October 21, 2013

I recently saw something about how fall means drinking as many pumpkin spice lattes as possible without breaking the bank. For me this is true. As soon as I saw pumpkin spice lattes on the menus at coffee shops, I couldn't help but order one. Now I'm hooked, and I'm dreading the day when pumpkin spice lattes are no longer available. Then again, it will most likely be replaced with my all-time favorite coffee drink, mint chocolate mocha.

For now I'm soaking in fall and all it has to offer. Our boys got to wear their Halloween costumes for the first time on Saturday to a Halloween event at Living History Farms. We walked through the town gathering treats, and then we roasted marshmallows, took a hayrack ride, and listened to spooky tales told by a storyteller in the old barn.

On Sunday my husband and older son raked leaves to fill the pumpkin bags to complete our outdoor Halloween display.

Before the all of the leaves fall from the trees, be sure to enjoy the colors and tastes of autumn.

Copycat Pumpkin Spice Latte

Good Housekeeping came up with a way to enjoy a pumpkin spice latte in the comfort of your own home and it won't break the bank.

Makes: 4 cups syrup (32 to 64 lattes)

For the Syrup:

2 1/2 cups granulated sugar

2 cinnamon sticks

2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice

1/4 cup canned pure pumpkin

For the Latte:

8 oz whole milk

4 oz strong brewed coffee or espresso

whipped cream and pumpkin pie spice, for garnish (optional)

Prepare the syrup: Bring the sugar and 2 cups water to a simmer in a medium saucepan over medium heat, whisking, until the sugar dissolves. Add the cinnamon sticks, pumpkin pie spice and pumpkin. Simmer, whisking occasionally, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat. Set aside 5 minutes, then strain twice through a fine-mesh strainer into an airtight container. Refrigerate until cool. Store in the refrigerator for about one month. You'll end up with about 4 cups total.

For each latte: Microwave the milk on High about 1 minute or until very hot (Transfer to a blender and blend 20 seconds for extra frothy milk, if desired.) Put 1 to 2 tablespoons pumpkin spice syrup in the bottom of a mug. Top with the coffee and warm milk. Garnish with whipped cream and pumpkin pie spice, if desired.

Apple Cider Cupcakes with Cider Cream Cheese Icing

During conference time, the PTO at our school treats teachers to dinner. We usually have a variety of soups and desserts from which to choose. This way, we can grab a bite to eat between conferences.

On conference night, I saw the most scrumptious-looking tray of cupcakes come through the door and I had to try one myself. They turned out to be apple cider cupcakes. They were extremely moist with creamy and sweet frosting piped on top in a pretty swirl.

For the cupcakes:

3 cups unpasteurized apple cider

3/4 cup vegetable shortening

1 3/4 cups sugar

2 large eggs

2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon baking soda

For the icing:

2 cups apple cider

6 ounces cream cheese, cut into bits and softened

1/2 cup sifted confectioners' sugar

Make the cupcakes:

In a large saucepan boil the cider until it is reduced to about 1 1/2 cups and let it cool. In a large bowl with an electric mixer beat together the shortening and the sugar until the mixture is fluffy and beat in the eggs, 1 at a time. Into the bowl sift together the flour, the cloves, the cinnamon, the baking soda, and a pinch of salt, stir in the reduced cider, and combine the mixture well. Divide the batter among 18 paper-lined 1/2-cup muffin tins and bake the cupcakes in the middle of a preheated 375 degree oven for 25 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean. Transfer the cupcakes to a rack, let them cool in the tins, and remove them from the tins.

Make the icing:

In a saucepan boil the cider until it is reduced to about 1/4 cup and let it cool. In a bowl with an electric mixer beat together the cream cheese, the confectioners' sugar, the reduced cider, and a pinch of salt until the icing is smooth.

Spread each cupcake with some of the icing or use a piping bag to pipe frosting on top.

Makes 18 cupcakes

Best Ever Chili

Last week my department at school was signed up to bring treats for the staff. We set out steaming crock pots full of chili and taco soup, veggies, cheese and crackers, and plenty of desserts. The librarian even ordered a very special pink champagne cake to celebrate October birthdays, which included mine. She ordered the cake from a bakery in the Highland Park area of Des Moines that reminds me very much of Jung's Bakery. Their frosted sugar cookies are similar to the Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog cookies Jung's baked in the '80s when I was a child.

On Saturday, we played the day away at a pumpkin patch. We typically visit two pumpkin patches each fall. We took a break to eat lunch and ordered chili burgers. I hadn't had one before, but it turned out to be a beef burger topped with thick chili on a bun. Of course this was a sandwich only to be eaten with a fork and I got to thinking that this particular chili would be perfect to top a chili burger.

1 lb ground beef

½ onion, diced

½ green pepper, diced

1 teaspoon minced garlic (from a jar) or 1 garlic clove, finely minced

1 (15 oz) can chili beans (undrained)

½ (15 oz) can red kidney beans (rinsed and drained)

1 (15 oz) can diced tomatoes (Mexican-style)

1 (15 oz) can tomato sauce

1 fresh jalapeno pepper, seeded and deveined, finely diced

1 bay leaf

1/2 teaspoon cumin

2 tablespoons chili powder

½ teaspoon dried cilantro

½ teaspoon salt

a few grounds of fresh black pepper

Begin to brown ground beef. Add onion, green pepper, and garlic. Drain excess fat. In a large pot or a slow cooker, add all other ingredients. Mix well. Allow to simmer on stove for 1 hour or cook in slow cooker on Low for 4 to 6 hours. Remove bay leaf. Serve topped with sour cream and shredded Cheddar cheese.

Crafting homemade Halloween treats is a dying art, considering how much easier it is to grab a few bags of Snickers from the grocery store. But classics like popcorn balls and candied apples still hold a place in our hearts. Here's how to make popcorn balls for a Halloween party.

Halloween Popcorn Balls

I remember trick or treating as a child and being thrilled when a homemade popcorn ball was placed in my pillowcase full of candy. These days, homemade treats on Beggar's Night are taboo, but that doesn't mean your family or co-workers can't enjoy them.

15 qts popcorn

5 cups sugar

¾ cup corn syrup

1 cup cold water

1 stick of butter

1 tablespoon baking soda

1 tablespoon salt

2 cups or more candy corn

1 tablespoon of orange or black food coloring

Begin by popping 15 quarts of popcorn. Allow the popcorn to cool in a large bowl or tub. Next, pour 5 cups of sugar into a large mixing bowl. Press a glass in the sugar to form a pocket in its center that will hold 3/4 cup liquid.

Pour 3/4 cup corn syrup into the pocket, making sure none touches the side of the bowl. Then heat a deep pan, preferably copper, on high. Pour the contents of the bowl into the hot pan.

Pour 1 cup of cold or room-temperature water into the pan. Set a timer for 5 minutes and 45 seconds and, using a wooden spoon, stir constantly. If you take breaks in stirring, expect clumpy popcorn balls.

When the timer rings, add 1 stick of butter, 1 tablespoon baking soda and 1 tablespoon salt. Reset timer for 2 minutes. Add the popcorn. Continue stirring. With 1 minute left, add 2 cups or more of candy corn and 1 tablespoon of black food coloring for a Halloween touch.

Spray the mixture with oil then use a metal popcorn baller to make softball-size balls. Or wear rubber gloves and form the balls by hand. Allow the balls to cool and harden, then wrap with cellophane to prevent humidity from ruining the popcorn.

This recipe makes about 24 popcorn balls.

Candy Corn Popcorn Balls

If you prefer gooey popcorn balls that require a little less effort than traditional popcorn balls, whip up a batch your little pumpkins will love.

1/2 stick (2 oz) butter

4 cups miniature marshmallows

1 bag plain popped popcorn (12 cups popped)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups candy corn

Prepare a baking sheet by lining it with aluminum foil and spraying the foil with nonstick cooking spray. Place the popped popcorn and the candy corn in a large mixing bowl and set aside.

Place the butter in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave for 30-45 seconds to melt it. Add the marshmallows, and microwave for an additional 90 seconds to melt them. The marshmallows might not look melted at the end of this time, but once you stir them, they should liquefy. Stir to blend the butter and marshmallows, then add the vanilla and salt and stir until the candy is well-mixed.

Pour the marshmallow mixture over the popcorn and candy corn, and stir until they are thoroughly combined. Allow the mixture to sit for a minute, to cool down the hot marshmallow.

Spray your hands with nonstick cooking spray, and scoop up a handful of popcorn. Press it firmly between your hands, forming a ball shape. Make sure that the balls are compact; loosely formed popcorn balls easily fall apart. If the balls don't form at first, allow the mixture to sit for another minute, this seems to help them hold together.

Place the popcorn balls on the prepared baking sheet and allow them to firm up at room temperature. Store the popcorn balls in an airtight container in a cool, dry room.

Ranch Snack Mix

While you're waiting for little ghosts and goblins to show up on your doorstep, munch on some snack mix.

1 (1 oz) package dry Ranch salad dressing mix

1/4 cup canola or vegetable oil

teaspoon dried dill weed

1 teaspoon garlic powder

1 box or bag oyster crackers

Preheat oven to 250 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, combine first 5 ingredients and mix well. Stir in oyster crackers mix to coat. Pour crackers onto a large cookie sheet. Bake 15 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes or so. Cool and store in a covered container.