The Saga Continues [brownie batter peanut butter swirl oatmeal]

In my never-ending quest to become a person who likes oatmeal, I tried another version.

oatmeal ingredients

Do you see these ingredients?  How could it be bad?

brownie batter peanut butter swirl oatmeal

Of course there are chocolate chips, too, because if I am committed to liking oatmeal, then consider me equally committed to putting chocolate chips in each batch.  Even this one, which is next on my list.  We could replace the sunflower seeds with chocolate chips, right?

This oatmeal was fine.  It didn’t wow me.  I think I am trying to get oatmeal to be like couscous in that I expect it to pick up the flavor of whatever liquid in which it boils.  Boil couscous in chicken broth and it adds flavor.  Boil oats in (almond) milk and…?  Not much difference between that and water.  Am I wrong?

I also wonder if I’m using too much liquid.  I swapped out the regular oats for steel cut, which the box tells me takes more liquid.  So I added more liquid.  But was that wrong?

Dear readers, in lieu of a recipe, please accept this rambling post about my inability to cook oatmeal.  Apologies if I’m boring you, but I feel like I’m almost there.  Like I almost like oatmeal, but there’s still a little something standing in my way.  Tips are welcome and most appreciated.

The Ultimate Brownie Taste Test

If you pay close attention to your Twitter feed, you may have noticed that many moons ago, CV(D) tweeted at me.  Which is a normal enough occurrence, until you consider the subject matter: brownies.  More specifically, Real Simple’s Best Brownie Mixes.  She knew that once she opened this little can of worms, I wouldn’t stop till I did some investigation of my own.

washi flags

We did an informal comparison of my own favorite mix and one of the ones on the list, but her husband was the first to point out that this task was nowhere near complete, nor would it be until we had made and consumed each of these brownies, in true taste test fashion, which is to say, in the same sitting.  So time passed, as it tends to do, and the plan grew (as it tends to do when the kitchen and I are involved).

washi flags

During a recent purge of old cooking magazines, I came across another, similar list, this time from Cook’s Country.  But this list had seven kinds of brownie mixes, instead of four.

all the brownies

You know how The Barefoot Contessa always calls for good olive oil, or good mustard, or good whatever in a recipe?  I remember an old episode of the show where Ina explains exactly how she discerns good ingredients from regular ingredients.  I want to say it was the episode where she makes Italian Wedding Soup because that involves chicken sausage and I know she used that as her example.  But it seems it’s cut out here.  Ahem, as I was saying.  To determine what is good chicken sausage and what is simply, chicken sausage, Ina runs to the grocery store (which I can’t really picture), and picks up everything the store offers.  She invites some friends over, cooks everything up, and they decide once and for all which they like.

all the brownies

So we did that, but with brownie mixes.  I got as many boxes as I could from Cook’s Country’s list (which overlapped with Real Simple), and made a couple substitutions where necessary.  The list was published in 2009, so some of the mixes weren’t available, and some were the same, but have different names now.  I brought the list of mixes with me each time I went shopping, and gradually amassed all I needed.  As soon as I brought each home, I stuck a (different) piece of washi tape on the bottom of each box, and a corresponding piece on each baking pan.  I baked two boxes worth of brownies two days before the event, and baked four boxes on Brownie Taste Test Eve.  And yes, I temporarily removed the tape while the pans were in the oven.  The night before my friends arrived, I spent an hour watching the Olympics and, inspired by this post from The Kitchn, making washi tape testing flags.  The flags were key, so we would nibble away at each bite, without being swayed by whichever brand was behind it.

marble backdrop

The contenders (in the order Cook’s Country recommends):

Ghirardelli Chocolate Supreme Brownie Mix
Barefoot Contessa Outrageous Brownie Mix These don’t exist anymore, which I find quite tragic.  But I’ve made them from scratch and they truly are outrageous.  They are deeply and divinely chocolatey.
Pillsbury Chocolate Fudge Brownies (not exactly what Cook’s Country called for, but the closest in name I could find)
Betty Crocker Ultimate Fudge Brownie Mix
Duncan Hines Chewy Fudge Brownies
King Arthur Flour (gluten free) Brownie Mix (I couldn’t get the regular mix King Arthur sells currently shipped to me in time, but I found their gluten free mix in the aisles at Target.  Good enough.)
Cherrybrook Kitchens Fudge Brownie Mix with Chocolate Chips

worst to best

The results:  We couldn’t decide.  Everyone liked something different.  So here are my notes, in order of my favorite, to least favorite.


Pillsbury (yellow washi with white dots): Loved these, but they were also the least well-done of all the brownies.  And I’m a sucker for what I like to call, “salmonella brownies.”  I want practically raw.  So I’m declaring them my favorite, while also not being completely sure.  They didn’t taste quite as sweet as the others, which I enjoyed.

Duncan Hines (white washi with gold dots): These were in almost everyone’s top half.  They were my runner up, but I wonder if my judgement is clouded by my past.  Queen Cupcake relied heavily on these while we were growing up, so they’re tied to some good memories.

King Arthur Flour (navy washi with white polka dots):  Surprisingly, these gluten-free squares made the top half of many of our lists.  I recognized the texture as being gluten free right away, but I bake a lot.  Not everyone could tell.  These were also darker and richer than the other brownies, which I loved.  I want to get my hands on King Arthur’s gluten-filled brownies, because I imagine they’d be the best in the land.

Betty Crocker and Ghirardelli (small flowered washi and large flowered washi, respectively):  I’m putting these two together because I couldn’t tell a difference between them.  Which surprised me, because I thought my refined palate would go for Ghirardelli.  I’ve made a different Ghirardelli box before and loved it.  And doesn’t everyone rave about Ghirardelli box-mix brownies?  These both tasted cloyingly sweet, even for a box mix, and interestingly enough, both involved a chocolate syrup packet being whisked in.  They were middle of the road brownies for almost all of us.

Cherrybrook Kitchen (solid blue washi):  Real Simple touted these as the ones that tasted most like homemade, but none of the ladies chose this as our favorite.  In fact, it was exactly the opposite for most of us.  If this had been packaged as cake, I might have been more willing to consider it a contender.  But it was too sponge-y to be a brownie.  Worth noting is that my own and CV(D)’s husbands ranked this as #2.  So perhaps if you haven’t the time to make Man-Catchers, these will work in their stead.

Dear readers, the evening was a rip-roaring success, and it left us asking, “What do we taste-test next?”  Suggestions welcome.

On Honesty [wings, three ways]

Do you remember the time we talked about the three words that shape this blog?  One was honest.

Honest: I made 3 kinds of wings for the Superbowl.

crispy baked wings

Honest: It was a taste test.  We have one standby that is in heavy rotation at our house, but if there was ever a day to try something new…

Honest: I actually made them on Superbowl Sunday.

For a little while, I tried to be one of those bloggers who gets posts ready in advance of major holidays and other food-centric events.  You know, so you all could check in if you were looking for ideas for your own homes with enough time to get to the grocery store, and get things in the oven.

sriracha glazed wings

I’m so not one of those bloggers.

So I honestly ate all three of these on Superbowl Sunday.  And I honestly have some new favorites.  Notice how I didn’t say a new favorite.  Because the two new recipes we added to our chicken wing repertoire are both amazing, and different enough that we needn’t land on an ultimate wing.  Each satisfies its own little place in my flavor book.

chipotle honey baked wings

Without further ado, may I introduce you to Shutterbean’s Sriracha Glazed Chicken Wings, and FoodieCrush’s Chipotle Honey Baked Chicken Wings.  The Sriracha glazed wings are sweet, with this gorgeous sauce that drips from your fingers with every bite.  On the other hand, the chipotle honey baked wings are sticky.  They start sweet, but turn spicy on you when you’re not looking.  And all three recipes couldn’t be easier.  I baked these fully in the afternoon, and reheated them in a 350 degree oven for 15 minutes at game time.  Party strategy for sure.

And so there you are, dear readers.  A mere two days after the Superbowl, when you (honestly) don’t need to look at wings again for quite sometime, I arrive with a boatload of ideas.  Can I offer you some advice?  Don’t let a year go by before making them.  Have a bunch of people over to watch the Oscars, and give them something they’re not expecting.  That’s what Ina always says to do, anyway.  Or simply place them in front of a loved one on a random weeknight and watch him go crazy.  The possibilities are endless.  There is never a bad time for wings.

To make Sriracha Glazed Chicken Wings, you will need:

  • 1/4 C soy sauce
  • 2 T plus 1 tsp. white vinegar
  • 1 T Sriracha sauce
  • 1 1/2 tsp. sugar
  • 1 1/2 tsp. sesame oil
  • 1 1/2 tsp. fresh ginger
  • 2 lbs. chicken wings
  • 2 scallions, chopped (both green and white parts)

Combine soy sauce, vinegar, Sriracha, sugar, sesame oil, and ginger in small bowl and whisk till combined.  Place wings in oven-proof dish and pour sauce over top.  Toss to coat.  Let wings sit for 20-30 minutes, turning once halfway through.  In the meantime, preheat the oven to 475 degrees.  Bake wings for 30 minutes, flipping chicken halfway through.

To make Chipotle Honey Baked Wings you will need:

  • 1/2 C honey
  • 1 C ketchup
  • 4 chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (with the tacos, enchiladas, or salsas at your grocery store)
  • 1 T adobo sauce
  • 1/2 tsp. onion powder
  • 1/2 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1 T rice wine vinegar
  • 1 1/2 lbs. chicken wings

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line a sheet pan with foil or parchment, and place a rack on top of the pan.

Place honey, ketchup, peppers, sauce, onion and garlic powders, paprika, and vinegar in small saucepan and stir till combined.  Heat 5 minutes over medium heat, stirring occasionally.  Remove from heat.

Place chicken wings in large bowl.  Add 1/2 C sauce and toss to coat wings.  Place wings on rack and cook 30 minutes, stopping halfway through to baste chicken with remaining sauce.  After wings have cooked, raise oven temperature to 450 degrees, baste wings one more time, and throw them back in the oven for 5 minutes.

*If you are using the leftover sauce, and why wouldn’t you use the leftover sauce, make sure you bring it back to a boil before serving.  No, it didn’t touch raw chicken, but your basting brush went back and forth and back and forth from the wings to the pan.

Strong to the Finich

Know what this post is going to be about?

Look up at the title.

It’s about spinach!

And how everyone who’s anyone says you can add it to a smoothie and not notice it’s there.

Dear readers,

they’re telling the truth.

I didn’t want to believe it; didn’t see how it could be.  But I was too intrigued not to try it for myself.  I added a small handful of spinach to my favorite August smoothie, peach-blueberry, and blended things for a little longer than usual (I had visions of stringy spinach getting stuck between my teeth if I didn’t), and bam.  A smoothie to tide me over between breakfast and lunch, and no spinach taste.  How that’s possible, I have no idea.  But every book I read on nutrition sings the praises of Popeye’s favorite leafy green vegetable.  So incorporating a little more into my everyday can’t be so bad.

To make a leafy green blueberry peach smoothie for 1, you will need:

  • 1 small container yogurt (or a couple of large spoonfuls from a larger tub)
  • a couple of handfuls of blueberries (somewhere between 1/2 and 2/3 C)
  • 1 peach, peeled and sliced
  • 1 small handful spinach
  • 1 glug OJ (no more than 1/2 C)
Place everything in the blender and whir away.

The Best Meals

Today, I return from a two week vacation.

Le sigh.

Not to sound ungrateful or anything.  I recognize that there are many people who would kill to take a two week vacation.

And I got to take one.

Nonetheless, it’s always heartbreaking when it ends.

While the main attraction is always the beach, this other star of this trip was the food.

Not that we ate anything that took hours to prepare, anything flaked with sea salt, or anything that would earn me top billing on Taste Spotting.  Instead we ate home cooked meals.  We ate meals that don’t require recipes.  And even better, we ate meals that can grow to include as many people as show up at the dinner table.

My favorite kind of meals.

We ate the best guacamole we’ve ever had.  We asked the maker of the guac, “What’s in this?”  And so she told us, “Avocados, tomatoes, garlic and salt.  Oh, and I add lime juice.”

Wait, seriously?  That’s it?

But this is the best guac ever.  Shouldn’t it have a shallot?  A jalapeno?  A super-secret hot sauce?  There has to be a high-maintenance ingredient in there somewhere.

Ahhhh, that’s right.  The simplest foods are often the best. With a ripe avocado and the remains of a tomato sitting atop our beach kitchen counter, we had a go at our own.  And it wasn’t bad.  But we didn’t get the ratios quite right.  That’s okay.  We can squeeze out enough summer to try again.

And speaking of the best meals, dear readers, check this out.  Food blogger Jennifer Perillo recently lost her husband Mikey to a sudden heart attack.  Because one never quite knows what to do when something so shocking happens, Jennie reached out to her readers, asking them to spend Friday in their kitchens, making Mikey’s favorite peanut butter pie and sharing it with loved ones.  The food blogging community came out in full force yesterday.  It seemed to be all anyone was tweeting about, and peanut butter pie-filled posts were everywhere.  I’m planning on making my own before the weekend is out.  In the meantime, check out my favorite posts, from BGSK, I am Mommy, and today’s touching post from White on Rice Couple.

Rainbow Cake, the Sequel

In the midst of a busy weekend, I managed to find the time to make tie-dye cupcakes.  They’re like rainbow cake’s cousins.

Take your favorite yellow cake mix, split up the batter in separate bowls, stir in your food gels and dump tablespoons of batter in layers, in muffin tins.  I can’t tell you how many cupcakes this will yield because I spent absolutely no time making sure I put equal amounts of batter in each cupcake and I have no clue how many your original recipe should yield.  Count on making at least a couple less than usual.  Tablespoons of batter add up quicker than you might think.  And yes, you could do this with boxed cake mix too.

Photos from my iPhone.

Rainbow Cake

In April, I showed you my food gels and asked you what you thought I was doing with them.  Maybe if I had lined them up in rainbow order, you would have had a better idea.

Because I bought those gels at the craft store with a very specific purpose in mind.

Rainbow Cake.  And you should have heard me squeal when I sliced into this baby.  Just ask Cari Faye, she was there.

And she was equally excited.  Who wouldn’t be?  A six-layer cake with gobs and gobs of cream cheese frosting?  Ask yourself whether life gets any better.

This baby has been all over the internet, but I first found it through Meg about two years ago.  Like the latest Lady Gaga song, rainbow cake was instantly stuck in my head.  Once I = ran out of all the other crazy cake ideas I had amassed online, I was left with but one.  The Rainbow Cake.  I knew I would take the boxed-mix (versus from-scratch) route because I’ve never made a cake taller than two layers, and I didn’t want to be playing around with a new cake recipe to boot.  This cake was not just for my own benefit, this had to feed other people.  Ergo, it had to be edible.

It all began on Thursday evening, two days before we were expecting company.  Since I’m not a big apron-wearer, I made like Lilly Pulitzer did when working at her roadside juice stand, and put on the brightest apparel I owned.  That way, if things got out of hand, and gel was haphazardly flung about, you wouldn’t know it to look at me.  Now I could wipe my hands on my pants without fear.

Next, I lined up my beloved Parker Bowls in rainbow order (with a couple of Pyrex mixing bowls thrown in), and set to work making the cake.  Start time, as you can see, was 8:30.  I worked, not so diligently, being distracted by necessary evils like Twitter and Facebook, and had the batter divided, and all the colors mixed by 9:00.

It was too fun adding the gels and seeing just how bright the colors looked when everything was mixed up.  Then I greased and floured my two, 8-inch round cake pans, and started baking in rainbow order.  Each layer took 12 minutes to bake, which is about how long you need to let a layer cool before you take it out of the pan.  Translation:  Once you get going, you will find yourself in a nice groove of one pan in, one pan out, so that your oven is not on longer than it has to be.  I finished the baking and dishes by 10:30.  Have you ever seen dishes that are more fun?

Then, I used a large serrated knife (the kind with teeth) to gently even out the tops of the layers, which were quite lumpy and bumpy.  Sous Chef Lauren would have done this with painstaking accuracy.  I did not.  I took a shelf out of my fridge, threw a piece of parchment paper between each layer, stacked them on a cake stand, wrapped the whole thing in foil and kissed the cake goodbye for approximately 36 hours.  Goodbye little cake.  See you soon.

Hello Saturday morning at 7:00.  Yes folks, I’m an early riser.  Now you know why you see so many pancakes here on the weekends.  What else is there to do at 7:00 a.m. on a Saturday?  Run?  Please!  I whip up cream cheese frosting.

I unstacked all of the layers, and frosted the cake, placing the layers back on the cake in reverse rainbow order (starting with purple).  Anyone who knows me will know how difficult a task that was for my scatterbrained mind.

Frost the tops of all the layers and stack, stack, stack (stack, stack).

At this stage in the game, things get really exciting.  You start realizing that you’re about to pull it all off.

Finish frosting the sides and there you have it.  Yes, there are crumbs in my frosting.  No, I do not care.  I rarely use boxed-cake mixes, but when I do, I cannot complete the process without getting crumbs in the frosting of the cake.  Shockingly, no one I’ve ever served cake to has complained.

Confessions:  I don’t like cake that much.  Cupcakes, yes.  Cake, eh.  We sent the leftovers home with friends and I’m slightly ashamed to tell you I threw the rest out.  I debated making cake pops with the leftover chunk plus the bumpy tops I had cut off before, but that seemed like a lot of trouble.  The rainbow cake had already served its purpose.

To make a cake that will wow your friends for all eternity, you will need:

  • 2 boxes white cake mix and the necessary eggs and oil called for on the back.
  • Wilton food gels in the colors of the rainbow, available at craft stores like Michael’s and A.C. Moore, or Target if you have a good one.  (I’m sorry to tell you that no, you cannot use food coloring.  Gels are concentrated so you’re not adding any liquid to the batter when you add them.  Food coloring is so watery that to use enough to turn the batter the right color would turn your cake into a watery mess).
For the icing:
  • 4, 8 oz. packages cream cheese, softened
  • 1 C butter (2 sticks), softened
  • 2 lb. powdered (confectioner’s) sugar
  • 1 T vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Make the (double batch of) cake batter in a large mixing bowl.  Set out 6 smaller bowls.  Divide the batter evenly among the bowls.  I started by filling each with 1 C batter, then added just under 1/2 C to each bowl.  Add no more than 1/8 tsp. of food gel to each of the bowls.  It helped me to go in order, so I added red to the first bowl, then orange, yellow, you get it.  Stir each (I used spoons because who has 6 whisks?) until the batter is completely mixed.  Make sure you scrape, because I found some white batter hiding in the bottom of each bowl.  Grease and flour the bottom of as many 8-inch cake pans as you have (I had two).  You could use parchment here, but I’m not the type to cut out that much.  Pour the batter into the prepared pans and bake for…well, I’m not sure.  That’s going to depend on exactly how much batter you have.  Recipes I saw said between 10-15 minutes, and my layers took 12.  I would check on your cakes 10 minutes through, and add time as necessary.  The cake is done when you stick a tester (toothpick, knife, what have you) in the middle of the cake, pull it out, and it has no crumbs.  Set the cakes aside to cool.  After about 10 minutes of cooling, loosen the edges of the cake by running a knife around the pan, and remove the cakes from the pan.  Repeat this process if you don’t have 6, 8-inch pans, and have more baking to do.
To make the frosting, combine the cream cheese and butter in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or use your electric mixer and a large mixing bowl).  Slowly add the sugar, about 1 C at a time.  When things start looking a little dry, add the vanilla.  Then, keep going with the sugar, scraping down the bowl when things look lumpy.
Start stacking the cake, with the purple layer on the bottom.  Ice the top of the layer, then add blue.  Ice the top of that, then add green, ice, add yellow, ice, add orange, ice, add red.  Ice the top of the red layer of cake and work your way down the sides.

Summer Jennie

I’m not waiting till June 21, my summer has officially begun.  And summer Jennie is the best Jennie.  She’s relaxed, she looks for fun all over the city, she’s pretty much in a permanent state of good mood.

A friend recently asked me what I’d be doing all summer and I joked, “making pesto.”  Then I realized, that’s not far from the truth.  My standard recipe has served me well in the kitchen for years, but I played around with what I had available one day this summer and created something new and different.

Well, slightly.  This particular pesto uses walnuts instead of pine nuts, and the zest and juice of a whole lemon to freshen up the flavors.  Funny how two little tweaks can shake up a summer staple.  I don’t measure when I make pesto anymore, but here’s my general process, yielding, um, well that depends completely on what you use your pesto for.

You could simply toss it with your favorite cut of pasta and throw in some chicken if you were wanting for protein.  Or you could add it to a salad to bring for lunch.  If you want to wow people at your 4th of July gathering, put this pesto potato salad on the table, instead of the old, tired stuff with mayo.  You could even use it to prepare a panini, or a flatbread or pizza.  Or, it could serve as the basil in your Caprese salad.  Just chop up some mozzarella and cherry tomatoes and spoon some green stuff over top.

To make one batch of my summer pesto, you will need:

  • 1/4 to 1/2 C chopped walnuts (no reason you couldn’t use whole if you have them, they’re only going in the food processor)
  • 2-3 C basil leaves
  • 1 or 2 cloves of garlic, peeled (if you have them, I’ve done without before)
  • zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • salt (1/2 tsp?)
  • pepper (1/4 tsp?)
  • 1/2 C extra virgin olive oil (this is my new fave, I get it at Trader Joe’s)
  • 1/4 – 1/2 C grated parmesan
In the food processor, combine the walnuts, basil, garlic, lemon zest, lemon juice, salt and pepper until everything is nice and fine, stopping to scrape down the bowl if necessary.  Stream the olive oil through the feed tube slowly, while the food processor is running, until the pesto reaches a little thinner than a consistency you like.  Throw it in a container of sorts and stir in the cheese by hand.  Now you have the basis for a great meal and you didn’t even have to turn on the oven.

America’s Test Kitchen

I have subscribed to Cook’s Illustrated for just over a year (thanks Mom!), but I’ve been reading it even longer.  Grandma glass of milk is an avid fan of the magazines (both Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country) and the show.  So each month, I’ve read their tips and tricks, and paged through their offerings.  But I’ve never made any of their recipes.  I was scared.

America’s Test Kitchen is like the Consumer Reports of cooking.  The masterminds over there try making the same dish a zillion ways until they find the specific process necessary for making, say, Osso Buco, the best it can be.  Said process often involves seemingly tedious steps, though the authors/producers/hosts/whomevers swear all will be worth it upon first bite.

So, being the weeknight, at-home cook that I am, I was content to leaf through each issue when it arrived in my mailbox, never making the time to commit to an actual recipe.  They sounded way too labor-intensive for me.  Then my dear aunt gave me The Complete America’s Test Kitchen TV Show Cookbook.  And I bit the bullet.

My choice was quite possibly the easiest dish in the book.  It was in the “easy skillet suppers” chapter: baked ziti.  I have never enjoyed baked ziti in the slightest (it always tastes so blah) so I don’t know what came over me that Thursday evening, except to tell you I had cream and mozzarella to use up, we hadn’t had anything tomato-pasta-y that week, and it looked doable.   I had been successful in turning a typically bland casserole supper into something truly wonderful earlier in the week and here was another chance to do the same.

As it came together, I had my doubts.  It seemed soupy and I couldn’t picture how 6 minced cloves of garlic and 1/4 tsp of red pepper flakes would create a balance of flavors.  I was ready for a meal that tasted like you ordered it at some big “Italian” chain restaurant.

Ha.  Surely by now you’ve figured out this was one of the best pasta casseroles I have ever eaten.  And I’ve eaten my fair share.  I have officially declared it the baked ziti that made me like baked ziti.  The garlic gives the tomato sauce a nice base, while the pinch of red pepper flakes adds a hint of heat.  The cream makes you want to savor each and every bite.

And in the end, with a sprinkling of fresh basil, you’ve got yourself a casserole with a pretty sleek tomato sauce.  It’s really something special.

I used the smoked mozzarella we had leftover from my husband’s Valentine cooking endeavors, which gave the ziti a new and different feel.  I’m no connoisseur of smoked foods though, so to me,  smoked mozzarella makes whatever you’re eating taste a little bit like bacon.  No complaints there.  The only other change I made was using penne instead of ziti, as I can’t handle short-cut pasta without ridges.  I won’t expound.  I have no doubt you’d find my pasta preferences frighteningly incomprehensible.  Instead I will tell you that this is a dish for which you do not boil the pasta separately first.  You cook it in a tomato-water mixture right in the skillet.  I’ve done that once before; it’s fun and fascinating.  Go to it.

To make the Baked Ziti That Made Me Like Baked Ziti, you will need:

  • 1 T olive oil
  • 6 medium garlic cloves, minced (sounds like a lot, I know, but don’t skimp)
  • 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
  • Table salt
  • 1, 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
  • 3 C water
  • 12 oz. ziti or penne pasta
  • 1/2 C heavy cream
  • 1 oz. (about 1/2 C) grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 C minced fresh basil leaves
  • Ground black pepper
  • 4 oz. (about 1 C) whole milk mozzarella cheese, shredded (I used smoked)

Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 475 degrees.

Heat the oil in a 12 inch ovensafe nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until hot.  I used a skillet with higher sides, because you’re going to be adding some serious liquid in just a minute.  Add the garlic, red pepper flakes, an 1/2 tsp. salt and saute about 1 minute.  Add the crushed tomatoes, water, pasta and 1/2 tsp. salt.  Cover, and cook, stirring often, and adjusting the heat as needed to maintain a vigorous simmer, until the ziti is almost tender, 15-18 minutes (I would be grateful if you, like me, also wonder how you can stir something often when it is covered.  I just kept popping the lid on and off.)

Stir in the cream, Parmesan and basil.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Sprinkle the mozzarella evenly over the ziti.  Transfer the skillet to the oven and bake until the cheese has melted and browned, about 10 minutes.  Using your best potholders to remove the skillet from the oven, and serve big platefuls all around.

Does anyone know how to photograph a serving of a casserole and make it look appetizing?