Wednesday, November 23, 2011

DIY Evaporated Milk

So what do you do when it's the night before (or the morning of!) Thanksgiving and you want to make pumpkin pie, but you forgot to get evaporated milk? If you've got fresh milk - the answer is simple: make your own!

I discovered this trick not due to forgetfulness at the grocery store, but due to an over abundance of milk. Mr. ValleyWriter is the only dairy milk drinker in the family - and he really only uses it on cereal - so we often find ourselves with way too much milk quickly approaching the expiration date. This is a great recipe to use that up!

This will make 12 oz. of evaporated milk, which is the equivalent of 1 can (and how much you need to make that famous "back of the can" pumpkin pie recipe).

DIY Evaporated Milk

36 oz. (4 1/2 cups) regular milk

1. Pour 12 oz. (1 1/2 c.) milk into a wide bottom saucepan or pot. Make a note of how high up the milk comes on the side of the pot.
2. Now add the rest of the milk to the pot. Bring it to a very gentle simmer (not boil) over medium-low heat.
3. Reduce heat to low, just so milk is steaming, but not bubbling or burning.
4. Cook for 1 1/2 - 2 hours, skimming off the "skin" that forms on the top of the milk occasionally, until milk is reduced to 1/3 the original amount and reaches that spot you noted on the side of the pan in step 1.

Now your evaporated milk is ready to use. You can make it ahead and store it in the fridge for a couple of days, too. See how simple that was?!

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Living the good life

I think almost every culture has their version of "the good life." For the Italians, it's "la dolce vita," for Americans, perhaps it's the "American Dream." For Greeks, the good life means combining good food and fine taste to live a life filled with health and well-being.

As a foodie, I am, of course, intrigued by a culture that puts so much focus of "the good life" on food. Food is a major part of my life - and always has been. But it hasn't always been a "good" part it. You see, for years struggled with my weight. I equated food with happiness. The more food I ate, the happier I would be, right? Well.. obviously not.

When I met my now husband in 2005, my world view really changed. He was so kind and caring and fun and genuine - he made me see so many other ways life could bring joy. He accepted me exactly the way I was - overweight and unfit. And he encouraged me to get out there and take life by the horns despite that. For one of the first times in my life, someone didn't want me to be active and travel and try new experiences in an effort to help me lose weight. He just wanted me to experience the joy in those things. And so, I did!

In a period of about 3 years, I went from spending my weekends watching reality TV marathons eating unhealthy amounts of ice cream and chinese takout to taking off for hikes, running, tending a garden, making thoughtful meals with thoughful ingredients and even eventually blogging about my culinary (and other) adventures. Oh, and did I mention losing 70 lbs? Yes - 70 lbs!

I don't have any pictures of myself at my highest weight. But here's a "before" picture circa 2002 - probably 50 lbs heavier (excuse the bow on my head - it was Christmas!):

And "after:"

When I tell people how much weight I've lost, most think I've either had weight-loss surgery or only ate lettuce for a year. But I assure you that's not the case. Sure, I cut back on calories. I ate smaller meals, more fruits and vegetables and fewer processed foods. For lunch, I traded slices of pizza for delicious baked sweet potatoes. For dessert, I traded pints of ice cream for cups of creamy fat-free Greek yogurt. I got out more. I walked. I hiked. I biked. I ran. I swam. And, perhaps most importantly, I found the joy in not only eating good foods - but also in sharing them with others as I cultivated relationships and tried new experiences.

The weight has stayed off for over 3 years now. As far as I'm concerned - it's all thanks to living a version of the good life similar to the Greeks' - having respect for what the Earth gives us and what I put into my body, and being good to myself. As I've opened myself up to these things, I've gained confidence in myself, found both a career and a hobby I love and built a family I adore. That's my definition of the good life.

How about you? What do you think it means to live the good life? Leave a comment to let me know - and check out the link below to enter to win a trip to Greece to experience the good life for yourself!

As part of the Foodbuzz Featured Publisher program, I have been entered for the chance to win a trip to Greece courtesy of FAGE. You too can enter to win one of three trips to Greece by entering the FAGE Plain Extraordinary Greek Getaway here

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Help Our Teachers, Help Our Kids - with Sweet Potato Souffle!

Right now I bet you're wondering - what on Earth is she talking about with that title? Well, I'll tell you! The California Milk Advisory Board has teamed up with Smart & Final to create an awesome campaign to help southern California schools. Now through December 31st, students and families can collect Real California milk seals from select Smart & Final First Street products (everything from milk to butter to ice cream) and bring them to school.

That yellow & black seal in the corner is gold for southern California schools!

Teachers can then collect and submit the seals to be entered in a sweepstakes to win up to $2 million in cash, books and other prizes for their classrooms. Teachers who submit 100 seals get 25 Scholastic books or a $25 school supply gift card. And every teacher gets a Scholastic book just for entering.

Official sweepstakes winners get announced in February, BUT Smart & Final is so awesome that they're doing a separate sweepstakes! If you live within 20 minutes of a Smart & Final store in SoCal, you can go to and tell why your favorite southern Californa school deserves to win. You'll be entered to win $500, $300 or $200 to be donated to the school EVERY MONTH from now through the end of the year!

I'm supporting this campaign because I think it's a great way to support our schools, which need all the help they can get given the current economic climate in the state. Even if you don't have school-age children, pick a local school in your neighborhood - they ALL deserve help!

To help kick off the campaign and give you an idea of what you can do with some of those First Street milk products after you cut off the Real California Milk seal, I was asked to come up with a recipe for a Thanksgiving side dish. You can check out my shopping expedition here.
After perusing the Smart & Final aisles, I decided to try making a sweet potato souffle. It took a couple of tries in the kitchen to get it just right, but I assure you, this final recipe will make a great addition to your Thanksgiving table. It's creamy yet fluffy, with just the right amount of sweet and spice. (My father-in-law loved it so much, he had thirds!)

Sweet Potato Souffle
(Serves 6)

3 large sweet potatoes, cooked and peeled (I baked them; you could also boil them)
1 c. First Street fat free milk
1/4 c. maple syrup
2 eggs
4 Tbsp. First Street salted butter, melted
1 oz. low-fat cream cheese, softened
1/8 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. cinnamon

2 Tbsp. butter, melted
2 Tbsp. brown sugar
6 Tbsp. chopped pecans

Grease 2 4-cup souffle cups (or a large, round casserole dish). Preheat oven to 350°F.
Place fat free milk in a small sauce pan over medium-high heat. When milk starts to simmer, reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer 20 minutes or so until milk is reduced by half, skimming off the "skin" that forms at the top every so often.
In a large bowl, whip sweet potatoes and cooked milk. Beat in eggs one at a time. Add maple syrup, 4 Tbsp. melted butter, cream cheese and spices. Beat just until combined.
Spoon into greased souffle cups.
Bake at 350°F for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, mix remaining 2 Tbsp. melted butter, brown sugar and chopped pecans.
When the 20 minutes are up, top souffles with nut mixture and bake another 5 minutes.
Let cool 10 minutes before serving (souffle cups will be HOT!).

This #SmartFinalSupportsSoCalSchools project has been compensated as part of a social shopper insights study for #collectivebias #CBias. All opinions expressed are my own.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Everything-but-the-Kitchen-Sink Cookies

Have you ever had cookies that were both sweet and salty? Up until now, I'd only heard of them. I remember someone at a place I used to work making potato chip cookies once and my instant thought was "eww" - why ruin a perfectly good cookie? So, I didn't try them.

Fast forward nearly a decade and my palate has changed a lot. I definitely appreciate the salty-sweet combo these days (salted caramel? heaven!!). So, when I found a recipe for "Everything-but-the-Kitchen-Sink" cookies in my latest cookbook acquisition The Cookiepedia, I decided to give them a try. The recipe calls for a 1:1.5 ratio of sweet mix-ins to salty mix-ins. But, since the only salty snack food I had in the house was tortilla chips, I decided to swap that around and go with 1.5 sweet to 1 salty. The result was this coconut-white chocolate-semi-sweet chocolate-cereal-tortilla chip creation:

I enjoyed the mix of salty and sweet, crunchy and soft. But Mr. Valley Writer wasn't so sure about the corn taste from the tortilla chips. I think he might have liked potato chips better. The original recipe also suggests trying salted nuts, pretzels, corn nuts and cheese puffs (of all things!). Bottom line: it's definitely a versatile recipe and a nice change of pace from the usual chocolate chip (though chocolate chip still reigns supreme in my book). The recipe halves well, so if you even think you might like it - go ahead and give a small batch a try.

Everything-but-the-Kitchen-Sink Cookies
(Makes 18 large cookies; adapted from The Cookiepedia by Stacy Adimando)

1 cup salted butter, softened
1 cup white sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 whole egg
1 egg white
2 cups flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1 1/2 cups sweet mix-ins (I used a mix of white chocolate chips, regular chocolate chips, flaked coconut and breakfast cereal)
1 cup salty mix-ins (I used crumbled tortilla chips)

Preheat oven to 375°F.
In a large bowl, beat butter and sugars on medium speed until fluffy. Add vanilla, whole egg and egg white. Beat until fully combined.
In a separate bowl, mix flour, baking soda and baking powder. Add to butter mixture and beat just until combined.
Stir in sweet and salty mix-ins.
Scoop heaping tablespoons of dough onto greased cookie sheets, keeping each ball of dough about 2" away from the others (these cookies spread a bit when baked).
Bake at 375°F for 14-17 minutes until evenly browned.