Baking to Freeze: Introduction!

New babies are such a joyous occasion, but the stress of getting used to a new, totally dependent little person in your life is sure to be a bit overwhelming. I’m so excited for my friend, A., who is expecting her new little one any day now (I’m sure it’s a girl, though we don’t actually know yet). She’s already so organized and has been nesting for months, but I wanted to do something to help her through the first busy days. What better than to do something I love (baking!) to support her as she adds to her family? I decided to make and freeze some dinners (and dessert, of course) for her to pop in the oven after Baby comes.

I’ve always loved the idea of giving friends gifts of food. Beyond merely supplying a need, personal, handmade gifts of food also supply warmth and affection. Sitting down to a hot meal is always satisfying and pleasant, and even moreso when it also represents the bond of friendship. It’s an intimate way to share a tiny piece of the load your friends are carrying. It’s lovely to be able to do something to help, and I hope the food turned out lovely for her.

The first step of creating A.’s meals was scouring the internet for which dishes would freeze well, thawing and baking instructions, and packaging tips. After all that searching around, I thought it might be nice to create a “one-stop” post on Willow Bird Baking about creating frozen meals. Hopefully this will be helpful for those of you with expectant friends, new neighbors, or even friends going through times of grief. Using this post, you ought to be able to bake one (or both) of two freezer-friendly casseroles and a batch of frozen cookie dough, print labels/thawing instructions, and get tips on preparing products for the freezer.

Now, onto the food! I chose two lasagnas for my freezing escapade. One is a Mexican Lasagna, which folks joke is neither Mexican, nor a lasagna! It’s very easy to throw together. The other is a Classic Italian Lasagna, which is Italian and is lasagna, and is much more time consuming. It’s a labor of love. Which casserole you choose really depends on your goal: if you want a quick and easy recipe, choose the former, but if you enjoy making more complex recipes, choose the latter (or both). I personally hadn’t made a “real lasagna” before, so I wanted to give it a shot! Finally, I chose to make some cookie dough for a dessert, since it freezes very well. Martha Stewart’s Chunky Peanut, Chocolate, and Cinnamon Cookies sounded hearty and delicious. Because of the large quantities of food, I decided to keep half and give half. That way the baking does double duty, and A.’s freezer doesn’t get overbooked!


LOTS of food!

Click on the recipe below that you’re interested in baking (or baking to freeze!) to find the recipe, printable labels, and thawing instructions:

Recipe #1: Mexican Lasagna

Recipe #2: Classic Italian Lasagna

Recipe #3: Chunky Peanut Chocolate Cinnamon Cookies

Finally, here are some great tips for freezing casseroles, to which I would add the following:

  • Consider packaging: disposable baking dishes are a kindness, since they won’t need to be returned. Make sure all of the dishes you’re preparing will fit in the freezer when packaged and wrapped!
  • Label your meals: In addition to the name of the dish, include instructions on thawing/baking, a “date packaged” and “good until” date, and the recipes (this will allow friends to calculate nutrition information, peruse ingredients, and even make the dish again, if they wish). I’ve included PDF labels for each of the dishes below, so feel free to download and print them. The labels can be cut out and glued on 4×6 index cards to make them sturdier.
  • Wrap food better than you think you need to. Double layers of plastic wrap, pack things in ziplock bags, etc.

Baking to Freeze: Chunky Peanut Chocolate and Cinnamon Cookies

Chunky Peanut, Chocolate, and Cinnamon Cookies are the third and final recipe in my “baking to freeze” series (see the introduction post here, if you missed it!). These cookies taste festive: cinnamon and spice, along with crunchy peanuts and rich chocolate chips.


Ziplock of Chunky Peanut, Chocolate, and Cinnamon Cookie dough partitioned into 4-cookie logs, with thawing/baking instructions.



Cookies after baking.



Baking to Freeze Recipe #3: Chunky Peanut, Chocolate, and Cinnamon Cookies


Recipe by: Martha Stewart
Yields: About 40-50 cookies

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup smooth peanut butter
1 cup packed light-brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
2/3 cup roasted, salted peanuts, coarsely chopped
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Directions:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Whisk together flour, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon in a medium bowl. Put butter and peanut butter in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment; mix on medium speed until combined, about 2 minutes. Add sugars; mix 2 minutes. Mix in eggs. Gradually add flour mixture; mix until just combined. Fold in chocolate chips, peanuts, and vanilla with a mixing spoon until well distributed. Refrigerate dough until it is slightly firm, 15 minutes. If freezing, roll into logs using wax paper. Double wrap logs of cookie dough (in desired portions) in plastic wrap and seal in a ziplock bag. Freeze for up to 6 weeks.

Roll dough into 1-inch balls. Space balls 2 to 3 inches apart on baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Flatten slightly. Bake until just golden, about 13 minutes. Transfer cookies to wire racks to cool. Can serve with ice cream.

Thawing Instructions: Thaw desired amount of cookie dough in refrigerator for several hours. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Roll dough into 1 inch balls. Space 2-3 inches apart on greased cookie sheet and flatten slightly. Bake until golden, about 13 minutes.

Click here to download thawing/baking instruction labels and recipe card to include with this dish.

Preview:

Baking to Freeze: Classic Italian Lasagna

Classic Italian Lasagna is the second recipe in my “baking to freeze” series (see the introduction post here, if you missed it!)

This recipe could quite literally take you all day to make, but if you’re like me and you love a culinary challenge, go for it! If you’d rather cut out a bit of the labor, you can substitute a jarred spaghetti sauce of your choice for the tomato sauce.

Pay special attention that you season each part of the lasagna well (the pasta, the sauce, the meat, the ricotta mixture).




Cooling off in the fridge before freezing! My first real lasagna!




Baking to Freeze Recipe #2: Classic Lasagna


Recipe by: Adapted from Giada DiLaurentis, with tomato sauce by Tina
Yields: About 6-8 servings

Ingredients:

Quick Tomato Sauce:
olive oil
1 onion, diced
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
1 heaping teaspoon diced shallots
1 large can tomato puree
1-2 teaspoons sugar (to taste)
1-2 teaspoons basil (to taste)
Pinch of oregano
Pinch of thyme
Salt and pepper

Béchamel Sauce:
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus 2 tablespoons for the lasagna
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
4 cups whole milk at room temperature
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
1 1/2 cups tomato sauce, recipe follows (I would add more for a bolder tomato flavor)
Salt and white pepper

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound ground chuck beef
Salt and pepper
1 1/2 pounds ricotta cheese
3 large eggs
1 pound lasagna sheets, cooked al dente
2 packages (10 ounces each) frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
3 cups shredded mozzarella
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan

Directions:
Make quick tomato sauce: Sautee onion, garlic, and shallots in olive oil for 5-10 minutes. Add a large can of tomato puree and all spices and herbs. Let sauce simmer for at least 20 minutes.

Make béchamel sauce: In a 2-quart pot, melt 5 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. When butter has completely melted, add the flour and whisk until smooth, about 2 minutes. Gradually add the milk, whisking constantly to prevent any lumps from forming. Continue to simmer and whisk over medium heat until the sauce is thick, smooth and creamy, about 10 minutes. The sauce should be thick enough to coat the back of wooden spoon. Remove from heat and add the nutmeg and tomato sauce. Stir until well combined and check for seasoning. Set aside and allow to cool completely.

In a saute pan, heat extra-virgin olive oil. When almost smoking, add the ground beef and season with salt and pepper. Brown meat, breaking any large lumps, until it is no longer pink. Remove from heat and drain any excess fat. Set aside and allow to cool completely.

In a medium sized bowl, thoroughly mix the ricotta and eggs. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Into the bottom of a 13 by 9-inch baking dish (disposable oven-proof baking dishes are wonderful for freezing in), spread 1/3 of the béchamel sauce (NOTE: if you’re freezing the lasagna but don’t have a disposable baking dish, line a glass baking dish with foil and leave the ends hanging over the dish. Assemble your lasagna in the dish and bake. Then, after you’ve cooled, you can freeze the casserole, pull it out using the ends of the foil, and store it in a large ziplock bag. When you’re ready to thaw and bake, you can use the original dish). Arrange the pasta sheets side by side, covering the bottom of the baking dish. Evenly spread a layer of all the ricotta mixture and then a layer of all the spinach. Arrange another layer of pasta sheets and spread all the ground beef on top. Sprinkle 1/2 the mozzarella cheese on top of the beef. Spread another 1/3 of the béchamel sauce. Arrange the final layer of pasta sheets and top with remaining béchamel, mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. Cut the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter into 1/4-inch cubes and top lasagna.

Line a large baking sheet with aluminum foil. Place lasagna dish on top, cover and put on the middle rack of the oven and bake until top is bubbling, about 30 minutes. Remove cover and continue to bake for about 15 minutes. (If freezing, bake for 30 minutes covered, remove cover and bake for 5 more minutes. Cool to room temperature and wrap well — double up layers of plastic wrap. Store in freezer for up to 3 months).

Thawing Instructions: Thaw overnight in refrigerator. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cook 20-30 minutes or until lasagna is heated through and bubbly.

Pictures of the process:


Béchamel sauce with tomato sauce mixed in.




Lasagna assembling about to begin.




Lasagnas ready for the oven (and an interested Byrd in the background).




Yeah . . . that’s my usually tidy kitchen after a full day of lasagnaing (during which I think I used almost every dish and utensil I own — and most of my roommate’s as well). And I’m a clean-as-you-go person, too, but what can I say?




All packaged and ready!




A nice plate of lasagna and cheesy garlic bread after reheating!

Click here to download thawing/baking instruction labels and recipe card to include with this dish.

Preview:

Baking to Freeze: Mexican Lasagna

Mexican Lasagna is the first recipe in my “baking to freeze” series (see the introduction post here, if you missed it!)


Two dishes of Mexican Lasagna with thawing/baking instructions and green onions on the side

Baking to Freeze Recipe #1: Mexican Lasagna


Recipe by: Adapted from Rachael Ray
Yields: About 6-8 servings

2 pounds ground beef
1 packet taco seasoning, such as McCormick’s
Cheesy Taco Seasoning
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 red onion, chopped
1 15-ounce can black beans, drained
1 14-oz can fire roasted tomatoes
1 cup frozen corn kernels
Salt
8 8-inch flour tortillas
2 1/2 cups shredded cheddar
2 scallions, chopped

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Preheat a large skillet over medium high heat. Brown ground beef and drain the fat. Return beef to pan and add taco seasoning (and water, if the seasoning packet calls for such) chili powder, cumin, and red onion. Mix and cook for 2-3 minutes. Add fire roasted tomatoes, black beans, and corn. Heat the mixture through, 2 to 3 minutes, then season with salt to your taste.

Spray a shallow baking dish (disposable oven-proof baking dishes are wonderful for freezing in) with nonstick spray. Cut the tortillas in half or quarters to make them easy to layer with. Build lasagna in layers of meat and beans, then tortillas, then cheese. Repeat: meat, tortilla, cheese again. If freezing, wrap tightly and freeze, keeping bag of scallions and side of salsa in the fridge ready to serve on the side. Lasagna will keep for up to 3 months. If not freezing, simply bake lasagna 12 to 15 minutes until cheese is brown and bubbly. Top with the scallions and serve.

NOTE: if you’re freezing the lasagna but don’t have a disposable baking dish, you can also line a glass baking dish with foil and leave the ends hanging over the dish. Assemble your lasagna in the dish and bake only about 10 minutes. Then, after it’s cooled, you can freeze the casserole, pull it out using the ends of the foil, and store it in a large ziplock bag. When you’re ready to thaw and bake, you can use the original dish.

Thawing Instructions: Thaw overnight in refrigerator. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Cook 30 minutes or until casserole is heated through and cheese is brown and bubbly. Top with scallions (to taste) and serve.


Mexican Lasagna filling: browned ground beef, red onions, taco seasoning, extra chili powder and cumin, corn, black beans, and fire-roasted tomatoes.

Click here to download thawing/baking instruction labels and recipe card to include with this dish.

Preview:

Lemon Burst Fairycakes

I want to sing a song about these cupcakes. They’re the most scrumptious combination I’ve tried to date: delicious little almond cakes, filled with creamy lemon and raspberry tartness and frosted with light-as-a-feather lemon buttercream. They tasted too BRIGHT to be called plain old cupcakes. I borrowed a bit from the British and named them fairycakes instead: Lemon Burst Fairycakes. I think you’re really going to love these.

When you think of curd, perhaps you think of the nursery rhyme where an unfortunate child is accosted by an alarming arachnid; that is:

Little Miss Muffet
Sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey;
Along came a spider,
Who sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffet away.

The little rhyme refers to a cottage cheese like substance, but there are much more pleasant curds to be had. Fruit curds, to be exact, and lemon curd, to be even more exact. Lemon Burst Fairycakes are named such because they’re bursting with creamy lemon curd.


Lemon curd filling before the raspberry “surprise.”

From what I’ve read about making lemon curd, some folks have trouble with the mixture curdling, but thankfully, I stumbled on a fantastic recipe that seems relatively fool-proof. Even if you’re not planning on making the full cupcakes, do try the lemon curd. It’s delicious on toast, on cookies, or on a spoon straight from the freezer, where it’ll keep for 2 months! This homemade lemon curd is much better than the store bought kinds I’ve tried, by the way. Since it’s so easy, it’s worth making your own.

A word about the butterfly decorations on these fairycakes: they’re, uh, not perfect. This was my first attempt at royal icing decorations, and I’ve decided it’s not something you should do on a whim! I think I’ll be better prepared next time. They’re cute, but definitely . . . homemade. We’ll say they have “character.” Wait until you see the mess involved in creating them (in the process photos below)! I do hope you’ll try some royal icing decoration, but maybe with a little more forethought than I gave. There are some tutorials online for creating lovely butterflies, as I discovered after I’d already piped mine!

If you’re in a summery mood and would like some lovely lemon, whip up a batch of these fairycakes and enjoy! The recipe looks long because of the multiple parts (butterfly decorations, lemon curd filling, cupcakes, and frosting), but remember that you can leave the decorations out and still have a fantastic fairycake. I love to read about your results (and see photos!), so feel free to comment below.

Lemon Burst Fairycakes


Recipe By: Compiled and adapted by me, from:

Cupcake Ideas Now! (cupcakes, slightly adapted)
Nigella Lawson (royal icing for butterfly)
-Mom (buttercream, slightly adapted)
Fine Cooking (lemon curd)

Yields: 24-30 cupcakes

Royal Icing Butterfly Ingredients:
2 large egg whites (or substitute powdered egg whites)
3 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon lemon juice
food coloring in desired colors

Cupcake Ingredients:
1 cup butter flavored shortening (at room temperature)
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
5 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon almond flavoring
1 teaspoon butter flavoring
2 tablespoons lemon juice (can use more, to taste)
grated lemon zest
30 raspberries for filling

Lemon Curd Ingredients:
3 oz. (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
2/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

Buttercream Frosting Ingredients:
1 cup crisco (white) shortening
1 cup butter, softened
8 cups confectioner’s sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (can use clear if you want the frosting to be snow white)
1 teaspoon imitation almond flavoring
1 teaspoon imitation butter flavoring
2 tablespoon lemon juice
lemon zest, if desired
4-6 tablespoons sweet milk for thinning
royal icing butterflies for decoration

Directions:

Royal Icing Butterflies: Make your royal icing butterflies the night before you frost your cupcakes. Combine the egg whites and confectioners’ sugar in a medium-size mixing bowl and whip with an electric mixer on medium speed until opaque and shiny, about 5 minutes. Whisk in the lemon juice, this will thin out the icing. Beat for another couple of minutes until you reach the right consistency. Separate frosting into separate bowls for each color you want and add food coloring; mix. Put frosting in pastry bag and pipe out individual butterfly wings. Once fully dry, create a “valley” by creasing wax paper or foil (see picture below) to lay each wing in. Pipe body in the middle. Let dry overnight.

Lemon Curd: Make lemon curd in advance as well so it has time to chill and thicken. In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar with an electric mixer, about 2 min. Slowly add the eggs and yolks. Beat for 1 min. Mix in the lemon juice. The mixture will look curdled, but it will smooth out as it cooks. In a medium, heavy-based saucepan, cook the mixture over low heat until it looks smooth. (The curdled appearance disappears as the butter in the mixture melts.) Increase the heat to medium and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens, about 15 min. It should leave a path on the back of a spoon and will read 170°F on a thermometer. Don’t let the mixture boil. Remove the curd from the heat; stir in the lemon zest. Transfer the curd to a bowl. Press plastic wrap on the surface of the lemon curd to keep a skin from forming and chill the curd in the refrigerator. The curd will thicken further as it cools. Covered tightly, it will keep in the refrigerator for a week and in the freezer for 2 months.

Cupcakes: While butterflies are resting and curd is thickening, make cupcakes. Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees. Put shortening in a mixing bowl. Sift dry ingredients together in separate bowl. With a mixer, mix the dry ingredients in slowly with the shortening. Add 1 cup milk and the eggs to the dry ingredients and beat until flour is fully moistened. Add the remaining milk and the vanilla, almond, and butter flavoring. Add the lemon juice and lemon zest and beat for about another minute. Place paper liners in muffin pan and fill halfway full with the batter. Bake at 375 degrees F for 15 to 18 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the middle of a cupcake comes out clean.

When cupcakes are cool, cut a small hole in the center of each. Pipe or spoon in chilled lemon curd and top with one plump raspberry.

Lemon Buttercream frosting: Finally, make the buttercream frosting. Cream all ingredients together. Can add more sweet milk if needed. Frost completely cool cupcakes, using a pastry bag if available. I used star tip 1M. Use butterflies (dried overnight) to decorate!

Process Photos:


Royal icing butterfly wings piped out.



The crazy setup I used to create a “trench” for my butterfly wings. Butterfly
wings sit in the wax paper trench so that when their bodies are piped out, they
look like they’re in flight. Notice the use of Coke Zero to hold the wax
paper in place. That delicious beverage is so useful.



Cupcakes ready for baking.



Lemon curd cooking.



Finished lemon curd!


Fresh from the oven.



Filled with lemon curd and raspberries.



All frosted and decorated!



Enjoy!

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