Margarita Cookies

Continuing with the theme of desserts inspired by the flavors of Mexico (begun with Mexican chocolate brownies) - I also wanted to make a cookie that incorporated the lime and tequila flavors of a margarita. I thought about adapting a recipe for lemon bars, but ultimately decided that I wanted something that would pack more easily. And so I hit upon this concoction, which blends a classic sugar cookie with a margarita. These cookies were a huge hit at the office. (Note: There isn't much tequila in them to begin with, and it bakes off anyway.)

Margarita Cookies (~ 3 dozen cookies)
1 c. butter (two sticks)
3/4 c. sugar
zest of 1 lime, 1 lemon, and 1 orange*
1 egg yolk
1 T. tequila
1 tsp. lime juice
1/4 tsp. salt
2 1/4 c. flour

For dusting: 1/4 c. sugar + 1 tsp. salt

1. Cream butter and sugar together. Stir in egg yolk and citrus zests, then tequila, lime juice, and salt.

2. Mix in flour a little at a time until fully incorporated.

3. Cover and refrigerate dough for at least 30 minutes.

4. Preheat oven to 350F.

5. Scoop dough out with cookie scoop or teaspoon, form into balls, and roll in sugar + salt mixture. Place on cookie sheet lined with parchment or silicone and flatten each ball slightly with the tines of a fork.

6. Bake at 350F for 15 minutes. Remove cookies from oven and allow to cool on pan for a couple of minutes, then move to wire rack.

* I only had key limes, so I zested two. Instead of the orange zest, I used 1 tsp. of dried Valencia orange peel.

Mexican Chocolate Brownies

This past Sunday was Cinco de Mayo, which in the US means that we have an excuse to eat a lot of Mexican food and drink margaritas. And since the day after Cinco de Mayo happened to be the monthly celebration of birthdays in my office, I thought that I'd use the holiday as inspiration for a couple of birthday treats. First up - Mexican chocolate brownies.

This is only the second time in my life that I've made brownies from scratch. It definitely won't be the last. Sure, it takes a little longer to melt the chocolate down, but you also get to control for things like chewy vs. cake-y and the level of sweetness, and the balance of flavors. (And if you have a stand mixer, the machine does most of the work anyway!) As written below, these spicy beauties pack three kinds of chocolate (but aren't super sweet), a little bit of heat (but not so much that your co-workers who prefer bland foods will have to miss out on the brownie fun), and are quite moist and chewy.

Mexican Chocolate Brownies (~16-20 brownies, depending on how generously you cut 'em)
1/2 c. butter (two sticks)
2 oz. unsweetened or bittersweet baking chocolate, chopped
2 T. cocoa powder
1 c. sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2/3 c. flour
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/3 tsp. cayenne pepper (or rounded 1/4 tsp.)
1/4 tsp. salt
2/3 c. semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate chips

1. Preheat oven to 350F and grease a square 8 x 8 baking pan.

2. Melt butter and chocolate together in the microwave, stirring frequently (I heated for 30 seconds, stirred, and repeated until ready to go). Stir in cocoa powder and set aside.

3. In large mixing bowl, whisk together sugar, eggs, and vanilla. If using a stand mixer, set to stir and pour in chocolate mixture.

4. Sift in flour, cinnamon, cayenne, and salt; stir until just combined.

5. Fold in chocolate chips and pour batter into prepared pan.

6. Bake at 350F for ~35 minutes, until a knife or toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Craft-y Macaroni and Cheese

I have fond childhood memories of making the mac and cheese that came in the blue box. My parents didn't let me have it particularly often, but Kraft Macaroni and Cheese was perhaps the first meal that I was able to cook on my own (not that it took a lot of skill). It was more of a treat - I remember having friends over for a sleepover during which we made a VERY FANCY version (we cut up hot dogs and mixed them in, along with the milk and butter and powdered cheese).
But a funny thing happened on the way to adulthood - the day-glo orange cheesy noodles aren't quite as good as I remember. Don't get me wrong - I still like an occasional bowl of mac and cheese. But it just doesn't cut it for me anymore as a stand-alone meal. I try to atone for the cheesy goodness by mixing in some sort of vegetable (carrots, spinach, etc.). I stir in pepper or Italian seasoning to liven things up a bit.

Which leads me to...going beyond the box. It doesn't really take that much longer to whip up a homemade batch of mac and cheese, and it is infinitely more customizable (and, perhaps, a tad healthier - although, really, it is never going to be a healthy meal). Making your own mac and cheese means that you can pick the cheese that you like (I used a mix of mild and sharp provolone, fontina, and asiago when I made this the first time - the leftovers from an Italian cheese tray, which I chopped up - although cheddar, colby, mozzarella, pepper jack, or many others will also work). And it turns out that you don't have to have powdered, super-processed cheese food product to achieve the bright orange color found in the blue box - squash puree can give you the same result!

Macaroni and Cheese (8 servings)
1 package (13.25 oz.) whole wheat macaroni (penne, shells, or other shapes will also work)
2 T. butter
2 T. flour
ground black pepper to taste
2 c. skim milk
1 1/2 c. shredded or chopped cheese
1 c. cooked squash puree (half of a square frozen package)
1 c. frozen or 3 c. fresh chopped spinach (or try other vegetables)

1. Cook pasta according to package directions for al dente. Drain and set aside.

2. While pasta is cooking, melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat, then stir in flour and pepper. Stir in milk, cheese, and squash puree. Continue to cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the cheese is melted and the squash puree is fully incorporated.

3. Toss together pasta, cheese sauce, and spinach. Pour into a 13 x 9 baking dish. Bake at 350F for 20-30 minutes, until heated through.