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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Twelve in Ten Challenge: The Fountain on Locust

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First of all, thanks everyone for the sweet comments on my Blogiversary post. I loved hearing from readers, especially some people I know in real life who I didn't know were reading. You guys are great and I'm excited to continue to share recipes and hopefully hear from you! 

I think of all the restaurants on our Twelve in Ten list, this was the one I was most looking forward to. After all, it's an ICE CREAM parlor, and my love affair with ice cream is no secret! The Fountain on Locust has won several awards in St. Louis for their ice cream and I was anxious to see how it compared to a few of my other local favorites.

Julia, Ryan, and I headed there a few Thursdays ago after I'd run 18 miles for marathon training. Needless to say, the image of ice cream sundaes kept me moving that morning and I was more than ready to dig into a sweet treat!

The restaurant was busy, but not crowded, and we were immediately seated at a booth. Before browsing the menu, we paused to take in the sights around us. The Fountain's website says they are the most photographed restaurant in St. Louis and I can see why...the walls are covered in brightly colored murals and the restaurant itself just has a fun atmosphere and layout. (I also read online AFTERWARDS that its bathrooms are a top 10 finalist for Best Restroom in America...now I'm mad I didn't go to the bathroom there!) Another quirky feature of The Fountain was its in-booth radio show. Certain booths, ours being one of them, have a knob on the wall that you can turn to listen to some "Soap Hospital", a radio show soap opera featuring some saucy doctors and nurses! We listened for a few seconds, but then turned our focus to more important things: the ice cream.

I knew before we came what I was getting: The Coconut Almond Joy (from the menu: coconut almond joy ice cream drizzled with homemade hot fudge, whipped cream, and a chocolate coin). I thought mine was incredible. I've tried a few different kinds of coconut ice cream, but this beats all others I've ever had. It had chunks of chocolate covered almonds and the coconut flavor was prominent. The whipped cream was unlike any I've ever had. I don't know what their secret is but it was truly the lightest, fluffiest, best tasting whipped cream to pass my lips (and this wasn't just me in a run-induced hunger! Ryan agreed!). Needless to say, I devoured mine and enjoyed every bite.

Ryan went with the Nutty Irishman (from the menu: creamy Irish coffee ice cream with hot fudge and pecans, topped with housemade whipped cream). He substituted caramel for the hot fudge and that was his favorite part. One thing to note--all of their sauces, etc. are made in-house and are without high fructose corn syrup. After tasting them, I can definitely see a difference between these and the type you'd find at your typical ice cream shop or grocery store. I was a big fan of their versions! Ryan liked his coffee ice cream, but didn't think the coffee flavor was strong enough. Overall, however, he enjoyed his sundae and so did I (I couldn't resist stealing a few bites!).

Julia agonized over the menu for awhile and finally settled on the Chocolate Brownie Cake in a Cup (from the menu: moist, made-from-scratch brownie cake, oozing with our signature hot fudge, baked in a mug, and topped with our delicious vanilla ice cream and real whipped cream). Unfortunately, Julia's dessert was the only one that fell short. While she enjoyed it, it wasn't outstanding. She found the brownie cake to be a little dry and decided that Chili's restaurant makes a better molten lava cake. Still, hers came with ice cream and whipped cream, so it wasn't a total loss...she'll just be sticking with one of her others options next time!

...and there will be a next time! All three of us were interested in many of the menu offerings and I'll definitely be back for an ice cream martini sometime! Another Twelve in Ten challenge down, another great St. Louis find.

One Year Ago: Toasted Coconut Banana Cream Pie (which I need to make again and take better pictures of, SO good!)

The Fountain on Locust on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 30, 2010

Peanut Butter Cookies (& my one-year blogiversary!)

Did you see my post title? It's my one-year blogiversary! Exactly one year ago, I wrote a measly little paragraph and The Sweets Life was born. I had no idea what I was doing, or why I was even starting a blog. In all honesty, Ryan encouraged me to start the blog as a means to keep busy. Last summer I found myself injured and unable to run. A non-running Natalie is not a happy Natalie, and I think he sensed the need to introduce me to a new hobby. I had been reading food blogs for awhile and was becoming more comfortable in the kitchen, but I was still apprehensive about starting my own. After all, I'm the Queen of Kitchen Mishaps and Messes! I had a tiny, mediocre camera and no knowledge of how to photograph food. But after he mentioned the idea, my wheels were turning. I came up with what I thought was a catchy little name and I warily signed up for a blogspot address. The first few months were a learning experience. For the first month or so, I told very few people about the blog. My grandma and Ryan were my only regular readers and I went days without a comment on any of my posts.

...and now fast forward 365 days and 383 posts later. I have a fancy new camera (though I'm still learning how to take those mouth-watering photos!). I have my own domain name. I have more than two readers (and some days get more than a few comments!). I've tried things in the kitchen that I never would have imagined. Homemade cinnamon rolls? Salmon Burgers? Baked Potato Chips?

My passion for cooking, baking, and yes, blogging, has grown significantly over the past year. I love hearing from readers, whether they be strangers, blogger friends, long-lost friends, or my mom. Menu planning is exciting each week. While I cook, I pay attention to what I'm doing and when I eat, I pay attention to what I'm tasting, all so that I can share it on the blog. In essence, my time in and out of the kitchen is enhanced by this little corner of the web and by those of you who take the time to read it. Thank you for reading, for commenting, for sharing your thoughts when you try recipes you see on here.  Thank you for bearing with my lame anecdotes and my overuse of the words yummy and delicious!

I'm excited for another year of blogging. There are a lot of things I want to do in the next year, both in terms of the blog (a recipe index, for starters!) and in my kitchen (any recipe requests?) and I hope you stick along for the ride! In the meantime, do me a favor today and leave me a comment (even if you never have before!), and tell me who you are. I'd love to know who's out there reading. You don't have to share the details of your personal life (although I'm nosy enough to want to know them!).. I'm just curious to know who my readers are, what they're like, where they're from...you get the picture. Do me a favor and leave me a comment, I'll do you a favor and leave you with this incredible peanut butter cookie recipe. Seriously, my co-workers went crazy for these! They're sugary, soft, and bursting with peanut butter flavor.

One Year Ago: Homemade Blizzards and Marshmallow Brownies

Peanut Butter Cookies
as seen on Let's Dish, adapted from allrecipes.com

-1 cup peanut butter
-1/2 cup butter, softened
-1/2 cup white sugar
-1/2 cup packed brown sugar
-1 egg
-3 tbsp milk
-1 tsp vanilla extract
-1 1/4 cups flour
-1 tsp baking powder
-1/4 tsp salt
-1 1/2 cups peanut butter & milk chocolate chips (could do one or the other or both, mine came together in the package)

1. Preheat oven to 375F.
2. In a large mixing bowl, cream peanut butter, butter, and sugars until smooth. Beat in egg, milk, and vanilla.
3. In a separate bowl, mix flour, baking powder, and salt. Add to creamed mixture, stirring well.
4. Drop rounded tablespoons onto ungreased cookie sheets (leave space between each, they spread!)
5. Using a fork, make criss-crosses on each cookie. Bake for 8-10 minutes, until edges are lightly browned.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Columbia Crest Cork & Fork Dinner Party

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For my first twenty birthdays, we (being my friends, family, etc.) came, we celebrated, and we moved on. The next birthday in our family wasn’t until September so there was plenty of time to regroup and get back to normal life before whipping out the cake and spanking machine again (don’t ask). But then, shortly after my twentieth birthday, I met a boy. Our first conversation (August 31st, 2006) revealed that his birthday landed exactly a week after mine, on August 28th. At the time, this was merely a cute little fact, a way for me to flirt with him and brag about that week of wisdom I had over him. Little did I know, that tall, dark, and handsome student would become my husband, and that we’d be forever stuck with birthdays exactly one week apart, his following mine.

Four years later, we have grown accustomed to the whole birthday thing. August creeps up and we start discussing my birthday (it IS first, after all!). Usually I have grand schemes of how to celebrate and Ryan, bless his heart, sees to it that the celebration plays out as I have imagined. Like in times past, we come, we celebrate, and we move on. But WAIT…we can’t move on, back to normal life, because suddenly seven days have passed and it’s time for Ryan’s birthday! Except we’re tired from celebrating, people have already used up their “happy birthdays” for the McLaurys, and somehow Ryan’s birthday falls by the wayside.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m being slightly overdramatic here. However, I do always feel a little bit guilty that Ryan’s birthday follows so closely behind mine and has the tendency to get lost in the shuffle. This year, I was determined to change that up. Yes, I had my party last weekend, but until Julia suggested having it, I was much more focused on making Ryan’s birthday a smashing success this year. Thankfully, Foodbuzz was willing to help me out. Together with Columbia Crest, they offered Foodbuzz Featured Publishers an opportunity to host a dinner party, using Columbia Crest wines and delightful Bobby Flay recipes that he created to pair with the wines.  On a whim, I applied, proposing a dinner party that would be all about Ryan and his birthday. In a nutshell, I described what you read above and proposed hosting a dinner in which Ryan was king. He would choose the entire menu, the location, the guests, and the wine…and I would make it all happen. Much to my surprise, Foodbuzz picked me as one of the lucky four to host a Columbia Crest Cork & Fork party. I hadn’t even told Ryan about my proposal, so I excitedly called him while he was in San Diego and shared the news. And so the plans began…

Yesterday was the big day, both Ryan’s birthday and the day of our dinner. After weeks of carefully thought-out plans (Ryan is one of the most thorough people I know J), we found ourselves in Chicago, ready to feast. Ryan selected the location: downtown Chicago at my parent’s condo (thanks Mom & Dad!), the guests: our favorite travel buddies, and the menu (keep reading).

While I originally planned to do all of the food shopping and preparation, this changed when we decided to include Mike and Maggie. Like us, they love to cook and eat good food and they were thrilled to share this dinner with us. We decided to make a whole day of the event, visiting a local Chicago farmer’s market to buy the bulk of our ingredients before settling down in the kitchen together to make each carefully selected dish (don’t worry, we didn’t let Ryan do TOO much work!).

What you see throughout this post are a series of pictures that capture our day in Chicago, from the hunt for local ingredients to the hard work in the kitchen to finally, the enjoyment of a fabulous meal in honor of Ryan.

I really don't have the words to describe just how amazing this meal turned out. We thought we were in trouble when we all fell in love with the first course. I was sure the rest of the meal would in no way compare. Instead, we continued to be impressed with each course. Like true (wannabe?) foodies, the four of us sat and dissected each dish, discussing the flavors and our preparation of everything.

No meal is perfect and we had our fair share of adventures...everything from purchasing wrong kinds of cheese, spider attacks, near trips to the ER, and attempts to grill lamb on a 12-inch grill. Yet all was forgotten as we moved through each course, falling in love with all of the fresh flavors. I knew the meal was a success when we sat licking our dessert plates and moaning in satisfaction. Yes, it was that good.

I can't wait to tell you more about this incredible meal we were treated to! I’m posting our menu below, but you can expect detailed posts on each dish, complete with recipes and our thoughts, beginning next week. 

Wow. What a meal. Thank you Bobby Flay for meal inspiration, thank you Columbia Crest for the delightful wine that paired perfectly with our meal, and thank you Foodbuzz for the help in hosting this party! You all played a part in, and I quote, one of the best meals of Ryan's life (and mine, Mike, and Maggie's too!)

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Chicken, Mushroom, Asparagus Bread Pudding

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Firstly (and most importantly), please join me in wishing my wonderful husband Ryan a Happy Birthday! He's the best...and he deserves the best...so we're doing something pretty awesome (and food-related) in Chicago today to celebrate. Come back tomorrow and you can read all about it...(hint: it's all thanks to Foodbuzz & Columbia Crest)

In the meantime, enjoy today's recipe for a savory bread pudding!

Bread pudding, strata, casserole...call it what you will, this was a great dinner! I served this when my brother Quinn was visiting (he's the goofy one in the picture below, showing you how much he loved this meal!) and it seemed to go over well. I adapted the original recipe, adding chicken and upping some of the quantities to fit a 9 x 13 pan. This easily fed five of us, with enough leftovers for Ryan to take to lunch a few days. Ryan said it tasted even better on the second day!

My only complaint was an overall lack of seasoning. I used dried dill because I didn't have any fresh dill, but overall it just seemed to lack something. I'd suggest using the fresh dill, or other fresh herbs. You can choose what works for you!

Chicken, Mushroom, and Asparagus Bread Pudding
adapted from Moosewood Restaurant Cooking for Health

-4 cups whole grain bread cubes
-1 onion, chopped
-1 lb asparagus, chopped into 1-inch pieces
-1/2 tsp salt
-4 cups mushrooms, sliced
-2 chicken breasts, cooked and shredded
-1 tbsp vegetable oil
-1/8 tsp pepper
-1 1/2 cups milk
-5 eggs
-1/2 - 1 cup shredded Italian cheese
-2 tbsp chopped fresh dill

1. Place bread cubes on an ungreased baking sheet and toast at 350F for 10 minutes.
2. Heat oil over medium-high heat in a large skillet. Add chopped onion and cook until soft (approximately 8 minutes). Add the asparagus, lower heat and cover, cooking for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the mushrooms and pepper, cover, and cook for an additional five minutes.
3. Lightly grease a 9 x 13 baking dish. Spread bread cubes in the dish and top with vegetable mixture and chicken.
4. In a blender, mix milk, eggs, and dill. Pour blended mixture over the bread. Top with cheese.
5. Bake at 350F for 40 minutes. Allow to sit for 5 minutes before cutting and serving warm.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Banana Blueberry Bread

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I admit it. I purposely buy 2x the bananas we need, just so I can have a freezer stocked with brown bananas. Lately, I've been making a lot of green monsters on weekend mornings after I work out. While those are delish, sometimes you can't beat a warm piece of banana bread. It might not be as healthy as a spinach-packed smoothie, but I adapted this particular recipe to be completely butter-less and oil-less! The buttermilk, the applesauce, and the bananas provided plenty of moisture to this fairly dense bread. Ryan & I loved the flavor the cinnamon and nutmeg gave this bread--very different from our favorite banana bread.

This was good warm, from the oven or microwaved, but after a day or two we stuck in it the fridge and I really liked it cold as well.

Banana Blueberry Bread
adapted from Eating Well

-3/4 cup low-fat buttermilk
-3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
-1/4 cup applesauce
-2 large eggs
-1 cup mashed ripe bananas (3 medium)
-1 1/4 cups whole wheat flour
-1 cup all-purpose flour
-1 tbsp wheat germ (optional)
-1 1/2 tsp baking powder
-3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
-1/2 tsp baking soda
-1/2 tsp salt
-1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
-1 1/4 cups blueberries

1. Preheat oven to 375F. Lightly grease a loaf pan with cooking spray.
2. In a large bowl, mix buttermilk, brown sugar, oil, and eggs. Stir in mashed bananas until well-mixed.
3. In a separate bowl, whisk flours, baking powder, cinnamon, baking soda, salt, and nutmeg.
4. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, stirring just until combined. Fold in blueberries and pour batter into pan.
5. Bake for 50-60 minutes until top is brown and inserted toothpick comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes before removing from pan and cooling completely on a wire rack.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Salsa Verde Bake

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This recipe surprised me. I made it because I had a number of Mexican-like ingredients on hand and needed an easy meal for a busy night. I figured we'd like it well enough, but I wasn't expecting to love it as much as I did! This is one of those recipes that you can adapt according to what you have on hand and/or what your tastes are. The original recipe called for chicken, but I hadn't thawed it in time, so I skipped it and instead bulked it up with beans and vegetables. No additional spices are needed in this dish, thanks to the kick from the salsa verde (I used medium). This makes a lot of food, so I stuck the leftovers in the freezer and we'll pull them out and reheat them on a day I don't feel like cooking.

Fast, relatively healthy, and yummy...my favorite kind of meal!

Salsa Verde Bake
inspired by Heather Drive

-1 jar salsa verde
-1 can kidney beans, rinsed and drained
-1/2 can black beans, rinsed and drained
-1 can corn, drained
-1 onion, chopped
-2 bell peppers, sliced (I used orange and yellow)
-1 cup mushrooms, sliced
-1 tbsp olive oil
-1/2 cup sour cream
-2-3 cups crushed tortilla chips
-1 cup shredded Mexican-style cheese

1. Preheat oven to 375F. In a large saucepan over medium heat, heat 1 tbsp oil. Add onion and peppers and cook for 4-5 minutes. Add mushrooms and cook for an additional 2-3 minutes, stirring occasionally.
2. In a large bowl, mix cooked vegetables, beans, corn, sour cream, and salsa.
3. Spray a casserole dish (mine was 8 x 11 I believe) with cooking spray. Layer the bottom of the dish with crushed chips. Top with half of the salsa mixture. Sprinkle cheese over the filling. Repeat layers, finishing with the tortilla chips.
4. Bake at 375F for 30 minutes. Serve immediately.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Banana Caramel Cake

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Some combinations make perfect sense. Peanut butter and chocolate. Peanut butter and jelly. (Peanut butter and anything, really!) Hummus and pita. You catch my drift. But banana and caramel? Now that was one I'd never considered before! Still, I was intrigued, and I'm never one to pass up a new recipe that uses over-ripe bananas.

I think it's safe to say we can add banana and caramel to the above list of great combinations. This cake was awesome--moist, rich, and oozing with caramel. The caramel sauce mostly sunk to the bottom during baking, creating a gooey layer that kept you coming back for more.

This cake was best warm, and we ate the leftovers reheated in the microwave. You can eat this on its own, but I think a scoop of ice cream would only enhance the deliciousness of this cake!

Banana Caramel Cake
adapted from The Kitchn
*makes one 9-inch cake

-3/8 cup butter
-1/2 cup white sugar
-1/2 cup brown sugar
-2 eggs
-1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
-3/4 tsp baking soda
-1/4 tsp salt
-3/4 cup milk
-3/4 cup mashed bananas
-3/4 cup caramel ice cream topping

1. Preheat oven to 325F. Grease a 9" cake pan.
2. In a mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar until fluffy. Add eggs one at a time and beat after each addition.
3. In a separate bowl, mix flour, baking, soda, and salt. Whisk bananas and milk in another separate bowl. Alternate adding banana mixture and flour mixture to the creamed mixture, ending with the flour. Beat just until smooth.
4. Pour batter into cake pan. Pour caramel sauce over batter and swirl with a knife. Bake at 325F for 50-55 minutes, until an inserted knife in the center comes out clean.
5. Allow to cool and serve.

This post is linked to Eat at Home.