Grace and Hope’s Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins

As mentioned before, Grace and Hope have a little business making and selling muffins. They are popular with both ex-pats and Chinese, with one of the favorite flavors being these lemon poppy seed muffins. Though these are called muffins, they could be called cupcakes just as well as they are sweet and cake-y, though dense. I have long held the theory that if it’s not chocolate, it’s not dessert, but these muffins have changed my thinking on this!


3 cups flour

2 1/2 cups sugar

2 teaspoons poppy seeds (You can use more but they are rare here since we can’t buy them..)

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 1/2 cups milk

1 1/2 teaspoons almond extract

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

3 Tablespoons lemon zest

2 Tablespoons lemon juice

1 cup oil

3 eggs

Mix all ingredients. Spray muffin pans with non-stick spray or use muffin papers. Fill muffin cups 5/6 of the way full if you want a nice “crown” on the muffins. Bake at 375 for about 25 minutes or until golden on top. This recipe makes 18 plump muffins such as those pictured.

We use one of two glazes on these.

Glaze number 1

3/4 cups sugar

2 Tablespoons lemon juice

2 Tablespoons butter

Cook on stove just until sugar is melted. When muffins are still warm, dip top in the muffins.

Glaze number 2

3/4 cup powdered sugar

2 Tablespoons lemon juice

Mix and drizzle over muffins once they have gotten cool.

We prefer glaze number 2. Although it has powdered sugar, it is less sweet and “syrupy”. 

If you prefer orange flavoring make as follows:

Substitute orange juice and zest for the lemon juice and zest in the muffin recipe.

In the glaze recipes, merely substitute orange juice for the lemon juice.

If you prefer almond flavoring, make as follows:

Do not add lemon zest or juice to the muffin recipe. Increase the almond extract to 2 teaspoons.

For the glaze, mix 3/4 cup powdered sugar with 1 teaspoon of almond extract and 1 1/2 teaspoons of milk.


Homemade Chips and Restaurant-Style Salsa

Having spent 16 years in Texas, chips and salsa are to us what french fries and ketchup are to most people. When we moved to China, we craved the crunchy, salty chips, smothered in the tangy zip of salsa, but could only find pale, stale imitations for exorbitant rates at the foreign food store. For years, we had no way to solve this fiesta fiasco…until we moved to the Muslim section of town and discovered flat breads. Eureka! These large, thin disks aren’t exactly tortillas, but they definitely served our purpose.

For those of you who don’t live in a developing country and can easily buy bags of chips whenever the mood strikes, feel free to scroll down to the salsa part of the post. For my fellow expatriates, I hope you find the secret to delicious tortilla chips as exciting as we did!

Start with large Muslim flat breads (or tortillas if you can get them, or Indian naan if that’s the part of the world you live in).

Cut into strips…

…and then cut those strips into triangles…

…until you have a whole bowlful prepared.

Set up  your work station, with a wok full of oil (or a frying pan…but I’m doing it China style) and a platter lined with paper towels next to it.

When the oil is sufficiently hot (I test it by dropping in a chip and seeing if it sizzles vigorously), take a handful of chips and carefully drop them into the oil.

Don’t worry if your hands aren’t as large as mine; you can just drop in two handfuls. :)

Stir the chips so that they brown evenly. See my handy super-sized chopsticks? They’re one of my favorite kitchen tools, especially when deep-frying.

Remove from oil (it should only take about a minute to a minute and a half per batch), drain and lightly salt.

If you’re looking for a more health-conscious method for making these chips, you can lightly coat the raw chips in olive oil and bake in the oven a few minutes until crisp. Mom did that, and she said they were almost as tasty as the deep fried chips.

Now for the other half of this dynamic duo!

First, assemble whole, peeled tomatoes; onion; bell pepper; a garlic clove; cilantro; lemon juice; and salt.

Dump one can of whole, peeled tomatoes into the blender. Probably you’re thinking that fresh tomatoes would be preferable, but we’ve tried it both ways and think the canned are better in this recipe (shocking, I know). They’re also expedient, as you don’t have to peel or chop the tomatoes.

Peel and smash a clove of garlic. Be sure that your cutting board is thoroughly disreputable, just like ours. :)

Roughly chop half a bell pepper…

…half a small onion or one fourth of a large one…

…and a bunch of cilantro.

Dump all of these into the blender, along with several healthy dashes of lemon juice (you can use fresh squeezed, if you have it, or lime juice is also good)…

…and salt.

If you have a jalapeno, now would be a good time to add that. We can’t get those here, and the Chinese hot peppers just don’t taste right, so we go without the heat. Blend for a few seconds, until salsa looks like this-

Now add one final can of tomatoes…

..and pulse very quickly, leaving it slightly chunky. Our blender is turbo-powered, so my salsa didn’t have very many chunks in it. That’s okay, it was still good!

As you can see, it makes quite a lot, so feel free to cut  the recipe in half unless you have a large family or want to munch on it for several days.

Chips and salsa- the perfect pairing! It almost made me want to burst into Spanish, but after ten years in China “Mama, where are my pajamas?” and “The fat man is eating the bread” is about all I remember, so I will refrain. :)

Mmmmm, this makes me one happy senorita!

Restaurant-Style Salsa

Two cans of whole, peeled tomatoes

Half a bell pepper

Half a small onion or a quarter of a large onion

One clove of garlic

One bunch cilantro

One jalapeno (if desired)

Lemon juice



Throw one can of tomatoes into a blender. Roughly chop the bell pepper, onion, garlic, cilantro and jalapeno. Add several generous dashes of lemon juice (depending on how acidic you like it; I like mine pretty lemony) and salt to taste. Blend for several seconds. Throw in final can of tomatoes and quickly pulse, leaving slightly chunky.

This recipe is very forgiving; in fact, I almost hesitate to call it a recipe, because I never measure. If you like your salsa a little sweeter, you could throw in some mango or peach. If you like it chunkier, pulse in the blender for a briefer time.

Should keep in the refrigerator for up to a week.


P.S. Many thanks to my friend, Rachel, for making this treat possible. We no longer live in the Muslim section of town, and have been unable to find these breads anywhere. She made a special stop in our old neighborhood to pick these up for us, knowing how much I had been craving chips and salsa. Is she a great friend, or what? :)

Tasty Bars

We were away from home the past two days, spending time with Jeremy’s and Jason’s families for a mini-vacation. While we were gone, a former student of ours who has been living in northern China called to ask if he could come for dinner and stay with us tonight. We were very, very happy to be able to see him again, but since we would not be arriving home until almost dinnertime ourselves, we needed to come up with a super quick meal. Remembering that his favorite Western dinner had been spaghetti, the main dish was easy, and for dessert, we pulled out Chez Dexter’s standard last minute bar cookie recipe. We’ve been meaning to share this with you anyway since it has only six ingredients and takes just thirty minutes from inception to service.

Not only can you whip this up almost in the blink of an eye, but if you try hard enough you can kind of (sort of?) justify it as healthy. I mean, the health benefits of chocolate are almost endless, and nuts are good, right? Brown sugar, oatmeal…this is a veritable smorgasbord of all that is great for what ails you (kind of, sort of…)! And they don’t call these “Tasty Bars” for nothing!


3 cups oatmeal

1 cup brown sugar

2/3 cup melted butter

1 teaspoon vanilla


1 cup peanut butter (creamy works better)

1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

Stir the first four together and press into a 9 x 13 pan. 

Bake at 375 degrees for 10 minutes until set and golden.

Yes, this is our oven. (We are very fancy- we have two! The other one is bigger but  since it only works on the top burner we don’t use it unless we’re desperate.) This one, as you see, is held together by a bungee cord!

While it’s baking, make the topping. Microwave your peanut butter in a bowl for about one minute until it’s very fluid.

Dump the chocolate chips into the hot peanut butter.

Are you starting to feel the love? Now stir vigorously until the chips are melted and the mixture is smooth. (If you really want to make a mess, go ahead and try zapping your chocolate chips and your peanut butter in the microwave at the same time. It might work- sometimes does. But after having a few bowls full of lusciousness turn into seized up lumps of burnt chocobutter, we’re sold on this less risky technique! If perchance (There’s something so satisfying about being able to stick the word “perchance” into a sentence, don’t ya think?) your chips don’t quite melt all the way, go ahead and give this a little zip zap for a few seconds, but be careful not to overdo it!)

We know at this point some of you are going to want to forget all about that healthy oatmeal base and just eat this with a spoon…

But try to resist…

Go ahead and dump the mixture onto your oatmeal base as soon as it comes out of the oven.

Spread it around.

Good enough!

If you’re going to have this ready in 30 minutes as we’ve promised, sock that puppy into the freezer for ten minutes! In our hot Guangzhou weather, we always stick it into either the fridge or the freezer to set the top.

Love on a plate!

Now what could be wrong with that?

Seriously, five minutes to mix the base; ten minutes to bake it while you prepare the topping; five minutes to spread that on; ten minutes to zap it in the freezer to set it! Six ingredients (all of which are likely staples in your kitchen), thirty minutes to prepare, then you have time to sit and talk with your family and guests as they enjoy the fruits of your labors! Refrigerate leftovers, if there are any….

Hash Brown Waffles

Every once in a while, I come across an idea when I’m perusing food blogs that is so brilliant, so revolutionary, I’m amazed I’ve never heard of it before. Recently, while browsing Foodie with Family, I saw her method for cooking hash browns in a waffle iron, and instantly knew I had to try it. How could shredded potatoes browned to crispy perfection not be good?

What follows is a method, more than a recipe. I didn’t take very many pictures because I was hungry (just keeping it real). :)

Start by greasing your waffle iron generously. You could use butter, but we had bacon grease; so like most women raised in the South, I used that.

Peel and shred a medium sized potato and spread it over the waffle iron’s surface. If you live where you can get that kind of thing, feel free to use pre-shredded hash browns. That would certainly save time.

Dust the potatoes with salt and freshly ground black pepper, then pop the lid down and set something heavy on top of it (I used a heavy frying pan).

Before long, the smell of sizzling potatoes will fill the kitchen. Resist peeking. Let the waffle iron do its thing. You’ll notice unwanted moisture dripping down the sides. This is good; it means the end result will be that much more crisp.

The one downside to this method is that it takes a while, especially if you have a wimpy waffle iron like ours. Probably a full ten minutes passed before my potatoes were as brown as I wanted them. Be assured, it was worth the wait.

Mmmmm, a hash brown waffle, topped with an egg over easy, with an iced Americano coffee. Do I need to tell you how yummy this was?

I’m not a fan of mushy potatoes, so the brown crust the waffle iron formed on these was perfect. If you like your potatoes a bit more fluffy, by all means don’t let them cook as long as I did, or don’t weigh the top down.

Ten seconds after this photo was taken, I was enjoying my first bite of this delicious treat. Have you had breakfast yet? :)

Hash Brown Waffles

One medium potato per person, peeled and shredded


One cup pre-shredded hash browns

Salt and pepper

Butter (or bacon grease, or some other oil)


Grease a waffle iron, top and bottom. Evenly spread shredded potatoes over it, salt and pepper to taste. Close waffle iron and weigh top down with something heavy. Cook to desired brownness.

I would imagine the variations on this would be limited only by your imagination. You could add cooked and drained breakfast sausage, herbs, cheese, bacon, or basically anything else that would tasty good cooked crispy with potatoes. Sweet potatoes could be substituted for their paler cousin. It’s delicious topped with an egg over easy, but I’m sure sausage gravy, sour cream and chives or many other things would also be tasty. Enjoy!