Friday, February 20, 2015

Lemon-Cranberry Ricotta Mini Muffins

Sorry guys, but I have lots of Ricotta cheese leftover from the hearty Vegetable Lasagna I made the other week, as well as the spicy, flavorful Stuffed Shells dish I made over the weekend. We don't waste ingredients in our house, so I had to find another recipe to use the Ricotta in. I love me some Italian comfort food, so this is happy news for me!! But I did run out of pasta sauce, so I decided my leftover Ricotta had to go into something other than a cheesy, baked noodle dish. I searched and found a recipe for Tuscan Lemon Muffins from What makes the muffins "Tuscan" you ask? Good question... I asked the same thing. Well, if you can believe it or not, this recipe uses lemon, Ricotta cheese AND olive oil! Three very Italian flavors in one muffin. Of course I had to try it...

All I have to say about these mini muffins is, wow.... just WOW. I am going to use Ricotta cheese in my baked goods way more often. Using Ricotta cheese makes these muffins SUPER moist and chewy... just the way I like my baked goods!

To mix up the original recipe a bit, I added dried cranberries to the batter for some extra tartness and reduced the amount of sugar. And instead of making regular-sized muffins, I decided to go to mini-muffin route. I like not having to commit to a whole muffin... although these Lemon-Cranberry Ricotta Mini Muffins are so delicious, I end up eating the equivalent (or more) of a regular-size muffin. YUM!

Super moist and chewy, lemony and tart (with a hint of sweetness), and bite-size; this muffin recipe is a keeper! Not to mention, these muffins are great way to use up that leftover Ricotta cheese...

Lemon-Cranberry Ricotta Mini Muffins
based on a recipe from
makes 24 mini muffins

1 3/4 cups ounces all-purpose flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup part-skim ricotta cheese
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 tablespoon grated lemon rind
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 large egg, lightly beaten
2/3 cup dried cranberries
Cooking spray
1-2 tablespoons sugar (for topping)

1. Preheat oven to 375°F.

2. Lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine flour and next 3 ingredients (through salt); make a well in center. Combine ricotta and next 5 ingredients (through egg). Add ricotta mixture to flour mixture, stirring just until moist. Fold in dried cranberries.

3. Spray a 24-cup mini muffin tin with cooking spray. Divide batter among muffin cups. Sprinkle 1-2 tbsp. sugar over batter. 

4. Bake at 375° for 11-13 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 5 minutes in pan on a wire rack.

These mini muffins are so good, I ate about 4 right out of the oven!! I stored the muffins in an airtight container in the fridge, but found they were much better at room temperature (probably due to the amount of olive oil in them).

YUMMMMMMMMM! I love this Lemon-Cranberry Ricotta Mini Muffins recipe I created. Bite-size and portable, they make a great grab-and-go breakfast or snack! They might be small in size, but these muffins are BIG in lemony, tart flavor.

Go here for another version of this recipe that uses yogurt and applesauce (instead of ricotta and olive oil). My recipe for Lemon Cranberry Yogurt Mini-Muffins is similar in flavor and texture, but lower in calories and fat.



Monday, February 16, 2015

Stuffed Shells with Sausage, Mushrooms and Spinach

Leftover ricotta cheese means MORE ITALIAN FOOD..... Yes! Last weekend I made a very tasty Vegetable Lasagna which left me with some leftover ricotta cheese, pasta sauce and fresh thyme. We don't waste ingredients in our house, so this weekend I decided to make another Italian favorite, Stuffed Shells. This is a traditional pasta dish where a cheesy mixture is literally 'stuffed' into jumbo shell-shaped pasta then baked in the oven until the filling is bubbly and warm. The shell filling can be anything from just cheese to a cheese, vegetable, and meat combination. I used to find a recipe, then (of course) I changed a bunch of the ingredients and directions to make it my very own stuffed shell creation.

I have become a big fan of 'hot' Italian sausage recently... my boyfriend makes a crazy-delicious creamy, spicy and super indulgent pasta dish with it. I really do need to try to create a lighter version of the recipe he uses and share it sometime. Anyway, I wanted to create that same flavor profile so I used hot sausage for the filling of my stuffed shells. If you don't like spicy foods... you can just use regular Italian sausage in this recipe too.

These Stuffed Shells with Sausage, Mushrooms, and Spinach turned out pretty gosh-darn AMAZING! The spiciness of the hot sausage really cuts through the creaminess of the cheeses in this dish; it's exactly the flavor I wanted to create. The mushrooms and spinach add an earthiness and heartiness to the filling, plus they add a nice serving of veggies! Cheesy, meaty, spicy and flavorful.... this is great one-dish, Italian comfort food.

I thought a 9x13 pan full of these delicious stuffed shells would last for dinner all week... yeah, right! This dish is so good we kept going back for more, we ate about half the pan last night!

Stuffed Shells with Sausage, Mushrooms and Spinach
based on a recipe from
9x13 inch pan, 4-6 servings

1 box (12 oz.) jumbo pasta shells
1 pound (16 oz.) ground hot Italian pork sausage
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme, finely chopped
1 (10oz) bag baby spinach
8 oz. mushrooms, chopped
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 cup part-skim ricotta cheese
1 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese, divided
2/3 cup shredded Parmesan cheese, divided
1 cup tomato pasta sauce
Salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a 9x13 inch glass baking dish with non-stick cooking spray. Spread ½ cup of the tomato pasta sauce evenly on the bottom of the dish.

Boil pasta shells according to the package directions. Once cooked, drain and add to a large bowl of ice water until ready to be stuffed.

To make the filling, heat a large skillet over medium heat. Once hot, add the hot pork sausage to the pan and use a wooden spoon to break the sausage apart. Cook the sausage until browned. Place the cooked sausage on paper towels (to drain excess fat), reserving some of the sausage grease in the skillet.

Return skillet to burner, then add chopped mushrooms to the reserved sausage grease. Add minced garlic and thyme, and salt and pepper to taste. Sautee over medium heat a few minutes until mushrooms are cooked. Add spinach and crushed red pepper to the mushrooms. Cook about 2 minutes longer, just long enough to wilt the spinach and combine ingredients.

Empty skillet contents onto paper towels to drain excess moisture out of the mushroom-spinach mixture. Let cool for a few minutes, then squeeze paper towels to ensure liquid has been removed.

In a large bowl, place cooked sausage and mushroom-spinach mixture; then add ricotta cheese, 1 cup mozzarella cheese, and 1/3 cup Parmesan cheese. Stir well to combine ingredients; taste for seasoning. Salt and pepper if needed.


Use a spoon to fill each pasta shell. Place stuffed shells in prepared baking dish. Top shells with remaining ½ cup pasta sauce, then sprinkle ½ cup mozzarella cheese and 1/3 cup Parmesan cheese.


Bake uncovered in the oven for 25–30 minutes or until the cheese has melted and the tips of the shells begin to crisp and brown. Remove shells from the oven and serve.

Seriously, Italian food is SO yummy.......

You really can't go wrong with the combination of pasta, sauce, cheese, veggies and meat. This recipe will be a comfort food go-to!


- Janel

Monday, February 9, 2015

Vegetable Lasagna

If you have made lasagna before you know the following to be true.... making lasagna is a lot of work! I love the classic cheesy Italian comfort-food, but I rarely make it due to the amount of time it takes to prepare and cook. Making lasagna is a labor of love!  

For me, Sundays are the perfect day to embark on a time-consuming food-making adventure. Plus, I like to make a big meal on Sunday so I have leftovers to eat for dinner during the busy work week. Me and my microwave have become close friends a few nights a week. Anyway, yesterday I decided to commit to a Vegetable Lasagna project...

I found a recipe in our Cooking Light Magazine for Lasagna with Zucchini. I liked the idea of using zucchini and yellow squash in the dish, but wanted to add more vegetables for a healthier, heartier lasagna. I went through our vegetable bin and pulled out a few veggies I thought would be a great addition to this recipe... mushrooms, carrots, and broccoli. I also decided to add a layer of pasta sauce in the lasagna to add to the flavor; the original recipe didn't call for a sauce. Oh, and I upped the amounts of cheese because... well, cheese is yummy.

Amy was getting a little skeptical of how this Vegetable Lasagna would turn out since I was making so many changes to the original recipe... but I knew it would turn out delicious. With ingredients like cheese, noodles, pasta sauce, and vegetables it would have to be awesome! And that is why I love cooking; you can experiment by completely tweeking a recipe or changing the ingredients and the dish still has the potential to come out tasting delicious! 

Once again, my cooking instincts did not fail me... my Vegetable Lasagna turned out AMAZING! In fact, this might be one of the best dishes I have ever created. It was totally worth the time and effort to make. This lasagna is cheesy, super flavorful, and packed with vegetables. I didn't even miss meat in my lasagna; the combination of noddles, cheese, and veggies is hearty and satisfying! This is a healthier, meatless version of a comfort-food classic... 

Vegetable Lasagna
based on a recipe from
makes a 9x13 pan

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium zucchini, shredded
1 medium yellow squash, shredded
8 oz. mushrooms, chopped
1 cup chopped carrot
1 cup chopped broccoli
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
2 teaspoons garlic, minced
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 1/2 cups fat-free ricotta cheese
8 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese
3/4 cup grated fresh Parmesan cheese 
1 cup pasta sauce
1 package oven-ready (no boil) lasagna noodles
Cooking spray

1. Preheat oven to 375°.

2. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add olive oil to pan; swirl to coat. Add zucchini, squash, mushrooms, carrot, broccoli, thyme, and garlic; sauté 5 minutes. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and crushed red pepper. Remove vegetable mixture from pan, and cool completely. Drain off any excess liquid.

3. Combine remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, 1 cup ricotta, and mozzarella in a food processor. Pulse until smooth. In another small bowl, combine 1/2 cup ricotta mixture and 1/2 cup Parmesan; salt and pepper to taste if necessary.

4. Spread a thin layer of the pasta sauce in the bottom of a 9x13 inch glass baking dish coated with cooking spray. Place a layer of noodles on top of the pasta sauce on the bottom of the dish; trim to fit if needed. Top with half of vegetable mixture, then half of ricotta-mozzarella mixture. Repeat layers (pasta sauce, noodles, vegetable mixture, ricotta-mozzarella), ending with pasta sauce. 

Top with the ricotta-Parmesan mixture. 

Cover dish with foil. Bake lasagna at 375° for 30 minutes; uncover. Bake, uncovered, an additional 15 minutes.

5. Turn broiler to high. Sprinkle lasagna with remaining 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese. Broil 2 minutes or until lightly browned. Let stand for 5 minutes. Cut into slices.


This Vegetable Lasagna is so good, I seriously didn't want to stop eating it! I'm pretty excited for my leftovers this week. 

If you are looking for a healthier or meatless version of lasagna... this is the recipe will not disappoint!


- Janel

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Fluffernutter Cookies

Fluffernutter isn't just another made-up, silly word (that's also totally fun to say)... 

If you have never heard the term 'Fluffernutter' before, it is used to describe something made with the delicious combo of peanut butter and marshmallow. For example, a Fluffernutter sandwich. Yes, this is real thing. An old boss of mine was from Boston, MA and according to her, Fluffernutter sandwiches are popular on the East Coast. Yum? Gross? I still don't know as I have yet to try a Fluffernutter sandwich... something about sticky marshmallow fluff and sticky peanut butter in between two pieces of dry bread seems kinda dangerous. How in the world do people swallow that!? However, the combo of peanut butter and marshmallow in cookie form totally makes sense to me!

I have had a bag of large marshmallows (from my Minion Sugar Cookie project) taking up room in my baking cupboard for awhile now. I thought about making fudge with them, but that just seemed too obvious... and I'm pretty sure I still have fudge laying around from the holidays! The "Fluffernutter"/peanut butter and marshmallow idea came to me and I just ran with it. I already had the peanut butter cookie dough recipe that we use for our Peanut Butter Chocolate Kisses cookies, so all I had to do was add a marshmallow topping. Well a marshmallow topping turned into a marshmallow with chocolate drizzle topping, which then turned into a marshmallow with chocolate and caramel drizzle topping. YUM.

These peanut butter and marshmallow cookies are soft and chewy, sweet and salty, and totally indulgent... you will definitely be a Fluffernutter fan once you try one! Grab a big glass of milk, these are a "stick to your ribs" kind of cookie.

Fluffernutter Cookies
based on a recipe from Cookies by Natalie Hartanov Haughton
adapted from Peanut Butter Chocolate Kisses recipe
makes about 3 dozen cookies

1/2 cup butter, room temperature
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
18 large marshmallows, cut in half
1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips (for drizzle)
1/2 cup caramel baking bits (for drizzle)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a medium bowl, beat together butter, peanut butter, brown sugar, 1/4 cup granulated sugar, egg, vanilla, and salt until light and fluffy. Add flour and baking soda, beating thoroughly until blended.

Roll 1 tablespoons of dough into a ball. Place onto ungreased cookie sheet or silicone baking mat. Bake for exactly 6 minutes. Remove from oven and place marshmallow on top, gently pressing it down into the warm cookie. Place back into the oven for 3 more minutes so the marshmallow can melt and the cookie can finish baking.

Remove cookie sheet from oven and allow to cool for about 5 minutes. As the cookies cool, melt the chocolate chips in the microwave. To do this, place chocolate chips in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave on high in 10-20 second intervals, stirring chocolate after each interval. Once melted, drizzle chocolate over the top of each marshmallow. Place caramel bits in a microwave-safe bowl and repeat same melting process; drizzle over top of cookie as well.

Cookies remain fresh at room temperature for up to 7 days in an airtight container.

Not gonna lie, I ate 5 of these little indulgent pieces of heaven tonight... they are crazy good!

FLUFFERNUTTER, I love you. I'm sold. Well... maybe not sold enough to make a Fluffernutter sandwich, but I'd definitely make these cookies again.


- Janel