Skylanders Birthday Party

2 Jul

The Punkin turned three this year and is in love with the video game Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventures ® . Frankly, so are his parents as it is a very well designed video game and toy collection. There are a lot of good pagan values in this game, it is pro environmentalism and the toys lead the Punkin to creative play when not playing the video game. What’s not to love?

However, Activision ®  in its infinite wisdom decided not to license party supplies and decorations. So when Punkin requested a Skylanders® themed Birthday party mom and dad had to hit the internet and design a theme. Hubby had originally offered to take over the project since he left me in the lurch to do Saturnalia all by myself. I had accepted his offer but as he drifted off into the time sinkhole of his MAT work I took the bull by the horns and designed the decor and the cake.

It took a lot of creative shopping to piece together a theme incorporating as many of the design elements of the game as possible.

The game has 8 “elements”and each of the 32 Skylanders® belongs to an element. These elements have symbols so we printed out the symbols full color and backed them with foam core and I used a foiled create your own banner kit to make the party banner.

Skylanders® elemental symbols and party banner

I used the portal of power the wireless device that lets the game read what character the person is playing and the Skylanders ® toys themselves as the decoration on the coffee table.

Coffee table decorations and a happy Punkin at play

For the birthday cake I baked a Betty Crocker Gluten Free chocolate cake mix cut the layer horizontally across to form two layers filled it with Duncan Hines Dark Chocolate frosting left over from the daycare Skylanders® cupcakes. I then used Duncan Hines cream cheese frosting to give a fairly light coating to the outside of the cake to stick the home-made quickie fondant to the top and allow you to use the frosting as “mortar” for the Trader Joe’s dark chocolate bricks to be placed on the cake to recreate the Portal of Power.  The treasure chests filled with gems and gold cups and the  coins are from the game.

Skylanders® Portal of Power cake

The Skylanders® on top of the cake were brand new and a surprise for the Punkin. Older ones were used to decorate the base of the cake.

The Punkin enjoying his cake:

Punkin Loves His Skylanders® Cake!

The chocolate used on the cake  was a vegan dark chocolate from Trader Joe’s. The quickie fondant recipe I used was also vegan. Use a homemade vegan frosting and sub apple sauce and egg replacer powder for the eggs in the cake mix and voila vegan portal of power! Also use vegan chocolate coins, these were just standard  milk chocolate ones from the party supply shop.

Copyright© 2012 Valerie Hartzer


“Boston Brown Bread” style Gluten Free Rolls

23 Oct

I was thumbing through an old Better Homes and Gardens Buffet cookbook and saw a quickie dinner of canned baked beans, canned Boston Brown Bread , quick home-made coleslaw and a cake made from cake mix and a fast homemade frosting, I looked up a recipe for  gluten-free Boston Brown I didn’t have enough eggs so I grabbed a package all-purpose Chebe ™ brand bread mix and experimented. It came out wonderful. Below is the recipe.


1 package all purpose Cebe bread mix

4 Tbsps. molasass

2 Tbps. light flavored cooking oil

3 large eggs

4 Tbps. milk of your choice

1/2 cup raisins

1 tsp. apple pie spice

1/2  tsp ground ginger


Preheat oven to 375 degrees . Mix all ingredients together in a medium mixing bowl until a stiff dough begins to forms then mix it into a ball with your hands, Divide into twelve pieces , roll into balls and place on a un-greased baking sheet. Bake 25 minutes. Yields one dozen rolls.
Copyright© 2011 Valerie Hartzer

Kitchen Redo Blues

7 Aug

Like many people in Michigan I have been out of work for a long time( more than 2 years). But since I cook a lot my kitchen and appliances see a lot more action than most people’s. And I live in an old house so the kitchen is stunning by 1960 standards. Unfortunately it isn’t 1960 any more. I am lucky in that the kitchen was repainted blue and white so no ugly pink or avocado and no neon yellow formica counte rtop (that is a blue faux granite too). Since the cabinets are all the real wood built-in kind , like they used to do in the 1950s. And there are a lot of them, so I have decided to just touch up scuffs and scratches , replace the few broken vinyl tiles ( I saved a bunch from when we redid the floor 10 years ago), replace the broken kitchen faucet and wallpaper the back splash. I added an under cabinet pot rack and  purged old stuff that was no longer needed. The last part is to repair the grout and chips in the counter top and give it a new faux granite paint treatment. And hold a Craigslist garage sale of all of the old stuff. Before and after photos will follow once I am through but for now I am just muddling through trying to keep meals going while the redo moves slowly forward.

Unfortunately redoing your kitchen tends to sap one’s culinary creativity but I have a few new recipes that I am tinkering around with that will be posted soon. Just bear with me as I muddle through the last of the renovation and get back to ll of the experimenting.

Cook Book Reviews

2 Jul

While I invent a lot of my recipes I do use a large number of cook books that I use for inspiration, certain recipes, and when starting out cooking a new cuisine I use cook book recipes to get started and then riff on them on my own. As I take food to church potlucks I am often asked what my favorite cook books are, what would I recommend to someone starting out, etc.

Lately I have been trying to master Vegan cooking so I have amassed a few cookbooks most of which I have been really pleased with.

So I am going to start out with a review of my favorite vegan cookbooks.

Ratings system: three spoons up – excellent, an essential; two spoons up a good solid cookbook , can’t go wrong having it on your shelf; one spoon up a good cookbook but borrow it from a  friend or library if you are cash strapped.

1.Veganomicon : This is the supreme Vegan cookbook. Think of it as the 1957  Betty Crocker picture cookbook of Veganism.

While I have only tried a few of the recipes and riffed on them as well, they are wonderful!! Very flavorful, hearty and down right meaty tasting. This cookbook is written in casual language and with two color type which makes for easy reading. Beautiful pictures of the food (which actually comes out really looking like those pictures) give loads of basics and inspiration for creating your own recipes or riffing off of those provided.

Unusually, I don’t have to increase the spice levels in the recipes, which I have to for most cookbooks.

This cook book also includes a large number of gluten free recipes and many more that with minor substitutions can be made gluten free in minutes.

The number of Seitan recipes is reasonable with tofu, temeph and beans being the majority of the main dishes. One of the things I don’t like about many vegan cook books is the reliance on seitan as the protein source and the “faux meat du jour” which makes us gluten free people riding the omivore bus with no other choices or having to tinker constantly with the recipes to make tofu or tempeh work.

I give this cookbook a three spoons up rating.

2.Vegan Unplugged: Ignore the alarmist hole up in your bunker feel to portions of this book. It does make the case for pantry survival and disaster preparedness. But mostly, these are inspired pantry go to dishes that are quick , easy and amazingly tasty. I collect old 1950s-60s era cookbooks largely for the quick convenience food meals. But these recipes are based on meat and don’t really work for vegetarian/vegan meals. I had the good fortune to win this on Jon Roberton’s Vegan Unplugged blog in a contest and honestly, this book is worth its weight in gold. I have yet to find a recipe that isn’t awesome. Particularly inspired are the samosadillas, since I have a local grocery that sells shelf stable teff tortillas. I haven’t had a real samosa in years but these taste identical to those I did have before not being able to eat gluten. All of the meals (except for the chili) have been instant winners with the punkin and that always makes mommy happy.

As these are pantry recipes you won’t find any Seitan and minimal vacuum packed shelf stable tofu but oodles of bean cuisine and every veggie you can can. Awesome!

This has really changed the way I do quick convenience cooking and as I already sock a formidable pantry it was easy to jump right in with minimal purchasing of ingredients.

I give this cookbook a three spoons up!

3. The 30 Minute Vegan: This is a good, solid, basic beginner primer to Vegan cooking. Everything in it is fast, easy and solidly good. Particularly good is the Shitake and Sea Vegetable chowder that  will make you do a double take it tastes so much like clam chowder. For the more adventurous it includes some raw food recipes which are amazing.

I have had to tinker with the spices on a few recipes and the sea vegetables may be hard to find if you don’t live near health food stores or Asian markets.

I give this cook book a two spoons up.

4. Appetite for Reduction: This is a fabulous low calorie , low fat  vegan cookbook for the adventurous palate from half of the pair that wrote the Veganomicon, Isa Chandra Moskowitz. The recipes are so good in this cookbook everyone should own it not just people trying to lose weight! In fact the OMG onion rings are the BEST make at home onion ring recipe I have EVER tried( I had to sub a few GF ingredients but it still worked Awesomely!). Most of the recipes are fast to cook, there are a lot of gluten free recipes and a lot that can be easily converted to gluten free with minimal tinkering. The Cheezy sauce is the fastest and easiest vegan cheese sauce I have tried yet. There aren’t too many seitan recipes and I have used tempeh instead and had just wonderful results!

I give this cook book an ecstatic three spoons up!

Honorable mentions:

1. The Gluten free Vegetarian Kitchen: One of two all gluten free vegetarian cookbooks to hit stores. Again this provides good, solid vegetarian and vegan food  that is ALL gluten free so no subbing ingredients. I give this a two spoons up.

2. This can’t be tofu!: This gives really great ways to season and cook tofu. I list this as an honorable mention because it is limited to tofu and covers no other foods. It is a truly worthwhile book and can make your tofu wow! I give this a three spoons up.

Val’s Three Layered Polish Pizza and Jewled Beet Salad

31 Aug

Pagach is a Slavic dish that has Polish, Slovak, Russian and Ukrainian versions and all claim to have invented it.

It is basically a bread dough based crust ( either single or double) filled with onions, potatoes, cabbage and cheddar cheese. While it is in all of it’s “traditional” forms is vegetarian (Ovo-Lacto only).

This is my very offer-stuffed version.  Mine is lower in fat has three amazingly hearty layers and all of  the richness of Eastern Europe is still vegetarian (and can be made vegan).This recipe was a huge hit with the Punkin and my husband really liked it too.\

Val’s Three Layer Polish Pizza


Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees.

1 frozen or refrigerated pre-made pizza crust( I use Whole Foods frozen Gluten Free Pizza shells) pre-baked to make 1 12 in. pizza

1/2 a medium onion sliced thinly vertically

5 ozs. crimini mushrooms thinly sliced

2 Tbsps. vegan margarine

2 Tbsps. vegan “sour cream”

2 Tbsps. unsweetened soy milk

4-5 small red or yellow skinned potatoes

8 ozs. pre-shredded cabbage

1/2 cup Textured Soy Protein

slightly more than a half cup of mushroom broth

2 cloves of fresh garlic finely minced

1/2 tsp. dried marjoram

1Tbsps. vegan Worchestershire sauce

1/4 cup of shredded cheddar cheese (soy or use Daiya brand for vegan)

2 Tbsps. fresh chives chopped


Bake or thaw pizza crust to

Pre-bake or thaw the pizza crust set aside to cool

Wash and quarter the potatoes and place in a microwave safe dish add a Tbsp. water cover tightly and microwave for 5 minutes on high power or until potatoes are steamed soft. Mash with vegan “sour cream”, 1 Tbsp. soy margarine, and 1 Tbsp. chopped chives, season with salt and pepper, set  aside.

While the potatoes are cooking, saute the onions, cabbage and mushrooms in 1 Tbsp. vegan margarine over medium heat until the mushrooms are cooked and the cabbage is softened, season with salt and pepper and set aside.

Microwave the mushroom broth until boiling about 2 minutes on high then mix with the textured soy protein, garlic and dried marjoram,vegan Worchestershire sauce, salt and pepper to taste.

Place pizza crust on a perforated pizza pan to keep it crisp, top with the mashed potatoes, then with the mushroom, cabbage and onion mixture, top with the textured soy protein mixture and then with the mock cheese.

Bake for 25-20 minutes until all of the dish is hot all the way through.

Top with the remaining chives, slice into wedges and serve.

Makes four generous servings.

Serve with Jewled Beet Salad.

Jewled Beet Salad


5 ozs.  pre- packaged herbed salad greens

/4 of a medium red onion sliced thinly vertically

8 ozs. shredded pickled beet salad  drained(available in Polish, Ukrainian and Russian markets)

1 cup of pre-shredded carrots

2 Tbsps. spicy horseradish mustard

Juice of half a lemon

1/4 cup of sunflower oil( this is the ONLY oil used in Eastern Europe and sunflowers are grown in giant fields all over Eastern Europe)

salt and pepper to taste


Place all salad greens, carrots, drained pickled beets in a large bowl. In a small bowl whisk  together mustard and lemon juice the slowly whisk in oil to form a vinaigrette add salt and pepper to taste. Pour over salad and toss to combine.

My Big Fat Greek Pasta Dinner

31 Aug

This was inspired by an odd array of veggies in the fridge including a small home grown mini eggplant. I planted an early season mini variety as baby and I like it but hubby isn’t the biggest fan.  This recipe is vegetarian but NOT VEGAN. It can be made vegan by either substituting  a vegan feta or removing the feta.

My Big Fat Greek Pasta


8 ozs. rigatoni ( I just use  Bionare potato, rice and soy pasta a superb gluten free pasta) cooked 2 minutes short of al dente

1 9 oz. can of  butter beans drained and rinsed or Greek Gigantes beans in tomato sauce right out of the can

1/2 a medium onion cut into a small dice

4 large cloves of garlic minced

1 miniature or baby eggplant

1 bell pepper any color chopped into 1/2 in. pieces

1 1/2 ribs of celery minced

2 Tbsps. olive oil

8 pitted Kalamata olives quartered

3 ozs. fresh baby spinach washed and dried

1 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley

1 tsp. dried oregano

1/2 lemon both zest and juice

2 Tbsps. balsamic vinegar

1 14 oz. can of diced tomatoes with garlic and basil ( I use Muir Glenn organic as it contains no HFCS)

1/4 cup of water


Over high heat boil pasta water . While the water comes to a boil chop the onions, celery, bell pepper, garlic, olives  and parsley.

In a deep  medium skillet with a lid, heat the olive oil over medium heat, add the onions, and celery. Saute for 4-5 minutes then add the bell pepper and eggplant and saute for 3-4 minutes more. Add the garlic , the lemon zest and lemon juice and  cook stirring for one minute. Then add the balsamic vinegar, stir then add the canned tomatoes, beans, oregano,olives and water. Stir to combine and drop the heat to low, cover and cook  10 minutes stirring occasionally. By now the pasta water should be boiling  add pasta a cook to 2 minutes before al dente. Drain the pasta add to the sauce, stir to combine add spinach stir to combine again , cover, simmer 2 minutes.Top with feta cheese, if using, and fresh parsley. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 servings

Tex-Mex Pantry Pasta Salad

23 Aug

This cleaver concoction was born out of necessity. Punkin’s saining and Grove Picnic was the next day and I had to prepare a Roman ritual to Apollo and prepare for the saining and make a pot luck dish. At midnight the only grocery options left were the all night drugstore, the 7-11 or a longer drive and much longer checkout lines of Meijer’s. I opted for the all night drugstore as I had prescriptions to pick up as well. This pasta salad is fast to make, has no mayonnaise to worry about spoiling so this is great for picnics,potlucks and just about any occasion.

Tex-Mex Pantry Pasta Salad

12 oz. elbow macaroni either corn or corn Quinoa( this variety takes only 4-6 minutes to cook so I use it a LOT for quick cooking)

1 1/2 16 oz.  jars  of medium salsa

1 15 oz. can of canned corn and peppers drained

1 15 oz. can of black beans drained and rinsed

1 3 oz. can of either sliced or 2 oz. chopped black olives

1 tsp. chili powder

1 tsp. cumin

1 tsp.oregano

salt and pepper to taste

pumpkin seeds to top each serving


Boil pasta until al dente ( do not over cook or your salad will be mushy), drain and rinse with cold water until cold.

In a large plastic container with a lid ( or a bowl if you will be eating this a t home ) combine pasta, canned beans, canned corn and peppers, bottled salsa , canned black olives and spices, stir to combine well ( if using plastic container put lid on and shake throughly to really combine). Stash in fridge a few hours to overnight to combine flavors.  When serving have a dish of pumpkin seeds available for topping each serving. the topping provides crunch and brings all of the flavors together so be sure to include it.