My Love/Hate Relationship with New Year's

I have a love/hate relationship with New Year’s.

My sister once told me that she loves January 1 because it’s a starting point. A chance to begin anew. I simply look at it as a way to measure time.

While January 1 marks the beginning of a shiny, brand new year, it’s also the end of another one, which always leaves me a little sad. After all, it has been a good year.

Some Great Things in 2010 {big and small}:

  • It marked a full year at my ‘new’ job - which isn’t so new anymore
  • I went on 3 (that’s right, 3!) vacations...

Our Antiguan Long Weekend Getaway

Our Yearly (and 2nd Anniversary) Family Trip to ArubaYellowstone National Park with Shaun's parents

  • We spent lots of time with friends and family at various dinners, parties and other gatherings
  • We leased a new car that we love - a Prius! Yep, we’re that couple
  • I got really good at painting my own nails
  • I made a whole lotta cupcakes

Irish Car Bomb Cupcakes

Autumn Apple Cupcakes + Cinnamon Frosting

Chocolate Cupcakes with Vanilla Buttercream

Dexter Season Premiere Cupcakes

  • I devoured said apple pie 
  • Friends got married and engaged
  • I started The Avid Appetite, found lots of fantastic blogs, and made lots of blog buddies in the process!

Not to shabby, huh? And with all of these great things behind me, I have a bit of anxiety over a whole new year ahead. What will it bring? Good things? Bad things? It’s anyone’s guess. In case you don’t already know me, that little lurker Change and I are not good friends. I’m not sure why, other than...well...it seems as though I just don’t like him. I’m feeling my heart rate increase just a little by simply thinking about it.

And don’t even get me started on the whole ‘getting older’ thing. That’s not lost on me either. I received 4 different age-defying moisturizers in my Christmas stocking this year, with a smile and a “It’s time girls!” from Mom.

Though at least my younger sister was included in the ‘girls’ reference. (And by the way Mom, after trying them out, I really do love each of them so thanks!)

So with this great year almost behind me and with some anxiety on my shoulders (that’s where I hold my stress ;)) there are some things that I’m absolutely looking forward to for 2011.

  • Good skin (see above)
  • The Avid Appetite’s 1 Year Birthday (coming in a few weeks!)
  • Traveling - back to Aruba, New Mexico and ????
  • Working to get our new home painted and fully furnished
  • Spending lots of time with my favorite guy

  • Getting back on track with exercising and shedding a few pounds
  • Enjoying fresh popcorn at a moment’s notice (though I guess that won't aid in the above)
  • Continuing to cook, eat and write avidly...and making more wonderful blog friends in the process๏ปฟ!

So there it is. All of my feelings on New Year's. What do you think? How do you feel about the impending January 1?

Penne Alla No-Vodka

When I won Heather's giveaway for Rocco DiSpirito's new cookbook, I couldn't have been more psyched. His new book features classic comfort dishes that are 'lightened up' by making simple changes to the ingredients.

So after Shaun and I were snowed in eating popcorn all night...and drinking lots of wine...

...I realized I had all the ingredients to make Rocco's No Cream/No Cry Penne alla Vodka. I practically did one of these in celebration.

 

Yes, it's still pasta, which by nature just seems unhealthy. But by cutting out the cream in favor of Greek yogurt, this dish goes from decadent and rich to...not as decadent and rich. Oh and did I mention that I whipped it up in record time? It's super easy.

 

Penne Alla No-Vodka
*Adapted from Rocco DiSpirito's Now Eat This
1 box pasta of your choice (I used Cavatappi)
2 C or 1 jar tomato sauce (see below for further info)
1 C Greek yogurt (2% or 0%)
Parmesean cheese

Prepare pasta according to box directions.

In a saucepan, heat up the sauce. I used a store-bought organic brand and doctored it up to add a little more flavor. I started the sauce with some diced onions and 2 minced garlic cloves.

 

 

After sauteeing for a few minutes to soften, I added the jar of sauce, some dried basil and 2 bay leaves. I let this simmer and reduce.

In a small bowl, mix 1/2 C of the sauce with the Greek yogurt, stirring until smooth. Add back into the pot of sauce and whisk together (Note: this tempers the yogurt so that when it's added to the large pot of sauce it doesn't curdle. See? I teach you things too).

In a large bowl, toss the pasta and sauce together.

Serve in a pretty dish.

Top with {lots of} parmesean cheese.

Enjoy guilt free! Oh and if you are wondering why there's no vodka in this, it's because Rocco says it's not needed since it brings no flavor to the dish. All those Italian restaurants are merely fooling us with this fancy title apparently. Now you're an insider.

So what do you think? Have you ever lightened up a decadent dish?

 

Carmelized Potato Parsnip Tart

A few weeks ago, I found something fantastic.

Something that is destined to change a lot of things in my avid kitchen. Like how I make Ina's goat cheese & tomato tart or cinnamon buns, for instance.

That is, if I ever decide to go ahead and try making them.

I've heard so many good things about puff pastry, though I had never worked with before. When I offered to make a vegetable tart for Christmas Eve after seeing it in Food Network Magazine, I had to give it a test drive before serving it on the big day. And since puff pastry plays a major role in this star dish, I figured it was time.

Not only was the intimidating pastry super easy to work with, it baked up into a flaky delicious base for the sweet and savory tart. Topped with potatoes, sweet potatoes, parsnips, onions and a light caramel sauce, this tart was a perfect weeknight dinner as well as a delicious hot appetizer cut into small pieces for our Christmas Eve celebration.

Carmelized Potato Parsnip Tart
*Adapted from Food Network Magazine
2 medium potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
2 medium parsnips, peeled and thinly sliced
1 small onion, sliced
3 tbsp olive oil
kosher salt
black pepper
1/2 C sugar
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
1 tsp dried sage
1 tsp dried oregano
1 1/2 C mozzarella cheese, shredded
1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed
All purpose flour, for rolling out the pastry

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Peel and cut up the potatoes, parsnips and sweet potatoes.  Toss with olive oil, onion, salt and pepper, spread onto a {foil-lined} baking sheet and roast for about 45 minutes or until vegetables are soft.

In a sauce pan, mix 2 tbsp water and sugar. Bring to a boil and stir frequently so as not to burn. Cook for about 7 minutes until the sauce is amber. Remove from heat and stir in the vinegar.

Pour and spread {very quickly before it hardens} into the bottom of a 9x13 inch baking dish (Note: The first time I used an aluminum baking dish, but the second time I used glass. Since the caramel hardens very quickly, I found the glass dish to work a bit better). Layer the vegetables on top, sprinkling with a bit of salt, the sage and oregano.

 

Sprinkle on the mozzarella. Next, roll out the thawed puff pastry using a rolling pin and a bit of flour. Once it's rolled out to the size to cover the vegetables, prick the entire thing with a fork (This is very important! Prick it allllll over. See below image). Cover the cheese and vegetables, folding the ends of the pastry in if it's too big.

Put it in the oven. And be careful of who's holding the camera while putting said tart in oven. Sometimes the photos turn out semi-inappropriately.

Bake for 20 minutes at 400 degrees and then reduce the temperature to 350, baking for 15-20 minutes move until finished. Let cool for 10 minutes.

Here's where it gets tricky. Since this is essentially an upside down tart, it requires a little skill to get it out of the pan. Run a knife around the edges of the tart. Place a cutting board face down over the top of the pan and very quickly (with potholders on - it's still hot!), turn the entire pan over onto the cutting board. The tart should come right out, but some banging on the top and light shaking might be in order. If any pieces stick to the pan, just replace them on top of the tart.

Don't worry, I've made it twice and didn't have a problem getting it out of the pan either time!

 

Doesn't it look delicious? The carmelization on top of the savory vegetables over the flaky crust is simply mouth-watering. Even the blackened bits were to die for. Oh and I have to admit that I had also not working with parsnips before this endeavor and always felt they fell into that 'obscure ingredient' category. I'm so happy that I finally jumped on the parsnip train! It's a great, carrot-like vegetable that was a simply wonderful addition to the potato duo.

So there you have it. A yummy, easy tart that's perfect for a weeknight dinner or for an elegant party. Have you ever worked with puff pastry? How about parsnips, or another obscure ingredient?

Snowed in + Popcorn Machine

Like most of the Eastern seaboard, Shaun and I were snowed in yesterday.

 

We filled the time with lots of football, pizza (since I haven't done a non-baking food shopping in longer than I care to admit...) and playing with our shiny new Christmas presents.

 

 

Santa was very, very good to us this year! Especially to me, the new owner of a Nikon DSLR camera! When Shaun presented me with my new gift, I was over the moon with excitement and couldn't wait to dig into the goods. Though I took all of the photos that you see here now on the new beauty, I realized that I have a lot to learn about it so stay tuned as {hopefully} my photography skills get better and better!

Meanwhile, I also realized that a certain someone gets a little antsy when being stuck in the house for too long...

 

Luckily, we received this fun toy to keep us busy.

 

It's a popcorn machine! This awesome appliance was gifted to Shaun and me on Christmas Eve from my Aunt Diane. Cool, right?

 

Shaun got to work setting it up and within minutes we had fresh, salty popcorn worthy of movie theater status.

Mixed up with salt in a giant red mixing bowl, this popcorn was ready for eating! With popcorn and soda, a snowy window, a lit Christmas tree and a couple of throw blankets, we settled in to catch up on Top Chef. I'd say it was a pretty fabulous evening.

So what do you think? Have you ever made your own popcorn? I bet there are lots of ways to change this up; from my favorite butter and salt to parmesean cheese or cinnamon sugar!

A Tale of Christmas

I hope everyone had a fantastic Christmas! And for those of you who don't celebrate, I hope that you are having a wonderful weekend! Shaun and I have had a very busy few days - spending time with family, eating and having a fun date night to kick it all off.

Shaun and me on Christmas Day

It all started Thursday night for our fancy schmancy holiday date night. Shaun picked the place - Edward's Steakhouse in Jersey City. Charming, right?

 

We started with the seafood appetizer special. Oysters, clams, tuna and shrimp oh my! Oh and let's not forget a few slices of thick cut bacon (which I had all to myself since a certain someone just isn't into pork).

 

Next we shared a Porterhouse Steak for Two with a side of creamed spinach. I don't really have words for this one. Ohmigod might say it all.

We topped off dinner with an apple crunch tart and vanilla bean ice cream. Wowza.

Our date night was topped off with hanging out at home. And by hanging out at home, I mean trapping Shaun in the bedroom while I wrapped his and other gifts out in the living room. Luckily I had The Grinch to keep me company. The next morning, it was off to the fam for Christmas Eve breakfast and getting ready for the evening festivities. We changed up dinner this year with a round of cold appetizers and then a round of hot appetizers for dinner. I think it was our best Christmas Eve yet!

 

For the hot appetizers, we dined on filet mignon crostini, stuffed cabbage, twice baked potatoes, chicken tenders, vegetable tart, stuffed mushrooms and rice balls (Grandma Mary's recipe).

 

And of course there were desserts. Mom made a profesh looking Grandma Mary pie...

While my cousin Alyson baked up a dish of red velvet whoopie pies...(spoiler alert: they were amazing!)

My mother in law made her very famous Italian Ricotta Cookies. I'm enjoying one as we speak.

Nothing like fun, food and fam for Christmas!

Hope you all had a very Merry! What did you do this Christmas?

How To Make Your Holiday Cookies Look Even Better

Shaun and I have off from work today so after a quick trip to the gym, we're heading out to finish off our Christmas shopping and pick up some supplies for food that I signed up for to bring to my parents house tomorrow and his parents on Saturday. On the list? A vegetable tart (which I also made for dinner one night and cannot wait to share with you guys)

my sundried tomato + olive tapenade...

and perhaps a seasonal cupcake (contemplating one of the eggnog variety...thoughts?). Topping off the day will be present wrapping, a viewing of Scrooged (one of my favorite holiday movies) and a fancy dinner at Edward's here in Jersey City. Let's get this party started!

Meanwhile, I wanted to do a quick post for you guys and share a super simple tip to make all of those holiday cookies look extra awesome come Christmas. The key? Powdered sugar! There's nothing like a snowy white dusting of powdered sugar over holiday cookies to make them look extra special...and extra delicious to boot.

 

To get the look, I picked up a small sieve at Walmart for about $2. I scooped in a tablespoon of confectioners' sugar and sifted it right over the top of the cookie platter.

and in for the close up...

So there you have it. A super simple way to turn those cookies up a notch. Oh and this is a great way to jazz up any cookie, be it store bought or homemade. Easy peasy. So what do you think? I do have one more cookie recipe to share with you, which I will try to post this evening for any of your stragglers still looking for the perfect dessert or have ample time tomorrow morning to bake. And just a hint...there's Nutella involved.

How are you kicking off the holiday?

How We Spend the Holidays

I'm so excited because today is my last day in the office before Christmas and before all the craziness of the holiday sets in. Since we got married on a beach in Aruba 2 and a half years ago, Shaun and I have had to make up some new strategies for how we spend the holiday. So today I'm sharing it with you! We are lucky that our parents live very close to each other, so the extravaganza usually goes off without a hitch!

We're approaching my favorite day of the year...Christmas Eve! Yes, I love Christmas Day, but Christmas Eve has always been 'the big night' in the Cannon Family, which works out nicely since the Humiston side has a big celebration on Christmas Day. Not only is Christmas Eve the one holiday that my mom hosts her family, taking over after her mother - Grandma Mary - passed away, but it also marks Grandma Mary's birthday. Since there's 2 days to play with at Christmas time, Shaun and I have the festivites pretty much down to a science.

My parents gorgeous living room

It all starts early on Christmas Eve morning. When my sisters and I were young children, Dad started the tradition of taking us out for breakfast and to the mall for any last minute shopping while Mom got the house ready for the big night. Now that we're grown, Mom joins us for breakfast. We go to a local spot and it's nothing fancy, but it's a tradition that I love and look forward to so much since it kicks off the fun and always brings back a flood of memories from Christmases past. I love that it's something my dad started.

Dad, Christine, Kimberly and me many years ago!

After breakfast, we head home to finish cooking and cleaning and get ready for the evening! Shaun usually works on Christmas Eve, so he meets me at my parents house after work. Aunts, uncles and cousins come over and we eat lots of delicious things, starting with a table full of appetizers (our family's favorite!)

I love spending time with my sisters...

cousins, and my favorite guy

After dinner, Shaun heads to church with his dad and brother for a beautiful midnight mass. If we are all done at my parents house, I join him. Since we stay at my parents house on Christmas Eve night, he heads back to the house and the two of us exchange our Christmas gifts. It's pretty late at this point!

The next morning, we wake up, eat Christmas breakfast and open gifts with my parents and sisters. There is some Christmas pajama wearing going on...

Yep, those are smooching frogs you're looking at! Or Mistletoads, if you will :)

And one of my favorite things is watching Chloe search in her stocking for t-r-e-a-t-s while watching 24 hours of A Christmas Story in the background.

Once we hurry up and get dressed and ready, we head over to Shaun's parents house for Christmas Day. It's another fun-filled day of family and food!

Shaun's aunts, uncles and cousins all head on over and I love this day because there are little cousins running around! One thing that I am excited for when we become parents (down the line) is celebrating Christmas. Christmas with kids is just the best ever. Their excitement and innocence just makes the entire day! It's so fun to hang out with all of them on such a special day! (Sorry I don't have more photos to share! My sisters and Shaun don't have a choice but to be plastered all over the blog, but I haven't cleared photo issues with Shaun's family yet...perhaps a good topic to broach this Christmas ;))!

After spending the day with the Humistons, we are tired. We are full. We trudge back to Jersey City and collapse from food-induced coma and lack of sleep.

Meanwhile, I want to share one very funny photo of my sisters and me when we were kids, in front of the Christmas tree.

Embarassing, right? I'm not sure what I'm doing (or wearing, for that matter) but I love this photo. It captures such a moment!

In addition to all the running around and family time, Shaun and I also try to do the New York touristy thing and visit Radio City and Rockefellar Center! Somehow it never loses its luster :)

Nothing like Christmas time in New York City! 

Throwback! Not sure of the exact date, but I think this was back in our college days!

In fact, we have a big holiday date night planned for Thursday to kick it all off. I can't wait!

So that's how we split our time during the Christmas season. It's busy, exhausting and fattening, but I wouldn't want it any other way.

How do you spend Christmas?

Christmas Breakfast: Baked French Toast Casserole

It’s Tuesday and I only have 2 more work days until my own personal Christmas Vacation! I am so excited for the holidays. Last night I left Shaun at home and met up with Lindsey (of Two Girls, Two Pies) for a little ladies night to celebrate her newly engagedness! We did a little shopping on Fifth Avenue and then had a low key dinner at Chat ‘n Chew at Union Square, complete with macaroni & cheese and red wine. Perfection, no?

L and me, circa 2007

It’s no secret that I love breakfast (Don’t believe me? See this, this and this.). While Shaun is of the savory mind (read: he only likes eggs for breakfast), I don’t mind getting a little sweet. And since Christmas just isn’t decadent enough on it’s own, I felt it necessary to introduce a Christmas morning breakfast tradition a few years back (you know, in addition to all of the cookies). It’s the one time of year that I can justify this absolute glutton of a dish. It’s a baked French toast casserole, inspired by the Queen of All Things Butter herself, Ms. Paula Deen. After the first year that I made this dish, a bonafide Christmas morning tradition was born.

Hearty, nutty, sweet, it’s everything a good French toast should be. It’s moist but not too eggy. The buttery topping is rich, but hey, it’s Christmas. Am I right or am I right? This is all not even to mention that since you prepare it the night before and pop it into the oven to bake on Christmas morning makes it a snap to put together on the big day. You know, so you don’t miss a second of present giving and opening.

Baked French Toast Casserole with Praline Topping
*Adapted from Paula Deen
For the casserole:
1 loaf French bread, sliced
2 C half and half
1 C milk
8 large eggs
2 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tbsp vanilla extract
¼ tsp salt
Butter, for baking dish
For the praline topping:
2 sticks butter, softened
1 C light brown sugar (I used Splenda blend)
1 C chopped pecans
2 tbsp light corn syrup
½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground nutmeg

In a 13x9 inch buttered baking dish, layer the slices of French bread until the entire pan is filled. (Note: For this version, I used a combo of French bread and special bread that my mom and dad eat - it works just as well).

In a large mixing bowl, combine the milk, half and half, eggs, sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla and salt. Whisk altogether, breaking up the eggs and incorporating the entire mixture together. Pour all over the bread, making sure to get it in between the slices.

 

Cover and refrigerate overnight. In the morning, quickly make the topping. You can also make it the night before, but it may be cold and more difficult to spread over the casserole. Mix together the butter, brown sugar, pecans, corn syrup, cinnamon and nutmeg. I threw it altogether in a stand mixer, but if the butter is soft enough it can easily be done by hand. Spread all over the top of the casserole. Bake for 45 minutes. Serve, enjoy and smile because it’s Christmas!

Though it’s so not necessary, I serve mine along with some real maple syrup. Why stop at cream, eggs and carbs?

So there you have it. A little peak at one of our Christmas traditions. Now tell me some of yours! What are your favorite Christmas traditions?