Smoky Macaroni & Cheese

I must be on a comfort food kick.  I'm craving my childhood favorites, it seems (see post on Snickerdoodles).  It must be said that most Americans, and many others, absolutely love macaroni and cheese.  I mean, what's not to love?  It's cheesy and warm and we grew up eating it.  Smoky Macaroni & Cheese is a far cry from that powdered boxed nonsense.  This is a grown-up version of the pasta and cheese we adore.

My mom's favorite food was macaroni and cheese.  And when asked which was her favorite mac 'n cheese?  "Shannon's, of course."  My mom was a fabulous cook and to take a spot in her top 10 is huge.  My kids (all three of them!) love it.  In fact, my super-picky 8-year old will turn her cute little nose up at other macaroni and cheese creations and remark how it's just "not mom's homemade mac 'n cheese."

Friends, be warned: Smoky Macaroni & Cheese is not low-fat.  Nor is it light and refreshing.  It is a full-bodied, rich and hearty mac 'n cheese.   It is creamy and cheesy with a crunchy topping.  The not-so-secret ingredient that gives this dish it's unique flavor is the smoked Gouda, so don't substitute it out if you want the "smoky" part of the recipe.  Pair it with a salad and you have a full meal.  Or skip the salad and eat Smoky Macaroni & Cheese until you need to loosen your belt buckle.

Smoky Macaroni & Cheese

1 lb. elbow pasta (or whatever shape you like)
5-1/2 c. milk
8 T. (1 stick) butter, divided
1/4 c. flour
10 oz. (2-1/2 c.) smoked Gouda, shredded
8 oz. (2 c.) sharp Cheddar, shredded
6 oz. (1-1/2 c.) Swiss, shredded
4 oz. (1 c.) Parmesan, shredded fine, divided
1 c. Panko bread crumbs
1/4 - 1/2 t. ground cayenne pepper (to taste)
s & p

Preheat oven to 350*.  Grease a 9 x 13 baking dish or individual crocks.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Add pasta and cook until just soft.  Drain in colander and set colander aside.

Meanwhile, melt 2 tablespoons butter in a skillet over medium-high heat.  Add cayenne and cook 30 seconds, stirring.  Add Panko and stir well.  Toast bread crumbs until light golden brown, stirring constantly.  Remove skillet from heat and set aside.

Using the now-empty (no need to clean) pasta pot, melt remaining 6 tablespoons butter over medium-high heat.  Add flour and cook, whisking, for about 2 minutes as it bubbles and froths.  Add 1 teaspoon Kosher salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper and whisk.  Pour some of the milk in, while whisking constantly.  Continue whisking and adding the milk.  Heat the milk to a near boil (around 200*), whisking often as to not burn the milk mixture.  Off heat, add the cheeses in handfuls, stirring in a figure-8 pattern until all the cheese is incorporated.  Don't worry if not every single bit of cheese has melted into the béchamel.  Add the drained pasta and mix well.  Pour into baking dish.

Stir remaining 1/2 c. Parmesan cheese into the cooled bread crumb mixture.  Top pasta with mixture.  Bake for 30-45 minutes, or until bubbly and golden brown on top.      



Let's be honest - we all love the classic kid-favorite cookie known as the Snickerdoodle.  And we've all had crummy ones (crunchy, flat, cloyingly sweet) and we've had good ones.  This classic sweet treat, a butter cookie with a distinctive crackled cinnamon-sugar top, shouldn't be difficult to get right.  Well, friends, it isn't.  The most difficult part will be not eating all the Snickerdoodle dough before baking the cookies.

Let me just go ahead and address that statement.  I am a cookie dough addict.  I have been known to throw caution to the Salmonella wind and eat raw dough by the fist-full, and (gasp!) I do allow my kids to do the same.  I know this goes against everything we've been taught for the last decade plus. In reality, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates only 1 in 30,000 eggs will be contaminated with Salmonella.  I haven't had a problem yet, and until I do, I'll keep on enjoying my raw dough.

These Snickerdoodles have a crispy exterior with a light, but not cakey, interior. They are buttery and moist and melt in your mouth.  My mom handed down this recipe and I've not changed it one bit - except I never seem to be able to get a full yield of cookies because I eat half the dough.


1 c. butter
1-3/4 c. sugar, divided
2 eggs
2-3/4 c. flour
2 t. cream of tartar
1 t. baking soda
1/4 t. salt
1 T. cinnamon

In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream together the butter, 1-1/2 c. sugar, and eggs until light and fluffy.  In a separate bowl, whisk flour, cream of tartar, baking soda, and salt.  Add flour mixture to butter mixture and slowly mix until just combined. Chill dough in refrigerator for at least 2 hours.

Preheat oven to 400*.  In a shallow dish, mix remaining 1/4 c. sugar and cinnamon. Form dough into 1" balls.  Roll balls in cinnamon sugar.

Place 2" apart on ungreased baking sheet (I line mine with parchment paper).

Bake 7-10 minutes or until very light golden brown on top.  Allow to sit on baking sheet for 2 minutes then remove to cool on wire rack.


Irish Soda Bread

Despite the fact that my name is Shannon Marie, I am not Irish.  At least, my family has not originated in Ireland for hundreds of years.  Yet, in honor of St. Patrick's Day, I am inclined to make Irish Soda Bread.  

This bread is typically made in Ireland to serve with the evening supper.  There are a few theories as to why one cuts an X into the top.  As cooks, we know it will aid in cooking more uniformly.  It is said too, that cutting into the loaf before baking lets the faeries out.  Or it could be a sign of the cross in a country with a heavy Catholic population.  

Irish Soda Bread tastes a bit like sourdough bread - it leaves a slight tang on the tongue.  The crust is crunchy and the insides are chewy.  This bread is heavenly with butter and marmalade.  It's equally yummy as-is to mop up the remains of your beef stew.  For an unusual snack, try warming the bread and topping with some bittersweet chocolate.  

Irish Soda Bread

1 lb. unbleached flour (about 4 c.)
1-1/2 t. salt
1-1/2 t. baking soda (make sure it's fresh!)
2 cups (1 pint) buttermilk

Preheat oven to 450*.  Do not start mixing until the oven is at temp.

In a large bowl, whisk flour, salt, and baking soda.  Make a well in the center of the flour mixture.  Add about 1-1/2 c. buttermilk to flour.  Using your hands, pull the flour into the buttermilk, lightly mixing as you go.  Add more buttermilk or flour as necessary to form a soft dough.

Using care, gently form the dough into a disk (no kneading).  Place on a parchment lined baking sheet.  Pat the disk into a 2-3" tall round.  Cut a deep X into the top of the dough.

Immediately place in oven.  After 5 minutes, reduce oven temperature to 400*. Bake an additional 20 minutes or until golden brown and bread sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.  

Spotted Dick

Spotted Dick.  Spotted Dog.  Railway Cake.  Spotted Richard.  This unusual bread is known by several different names, yet eats the same.  I did a bit of research while coming up with this recipe and found a million variations.  I also realize the recipe published here is not traditional (impostor!) and the purists just might faint at my use of dates and lack of suet.  Whatever you chose to call it, this sweet loaf will make an afternoon snack you'll love.

The crust on the bread is crunchy and sweet.  The raisins and dates lend a chewiness to the somewhat dense bread.  Spotted Dick is delicious toasted with butter or jam, spread with cream cheese, or eaten right out of hand.  It doesn't keep very well so plan on consuming within a day or so.  Any stale leftovers are fantastic in bread pudding.  Feel free to add cinnamon and/or nutmeg to "Americanize" it.

Spotted Dick

1 lb. unbleached flour (about 4 c.)
3 T. sugar, divided
1-1/2 t. baking soda (make sure it's fresh!)
1-1/2 t. salt
1/4 c. raisins
1/2 c. chopped dates
1 egg
1-1/2 - 2 c. (about 1 pint) buttermilk

Preheat oven to 450*.  Do not start mixing until the oven is at temp.

In a large bowl, whisk flour, 2 T. sugar, baking soda, and salt.  Add raisins and dates and mix well.  In a 2-cup measuring cup, whisk egg and enough buttermilk to reach the 2-cup line.

Form a well in the center of the flour mixture.  Pour in 1-1/2 c. buttermilk mixture. Using your hands, bring the flour into the center and mix with the wet ingredients. Quickly and lightly work into a dough, adding more buttermilk/egg mixture or flour as necessary to form a soft, moist dough.

Once the dough has formed, do not knead it or handle it much.  Place on a parchment lined baking sheet and shape into a round disk 2-3" tall.  Brush top with some remaining buttermilk/egg mixture and sprinkle with remaining 1 T. sugar.  Cut a deep X into top of loaf.

Immediately place in oven.  After 5 minutes, reduce oven temperature to 400*. Bake 25 additional minutes.  Check to see if the bread is done by tapping on the bottom of the loaf.  If it is done, it will sound hollow.  



Candied Bacon

I adore bacon. The scent of bacon popping in a skillet takes me back to being a wee one in the kitchen with my mom, stirring pancake batter for Sunday morning breakfast. All of a sudden I am back at my grandparent's home, watching my grandpa slicing potatoes for his famous fried potatoes (recipe to come!) and flipping bacon in his cast iron skillet. What do you think of when you dream of bacon? Salty, crispy, chewy, smoky? How about sweet and sticky? Candied Bacon is a twist on an old favorite.

I developed this recipe after one of my serious cravings for bacon, which happens quite often, I must admit. I was in the mood for sweet bacon. What pairs well with bacon (besides everything)? Maple syrup! I set to work and came up with this recipe for Candied Bacon and it is truly impossible to eat just one slice.

I use center-cut bacon because I've found it fits better in the baking dish and it's healthier. Whatever you do, use pure maple syrup, not the fake maple-flavored corn syrup stuff.

Candied Bacon

6-8 slices thick sliced, center-cut bacon
2/3 c. pure maple syrup

Pre-heat oven to 400*.  Arrange bacon slices in a 9 x 13 baking dish.

Bake for 15 minutes. Remove from oven and drain off fat. I also blot the bacon with paper towels to absorb as much grease as possible. Reduce oven temp to 350* and put bacon back in dish, then pour maple syrup over slices. Bake 30-40 minutes or until liquid and bacon are thick and golden, flipping bacon slices once during cooking.  Remove bacon from dish and place on parchment paper to cool.

Allow to set up. Store in refrigerator between parchment paper. These goodies are sticky!


Marinated Goat Cheese

My mom and my paternal grandfather were two of the most influential people in my life. They both passed away fairly recently and I miss them both so much it hurts. This recipe involves Mom and Paw-paw, directly and indirectly.

I used to spend a lot of time visiting my grandfather.  He was the perfect grandpa - he'd take us to the amusement park, make us milkshakes, and record Saturday morning cartoons (back when life was tough and we only had cartoons once a week! Eeek!).  As we became adults, he no longer taped cartoons for us, but continued to make Purple Cows and fascinate us with his incredible stories.  I turned 16 and was able to visit my grandpa whenever I wanted.  I'd drive the 2-1/2 hours to his house and stay with him all weekend or longer.  We used to watch Bob Villa and PBS cooking shows, in particular, Caprial Pence.  I bought her cookbook, Cooking with Caprial, and instantly fell in love.

I took my new cookbook with me to my mom's house and we decided to make the goat cheese recipe.  It was my first experience with goat cheese and I was immediately an addict.  It became, and still is, my favorite cheese.  My mom was the one who ignited my love of cooking, and she and I had a blast experimenting in the kitchen together.  It was one our favorite things to do together, besides laughing as the kids played in the pool and drinking margaritas on the deck.  As my mom and I chatted away in the kitchen, chopping, sauteing, kneading, and decorating, we were centered.  I knew I was exactly where I needed to be - in the kitchen with my best friend.

A funny thing happened while preparing for this post.  I opened my mom's copy of the cookbook (purchased soon after making the goat cheese recipe so we'd both have a copy) and there was a yellowed, crumbly envelope stuck inside.  Inside the small envelope was my mother's original birth announcement.  I have no idea where it came from or who placed it there.  I would be amiss if I failed to see the symbolism.

I have tweaked this recipe over the years to fit my personal tastes.  I changed the olives to Kalamatas, and have adjusted the measurements.  This recipe is totally adaptable to your liking.  If you really love garlic, add more!  If you have chives on hand, sub it out for the thyme.

Marinated Goat Cheese 
Serves 10-12 as an appetizer or 3-4 as a main meal with a salad.
Adapted from Cooking with Caprial, Caprial Pence

11 oz. fresh soft goat cheese
3 garlic cloves, minced fine
2 T. chopped fresh thyme (must be fresh, not dried)
3 oz. (30-35) Kalamata olives, chopped
3/4 c. olive oil
1/3 c. balsamic vinegar
1/4 t. kosher salt
1/4 t. freshly ground black pepper
1 baguette
olive oil, for crostini

Crumble goat cheese onto shallow dish or platter.  In medium bowl, add garlic, thyme, vinegar, salt, and pepper.  Whisk in oil, pouring in a steady stream.  Mix in olives.  Pour mixture over goat cheese.  Refrigerate at least 2 hours or up to a week.

When ready to serve, allow goat cheese to come to room temp for 30 min.   The oil may separate and solidify a bit - it's ok!  Pre-heat the broiler.  Slice baguette into 1/4" - 1/2" rounds.  Drizzle with olive oil.  Place on a baking sheet and stick under broiler until golden.

Spoon goat cheese on warm crostini.  Drizzle oil and vinegar over goat cheese as you like.


Growing From Seed, Step-by-Step

Growing from seeds can be intimidating.  I too was overwhelmed by the thought of expensive equipment and the fancy fifty-dollar words these professional gardeners threw around.  But after spending way too much money in garden centers on plants, I took a leap of faith and decided to try to grow my own.  I figured I would start my seeds in late winter, and if by planting time they were unhealthy or dead, I'd head to the garden center to buy ready-made plants.  But lo and behold!  They were a success!  Furthermore, I am able to pick and choose what varieties I want in my garden.  Tomatoes alone have hundreds of kinds available.  You can have every color under the sun - red, yellow, orange, green, purple, brown, pink, striped, and multi.  There are grape, cherry, roma, slicing, paste, and burgers.  And let's not forget about the heirlooms with creative names such as Mortgage Lifter, Mr. Stripey, Cherokee Purple, and Grandfather Ashlock.  I want to show how easy and inexpensive it can be to fill your garden with amazing and unusual fruits and veggies.

Growing From Seeds
Below is a photo of the basics you'll need to get started.  These are the supplies I use but feel free to substitute as you see fit.

  • Peat pots 
  • Trays with domes
  • Mister (I bought a spray bottle for $1)
  • Organic Seed Starting Mix
  • Tags with a permanent marker
  • Seeds (duh!)

1.  Find out the last frost date for your location.  
2.  Look at your seed packets to determine how soon to start them indoors.  For example, my frost-free date is May 2.  The seed packet for my Fourth of July tomatoes say to start indoors 6-8 weeks before outdoor planting time.  So I will start my seeds between March 7 - 26.  
3.  Fill your peat pots with seed starter mix, gently compressing as you go.  You do not want your starter mix compacted like a brick, nor should it be loosey-goosey.

4.  Mist the starter mix with warm water to moisten well.

You do not want to saturate the soil.  Do not use hot or cold water.  Tepid water will help warm up the interior of your new greenhouse.

5. Check the planting depth on the seed packet.  For my Fourth of July tomatoes, I will sow the seeds  1/4" deep.  Place seeds on top of starter mix.  Cover with the amount of soil necessary and gently press down.  Mist again lightly, being careful not to blow the starter mix off your seeds.

6. Put the dome on top and place in a sunny window, preferably south-facing.  When the seedlings pop out, eschew the dome top.  Once all of the seedlings have emerged from the starter mix, remove the top and watch them grow into gorgeous plants!

Be sure to check the moisture level daily with all of your seeds.  You want them moist but not dripping wet.  I mist the seedlings gently when they are young and tender, as well as pour warm water directly into the tray to water from the bottom.  Be careful if you need to move your peat pots because as they get and stay wet, they will tear apart easily.