Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

Our apartment flood disaster is nowhere near over. But they did remove the fans and dehumidifiers on Thursday, so we were able to start using a few rooms again. The kitchen was one of them!

To celebrate, I volunteered to bake a birthday cake for one of our friends. The partygoers devoured most of it before I thought to take photos. So this morning-after snapshot will have to do. Can you see the dense, rich texture? Can you taste the cream-cheesy goodness?

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Dan and I shared the final piece for breakfast Sunday morning. Let me tell you, it’s just as awesome with coffee and eggs as it is with vanilla ice cream.

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My family always saved this cake for special occasions because grating the carrots was such an arduous task. The last time I made it was for Dan’s birthday in November. But now that I have a food processor, it only took a few minutes!

It’s a very simple carrot cake — no nuts, pineapple, coconut, or multiple spices. It gets all of its lush flavor from the freshly grated carrots, cinnamon, and tangy-sweet frosting. Like magic, it tastes even better the second and third day as the flavors mingle. But if you can let it sit that long, you have a stronger will than I.

Carrot Cake Recipe

Cake:

  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 2-3 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3/4 cup vegetable or canola oil
  • 3/4 cup applesauce (preferably unsweetened)
  • 3 cups grated carrots (about 4 very large carrots)
  • 4 eggs

Preheat oven to 350F. Prep a 9×13″ pan (see notes for other size options) with grease & flour or baking spray. In mixing bowl, add all ingredients together except eggs. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Pour batter into pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 45-60 minutes, until toothpick comes out clean. Ice when cool.

Frosting:

  • 1 lb. powdered sugar
  • 1 8-oz. package of cream cheese, softened
  • 1/2 stick (4 Tbsp) butter or margarine, softened
  • 2 tsp vanilla

Combine ingredients & beat until of spreading consistency.

Recipe Notes

  • The applesauce is my substitution to make it a bit healthier — the original recipe calls for a whopping 1.5 cups oil.
  • For a layer cake, use three 8″ round cake pans and bake approx. 35 minutes.
  • For cupcakes, bake 20-25 minutes.
  • The frosting recipe makes enough to ice a layer cake, so it’s too much for a 9×13 pan (even for a frosting fanatic like me). My family likes to spread the leftover frosting on graham crackers and eat right away or freeze for a later treat.

Homemade Spaghetti

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My parents make the world’s best spaghetti. They don’t know where the recipe came from but they’ve made it the same way for decades. It’s the first recipe I learned to cook by heart. The sauce is not garden-fresh or fancy — instead, it’s an easy pantry meal using ingredients you always have on hand. But it’s not boring or typical. It’s a hearty sauce with depth from red wine and olive oil, bulked up with savory olives and mushrooms, all cooked into a thick stew-like texture. I’ve made it before without the beef and it’s delicious vegetarian style too.

Favorite Spaghetti Recipe (serves 4)

  • 1/2 lb ground beef
  • one small yellow/white onion, diced
  • a few cloves of garlic, minced
  • one small can of mushroom pieces
  • about half a can of black olives, sliced
  • 14.5 oz can plain tomato sauce
  • small (6 oz?) can tomato paste
  • a splash of red wine
  • a glug of olive oil
  • dried oregano & basil
  • salt & pepper
  • dried pasta of your choice

Choose a skillet with a lid. Heat to medium-high. Brown beef, breaking into very small chunks. Reduce heat to medium. Check if there’s enough fat left to saute veggies — if too much, drain excess; if too little, add oil. Add onions, mushrooms, and garlic and saute until onions are translucent. Stir in tomato sauce and tomato paste. Fill the empty tomato paste can with half wine and half water, and add to sauce. Stir in the sliced olives. Season liberally to taste with oregano, basil, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil and cover loosely (tilt the lid slightly so it prevents splatters, but allows steam to escape so that the sauce thickens). Reduce heat and simmer a half hour or so until thick, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, boil water and cook the pasta according to the box.

Recipe notes:

  • I prefer 85% lean ground beef because it seems to have the perfect amount of fat left over for cooking the vegetables. Also makes the best hamburgers, IMHO.
  • I don’t use cheap cooking wine; I just use whatever I’m drinking with dinner. But if you don’t drink much wine, a great option is the tiny bottles sold in 4-packs for picnics. That way you don’t have leftovers to waste.
  • The box will say 2 oz of pasta is one serving, and many popular recipes suggest 4 oz per person (yikes!), but I like to make 1.5 oz per person — so 6 oz for this whole recipe. For me, the sauce is way more important than boring old noodles.
  • Top with grated parmesan or fresh herbs if you want to get fancy.

Stovetop barbecued chicken

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This easy one-skillet pantry meal takes an hour start to finish, but most of that is hands-off. It was one of my all-time favorite meals growing up and now is one of Dan’s top favorites too. A total crowd pleaser with a wonderfully high ratio of effort to reward. Delicious with boiled new potatoes and green beans, both coated in butter, salt, and pepper.

Stovetop BBQ Chicken Recipe

  • 1 tsp oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped (1/2 cup)
  • 1/2 cup ketchup
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 Tbsp white vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/2 tsp chili powder
  • 1/4 tsp crushed celery seeds
  • 1 to 1.5 lbs chicken breasts or tenders

Heat oil on medium in a large skillet (choose one with a lid). Add onion and cook, stirring, until softened. Meanwhile stir together all sauce ingredients (I do it all in a 2-cup measuring cup for simplicity). When onion is soft, add sauce to skillet and bring to a boil. Add the chicken, placing the (former) skin side down, and spoon sauce over the pieces. Cover and simmer 30 minutes. Uncover skillet, turn chicken pieces over, and cook another 15 minutes or until tender.

I often increase the amount of sauce, especially if we’re serving the chicken with potatoes or rice. If you have a lot of sauce you might want to remove the chicken to a warm plate and boil the sauce until it reduces a bit. Otherwise it’s quite thin. This dish freezes well and makes great leftovers.

Cinnamon Bundt Coffee Cake

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When company was coming, my mom often baked this coffee cake. And now I do too. In all my life, I swear I’ve never met anyone who could stop at one piece! We’re hosting two friends this weekend and I wanted to make sure they were well fed.

This cake has quite a reputation — Dan got excited the moment he saw the ingredients sitting on the counter. My cake carrier was one of the things that broke in our move (the movers were so bad they even broke plastic), and it was the first thing Dan replaced without even asking. Neither of us could face the idea of a future without bundt cake!

Dense and soft and swirled with rich cinnamon, this coffee cake’s browned crust is brushed with an irresistible glaze. Pudding in the batter is the secret to the moistness and texture. Bake it in a fluted bundt pan for a lovely presentation. It’s based on a cake mix so you can have it in the oven quickly and done in just over an hour.

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Cinnamon Bundt Coffee Cake Recipe (should serve 16, but usually serves 8)

Cake:

  • 1 yellow cake mix
  • 1 instant vanilla pudding mix (the smaller box — 3.4 oz I think)
  • 4 eggs
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 3/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp butter extract (don’t ask, just do it… sold near the vanilla)
  • 3 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 cup sugar

Glaze:

  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 3 Tbsp milk
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp butter extract

Preheat oven to 350F. Beat cake mix, pudding mix, eggs, milk, and oil 5-8 minutes with an electric mixer. Mix in vanilla and butter extracts. Remove 1/3 of the batter to a small bowl. To it, add cinnamon and sugar. In a well-greased bundt or angel pan, alternate regular and cinnamon batter in layers. Bake 40-45 minutes, until toothpick comes out clean. Cool in pan on rack for 15 minutes, then turn out onto a plate or cake holder. While warm, poke holes all over with a toothpick or fork. Whisk together the glaze ingredients in a bowl. Brush the glaze all over the cake (it’ll take several layers to use it all up). Keeps fresh for several days on the counter in an airtight container.

Raisin bran buttermilk muffins

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If you ever enjoyed raisin bran cereal for breakfast (and even if you didn’t!) you’ll love these muffins. As a kid I loved them so much that my mom regularly threatened I was going to turn into one. She must have been equally horrified and amused to watch her otherwise healthy 10-year-old taking down six of these at a time. Now I only eat three or so at a time, so that’s okay, right?

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Raisin Bran Muffin Recipe (makes 5-6 dozen [yeah that’s a lot])

  • 15 oz raisin bran cereal
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 5 cups flour
  • 5 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 4 eggs, beaten
  • 1 cup veg/canola oil
  • 1 quart buttermilk

In your largest bowl, stir together all dry ingredients. Stir in all wet ingredients until mixed well. Batter will be relatively runny. You can bake the muffins right away, or keep the batter in the fridge for a while. They’ll be puffier and taller if you’ve waited a few days.

To make ahead: Store in covered container and use as desired throughout the week, keeping refrigerated. Dough swells, so use a larger container than you’d think.

When ready to bake: Preheat oven to 400F. Line muffin tins with baking cups or use baking spray. Fill each cup about 2/3rds full. Make sure there are raisins in each muffin! Bake 15-20 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Jo’s Brownies

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Can you believe there aren’t any sweet recipes on this blog yet? Any of my friends can tell you that I have a huge sweet tooth — my strategy to achieve a balanced and happy life is to eat tons of veggies and also tons of sweets. Today I’m bringing brownies to a Superbowl party, so it’s a good time to share my very favorite recipe.

When it comes to brownies, I vote for fudgy all the way. As I’ve heard others say, if I wanted cake I’d bake cake, but brownies are meant to be dense and dark and rich! And that’s exactly how these are. I don’t know who Jo was, but my grandma always used her recipe to make these dark, fudgy, frosted brownies. Other recipes may be delicious too, but this one will always remain my favorite.

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Jo’s Brownie Recipe

Brownies:

  • 2 1-oz squares unsweetened baking chocolate
  • 1 stick (8 Tbsp) butter (I use salted)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • dash of salt
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1 tsp vanilla

Preheat oven to 375F. Grease or spray an 8×8″ baking dish. Melt chocolate and butter in a small skillet. In mixing bowl, combine sugar and chocolate mixture; cream together. Beat in eggs. Stir in salt, flour, and vanilla. Bake for 25 minutes. Ice when cool.

Icing:

  • 1 1-oz square unsweetened baking chocolate
  • 2 Tbsp butter
  • 2 Tbsp milk
  • 3/4 cup powdered sugar

Melt chocolate and butter in the same small skillet as before. Remove from heat. Alternately stir in powdered sugar and milk bit by bit, making sure to squish any clumps for a smooth and glossy result. Pour over top of cooled brownies and spread smooth. The icing needs to set a few hours before cutting and serving so that it’s solid instead of gloppy. Sometimes I put the whole pan in the fridge to make it set faster.

Note: Make 1.5 recipes to fill a 7×11″ pan, or double recipe for a 9×13″ pan. Honestly, I almost always double this recipe. Yum!

One-skillet pork chops with sauteed apples and onions

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I’ve finally found my go-to recipe for the classic combination of pork and apples. And it’s all done in one pan, which is great for easy cleanup. My version is inspired by these oven pork chops with sauteed apples but I adapted it to omit the oven and add some of my favorite flavors. I love using the fresh thyme that grows year-round in my balcony garden!

One-Skillet Pork Chops with Sauteed Apples and Onions (serves 2)

  • 2 thick boneless pork chops
  • salt and pepper
  • garlic powder
  • dried oregano
  • dried thyme
  • flour
  • butter
  • 1 apple (I like Honeycrisp) cored and sliced into eighths
  • 1/4 large onion, sliced
  • 2 sprigs fresh thyme, chopped (more sprigs for garnish)
  • sherry (or hard cider)

Season chops to taste with salt, pepper, garlic, oregano, and dried thyme, and dust with flour. Melt a little butter in a skillet on medium-high, then add the chops. Pan-fry both sides until browned and cooked through. Remove to a warm plate and tent with foil to rest and keep warm (chops will continue cooking a bit while resting, so don’t overdo it in the pan).

Add more butter to pan if needed. Saute the apples, fresh thyme, and onion until apples are crisp-tender. Add a generous splash of sherry and boil for 1 minute. Serve over the pork chops. Garnish each chop with fresh thyme.

These would be great over wild rice or quinoa, but I usually serve them alongside roasted broccoli with lemon and garlic.