Friday, December 31, 2010

The Year in Review

This is it. The last day of the year. Out with the old and brace yourself for the new. As a wrap-up of the year, I'm going to highlight some of my favorite things I blogged about the past 12 months. Let me know in the comments if I forgot to mention something you particularly loved. And if you'd like to leave a link to the favorite thing you've made this year, please do so!


Berry Powerful Bars

I love this bars and my kids get super happy every time I make them. It's so much cheaper than buying them in the store plus you have total control over ingredients. No BHT, unless you really want to add it.


Valentine's Checkerboard Red Velvet Cake

For the amount of kitchen time and recipe juggling this one took, the checkerboard cake wins. It looked stunning and tasted wonderful, plus it was a learning experience, my dress rehearsal for The Wedding Cake

An honorable mention had to go to the Double Decker Creme Brulée, though. Delicious!


Siren Peanut Butter Cookies

Cookies + peanut butter = fabulous! Need I say more?


Peanut Butter Whoopie Pies

Not only were these finger-licking delicious, I even got a special request from a friend to make these for her daughter's school's bake sale. She said they were gone in a flash.


Chococlate Cherry Brownies with Chocolate Ganache

Really, the name says it all.


Strawberry Macaron Pops

A fun twist on a classic macaron, and oh so cute!


Eden - ain't she purdy?

Although the Lemon Icebox Cake was pretty wonderful, the birth of my granddaughter was much more amazing.


Marionberry Honey Pops

What's better than a popsicle? Making it yourself!


Fruit Tarts

I was so pleased with how well these turned out. They looked elegant enough to serve at a luncheon, but we just pretty much scarfed them down because they were delicious, too.


Salted Peanut Brownies

In looking through my old posts I realize I have a brownie addiction. But seriously, how can you turn down the combination of chocolate, peanuts, and salt? Not happenin'.


White Chocolate Chunk Cookies

Generous chunks of white chocolate make these irresistible!


Truly I've Been Good Cookies

I loved the taste and texture of these cookies. Dense, moist, and with a taste that draws you back for just one more. Or two.

As you can see, it's been a great year. And looking back over all my baked treats, I've come to one conclusion - I need to go work out! See you next year!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Sweet Farewell

Christmas is over and with it my mania for baking sweets. When the calendar flips over to December it's as though a starting gun goes off and I race to the kitchen and pile the counters high with cookbooks, looking for the perfect cookies to give, pies to please, and new candies to try. Bowls litter the counters, flour dusts the flour, and marvelous smells pour forth from my oven. We might not get an actual dinner on the table, but there are at least 4 different things to choose from for dessert!

Add to that baked bounty the gifts that come in from friends and neighbors and by the time I'm cleaning up wrapping paper and writing thank you notes, I'm done with sugar! I shut my cookbooks and put them away. Any items left unchecked on my "to bake" list will just have to wait until next year.

You probably feel the same way, too, but bear with me while I share one more sweet treat. This was a recipe that sort of evolved from a couple of different sources and it turned out wonderfully! I made it with no clear idea of what I was going to do with the brownies, but it was great to have a pan of treats on hand. Company dropped by - "Here, take a plate of brownies with you." Our favorite mail lady who's so thoughtful and always has a smile and a wave for us - "Put a plate of brownies in the mail box for her." I have a meeting at work - "Take in a plate of brownies; maybe they'll let you out early." The brownies are so rich, that a panful went a long way.

You might not want to make these now, so bookmark the recipe for next year. But if you've still got room for one more peppermint and chocolate indulgence, go for it! I'll bet you can find candy canes and cookies on sale now, too.

Peppermint Fudge Brownies

1 cup (2 sticks) butter
2-1/4 cups sugar
1-1/4 cups Dutch-process cocoa
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1-1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1-1/2 tsp peppermint extract
4 large eggs
1-1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
16-20 peppermint sandwich cookies (I used Trader Joe's Jo Jos), crushed


1-1/2 cups white chocolate chips
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 cup confectioners sugar
2/3 to 1 cup crushed candy canes

1- Preheat oven to 350 deg. F. Lightly grease a 9 x 13-inch pan.

2- In a small saucepan set over low heat, melt the butter then add the sugar and stir to combine. Heat briefly, just till it's hot and shiny looking, but not bubbling. Transfer the mixture to a mixing bowl.

3- Add to the mixing bowl the cocoa, salt, baking powder, vanilla, and peppermint extract. Add the eggs, beating till smooth. Stir in the flour and the crushed cookies, beating till well combined. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.

4- Bake for 28 to 30 minutes, until a cake tester or toothpick inserted in the center comes out with just a few crumbs clinging to it. Remove from the oven to a cooling rack to cool to room temperature.

5- While the brownies cool, make the frosting by heating the white chocolate chips and cream in a bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Stir until the chips are dissolved. Remove the bowl from the heat and stir in the confectioner's sugar. If the mixture seems to runny, you can add in up to another 1/2 cup confectioners' sugar to achieve the right consistency. Be aware, though, that it will firm up as it cools.

6- Spread the mixture over the cooled (or barely warm) brownies, smoothing the top. Sprinkle the crushed candy canes over the top evenly. Allow the pan to sit undisturbed till the frosting has set up before cutting into squares.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Day Before Christmas

Twas the day before Christmas
And all through the day
Mama was baking
And had nothing to say
No witty little stories,
No comments, no puns,
Just visions of candies
And cookies and buns.

So here's a quick cookie
For you to bake
And lay out tonight
For Santa to take.

For whether you think
Santa's real or a fake
The cookies will vanish
Before it's daybreak!

Truly I've Been Good Cookies
- adapted from Fat Witch Brownies

12 Tbsp (1-1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup packed light brown sugar
2 large egg yolks
1-3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
1-1/4 cups dried cranberries
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 tbsp grated orange zest

1- Preheat oven to 350 deg. F. with a rack in the center. Grease a 9 x 9-inch baking pan with butter and dust with flour, shaking out the excess.

2- In a mixing bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. Add the egg yolks and mix until well combined.

3- Sift or sieve the flour and salt directly into the batter. Mix gently until well combined and no trace of the flour remains.

4- In a small bowl, stir together the cranberries, granulate sugar, and orange zest. Add these to the batter and mix in by hand with a wooden spoon.

5- Spread the batter evenly in the prepared pan. The batter will be thick and lumpy. Use your hands to press it evenly in the pan.

6- Bake for 30 minutes, until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with only crumbs, not batter, on it.

7- Let cool on a rack for 1 hour. To serve, cut into thirds, rotate the pan and cut into thirds again (making 9 squares). Then cut each square in half, making 18 triangles.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

What To Give?

The last week I've spent lots of time at the computer deleting increasingly hysterical emails from retailers who assure me that they can Deliver By Christmas, They have the Best Deals, and They have The Perfect Gift. Oh, and Time's Running OUT! Just in case I didn't feel the same sense of urgency they did. I don't.

All of my shopping is done. Most of my wrapping is done. And almost all of my mailing is done. (Brother-in-law, you won't get it by Christmas, but that package should get there by Groundhog's Day.) So what's left to do? Why, bake, of course!

I'm enjoying these last days before Christmas spending time in the kitchen with my kids, making stuff to give away to the neighbors. Because no matter what my frantic e-mails say, what people like is food. And not just food that was made in a factory 5 months ago, something homemade with love that's delicious.

This recipe came from our very favorite neighbor. She used to have baking dates with my daughter and after an afternoon of baking, my daughter would come home with a treat for us. When she brought home this loaf, we all loved it so much I asked for the recipe. And this year our neighbor's getting a loaf from us. What goes around comes around!

Cranberry Orange Bread
- from Fabulous Neighbor Karen
Makes 1 loaf or 2 mini loaves

2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
zest of 1 orange
Juice of 1 orange + enough water to = 3/4 cup liquid
1 beaten egg
1-1/2 cups raw cranberries, cut in half
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts (optional)

1- Preheat oven to 350 deg. Grease loaf pan(s).

2- Sift or sieve together the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and baking soda into a mixing bowl.

2- In a separate bowl, mix together the oil, zest, liquid, and egg. Add this mixture all at once to the dry mixture and stir until the flour is almost all incorporated. You don't want to overmix.

3- Fold in the cranberries and nuts. Any bits of flour should disappear as you do this.

4- Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan or mini loaf pans. Bake for 1 hour for a large loaf, or 45 minutes for 2 small loaf pans. Remove to a wire rack to cool to room temperature before wrapping to give, or slicing to eat.

Note: Because you don't want to overmix the batter, it's a bit tricky to double this recipe. I made two batches, side by side, to double it and make 4 mini loaves. If you make just one big double batch, you have to overwork the batter to incorporate everything and end up with a tough loaf.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Christmases Past

I've been visited by the ghost of Christmas past, revisiting childhood memories. For some reason, childhood puts such a gloss on plain things, investing them with a magic that time corrodes and reality degrades.

One of my favorite Christmas memories is of when my sisters and I would gather around the piano and sing Christmas carols as my mother played. We sang in the glow of special, gorgeous candles that were only lit at Christmas time. It wasn't until years later that I figured out the candles were really ugly. Tree-shaped, drippy candles with gilt on the dribbling blobs. Seriously ugly. But I thought they were amazing because they were our carol-singing candles.

Decorating the house was part of the fun of the season. We'd pull out the great ornaments like the felt Mrs. Clause mail holder that hung on a hook, the Christmas cards going into her apron, and the felt Santa Clause head toilet seat cover. It never occurred to me that they might be a wee bit on the tacky side.

Every year we would anticipate the arrival of the Christmas package from the grandparents back East. Every year Grandma would send the same treats packed into a coffee tin - a layer of plan, flavorless, bland cookies, and a layer of chocolate, nut toffee. Guess which layer the kids plunged into? The cookies we spurned, but the chocolate was gone in a flash.

I still am a sucker for the chocolate toffee, but my memory of those cookies has been proved false. They're not bland, they're just not over sweet. They have a subtle comfort that invites you to have a couple of cookies with your hot cocoa and a firm, but not dry, texture that says it's OK to dunk. I've found that I really like them!

Part of what makes these cookies great is their social nature. It's easy to gather family or friends to roll and shape them. The traditional shaping is supposed to be a wreath, but it tends to look a bit like a fish. What do you think?

Chicago Kisses
- Grandma Wilma's recipe

1 lb. (4 sticks) unsalted butter
2 cups sugar
4 hardboiled egg yolks
4 eggs
8 cups flour
extra granulated sugar for topping
sparkling colored sugar (optional)

1- In a large mixing bowl, cream together the butter, sugar, and hardboiled egg yolks.

2- Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each one. Add the flour, a cup at a time, until the flour is all incorporated. Most likely you'll have to muscle in the last couple of cups by hand with a wooden spoon.

3- Cover the dough and chill in the refrigerator for at least an hour, or up to overnight.

4- Preheat the oven to 400 deg. F with racks dividing the oven into thirds. Place the extra granulated sugar in a shallow bowl. If desired, stir in colored sugar. You can divide the sugar between two bowls if you'd like half your cookies red and half your cookies green.

5- Take a small chunk of dough (about 2 TBSP worth) and roll it into a "worm" on a clean countertop. Overlap the ends to form a wreath (or fish), and dredge the cookie in the sugar. Place the cookie on an ungreased baking sheet.

6- When the baking sheet is full, bake for about 10 minutes, just until the edges are barely starting to brown.

7- Remove to a cooling rack. Repeat with the remaining dough.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Kitchen Tip

I know I've been a bad blogger. As someone who's name proudly proclaims a love of cookies, I feel like I should have a new cookie post up every day. As you can see, that hasn't happened. I have done some baking, though. If you came here for a cookie fix, you'll need to click your mouse once more to see my post on making molded cookies over on Simple Bites. Easy, elegant, and gift-worthy - you won't want to miss it!

In the meantime, I've got just a brief kitchen tip for you - How to cope with onions.

Chopping onions can be a painful experience for me. If the onions are strong, my eyes burn and tears stream down my face. Although it might look funny, it's anything but fun. My kids have learned that it's not smart to laugh at a crying woman wielding a sharp knife, no matter how hilarious she looks.

A kitchen catalog promised the solution to my woes. It advertised a set of goggles that seal against the eye socket, protecting the eyes from onion fumes. The price tag made me hesitate about ordering a pair, and while hesitating, I had a brain wave.

Was I not the mother of two swimmers? Wasn't my house littered with swim goggles? And don't swim goggles, by definition, seal against the eye socket? Yes, yes, and yes!

So now, when it's time to chop onions, I no longer have to endure the painful, streaming eyes. True, I look like a doofus, but at least I'm not crying! (And, yes, there are pictures documenting just what a doofus I look like, but my husband has been threatened sufficiently that they will NEVER show up on Facebook!)

Friday, December 10, 2010

Close Enough Cookies

Does everyone else have someone in their life like I do, someone who is such a paragon of every virtue, that she's impossible to match? Like Mary Poppins, she's practically perfect in every way.

One of the highlights of the Christmas season for my family is the arrival of the annual Christmas card/newsletter from Mary Poppins. There is, of course, the family portrait. All the children wear matching outfits, usually in velvet and lace. Nary a rip, hole, or stain in sight. And they're all smiling. And they don't look like they just got bribed to stop punching each other. Weird.

Then comes the best part - the newsletter highlights of the year. Each child is profiled, pointing out their excellence in all possible areas of achievement. The guest seat in the orchestra, the blue ribbon at the state-wide debate competition, the early admission to college, the full scholarship to Oxford, the governor's award for starting an outreach mission to homeless people, an orphanage in Africa, and bringing meals to shut-ins daily. And that's just the kids. The adults would be named saints, if they were Catholic.

I don't send out a newsletter. There's no way I can compete with that. I do, however, sometimes think it would be fun to send out an anti-newsletter. It would read something like this:

Seasons' greetings!

I hope this letter finds you all well. It's been such an exciting year for us, that I can't wait to share it all.

Garth, our oldest, is doing exceptionally well. He's gotten such high letters of commendation, that we're very hopeful that they'll knock some time off his sentence. He might be out as soon as spring. Not too, soon, though, as he still needs to complete his vocational training in the joint, learning to sew jumpsuits. No point in getting out if he still has to hold up gas stations to pay the rent! LOL

Cletus is loving his school classes. He's figured out the difference between airplanes and choo choo trains. What a smart cookie he is. Not everyone in his high school has got that yet.

Bambi had her third baby in November. He's cute as a button, but looks nothing like his siblings. We can't figure out why she keeps getting pregnant, but hopefully her junior high will cover that next year.

In August Rufus and I got a second honeymoon. His convenience store clerk convention was in Atlanta this year and we got to go! As a perk for being employee of the month, we got a private tour of the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum. Can you say goose bumps?

Anyway, you can see that life has been really rich and full for us this year. I hope that you are at least 1/5 as blessed as we have been! Merry Christmas!

Oh, yeah, why strive for excellence when sarcasm is so much easier?

I'm kind of the same about cookies. I always stop and oggle the gorgeously decorated cookies in bakeries, but do I take the time to make them? Nope. I'd much rather plop delicious dough onto baking sheets and eat the cookies while they're still warm and the chocolate is gooey. It's easier and tastes better. So what if they don't look fancy and perfect? If you care, I won't share.

Salted Butter Cookies
- adapted from David Lebovitz

4 ounces (115g) salted butter, at room temperature
⅔ cup packed (110g) dark or light brown sugar
½ cup (100g) granulated sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ⅓ cup (180g) flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon flaky sea salt or kosher salt
1 ⅓ cups (200g) coarsely chopped bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
1 cup toasted nuts, coarsely chopped

1. In the bowl of a stand mixer beat the butter and sugars just until smooth and creamy.

2. Beat in the egg and the vanilla.

3. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt.

4. Stir the flour mixture into the beaten butter until combined, then mix in the chopped chocolate (including any chocolate dust) and the chopped nuts.

5. Cover and chill the batter until firm, preferably overnight.

6. To bake the cookies, preheat the oven to 350ºF (180ºC). Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.

7. Form the cookie dough into rounds about the size of a large unshelled walnut. Place the mounds evenly spaced apart on the baking sheets, and press down the tops to flatten them so they are no longer domed and the dough is even.

8. Bake the cookies for ten minutes, rotating the baking sheet midway during baking, until the cookies look about set, but are not browned.

9. Remove from the oven and quickly tap the top of each with a spatula, then return to the oven for two to five more minutes, until the tops of the cookies are light golden brown.

Remove from oven and let cookies cool.

Storage: The cookies can be stored at room temperature for up to five days in an airtight container. The dough can be refrigerated for up to one week or frozen for one or two months.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Advent Fasting

Every year I have great hopes of doing something meaningful for Advent, something marking the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. I have purchased advent wreaths with purple and pink candles and booklets with Advent readings. Great plan, but the problem is that the first Sunday of Advent always sneaks past me. Any attempt to do an Advent tradition after that seems lame and kind of like playing catch-up.

This year the first Sunday of Advent was the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Right. I'm supposed to be aware of that when I'm still in a Turkey coma, recovering from my Black Friday 4 am shopping expedition? I didn't even think of it until I flipped the calendar to December and said, "Shoot, I missed it again!"

So, rather than trying to shoehorn another "better late than never" project into the schedule, one more "to do" item, I thought about taking something out of our schedule. If the point of Christmas is celebrating Jesus' birthday, why not give Him a gift this year? So instead of lighting candles and reading verses, yesterday, we tried a bold experiment. We fasted. Not a food fast. An electronics fast. No TV, no video games, no iPods, and, most painful of all, no computers. All that was allowed was Christmas music.

It was painful, but illuminating. The urge to "just go check that online" showed us just how dependent we are on our electronic infotainment. And the cow-out my son had when he couldn't watch a TV show clearly illustrated how desperately we needed this fast.

How did we do? There were tiny cheats (like looking at the new granddaughter pictures online), but we did pretty well. And the best part was sitting down to eat dinner, discussing plans for the coming year, and then clearing away the dishes and playing Taboo together. It felt like connecting with each other in a new and nice way. I don't know about the rest of the family, but I'm looking forward to seeing how it goes next week.

In the mean time, here are the cookies I made during the fast. They weren't perfect, which always bugs me, but they were fun to do with my son and they gave me some good ideas to try on other cookies. The glaze was a bit thick, so the cookies came out kind of clumpy looking and there wasn't enough to cover all the cookies. If you have a favorite dipping method or recipe, try that with these.

The options listed in the recipe for finishing the cookies were to drizzle with melted white chocolate (mine had the consistency of play dough, so didn't "drizzle," rather it laid tracks) or to sprinkle with coarse sugar. When I tasted the cookie it seemed a bit bland, so I decided to sprinkle on coarse sea salt instead. That combination worked really well. Chocolate plus salt is always a winner.

Please leave me a comment and let me know what you do to keep the focus of Christmas where it belongs!

Chocolate Covered Pretzel Cookies
- adapted from the International Cookie Book by Nancy Baggett

2-1/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 cup plus 3 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp salt
5-1/2 Tbsp unsalted butter, slightly softened
1/3 cup granulated sugar
3 Tbsp light corn syrup
2 large eggs
1-1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup finely ground walnuts
2 oz bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, finely grated


1 cup powdered sugar
1/3 cup plus 1 Tbsp coffee
1 tsp shortening (I used coconut oil)
1 tsp light corn syrup
6 oz bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped


1 to 2 Tbsp coarse decorative sugar
OR 1 to 2 Tbsp coarse sea salt
OR 1-1/2 oz white chocolate, melted

1- In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt and set aside.

2- In the bowl of an electric mixer beat the butter on medium speed until light and fluffy. Add the sugar and corn syrup and beat until well blended and light. Add the eggs and vanilla and continue beating. Your batter may separate into curds at this point - don't be alarmed. It will all come together when you add the dry ingredients.

3- Gradually beat in about half of the dry ingredients until thoroughly incorporated. Beat in the ground walnuts and chocolate. Add in remaining dry ingredients and stir till smooth.

4- Divide the dough in half. Shape each half into an evenly thick 6-inch long log. Wrap each log in plastic wrap and refrigerate for about an hour until the dough is chilled, but not hard.

5- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees with a rack in the center of the oven. Grease 2 or 3 baking sheets.

6- Working with one dough portion at a time, cut the log into 12 equal sections. Take one section, briefly knead it to soften it slightly, then roll it back and forth on a clean surface to make a rope 10 to 12 inches long that is evenly thick. Shape the rope into a pretzel and place the pretzel on the baking sheet.

7- Repeat the process for the remaining 11 pieces of dough and place the baking sheet in the oven for 9 to 11 minutes, or until edges are just beginning to brown. Remove from the oven and let stand for a minute or two before transferring the pretzels to a wire rack set over waxed paper.

8- While the first batch is baking, repeat the shaping process with the second batch of dough. Bake the second batch while the first batch is cooling.

9 - When all of the pretzels are cooled, make the glaze. Measure the powdered sugar into a medium, heavy saucepan Add the coffee, shortening (or coconut oil), and corn syrup. Place over medium heat and bring to a boil, stirring. Remove from the heat, add the chopped chocolate, and stir until melted and smooth.

10- Using tongs or two forks, dip the pretzels, one at a time into the glaze to coat all over. If the glaze seems too thick, thing it with a few drops of water or coffee. Shake off the excess glaze and place the pretzels, right side up, on wire rack to drain. Sprinkle with coarse sugar or salt at this point, if you're using either of those. Or let them stand until the glaze sets and then drizzle them lightly with melted white chocolate.

11- Let the pretzels stand for 5 minutes. Then carefully lift and reposition them so they don't stick to the rack. Let stand until the glaze is completely set, about 30 minutes longer.

The pretzels are the best the day they are made, but may be stored in an airtight container for 2 or 3 days. They may be frozen unglazed, then thawed completely and glazed prior to serving, if desired. Makes 24 pretzels.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Avalanche is Coming

The calendar is about to flip over to the last month of the year. Sigh. Where has the time gone? It seems as though each year starts out slowly, like a pebble that only moves when you kick it along, but by the end is going so fast, it's like an avalanche that buries you.

January is a letdown after all the excitement and activity of December. It's just dull, boring back-to-routine stuff.

February - oh, to know the true meaning of February blues you have to live in the Pacific Northwest where we don't see the sun for a whole month. Rain and overcast skies alternate for 28 days, 29 if we're not well behaved.

March always tantalizes us with one week of sun when we put on short and t-shirts in 60 degree weather, slather on sunscreen, and are certain that for once summer has come early. But it lies.

April is filled with spring showers. That makes it sound like something light and delightful. Nope. Basically more of the same.

May starts to look better. The end of the school year is ahead. Summer vacation plans are made. Stores stock bikinis and flip-flops. Even though it's still raining, there's hope and we can dream.

June is an agonizing month. Children are still trapped in school and each day seems like an eternity for them. The warm summer days are almost, but not quite, here.

In July things pick up speed. The days are full with trips to the Farmer's Markets, travel, camps, reading new books, and just reveling in the sunshine.

August goes by even faster. We have to cram in as much summer as we can before the inevitable return of school. Trips to the beach are capped off by back-to-school shopping.

September gains momentum. It's a month of readjustment, figuring out new schedules with school, lessons, study dates or play dates with new friends (depending on the age of the child), and trying to cram six new commitments into the old schedule because of the inability to say "no."

October goes by so quickly that Halloween creeps up behind you and says "boo!" while you're still trying to make a papier maché Bobba Fett head for your child's costume.

November passes by in a blur of holiday planning, anticipation, baking, eating, and shopping.

Which brings us to December. Watch out folks, it's going to go by so fast, you'll get whiplash trying to track it. It's the busiest month of the year, and people are always telling us how we can make it busier yet. There are presents to make or buy, wrapping to be done, and packages to be mailed. Then the house needs to be cleaned and decorated for the holidays. If you're not exhausted yet, why not host a holiday get-together? A cookie exchange, a white elephant gift exchange, or an elegant cocktail party? Any or all of those should be easy to squeeze into your free time, right?

Am I making you depressed? Anxious? Overwhelmed? I'm going to give you two secrets to surviving the season.

1- A pair of scissors. Just take all of your lists and cut them in half. Do you really need to get gifts for everyone in the extended family? Do you really need to hand make gifts for everyone in the office? Will Great Uncle Bob's next-door neighbor's barber really feel slighted if he doesn't get a card from you? Look at your list and evaluate what's important, what brings joy, and what is most closely tied to the reason for the season.

2- Cookies. I know for some people the baking associated with Christmas is stressful. But for the people like me, the weird, baking-obsessed people, it's an excuse to fire up the oven and perfume the house with the delightful smells of peppermint, gingerbread, and cinnamon. And cookies don't have to be picture perfect, just tasty. You can even invite friends over to bake with you. You'll have more fun rolling, dipping, flattening, and frosting than you would at a stuffy, formal cocktail party. At least, I would.

This recipe has a new technique that I love and plan on using again. It incorporates finely grated white chocolate into the batter, and then big chunks of white chocolate are pressed into the top. You might think the chunks are too big - trust me, the kids love them. And the husbands, too.

Keep this recipe handy and when it all gets too much for you, take a baking break. Put on your favorite tunes, warm up the kitchen, and then indulge in a cookie or two. It'll refresh your spirit in no time!

Winter Cheer Cookies
- adapted from The International Cookie Cookbook by Nancy Baggett

3/4 cup (1-1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, slightly softened
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
8 oz. best quality white chocolate
1-1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt*
3 Tbsp granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup coarsely chopped unsalted macadamia nuts*

(* Reduce salt to 1/8 tsp if salted macadamia nuts are used. Unsalted is preferred, but they can be hard to find.)

1- Place the butter in a heavy medium-sized saucepan over medium-low heat. Heat until butter boils and bubbles very gently, but steadily. Adjust heat as necessary to prevent butter from burning and continue simmering uncovered for 4 to 5 minutes, or until it is golden but not browned, stirring frequently. Don't burn it!

2- Immediately remove pan from heat and stir in brown sugar. Pour the mixture into a large mixing bowl and refrigerate an hour, or until mixture resolidifies but is not hard.

3- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F with rack in the center of the oven. Prepare several baking sheets with parchment paper..

4- Grate 3 oz. of the white chocolate. Set it aside. Coarsely chop the remaining white chocolate and set it aside, also.

5- In a medium mixing bowl whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt, and set aside.

6- Remove the mixing bowl from the refrigerator and beat the cooled buttero-brown sugar mixture until lightened. Add granulated sugar and beat until fluffy and smooth. Beat in egg and vanilla. Beat in dry ingredients. Add the grated white chocolate and half of the chopped white chocolate, and nuts and stir until well combined.

7- Roll dough into generous 1-1/2 inch balls. Dip the top of each ball into the remaining chopped white chocolate, pressing lightly to imbed some pieces in the dough. Space the balls, chunk-studded side up, about 2o-1/4 inches apart on baking sheets (the cookies will spread as they bake). Press down the top of the balls just slightly with the heel of your hand.

8- Place in the oven and bake for 9 to 11 minutes or until just tinged with brown. Reverse baking sheets from front to back halfway though baking to ensure even browning. Be very careful not to overbake. Remove baking sheets from the oven and let stand for 4 to 5 minutes (the cookies will continue to bake from the heat of the cookie sheet). Transfer cookies to wire racks to cool.

Store in an airtight container for 3 to 4 days. Makes about 25 3 to 3-1/4 inch cookies.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Random Thoughts Before Breakfast

Sometimes my brain goes on sabbatical. Instead of focusing on the tasks at hand, it wanders far afield, contemplating the origins of the word "obfuscate", pondering what Pride and Prejudice would be like if it were set in Miami, and internally debating the merits of combining gingerbread with lemon vs. white chocolate (watch for the fruit of this debate in a future post).

One of my frequent random thought rabbit trails is "why are things the way they are?" Why, for instance, is it the norm in the United States to plant a front yard full of grass? Why not an herb garden that needs less maintenance and yields something useful?

Why is light red the only color group that gets its own name? We have light blue and light green and pink. Maybe we should have blunk and greenk as well.

Why do waiters at swanky restaurants wield pepper grinders that could double as renaissance weapons? Do they fear an uprising of the patrons when the bills arrive?

And why is our entire food culture based on wheat? There are a bunch of other grains out there, many of them higher in nutrition than wheat. So why is wheat the normal flour, rye is borderline normal, and all others are funky, weirdo hippie grains?

Whatever the reason, the rebel inside me likes to occasionally buck the trend and bake with different flours.

These were fun, easy pancakes to make. The spelt gave them a sweeter flavor than regular wheat pancakes, and they texture was nice and light, not the brickishness usually associated with whole grains.

Simple Spelt Pancakes
- adapted from King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking

2 cups ( 7 oz) whole spelt flour
2 Tbsp (7/8 oz) sugar
1 Tbsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
1-3/4 cup (14 oz) milk
2 Tbsp (1 oz) unsalted butter, melted
2 tsp vanilla (optional)

1- In a medium bowl, whisk together the spelt flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. In a separate bowl, combine the milk, melted butter, and vanilla, if you're using it.

2- Form a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour the wet ingredients into the dry. Stir the batter just until the dry ingredients are thoroughly moistened; it will seem very thin and soupy. Let the batter sit for 15 minutes; the spelt will absorb the excess liquid and the batter will be much thicker.

3- Heat a nonstick griddle or heavy cast-iron skillet. Brush lightly with vegetable oil (or my new favorite, coconut oil). When the surface is hot enough to make a drop of water skip and hiss in the pan, spoon the batter onto the pan, 1/4-cupful at a time.

4- Cook until bubbles begin to form around the edges of the pancakes, 2 to 3 minutes. When they are just beginning to set, flip them and cook the second side about a minute more.

Depending on the how the first round of pancakes turned out, you might need to adjust your heat up or down.

Serve with good butter and your favorite syrup. Be prepared to be adored by those you share these with!

* One last question - milk comes from mammals, so how to you make milk from a grain? Does one have teeny tiny hands to milk the rice grains? Probably not. Can you make milk from spelt? If so, I'm sure there's no use crying over it.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Toddler Treats

Everyone knows that when you're pregnant what you eat matters. Every bite should count to make sure you're getting the proper nutrition your baby needs, and that you're not feeding your growing baby nasty, toxic stuff. Even after they're born babies aren't fully finished developing and need special food developed just for their tender digestive systems that augments their brain development and builds their immune systems (it's called breastmilk, in case you were wondering).

So why is it that after they start eating solids, common wisdom says to load up their little bodies with.....umm..... how can I phrase this delicately?.....poop? Ok, that wasn't that delicate, but you get my drift. If you look at the "toddler foods" section in a grocery store and start reading labels, it's appalling. It becomes something of a game to see if you can find anything that doesn't have High Fructose Corn Syrup. Or hydrogenated fats. Really? This is what we're supposed to feed that precious miracle that took so long to grow?

Fortunately, a baker, like a three year old, can "do it myself!" So as the first in an ongoing effort to "redo" classic kids foods, preparing for when my granddaughter comes over to Gramma's for a snack, here's my take on graham crackers. They have whole grain nutrition and taste great! Perfect food for my little sweetie to suck on, gum up, crumble on the carpet, feed to the hamster, and fill up the cracks of her carseat with.

If the sugar amount is too much for you, you can play with that. But because sugar is considered a liquid in baking, be aware that reducing the sugar will affect the texture and consistency of your crackers. To add a little more kid appeal to them, I used my zoo animal cutters, but the dough was kind of sticky for that. Next time, I'll just roll them out and cut them in squares like the ones at the store.

Gramma's Graham Crackers
- adapted from King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking

1 cup (4 oz) whole wheat flour
1/2 cup (2 oz) whole barley flour
1/2 cup (2 oz) graham flour
1/4 cup (1-7/8 oz) packed light or dark brown sugar
2 Tbsp granulated sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup ( 1 stick) unsalted butter, chilled
1/4 cup (2 oz) milk
2 Tbsp honey
Cinnamon-sugar (optional)

1- Combine flours, sugars, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt in a mixing bowl or bowl of a food processor. Cut or process the chilled butter into the dry ingredients until very crumbly.

2- Add the milk and honey and combine until you have a stiff dough - you may need to add a bit more or less milk.

3- Knead the dough lightly till it's smooth, cut it into 2 pieces and flatten each into a rectangle. Wrap each in plastic wrap and chill until firm, about 1 hour, or overnight.

4- Preheat the oven to 350 deg. F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper.

5- Working with one piece of dough at a time, turn it out onto a floured surface and roll it to 1/16th-inch thickness. The thinner you roll it, the crisper the cracker. If you prefer, you can roll your dough out directly onto the parchment paper, to save the step of transferring.

6- When you're done rolling, trim the edges so you have a 9 x 12-inch rectangle. Set the scraps from both pieces aside and roll them for a third rectangle.

7- Cut the dough into 3-inch squares, then cut each square in half. Prick the crackers several times with a fork and place the crackers on the prepared baking sheet. If you rolled onto the parchment paper, this step is done. If you like, sprinkle the crackers with the optional cinnamon-sugar.

8- Bake the crackers until they're lightly browned, 12 to 15 minutes. They'll brown more quickly if they have cinnamon-sugar on top. Remove the crackers from the oven, transfer to a rack, and let cool completely before serving.

Monday, November 15, 2010

RX - Carbs

My husband is big on preparedness. We have first aid kits in our cars, in the bathroom, and in the garden shed (in case the earthquake flattens the house and we can't get to the other ones; although if the house is flattened, I don't think a first aid kit with aspirin, bandaids, and ace wraps is going to cut it).

Also in the shed we have a stockpile of two liter jugs filled with water. We don't have a two-year supply of food, but we do keep the pantry stocked. And any room in our house has a supply of candles and matches or flashlights. Or both.

This past weekend we had an emergency. My husband took a misstep on the stairs and ended up at the emergency room with a nasty bad sprained ankle. It was very stressful to watch my husband in so much pain and to have to drive him to the emergency room. Thank heavens that I, too, believe in preparedness.

The best non-prescription way to soothe jangled nerves is with carbs. Carbs and chocolate. So it was a good thing that my cookie jar was stocked. I'd just made a new kind of chocolate chip cookie - kind of a hybrid between a molasses cookie and a chocolate chip cookie. Soft and chewy, chocolatey, it's the just what the doctor ordered for my jittery nerves and upset tummy. Don't believe me? Try it for yourself and see if you don't feel better.

Soft Whole Grain Chocolate Chip Cookies
- adapted from King Arthur Flour

6 Tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar, lightly packed
3 Tbsp molasses
2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp espresso powder
3/4 tsp salt
1 Tbsp cider vinegar
1 large egg
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
2 cups King Arthur White Whole Wheat Flour
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips

1- Preheat the oven to 350 deg. F and position oven racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

2- In a large bowl, beat together the butter, sugars, molasses, vanilla, espresso powder, and salt till smooth. Beat in the vinegar, egg, baking soda, and baking powder. Stir in the flour, then the chocolate chips, mixing JUST till combined.

3- Drop the dough, by tablespoonfuls, onto the prepared baking sheets. Bake the cookies for 10 to 11 minutes, until they're just set on top and beginning to brown around the edges. Remove them from the oven and allow them to sit for 5 minutes on the baking sheet before transferring them to a rack to cool completely.

Yield: about 3 dozen cookies

(Disclaimer: I am not a qualified medical practitioner. The advice here is offered purely for humorous and gastronomic enjoyment. Please do not take this advice without first consulting your doctor, nutritionist, or your own common sense.)

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Sleeping the Pounds Off

First off - we have a winner! Actually, 2 of them. Nicole, congratulations, you won the Mitford Cookbook and Kitchen Reader. And Carol, you won the newest Mitford novel, In the Company of Others. Congratulations and happy baking and reading!

Thank you to the publishers for sending me a preview copy of the cookbook and for allowing me to be a part of this giveaway!


I recently read an article stating that lack of sleep could make you fat. I find this very comforting. Apparently, it's not the things I bake and eat that are making my jeans tight, it's my sleep habits!

It's ridiculous the number of brownies that are on my blog. I know this, but I'm not good at turning down another opportunity to make brownies. When I see a new recipe that promises to be "the best," or someone's "absolute favorite," I just have to try it to see if they're right. The only thing that holds me back is knowing that if I bake the brownies, I will eat them.

Thank goodness I found out about the sleep thing. Now I can bake the brownies, do an extensive taste-testing, and then go sleep it off. It's all good.

Speaking of good, these brownies are. They straddle the line between fudgy and cakey perfectly, plus they have the bonus of nut crunch. I vastly prefer brownies to have nuts. It makes them taste better and gives your teeth something to do while your tongue is getting a chocolate spa treatment.

Are they the very best out there? I'll leave that for you to decide. Just be sure to have a nap after your sampling so the calories don't cling to your waist.

Robert's Absolute Best Brownies
-adapted from Ready for Dessert by David Lebovitz

6 Tbsp unsalted or salted butter, cut into pieces
8 oz bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1/4 Cup all-purpose flour
1 cup walnuts; almonds, hazelnuts, or pecans, toasted and coarsely chopped

1- Preheat the oven to 350 deg. F. Using a large sheet of foil, line a 9-inch square pan, with foil extending beyond the edges of the pan. Lightly grease the foil with butter.

2- In a medium saucepan over low heat, melt the butter, then add the chocolate and stir until the chocolate is melted and smooth. Remove from the heat and stir in the sugar and vanilla until combined. Beat in the eggs one at a time. Add the flour and stir energetically for 1 full minute (very important!), until the batter loses it's graininess becomes smooth and glossy, and pulls away a bit from the sides of the saucepan. Stir in the chopped nuts.

3- Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake until the center feels almost set, about 30 minutes. Don't overbake.

4- Let cool completely in the pan on a wire rack. When cool, use the foil overhang as handles to remove the brownies from the pan.

The brownies will keep well for up to 4 days at room temperature.

Monday, November 1, 2010

I Love Cakes and Giveaways!

I love reading a fabulous book with engaging characters, believable settings, and engrossing story lines. Even better is finding out that the book is the first in a series, knowing there are many hours of reading pleasure ahead.

That's how I felt when a friend introduced me to At Home In Mitford, by Jan Karon. The tale of a small town priest and how he got a dog, and discovered he had diabetes, and was introduced to a beautiful new neighbor, and....I know, it sounds pretty dull when I say it. But in the hands of Jan Karon, it is a page-turner. As you read, you can't wait to find out what happens next to the characters that you come to love.

I was with a group of women and we were discussing what books we'd recently read. Most of them were Oprah picks, fairly gritty and grim. Then one woman mentioned the Mitford books and a wave, like a sigh of happiness went around the room. Once woman summed it up best - "Reading the Mitford books is like putting on a pair of soft, flannel pajamas and fuzzy slippers."

When I was approached by the publisher, asking if I'd like to do a blog giveaway of the new paperback edition of the Mitford cookbook, I naturally jumped for joy and shouted, "Yes, yes!" That was a waste of time, since they were asking by email, but I had to do it anyway, because I was so excited.

The cookbook is wonderful. Besides giving full recipes for comestibles that are mentioned in the books, there are quotes, book excerpts, charming illustrations, and kitchen tips. This must be why it's called Jan Karon's Mitford Cookbook & Kitchen Reader. You'll have plenty to read while you're roasting a chicken, baking Deep Dish Blackberry Pie, or cooling a Rhubarb Tart. Plus you can learn about how to season a cast-iron pan, how to keep strawberries fresh for ten days, and how to take starch build-up off an iron. And how can you help but love a cookbook that has four different biscuit recipes?

It was easy choosing which recipe to make for this post. The signature dish of Esther Bolick was her Orange Marmalade Cake. It was an easy win in any baking competition, a sure fire fund-raiser at a bake sale, and the recipe was jealously guarded.

In the cookbook Jan Karon reveals that at every speaking engagement, she'd get requests for the recipe. People wrote to her begging for the recipe. The problem was that there was no recipe. The cake was a work of fiction!

Finally, Scott Peacock, a well-known chef, was commissioned to create a recipe in keeping with the fame of the cake. And boy, did he get it right. The cake is amazingly moist, flavorful, and deliciously rich without being heavy. If you make this cake, you might well become known as the premiere cake baker in your town!

Perhaps because of my exuberance, the publishers sent me not just the cookbook, but also the newest hardback in the series, In the Company of Others, which takes place not in Mitford, but in Ireland. So I have not one, but two giveaways! To enter to win, leave a comment with either "cookbook" or "In The Company of Others" in your comments. You can enter for both, but they need to be separate entries. The contest is open only to the US or Canada.

Esther's Orange Marmalade Cake
- from Jan Karon's Mitford Cookbook & Kitchen Reader

For the cake:
1 cup unsalted butter, softened, more for dusting the pans
3-1/4 cups cake flour, more for dusting the pans
1 Tbsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
2-2/3 cups granulated sugar
5 large eggs, at room temperature
4 large egg yolks, at room temperature
2/3 cup vegetable oil
1 Tbsp grated orange zest*
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature

For the orange syrup:
1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1/2 cup granulate sugar

For the filling:
1 (12 oz) jar orange marmalade

For the frosting:
1 cup heavy cream, chilled
4 Tbsp granulated sugar
1 cup sour cream, chilled

( *Note: I used 2 organic Valencia oranges and that yielded enough zest and juice for the cake)

1- Preheat the oven to 350 deg. F. Lightly butter three 9-inch round cake pans, line them with parchment paper, then lightly butter and flour the paper, shaking out any excess.

2- Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt into a large bowl. Sift a second time into another bowl. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter on medium speed until light in color, about 4 minutes. Add the 2-2/3 cups sugar in a steady stream with the mixer running. Beat until light and fluffy about 4 minutes. Add the eggs and yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Be sure to stop at least once to scrape down the batter from the sides of the bowl. After all of the eggs have been added, continue to beat on medium speed for 2 more minutes. With the mixer on low speed, add the oil and beat for 1 minute.

3- In a small bowl combine the orange zest, vanilla, and buttermilk. Using a rubber spatula, fold in half of the dry ingredients. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add half of the buttermilk mixture. Fold in the remaining dry ingredients, scrape down the sides, and add the remaining buttermillk.

4- Pour the batter among the prepared pans, smooth the surface, rap each pan on the counter to expel any air pockets or bubbles, then place in the oven. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Let the cakes cool in the pans on racks for 20 minutes.

5- In a small bowl stir together the orange juice and 1/4 cup sugar until the sugar is dissolved. While the cakes are still in the cake pans, use a toothpick or skewer to poke holes at 1/2-inch intervals in the cake layers. Spoon the syrup over each layer, allowing the syrup to be completely absorbed before adding the remainder. Let the layers cool completely in the pans.

6- Heat the marmalade in a small saucepan over medium heat until just melted. Let cool for 5 minutes.

7- In a chilled mixing bowl using the wire whisk attachment, whip the heavy cream with the 4 Tbsp sugar until stiff peaks form. Add the sour cream, a little at a time, and whisk until the mixture is a spreadable consistency.

8- Invert one of the cake layers on a cake plate and carefully peel off the parchment. Spread one--third of the marmalade over the top, smoothing it into an even layer. Invert the second layer on top of the first, peel off the parchment, and spoon another third of the marmalade on top. Place the third cake layer on top, remove the parchment, and spoon the remaining marmalade onto the center of it, leaving a 1-1/4 inch border around the edges. Frost the sides and the top border with the frosting, leaving the marmalade on top of the cake exposed. Or, if your prefer, frost the entire cake first, adding the marmalade as a garnish on top. Chill for at least 2 hours before serving.