made version. I think it’s going to be fun to experiment with a few old favorites to see how they change once they are aged. I have a long list of cocktails I want to try in barrels this summer…stay tuned!

To see more Homemaker’s Challenge posts, go here.


Homemaker’s Challenge #3: Avanti’s Bread

Avanti's GondolaI grew up in a tiny town in central Illinois. Peoria was the closest city with things to do (like shopping, buying groceries, eating at chain restaurants, meeting boys other than the fifteen I had known since kindergarten…) and quite often we would eat at Avanti’s. Avanti’s is an inexpensive Italian restaurant with several locations in Peoria, East Peoria, Pekin and Normal (near ISU). We ate there as a family growing up and my friend Leah and I would go there almost every weekend throughout high school and college (when we were home for the summers).

Avanti’s bread is sort of famous in the area. It is a sweet Italian bread that is something dreams are made of. It makes a perfect treat to sop up Avanti’s red sauce, it makes a tasty garlic bread and it’s probably most famously used to make a gondola: a sub with mayo, lettuce, ham, salami and American cheese. It’s a taste memory so clear that I could still taste a gondola, even though I hadn’t eaten one in years. Last week, I set out to create the gondola on my own, which meant, baking some Avanti’s bread.

My dad has a sweet bread recipe that he makes all the time that is kind of like Avanti’s bread, but sweeter. He mailed me the recipe almost two years ago and because it looked complicated, I’ve been putting off making it. I have never baked bread before. In 2011, I was on a bagel-making kick all winter and then got kind of burnt out on the bread-making…which is why I added “make bread” to my 2014 goal list…it was time to try some more breads. Dad’s recipe still felt complicated (it involves scalding milk) so I googled “Avanti’s bread” to see if I could find another recipe. I found this one…it was the winner. messy kitchenEverything on Thursday afternoon pointed to me not baking bread. I couldn’t find the yeast (I know we had some leftover from “bagel days”…it was probably expired.). I got home from buying yeast and realized Naoto had used up all of our oil for Christmas tonkatsu. Our neighbors had oil but it was too old to use. Then my Kitchen Aid mixer died. Twice. During the kneading process. I had to use my hands while the motor cooled off. The dough didn’t feel right so I added a couple of tablespoons of water and it felt better…but I really had to idea through the whole process if anything was going to taste good.

Did the yeast activate properly?

Did I put in nine cups of flour or ten?

Was overworking the dough going to make my bread tough and chewy?

Was starting and stopping the kneading so many times going to mess up the yeast?

Was all that flour that flew out of the mixer important?

Was using butter in place of oil going to ruin everything?

It turns out…bread baking is less about an exact recipe and more of a feeling…this dough is supposed to be a little bit sticky and very elastic. This dough doubles in size when it rises. This bread is done when it sounds hollow. These tips in the recipe made me feel better about my steps along the way. And, encouragement from experienced bread bakers on Twitter and on the phone (I called my dad three times) helped me feel like I was on the right track as I went through the process. I have to say, after all that worrying and hand-wringing…my bread turned out perfectly…I was jumping up and down in the kitchen. Beginner’s luck.avanti's bread ingredients

Avanti’s Bread

2 packets of dry active yeast

3 cups of water + some for yeast activation as indicated on packet

3 tablespoons softened butter or vegetable oil

3 eggs

1 teaspoon salt

1 1/4 cup sugar + some for yeast activation as indicated on packet

10-11 cups flour activated yeastActivate the yeast according to the package.

Once activated, add the rest of the ingredients to the bowl of a stand mixer. Once you get to the flour, slow down and count out cups carefully. After two cups, start mixer and slowly add the rest of the flour. Stop at the tenth cup and determine if you need the eleventh. (I only needed ten in my dry winter apartment.) Once the dough is smooth and elastic, it’s done. (Confession: my dough was a tiny bit lumpy but very elastic…)Avanti's bread doughPlace the big ball of dough in a greased bowl, flip it over in the bowl and cover with a tea towel. Place the bowl of dough in a warm spot in your kitchen. (I feel like my kitchen is chilly, so I turned my oven on low and set the bowl on the stove top. The dough rose like a champ!) After 1 1/2-2 hours, it should double in size.

After the first rise, punch down the dough in the bowl, flip it over again and re-cover. Put it back in the warm part of the kitchen. After another 30-45 minutes, it should double in size again. avanti's bread doughTake the dough out of the bowl and divide it into six equal portions. They should each be the size of a grapefruit. (Mine were not perfectly equal, as you can see.) Cover these and let them rise for 10 minutes.

avanti's bread loafAfter 10 minutes, flatten each ball of dough, pressing out the air. You will hear some air escaping…it’s a good sign. Then form the loaves. avanti's bread doughPlace the loaves on a prepared baking sheet (I used parchment paper, but a greased & floured baking sheet works, too.) Cover loaves and let them rise for another hour. Use this time to pre-heat the oven to 350°F.

Finally, it’s time to bake!

Bake for 20-25 minutes.Avanti's bread loavesI baked mine three loaves at a time and 23 minutes was the magic number. The first batch seemed ready (it was a nice shade of brown and sounded pretty hollow) after 18 minutes, but when we cut into the “test loaf” you could tell it was still a little gooey/sticky/undone inside. After five more minutes (at the 23 minute mark), everything was perfect–the tops were golden and they really sounded hollow! The biggest thing I would change is to make the loaves a little skinnier and longer next time…they were kind of short and plump, but made excellent sandwiches anyway.

We sampled the bread during Hasegawa Happy Hour. It got our friend Karen’s approval for authentic Avanti’s taste. (She went to ISU and loves Avanti’s too.) For dinner, we made gondolas and walked down memory lane…Avanti’s bread with ham, salami, American cheese, lettuce and mayo…the best taste memory ever.

***This post is part of a series of Homemaker’s Challenges: activities that get me (and hopefully you, too!) out of the everyday routine of cooking, cleaning and laundry and into a routine of trying something new and experimental. I’d love it if you’d play along!

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Homemaker’s Challenge #2: Meyer Lemon Curd

Meyer Lemon CurdLast month for our Christmas tea, Peggy made two kinds of lemon curds, regular lemon curd and Meyer lemon curd. The taste between the two was remarkable. Regular lemons made bright and fresh tasting curd. Meyer lemons though, made rich, deep, citrusy curd…so different but in my mind, Meyer lemons are perfect for winter.

Using Peggy’s recipe (which is from What’s Cooking America), I made Meyer lemon curd for Naoto’s party and it was a hit. In fact, lemon curd just might be my new party staple. I love serving simple, no-stress foods that my guests don’t see at every other party. And let me tell you, curd is simple…you can even use a microwave!

Meyer Lemon Curd

3-4 Tablespoons Meyer lemon zest

1/2 cup Meyer lemon juice (freshly squeezed!)

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup butter (unsalted and never margarine!)

3 eggs

zesting and juicing meyer lemonsZest and juice the lemons. Five Meyer lemons gave me the proper amount of juice but I was lacking in the zest department…I imagine that the lemon-intensity would be out of this world if I’d had a few extra lemons to zest.butter Chop up the stick of butter and put it in a dish to melt in the microwave. Mine only took thirty-ish seconds, with a stir in the middle. beating eggsWhile the butter melts, crack and lightly beat the three eggs in a microwavable bowl (or Pyrex). Then mix in the sugar, zest and lemon juice. meyer lemon curd before cookingOnce the butter is melted, incorporate it into the lemon/egg mixture. (My butter was lukewarm, so I didn’t have to worry about curdling at this point, but be careful of curdling if your butter is blazing hot!)

1 minute lemon curdNext, put the curd in the microwave for one minute intervals, stirring after each minute, for 3-4 minutes. This was mine after the first minute. You can see there was a bit of curdling. (I think my microwave runs a little bit hot.) After this first minute, things are going to look weird and slightly disastrous. Have no fear and keep going. lemon curd, minute 2Here was mine after minute two, before stirring. You can tell the mixture is getting thicker.lemon curd, minute two, after stirringAnd after stirring.lemon curd minute 3And in the last minute, you can see things thicken a lot. final lemon curdAfter stirring on minute three, I felt like mine was ready. The curd should be nice and glossy and thick enough to coat your spoon. And it should taste delicious. curdled lemon curdBut what about the curdling? Both times I made this lemon curd, I had plenty of curdling, in spite of the fact that my mixture never boiled in the microwave. It still must have gotten hot enough to cook some of the egg. So I ran mine through a mesh strainer and then it was perfectly smooth and dreamy. lemon curd in a mason jarPour into a jar and refrigerate until set. It will thicken up even more as it cools.

At the party, we served the Meyer lemon curd with my homemade ricotta (shared here in Homemaker’s Challenge #1!) on crackers. But really, lemon curd is decadent on a scone or toast…and I have my eye on this recipe for Lemon Bars…yum!

***This post is the long-overdue second in a series of Homemaker’s Challenges: activities that get me (and hopefully you, too!) out of the everyday routine of cooking, cleaning and laundry and into a routine of trying something new and experimental. I’d love it if you’d play along!

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Homemaker’s Challenge #1: Ricotta

I will never buy ricotta cheese in a grocery store again.

A few months ago, my book club friend, Peggy (who is a homemaking guru) talked about making her own ricotta cheese for a party appetizer. I was intrigued. She made it sound so easy that I had to try it. Isn’t it easier just to buy ricotta in a plastic tub in the grocery store? Sure, that’s easy, but this is too–and the results were delicious! You know how store-bought ricotta is a little bit rubbery? Well, this isn’t. And, it was pretty amazing to see how it all comes together so quickly.

I used Ina Garten’s simple recipe:

4 cups whole milk

2 cups heavy cream

1 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons white wine vinegar

Over medium heat, bring the milk, cream and salt to a full boil, stirring occasionally. While you are doing this, set a large sieve over a deep bowl and line the sieve with two layers of dampened cheesecloth. Once the mixture is boiling, turn off the heat, stir in the vinegar and let it sit for a few minutes.

Ina says to let it sit for 1 minute, but several reviewers recommended 10 minutes. I let mine sit for 10 minutes. It is fun to watch the quick separation of the curds and whey–it looked a little bit like runny cottage cheese at this point.

Next, pour the almost-ricotta into the sieve. I don’t have a super-deep bowl, so I had to pour out the whey from my bowl right away. Once I poured out the initial whey, I only had to empty out my bowl once more. Let the ricotta sit on the counter and drain for about 25 minutes. The longer you let it sit, the thicker it gets. Mine was perfectly spreadable and completely delicious in this time.

We spread the ricotta on a toasted baguette and topped it with fresh tomato jam and grey sea salt…it was the perfect appetizer!

***This post is a first in a series of Homemaker’s Challenges: activities that get me (and hopefully you, too!) out of the everyday routine of cooking, cleaning and laundry and into a routine of trying something new and experimental. I’d love it if you’d play along!