Give Your Oven a Holiday Tune-Up

The last thing you need during the holidays is an oven failure, so we’re getting you ready for holiday kitchen overdrive with a simple oven tune-up to keep you running smoothly from Thanksgiving appetizers to New Years desserts.

1. Clean the oven. No need to dread this task. Most modern ovens have a self-cleaning function, but if not, there is no need to buy dangerous chemical cleansers. A spray bottle of water and a box of baking soda will do wonders.

2. Check the thermostat. The thermostat is the mechanism that helps measure and regulate the temperature in the oven. They can go bad or become unreliable, but are replaced easily. The most common indicator of a bad thermostat is an oven that overheats. You should be able to identify the thermostat in your oven by looking inside for a long tube near one of the side walls. To replace it, be sure to disconnect the electricity to the oven before starting and consult the owner’s manual for any specific instructions. It is most often a process of disconnecting the wires on the old thermostat, removing it, and installing the new one in the reverse order.

3. Check the heating elements. If you’ve noticed things baking unevenly in the oven, or taking much longer to cook, the heating element could be going bad. Replacement is quite simple. Be sure to disconnect electricity before beginning, then follow the instructions in this simple video.

4. Inspect the flames. For gas ovens, ports for the flames can easily be blocked by debris. Turn the oven on and check to see if flame levels are even in both size and disbursement. Clean away any debris or blockage. If the flame seems too low, consult your owner’s manual to find where adjustments can be made. The manual should also indicate the recommended size of the flame for your particular unit.

5. Clean or replace the bulb. The oven light is one of the most underutilized tools, since it allows you to check on foods without opening the door and letting hot air escape. If the bulb is dirty or failing, replace it before the busy season.

Simple as that, your oven is ready for whatever your holiday schedule brings!

{Image source.}

Recipe: Easy Chocolate Fudge

Mrs. Fields Secrets Holiday Fudge
What are the holidays without fudge? Not complete, that’s what I say. Today, I’m sharing a chocolate fudge recipe that couldn’t be easier. In fact, you can even make it in your microwave. It’s practically foolproof, and the best part of it is that you can use it as a base recipe to create your own favorite fudge concoctions. (See ideas below the recipe.) I love to box it up in decorated takeout boxes and give it as gifts. Try it for yourself and make your holiday complete.

 Easy Chocolate Fudge

2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cup milk chocolate chips
1 can sweetened condensed milk
1/4 cup butter, sliced into pats
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt

Directions
Line an 8×8 pan with tin foil, then spray it with non-stick cooking spray. In a double boiler over medium heat, melt the chocolate chips, sweetened condensed milk and butter together, stirring frequently until mixture is creamy and smooth. (Microwave option: Heat the same ingredients in a microwave safe bowl on high heat, stirring after every 30 seconds until mixture is creamy and smooth.) Stir in vanilla and salt until completely combined. Transfer mixture to the lined pan and spread it evenly in the pan. Add optional toppings then refrigerate for at least two hours before cutting and serving.

OPTIONAL TOPPINGS
Crushed Candy Canes
Crushed Candy Bars
Crushed Cookies
Crushed Pretzels
Glazed Nuts
Crushed Toffee

How to Beat Butter Stains and Other Cooking Splats

You name it, I’ve had it spilled or splattered on me in the kitchen. I guess that makes me an expert on stain removal. Next time you think that your favorite shirt is ruined, try these stain-busting tips:

Butter Stains: Turn clothing inside out and dot the stain with a degreasing dishwashing soap.  Next, take a soft, wet toothbrush and gently scrub the stain. (I keep a toothbrush under the kitchen sink for just such a purpose.) Turn the clothing right side out, add another bit of dishwashing liquid and scrub again. Rinse thoroughly with warm water and allow to air dry.

Shortening/Grease Splatters: Dot the stains with degreasing dishwashing soap and scrub with a soft, wet toothbrush. Next, fill a sink with warm water and more dishwashing liquid. Allow the clothing to soak in the water for 15-30 minutes. Rinse thoroughly with water and allow to air dry. If any stains remain, repeat.

Vanilla Stains: Treat a vanilla stain sooner rather than later! My favorite treatment for vanilla stains is an OxiClean solution. Wet the stain thoroughly with the solution and allow it to sit for about one minute before blotting the stain with a clean towel. Then, launder the clothing as usual.

Chocolate Stains: Rinse the stain with hot water first, then dab on dishwashing soap and scrub gently with a soft toothbrush in a motion that sweeps the stain up and out instead of grinding it in. Rinse with hot water and repeat if necessary.

Berry Stains: Place a clean white towel beneath the stain, then treat the area thoroughly with an OxiClean solution. Allow it to sit for one minute, then blot the stain with another clean towel. Repeat, if necessary, then launder the clothing as usual.

Tomato Stains: These are some of the toughest stains, so treat them sooner rather than later. Start by soaking the area with an OxiClean solution, allow it to sit for one minute, then blot it with a clean white towel. If stain persists, boil some water in a tea kettle. Stretch the clothing over a colander and secure it with a rubber band, trying to have the stained area in the middle. Once the water is boiling, pour it from about three feet above directly onto the stain. The force of the gravity is key, it helps to knock the stain out of the fibers!

HINT: Once stains go through a cycle in the dryer, they are usually set permanently. Try to hand-treat your stains before putting them through the wash.

{Image via diylife}

Menu Planning Tips

1 menu 1

Image via shutterstock

I’ve got spring cleaning fever (in hopes of summoning spring to get here already). I’ve found a key way to keeping my fridge and pantry clean and organized is to use menu planning. It helps me keep track of and use what I’ve got. It saves me money, time, space, and hassle. If you haven’t used menu planning before, I’ve got some tips and resources to get you started.

TIP #1: Create a menu plan that fits into your life. Some people like to grocery shop once a week, others bi-weekly or even monthly. Pick a plan that fits your schedule and preferences.

TIP#2: Be realistic about how often you eat out and take that into account. If you eat out twice a week, be sure to adjust your menu plan to reflect it. Otherwise, you’ll end up with wasted food and money.

TIP #3: Rotate your family’s favorite recipes, while incorporating some new ones. This is the key to keeping up on a menu plan for me. It keeps things both fresh and familiar.

TIP#4: Pick your preferred technology. If you’re tied to your smartphone, use an app to help you plan. If you’re chained to your laptop, use a web-based system.

Here are some tried-and-true apps and websites to help you out. Find the one that suits you best.

Apps

ZipList
Supercook
Dinner Spinner

Websites

Saving Dinner
Food on the Table
eMeals
Relish

Do you have a favorite menu-planning app or site? Share your favorites in the comments section!

Baking Tip: Flour Power

Mrs. Fields Secrets | Flour Power
Let’s talk flour today. It’s a pantry staple that you pull out to make everything from cookies to gravy, but there are some simple things you can do to make it perform for you consistently, like measuring it correctly and using the right variety for your recipe. For example, have you ever made the same cookie recipe twice and had it turn out completely different? One time the cookies are light and fluffy and another time they are dense and flat? This is a common problem with a simple remedy.

Here’s how to properly measure flour:

1. Stir flour with a knife or measuring cup before extracting what you need. A few quick turns will loosen the flour.

2. Instead of digging into your flour with a measuring cup, ladel flour into your measuring cup with a spoon to fill it. (Again, this adds more air and keeps you from compacting the flour with the force of your scoop.)

3. Overfill the measuring cup, then level it off.

You’ll find that this small tip will give you much more consistency with your food, especially in baking. For even more precise results, use a food scale to measure your flour. One cup of flour should weigh about 4.25 ounces. (If you have a food scale, try this experiment: scoop out a cup of flour and compare its weight to a properly measured cup. The scooped cup can weigh up to an entire ounce more!)

Now let’s talk about the different types of flour and how they are best used:

All-Purpose Flour – Made from a blend of hard and soft wheat, this flour is your pantry staple. There are two varieties, bleached and unbleached. Bleached is best for cookies, pie crusts, pancakes,  and muffins. Unbleached is best for breads and pastries. If a recipe doesn’t specify a type of flour, this is your best bet.

Bread Flour – This flour is higher in gluten because it is made from a hard, high-protein wheat. Obviously it is great for breads, but it also adds an extra chewiness to cookies, so I often use it in mine.

Cake Flour – Soft, fine, and high in starch, cake flour is best for recipes with a high sugar content. It can hold its rise better and won’t collapse. It’s not necessary for cake and muffin recipes, but you might experiment with it to notice the difference.

Buckwheat Flour – This gluten-free flour is a great substitute for those with special diets. It has a slightly nutty flavor and is high in nutrients.

Self-Rising Flour – This flour has salt and baking powder already mixed in and works wonderfully for biscuits, cobblers, and quick breads, but is not good for yeast breads.

Pastry Flour – This flour is somewhere between a cake flour and an all-purpose flour. It works best for pie crusts, cookies, brownies, and quick breads, offering a nice, flakey texture.

Do you have any other questions about flour? Let me know!

Recipe: Whipped Cream and Beyond

There is no comparison between real, homemade whipped cream and the stuff that comes in a can or a plastic tub. Follow these simple instructions for perfect whipped cream every time, and check out my suggestions below to take your whipped cream above and beyond. You’ll never buy the canned stuff again!

Whipped Cream 1 MF Whipped Cream 2
MF Whipped Cream 3
MF Whipped Cream 4
MF Whipping Cream 5
MF Whipped Cream 6
MF Whipped Cream 7

HINT: Don’t over beat your cream or you’ll end up with a lumpy, buttery mixture. Stop just as soon as stiff peaks begin to form and cream is holding its shape.

WHIPPED CREAM VARIATIONS

PEPPERMINT WHIPPED CREAM: Eliminate sugar and vanilla from recipe above. Break 3 candy canes into a blender or food processor and crush into a fine powder. Whip cream until stiff peaks appear and fold in candy powder gently before serving.

CHOCOLATE WHIPPED CREAM: Add 1 tablespoon cocoa powder to recipe above. Sift powdered sugar and cocoa powder into soft-peaked cream to avoid lumps. Whip until stiff peaks appear.

STRAWBERRY WHIPPED CREAM: Process fresh strawberries with 1 tablespoon sugar in a blender or food processor until thick and liquid-y. Prepare recipe above, then fold in 4 tablespoons of strawberry puree before serving.

VEGAN COCONUT WHIPPED CREAM: Substitute whipping cream with coconut milk as follows: Chill 2 cans of full-fat coconut milk overnight. Without shaking or turning upside down, remove lids and spoon the thick, top layer into a chilled bowl and whip until soft peaks form. Add 2 tablespoons powdered sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla, then beat until stiff peaks form.

Sugar Cookie Decorating Tips

Silky, sweet, buttery perfection—that’s the definition of a perfect sugar cookie. Some people are intimidated by making sugar cookies, but a few of my favorite hints can give you confidence to create your own masterpieces time and again.

Start with the right frosting. For a thick, fluffy frosting, use a buttercream recipe. For piping and flooding on ornate decoration, use a royal icing recipe.

Keep it under wraps. Frosting and icing can harden fast, so keep it covered with a sheet of plastic wrap right on the surface of the icing. Even the little bit of air in an airtight container can still dry out your icing, so keep it covered with plastic wrap until you’re ready to use.

Pile it on. Look at the photo above. The frosting is as thick as the cookie itself, which is why people love our frosted cookies! A thick layer of frosting keeps the frosting and the cookie moist, fresh, and delicious.

Keep a spray bottle handy. The best, easiest way to refresh and thin out frosting is with a spray bottle of water. The spray itself spreads out the water molecules evenly, and the amount in each spritz is a great increment to work with—not too much, not too little.

A little color goes a long way. Remember, you can always add more color, so start slow and mix evenly before adding more. It sounds simple, but it will save you headaches!

Simplify the clean up. I came across this tip for bag filling a long time ago and have been using it faithfully ever since. It’s genius and makes clean up a cinch!

Practice makes perfect. Piping and flooding with royal icing creates beautiful, crisp lines and details. This tutorial is very good to get you started. The more you experiment, the more confidence you’ll gain.

Have fun. Sugar cookies are the ultimate canvas for your creativity, so the sky is the limit with shapes, colors, and decoration. Play around and see what you can dream up!

Tasty Tip: Stretch Your Baking Buck

It’s time for another Tasty Tip video. Today’s tip is a great way to revive one of your pantry staples instead of tossing it out.

Keep up with all our Tasty Tips and other videos by subscribing to our YouTube channel. And if you have a great tip of your own that you’d like to see featured, share it in the comments section or email me at mrsfields@mrsfields.com. You might see it on a Tasty Tips video someday!

Tips for Chocolate Dipping

With February comes thoughts of chocolate, chocolate, chocolate. Take one look around and you’ll see that chocolate means love and love means chocolate. One of my favorite things to do is experiment with dipping my favorite foods in chocolate to create new combinations of chocolate-y bliss. It’s easier than you think and oh so fun. All you need is a simple recipe for chocolate dipping and a few helpful tips.

Chocolate Dipped Anything

12 ounces of chocolate chips (milk, semi-sweet, or dark, depending on your preference)
3 tablespoons heavy cream

Directions
Fill a small saucepan halfway full of water and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Place a medium-sized glass bowl on top with the chocolate chips and cream inside. Stir frequently, scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl, until chocolate is completely melted and smooth in appearance. Remove from heat and dip your favorite foods (washed and thoroughly dried) into it. Place dipped foods on a sheet of parchment paper to cool and dry completely before serving.

TIP: Choose a high-quality chocolate chip for best results. The chocolate is the star of this show, so it’s worth a little splurge to take it over the top.

TIP: When dipping fresh fruits, pat them down with paper towels to make sure they are thoroughly dry. Moisture will keep the chocolate from sticking, and will also change the texture of the chocolate.

TIP: Allow excess chocolate to drip off before placing on the parchment paper. Too much chocolate will result in a strangely shaped pool of chocolate at the base.

TIP: Add extra wow factor by drizzling melted white chocolate (use 4 ounces of white chocolate chips and 1 tablespoon of cream) over your completely cooled chocolate dipped items.

My list of favorite foods to dip in chocolate grows longer by the year. Here’s where it stands today:

  • Strawberries
  • Raspberries
  • Thick, kettle-style potato chips
  • Clementine wedges
  • Cheesecake bites
  • Pretzels
  • Cinnamon bears
  • Pineapple wedges
  • Oreos
  • Raisins
  • Craisins
  • Brownies
  • Marshmallows
  • Soft caramels
  • Frozen key lime pie
  • Chocolate chip cookies

TIP: If you don’t have time or interest in dipping your own treats in chocolate, I’ve got you covered. My chocolate enrobed cookies are incredible. You, your valentine, and everybody on Planet Earth will go ga-ga for them.

Sweet & Chic Box

Sweet & Chic Box

12 Days of Christmas Cookies

MF 12 Days of Christmas Cookies
It’s the most wonderful time of the year because it seems that everybody is baking! I love spending extra time in the kitchen during the holidays, baking up a variety of my favorite cookies—some old favorites and some new discoveries. I also love swapping recipes with friends, or tasting something wonderful and trying to crack the recipe myself. I thought it would be fun to share some of my favorite holiday cookies with you today, giving you 12 days of delicious cookie recipes to make and bake with your family, including one new recipe. Enjoy! (Now go preheat the oven already!)

1. Candy Cane Crunch Cookies
2. Mint Chocolate Meltaways
3. Molasses Spice Cookies
4. Chocolate Marshmallow Clouds
5. Black & White Cookies
6. Iced Egg Nog Cookies
7. Homemade Sandwich Cookies
8. Everything Cookies
9. Lacy Oatmeal Cookies
10. Brownie Pillow Cookies
11. Iced Orange Cookies
12. Chocolate Mint Cookies (recipe below)

Chocolate Mint Cookies

1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup Devil’s Food cake mix
1 cup butter
1 ounce semi-sweet baker’s chocolate
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 tablespoons half-and-half
2 1/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 package mint chocolate chips

Directions
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Melt butter and baker’s chocolate in a saucepan over low heat, stirring frequently. Whisk eggs, vanilla, and half-and-half together and set aside. In a mixing bowl, combine brown sugar and cake mix. Stir in melted butter and chocolate and allow to mix thoroughly, at least 60 seconds. Pour in egg mixture and combine well. Add flour mixture and stir until batter is light and fluffy. Stir in mint chocolate chips and allow dough to sit at least 20 minutes before scooping 1/4 cups of dough (six to each cookie sheet) onto a prepared cookie sheet. Bake for 8-10 minutes, careful not to overcook.

HINT: You’ll notice the inclusion of cake mix in the recipe. I’ve discovered that I like to use that as a secret ingredient, especially in chocolate cookies, to create a fluffier, cakey chocolate cookie. I keep a bag of cake mix in my pantry just for cookies!

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