Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Zucchini Nut Cake

Hard to believe…but it’s 50 degrees outside and cold and drizzly. This is quite a change after a few days ago, when it was 90 degrees outside and it seemed like summer was here already. In fact, this past Saturday morning we had to turn on the air conditioner. But today, it’s 40 degrees cooler and I’m back into “comfort food” mode. The weather reports are predicting cool, rainy weather for the next couple days yet. I think I’ll make up a zucchini cake tonight and have a couple friends over for cake and coffee tomorrow afternoon. So even though I’ve posted an awful lot of dessert recipes lately, here’s one more for you all!


3 large eggs
2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup vegetable or canola oil
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp. baking powder
1 – 8 ounce pkg. cream cheese, softened
2 cups grated zucchini
3 cups white flour
2 cups chopped walnuts

Beat eggs, sugar, oil, vanilla, cinnamon, salt, baking soda, baking powder, and cream cheese until fluffy. Add zucchini and mix well. Stir in flour, and beat 2 minutes with the mixer. Fold in nuts. Turn into a greased 13 by 9-inch pan or Bundt pan. Bake at 325 degrees for 1 hour. Remove from oven. Dust with powdered sugar. This is especially scrumptious with a cup of coffee or tea on a cool, rainy morning!

Happy Baking!


Sunday, March 27, 2011

Cinnamon Twist Coffee Cake

We had a wonderful weekend with guests visiting from Austin. There was lots of good conversation and food—the makings of a wonderful weekend! I won’t write about everything I served, except one thing: Cinnamon Twist Coffee Cake. This was one thing I served for Saturday morning breakfast. There’s nothing better than a yeast coffee cake, fresh out of the oven, with a cup of coffee, on a relaxing weekend morning! What made it even better was enjoying it on the patio with friends. The recipe is below.

Cinnamon Twist Coffee Cake

1 batch yeast roll dough (I use ½ batch of the “Cinnamon rolls for a crowd” recipe in my March 18 post )
½ cup butter, melted
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
2 tsp. cinnamon
1 cup walnuts or pecans, chopped finely
Buttercream frosting for glaze

Prepare basic roll dough. Let rise one time and punch down. (As a do-ahead alternative, you can put the dough in a covered, buttered bowl, and let it rise for the first time in the refrigerator, and leave it in the fridge for 2-3 days before using.) Grease a 10 by 13 inch glass baking pan. On lightly floured surface, roll dough to a 12 " square. Brush with melted butter. Mix brown sugar, cinnamon and nuts together. Sprinkle half of this mixture down the center third of the dough square. Fold one third of the dough over center third. Sprinkle the double layer of dough with the remaining cinnamon/sugar/nut mixture. Fold the remaining third of dough over; seal edge. Then cut crosswise into 12 1-inch strips. Holding ends of each strip, twist tightly in opposite directions. Arrange two rows of six twists each in greased pan. Cover, and let rise until double (about 30-40 minutes). Bake in 375 degree oven for 30 minutes or so. Remove from oven, and drizzle with your favorite glaze or buttercream frosting.

Here’s a photo of the coffee cake, after I drizzled on the glaze.

It was definitely a “fattening weekend”….but fun!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Product Review: Whip It

We've got out-of-town company arriving in a few hours, and I've been busy baking and getting the house ready for their arrival. I just got done making--and decorating--a banana cream pie.

The recipe I use for the filling is the standard vanilla cream pie recipe in the Better Homes and Gardens Pie Recipes cookbook (with 2-3 bananas sliced at the bottom of the baked pie shell). This is another recipe that people seem to really like. I like to “dress-up” my banana cream pie by piping whipped cream on it, and adding dried banana slices for an additional garnish. It just makes the pie look extra special.

As I was decorating this pie, I thought to myself what a great product Whip It is. I mentioned it in my last post about the Kahlua Cheesecake. I thought I would put in another plug for this product. One packet of Whip It (or Sahnesteif if you buy the German package) keeps a pint of whipped cream in its whipped, stiff form, without separating, for several days. Before I found this product, I used to be concerned that if I piped whipping cream on a cake or pie for garnish, and did so a day or more in advance (like I often do, being the advance-planner that I am), that it wouldn’t keep it shape. This product guarantees that your whipped-cream decorated cake will stay looking good, even if you make it several days in advance.

You can buy Whip It online at Amazon.com, and at specialty food and cooking stores like World Market.

Okay, I’ve got to get back to my kitchen. Just thought I’d write a quick post about this wonderful product.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


If there’s one dessert I make that gets more positive comments than any other, it’s Chocolate Kahlua Cheesecake. I’ve posted the recipe below. It’s guaranteed to win over the chocolate-lovers in your life!

Chocolate Kahlua Cheesecake

1 package Oreo cookies
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
3 T. granulated sugar (I use Baker’s Sugar, which is finer than “regular” granulated sugar, and dissolves better.)

Take the white filling out of the Oreos, and crush the chocolate wafers in a food processor. Add in the sugar and butter, and mix well. Lightly butter the bottom and side of a 9-inch springform pan. Press the Oreo mixture into the bottom and one-inch up the side of the springform pan. Refrigerate until chilled and ready to fill. (For a do-ahead time-saver, I often make the chocolate cheesecake crusts ahead of time and put them in the freezer until ready to fill.)

1 12-oz. bag semisweet chocolate chips
2 T. unsalted butter
1/3 cup Kahlua
20 ounces (2 ½ pkgs) packages cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/8 tsp. salt
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup sour cream

For filling, melt butter and chocolate chips in double broiler or in small saucepan over very low heat. Stir in Kahlua and heat about a minute more, until mixture is totally melted and blended together. Set aside and let cool slightly. In mixing bowl, beat cream cheese, sugar and salt together until fluffy and there are no cream cheese lumps. Mix in eggs, one at a time. Add sour cream, and beat some more—until mixture is smooth. Bake in a 325°F oven for about an hour. Open the oven door, and let the cheesecake stay in the oven for about an hour. Then refrigerate overnight, or at least 8 hours.

2 cups heavy whipping cream
¼ cup powdered sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extra
Optional: 1 pkt. Dr. Oatker’s “Whip It” (“Sahnesteif”) whipped cream stabilizer

Whip cream with vanilla and powdered sugar to stiff peaks. Mix in the whipped cream stabilizer, if desired (This is very helpful if you are piping your whipped cream and doing it more than a few hours in advance, because the stabilizer will allow your whipped cream to keep its shape for several days). Pipe or spread whipped cream on cake (Remove sides first, and ideally the bottom too.). Garnish with chocolate-covered espresso beans, or chocolate leaves, curls or sprinkles. Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Super-Moist Apple Nut Cake

We’ve got out-of-town company coming again this coming weekend. I’ve been trying to do some prep work ahead of time, so that I’m not running around last-minute Friday afternoon trying to get everything ready for our guests. The upstairs guest room is cleaned…and that’s the first step.

Now I’m thinking about what to serve for meals. I made one item already this afternoon—apple nut cake. It was one of my mom’s recipes—and was her mother’s recipe before that. I grew up eating this cake. If you like carrot cake (which is similar), you would probably like this recipe too. It’s a super-moist cake, and stays that way several days after you make it. It also freezes well, which makes it a wonderful do-ahead dessert. (If I freeze the cake or cupcakes, I do so without frosting, and just add that later.) The recipe is below.

Super-Moist Apple Nut Cake

4 cups diced raw apples--either red or golden delicious (about 4 large)
½ cup oil
2 cups sugar
2 large eggs, slightly beaten
2 tsp. cinnamon
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups flour
1 ½ cups chopped walnuts
½ tsp. salt
2 tsp. baking soda

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix apples, oil and sugar together. Add eggs and stir together. Mix in all the rest of the ingredients (with a large spoon rather than a mixer). Pour into 2 greased 9-inch cake pans, a 9 X 13” greased pan, or muffin tins (with cupcake liners). Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean (about 30-40 minutes for a rectangular cake pan, or 15-20 minutes for cupcakes). Cool, and frost with your favorite cream cheese frosting. If desired, sprinkle chopped walnuts on top.

Happy Baking!


Monday, March 21, 2011

Impromptu Hospitality

This past week was my sons’ Spring Break from school. It ended up being a busy week, with lots of activities with my sons’ friends and their families. With the weather being warm as it was, my sons and their friends actually went swimming in our pool several times this past week. On two of the afternoons when the friends’ parents came to pick up their sons, those occasions turned into impromptu get-togethers. It was like, “Hey, the boys are still enjoying themselves. We’re just cooking dinner and unwinding by the pool. Why not join us?!!”

Dinner one of those nights was two rotisserie chickens on the grill, seasoned potato cubes, a tossed salad (which was already made and in the fridge, and there was plenty), cornbread (a recipe I quickly threw together), and ice cream. Another impromptu dinner was a hamburger cookout: burgers and all the fixin’s, chips, sliced veggies, fresh fruit, ice cream and packaged cookies.

Both impromptu get-togethers were really enjoyable. Now we certainly didn’t serve anything that could have been considered “fancy” or “gourmet.” Some of what I served wasn’t even homemade. Our house was somewhat tidy, but it wasn’t super clean. But despite all that, those meals were just about as pleasant as a dinner I’d planned and prepared for many days or weeks in advance. That’s because what makes a get-together truly special is the people you have over and the conversation—and you can have that whether you’re eating filet mignon or hamburgers.

Now truth be told, the rotisserie chickens we served weren’t exactly cooked to perfection. Someone in my household (I won’t say who) wasn’t keeping a very close eye on the chickens when they were on the grill…that is, not until we noticed the flames shooting out from the grill. The chickens were almost totally black on the outside. The inside was pink and red in spots. My husband ended up cutting the chickens into smaller pieces, scraping off the skin, and cooked them on the grill some more. Our guests suggested we add some barbecue sauce to them and that did wonders. We actually got in some good laughs that evening, as we saw my husband “rescue” those chickens from the flames—like he worked for the local fire department.

It all made me think of the importance of being ready for and willing to take advantage of impromptu entertaining opportunities. You end up missing out on a lot of fun if you aren’t. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Your guests don’t care if your home isn’t super tidy, if you serve “easy dinners,” or if something you’ve prepared doesn’t turn out that well (i.e., burned rotisserie chickens!). What matters most is that you make people feel welcome, and you can do that regardless of the quality of your food or the condition of your home.

That said, there are items you can have on hand to be more ready for spur-of-the-moment hospitality. My list of such items is below. I don’t have all of these foods in my freezer/pantry all of the time, but I always have at least some of them. I was glad I did this past week, because these items made me a lot more confident to utter the words, “Would you and your family like to stay for dinner?” So here’s my list:

1. Hamburger patties
2. Hot dogs
3. Hamburger and hot dog buns
4. Cookie dough rolls—ready to slice and bake (You can make your own up, or buy them.)
5. Unbaked pan of lasagna (homemade or commercially-prepared)
6. Chicken pieces or roasters for grilling
7. Steaks for grilling
8. Bags of seasoned potato cubes for oven baking
9. Garlic bread
10. Ravioli or manicotti (without the sauce on yet)
11. Dinner rolls (ready to bake)
12. Veggie mixes (with cheese sauce, etc.)
13. Stir-fry mixes
14. Egg rolls
15. Homemade pizza crusts
16. Frozen shredded mozzarella for putting on homemade pizzas
17. Ice cream, ice cream sandwiches, etc.
18. Homemade unfilled pie crusts (regular pie crust or graham cracker crusts)

19. Pickle and relish jars/ketchup/mustard
20. Potato/tortilla chips
21. Bottled BBQ sauce
22. Meat marinades (dry packaged/bottled)
23. Canned pizza/pasta sauces
24. Canned pizza toppings (olives, mushrooms, etc.)
25. Bottled sparkling waters/sodas/juices
26. Packaged rice pilaf mixes
27. Ice cream toppings for sundaes (fudge sauce, caramel, nuts, etc.)

Obviously it also helps to have a large freezer and pantry for storing all this food, and a large microwave oven for thawing frozen meats. I also couldn’t live without an outdoor grill. Grilling has got to be one of the easiest ways to entertain. Even if some of the food sustains 3rd degree burns, that’s okay…usually. Half the fun is just sitting around the grill and chatting while the food is cooking. (Of course, if you get too caught up in conversation, that’s when you end up with a “blackened” chicken!)

Those are my thoughts on impromptu entertaining. Do any of you have thoughts to share on this subject?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Cinnamon Rolls for a Crowd

Last night, I had a house-full of teenage boys spending the night (my two sons and six of their friends). Yesterday afternoon, I started thinking, “What am I going to feed all those boys for breakfast in the morning?!!!” Instantly what came to mind was “Cinnamon rolls fresh out of the oven!!!”

Cinnamon rolls always sound good when you first get up in the morning. But who wants to get up early enough to let them rise 2 ½ hours (two hours the first time, and 30 to 45 minutes the second time, after you punch down the dough)?!! Not me, that’s for sure. As I mentioned in my last post, I am not a “morning person.”

Years ago I figured out a way to get around this dilemma—to be able to serve warm cinnamon rolls right out of the oven to your guests, but still get your sleep: REFRIGERATOR ROLLS! I make the dough the day before (which I did yesterday afternoon) and let it rise the first time, overnight, in the refrigerator. So when you’ve already gotten 2 hours and 15 minutes of “prep time” out of the way.

So the next morning (or 2-3 mornings later; you can make up the refrigerator dough several days in advance), you’ve only got 1 ½ hours of prep time left—assembling the rolls and putting them on the baking sheet, letting them rise another 30-45 minutes until double, and then 20 minutes of baking time. To have cinnamon rolls ready at 9 am for all the boys to gobble down required me to be up-and-atom at 7:30 am. Even a “Night owl” like me can handle that!

Here’s the recipe:


7 cups unbleached white flour
2 pkgs. yeast
2 ½ cups whole milk
½ cup butter (cut into tablespoon-sized slices)
½ cup granulated sugar
2 tsp. salt
2 large eggs

In large bowl, combine 3 cups of the flour and the yeast. In large saucepan over low heat, heat milk, butter, sugar and salt, until the butter is mostly melted and warm to the touch. Pour into flour and yeast mixture. Add eggs, and beat well with a mixer. Stir in remaining flour cups of flour. Shape into a ball and put into a large, greased (with butter) cover bowl. Let rise in fridge 2-3 days).

An hour and a half before serving time, take dough out of fridge. On floured surface, roll dough into a 14-inch by 24-inch rectangle. Spread with the following mixture:

1 ½ cups butter, melted
3 cups granulated sugar
4 tsp. cinnamon

Sprinkle with raisins and/or chopped nuts, if desired. Roll up, “jelly roll” style, starting on one of the long sides. Cut into 1-inch slices. Grease 2- 10X14-inch baking pans. Arrange slices on pans. Let rise 30-45 minutes, until double. Then bake in 375 degree oven for about 20 minutes. Remove from oven, and spread a little butter on the tops of the cinnamon rolls. Drizzle with your favorite buttercream icing, if desired.

Happy eating!


Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Overnight Hospitality: How to Make Your Guests Feel Right at Home

We’re going to be having out-of-town guests the next three weekends. That’s not including seven teenage boys (friends of my sons) who are spending tomorrow night at our house. Now we don’t always have that much overnight company in such a short period of time. But this month we do. And we’re actually really excited about it! We enjoy hosting overnight guests. It’s nice to have friends stay with us and be able to spend extra time with them.

In some cases, it’s a matter of out-of-town friends taking a special trip out to the Dallas area to see us. Other times, we have friends coming to Dallas for some other reason or they’re passing through the area on a driving trip to somewhere else and they need a place to stay. And then sometimes it’s a matter of friends who live an hour or more away coming to dinner Saturday night, and they don’t want to drive all the way back home after the meal is over. These are all reasons people might spend the night at our home.

Now I’ve heard the old adage—“Guests and fish stink after three days.” I can honestly say though that I’ve never experienced that as a host—and no host as ever made me feel like an unwelcome guest after three days. But I know it’s possible.

I also know that it’s not a given that an overnight stay is automatically going to be a positive experience—for the guests or for the hosts. There are certainly steps you need to take ahead of time, to prepare for overnight company, and to make it a positive time for all.

So how do you make overnight or weekend company a really positive experience—for the host and for the company? What steps do you take to make your guests feel truly welcome? I’ve written down my thoughts below. This is based on my experiences, both as a host, and as a guest in other people’s homes.


1.) If at all possible, dedicate a bedroom and bathroom that will “belong” to your guests while they are staying with you. We have two guest bedrooms: one with an ensuite bathroom, and the other is actually a second office that has a bed in it and doubles as a second guest room. There is a bathroom just outside this office/guestroom. I know not everybody has actual “guest” or “spare” bedrooms like we do. If you don’t, it’s nice to be able to designate one of your kid’s bedrooms, along with a second or hallway bathroom close to that bedroom, that is just for your guests to use while they’re staying with you. Have a rule that no one in your family will be going into that bedroom or bathroom while your company is staying with you. This is a nice way to provide your guests with some privacy if they need it. That way if they want to take an extra-long soak in the bathtub, they don’t have to be concerned that that someone else might be waiting to use the bathroom.

2.) It may sound cliché, but tell your guests to “Make themselves at home.” This is one of the first things I try to say to guests when they walk in the door. It really helps people feel more comfortable and relaxed in your house.

3.) Thoroughly clean the guest bedroom and bathroom before your company arrives. This includes changing the bed linens, and having clean bath towels and wash cloths set out for your guests to use. If you allow yourself the luxury of paying for a professional cleaning service every now in then, this is a good time to do it. Schedule the cleaning for the day before your guests are to arrive.

4.) Have extra blankets available in the guest bedroom. We have an armoire in the guest room that we’ve filled with extra blankets. You may also want to invest in a blanket stand or quilt rack to hang some extra blankets on. It’s nice to have them available for your guests—just in case they feel chilly at night and want them. Also, on the kingsize bed in the upstairs bedroom, there's room for three standard-sized pillows on the bed. I like to make each pillow a different firmness: one firm, one soft, and one in the middle. That way there's sure to be at least one pillow that pleases your guest.

5.) Stock the bathroom. Make sure there is extra toilet paper in the bathroom cabinet. Leave out a box of Kleenex. Have liquid soap by the sink, a dispenser of hand cream sitting out, and some fresh guest soaps in the shower. I buy small, hotel room-sized bars of bath soap, and put several different kinds in the shower for my guests to use. I also leave out a basket of extra toiletries in a basket on the bathroom countertop—bath beads, bath “tea bags,” shampoo, bubble bath, bath fizzies, bath washes, sleeping masks, ear plugs, inflatable bath pillows, slipper-socks, travel-sized mouth washes and hair spray cans, small tubes of toothpaste, unopened toothbrushes, etc.—and tell guests to “Help themselves.” The basket isn’t big enough to hold everything, so I fill up the cabinet underneath the bathroom sink with toiletries too. It’s also nice to have a hair dryer and plunger in the guest bathroom—just in case they’re needed.

6.) Have inflatable mattresses, cots and sleeping bags on hand—just in case they’re needed for families you have stay over. Sometimes we have friends with little children spend the night. There’s a king-size bed in the upstairs guest bedroom for the parents. If they’ve got little ones, we’ll put a cot or twin-sized inflatable bed in that room as well, so their kiddos can sleep in the same room.

7.) Make sure there’s somewhere in the bathroom for your guests to hang their damp towels. Our guest bathroom upstairs only has one towel rack, which isn’t always enough space to hang all the bath towels a couple and their small children might use. So we put an over-the-door towel holder on the bathroom door—to have an extra spot to hand used, wet towels.

8.) You may want the guest bedroom and bathroom to smell nice, but avoid using plug-in air fresheners, air filter scents, scented candles or solid air freshener cones in those rooms. I have been to people’s homes in the past where I walked into their house or guest bedroom and was overwhelmed with a very strong, artificial cinnamon or vanilla smell in the air, and I instantly started feeling headachy. Once you’ve had something like that in the air, the scent lingers and is hard to clear out. Keep in mind that while you may like these kind of artificial scents, a lot of people (like myself) can’t handle them. If I want to make a guest bedroom smell nice for my guests, I open the windows for a few hours before they arrive to let in some fresh outdoor smells.

9.) If your guests are going to stay for more than one night, be sure to have space in the guest bedroom closet for them to hang their clothes. We make keep that closet mostly empty—except for about a half dozen hangers. There are also empty drawers in the armoire in that room for guests to put clothes.

10.) Make sure you have somewhere in the guest room where your guests can put their luggage. I have been in guest rooms before where the room was so crowded and small, that there was literally no where to put my suitcase, or to open it up. We have a lot of empty floor space in our guest bedroom closet where suitcases can be stored. Or, you may want to buy a folding luggage rack for your guest room.

11.) Some practical items to have available in the guest room: an alarm clock, a radio, or perhaps a clock-radio. Even if your visitors are on vacation, they may still want to set an alarm for the morning. Having access to a radio is nice, just in case they want to listen to some music or the news before going to sleep.

12.) A water bottle and a glass on the nightstand or dresser are also practical items to put in the guestroom. That way your guests can drink some water before they go to sleep or if they wake up at night—without having to go into the kitchen.

13.) Budget-allowing, it’s nice to put some non-practical items in the guest room as well. I like to place a vase with fresh flowers on the night stand or a table in the room. You can pick up a bouquet of flowers at the supermarket that are fairly inexpensive and arrange them yourself. Right now, a lot of grocery stores have small potted hyacinths, daffodils and tulips for sale. Those are a nice idea, especially if you can find a plant that is just starting to bud. You guests will see the flowers open up all the way during their stay. Another idea: Put some chocolate mints on the pillow, or a chocolate rose bud from your local candy shop. Sometimes I also like to place small gifts in the bedroom. If the houseguests are a family with small children, I might wrap up some coloring books and crayons for the kids, or a small toy. I like to make homemade soap, and often I’ll fill a small gift bag with several different kinds of my soap in it for my guests.

14.) If your guests are visiting your area for the first time and they’re going to want to do some sightseeing, collect some travel brochures and area maps and put them in the guest room—either on the bed, desk, dresser or a table in the room. You can usually get a lot of brochures about local attractions at your area Chamber of Commerce or even local hotel lobbies.

15.) If your guests are bringing their laptop and want to check email, etc., or do some work from your home, you might want to leave a note on a table in the guestroom, with your Wi-Fi Internet code on it.

16.) Place some books, magazines or the recent newspaper in the guest bedroom. Some guests like to read for a while before going to bed. I have a small bookcase in our upstairs guest bedroom, with a variety of books on the shelves.

17.) Fill a fruit bowl in the kitchen with bananas, apples, pears, oranges, peaches, etc., so that your guests can have that as a healthy snack whenever they might want it.

18.) Okay, to be honest with you, I like to have some not-so-healthy snacks on hand for my guests too—microwave popcorn, chips, granola bars, donuts, freshly baked cookies, etc. I’ll often bake up a batch of cookies right before our guests are to arrive, and leave those on a platter on the kitchen countertop or coffee table in the family room.

19.) If your guests like their morning coffee, set up the coffee maker the night before so it’s ready to go with the right amount of coffee grounds and water. That way if your guests wake up before you, they can get the coffee going. It’s nice to have a small basket of several kinds of tea bags sitting out too, just in case your guests prefer tea. Put a sugar dispenser and honey bear next to your coffee pot and teabags, and maybe leave out a note saying that the half-and-half is in the fridge and where the cups and spoons are. Planning ahead like this is really nice if you’re not a “morning person” but your guests are. (I’ve had to learn this, since I am most definitely NOT a morning person!)

20.) Go to the grocery store the day before your guests arrive and pick up some “Continental Breakfast” style foods—yogurts, English muffins, bagels and a tub of whipped cream cheese, frozen waffles, orange juice, cereal and milk—so that your “early riser” guests can have some food to help themselves to during the wee hours of the morning. This way your guests are taken care of, and you don’t have to get up super early to prepare a huge breakfast.

21.) Plan a bigger morning meal—more like a brunch—for mid- to late-morning. There are a lot of really wonderful do-ahead brunch entrees you can make. My favorites are mini quiches (which I often make and freeze several weeks in advance and just reheat in the oven right before serving), overnight “soaked” French toast, and refrigerator-rising cinnamon rolls and yeast coffee cake. I’ll include those recipes in a blog post sometime soon.

22.) Ask your guests for a rough idea of when they plan on arriving, and ask them to call you when they are about a half hour away (if they’re on a driving trip), or when they are picking up their rental car if they are arriving at the airport. That way you can make sure you—and your home—are ready for your guests when they arrive. Also, you can have a meal, snacks or dessert (depending on the time your guests arrive) waiting for your guests when they walk in the door. A couple years ago my family and I were on a driving trip to Austin (4 hours away) on a Friday evening. It was a LONG trip, with lots of weekend traffic.We couldn’t see well the last half hour of the drive because it was so dark, and we got lost enroute. By the time we got to our friends’ house, we were completely frazzled. However, they had wine, cheese and cracker platters and other appetizers waiting for us—plus very mellow music playing in the background. We instantly felt relaxed…and at home.

There are lots of ideas here, and I don’t always do each one of these tips every time someone spends the night. A lot depends on whether the guests are coming “on vacation” and for several days, or whether it’s just a quick overnight stay. Anyway, I hope at least some of these ideas work for you, at least some of the time.

Now if you have any thoughts on this, I’d love to hear from you. Do you enjoy having overnight company? What do you like—or not like—about it? What are the biggest challenges in being an overnight host? Do you have any suggestions for what’s worked well for you? And those of you who have been house guests—what have people done for you to make you feel truly at home? Please leave your comments below.

Happy Hospitality!


Sunday, March 13, 2011

Strawberry Rhubarb Streusel Pie

Where I grew up in Michigan, rhubarb used to grew like weeds. In our backyard and garden, even if we hadn’t planted rhubarb there, it was growing there. Rhubarb was everywhere—and my mom was really good at putting all that rhubarb to use. I grew up eating rhubarb cookies, rhubarb crisp, rhubarb cobbler, rhubarb coffee cake, stewed rhubarb, raw rhubarb stalks dipped in granulated sugar, and of course, rhubarb pie.

My husband, on the other hand, grew up in Tennessee and Georgia, where rhubarb did not grow like weeds. I don’t think he’d ever even seen a real, live rhubarb plant the whole time he was growing up. I just don’t think it grows too well in the South. I remember when my husband and I were first married and living in Southern California, and I showed him the raw rhubarb stalks I bought at the grocery store. He thought the rhubarb was a weed. He was flabbergasted that I spent money for it at the grocery store! (Okay, to be fair, I had never seen or tasted okra or grits before visiting the South for the first time after I was married…but that’s another story!)

Throughout my marriage, I have made it a point to try to show my husband that rhubarb is not a weed and that it is actually tasty. The recipe below for strawberry rhubarb pie comes close to achieving this goal. When I make this pie, I’ve actually seen my husband go for seconds. Maybe you would like it too.


1 large egg, beaten
1 cup granulated sugar
1 ½ tsp. vanilla extract
16 oz. bag frozen rhubarb, thawed
2 cups frozen strawberries, thawed

1 9-inch pie shell, unbaked

Streusel Topping:
¾ cup unbleached white flour
½ cup light brown sugar, packed
¾ cup oatmeal (quick or old fashioned)
½ cup unsalted butter, cold

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a medium-sized bowl, beat egg, sugar and vanilla together. Stir in rhubarb and strawberries (I cut the rhubarb pieces in the bag in half, and slice the strawberries into thirds.). Pour into crust. Bake for 15 minutes. While it is baking, mix together the ingredients for the streusel topping until crumbly, using a pastry blender or your hands. After the 15 minutes is up, remove pie from oven. Top with streusel. Lower heat to 350 degrees. Bake the pie for another 35-40 minutes. Cool on a rack. This pie tastes best slightly warm out of the oven, alamode with ice cream.

Friday, March 11, 2011


One of my favorite dishes to make for picnics, potlucks or luncheons is cold tortellini (pasta) salad. It’s tasty, colorful and has lots of fresh veggies in it. And, like so many of the meals I like to make for company, you can prepare it in advance. I made one this morning for tomorrow. The recipe is below.


1 pound tortellini pasta, cooked and drained (I used colored tortellini)
4 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
3 stalks celery, sliced thinly
1 bell pepper, cubed (yellow, red or orange pepper is nice!)
1 purple onion, sliced
1 6 oz. can black olives, sliced
1 cucumber, sliced thinly
1 16-ounce can garbanzo beans, drained
1 bunch broccoli, cut up
1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes (a combination of yellow and red tomatoes is nice!)

Stir the above ingredients together. Then mix together the ingredients for Italian dressing (below). Pour the Italian dressing over the pasta and vegetables, and stir until coated well.

Italian Dressing:
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
½ cup canola oil
¼ cup cider vinegar
½ cup granulated sugar
1 tsp. crushed garlic or 4 cloves garlic
2 tsp. basil
1 tsp. parsley
1 tsp. oregano
½ tsp. celery salt
½ tsp. seasoned salt
½ tsp. black pepper

Chill pasta salad several hours or overnight. Right before serving, top with 1 cup Parmesan cheese (ideally freshly grated).

Yum….pasta! I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a pasta dish I didn’t like. And this is one I definitely like a lot!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Easy—But Yummy—Mushroom Chicken Bake

I just got home last night from a 4-day trip to Orange County, California, to visit an old friend—and stock up on groceries from my favorite specialty grocery store, Trader Joes (which isn’t in Texas). Once home, my mind immediately skipped from what work I need to do between now and Friday, and instead I started thinking about the weekend. What should we have for dinner Friday evening when friends are over?!!

I think I’ll make up a Mushroom Chicken Bake. It’s easy, and always goes over well. Also, you can put it together the night before, and just stick it in the oven an hour before company arrives. Here’s the recipe:

Mushroom Chicken Bake

10-12 chicken breasts (either boneless or with skin)

1 cup white flour
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. black pepper

1 family sized plus 1 regular sized (10 ¾ ounces) cans cream of mushroom soup
3 cans (4 ounces each) mushrooms, drained
1 cup milk
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 tsp. garlic
½ tsp. pepper
Fresh chives or parsley

Brown chicken pieces in hot oil over skillet (about 10 minutes—until well browned on both sides). Lightly coat 2 large glass baking dishes with cooking oil spray. Please chicken breasts in dishes. Mix soup, mushrooms, milk, Parmesan cheese, garlic and pepper in bowl. Pour the soup mixture over the chicken. Bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes to an hour. Once out of the oven, garnish with fresh chives or parsley. Happy eating!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

How to Host a BUNCO Party

I am really big on parties that get people interacting and mingling with each other. In particular, I really like to host get-togethers that get teens (my own and those of our friends) chatting with adults, and help the generations maintain some kind of connection with each other. An ideal way to do this is by hosting a bunco party. This kind of party allows the younger people to see that older people can be fun, and it helps the older people to stay young and lively too. Not only that, the participants always enjoy themselves playing the game! (A additional “plus” of a bunco party is that the teens get to see that not all games have to be played on computers and TV screens!)

This past year, we had two different bunco parties at our house. Each time we had 36 players, and probably 20 or more spectators. The majority of the players were teens (my two sons and their friends), but we also had about 10 to 12 parents who played. We have a semi-empty game room upstairs in our house which we cleared out, and put in 9 folding card tables and 36 folding chairs (to have four chairs at each table).

In the past, I’ve also helped sponsor bunco parties for school and church groups, and for fellow employees where I worked. Bunco is just a good way to help people get to know each other on more of a “fun level.” You might have a whole different kind of conversation with someone while you’re rolling dice than you would while standing next to the water cooler at your office.

With the school and church groups, we’ve sometimes had 200 or more players. But you don’t have to have large groups of people to play bunco. You can have as few as 12 people playing. You do have to play the game with multiples of 4 people. So you could have 12 players, 16, 20, 24, etc.

I’ve known groups of women who regularly get together to play bunco. Sometimes they’re people who live in the same housing complex, or female members of an extended family. Often there are 12 people who form their own bunco club. They play once a month, and each time, a different friend hosts the bunco party.

So what are some suggestions for hosting your own bunco party? If it’s going to be a reoccurring event, you may want to take turns hosting the parties at your home. But it doesn’t have to be a regular event or club. I just plan a bunco party whenever I think it might be a fun change of pace.

What about food for the party? A lot of times, guests like to have a meal together before they start playing the game. If you’ve got a regular group of bunco players and your own club, whoever is hosting may be the one who makes dinner for everyone. Or, you may want to make it a potluck. I had some neighbors once who used to have regular bunco parties, and they just had snacks and drinks, and everyone coming would bring some type of refreshment to share. Then they would sip or munch while they played the game.

With my bunco parties that I’ve done this past year, we served up a meal before we started playing: either grilled hamburgers and hot dogs or beef brisket. Usually the guests help out by bringing some type of side dish (salads, chips and dip, etc.). This past summer, I made a special Bunco cake with three large dice on it.

You will probably want some decorations for your bunco party. I found some blow-up plastic red dice from a party store which I hang from the ceiling fan in the center of the room. Red, black and white helium balloons and streamers can also add to festive atmosphere. You may also want to make some colorful posters to hang on the walls, with the basic bunco rules listed on them. Of course, plates, napkins and cups with the bunco motif are fun to have on hand too.

You need one card table for every four people you have playing, or one 6-foot table for every two groups of four people. (This means if you’re going to have large groups, you’re probably going to have to borrow some card tables. I usually have to borrow 4-5 for my bunco parties, because I don’t have 9 card tables.)

Each table gets a number, starting with “1” to however many tables you have. Use some kind of table marker, to identify each table. I use a metal place card holder, and cut out a large rectangle out of card stock, put a number on each rectangle, and then put a numbered rectangle on each place card holder for each table.

On each table, place a set of three dice, a score sheet and pencil for each player, and several scratch pads for teams to keep track of points for one round. The head table also gets a bell (which will be run at the start and end of each round). I like to put a special set of light-up dice on the head table for those players to use.

Here’s what the bunco score sheets look like. You can buy them online (at Amazon.com and elsewhere), or you could easily make your own.

You can also buy some wonderful bunco game kits. Here's the one I have:

Here’s a photo of our game room, set up for bunco. You will note the “Do not enter” sign roping off the room. I didn’t want any of the kids getting in there before we were ready to play. I know how much fun dinging the bell and playing with light-up dice can be!

Even if they’ve never played before, most people get the hang of the game very quickly. Bunco is easy to play. However, you need to know the basic rules and objectives of the game. I’ve jotted down the basic instructions below. I have these rules numbered on sheets, and put two sheets on every folding table at my bunco parties. That way the players can refer to them, just in case they’re not quite sure of something.

1.) Divide your guests into groups of four people. Two teams sit at each table; teammates sit opposite each other. You will change partners every round. (This, incidentally, serves as a good icebreaker for guests who may not know each other that well.)

2.) Note how the tables are numbered. The #1 table is the “head table.” The #9 (or whatever your last table is) is the lowest table. Throughout the game, winning teams will be advancing towards the head table.

3.) Each table has three dice. Each player has an individual score card for the entire game. There’s also scratch paper and pens, so that you or your partner can keep track of your points for each round.

4.) The round begins with the head table ringing the bell.

5.) To play, roll the three dice. In Round 1, points are scored for every “one” that is rolled; in Round 2, for every “two”; in Round 3, for every “three,” and so on. If you roll 3-of-a-kind for whatever number round you’re on, yell “BUNCO” and mark down 21 points on your scratch paper for that bunco. If you get 3-of-a-kind other than the number of the round, that is a baby bunco. Give yourself 5 points for that (no yelling for a baby bunco). Keep track of your points for the round on your scratch paper.

6.) Continue to roll until your roll earns no points. Play then moves to the left.

7.) The round lasts until table 1 scores 21 points—at which time, they will ring the bell on their table. That signals the end of the round.

8.) Your score for that round is both your and your partner’s points added together. Compare your point total to the other team at your table, to see who won and who lost. On your individual score card, place a “W” for that round if you and your partner won. Put an “L” down for that round if you and your partner lost. Place a “B” on the line for that round if you rolled a Bunco.

9.) At the end of a round, the winning team from table 1 stays at that table. The winning teams from all the other tables move up to the next table. The losing team from table 1 moves to table 9 (or whatever your last table is). If you are sitting at tables 2 – 9 (or any table other than the first one) and lost the round, either you or your partner will change seats so that you are now sitting next to each other (instead of across from each other). Your new partner for the next round will be the one sitting across from you when the next time arrives.

10) Play 24 rounds total. Once you have completed round 6, begin with round 1 again. At the end of all 24 rounds, add up your total number of wins, losses and buncos.

A 24-round game usually lasts around 1 ½ hours. It’s nice to be able to hand out prizes at the end of the game: for the highest score, most buncos, first bunco, and lowest score. With the ladies I knew in my old neighborhood, when they played, they each contributed $5 to a Bunco Kitty (in advance of the game), which was used to purchase small prizes (candy, gift cards, etc.).

When I did bunco parties this past year, I just provided simple prizes (which I bought at a discount store) and made up award certificates as well. I always have extra prizes on hand, because there’s often tying scores for each prize category.

The prizes don’t have to be expensive. Remember, your guests aren’t there for the prizes. They’re there for the FUN. After my last Bunco party, the teens were still talking several weeks after it was over about the one dad and teen who made it to the first table at the beginning of the game and were there most of the night because nobody could beat them. A few months have passed, and those are now some fun memories!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Spinach Fettuccini

I’ve got some good friends who love to cook as much as I do. Each of us have our “special foods” we like to make. A couple months ago, we started doing our own “lessons” where one of us takes a turn at showing the others how to make a particular food item (two months ago it was chocolate mousse cups at my house, a few weeks ago it was chili rellenos at another friend’s house, next month it’s going to be pierogies and stuffed cabbage at a second friend’s home, etc.). It’s really been a fun way to take a break from the regular daily routines, get in some “gal time,” and learn how to cook something new.

Yesterday, we had another lesson at my house. We made two kinds of pasta—regular white fettuccine and spinach fettuccine—and cannoli. As we were in the kitchen placing the spinach pasta on the drying racks yesterday, I thought to myself, “I should post this recipe on my blog!” So here it is:

Spinach Fettuccini

5 ounces frozen spinach, thawed and chopped finely
3 jumbo eggs, beaten
¼ tsp. salt
2 ½ cups unbleached white flour
3-5 T. lukewarm water

Cook the spinach for 2-3 minutes in the microwave or in boiling water in a saucepan. Drain in a colander, pressing with a wooden spoon to remove as much water as possible. (Once it cools a bit, you can take spoonfuls of it and wring out the extra water with your hands.) Put the spinach on a cutting board and mince it with a large knife until there’s just tiny bits of spinach. Put the spinach in a small bowl with the eggs and beat together.

Put the flour and salt together in the work bowl of a food processor and pulse several times. Slowly add the spinach-egg mixture and pulse for about 20 seconds. Add the water, a tablespoon at a time, until the mixture holds together in a ball. Take out the dough, shape it into a ball, wrap it in plastic wrap, and put it in the refrigerator for 1-2 hours to let the dough relax.

Roll out and cut the dough, using the same method I wrote about in my Feb. 9 post.

I hope you like this recipe. As one of my friends pointed out yesterday, “Hey, this is a great way to get your kids to eat vegetables!” That’s definitely true. There’s a young man in my household….who shall remain nameless…who wouldn’t dream of eating spinach (or any green vegetable!). But somehow green spinach fettuccini is scrumptious to him!