I currently live in Charlotte, NC and after spending 7 years as a personal chef and caterer, I am now happy to share my love of cooking with friends and family. My heart is in the kitchen, but my soul is in the stars!

Happy Birthday to......

....pretty much everyone I know!

April is probably my most favorite month....the world seems to take on a fresh, new Springy green look with the flowers and trees in bloom, the weather is still a bit sporadic but the warm days bring people out of hibernation from a long cold winter, and this month is also loaded with birthday celebrations for special people in my life.

On April 11, my office celebrated my boss's birthday and while it would be really unethical and weird to say that he is a special person in my life, he does sign my paycheck so that makes him an honorary special person.

April 13 marks the date that Captain Sturm was born into this world and while he's no longer at the top of my "Special People" list, it would be rude for me not to acknowledge his special day at least nonchalantly.

I have April 21 to thank for bringing the Italian into my life.

April 22 brings about a celebration for my sweet four-legged constant companion Jesse James who loves me unconditionally and forces me to take long walks when I don't really feel like it.

And the most special person of all who celebrates a birthday in April is ME! April 27 marks the day that my mother realized the greatest joy in her life {isn't that right, Mother?} The years may be adding up, but I can honestly say that at this point in time, I feel so unbelievable happy and young at heart - I just remarked to one of my girlfriends the other day that if I were any happier, I'd burst into a million pieces!

How fortunate for me is it that my birthday is the day that the Daring Bakers' April challenge gets posted? I can't help but think that all these lovely cheesecakes were made especially for me on my special day. The April 2009 challenge is hosted by Jenny from Jenny Bakes. She has chosen Abbey's Infamous Cheesecake as the challenge. We were given free reign with this recipe to be as daring and creative as we wanted to be. I wanted to be as creative as my pantry would allow without having to purchase anything other than cream cheese, because it's already somewhat ridiculous that a weekly grocery bill for a single chick hovers around $150 per week. A quick inventory of my shelves showed several boxes of crystallized ginger and a jar of lemon curd. And so a lemon ginger cheesecake was born right here in my kitchen last night.

I was really afraid that the nearly 1 cup of chopped crystallized ginger would be overpowering, but in the end, the flavors melded very well. I used the zest and juice of only 1 lemon and in retrospect could have added a ton more zest and still been happy with the results. I knew the cheesecake would be topped with lemon curd so I erred on the side of caution. I did not use any liqueur because I didn't have anything on hand that complimented my chosen flavors but I was recently intrigued by a ginger flavored vodka that I saw on the shelf in the ABC store this past weekend.

I loved the texture of this cheesecake - so fluffy and creamy. I've had some cheesecakes that tasted like nothing more than eating a brick of cream cheese right out of the foil package. This will definitely be a great basic recipe that I will keep in my files for when creativity in a springform pan strikes me again. There was alot of discussion on the DB forums about how to prevent water from seeping into the layers of foil during the waterbath. I've never solved that mystery myself, so I opted to put the pan of water on the rack below. My cake cracked - which is nothing new for me - but that's what garnish is for, people. No one ever knew that those lemon slices were strategically placed over the San Andreas Cheesecake Fault.

Congratulations on another great Daring Bakers challenge {make sure you head over to Jenny's blog JennyBakes for the awesome recipe that she chose} and happy birthday to you, you, you, and me! I'm so excited to read about all of these fabulous birthday cheesecakes - about as excited as I am about the birthday present that I bought for myself!!!

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It happens every single day.

Unwanted solicitations stuffed into my mail box and newspaper box. I even find them stuck in my front door. Security systems. House painters. Avon products. Lawn care. You name it. Just yesterday I witnessed someone {covertly walking a dog so as not to appear to be soliciting} just ready to stuff yet another enticement destined to be blown about my yard by the wind and when I called out to please not put that in my box, she looked at me like I had some nerve asking her to take her business elsewhere.

As much as I detest unwanted soliciting myself, why do I find myself committing the very same act here today with you, my dear readers? Because POM Wonderful is a fabulous product and I think you should drop everything you're doing right this very minute and run out, buy a bottle, and make yourself some out-of-this-world delicious pomegranate gelato. Or perhaps you'd enjoy a refreshing cocktail. And if neither one of these is enough to tempt your palate, check back in a few days for yet another pomegranate inspired recipe.

I found this recipe on the Epicurious website while trying to find some great uses for my free case of pomegranate juice kindly given to me by the folks at POM Wonderful. Even though pomegranates are fall and winter fruits, the juice makes it easy to be enjoyed year round - perfect for rich and creamy gelato during the warm summer months.

If you see me out canvassing nonchalantly walking my dog in your neighborhood, you're gonna hope and pray that I come to your door and share this delicious treat. In the meantime, check your mailbox because I may have been kind enough to stuff a copy of this recipe in there.

Pomegranate Gelato
Yield: 1 quart

1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/2 cup whole milk
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups bottled pomegranate juice
1/3 cup pomegranate liqueur such as PAMA
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

Special equipment: an ice cream maker

Preparation: Whisk together cream, milk, sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a 2 1/2- to 3-quart heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil over moderate heat, whisking occasionally, then boil, whisking, 2 minutes. Remove from heat and whisk in remaining ingredients.

Transfer to a bowl and chill, uncovered, until cold, at least 1 hour.

Freeze in ice cream maker, then transfer to an airtight container and put in freezer to harden, at least 2 hours.

Soften gelato slightly in refrigerator, about 20 minutes, before serving.

Cook's notes:
•Cream mixture (before churning) can be chilled, covered, up to 1 day ahead.
•Gelato keeps 1 week.

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Dining On A Dime

I realize in these tough economic times people are making an effort to trim expenses in every area possible but it just pains me to see articles and recipes touting the ability to feed your family for just pennies per serving. Don't get me wrong - saving money on food is great and all, but some of the stuff being pushed is just plain garbage! Boxed items laden with sodium, sugar, and enough preservatives to equal nothing short of embalming fluid. Alot of the recipes are cheap inexpensive simply because they are full of carbohydrate fillers like rice and pasta. Again, don't misunderstand me - I am a carb junkie - but I know that moderation is the key and I don't believe in eating something just because it costs mere pennies.

Okay, okay...I'll get off of my soap box now. I guess my main gripe about all of this is, why would you want to fill your own body, the Divine Temple, with cheap garbage? There just has to be a better way to eat more economically and keep it healthy.

The first step toward eating more economically is to watch the weekly grocery sale papers. I've never been one to shop numerous stores each week based on what they have on sale, but that is most certainly an option. Clipping coupons will also save a few cents here and there. Recently, my beloved Harris Teeter had London Broil on sale and I saw that as the perfect opportunity to test my theory, seeing as how it is a relatively inexpensive cut of meat.

The term London Broil actually refers to a method of preparation and not the cut of meat. Most often it is a top round roast or flank steak and characteristics of a London Broil recipe call for marinating the beef, broiling it to medium rare in an oven or grilling on a BBQ grill. Once it's cooked, the meat is sliced thinly, across the grain, at a 45 degree angle. Alot of time London Broil gets passed over because it has a reputation for being a tough piece of meat and people equate this to mean cheap = bad. Not so, just need to start out with an awesome marinade! The one that I use was garnered from a message forum that I frequent but I believe it originated with the pint-sized chef, Sara Moulton.

I marinated the meat overnight and grilled it to medium rare on the BBQ - about 7 minutes on each side - then served it fajita-style with onions and bell peppers that had also marinated in the same stuff and were sauteed on the stove. Add dollop of sour cream, some shredded cheese, salsa and a few tortilla chips and you've got dinner for less than $3 per serving. About as cheap as Taco Bell and OH! soooo much better.....

The Perfect Marinade for Pretty Much Anything

4 large cloves garlic, minced
4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
4 tablespoons lemon juice
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard (or spicy brown)
1-1/2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon of dried each oregano, basil, thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil (make sure you use a decent one as it is the main flavor of this marinade)

Stir all together very well, then place the meat in a zip lock bag and add the marinade*. Squeeze air out and seal and place in bowl (to prevent leaks) and marinate for 12 hours or overnight.

*If you plan to serve this as I did, reserve some of the marinade to marinate the veggies separately.

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Dream On....

If you are a food purist, read no further. I can promise that this post will cause instant blindness, hives, and major traumatic stress syndrome for those who do not believe in the use of prefabricated food ingredients.

I don't want to have to say, "I told you so" {although I'm very good at it!}, so this stands as your final warning....hit the "Back" button NOW! There is no turning back.

Anybody left in the room? Helllloooo? I think I see one or two of you hiding in the dark shadows waaaaay back there...shall we carry on with today's post?

Let me first clarify by saying that I, myself, don't normally use alot of prepackaged ingredients but some days just necessitate being a Sandra Lee wannabe because that pesky thing called life gets in the way or in today's instance, it's just a really good recipe that happens to contain items from a box. My second clarification is that, as written, this recipe contained even more prefab items than what is shown in my revision below so you can thank me for trying to un-prefab it.

You already know how sentimental I am about orange dreamsicles and so by default this is one of my favorite cakes.

I was first introduced to this lovely cake 8 monumental years ago when I turned the big 3-0. The company that I was working for at the time temporarily positioned me back in my hometown for a few weeks to work on a special project and one of my co-workers was kind enough to present me with this cake, unknowing that it would bring back a flood of childhood memories. I never forgot that cake and even 8 years later I still treasure hunt the grocery stores for the sometimes elusive Duncan Hines Orange Supreme cake mix that it calls for. There never seems to be a shortage of the other Supreme mixes so hopefully your favorite grocery hangout carries this one as well. The recipe as written called for adding water to the mix but I decided to kick up the orange flavor a notch by adding orange juice.

But let's be honest here folks....this cake tastes like it's made from a box. I'm not trying to pass this off as being one of those where your friends are never gonna suspect that you cheated {as if the neon orange color wouldn't give it away} because it is what it is. But the icing....well, now that's a different story! It brings back the image of me carefully selecting my orange dreamsicle from the frozen cooler of Wilson's Convenience Store on those hot school day afternoons.

Substituting fresh whipped cream in place of the original Cool Whip gives the icing a richer flavor and less of a fake taste. And don't be afraid to pile it totally makes the cake!

Prefab ain't so bad, people.

* Exported from MasterCook *

Dreamsicle Cake

Recipe By :
Serving Size : 0 Preparation Time :0:00
Categories : Cakes/Icings

Amount Measure Ingredient -- Preparation Method
-------- ------------ --------------------------------
1 box Duncan Hines Orange Supreme Cake Mix
1 1/4 cups orange juice
1/4 cup oil
1 small box orange jello
3 each eggs
8 ounces heavy whipping cream
8 ounces sour cream
1/4 cup orange juice
1 1/4 cups confectioners sugar
1 cup sweetened coconut flakes

Mix all cake ingredients well. Pour into a 9x13 baking dish. Bake at 350 for 30-35 minutess. Cool completely before icing. (You can leave the cake in the pan and ice only the top, but I like to turn it out onto a cakeboard and slather a ton of icing on the top and sides.)

For icing: whip heavy cream until soft peaks form. Slowly add orange juice and confectioners sugar while continuing to whip into stiffer peaks. Place the sour cream and coconut in a large bowl, stir to combine. Fold the whipped cream into the coconut mixture until just combined. Smooth over cake and keep refrigerated.

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