Friday, October 31, 2014

Fabulous Friday Food: You Don't Have to Do It All

Happy Friday, friends!

I've had a busy week, thus, no posting.

I was out of town at the Allume conference last week. SO GOOD! And then I came back to the usual stuff--classes, college group dinner, a concert at the high school.

Oh, and I'm painting our guest room. Because my college roommate is coming next week (yea!) and that bedroom needs redecorating.

So, even though I do love to cook, some weeks I just don't have the time.

Maybe you've had a busy week, too. Maybe you've dealt with kids or crises or just Halloween costumes, which used to send me right over the EDGE I tell you. (I'm not a very creative mom, and when it comes to creating costumes . . . UGH . . . I'm the worst!)

Anyway, when those busy weeks come, sometimes it's nice to get a little help. Because you know you don't have to make everything from scratch, right?

A couple of weeks ago I was wandering through Williams-Sonoma, my happy place, and saw this sauce-in-a-jar.

Along with it was a recipe for Pumpkin Lasagna with Fontina. Are you kidding me?! Pumpkin, pasta, and fontina cheese all wrapped into one delicious dish?

Count me in!

So I bought a jar. Yes, they got me. Yes, it's expensive. And, yes, it took a little time.

But, by golly, it was worth it.


So I went home and made this beautiful lasagna.

I followed the recipe exactly as it was given to me on the Williams-Sonoma website, and my lasagna turned out pretty much like this.

Plus it was delicious.

Looking for something special to serve to friends this fall? Try this one.

Because you don't have to do it all.

[P.S. Williams-Sonoma did not pay me to advertise for them. I just really liked the lasagna I made!]

**Photo credits

Friday, October 24, 2014

Fabulous Friday Food: Caramel Apple Dip

Fall is showing off for us this year. The trees are vibrant reds, oranges, and golds; the weather is gorgeous (I'm ignoring the week we had two weeks ago--ugh!); and the leaves are dropping quickly.

I don't know about you, but weather like this makes me want to throw a party. Football? Hockey? (Yes, please!) Halloween?

For the past four years I have hosted a Halloween party for a group of very special college students. We'd have taco soup and chili and lots of snacks and the kids absolutely loved it. So did I! But that group graduated last year and they now live all over the world, so this will be the first year in a long time that I haven't hosted a Halloween party.

I cannot tell you how sad this makes me.

I just might have to recruit a new group of college students.

Anyway, I'm pretty sure that this little recipe was on the menu every year--I make it several times each fall and it usually gets gobbled up in no time.

Just last week I was looking for a quick snack that I could give to a group that was coming over to our house. This dip was just perfect because it only requires four ingredients that I usually have on hand in my pantry.

And apples. Which are just about perfect this time of year.

So, if you're like me and in the mood to throw a Fall-themed party, grab these four ingredients and get cookin'!

All it takes is butter, brown sugar, Karo syrup, and sweetened condensed milk.

I didn't promise you a healthy snack, did I?

Start by melting a stick of butter in a 2-quart saucepan.

Then add the brown sugar and Karo syrup and mix well. Keep the pan over medium heat.

Once that is thoroughly combined, add the sweetened condensed milk.

Stir everything together and continue to cook over medium heat, stirring continually until it begins to boil. Cook for about 2-3 minutes, until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture has thickened.

Keep stirring! You do NOT want this to burn on the bottom of the pan. (Trust me.)

After a few minutes, your caramel dip will lighten, like this, and when it's just the right consistency, you're done.

Take it off the heat and allow it to cool just a bit before transferring it to a pretty bowl and serving platter.

Serve your Caramel Apple Dip with apple slices. And watch the party begin!

As they say in the South: "Happy Fall, Y'all!"

For a printable version of this recipe, click here.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Fabulous Friday Food: The World's Best Chili

Prepare yourself.

Because after you try this chili you'll never go back to your old, boring chili recipe.

I've been making chili for years--since college, really. And I always used my mom's recipe because, well, she's mom and she's an amazing cook and she made a pretty good chili when I was growing up.

But some years ago I found this recipe in a Texas cookbook that my sister had given me. It's called "Roger Hicks' Cookoff Chili," but since I've tweaked it so much since I first started making it, I think I can now safely call it "Shelly's Chili Will Beat Your Chili in a Cookoff Any Day."

Or something like that.

So, now that it's fall and we're taking rainy-day walks with our dog, scuffling through the leaves, and wearing long sleeves, it's time for chili.

Oh, and football. Isn't chili just the perfect food to eat when the game is on? Piled high with fixings like sour cream, cheese, and cornbread. Yum.

So, now that your appetite is fully whetted, let's get down to business, shall we?

Start with the basics: ground beef, onion, and garlic.

Let that "get happy," as Emeril used to say.

(Where even IS Emeril these days? I miss him.)

Add your tomatoes and kidney beans. Sorry to all the true Southerners out there--I'm a Midwestern gal, and we here in the Midwest add beans to our chili. Only one can, though. We don't want it too heavy with beans.

Next come the spices, some of which might surprise you: cumin, paprika, chili powder (duh!), and cayenne pepper (just a dash). The real surprise, though, is the cocoa powder. And the sugar.

Mix everything together, then add what I think gives this chili its distinct flavor: beer. I recommend starting with a half a bottle, just to see what you think, but if you really like it, add the whole thing.

Now let the pot simmer for a good three hours, uncovered. Just pop by the stove every now and then to give it a stir--don't neglect the chili. And if things start to get too thick, add a cup or two of water and let it keep simmering away.

After three hours, your chili will become thick, rich, and have a deep red color that can only be developed with time. The flavors will come together so well, and you'll have the best bowl of chili you've ever had.

Seriously, if you try this, please pop back here and let me know what you think. I hope you like this one as much as I do.

Have a great weekend!


For a printable copy of this recipe, click here.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Good Reads

Happy Sunday!

I hope you're enjoying rest and football and delicious fall weather and whatever makes you happy today.

Here are just a few of my favorite posts lately--maybe they will add to your happy Sunday as well.

The 7 Fear-Nots of Every Writing Project :: Leslie Leyland Fields at WordServe Water Cooler.

6 Reasons This Blog Has Gone Cold :: Jen Pollock Michel

Greater Grace :: Your Mom Has a Blog (don't you just love that name?!)

Why I'm Not Always Opposed to Religious Tourism :: Emily T. Wierenga on TGC

Finally, two videos from this week. One that made me think and one that made me laugh. You can figure out which one was which.

The Meta Picture


Have a great Sunday!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

He Takes My Hand

I don’t know how or when it started, but I would guess that it was after a fight.

You know how some Sunday mornings go: a rush to get out the door, a disagreement about whatever, some lingering bitterness from harsh words exchanged the night before.

I hate those Sundays, I’ll admit. I don’t want to worship, and I certainly don’t want to worship next to him. But our seating arrangement (yes, our family likes its rituals and where we sit in church is definitely one of them) mandates that I sit next to my husband in church.

Usually, I like that arrangement. I think it speaks something subtle, yet significant, to our girls. At least it speaks something to me. It speaks that we are in this together—church, parenting, life—and that we do this all side-by-side. No kids sitting between us. It’s been that way from the beginning.

Oh sure, others do it differently. Others serve as gatekeepers to the pew—no escaping, kids! Others might not even think about their subtle seating chart or might not even have one.

But we do. And on those Sunday mornings when things don’t quite go as planned or when there might be open hostility between us, I dread our seating arrangement.

And I especially dread the benediction.

Because some years ago, I’m not sure when, and probably in the middle of some argument about something completely insignificant but one in which I harrumphed my way through church, my husband took my hand. During the benediction.

And now it’s such a habit that there’s no getting out of it.

May I let you in on a little secret? I love it. Because when he takes my hand during the final blessing--the "go in peace"--I am reunited with my love and recommitted to my marriage.

He takes my hand when we’re fighting, silently.

He takes my hand when we’re united, completely.

He takes my hand when we’re afraid.

He takes my hand when we’re sad.

He takes my hand when we’re in the middle of a difficult decision.

He takes my hand when the week has been rough or when it has been joyful.

He takes my hand when I want to run and when I want to stay.

This small grasping, a seemingly insignificant coming together that is probably overlooked by everyone around us, reminds us that we are one. Always.

No matter what we were when we stepped into the sanctuary, we are a couple when we walk out.


I’ve wanted to write about this for a while, but today I read about R.C. Sproul’s regret that he didn’t hold his wife’s hand more when she was alive. I’ve had many of the same regrets, but one I will never carry is that we missed the most important moment (to us) to hold each other’s hand.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Fabulous Friday Food: Illini Bars

Did you know I have a Recipes page? And did you know that it's chock full of fabulous recipes?

For a long time I posted a Fabulous Friday Food recipe each week. But then I stopped cooking or got tired of it or felt like it was too much work. Or something like that.

I've been thinking about resurrecting Fabulous Friday Food for a long time now, but wasn't sure if I had the energy for it or not. But will Fall being here and all of the wonderful food that comes along with it, and also when I realized this week that I've never even blogged my famous chili recipe (stay tuned . . .), I decided that it's time.

And then when my friend, Rebecca, told me this week that whenever she doesn't know what to make for dinner she just looks on my blog . . . well, that was all I needed. Thanks for the push, Rebecca!

But here's the deal--I need your help.

If there's something you'd like to see here on FFF, would you let me know? If you have a cooking-related question that I can answer, would you ask? Maybe that will help me think of something to write about on Fridays.

And if you're new to Fabulous Friday Food (little shout out to Ina Garten in the title because she's just fabulous), let me know that as well. I hope you get a little inspiration here and some encouragement to keep cooking. I know I need that sometimes!

So here we go.

This week I'm making these bars that go way back in our family history. My mom made these when I was growing up, and she always called them "Illini Bars," I think because my parents would take them to tailgate parties at the U of I way back when. I'm not quite sure where they got the name. Basically, these are caramel brownies or turtle brownies or something like that.

But at our house, they are Illini Bars.

These are an autumn staple around here. I'm not even sure why we only make them in the fall, but, again, it must have something to do with football games. All I know is that when the weather turns, it's time to make Illini Bars.

Here's what you'll need:

1 1/2 packages of caramels, unwrapped
1 small can evaporated milk
1 German chocolate cake mix
1 1/2 sticks of butter
1 C. chopped pecans
1 package chocolate chips

How easy is that?!

(The chocolate chips are behind there somewhere, I promise!)

In a saucepan, melt the caramels with 1/3 Cup of evaporated milk.

Here's something that drives me crazy. Back in the day, when Mom was making Illini bars, a package of caramels was much bigger than a package of caramels today. So if you choose to only use one package of today's caramels, you'll probably get a runnier, less-caramely consistency to your filling.

Trust me on this one. Use a package and a half of caramels. You'll be glad you did.

Moving on.

While the caramels and evaporated milk are getting acquainted on the stove (low heat, please!), melt 3/4 cup of butter (that's a stick and a half). In another bowl, mix together the German chocolate cake mix, the melted butter, another 1/3 cup of evaporated milk, and the 1 cup of chopped pecans. You can leave out the nuts, but why would you?

Take half of the chocolate cake mixture and press it into the bottom of a greased 9x13 inch pan.

You can use a spatula, like I did, or your fingers, which work just as well.

Just make sure you get the whole thing covered.

Now bake this for six minutes at 350 degrees. After six minutes, take the pan out of the oven and cover the mixture with chocolate chips.

 Put the pan back into the oven for just a couple of minutes until the chocolate chips melt.

Or not. (I really think you can skip this step. I know I have.)

Now add the melted caramel to the top of the chocolate chips, like this.

You don't need to spread it out--the oven will take care of that.

Now take the rest of the cake mixture and place it on the top of the caramel. This is the only tricky part of this recipe. The cake mixture will be kind of thick, so you won't be able to pour it on. What I usually do is take small pieces and pat it out into a flat disk and place it on top.

You'll have something that looks like this:

Don't worry. Everything will work out in the oven.

Bake for 15-18 minutes at 350 degrees, and in the end you'll have a wonderful pan of brownies/cookies/bars that looks something like this:

The funny thing is, we gobbled these up so fast that I didn't even have time to take a picture of the finished product sitting pretty on a plate like most "real" food bloggers would do.

Trust me, they are THAT good.

So, have a wonderful Autumn weekend and go bake some Illini Bars!


Illini Bars

1 1/2 packages caramels, unwrapped
2/3 C. evaporated milk
1 German chocolate cake mix
3/4 C. butter, melted
1 C. pecans
1 package chocolate chips

1. Melt caramels and 1/3 Cup evaporated milk over low heat, stirring occasionally.

2. Mix together cake mix, 3/4 C. melted butter, 1/3 C. evaporated milk, and 1 C. pecans. Spread half of the cake mixture in the bottom of a greased 9x13 inch pan; bake six minutes at 350 degrees.

3. Add chocolate chips to the top of the baked mixture. Add caramel mixture. Add rest of cake mixture to the top. Bake 15-18 minutes at 350 degrees.

For a printable version of this recipe, click here.


Now tell me, what are YOU cooking this weekend?