Best build-your-own party snack mix | writes4food.com

Make your own party snack mix.

It’s Super Bowl Week, which means HAVE to share with you this fantastic recipe for homemade party snack mix. It’s the perfect pregame nibble.

Skip the bagged stuff in the snack aisle, people! It’s so easy to make your own homemade party mix, without all the preservatives and whatnot. Plus, with this recipe, you can choose the salty snacks you include. (I’m partial to salt-and-pepper pretzel nubs, bar chips, dry roasted peanuts and cheddar bunnies.) All you have to do is melt some butter, stir together an easy garlicky, salty seasoning, and bake!

ultimate build-your-own party snack mix recipe

Seasoning
4 tablespoons butter, melted
2 tablespoons Worcestershire
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon seasoned salt (I use Jane's Crazy Mixed-up Salt)
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
Cayenne pepper to taste

Snacks (see notes below)
6 cups base snacks
1 1/2 cups nuts
4 cups flavored snacks

Base snacks
Unsalted: Wheat Chex, Rice Chex, Corn Chex, Cheerios, oyster crackers, plain popcorn
Salted: Bugles, Fritos, sesame sticks, salted pretzels, plain bagel chips, potato sticks

Nuts
Dry-roasted peanuts, salted roasted peanuts, salted roasted mixed nuts, sunflower seeds, honey nuts, pumpkin seeds, salted roasted cashews, salted roasted almonds

Flavored snacks
Wasabi peas, mini cheese crackers, cheddar goldfish, Terra Sticks, Corn Nuts, sweet potato chips, flavored bagel chips, Bar Chips, Cheetos, Combos, cheese puffs, flavored pretzels, puffed veggie stix

Preheat oven to 225°. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper or foil. In a large bowl, stir all the seasoning ingredients to blend; add 6 cups of base snacks and 1 1/2 cups of nuts and toss everything gently to combine thoroughly. Spread mixture on the prepared baking sheet and bake for 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes. Remove pan from oven and spread 4 cups of flavored snacks on top of the base snacks. Let everything cool, then transfer back to the large bowl and toss gently to combine.

For the version you see above, I used 5 cups Cheerios, 1 cup Fritos (broken into bite-size pieces), 1 1/2 cups dry-roasted peanuts and, for the flavored snacks, 2 cups Snyder's Sea Salt and Cracked Pepper Pretzel Pieces and 2 cups Pepperidge Farm Cheddar Goldfish.

easy chocolate cake recipe | writes4food.com

One-bowl chocolate snack cake.

So, today is National Chocolate Cake Day. Which I didn’t actually have on my calendar (thank you for the news, Facebook). But I will celebrate the day, because chocolate cake.

THIS is the chocolate cake recipe you need today. Easy: Stir it up in a single bowl, bake, slice, eat. Done.

This is an old favorite recipe from The Clara Project, so I’m sharing again in honor of the day.

old-fashioned one-bowl chocolate cake recipe

(makes one 8-inch square cake, about 9 servings)

1/2 cup very hot, very strong coffee (or 1/2 cup boiling water mixed with 1 tablespoon instant espresso powder)
2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, broken into pieces
1/4 cup buttermilk
1 cup sifted flour (sift first, then measure)
1 cup granulated sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup vegetable shortening
1 egg, lightly beaten
Powdered sugar for dusting

Preheat oven to 350°. Spray an 8-inch-by-8-inch baking pan with cooking spray, then lay in a piece of parchment paper (two edges should overhang). Spray the parchment, then flour the pan, tapping out the excess.

Place the unsweetened chocolate in a large mixing bowl and pour the hot coffee over it; stir until the chocolate is melted and smooth. In a sifter or sieve, place the flour, sugar, salt and baking soda; sift the dry ingredients into the bowl with the chocolate. Stir until smooth. Cut the shortening into chunks and add to the bowl; stir to combine. Add the buttermilk and egg; stir gently until the mixture is smooth.

Transfer batter to prepared pan. Bake for 35–45 minutes (a glass or ceramic baking pan will take more time than a metal one), until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Remove pan to a cooling rack and let cool. Invert cake onto a cutting board, invert again onto a serving plate, and dust with powdered sugar.

barley vegetable pilaf

Hearty barley and vegetable salad.

I love multipurpose recipes like this one: It doubles as both a terrific side dish for roasted chicken or grilled fish AND as a satisfying and nutritious lunch-able salad.

I rediscovered this recipe in a very old issue of Bon Appétit (I have about a decade’s worth stashed on my bookshelves) and was surprised how au courant it is. Back in the mid-1990s when the recipe was published, barley was fairly exotic, a grain that people of a certain age might cook to mush and eat for breakfast, or add to a beef-based soup.

These days, of course, whole grains are the thing. You could swap in any other kind of grain, like farro or emmer or wheat berry (use pearled grains for faster cooking). This hearty barley and vegetable salad recipe makes a ton, so you’ll have plenty leftover to pack for lunch. With its confetti of bright vegetables, it’ll make you feel happy even on the grayest of days.

Hearty barley salad with bell pepper and corn recipe

(makes 6 generous servings)

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large red bell pepper, diced
1 small onion, diced
1 1/2 cups pearled barley
3 1/2 cups vegetable or chicken broth
2 cups frozen corn
1/2 bunch green onions, sliced (include white and light green parts)
1/2 cup sliced fresh basil
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

In a large saucepan, warm the olive oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers; reduce heat to medium and add bell pepper and onion. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Add the barley and stir to coat with oil; cook, stirring frequently, until it's toasted, about 2 minutes. Add the broth; bring to a boil, then cover and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook at a low simmer until the barley is tender and the liquid is absorbed, about 40 minutes. Uncover and stir in the corn; cook for 5 minutes. Add the green onions, basil and parsley and stir gently. Season well with salt and freshly ground pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature.

hearty vegetable bolognese recipe | writes4food.com

Hearty vegetable bolognese.

As I wrote here recently, we’ve moved into a less meat-centric mode of eating here in the new year. I stocked the ‘fridge with tons of fresh vegetables — butternut squash, broccoli, carrots and onions, bright arugula and gorgeous local salad greens.

Still, with cold winter weather, we want food that’s comforting and satisfying, that feels like luxury, not deprivation. And this recipe for a vegetable-focused version of the traditional Italian Bolognese pasta sauce is perfect.

I started with a recipe from Giada de Laurentiis’s cookbook “Giada’s Kitchen” and made quite a number of adjustments — not the least of which was adding a bit of pancetta for flavor and richness. To make this pasta sauce recipe vegetarian and not just veggie-centric, you could omit the pancetta; certainly, the fresh and dried mushrooms contribute plenty of umami. If you have a Parmesan rind stashed in your freezer (and you DO save your Parmesan rinds, don’t you???), by all means add that to the sauce as it simmers (just remove it before serving).

With a vinaigrette-kissed salad and a glass of red wine, this vegetable pasta recipe is hearty enough for a cold night. Make a big batch and freeze portions to enjoy all winter long!

vegetable bolognese pasta sauce recipe

serves about 8

1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
1 1/2 cups hot water
1 (1/2-inch) slice pancetta, cut into chunks (optional)
3 carrots, coarsely chopped
1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped butternut squash
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1 red bell pepper, coarsely chopped
4 garlic cloves
6 ounces cremini mushrooms, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup olive oil (divided)
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes
1/2 cup red wine
1/2 cup mascarpone cheese
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil, for serving
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese, for serving
1 pound dried pasta (rigatoni or farfalle), cooked according to package directions

First, place the dried porcini in a bowl and pour the hot water over; let sit to soften. Place the chopped carrot and butternut squash in a food processor fitted with the metal blade; process until evenly and fairly finely chopped. (You want pieces roughly no bigger than peas.) Transfer to a bowl. Place the onion, bell pepper and garlic in the processor and chop similarly. Transfer to another bowl. Do the same with the cremini mushrooms; transfer to a bowl. Finally, process the pancetta until it resembles coarse ground beef.

In a large stockpot or sauté pan, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil until shimmering; lower heat to medium-low and add chopped pancetta. Cook, stirring often, until the pancetta browns (watch that it doesn't burn). Transfer to a plate. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil to the pan and add the chopped carrot and squash. Cook, stirring, until the vegetables soften, about 5 minutes. Add chopped onion, bell pepper, garlic, thyme, oregano and bay leaf; cook, stirring, until the vegetables soften, another 5 minutes. Strain the porcini mushrooms (reserve the liquid and strain out any dirt or sand) and chop; add them with the cremini mushrooms to the pan; add 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt and a generous pinch of ground pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes more. Add the tomato paste and stir to coat the vegetables. Add the wine, mushroom soaking liquid and canned tomatoes. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook, partially covered, until the sauce thickens and turns a deep, rich red, about 30–40 minutes. Add the mascarpone cheese and stir to combine.

Toss the vegetable bolognese with the cooked pasta. Dish out servings and top each with some sliced basil and freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

red lentil soup with butternut squash and warm spices recipe | writes4food.com

Warm spiced lentil soup with squash.

I’m kind of ‘meat-ed’ out, you know? During the holidays, we feasted on apple-stuffed pork, beef tenderloin, even bison burgers. Delish, sure. But while I don’t feel like I overate, I’m just craving vegetables. (Seriously: my haul at the market yesterday was almost 100% produce.)

So this delicious red lentil and vegetable soup recipe — low fat, totally vegetarian and completely amazing — is just what I’ve been hankering for. I haven’t been able to keep my spoon out of the pot while it’s been simmering away. And like almost any soup known to mankind, I know this one will be even better for lunch tomorrow.

This soup recipe began with one I spotted on the New York Times Cooking app — which I highly recommend. But I wanted more vegetables. So I added 2 cups of diced butternut squash, which was perfect: the squash adds a touch of sweetness that plays beautifully with the warm spice of cumin and cayenne. While the original calls for puréeing the soup, I left my ‘veggier’ version nice and chunky. Other than the splash of olive oil used to sauté the onion, there’s no fat in this recipe. Plus, with those gorgeous red lentils and all those hearty vegetables, it’s comforting and filling. Add a dollop of plain yogurt for a cool tang, and you’re set to go.

red lentil soup with butternut squash recipe

makes 4 servings

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 sweet onion, finely chopped
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon ground cumin
Pinch of cayenne pepper
4 cups vegetable broth
1–2 cups water
1 cup dried red lentils
1 large carrot, unpeeled, finely diced
2 cups finely diced butternut squash
1 fresh or dried bay leaf
Plain lowfat yogurt and chopped parsley, for serving

In a heavy soup pot, warm the olive oil over medium-high heat; add onion and garlic and stir to coat. Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion softens, about 5 minutes. Season with a generous pinch of kosher salt and ground pepper. Add tomato paste, cumin and cayenne; stir and cook about 2 minutes to warm the spices. Add broth, 1 cup water, lentils, carrot, squash and bay leaf. Bring liquid to a simmer, then cover partially and simmer until the lentils and vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes. If desired, puree about half of the soup (carefully!) in a blender or using an immersion blender. (I did not blend the soup, preferring a chunky soup instead.) Serve warm with a dollop of yogurt and a sprinkle of parsley.

Best recipes of 2015.

Here we are at the end of December, and the end of 2015. Hard to imagine, isn’t it? I’ve looked back through the seasonal recipes I’ve shared here this year, about 75 of them; it’s kind of like a diary of eating for the year. And I wanted to share a few of my favorite recipes from 2015 with you as the year comes to a close. Enjoy!

orange poppy seed butter cookie recipe

Christmas Cookie-palooza: Orange poppy seed butter cookies.

This Christmas cookie recipe is totally up my alley: buttery but not too sweet, pretty and delicious. I love the speckled look of the poppy seeds and the pop of orange flavor.

I didn’t intend to, but I realized that I’ve favored slice-and-bake cookie recipes this holiday season. No wonder: These recipes are easy to make in steps … you can mix up the dough and then come back to the baking later. Once you’ve mixed the dough, the baking-off happens super quickly. Slice-and-bake cookie dough is great for making ahead and freezing until you, um, realize you have a cookie exchange THIS AFTERNOON that you completely forgot about.

This recipe for Orange Poppy Seed Butter Cookies has been stashed in my three-ring recipe binder forever; it originally appeared in a newspaper of unknown origin, and it is attributed to James Beard Award-winning chef Nancy Silverton of the influential La Brea Bakery in L.A. I haven’t changed a thing about it. You could also make these cookies with lemon (or even better: Meyer lemon) zest in place of the orange.

And with this, friends, here’s my final Christmas cookie recipe for this year. Happy baking, and lovely holidays with family and friends!

orange poppy seed butter cookies

makes about 5 dozen cookies

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
3 tablespoons grated orange zest (from 2 or 3 oranges)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups minus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 cup poppy seeds (or a 1.25-ounce jar)

In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large bowl using a hand mixer), whip the butter and orange zest together until the mixture is light and fluffy, 4–5 minutes. Blend in sugar, then blend in egg yolk and vanilla. Add flour and poppy seeds and mix to combine. Divide dough into thirds and roll each third into a log about 1 1/4-inch in diameter. Wrap in waxed paper and refrigerate at least 1 hour or overnight.

Preheat oven to 325°; line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Use a sharp knife to slice each log into rounds about 1/4-inch thick. Arrange rounds on lined baking sheets, about 1 inch apart. Bake for 15–18 minutes, rotating baking sheets halfway through baking time, until cookies look dry and very lightly brown on their edges. Cool on a wire rack.

cherry chocolate toffee cookie recipe

Christmas Cookie-palooza: Cherry toffee cookies.

Ohmygoshohymgoshohmygosh … I haven’t made this wonderful chocolate-cherry-toffee cookie recipe in so, so long. I’d forgotten how amazing these cookies are … full of flavor and studded with yummy bits of sweet, chew and crunch.

At Christmas, I like making a batch of simple — yet really special — cookies like these. You can mix up a batch of the cookie dough, chill it and slice and bake off the cookies whenever you have time. For my money, the slice-and-bake deal is even easier than dropping cookie dough by the spoonful, and it produces nicely even, round cookies.

These are so easy, yet more fun and wow-inducing than regular ol’ chocolate chippers. Great for cookie exchanges and school holiday bake sales!

cherry toffee chocolate cookies

makes about4 dozen

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
3/4 cup (lightly packed) light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups old-fashioned oats
1 cup dried cherries
1 cup bittersweet chocolate chips
1 cup Heath toffee bits

Onto a piece of waxed paper, sift together the flour and baking soda. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large bowl using a hand mixer), cream together the butter and sugars until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg and mix to combine; add vanilla and mix to combine. Stir in the oatmeal, cherries, chocolate chips and toffee bits. Very carefully (lest you wind up with flour all over the kitchen), add flour a bit at a time and mix on low speed to combine. Divide the dough in thirds; roll each into a log about 1 1/2-inch in diameter. Wrap in waxed paper and refrigerate for 2 hours or overnight. (Dough logs can be frozen, wrapped in waxed paper and then plastic wrap, for up to 1 month; thaw in the fridge before slicing and baking.)

Preheat oven to 350°; line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Slice dough in 3/4-inch thick rounds (let it soften for a couple of minutes at room temperature if it's too cold to slice). Transfer rounds to the baking sheets; bake 10–15 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on a wire rack.

chocolate raspberry shortbread bars | writes4food.com

Christmas Cookie-palooza: Chocolate raspberry shortbread squares.

Oh my gosh … these little jam-and-chocolate-filled shortbread squares are so beautiful and delicious. They’re really special, and just right for Christmastime. As a bonus, this bar cookie recipe makes a bunch (assuming you cut them into little two-bite squares), so you get ample yield for sharing with friends and family.

In my ideal Christmas cookie platter, I like to include a classic butter cookie (like Hazel’s Vanilla Bean Cookies from last week or traditional Spritz Cookies), a bar cookie like these Chocolate Raspberry Shortbread Squares (or the Salty Pretzel Seven Layer Bars I shared last year) and an easy chocolate cookie (stay tuned for that recipe). If I’m feeling ambitious, I’ll add decorated cut-outs or gingerbread cookies. Try adding these chocolate raspberry shortbread bar cookies to your Christmas cookie tray!

chocolate raspberry shortbread bars

makes about 8 dozen

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups raw slivered almonds
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cubed
1/4 tsp. salt
1 large egg
1 cup raspberry preserves or jam
1 cup miniature chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350°. Line a 9x13-inch glass baking dish or rimmed metal baking pan with parchment (leaving an overhang on two sides); spray pan with cooking spray. In a food processor fitted with the metal blade, process the flour and almonds until the mixture resembles fine sand. Add the sugar, butter and salt; process until combined. Add the egg and process until the mixture is crumbly. (It will be dry.) Transfer half the dough to the prepared pan and press firmly into place. Spread evenly with preserves, then sprinkle evenly with chocolate chips. Scatter the remaining dough over the top and press firmly into place. Bake for 40-45 minutes or until the top is golden brown. Let the shortbread cool in the pan for about 30 minutes; use the parchment to lift it out of the pan and transfer to a cutting board. When cool, cut into 1-inch squares.

buttery vanilla bean cookies

Christmas Cookie-palooza: Hazel’s vanilla bean cookies.

This Christmas cookie comes from my great-grandmother’s recipe box, and it’s marked with the name ‘Hazel’ in the upper corner. It’s no doubt one that my great-aunt Hazel (my grandmother Dorothy’s sister) made. I love that it’s handwritten in ink on a simple lined index card. And there are helpful notes, like this: “You really need butter to make them good.” And “Half this recipes makes a lot of cookies.”

Indeed: Half the recipe made A LOT of cookies, nearly 90 of them. And yes, you really do need all that butter (Hazel’s original recipe calls for a full pound).

I just love these simple Christmas cookies — they’re small and pretty enough to feel really special, but not at all fussy and decorative. The butter and almonds make for a tender cookie that’s more flavorful than shortbread. And they’re easy to make ahead and store; like most all-butter cookies, they get better after a day or two.

Add these to your lineup of Christmas cookies this year!

Great Aunt Hazel's vanilla bean cookies

makes about 7 dozen

1 whole vanilla bean (see Note)
2 cups powdered sugar
1 cup raw slivered blanched almonds, ground fine
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened at room temp
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt

Place powdered sugar in a medium bowl and grate the vanilla bean over the sugar using a fine microplane grater. (See Note.) Whisk to combine Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large bowl using a hand mixer) cream the butter and granulated sugar together until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add flour, ground almonds and salt and stir to combine. Divide the dough into thirds and roll each piece into a log about 1 1/4 inch in diameter; use your hands to firmly press the dough together as you roll to prevent holes in the middle. Wrap each roll in waxed paper and chill at least 2 hours, up to 1 day.

Preheat oven to 350°; line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Slice the dough with a sharp knife into slices no thicker than 1/4 inch. Place the slices on the prepared baking sheets about 1 inch apart. Bake for 10–12 minutes or until the cookies are just barely beginning to show a bit of golden brown around the edges, rotating the pans halfway through baking. Let the cookies cool just slightly, then gently coat them in the vanilla powdered sugar. Let them cool completely on a wire rack, then again coat them in powdered sugar. Store in an airtight container at room temperature, up to 1 week, or freeze up to 3 months.

Note: Grating a vanilla bean is kind of tedious. I found it much easier to grate an older vanilla bean that I'd had for a while than the fresh one I bought; it was easier to grate the bean that was somewhat dried out. If you have vanilla beans that are soft, or get frustrated by the process, then simply scrape the seeds from 1 1/2 whole beans over the powdered sugar and whisk to combine.

Got leftover vanilla sugar? Use a medium mesh strainer to sift out any cookie crumbs; store the sugar and use it to flavor whipped cream, dust over pancakes or make glaze or icing for your holiday baking.