Rolling in Dough

Over the weekend, I was bit by the baking bug. It happens quite rarely, but when it does…oh boy.

And of course I didn’t start off with something easy. On Sunday morning, I drank a cup of coffee for a burst of energy and then stepped right into my bread-makin’ shoes. (Note: I didn’t actually have any shoes on while I made bread. I did, however, bust out my trusty pink floral apron.)

Right off the bat, my husband had little faith in me. I can’t say I blame him. He’s more familiar than anyone with my work in the kitchen. But he had good reason to be weary of my bread’s success; I was making a mixed-grain bread that called for quite a bit of whole-wheat flour, which is notoriously more difficult to bake with than your standard all-purpose flour.

The husband went out for a mountain bike ride and I got to work mixing and kneading…and kneading…and kneading. Honestly, longest six minutes of my life.

And when my husband returned home, look at what I got to gloat about:

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He was quite impressed. Truthfully, it was too early to be genuinely impressed, as I hadn’t yet tasted it. Luckily, the first bite validated my ability as a baker; I baked one seriously delicious loaf of bread! I was telling my coworker about it, and in a surprised tone she asked, “You made your own bread? Like, with a bread machine?” Let me tell you how good it felt to tell her that I did all the dirty work by hand: it felt goooooooooooood.

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That same afternoon, I made these Oreo Cheesecake Cookies:

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I’m pretty sure this was the simplest cookie recipe I’ve ever used, and the cookies were to die for. I took them to a family get-together that evening, and within five minutes, they were gone. Every last one of them.

I recently posted a rant about my food looking nothing like the pictures in the recipes I find online, and what made me happiest about these cookies is that mine looked exactly like the pictures in the original recipe. FINALLY.

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Have you baked anything good lately?

Chili Tweaks and Homemade Cornbread

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A few years ago, I found the easiest chili recipe and I’ve made it several times over, always using a different kind of salsa. I make it probably once a month, and I almost always serve cornbread on the side.

Cornbread from a box.

From a Jiffy box, to be exact. We’re not even talking fancy Marie Callender’s cornbread mix. We’re talking 48-cent Jiffy cornbread.

I’ve considered making homemade cornbread, but laziness (and shame) have always taken over and driven me to purchase the boxed mix. But since part of my cooking journey is to rid my kitchen of as much boxed stuff as possible, I finally went through with making cornbread from scratch!

But first, back to the chili. As I said, I’ve made this same chili recipe numerous times. I’ve got it down to perfection. I almost don’t even need the recipe anymore. I wrote this down in my recipe notebook a LONG time ago, and unfortunately I don’t have the teensiest clue where it originated from. If I ever find it, I promise I’ll edit this post and link to it.

Ingredients

1 pound lean ground beef
1 cup diced onion
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 16-ounce cans of kidney or pinto beans, drained and rinsed
2.5 cups salsa
1 4-ounce can of diced green chiles
2 teaspoons of chili powder

Steps

  1. Cook the ground beef, onion, and garlic in large skillet until beef is browned. Drain.
  2. Add the beans, salsa, chiles, and chili powder. Bring to a boil.
  3. Reduce heat to low and cover. Cook, stirring frequently, for 20-25 minutes.

I repeat: it’s easy, and I’ve perfected it. No mistakes. No disappointments. It was a combination of bravery and confidence that influenced me to make some alterations this go-around.

First, I swapped out the ground beef for some stew meat chopped into half-inch pieces. Second, I used homemade salsa. And third, I eliminated the green chiles because I completely forgot about them at the grocery store.

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I wasn’t horribly impressed with the salsa I made for use in the chili. It was the same recipe I used in a recent post, but it didn’t really have that “chili” flavor I was going for. So, I cracked open a can of tomato sauce and poured half of it in, and I added about 2-3 extra teaspoons of chili powder for good measure.

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While the chili cooked, I started on the cornbread. I used a recipe from my Better Homes & Gardens cookbook. I was pleasantly surprised to discover it was almost as effortless as the boxed Jiffy mix. My only mistake was melting the butter, and then whisking in the milk and eggs and letting it sit for a few minutes while I tended to the chili. By the time I poured it all into the flour/cornmeal mixture, the butter had become wax-like. I frantically stirred the batter in an attempt to break it all up. It must have worked, because the cornbread was fabulous!

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The chili I was worried about? Also fabulous! I was a little saddened that I used a salsa recipe with no chunkiness to it, as that’s one of the things I love about chili. Next time, I’ll still make my own salsa, but I’ll try a different recipe that doesn’t puree it down to that sauce-like consistency. The taste was still wonderful and I’m proud of myself for taking a bit of a chance and seeing it pay off!

Do you prefer chunks of beef, or ground beef in your chili? I think it’s a tie for me, but it was a nice change from the typical chili I make. 🙂

Ninjas and Gingahs

Christmas was quite good to me this year. My parents’ gifts to me and my husband were a Ninja Mega Complete Kitchen System and a set of embarrassingly nice steak knives. I’m not lying to you when I say I almost cried when my husband unwrapped the Ninja set. As soon as we returned home, we packed our old blender and its components into a box and threw it in the big trash can in the garage.   Good riddance.

I haven’t yet cooked anything that requires the use of the new steak knives, but my Ninja is almost the coolest thing I’ve ever owned. All of this is to say, you might expect it to make some appearances on the blog in the near future. I mean, the things that system can do!

For Christmas, I was tasked with preparing dessert. My father is a diabetic and a dialysis patient, so his diet is extremely limited. Since gingersnaps are among his favorite cookies, I chose a recipe from the DaVita dialysis website for some soft ginger cookies. Remember my recent post about my peppermint cheesecake cookies that tasted delicious but fell horribly flat? Well, I’m happy to report that I actually learned something from the experience. Here’s what I did differently with the ginger cookies:

  • Used butter softened at room temperature—not butter melted in the microwave.
  • Was ridiculously careful not to overmix the dough.
  • Chilled the dough in the fridge for several hours before baking it.

The cookies were so, so soft and didn’t fall flat at all! YAY!

Fresh out of the oven...

Fresh out of the oven…

Cooled, but not flat!

Cooled, but not flat!

Once they cooled, I transferred 28 cookies into a gallon-sized Ziploc bag. After Christmas dinner, the five of us—my husband, my stepson, my parents, and myself—busted into the cookies as we played Aggravation. By the time the game was over, only four cookies remained. Five people, 24 cookies…you do the math.

Now, I will leave you with the Barf of the Week, courtesy of the above cookies:  Diarrhea Dough!

If only real diarrhea smelled this good.

If only real diarrhea smelled this good.

Thanksgiving Success!

I have never truly contributed to Thanksgiving dinner at my parents’ house.  It’s not to say I don’t offer.  Every year it’s the same drill:  I ask my mom what I can do to help and am assigned chopping the celery, opening the cans of olives, and setting the table.  Anything to keep me away from the actual cooking.  It doesn’t bother me; this arrangement has always been a necessity because of my notoriety for ruining anything that touches the stove.

This year I tossed out my usual offer to help, but several weeks ahead of time.  My parents were hosting between two and four additional guests and I didn’t want my mom to be overwhelmed.  To my surprise, she said, “Sure, you can be in charge of the rolls.”

Now I should be honest:  my mom kind of thought I would just buy some rolls at the grocery store.  At first, I kind of thought I would just buy some rolls at the grocery store.  But damn it, I’ve worked hard on my cooking skills and a surge of confidence came over me.  I was going to make the Thanksgiving rolls.  From scratch.

Of course, I always have to have a Plan B.  Just like Plan B for ruined dinner is a trip to Chipotle for burrito bowls, Plan B for Thanksgiving was a trip to the grocery store to buy some bakery rolls.  For this reason, I made my rolls on Wednesday so I would still have time to hit the store that night if all else failed.

Before I continue, look at this picture of the rolls we had for Thanksgiving.  You’ll have to keep reading to find out if they are Plan A or Plan B.

IMG_0528Tuesday, 7 p.m.  First things first, put on my trusty apron.  I rarely wear it but I was working with flour and…well, let’s just say I’ve learned my lesson.

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I mixed all of the ingredients, got in a mini-arm-workout stirring what felt like 50 pounds of wet flour, and stuck the dough in the fridge to chill overnight.

Wednesday, 1 p.m.  Punched the dough down as instructed.  (No one warned me baking was such a violent activity.)  Divided it in two and honestly couldn’t imagine each half turning into twelve glorious and perfect rolls.

IMG_05211:30 p.m.  Rolled a total of 23 little balls and took the puppy for a long walk for the 45 minutes I needed to give the dough to rise.

2:30 p.m.  Took the first half of the rolls out of the oven.  They…were…PERFECT!  Tried not to squeal.  Squealed anyway.  Stuck in the second tray while the first twelve cooled on a wire rack.

I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I make adorable little rolls.

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There were seven people at my parents’ house for Thanksgiving dinner, and I brought 23 rolls.  By the time we cleaned up from our giant feast, only three rolls remained.  If that’s not success, I don’t know what is!

I’m really pleased I didn’t ruin the first Thanksgiving item I’ve ever cooked.  This year rolls, next year THE TURKEY!  Bwahahahahaha!

(Just kidding, mom.  Don’t scream.  I won’t touch the turkey until it’s carved and on my plate.)

PB&J Cake; or, giving my cake pan the middle finger

As it turns out, the third time really is a charm.

I have nearly ruined one cake and completely ruined another because for some stupid reason I couldn’t get the cakes to not stick to the inside of the pan.  I’ve always loved baking and have never been too particularly bad at it–except for when it comes to turning a cake out of a pan.

After ruining my last cake, which had been intended for a friend who is battling cancer, I was instructed by this particular friend to practice a new cake and to bring her one once I had broken the curse.  The cake I was ordered to make is a Peanut Butter and Jelly Cake, which can be found in the latest issue of Food Network Magazine.

Instead of covering the cake pan in greased parchment paper, as the recipe instructed, I followed my mom’s advice and bought a can of cooking spray made specifically for baking.  I doused the ever-living crap out of the pan; I mean, I’m surprised there was any cooking spray left in the can by the time I was finished.  Not this time, cake pan.  Not this time.

While the cake baked, I made the peanut butter frosting out of peanut butter, regular butter, powdered sugar, and milk.  I would almost forfeit an entire year’s salary in exchange for eating a bowlful of this frosting daily without becoming obese.

When the cake came out of the oven,  I waited anxiously while it cooled enough that I could try turning it out of the pan.  It was a defining moment in my culinary self-teachings.

Awwwwwww yeah!  IT WORKED!  With the hurdle of uncertainty behind me, I continued onto the fun part:  the transformation from cake to PB&J.  First, I cut off a thin layer on the top and bottom of the cake with a serrated knife so that the cake looked like a big slice of bread.

Next, I cut the cake into two equal slabs and piled the bottom layer with peanut butter frosting and some of my grandma’s homemade raspberry jelly.

Finally, I replaced the top layer of the cake and cut it in half diagonally.  It’s hard to tell it’s not just a boring PB&J sandwich!  (Disclaimer:  I don’t think PB&J is boring at all.)

Last night we had dinner with my parents and I brought this over for dessert.  It was a hit!

Trash can cake

Today I’m driving to a nearby town to visit one of my good friends, who is currently battling cancer.  She loves my blog and she’s always cheering me on, giving me pointers, and sharing her recipes and cookbooks.  One might say she’s my biggest fan.  🙂

I wanted to bake her something special, so I turned to my new BHG Bridal Cookbook and picked out a recipe for a Cream-Filled Cake Roll.

[Photo source: Better Homes and Gardens]

I want to preface what you are about to read by saying I really did have confidence that I could pull this off.  I really, really did.  As it turns out, my confidence is no match for my terrible cake-making skills.

The Cream-Filled Cake Roll was a series of new firsts for me, starting with the concept of beating eggs until they form soft or stiff peaks.  My stepson assisted me with much of last night’s cake-making, so we took turns operating the hand mixer, ooh-ing and ahh-ing as the eggs turned creamy and foamy.

The process of beating the egg yolks and the egg whites (separately) took about half an hour (come on, eggs, I don’t even spend that much time on you in the morning!).  We were finally able to fold the yolk mixture into the egg white mixture, followed by folding the flour mixture into the egg mixture.  Mmmmm, cake goop.

So far so good, right?  I poured the batter into my parchment paper-covered, well-greased pan, and let the oven do its thing.  At this moment in time, confidence was still high.  No way my 60 minutes of prep time wouldn’t pay off!  In the meantime, I made the cream filling by beating together whipping cream, sugar, and vanilla.  My stepson and I sliced up fresh raspberries (sampling along the way) and I folded them into the mixture while he washed all of the red juice off of his hands and face.

With the filling done, the next hurdle was to get the cake out of the oven and onto the towel coated with powdered sugar.  When the cake came out, I diligently followed the recipe’s instructions to immediately loosen the edges of the cake from the pan.  I turned the pan upside down over the towel; at this point, a big slab of cake should have slipped out of the pan’s grasp and landed cleanly on the towel.  Since a picture is worth a thousand words:

The “big slab” of cake on the towel was missing chunks, all of which had stuck to the parchment paper.  All of its holes made it the Swiss cheese of cakes.  Stifling a scream, I pulled myself together:  it’s still salvageable, I told myself.  I continued to do as the recipe indicated, rolling the towel and the cake into a spiral.  Once cooled, then maybe, just maybe, I could still turn this into an edible (albeit ugly) cake.

Again, since a picture is worth a thousand words:

When the time came to unroll the cake and the towel, the cake had stuck to the towel so badly I couldn’t even remove it.  Furthermore, it had cracked into a million little pieces while cooling, so it was no longer a holey cake–it was simply a collage of cake scraps.  After several unsuccessful attempts to remove chunks of cake from the towel, I dumped everything in the trash can–towel included– and said good riddance.

My stepson asked if I was going to try again, but at 11 o’clock at night, my sanity depended on my surrender.  When I told him that I would not be attempting it a second time, he responded:  “Well, you could always just bring her some flowers.”

It’s apparent that my cooking has improved ten-fold since I started my blog in March.  But when it comes to fancy cakes, I am a LONG…long…longlonglong way from improvement.  To the friend for whom this cake was intended, I’m sure you’ll be reading this at some point, and I’m sure you’ll understand that it’s the thought that counts.  Going forward, I’ve heard Costco sells some nice desserts…

Dough, take three: pizza crust

I made a mess of every utensil, bowl, appliance, and counter in my kitchen, but I did it.  I made homemade whole wheat pizza dough.  The result was an unbelievably tasty pizza:

Every homemade pizza I’ve ever made has been the product of a box of Jiffy pizza crust mix.  Even then, pizza crust inevitably sends me into fits of cuss words and a series of vows to never again make a homemade pizza.  But just like swearing to give up alcohol following a night of heavy drinking, as soon as my frustration hangover wears off I’m back to purchasing another box of Jiffy and trying again.

My battle with pizza dough has always been a case of the stupid stuff not spreading.  No matter how meticulously I slowwwwwwly pad at the dough to spread it far enough to deem it pizza-worthy, it always tears, retracts, and fights like hell to remain a ball of useless dough.  I had hoped that making my own pizza dough would resolve this issue.

The recipe for the dough was almost identical to that of the dinner rolls I made last week–the only difference being that the pizza dough didn’t call for butter and sugar like the rolls did.  I also chose to swap half the all-purpose flour for whole wheat flour.  I’m not sure if this is the reason that the pizza dough was a bitch to knead, but no matter how floured the board was, the dough kept sticking to it!  This hadn’t been a problem at all with the roll dough.  I think cussing and homemade pizza go hand in hand–there’s just no getting around it.  Eventually, the dough reached the elasticity I was aiming for and I began sculpting the crust.  Guess what?  It was at least fifty-seven times easier to spread than the boxed dough!

In addition to the homemade crust, I also made some homemade pizza sauce.  I mixed six ounces of tomato paste with six ounces of water.  Our darling little old Mexican neighbor has kindly provided us with a stash of homegrown garlic, so I minced up a couple of cloves for the sauce.  [Fact:  this was the first time I’ve ever used fresh garlic, as opposed to bottled.)  After adding some basil and oregano, the pizza sauce was perfect!

Next, I smothered the crust with sauce, sprinkled it with a mix of grated Gruyere and mozzarella, and topped it with some roma tomato slices.

But I didn’t stop there.  On top of the tomatoes, I added pepperoni, fresh spinach, and a couple pinches of grated Romano and Parmesan.

When it came out of the oven, it was hard to believe I’d made it.  My homemade pizza never looks this good!  And it tasted good, too.  The texture of the crust was splendid.

I have to admit, I was slightly annoyed that so much effort was required for a simple pizza crust.  If you take the prep work and the cleanup time into consideration, I probably spent an hour on the crust alone.  But my annoyance faded when I remembered that this recipe was for multiple batches of dough, so the next time I want a homemade pizza, all I have to do is remove the dough from the freezer and thaw it out!  😀

So now I’m off to empty my dishwasher.  That’s right, I filled that sucker up making a 7-inch pizza!

Dough, take one: dinner rolls

Yesterday was the kickoff to my second “Two Week Technique.”  For the next two weeks, I will be teaching myself all about the art of making and baking dough!

Several months ago, I told my mom I wanted to make some bread and her response had been, “Don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t turn out well the first time.”  At the time, I had zilch for cooking skills and decided to put my bread dreams on hold.  Now I feel comfortable enough wandering into a doughier territory.

I opted to start with some dinner rolls from my Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook.  As I started the prep work, I knew just a few simple things about bread and dough-making:  you need yeast to make the dough rise, kneading is important, and dough needs time to rise.  However, what I did NOT know was that the temperature of the liquid being mixed in with the flour can be too cold to activate the yeast or too hot, which will kill the yeast.  Therefore, when I read that my mixture of butter, milk, and sugar needed to be between 120 and 130 degrees, I took it with a grain of salt.  In fact, I didn’t understand the importance of the temperature until after my batch of rolls had finished baking.  I simply waited for the butter to almost completely melt, and that’s when I added the mixture to the flour.

After what I have dubbed “The World’s Greatest Arm Workout,” I had a big ball of dough.

I transferred the dough ball into a greased bowl and let it sit.  I was pathetically excited to check on it every ten minutes to see if it had grown any.  Like watching a pregnant woman’s belly over time.

An hour later, my dough ball had doubled in size.  The recipe instructed to “punch” the dough down–I hadn’t expected that the whole thing would deflate!  Then, I moved it to my floured surface and divided it in two.

After some more time rising, I divided the dough into 16 miniature dough balls.  Then they had to rise another half an hour and I finally slid them into the oven.  While I waited, very nervously, I piled some things on top of my cat.  (Please don’t panic, he doesn’t mind it one bit.  He purred and stared at me lovingly the entire time.)

Twelve minutes later, this is what came out of my oven:

While they were still piping hot, there was no way I wasn’t trying one.  Despite my complete ignorance to the whole temperature-of-the-liquid thing, I managed to make some of the GREATEST dinner rolls I have ever tasted.  Tonight, I served them with some garlic Parmesan-Romano chicken and broccoli.

So.  On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the highest, my confidence level for my two weeks of dough-makin’ is a freaking 11.  Next up, I will tackle something that has always been a personal struggle:  pizza dough.  The only pizza dough I’ve ever made is the kind that comes in a Jiffy box, so I’m going to test my skills at the real deal.  Can’t wait!

Dad’s Day

Yesterday I succeeded in helping my fiance’s son make some Father’s Day cheesecake brownies.  Today, I once again wore my baker’s hat so I could make my dad some of his own yummy treats.  My dad loves Heath candy bars and as luck would have it, my Better Homes and Gardens cookbook (damn it, there I am plugging it again!) contains a recipe for chocolate toffee bars.

I’d like to say things went off without a hitch, but I did have a knock-down, drag-out fight with the crust.  I had originally lined the pan with aluminum foil, but when I scraped the batter dough into the pan, the foil slid and turned every time I tried to spread any of the dough.  I ended up taking out the foil and chiseling away the dough that was clinging on for dear life.  Once I had all of the dough in the unlined pan, things went a little more smoothly.  I let it bake for 15 minutes and then sprinkled it with chocolate chips.

The recipe advised leaving the chocolate chips for two minutes and then spreading the chocolate over the entirety of the crust.  At two minutes, they looked like they’d hardly softened at all.  But as soon as the spatula touched the chips, they magically transformed into chocolate frosting that spread beautifully over the crust.

All that was left was the pièce de résistance:  the chocolate-covered toffee pieces.  My dad’s lucky these survived the 20-minute drive to his house!

When we cut into them for dessert after the AMAZING ribs my mom cooked, something miraculous happened:  they didn’t stick to the pan…AT ALL!  For me, this is huge.  Also, slightly off topic, but–tonight I learned how to turn on a grill!  (Making fun of me is not allowed.)  I also learned why and how wood chips are used in grilling.  Now I just need to actually cook something on a grill.  That will be a squealing moment for sure.

To wrap up this post, I’ll share with you my other feat of the day.  I made some spicy red bean and corn soup that calls for a cup of chopped carrots.  Following the advice of the video I watched after my last carrot-chopping attempt, I managed to chop a carrot somewhat decently.  I still need practice, as chopping three small carrots took me at least a good five minutes–but things are looking up!

Pinterest-free week, day seven: To the moon and back

Well, it’s the final day of my “Pinterest-free week” and I have to say, though not all of my cooking was “successful,” per se, I feel like I learned a lot more this week than I have in the past months of my fumbling through recipes I’d found on Pinterest.

I spent a preposterous amount of time in my kitchen today.  It started around noon, when my fiance’s 8-year-old son and I teamed up to make some Father’s Day cheesecake brownies.  Last time (which was the first time) he helped me cook, I was a nervous wreck.  I thought:  I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m going to screw this up, and he’ll never again want a thing to do with cooking.  But this time, I was comfortable.  I did know what I was doing, I felt like there was only a slim chance I’d screw up, and I was relaxed enough that I knew I was making it enjoyable for him.  I taught him how to use a hand mixer and I learned that he’s better than I am at cracking eggs (okay, let’s be honest; this was a blow to my ego).

Now, before you see the picture, you need a bit of an explanation.  My fiance has a strange obsession with the moon.  Ask him anything:

Q:  Where do you want to go to dinner?
A:  The moon.

Q:  What do you want for your birthday?
A:  The moon.

Q:  What do you want to do this weekend?
A:  Go to the moon.

Q:  Where have you been?
A:  The moon.

So, while we prepared the batter, I laughed out loud when my fiance’s son said, “We should write ‘MOON’ on the top of this when it’s done!”  Good plan, little man.  Good plan.

And of course, when an 8-year-old is involved, there must be sprinkles.  I’m proud to report that these puppies were pretty darn delectable.

After an afternoon break that entailed purchasing wedding rings (yay!), I was right back in the kitchen making whole grain corn muffins and baked buffalo-style chicken nuggets.  The corn muffins had me a little nervous because the recipe involved a couple of things I haven’t dealt with much in my cooking adventures thus far.  First, I needed to make a “well” in the dry ingredients in which I would pour the wet ingredients.  Now, to me, a “well” is a vague term.  Are we talking a pot-hole sized well or a crater-sized well?  Or a well-sized well?  But it turned out the size of the well didn’t matter much.  I could only dig so much of a hole inside the dry ingredients before they all began to landslide back into the center of the bowl.  Here’s the kicker:  I’m still not sure why I had to go to all that trouble in the first place.  Once you pour the wet ingredients into the well you’ve made, you simply stir everything together until the dry stuff is moist.  Honestly, did the well play that big of a role?

However, I have no right to question anything.  I followed the directions like a good girl, and the corn muffins were so STINKING perfect.

I paired these babies with some baked buffalo-style chicken nuggets, which were also divine–even if they did make all three of us guzzle water and juice like it was going out of style.

(Random note to self:  you eat too many peas.)

It feels good to end Pinterest-free week on a good note.  My mom made the comment the other night that I no longer qualify for Worst Cooks in America, and I’m starting to think she’s right.  I’ve stumbled through some idiotic moments in the past four months, and while I’m sure I haven’t seen the end of them, I know I’m capable of doing this!  Bring it on, kitchen!