Zucchini Cake with Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting

I think once school is back in session, there is somehow a shift in the time-space continuum.  That first day of school, I feel all full of determination and dedication to finishing all the projects that have to get done.  Especially now that 5 of my 6 kids are in school for 7 hours a day.  

I should have all the time in the world to get them done.....right???

Well, we are about to finish our second week of school and my to-do list only grew.  When I sit back to try to figure out where those 70 hours of almost child free hours have gone, I am at a complete loss.
The most pressing matter on my project list is my garden.  So much food that needs to be canned or frozen!!  Don't even get me started on my apple tree that decided to start dropping fruit 3 weeks earlier than normal.  Usually when feeling this overwhelmed, I will get up a few hours earlier to give myself more time.  I am currently getting up at 5:00 am.  I don't think getting up at 3:00 am would do me or my family much good.

The closest thing I have done to preserving my garden's bounty was this amazing zucchini cake.  Though, it was gone in less than 24 hours, so I'm not sure I could count it as preserving.  I loved how easy it was to mix together in a bowl, with no need to haul out my mixer.

If you want a simpler version, just bake it in a 9x13 inch pan instead!

Zucchini Cake with Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting
(makes a 6" triple layered cake or 9x13 cake)
recipe adapted from allrecipes.com

3 C flour
3 C white sugar
1 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
2 1/2 tsp cinnamon
4 eggs
1 1/2 C oil
1 tsp vanilla
3 C grated zucchini

8 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 C butter, room temperature
zest of 1 lemon
1/8 tsp salt
2 tsp vanilla
juice of 1/2 lemon
4 C powdered sugar

1.  Preheat oven to 325 degrees.  Lightly spray three 6" round cake pans and line the bottoms with wax paper or parchment paper.
2.  In a large bowl, mix together the dry ingredients for the cake.  In a medium bowl, beat together all the remaining ingredients for the cake.  Pour into the dry ingredients and mix well.  Divide evenly between the three pans.
3.  Bake for 30-35 minutes until the cake bounces back when gently touched in the center.  While the cake bakes, use a wooden spoon to beat together the cream cheese, butter and lemon zest until smooth.  Add the remaining frosting ingredients and mix until smooth and lump free.
4.  Cool the cakes for 10 minutes in the pan, then invert onto a cooling rack.  Remove the pan and slowly peel away the wax/parchment paper liners.  Allow to cool completely before frosting.

Lunchbox Icepacks

The first week of school was 89% disaster-free.  I consider that a complete success.  My kindergardener doesn't start until tomorrow and I am anxious for that beautiful day to arrive.  He was completely insulted that all his older siblings got to start last week and he was stuck at home with his mom and 2-year old sister.

A certain child of mine, and I won't name any names (Luke), tends to go through at least 3 lunch boxes a year and countless reusable containers and ice packs.  Last year, I made him pay for his own replacements in an attempt to make him more responsible.
I was thrilled when I found this method for making your own ice packs.  So simple and if when he loses them, it won't cost him his college savings to buy new ones.  I buy the cheap pack of 4 sponges from the dollar store to make the loss-impact even less.

To make, just saturate a clean sponge with water and place into a ziplock bag.  Lay flat in the freezer and freeze overnight.  In the morning, just toss them into the lunch boxes.  As they melt, they will reabsorb the water so just toss them back in the freezer after school!!!

Lunchbox Sliced Apples

This spring, my 17 year old declared that she doesn't eat apples anymore unless they are sliced.  Yep.  She's 17, not 2.  

She tried to give me a logical explanation as to why, but to be honest, I really didn't listen to what she said.  Sorry sweetie, but your Grandma taught me it is useless to reason with crazy people.
Her new food declaration left me in quite a quandary.  An apple, in it's natural state is perfection for the lunchbox.  No preparation or packaging required and nutritionally awesome. 

So instead of replacing her perfect apple with some fruit snacks, I recently discovered this great method of packing pre-sliced apples for a lunchbox.  While not as easy as just tossing in an apple out of the fruit bowl, I am willing to put forth a bit more effort for those I love :)
These will last for 4-5 days in the fridge sealed in a plastic bag, so make a big batch for the whole week and it will be even faster!  And to answer the question I know everyone will ask, No....they do not taste like salt after they are finished soaking :)

Lunchbox Sliced Apples
4-5 apples, cored and sliced
4 C cold water
1/2 tsp salt

1.  Dissolve the salt into the cold water and stir well.  Add the apples and immerse them in the solution. Allow to sit for 5 minutes, then drain away the water.  Package your apples into sandwich sized Ziplock bags and store in the refrigerator up to 5 days.

Oven Baked Bacon

For me, the craziest time of the day during the school year is between 7:00 and 7:30 am.

I've just finished teaching a 45 minute seminary class to 11 high school students and I have exactly 30 minutes to get my younger four kids out the door.  It is usually a very stressful time and I lose my patience often :)

My kids eat their fair share of cold cereal for breakfast before school, but I try very hard to mix it up for them and their diets.  
One of those options I will provide is eggs and bacon.  This recipe for baking the bacon in the oven is perfect for a busy school morning.  Lay it on a pan and throw it in a cold oven....don't even have to wait for the oven to preheat!!!!

25 minutes later, you have crisp, hot perfection without the disaster of splattered grease all over your stove top to clean up later.

Oven Baked Bacon
1 pound thick cut bacon or turkey bacon

1.  Line a rimmed cookie sheet with aluminum foil.  Lay the strips of bacon in single layer across the pan.
2.  Place the pan in a cold oven, then turn on the oven to 400 degrees.  Allow the bacon to cook for 25 minutes, or until it reaches your desired crispness.

Lunchbox Tacos

With six kids, buying lunch everyday would kill our budget.  

$2.10 x 6 kids x 5 days/week x 36 weeks/school year = $2,268 per school year !!!!!

That is more than we spent on our family cruise last November.  If your kids had to choose between a lousy school lunch and a family cruise, would there really be any choice????

Last year, I even called the school's food service and completely shut down our family lunch account.  They put up quite a battle, but eventually did as I requested.  Now my kids can't "forget" their lunch and I can't get lazy and just let them buy.

Best decision I've made as a Mom in awhile.
I try really hard to keep the food in their lunch boxes diverse, except for my sophomore who is too embarrassed to eat anything buy PB & J.

Our school does not offer microwaves, so I use a lot of thermos containers and recently discovered these bento-type boxes.  They really give me the chance to be creative and keep the kids from getting bored.

These tacos are a favorite for my kids.  They really love putting it together themselves, and yes, the meat is cold.  If your kids want warm meat, just stick that part of the taco in a small thermos.

I usually make the tacos with ground turkey because it is healthier and quite a bit cheaper.  Often times, I will add black beans to the meat which my kids love just as much.  Play with the toppings to whatever your kids love, and if you are feeling extra generous, substitute corn chips for the tortilla and they can make their own nachos!

Lunchbox Tacos
1 pound lean ground beef, ground turkey or ground chicken
1 1/2 tsp chili powder
1 1/2 tsp ground cumin
3/4 tsp garlic powder
3/4 tsp onion powder
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper

Optional addition:
1 can black beans, drained and well rinsed.

1.  Heat a skillet over high heat until very hot, then add your choice of ground meat.  Add the salt and pepper, then brown the meat, breaking up large chunks of meat with a wooden spoon.
2.  Add the remaining seasonings once the meat is fully cooked and stir well to distribute.  If using, add the black beans and stir into the meat.  Allow to cool before packing the lunches.
3.  Package your lunchbox tacos with your desired toppings such as cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, salsa,  guacamole and sour cream.  Instead of a tortilla, you can also pack corn chips and they can make nachos instead of a taco.

Peanut Butter Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

Whenever I get together with my siblings, it is pretty much a given that we will die laughing over what our Mom used to pack in our school lunches.

I love you Mom, but the world needs to know the truth.

Sandwiches were never on store bought bread.  Only dry, crumbly homemade 100% whole wheat bread.  When we were lucky enough to score lunchmeat bologna, it never came with mayonnaise because she was afraid it would go bad.

Instead of chips, she would toss a few salted soy beans in a bag.  Mmmmmm.

And of course, our little apples were always mushy and mealy.

My lunches were so embarrassing that in the 3rd grade, I would stash my lunch in the mail box before hopping on the bus.  I would then be forced to buy a school lunch since I had no food.  It was a great plan until my Mom got the bill from the school.

I never claimed to be a smart 3rd grader.
You think I exaggerate, but if it wasn't for the treats she would occasionally toss in, I might have gone into child labor just so I could buy a school lunch.  (Again, I love you Mom!!!)

Taking after my Mom, I too love to surprise my kids with the occasional lunchbox treat.  I used to pack enough treats for them to share with their friends as well, but once the school's food service discovered what I was doing, they shut us down.  Thanks Food Nazis.
These cookies will be a great surprise for your kiddos lunchbox.  They are the trifecta of cookies with all three of their favorite flavors! They are perfectly crisp on the outside with an amazing chewy center.  The peanut butter flavor isn't overwhelming, and I love the chew and texture from the whole oats.  I love making them as really big cookies....it makes the coveting by fellow lunch-mates even greater.  You can always go smaller, but don't tell your kids that you heard that from me.

If you can't tell, I'm trying to be the "cool" packed-lunch Mom :)

Peanut Butter Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies
(makes 18 cookies)
recipe from Brown Eyed Baker
1/2 C unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 C creamy peanut butter
1/2 C granulated sugar
1/3 C brown sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 egg
1 C flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 C rolled oats
1 C semisweet chocolate chips

1.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2.  On medium speed, cream together the butter, peanut butter, and both sugars for 3 minutes.  Add the egg and vanilla, then beat to combine.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula then beat again.  Add all of the dry ingredients then mix on low until combined.  Add the chocolate chips and mix one more time.
3.  Use a cookie scoop and generously over-fill it to about 3 Tb of dough all together.  Drop onto an ungreased cookie sheet and bake for 12 minutes or until the cookies are lightly browned on top.  Cool for about 7 minutes on the cookie sheet, then remove to finish cooling.

Back To School Breakfast Bars

Less than two weeks to go and our house is in a frantic rush to:
  1. Do everything fun we haven't had time for yet this summer.
  2. Enjoy the guilt-free chances to stay up late because we can sleep as late as we want the next morning.
  3. Complete the millions of back to school preparations without letting them put a damper on the last days of summer.
On top of the above mentioned list, I have begun to feel the pressure of providing my kids with "Back to School Food."

How does that differ than regular food?  It needs to be already prepared, so it fits into the Grab-It-And-Go category that is essential for kids and food during the school year.

So over the next few weeks, I will be sharing with you my favorite school recipes that work for our family.  Both quick breakfasts and our favorites for the lunch box as well.

Hopefully, we will all benefit by having a bit less craziness and a lot more time to pretend it is still summer :)
These bars are hands-down my kids favorite recipe.  I first posted a more "treat-like" version of this recipe a few years back that I packed full of mini M&M's, chocolate chips or mini marshmallows.  Again, my kids adore them.

Awhile back, I decided to play with the recipe a bit to make them more appropriate for breakfast and this was my grand slam result.  Tons of dried fruit, ground flax seed, less sweetener and butter.  Still amazingly chewy and addicting!!!

Please don't tell me your kids won't eat dried cranberries, apricots and dates.  YOU JUST NEED TO CHOP THEM SMALL ENOUGH....they will never know.  Even my boy who "hates raisins" devours these because when he asks if there are any raisins in them, I can honestly tell him "no" :)

Back To School Breakfast Bars
recipe by Carole Jones
**You can also double this recipe and bake it in a 1/2 sheet pan for 18 minutes

1 1/2 C quick oats - or pulse whole oats in a food processor
1/2 C Rice Krispies
1/4 C ground flax seed
1/2 C dried apricots - diced small
1/2 C dried cranberries - diced small
1/2 C dates - diced small
1/3 C coconut
1/2 C brown sugar
2 Tb honey
6 Tb butter, room temperature
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp salt

1.  Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
2.  In the bowl of your mixer with the paddle attachment, mix together all the ingredients until the butter is evenly distributed.  Pour into an ungreased 9 x 13 pan and press down firmly all over until the bars are level and well packed into the pan.
3.  Bake for 16-18 minutes.  As soon as it is removed from the oven, use a bench scraper or metal spatula to press down into the bars to score them into the desired size.  Once they have cooled completely, then use a knife to cut on the scored lines.
***For gluten-free, be sure to use gluten free rice krispies.

Gluten-Free Crusty Boule Bread

While my oldest daughter is finishing out her high school career in Washington DC, she will be living with her Aunt, Uncle and two cousins.  She is never going to want to come home.  They are so much more fun and way cooler than her own family.  Just to seal the deal though, all day Monday, she was out on their new boat wakeboarding and tubing. We don't stand a chance.

My baby girl has also quickly discovered what an amazing cook her Aunt Sherri is.  She boldly declared that Aunt Sherri's mashed potatoes were better than mine less than 24 hours after arriving.

I mean, if I can't even compete with food, what else do I have left???  I could probably fork up the money for the ski boat, but I wouldn't have any money left to buy the truck to tow it with.....

Her strikingly beautiful Aunt Sherri is the one who whipped up this amazing, crusty loaf of gluten-free bread for me.  It is great to have someone who loves you enough to go buy all of those crazy specialty ingredients for gluten-free baking. 

After a slice of this bread hot from the oven, slathered with way too much butter, I was ready to move in for the next 9 months as well :)

My experience with gluten free bread up to this point was pretty lousy.  Very dry, crumbly and a more cake like texture than bread.  This one was crusty on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside.  And best of all, makes amazing toast in the morning as well :)

This recipe is quick to throw together when you have five minutes and then you toss the dough in the fridge until you are ready to use it, up to a week.  I wish all my bread recipes were this easy!
Gluten-Free Crusty Boule Bread
makes 4 - 1 pound loaves
2 C brown rice flour
1 1/2 C sorghum flour
3 C tapioca starch or flour
2 Tb yeast
1 Tb kosher salt
2 Tb xanthan gum
2 2/3 C lukewarm water
4 large eggs
1/3 C canola oil
2 Tb honey

1.  Mixing and storing the dough:  Whisk together the flours, tapioca starch, yeast, salt and xanthan gum in a 5 quart bowl, or a lidded (not airtight) food container.
2.  Combine the liquid ingredients and gradually mix them with the dry ingredients, using a spoon, a 14 cup food processor (with dough attachment), or a heavy duty stand mixer with paddle, until all of the dry ingredients are well incorporated.  You might have to use wet hands to get the last bit of flour to incorporate if you're not using a machine.
3.  Cover (not airtight) and allow the dough to rest at room temperature until it rises, approximately 2 hours.
4.  The dough can be used immediately after the intial rise or refrigerate in a lidded (not airtight) container and use over the next 7 days.  The flavor will be best if you wait for at least 24 hours of refrigeration.
5.  On baking day:  use wet hands to take out a 1 pound piece of the dough, about the size of a large grapefruit.  Quickly shape it into a ball.  This dough isn't stretched because there is no gluten in it - just gently press it into the shape.  You might need to wet your hands a little to prevent the dough from sticking and to create a smooth surface, but don't use so much water as to make the dough soggy.  Place them each individually on a piece of parchment paper.
6.  Allow the dough to rest, loosely covered with plastic wrap for 90 minutes (40 minutes if you are using fresh, unrefrigerated dough.) 
7. Thirty minutes before baking time:  preheat the oven to 450 degrees with a baking stone placed in the middle rack.  Place an empty metal flat pan on a lower rack.
8.  Just before baking, slash the loaf with a serrated bread knife with a 1/4 " deep cut.
9.  Transfer the loaf and the parchment paper directly onto the hot baking stone.  Pour 1 C of hot tap water into the metal pan and quickly close the oven door.  Bake for about 35 minutes, removing the parchment paper after 23 minutes of baking so the bottom can brown as well.  Cool on wire racks before slicing.