Cheeseburger Macaroni

Have you ever pulled a box of Hamburger Helper, or something similar, out of the pantry for a quick and easy meal for your family on a rushed evening? I, myself,  am guilty of having done this at least a few times. Even when I’ve bought these ‘box’ meals on sale or with coupons it’s still not particularly ‘cheap’ considering I always have to add more pasta, spices, and other ingredients to spruce it up. It doesn’t even taste that good to my husband or I, although I am sure my kids would eat it any day with no complaints. I know in the past I’ve sacrificed our personal preferences, quite a few times, for efficiency, using a ‘box’ meal to get dinner served to my kids on time, but NO MORE! Homemade Cheeseburger Macaroni is creamy, cheesy, and easy. Both the kids and the adults will love it. It even takes about the same amount of time to make as it’s pre-packaged competition. Ditch the ‘helping hand’ and make your own batch from scratch. My recipe feeds my family of six, with enough leftovers for my husband’s lunch the next day. The recipe can easily be cut in half to accommodate a smaller family.

Cheeseburger Macaroni

4 Sons 'R' Us: Cheeseburger Macaroni

  • 2 lbs lean ground beef
  • 1 lb. box of pasta, elbows or small shells work best
  • 2 packets of taco seasoning
  • 2 10 oz cans diced tomatoes with green chilies
  • 4 cups beef broth

Cheese Sauce

  • 4 tbsp butter
  • 4 tbsp flour
  • 1 and 1/2 cup milk
  • 2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp pepper

Directions

  1. In a dutch oven brown hamburger meat until cooked through and then drain and return meat to the pot.
  2. Stir in taco seasoning, tomatoes, beef broth, and macaroni.
  3. Heat to boiling, now reduce heat and cover. Simmer 12-14 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Cheese Sauce

  1. While the beef and noodle mixture cook, melt butter in a saucepan. 
  2. Whisk in the flour and cook over medium heat, constantly whisking for 2-3 minutes.
  3. Slowly add in the milk, whisking constantly, and bring to a boil.
  4. When your sauce base is smooth and thickened remove from heat and stir in the cheese until melted.
  5. Add the salt and pepper to the cheese sauce.
  6. Pour the cheese sauce over the hamburger mixture. Stir gently until evenly combined.
  7. Remove pot from heat and let sit about 5 minutes for the sauce to thicken up and serve.

Triple Chocolate Quick Bread

With my food guzzlers, I’m always on the lookout for a quick addition to my menu that can help top off their tanks. I love a good dessert that I don’t feel terrible about giving my family that helps keep them full until morning. This gem is one of my go-to favorites. It’s like a special edition chocolate muffin, with a hint of apples. They love a nice, warm slice of my chocolate ‘bread’ before bed with a cold glass of milk. It makes them feel all warm and fuzzy. I may, or may not, have also been talked into making this for them for a special breakfast as it contains both eggs and applesauce.  Even better, this from scratch dessert, or breakfast, or snack, is easy and takes hardly any time to whip up. Did I mention it’s versatility? So find yourself a reason to give it a try, you won’t be disappointed in the results.

Triple Chocolate Quick Bread

4 Sons 'R' Us: Triple Chocolate Quick Bread

  •  1 & 1/2 cups  semi-sweet chocolate chips, divided
  • 1/2 cups butter, softened
  • 2/3 cup packed brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 & 1/2 cups unsweetened applesauce
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 & 1/2 cup all purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt

GLAZE:

  • 1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 3 tbsp half and half
  • 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
  • 1/4 tsp vanilla extract

Directions

  1. In a pot on the stove top over low heat, melt 1 cup of chocolate chips; set aside to cool.
  2. In a stand mixer, cream butter and brown sugar until light and fluffy.
  3. Add eggs and cooled chocolate, mix until evenly combined.
  4. Add applesauce and vanilla; set aside.
  5. In a separate bowl, mix flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt until evenly combined.
  6. Add flour mix to the batter and mix until evenly combined.
  7. Lightly mix in the remaining chocolate chips just until incorporated into batter.
  8. Divide batter evenly between two* greased loaf pans.
  9. Bake at 350 degrees for 40-45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean
  10. Cool for 10 minutes before transferring to a wire cooling rack.

For Glaze:

  1. In a small pot over low heat, melt chocolate chips and butter, stirring until evenly combined.
  2. Stir in half and half.
  3. Remove from heat and stir in confectioners’ sugar, vanilla, and salt.
  4. Drizzle over warm loaves, or pipe onto loaves using a ziplock bag.
  5. Let the chocolate cool and serve.

* If you’d prefer to make one full sized loaf, simply add all the batter to one full size loaf pan. Baking time will take a little over an hour, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Typically the chocolate piping is spread between two loaves so there’s not nearly as much piled on, but the ‘breakfast’ bread I was coerced into making I left glaze free. I didn’t want too much chocolate on my mom-conscience before sending them off for school. All that chocolate on their dessert though was a real treat.

Fuss-Free Finger Painting

Have you ever had one of those moments where you have a litany of tasks that need your immediate attention, but you also have a toddler clinging to your leg and you know that if you turn your back they will immediately morph into a little ball of destruction? My 3 year old would happily entertain himself, but that always results in a gigantic mess that I then have to clean up. It’s moments like those when dinner is waiting to be cooked and homework needs checking that I have to get creative to keep the 3 year old entertained without my constant supervision. Being 3, he is full of artistic ‘flair’. Give him some paints, a coloring book and crayons, you name it, and he’s happy and pumping out masterpieces. However, I know I can’t trust him alone since his creativity has a tendency to run wild. For example, he sees newly painted white walls as fresh canvas eagerly awaiting his decoration. While he could very well be a budding artiste, a future Picasso perhaps, he and I have varying tastes on what composes harmonious home decor.

It was one of these times, with my son begging to ‘paint’ and dinner bubbling away on the stove, that I grabbed a large ziplock bag and some of his tubes of finger paint, and a genius idea was born: fuss-free finger painting! He got to ‘paint’ and none of Mommy’s things got painted on. He loved it, especially since he could magically erase his doodle and begin again. Since then, we do this all the time and have used it to practice making shapes, letters, numbers, you name it. It’s saved my sanity many a time and allowed me to be productive while keeping my son safely, and cleanly, entertained. For a busy mom, fuss-free finger painting is the way to go!

Fuss-Free Finger Painting

4 Sons 'R' Us: Fuss-Free Finger Painting

  • 1 gallon ziplock bag
  • 1 piece of blank white paper
  • 2-3 different colors of finger paints
  • masking tape

Directions

  1.  Squirt several dollops of different colored finger paints into your ziplock bag.
  2. Seal bag securely.
  3. Lay your sealed bag over top of a blank sheet of white paper onto a flat surface such as a kitchen table or desk.
  4. Tape the top and bottom of the ziplock bag to your designated work surface to secure in place.
  5. Sit your child down and let them ‘paint’.
  6. When they’re done simply detach and throw your paint-filled bag away, or save it to use again later.

No mess, and no stress!

Buckeye Brownies

I don’t know about other kids, but mine love peanut butter, and by love I mean a ‘love’ bordering on obsession. If allowed, they would quite happily eat it as part of every meal. I’m beginning to think Peanut Butter is it’s own food group in my boys’ pyramid. Somewhere I had seen that January 24th is National Peanut Butter Day. Once aware, I knew I couldn’t let this particular ‘holiday’ go unannounced or without ceremony in my household. I figured it was the perfect excuse to whip up some buckeye brownies and I knew these little nuggets of deliciousness were the perfect way to pay homage to peanut butter and all it’s tasty glory. Boy was I right, one tray of these, around 2 -3 dozen, didn’t even make it through the night before they’d all been gobbled up.

Buckeye Brownies

4 Sons 'R' Us: Buckeye Brownies

  • 1 box brownie mix
  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1/2 cup + 6 tbsp butter, softened and divided
  • 1 cup creamy peanut butter
  • 6 oz semi-sweet chocolate chips

Directions

  1.  Prepare brownie mix, and bake in a greased 9×13 pan, according to package directions.
  2. Let brownies cool completely.
  3. Mix powdered sugar, butter, and peanut butter until evenly combined.
  4. Spread evenly over cooled brownies.
  5. Chill brownies for 1 hour.
  6. In a saucepan, over low  heat, melt chocolate and remaining butter stirring until evenly combined.
  7. Spread the chocolate mixture over the brownies and let cool.
  8. Cut brownies into squares and serve.

Enjoy!

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Alabama Fire-Crackers

Any of you with teenage boys, really boys of any age, will understand it when I say that my kids are always hungry. Always. If you didn’t know better, their appetites would give you the impression that they hadn’t seen a good meal in who knows how long. Anytime, day or night, they’re ready for a meal or two. To their great dismay, in between regular meals they have to settle for a snack. Have you been to the grocery stores lately? Snacks are seriously expensive and prices seem to climb higher every week. In an effort to keep my food costs down, and also to keep my four hungry monsters at bay, I try to find affordable alternatives I can make myself. I had stumbled onto this recipe on allrecipes and it looked incredibly easy, yet bursting with flavor, so I knew I had to give it a go. I struck gold! Not only did my boys love it, my husband also heartily approved. It’s since become a regularly recurring snack selection and a game day and party request. This recipe is a crowd-pleaser. For my guys, because they’re full again. For me, because they’re full and that didn’t require hours spent in the kitchen, a hole in my wallet, or leave me utterly exhausted.

Alabama Fire-Crackers

4 Sons 'R' Us: Alabama Fire-Crackers

  • 1 gallon ziplock bag
  • 1 box of saltine crackers, 16 oz
  • 1 2/3 cup canola oil
  • 2 envelopes ranch dressing mix
  • 2 tbsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 tsp onion powder
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper

Directions

  1. Add oil, ranch, red pepper, garlic, onion, and black pepper. Seal bag.
  2. Using your hands mix ingredients around together until evenly combined.
  3. Add crackers to the bag. Seal again.
  4. Turn the bag over several times to coat crackers with the spice mix.
  5. Lay the bag flat and let it sit for about an hour
  6. Turn the bag over, repeating several times until the crackers are thoroughly coated with the spice mix.
  7. Allow the bag to sit overnight.
  8. Remove the crackers from the bag and serve.

Cake Decorating Frosting

I do not like bakery cakes or their frosting. (Gasp) Shocking, I know, but I grew up never eating store bought cake, not even sampling bakery cakes, or pre-made frosting.  Now that I have, I know I wasn’t missing anything. The few times I attempted to use store-bought frosting for decorating cakes, the results were disastrous. It’s not stiff enough to hold it’s shape, and the addition of any food coloring makes it runny. With four boys who request custom cakes for their birthdays, this obviously, was just not going to work. That, and I couldn’t stomach paying outrageous amounts of money to a bakery when I was sure that with a little practice, trial, and error I could duplicate their designs. My Grandma and Mom, made beautiful cakes that always tasted just as good, if not better, than they looked and the frosting was always rich and creamy. So when I made the decision to give my boys the same kind of catered cake experiences I had grown up with, I just knew I had to have my Mom’s recipe to make it happen. The recipe is simple and easy to whip up. It’s even easier to adjust for stiffness so you can customize and create a simple or elaborate cake or cupcake design that will hold firmly in place, but still taste smooth and sugary when cut.

Cake Decorating Frosting

  •  3-4 cups confectioner’s sugar
  • 1/2 cup of shortening
  • 4-5 tbsp milk, or half and half for a richer frosting
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp almond extract, optional (I omit)

Directions

  1.  In a stand mixer, add all ingredients.
  2. Mix on low speed until evenly combined. Do not whip!
  3. If the frosting is still chunky add milk, 1 tbsp at a time until it’s mixed smooth.
  4. Alternately, if the frosting is too runny, add more confectioners sugar until mixed to desired stiffness.
  5. Frost!

If you’re not interested in a white cake, add a couple of drops of food coloring until your desired color is reached, and then frost. If chocolate frosting is your fancy add cocoa powder, 1 tbsp at a time, until it tastes chocolate-y enough for you.

A few other points about working with this type of frosting. If your frosting is too stiff, and you’re trying to frost any parts of a cake that have been cut or aren’t browned by the outside of the baking pan, it will pull up pieces of cake and make a mess. Also, don’t wipe! For a neat look that won’t ruin the cake, gently wipe frosting back and forth until frosted. To achieve a smooth, finished look, smooth over with a HOT knife. Dip the knife in hot water to keep it hot and free of any icing clumps. Otherwise, get your bake-on and frost. There will be mistakes made along the way, but the results are well worth it! Practice makes perfect, and nothing beats your child’s smile when they see you’ve managed to create something from their imagination, or yours, just for them. Just for fun, and hopefully some inspiration, here are a few of the various cakes I’ve made for my boys.

Basketball Cake 076 003 001 002 010  DSC03637060

Key Lime Pie Fudge

I needed something quick to take to a friends’ dinner party, but couldn’t decide between my usual list of go-to favorites. Everything just seemed boring, or over-used. Imagine you’re trying to get ready for a night out and staring down the gauntlet that is your own closet. Nothing grabs you, nothing fits the venue just right, etc. Giving up on finding inspiration within my own pantry, I decided to troll through my browsers bookmarks, and settled on tweaking some Key Lime Pie Fudge bites that I had found on About.com.  The prep was simple, the amount of effort involved was minimal, yet when finished I was left with creamy little bites of heaven. These are THAT good! This is not your Grandma’s fudge. Give them a try. You will never think of fudge the same way again.

Key Lime Pie Fudge

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  •  1/4 cup butter
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 & 1/4 cup graham cracker crumbs
  • 1 bag white chocolate chips
  • 1 14 oz can sweetened condensed milk
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp lime zest, finely grated
  • 2 tbsp lime juice

Directions

  1. Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Line an 8×8, or 9×9 baking dish with aluminum foil and spray, to evenly coat the foil, with non-stick cooking spray
  3. Either in a microwave, or on the stove-top, melt butter.
  4. When melted combine butter, sugar, and graham crackers in a bowl, stirring until evenly combined and moist.
  5. Transfer graham cracker mix into your foil lined pan, smoothing and spreading to make an even layer.
  6. Bake the crust for 7-10 minutes, until the edges are lightly browned. Remove from oven and let cool.
  7. Melt chocolate, salt, and condensed milk in a stove-pot over medium low heart, stirring until evenly combined.
  8. When mixture is smooth, add lime juice and zest, stirring until evenly combined.
  9. Transfer the fudge to the prepared baking dish, spreading into an even layer over the graham cracker crust.
  10. Refrigerate fudge until it is set, about 2 hours, or overnight.
  11. Using the foil as handles, remove the fudge from the baking dish.
  12. Using a sharp, hot knife (run under hot water periodically to keep hot) cut the fudge into 1 inch squares.
  13. Let the fudge rest at room temperature for 15-2o minutes before serving.

Birthday Balloon Wreath

Growing up my Mom tried really hard to make memories and create traditions for myself and my sisters. We always had something to look forward to. No matter what the holiday, we had something special to coincide. Looking back now, it always added to our anticipation and made events seem more special, even the little ones, and sometimes almost magical. Mom also loved flags. She had lots of flags, a flag for everything. We would even compete for the honorable duty of ‘changing the flag.’ Perhaps the only occasions without their own designated banner were birthdays. I will never forget the year I woke up to discover a special flag had been hung, while I slept, with a birthday cake on it. Let me tell you, when you’re under 6 and there’s a banner waving to the world announcing your birthday, you feel like royalty. Every year after that, for every birthday, we woke up to our flag flying high. I wanted to do something similar for my boys, but I didn’t inherit my mother’s love for flags, so that was out for me. However, I do love wreaths! I had seen several balloon wreaths for sale and decided that would be the perfect announcement to grace our front door announcing my own children’s special days. The boys loved it!  I loved it! It was simple, affordable, and could easily be adapted by coordinating colors for any theme or other event.

Birthday Balloon Wreath

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  • 1 12″ Straw Wreath, left in plastic wrap (but you could use a larger frame if you desired, or smaller for table centerpieces)
  • Floral pins
  • balloons (whatever colors and sizes)
  • wreath hanger

Directions

  1. Warning: Do not unwrap your straw wreath! It will make a gigantic mess and you’ll feel like you woke up in a hay field.
  2. Take one balloon and one floral pin.
  3. Starting at any point on the wreath, pin the balloons into the wreath using the floral pins.
  4. Pinning the balloons to the wreath at their middle helps ensure a more uniform look.
  5. Continue pinning balloons around the wreath, alternating colors until you’ve achieved your desired result.
  6. Display on your front door.

Creamy Spinach and Artichoke Dip

One of my guys go to appetizers when we eat out is spinach and artichoke dip. While I don’t always want to eat out, I do enjoy serving them their restaurant favorites from the comfort of my own kitchen. That, and they look at me like I’m a magical kitchen wizard which kinda tickles my fancy. So, several years ago, I set to work making a delicious at home version of their eat out favorite. Now, it’s become a recurring cast member at our annual celebrations, including holiday dinners and parties.

Now, are you looking for the perfect creamy, rich, and indulgent dip to share as a special treat with family? Or for a perfect Super Bowl appetizer that’s easy to prepare, but has guests thinking you’ve slaved away all day in the kitchen? Look no further than this recipe. This is the best Spinach and Artichoke dip I’ve ever had. I’m talking plate-licking good. Even better, it’s one of the easiest possible appetizers to make. Prep takes maybe 5 minutes, and that’s being generous. If you’re looking for something versatile, this is also the dip for you. My family enjoyed it for New Year’s Eve, and I served it with slices of a very crusty baguette. We’ve also enjoyed it with tortilla chips, crackers, mini toasts, and pretzels. Since it was for a special occasion I went with full fat ingredients but, if you’re looking for something more figure-friendly, you could easily shave off half of that by using the reduced fat, or non-fat counterparts.

Creamy Spinach and Artichoke Dip

creamy, rich, and delicious!

  • 3 cups frozen spinach, finely chopped and drained, or more or less to desired consistency
  • 8 ounces cream cheese
  • 1 6 oz can marinated artichoke hearts, finely chopped and rinsed
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • 2 tbsp garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup parmesan cheese, shredded
  • 1/2 cup mozzarella cheese, shredded

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees
  2. In a food processor, or in a bowl with a spatula, mix all ingredients together until evenly combined. 
  3. Transfer dip to a baking dish and bake 25-30 minutes, or until the cheese has melted and the edges are golden-brown.
  4. Serve with bread slices, tortilla chips, crackers, etc.