a balanced plate with room for dessert


Lightened-Up Spinach Artichoke Dip

I love chips and dip. Taco dip, guacamole, salsa, French onion, hummus… I’m the weirdo hovering by your dip bowl at the party. Hovering? More like hoovering. I really want to host a chips and dip dinner party. I don’t know if anyone would come, but I could probably eat the entire spread myself. Just sayin’.

Lightened Up Spinach Artichoke Dip |

Spinach artichoke dip is one of my favorites to dip in, but all that cheese – oh goodness. I did my best to lighten it up while still keeping that to-die-for richness. I opt for fresh spinach, but feel free to sub in a package of frozen chopped spinach; just make sure to thaw and drain it before stirring it in.

Lightened Up Spinach Artichoke Dip |

Lightened-Up Spinach Artichoke Dip

8 ounce bag baby spinach, roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 (14-ounce) can artichoke hearts, drained chopped
8 ounce package reduced-fat or fat-free cream cheese
1 cup plain fat free Greek yogurt
2 tablespoon light mayonnaise
8 ounces part-skim mozzarella, shredded
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
tortilla chips

  1. In a medium pot, combine, spinach, garlic and artichoke hearts. Cook over medium heat until spinach is just wilted. Stir in cream cheese, yogurt, mozzarella, Parmesan, and red pepper flakes. Continue to cook, stirring frequently, until cheese is melted and ingredients are blended.
  2. Bake at 350 for 20-25 minutes or until bubbly and golden brown.
  3. Slow cooker instructions: place ingredients into a slow cooker and heat on low for 3-4 hours or high for 2 hours. Stir well before serving.

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Pumpkin Pie Granola

This pumpkin pie granola is a million times better than actual pumpkin pie. It packs all the delicious flavors of pumpkin pie without that baby food texture. Carrie over at Carrie’s Sweet Life hosted this month’s What’s Baking challenge and the theme was pumpkin or squash.

This granola recipe is crazy easy and since the pumpkin craze is in full swing, you probably have all the ingredients you need to make this in your kitchen already. I skipped out on using added fats in this recipe and instead used pumpkin to bind everything together to make a delicious, crunchy, slightly healthier granola.

Pumpkin Pie Granola |


Pumpkin Pie Granola

5 cups old fashioned oats
2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
1 ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon salt
¾ cup brown sugar
¾ cup pumpkin puree
¼ cup maple syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla
⅔ cup pepitas
⅔ cup pecans
⅔ cup dried cranberries

  1. Preheat oven to 325°F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
  2. In a large bowl, mix together oats, pumpkin pie spice, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt. Set aside.
  3. In another large bowl, mix together brown sugar, pumpkin puree, maple syrup, and vanilla until well combined. Pour the wet mixture into the oat mixture and stir until everything is evenly coated. Stir in pepitas and pecans.
  4. Place granola onto prepared baking sheet. Bake in preheated oven for 30 minutes or until golden brown, stirring halfway through. Remove and sprinkle cranberries on top and stir in. Let granola cool complete; it will crisp as it cools.
  5. Store granola in an air-tight container.


Char Siu Bao (Chinese BBQ Pork Buns)

I think making these buns might have been the biggest mistake of my life. They’re just too dang good and I crave them constantly. The first batch quickly dwindled to nothing – I sent a bun or two off to my family and to Mike’s parents and sent a half-dozen off with Mike. I was left staring at four buns. I tried to make them last as long as possible, but I have to be honest… they lasted four days. Maybe less.

Baked Char Siu Bao (Chinese BBQ Pork Buns) |

I think these buns might be the first thing I will ever put on my monthly “must make” list. I rarely make repeat dishes. It takes a good dish to warrant a second visit into my kitchen more than once a year. It takes a stellar dish to make a visit a few times a year. A dish that I want to make every month? Unheard of, until now.

Baked Char Siu Bao (Chinese BBQ Pork Buns) |

I just can’t explain why I loved these buns so much. It’s a combination of the slightly sweet, mostly salty filling surrounded by an impossibly soft, fluffy, yet chewy bun. The texture of the buns is partially due to the tangzhong (roux) made from combining flour with water and milk. The tangzhong  is incorporated into the dough and the endresult is a bun that’s… well, good.

Baked Char Siu Bao (Chinese BBQ Pork Buns) |

I made this dish for this month’s What’s Baking. The host for August is Ali from Sparks from the Kitchen. She challenged us to bake up something to represent our heritage.  I waffled between making dan ta, an egg custard tart, and feng li su, little flaky cakes encasing a pineapple filling. I don’t know how I ended up making neither of those and instead making the char siu bao, but I don’t regret my actions one bit. I loved char siu bao growing up, and I love them still. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!

Char Siu Bao (Chinese BBQ Pork Buns)

for the buns:
6 cups bread flour, divided
2/3 cup water
1 1/3 cup milk, divided
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons instant yeast
2 large eggs
4 tablespoons butter, melted

for the filling:
1 tablespoon canola oil
1/2 cup finely chopped shallots
2 tablespoons honey
1 1/2 tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 1/2 tablespoons sesame oil
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
1/4 cup low-sodium chicken stock
3 tablespoons flour
2 cups diced char siu (Chinese BBQ roast pork)

for garnishing:
1 egg beat with 1 teaspoon water (egg wash)
1 tablespoon sesame seeds

  1. To make the tangzhong (roux/flour paste), mix together 1/3 cup flour, 2/3 cup water, and 1/3 cup milk in a small saucepan until well combined. Place the pan over medium heat and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens up and has the consistency of a thick yogurt. The temperature of the roux should not exceed 150°F. Remove the mixture from heat and set aside to cool.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, combine 5 cups flour, sugar, salt, and yeast and mix with a wooden spoon to combine. Add the tangzhong/flour paste, 1 cup milk, 2 eggs, and melted butter. Stir together to form a soft dough. Knead by hand for 15 – 20 minutes. If your dough is sticky and not coming together, add the remaining 2/3 cup flour a little at a time until your dough is smooth and elastic.
  3. Lightly grease a large bowl. Place dough inside and turn to coat. Cover the bowl lightly with plastic wrap. Place the bowl in a warm, draft-free place and let rise for 60 minutes or until it has doubled in size.
  4. Meanwhile, get started on the filling. Heat the oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Add the shallots and cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Stir in the honey, soy sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil, and dark soy sauce. Cook until mixture starts to bubble, stirring frequently. Stir in the chicken stock and flour until well combined. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook for 2 – 3 minutes, or until thickened. Remove from heat and stir in the diced roast pork. Set aside to cool.
  5. Separate the risen dough into 16 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a 4-inch circle, leaving the center slightly thicker than the edges. Place a heaping tablespoon of filling into the middle of each circle. Crimp them closed, making sure they are tightly sealed. Don’t fret if they’re a little ugly – the crimped side ends up on the bottom, hidden from judging eyes 😉
  6. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Lay the buns seam-side down on the prepared baking sheets and let rise for another hour.
  7. Preheat oven to 350°F. Brush the tops of the buns with the egg wash. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and bake in the preheated oven for 25 minutes, or until buns are golden brown. Let cool slightly before eating.


yields 16 buns. recipe slightly adapted from The Woks of Life

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Recipe Remake: Crunchy Caramel Corn


Crunchy Caramel Corn |

I’ve been making this caramel corn for years now, and it still hasn’t let me down. The results are consistently good and it couldn’t be easier. My step-dad loves this popcorn so much that I started making it for him for Christmas. This past holiday, I stuffed a 3-foot tall stocking full of caramel corn… and included some gift certificates for more batches of it throughout the year. He cashed in one of the gift certificates recently and here are the results. It was so irresistible that I ended up making two batches – one for him, and one for Mike and me. We may or may not have eaten the entire batch in just a few short days.

Crunchy Caramel Corn |

Feel free to use more or less popcorn. I’ve started to use closer to 8 quarts of popcorn so that the caramel is a bit lighter and you get the occasional piece that isn’t 100% coated in caramel. Use just 6 quarts for a very in-your-face sweet, sweet caramel corn.

Crunchy Caramel Corn |

Crunchy Caramel Popcorn
makes 6 – 8 quarts

3/4 cup butter
2 cups brown sugar
1/2 cup corn syrup
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 – 8 quarts air-popped popcorn

  1. Preheat oven to 250°F. Line three baking pans with foil or spray with cooking spray.
  2. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt butter. Stir in brown sugar, corn syrup and salt. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Allow to boil, unstirred, for 4 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in soda and vanilla.
  3. Pour popcorn onto baking pans, dividing evenly between three pans.
  4. Pour caramel in a thin stream over popcorn, stirring to coat.
  5. Bake in preheated oven for one hour, stirring every 15 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool completely. Stir gently, breaking up large pieces. Serve immediately or store in air-tight container.


Tips for clean up – soak the pot and utensils in hot water. The sticky caramel will melt right off and there will be minimal scrubbing required. The foil in the pans will give you a quick, easy clean up. Just crumple up and toss!



Sweet & Salty Kettle Corn

I love going to the farmer’s market. I’m proud to say that Madison is home to one of the greatest farmer’s markets ever. I’m also proud to say that the Appleton market is also pretty darn spectacular. I try to go to the market every weekend. Since we have a garden full of veggies, I don’t usually end up buying any vegetables. The one thing I make sure I walk away with? Kettle corn.

Yum. There’s something about that sweet and salty combination that just get to me. It’s dangerous. One minute I have a warm, foot-tall bag. The next, it’s empty and my stomach hurts. To make it worse, I am left kettle corn-less for a whole week until I buy another bag on Saturday. Repeat over and over and over.

Well, I finally figured it out. I can make it at home with my Whirley Pop! This is bad news. I made my first batch on Friday night as a movie snack. I inhaled it. Then Saturday night I ate kettle corn for dinner. I’m going to be out of town for work for a couple days, and I’m contemplating cooking up a huge batch of it to bring with me. A suitcase half full of kettle corn… Hmm.

sweet & salty kettle corn |

Sweet & Salty Kettle Corn
make this easy snack in a Whirley Pop* or a large lidded pot

1 tablespoon canola oil
1/2 cup popcorn kernels
1/4 cup sugar

  1. Whirley Pop directions: Heat canola oil in a Whirley Pop over medium-high heat. Place  a few popcorn kernels in the popper. When the kernels pop, it means the oil is hot enough! Place remaining kernels in and pour in sugar, stirring constantly. Stir popper over heat until popping slows down to 3 – 5 seconds between pops. Remove from heat and continue to turn handle until popping stops.
  2. Large pot directions: Heat canola oil over medium-high heat with a few popcorn kernels. Once these kernels pop, pour in the remaining kernels and sugar and stir quickly with a wooden spoon to coat the kernels. Cover the pot and shake vigorously every 5 – 10 seconds to keep sugar from burning. Continue to shake until popping slowly to 3 – 5 seconds between pops. Remove from heat and continue to shake until popping stops.
  3. Pour popcorn into a large bowl, shaking salt over it as you go.
  4. Popcorn may stick as it cools – simply give it a good shake in the bowl or gently break it up with a wooden spoon.
  5. Serve immediately. Sharing is optional 🙂

*Don’t have a Whirley Pop? Get one. Now. I use mine all the time to make popcorn! I’m pretty sure that there’s no such thing as too many popcorn makers. I also own an air popper and I’ve been known to make microwave popcorn as well once in a while. YOLO.


Dark Chocolate Cherry Almond Bar

I finally grew up. I inherited a DSLR from my generous sister, Becca, who has moved onto bigger & better cameras. I started using it just a couple of weeks ago. The trouble is, I don’t know how to use it. Pfft, technology. I’m clunking my way through photos. Each time I make a dish it goes something like this.

Plate food
Poke at it with my fingers to make it look “better”.
Give up because I’m not expert at food plating and presentation.
Set it down and take some pictures.
Too dark.
Mash some buttons on the camera.
Too light.
Mash more buttons.
Too blurry.
Setup a makeshift tripod with my rolled up yoga mat (shut up, it’s all I have).
Still blurry (not surprising).
Prop camera on cake stand.
Snap a few more photos.
Still not great.
Give up and tell myself I’ll fix it in Picasa.
Get to Picasa and can’t figure it out.
Post the picture any way.

Some day I will learn how to use this thing… and how to edit the photo I take. Until then, you’ll have to bear with the cake-stand-as-makeshift-tripod unedited photos.

I’ll make up for subpar photos with stellar recipes, though! I give to you today a fruit & nut bar that will rock your world. It’s inspired by the Cranberry Almond KIND bars, but at a fraction of the cost. It’s filled with amazing goodies – almonds, cashews, dates, cranberries, and cherries.

I was a bit skeptical at first, because the fruit base is a bit unsightly after you blend it all together–
fruit & nut bar paste
But the end result? So good.  Not overly sweet with a bit of tang from the cranberries and just the right amount of saltiness from the nuts.
Dark Chocolate Fruit & Nut Bar
makes 16 bars
Olive oil spray
1/2 cup cashews
1 1/2 cup pitted dates
1 cup dried cherries
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1 cup roasted almonds, divided
1/2 cup puffed rice cereal
1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
  1. Place cashews in food processor and pulse a few times or until cashews are very roughly chopped. Place into a large, bowl lightly sprayed with olive oil.
  2. Generously spray food processor bowl and blade with olive oil. Place dates, cherries, and cranberries into food processor and blend until a paste forms.
  3. Place fruit paste, 1/2 cup of almonds, and puffed rice into bowl with cashews. Lightly spray hands with olive oil, and hand-mix until all ingredients are well combined. I find it easiest to knead it like I would with bread dough.
  4. Line an 8×8 pan with aluminum foil, leaving an overhang. Press fruit and nut mixture evenly in pan. Sprinkle remaining 1/2 cup of almonds on top and press firmly into fruit and nut mixture. Place in freezer for 15 minutes.
  5. Lift bars out of pan with foil. Gently peel off foil. Spray a large knife with olive oil and cut bars into 16 bars, approximately 1×4″.
  6. Melt chocolate chips in a small bowl in microwave in 20 second intervals until fully melted.
  7. Drizzle chocolate with a fork over bars. Let chocolate cool and harden before enjoying.

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Treats: Part Two! Peanut Butter Banana Dog Treats

TGIF! Unfortunately, it’s not really the start of the weekend for me. I’m probably sitting in an RD Prep Class as you’re reading this, bored out of my mind. Bad news is Friday is the first day of the class and I’ll be stuck inside from 8 – 5 Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Exciting weekend, huh?!
As promised, I have the dog treat recipe for today! I decided to make this when I had overripe bananas begging to be used up and I was sick of making banana muffins and banana bread. I’ll definitely be making these again soon; I have 5 more bananas getting riper and riper sitting in the kitchen.
Peanut Butter Banana Dog Treats
2 eggs
2/3 cup natural creamy peanut butter
3 medium bananas, mashed
2 tablespoons honey
2 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup wheat bran
1 egg white, lightly beaten, for brushing
  1. Preheat oven to 300°F. Lightly grease a baking sheet.
  2. Stir together the egg, peanut butter, banana, and honey in a medium bowl; blend thoroughly. Stir in the flour and wheat bran; mix well. Turn dough out onto a floured board and roll to 1/4 inch thick. Cut into desired shapes with a cookie cutter, place on prepared baking sheet, and brush tops with egg white.
  3. Bake biscuits in preheated oven until dried and golden brown, about 40 minutes, depending on size. Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack.

Recipe slightly adapted from

Yup, these treats are definitely puppy approved 🙂