Monday, December 28, 2009

The Sweetness of Christmas

I love the soft exhalation of stress that follows Christmas. All of the to-do's are either done or are no longer relevant. The family playing with toys, reading books or instruction manuals amid drifts of torn wrapping paper, illuminated by twinkling Christmas tree lights, are a lovely tableau of peace and contentment.

Normally on Christmas Day I choose to stay out of the kitchen, preparing only the easiest of heat and eat meals. I don't want to lose that easy, comfy feeling of having nothing that needs doing. This year, though, I choose to do one thing, just for fun. This recipe was featured in December's Bon Appetite and I thought it would be a lovely way to round out our Christmas dinner.

Because I didn't have the right size pan, I chose to make 6 individual tarts and see how that worked. No biggie if it didn't work, because I was just playing. I won't say it was a Christmas miracle, but it was certainly a gift, that everything about this tart worked out. Dividing the dough into 6 pans - just great. Dividing the filling - perfect. Making the caramel (not my forte) - easy, peasy, lemon squeezy. The only downside was that the tarts are sooooo rich that unless you have superhuman capacity, you can only eat a half of one. So if you have 6 couples eating, or 12 close friends, make the 6 tarts and have them share. Or make it per the Bon Appetite specs and cut slices. Either way, you'll wow the crowd.

Chocolate Caramel Macadamia Nut Tart
- adapted from Bon Appetit

1 cup all purpose flour
1/3 cup powdered sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 tablespoon (or more) ice water

1/3 cup heavy whipping cream
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate (do not exceed 61% cacao), chopped
1 1/2 cups unsalted macadamia nuts (about 7 1/2 ounces), toasted, coarsely chopped

1 1/4 cups sugar
1/3 cup water
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt

1- Blend flour, powdered sugar, and salt in processor. Add butter and pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add 1 tablespoon ice water and blend just until moist clumps form, adding more ice water by teaspoonfuls if mixture is dry.

2- Divide dough into 6 equal lumps and gently press a lump into each of six 4-1/2-inch tart pans, patting it with your fingers up the sides of the pan and evenly across the bottom. Chill the dough in the pans for 1 hour.

3- Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 375°F.

4- Line each crust with foil; fill with dried beans, rice, or pie weights. Bake crust until pale golden around edges and sides are set, about 15 minutes. Remove foil and beans; bake until crust is golden and cooked through, about 11 minutes. Transfer to rack and cool crust completely in pan.

5- Bring cream for the ganache to simmer in heavy small saucepan. Remove from heat. Add chocolate; stir until smooth.

6- Spoon 3 tablespoons ganache into 1 corner of small resealable plastic bag and seal; set aside at room temperature for piping. Spread remaining ganache evenly over bottom of the crusts. Sprinkle chopped macadamia nuts evenly over ganache layer in crust. Freeze crust while preparing caramel filling.

7- Combine sugar and 1/3 cup water in heavy medium saucepan. Stir over medium-low heat until sugar dissolves. Increase heat and boil without stirring until syrup is golden amber, occasionally brushing down sides of pan with wet pastry brush and swirling pan, about 8 minutes. (I was concerned at this point because it appeared that sugar crystals were forming on top of the boiling mixture, but it wasn't a problem. I kept brushing and swirling and the sugar crystals went away.)

8- Remove pan from heat. Add cream and butter; stir until any caramel bits dissolve and mixture is smooth. Attach candy thermometer to side of pan and bring mixture to boil over medium-high heat. Boil without stirring until thermometer registers 240°F, about 2 1/2 minutes longer. Remove from heat. Whisk in vanilla and salt.

9- Remove crusts from freezer. (It's helpful if you can have someone else fetch them for you while you're whisking in the vanilla.) Working quickly, pour caramel filling into crusts. Gently shake tart pans to allow filling to settle evenly in crusts. Cool completely at room temperature, about 3 hours.

10- Place reserved resealable plastic bag with chocolate ganache in microwave and heat in 5-second intervals just until smooth and pourable. Using scissors, cut off very small tip from corner of bag with ganache. Pipe ganache decoratively over caramel filling in crosshatch pattern. Chill until chocolate is set, about 20 minutes. The tarts can be made 2 days ahead. Cover and keep chilled. Bring tarts to room temperature before serving.

11- To serve, remove the sides from the tart pans and place on pretty plates. If you feel you haven't reached your holiday quota of fats, you can garnish with a blop of whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas

To all who celebrate Christmas, I wish you peace in your home, the joy of knowing the baby in the manger, and an oven that's correctly calibrated (no more burnt cookies).

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Getting In Touch With Your Inner Grinch

So you've made it through your nice list, picking out delightful gifts for your best friends and the perfect presents for your loved ones, but what about the real goobers out there? The weasel who cut in line at the post office? The cretin who stole your parking spot? The jerk who lets his dog poop on your lawn every day?

Do you really think they deserve ho ho ho's and candy canes? No! They deserve coal in their stockings! Now, you're really not going to follow Mr. Bagless and his pooch home to put coal in his stocking, but you can have fun putting faux coal in your family's stockings. And since you love your family (don't you?), you can make it naughty, but nice. It's coal, but it's candy, too.

Wrap up a few chunks in cellophane bags and garnish with a fancy bow. What better stocking stuffer? And if you do track down Mr. Bagless, you could leave him a "gift" on his doorstep. Along with a few bags.

Candy Coal
- adapted from Martha Stewart

3-1/2 cups sugar
3/4 cup light corn syrup
1 Tbsp black gel-paste food coloring
5 tsp peppermint, cinnamon, or anise extract (or whatever flavor you choose)
1 tsp baking soda

1- Line an 8-inch square baking pan with a piece of aluminum foil large enough to overhang the sides by about 2 inches. Set aside.

2- Bring sugar, corn syrup and 3/4 cup water to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir to dissolve sugar, and wash down sides of pan with a pastry brush dipped in water to prevent crystals from forming.

3- Once mixture comes to a boil and all the sugar has dissolved, clip a candy thermometer to pan and raise heat to high. Continue cooking without stirring until mixture registers 300 F (hard crack stage). Remove from heat.

4- Carefully add food coloring, extract and baking soda; stir slowly with a clean wooden spoon until thoroughly combined and mixture no longer bubbles, about 2 minutes.

5- Pour into prepared pan, and let cool completely. It will fill the pan completely, but will deflate as it cools.

6- Lift foil to remove candy from pan and transfer candy to a large plastic bag. Use a kitchen mallet or hammer to crush candy into pieces. Store in airtight container.

- makes about two pounds

Monday, December 21, 2009

Cookies Espressly For You

I've been having some technical difficulties here, so I'm a bit tardy in posting my cookies from my annual cookie exchange. But I'm still leaving you time to make them in case you need a last minute gift for a very special neighbor, co-worker, hairdresser, UPS guy, piano teacher, or whoever is deserving in your life. Put a few of these in a cellophane bag with a fancy bow and you'll have the rest of your last-minute gift list taken care of.

These are definitely grown up cookies. Give the Rice Krispie treats to the kids and save these for someone who will appreciate the bite of dark chocolate against the heat of chili pepper, and the sandy texture of shortbread. Plus, they're so cute, dressed up as giant chocolate covered espresso beans. I hate to see the cuteness factor go unappreciated.

Since time is short and I've got presents to wrap, I'll leave you with the recipe and warm wishes for happy baking!

Espresso Mole Shortbread
- adapted from Choosy Beggars

Makes 3 dozen cookies

1-1/2 cups + 1 tbsp unsalted butter at room temperature
3/4 cup confectioners sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp instant espresso powder
2 tbsp very hot water
1 tbsp vanilla
3 cups sifted all purpose flour
3/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1.5 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp allspice
6 oz semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped

1- In a large mixing bowl, cream together 1-1/2 cups of butter with the confectioners sugar and salt.  Beat them until fluffy, with no lumps or clumps remaining.

2- Measure the powdered instant espresso into a small bowl and pour the hot water over it.  Stir this until it’s syrupy.

3- Add the espresso and vanilla to the creamed sugar and butter and mix it until combined.  

4- Add the pepper, cinnamon, and allspice. Mix well and scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.  

5- Add the flour and continue mixing until the dough looks uniform.  Scrape the bottom of the sides one more time with a spatula, urging it into a bit of a ball.

6- Turn the dough onto a large piece of plastic wrap and make sure that it has a nice tight seal. Chill the dough for at least two hours or overnight.

7- When you're ready to bake the dough, preheat the oven to 325 deg. F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Remove the dough from the refrigerator.

8- After the chilling period the dough will be very firm.  As you bring the dough to room temperature, it will soften enough so that it’s workable.  As soon as it’s just soft enough that you can cut it fairly easily, do so. Divide the dough into 4 equal pieces and cut each quarter into 9 equal pieces.

9- Roll each piece into an oval egg shape, and then gently press a wooden skewer down the center to give them that distinctive coffee bean shape.  Lay the molded cookies on the prepared sheets.

10- Bake the cookies for 30 – 35 minutes in the center of your oven, rotating the racks halfway through.  The cookies will be done when they’re slightly firm to the touch and the bottoms are just starting to get golden.  Let the cookies sit on the baking sheets for two minutes before removing to cooling racks to cool completely.

11- Once the cookies are completely cooled, put the semi-sweet chocolate into a heatproof bowl and set it over top of a pot with 1 – 2 inches of water inside.  Make sure that there is at least an inch of empty space between the water and the bottom of your bowl.  Set that over medium heat and let the chocolate slowly melt.

12- Stir the chocolate occasionally as it melts, and when it is almost all melted add in the reserved 1 tbsp of butter and stir until it’s melted and combined.

13- Using a pastry brush (silicone brushes are wonderful for this) brush the top and sides of each cookie with chocolate, and lay them back onto parchment paper to let the chocolate set up.

Store at room temperature in a tightly sealed container.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Baking Grace

One of the great things about Christmas time is that most people understand that time is short and stress is rampant and they try to extend a bit of grace to their fellow man. Some of the most cheerful people are the ones on the front lines.

Here's a shout out to Carlos at Target for checking out with a smile, a joke, and a wink. He asked the lady in front of me in line, who was around my age, for her ID since she was buying a bottle of wine. He studied it a moment and said, "I'm sorry, miss, you'll have to come back when you're 21 to buy this." I don't know if she was amused, but I gave him full marks for trying for a smile.

Next up, the amazing lady at the post office who turned my dreaded trek with 6 boxes, one of them international, into a quick and easy stop. She was fast and efficient, as well as polite and cheerful. Don't underestimate those postal workers!

Finally, the wonderful women who make up the Bread Baking Babes. They give me way more grace than I deserve (well, that's kind of the point of grace, isn't it?). I totally fluffed on the posting day for this month's bread and didn't get it baked till two days later. Oops. But I did get it done. And it would have been a shame to have missed this one. It's festive, beautiful, and makes my husband and son very happy. So, better late than never, right?

And if you've not yet mailed cards, wrapped gifts, or done whatever you think HAS to be by Christmas, just remember, it will come whether you're ready or not. Even if your to-do list is not all checked off, just make sure your heart is ready. And if you've got some spare time, you can join me in being a Bread Baking Buddy for this beautiful Viennese Striesel. And if you don't have time for that, you can just check out the lovely loaves from the other Babes and ooh and aah. Thanks, Katie, for this perfect Christmas bread!

Viennese Striesel

1 package active dry yeast
1/4 cup very warm water
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup sugar
1 tsp salt
2 tbs butter, melted
2 3/4 - 3 cups flour
1 egg, lightly whisked
1/4 cup seedless raisins
1/4 cup candied cherries, chopped
2 tbs candied orange peel, chopped
1/8 tsp mace
1/2 cup confectioner's sugar
1 tbs milk
almonds or walnuts for sprinkling

1- Dissolve yeast in warm water.

2- Scald milk. Put milk, sugar, butter, and salt in bowl of mixer. Cool until just warm. Stir in 1 cup of flour. Mix in dissolved yeast and egg. Add 1 cup flour and stir to incorporate.

3- Add fruit and mace to the dough, then stir in 3/4 cups of flour. If the dough is still sticky, add up to 1/4 cup more flour, 1 Tbsp at a time, kneading till the dough is smooth.

4 -Shape into a ball, place in lightly greased bowl, cover and let rise until doubled, about 2 1/4 hours.

5- Punch down. Divide into 9 pieces, shape each into a ball and let rest 5 minutes.

6- Roll each piece into a rope about 15" long. Lay 4 strands on a lightly greased baking sheet, overlapping at the center. Braid from the center toward each end. With the side of your hand make a trench down the center. Now braid 3 strands, also from the center to each end, and place in the 'trench'. Twist the 2 remaining strands loosely together and place on top, bringing the ends over the end of the loaf and tucking in.

7- Cover loosely with plastic wrap sprayed with cooking spray, and let rise until doubled, about 1 1/2 hours. (I did this rise overnight in my refrigerator).

8- Bake, 350F (175C) for 40 - 45 minutes. Check after 30 minutes and if bread is browning too rapidly, tent foil over it. Remove and cool on a wire rack.

9- When bread is cool, mix milk and sugar -drizzle frosting over the top of the cooled loaf. Sprinkle with nuts.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

In a Baking Frenzy

What is it about the holidays that morphs ordinary women into Martha wanna-be's? Normally sane, calm women find themselves doing crazed things like spraying twigs and pinecones with gold spray paint, writing two page Christmas letters that read like great works of fiction (take that either of the two ways), and going nuts in the kitchen. When there are only 24 pre-Christmas days in December, why should the baking list be longer than the list for Santa?

I steadfastly refuse to gilt my garden, or send a chatty newsletter. I figure with all the time I save there, I can bake even more cookies! I know I'm not posting much this month. I'm spending all my time poring over cookbooks, mixing dough, and baking treats. That would theoretically mean that I'd have tons to post in January, except the table where I take pictures has been taken over by boxes waiting to be mailed, packages waiting to be wrapped, and cards waiting to be addressed and mailed. Yes, all that is taking a back seat to the mad baking fever that has gripped me.

Who could possibly eat all these cookies? Don't know. Don't care. I just have to go with the fever and roll, shape, drop, and glaze as many of the items on my list as possible before Christmas. On Christmas day we'll roll out of bed in a sugar stupor, gaze listlessly at the presents, then waddle back to bed. So be it. Small price to pay for having such fun with cookies.

Any volunteers to come take some off my hands?

Peanut Butter & Chocolate Shortbread Bars
- adapted from Fine Cooking Cookies

Shortbread Crust:

7 oz (14 Tbsp) unsalted butter, melted and cooled to just warm
1/2 cup granulated sugar
Generous 1/2 tsp kosher salt
9-1/2 oz. ( 2 cups plus 2 Tbsp) unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsalted peanuts, finely chopped


1 cup creamy peanut butter (like Jif)
3 oz (6 Tbsp) unsalted butter at room temperature
6 oz (1-1/2 cups) confectioners' sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract


5 oz good-quality bittersweet chocolate, chopped ( about 1 heaping cup)
1/2 cup plus 2 Tbsp heavy cream

1- Line a straight-sided 13x9-inch metal baking pan with foil, letting the ends create an overhanging edge for easy removal.

2- In a medium bowl, stir together the butter, sugar, and salt. Stir in the flour and peanuts to make a stiff dough. Press the mixture evenly into the bottom of the prepared pan. Prick the dough all over with a fork. Refrigerate the pan for 30 minutes (or freeze for 5 to 7 minutes), until the dough is firm.

3- Meanwhile, position a rack near the center of the oven and heat the oven to 325°F.

4- Bake the dough for 20 minutes, then decrease the oven temperature to 300°F and bake until the crust is golden-brown all over and completely set, 20 to 25 more minutes. Let the crust cool completely before topping.

5- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment put the peanut butter and butter and beat on medium speed until smooth, about 1 minute. Add about half of the confectioners’ sugar to the mixer along with the vanilla extract and 1 Tbs. hot water. Beat on low speed until combined, then on medium speed until smooth and fluffy, about 1 more minute. Beat in the remaining sugar and mix, about 1 more minute, until the mixture is smooth and thick, like frosting. If the filling seems too stiff, add another 1 Tbs. hot water and beat for another minute.

6- With a knife or metal offset spatula, spread the filling over the fully cooled crust. The filling may not spread smoothly and evenly, but don’t worry; the ganache will cover it.

7- Put the chocolate in a small heat proof bowl. In a small saucepan, bring the heavy cream to a boil. Remove from the heat and pour over the chocolate. Let sit for 3 minutes. Stir gently with a rubber spatula until combined and smooth.

8- Spread the ganache over the peanut-butter filling with a metal offset spatula to coat evenly. Let the bars sit at least 3 hours to allow the ganache to set before cutting (or refrigerate for 1 hour).

9- Carefully lift the bars from the pan using the foil sides and transfer them to a cutting board. Separate the foil from the bars by sliding a spatula between them. Cut the bars into 1-1/2-inch squares.

The bars will keep at room temperature for 1 week.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Snow Time

Snow is in the forecast and my children are all excited about it. For a child, snow is a magical thing. It comes from the sky, softly coating the scenery, blurring the rough edges, giving a beautiful sparkle to the horizon. And if enough comes, it also magically closes school! Plus, you can play in it for hours. Sledding, snowmen, snow forts, snowball fights and snow angels can keep children outside until their noses are red and their toes are numb.

For an adult, snow is something else altogether. Snow in the forecast means things like pipes freezing, commuting hassles, and shoveling sidewalks. Somehow with all of the grownup responsibilities, the magic leaks away, and that's a sad thing.

For everyone who passionately hates snow, I wish I could send you three things.

1) Someone to come shovel your walk and driveway for you.

2) My son, for whom snow and Christmas are inextricably tied (even though a white Christmas around here is as common as snake's eyebrows). He almost bursts with excitement when he sees the first flakes falling because that means it must be Christmas.

3) This beautiful cake. It's an ode to snow - white, pristine, beautiful. But it's also delicious. Vanilla and white chocolate combine for a fragrant, sweet flavor in every bite. Have a piece and you might not feel quite so cranky about that hose that you forgot to disconnect.

Snowdrift Vanilla Bean Cake
- adapted from Sky High, Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes

3 cups cake flour
2 cups sugar
4-1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 whole vanilla bean, split in half lengthwise
2 sticks plus 2 Tbsp (9 oz) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1-1/3 cups milk
5 egg whites
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
White Chocolate Buttercream (recipe follows)
White chocolate curls, for garnish

1- Preheat the oven to 350 deg. F. Butter the bottoms of three 8-inch round cake pans. Line each with a round of parchment and butter the parchment.

2- In a large mixer bowl place the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. With the mixer on low, combine well.

3- With the tip of a small knife, scrape the seeds from inside the vanilla bean into the bowl. Reserve the outer pod to make vanilla sugar*. Add the butter and 1 cup of the milk and mix to blend. Raise the mixer speed to medium and beat until the batter is light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.

4- In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites with the vanilla extract and the remaining 1/3 cup milk. Add this to the batter in 2 to 3 additions, scraping down the bowl well and mixing only to incorporate. Divide the batter among the 3 prepared pans.

5- Bake for about 30 minutes, or until a cake tester or wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Place the pans on wire racks to cool for 10 minutes, then invert the pans on the racks, remove the pans and the parchment paper, and cool completely, about 1 hour.

6- To assemble the cake, place one layer, flat side up, on a cake stand or serving plate. Spread 2/3 cup of the White Chocolate Buttercream evenly over the layer. Repeat with the second layer, then top with the final layer. Using the remaining buttercream, frost the sides and top of the cake. Garnish with white chocolate curls.

White Chocolate Buttercream (makes about 5 cups)

3 egg whites at room temperature
4 oz. good-quality white chocolate
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
3 sticks (12 oz) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into 2-3 Tbsp chunks

1- Put the egg whites in the bowl of an electric mixer and set the mixer up for use with a whisk attachment. Melt the white chocolate about halfway in a double boiler over simmering water. Remove from the heat, stir until smooth, and set aside to cool.

2- In a small heavy saucepan combine the sugar and water. Set it over medium heat and stir to dissolve the sugar. Bring to a boil and cook, without stirring, until the syrup reaches the soft-ball stage, 238 deg. F on a candy thermometer.

3- Immediately start beating the egg whites on medium-low speed. Slowly add the syrup in a thin stream, taking care not to hit the beaters. Continue to whip until the mixture is body temperature and a stiff meringue has formed.

4- Reduce the speed to low and add the butter 2 to 3 Tbsp at a time. When all of the butter is incorporated, beat on medium speed until the frosting appears to curdle. Continue to whip, and it will suddenly come together. At this point, add the melted white chocolate and mix well.

* To make vanilla sugar, place the scraped vanilla bean pod in a jar and cover it with sugar. Let it sit a week, and the sugar will become wonderfully fragrant. Use it for baking or as an indulgence in your tea or coffee.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The White Stuff

When my sister was in junior high the thing to do at sleepovers was to make fudge. Why? I don't know other than a bunch of 13 year old girls plus a big pan of chocolate was a pretty good mix. I couldn't wait to be that cool, so when one of my friends invited me to spend the night, I volunteered to bring a fudge recipe. What I hadn't thought through was that her father was an orthodontist and sugar was frowned upon in her household. It was well-kown that on Halloween, theirs was the house that handed out toothbrushes and travel-sized tubes of toothpaste. Poor deprived girl!

I just don't relate to that "no sugar" mindset. What would your sweetie give you for Valentine's Day? A box of tofu crisps? And what about when you're stressed and really need to bake? Do unsweetened rutabaga bars with carrot crumble truly hit the spot? And how about girlfriend time - how's that supposed to work without sugar?

Well, fortunately for my girlfriends, they don't have to find out. We're having our annual cookie exchange soon and these beauties just might make it onto the plate (if my family doesn't devour it all first).

This is a new technique for me. I've made fudge here and here, and someday I'll post my positively fabulous creamy fudge, but today's involved a hot syrup, waiting for an hour, and then a handheld mixer. A slightly different approach, but still rich, creamy, and wonderfully chocolatey. Adding crushed peppermint makes it perfect for Christmas time. Treat yourself or hand out bags to friends, family, and random strangers. Share the love. And the sugar.

May your days be merry and bright, and may all your baking sugar be white. (Except for the brown and dark brown, of course)

Perfect Peppermint Fudge
- adapted from Fine Cooking

3 Tbs. cold unsalted butter; more at room temperature for buttering the thermometer and pan
3-3/4 cups granulated sugar
1-1/2 cups heavy cream
3/4 cup crushed peppermint candy
4 oz. unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
3 Tbs. light corn syrup
1 generous tsp kosher salt

1- Lightly butter the face of a candy thermometer and set aside.

2- n a large (4-quart) heavy-duty saucepan combine the sugar, cream, chocolate, corn syrup, and salt, stirring with a wooden spoon or heatproof spatula until the ingredients are moistened and combined. Stirring gently and constantly, bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat, 7 to 12 minutes. Cover the saucepan and let the steam clean the sides of the pan for 2 minutes. This prevents the formation of sugar crystals in the fudge.

3 -Clip the candy thermometer to the pot, being careful not to let the tip of the thermometer touch the bottom of the pot, or you might get a false reading. Let the mixture boil without stirring until it reaches 236°F to 238°F, 2 to 5 minutes. Take the pan off the heat and add the butter, but do not stir it into the mixture. Set the pan on a rack in a cool part of the kitchen. Don’t disturb the pan in any way until the mixture has cooled to 110°F, 1 to 1-1/2 hours.

4- While the mixture is cooling, line the bottom and sides of an 8x8-inch baking pan with foil, leaving a 2-inch overhang on two opposite sides of the pan. Butter the foil. Set the pan aside.

5- Remove the thermometer from the fudge mixture. Using a hand mixer, beat the mixture on high speed until it is a few shades lighter in color and thickens enough that the beaters form trails that briefly expose the bottom of the pan as they pass through, 10 to 20 minutes. (Mine had kind of a caramelly consistency when I began beating it. I might have beat mine too long, but it wasn't nearly 10 to 20 minutes. It started clumping. That wasn't a problem, though, as I just pressed it into the pan.)

6- After beating the fudge, stir in 1/2 cup crushed peppermint candy. Pour the thickened fudge into the prepared pan, using a rubber spatula to help nudge it out of the pot. You can scrape the bottom of the pot but not the sides; any crystals that stick to the pot stay in the pot. Smooth the top of the fudge with the spatula. Sprinkle 1/4 cup crushed candy over the fudge. Set the pan on a rack and let the fudge cool completely, about 2 hours. The fudge will be slightly soft the day it’s made but will firm up overnight.

Turn the fudge out onto a clean cutting board and peel off the foil. Turn the slab of fudge right side up and cut it into 25 equal pieces.

The fudge will keep for a week to 10 days stored in an airtight container at room temperature.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Gift-Giving Stress

As soon as the calendar flips over to December, I start to feel gift pressure. I know some people just grab any old thing and toss it into a gift bag. I really try to find just the right gift and that ratchets up the pressure.

The worst case of gift pressure I ever had was in high school with my first boyfriend. We'd only been going out two months and Christmas was bearing down on my like a sleigh full of "holy cow, what am I supposed to get for him?" At the two month mark, the relationship was still in a "I really like you, but I'm not sure how serious this is" state. It was a fine line to tread in gift-giving. Too mushy and I'd feel foolish. Too extravagant and I'd feel foolish. But not enough and I'd feel chintzy and possibly jeopardize the relationship.

It would help a lot, I thought, if I knew what he was planning on giving me. I tried to pry it out of his friends. No dice. One of his girl acquaintances said she knew but refused to tell, leaving me on tenderhooks with the cryptic comment, "It's reeeallly nice. You'll like it!"

Oh, poop! What were we talking about here? Favorite book nice? Pretty sweater nice? Or, gulp, jewelry nice?

To get an idea of his general gift-giving habits, I asked him what he was giving to his family. Sweater to his sister (check), book to his other sister (OK), and necklace to his oldest sister (fine). And to his mother he was giving a trash compacter.

What?? He was giving a trash compactor? A freaking major kitchen appliance? This was gift giving waaaaay out of my league. I certainly hoped he wasn't planning on dropping that kind of cash on me! Holy steaming mounds of poop!

I got him some joke gifts, things he could take any way he chose. And he gave me a coat. A popular (and expensive) brand of ski jacket. Yikes. Gift inequality, big time.

What I should have done was give him food. Food is always appreciated (especially by guys). And if you go by price tags, homemade marshmallows are a great value for the time invested in the kitchen. It takes little money and time to produce show stopping results. And if you deck them out in peppermint, they're perfect for the holiday season.

So, word to the wise, when you're stumped for a gift, wrap up some of these beauties in cellophane with a fancy ribbon. They'll look like a million bucks and you'll never feel you've been outgifted. Unless diamonds are involved.

Peppermint Marshmallows
- adapted from Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa Family Style

3 packages unflavored gelatin
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp peppermint extract
2 oz. finely crushed peppermint candies
Confectioner's sugar, for dusting

1- With a sieve, generously dust and 9 x 13 inch baking dish with confectioner's sugar.

2-Combine the gelatin and 1/2 cup of cold water in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and allow to sit while you make the syrup.

3-Meanwhile, combine the sugar, corn syrup, salt, and 1/2 cup water in a small saucepan and cook over medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Raise the heat to high and cook until the syrup reaches 240 degrees on a candy thermometer. Remove from the heat.

4- With the mixer on low speed, slowly pour the sugar syrup into the dissolved gelatin. Put the mixer on high speed and whip until the mixture is very thick, about 15 minutes. Add the peppermint extract and mix thoroughly.

5- Pour the marshmallow mixture into the pan, smooth the top, and sprinkle the crushed peppermint candies over the top. Then dust with more confectioners' sugar. Allow to stand uncovered overnight until it dries out.

6- Run a knife around the edge of the pan to loosen the marshmallows. Turn the marshmallows onto a board and cut them in squares. Roll them in confectioners' sugar and store in an airtight container.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Pumpkin's Last Hurrah

It's been a very pumpkiny fall for me. I've tried some new pumpkin recipes and baked several old favorites. But I see the end is in sight. My pumpkin binge is waning and the peppermint season is coming on. As a final send off for pumpkin, I would like to share with you the cupcakes I made to use up the leftover maple cream cheese frosting from this cake. They were moist and delicious, perfect thrones for the maple cream cheese topping.

Goodby fall. It's been wonderful. We've shared so much - especially pumpkin. I hope to see you about 9 months.

Pumpkin and Maple Cupcakes
- adapted from Martha Stewart's Cupcakes
makes 15

3/4 cup (1-1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for the tins
1-2/3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for the tins
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/8 tsp ground cloves
1 cup canned pumpkin puree
1 cup packed light-brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
Maple Cream Cheese Frosting

1- Preheat the oven to 325 deg. F. Brush standard muffin tins with butter; dust with flour and tap out the excess.

2- In a small saucepan melt the butter over medium-olow heat. Cook, swirling occasionally, until the butter turns golden brown. Skim foam off the top and pour the butter into a bowl to stop the cooking. Leave any burned sediment in the pan. Let the butter cool.

3- In a medium bowl whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves.

4- In another bowl, whisk together the pumpkin puree, both sugars, eggs and browned butter. Add the flour mixture and whisk just until combined.

5- Divide the batter evenly among the prepared tins, filling each three-quarters full. Bake about 20 minutes, rotating the tins halfway through baking. Check for doneness with a cake tester inserted near the center - when it comes out clean, they're done.

6- Transfer the tins to wire racks to cool completely before removing cupcakes.

7- Spread the frosting over each cupcake and, if desired, dust with decorative sprinkles.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Leftover Conundrum

The week of Thanksgiving is always a bit hectic with shopping for, prepping for, and cooking the big meal. This week is shaping up to be no exception. So I'm going to use that as an excuse to be super, ├╝ber lazy. I'll tell you what I did with my leftovers. Not my Thanksgiving leftovers; I don't have those yet. No, the leftovers from when Peabody came to bake with me.

After making the pumpkin brioche and measuring off two 1-lb hunks, I still had a big blop of dough left. I stuck it back in the refrigerator to wait for inspiration.

When I was typing out the ingredients for the streusel, I figured out (something I wasn't able to do when company was here) that the recipe calls for 5 cups of ingredients and then only uses 1-1/2 cups of streusel. Hellooooo, of course you're going to end up with a bunch of leftover streusel.

So, after I cleaned up the kitchen I had a) leftover pumpkin brioche, and b) leftover streusel. What to do? Cinnamon rolls. Definitely cinnamon rolls.

I rolled out the dough into a rectangle, sprinkled the rest of the streusel over the dough, sprinkled extra cinnamon on top and then rolled it up into a log. 12 equal slices were nestled into a greased 9 x 13-inch pan and baked at 350 for 25-30 minutes. Then I drizzled a glaze over the top made from some powdered sugar, a glup of vanilla, and a shlug of milk.

Isn't that the most unrecipe recipe you've ever read? If that stresses you, you can go ahead and make it and write down all the weights, measurements, and directions. Me, I was just really happy to get rid of two leftovers in one go, plus have it turn out to be super tasty!

Happy Thanksgiving, to all who are celebrating this week!

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Baking: From My Kitchen to Yours - Part 2

The second installment of Baking: From My Kitchen to Yours happened this week. The fabulous Peabody of Culinary Concoctions by Peabody made the trek down to bake with me. Since I was the host kitchen, I got to decide what we were baking. I had a short list of 4 or 5 things, but with all the socializing, side tangents of photography, and children demanding attention, we only accomplished one baking project.

I was drawn to this recipe when I saw it on the website for Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day. But when I think of Pea, I think of pumpkin, so naturally I thought of substituting Pea's pumpkin brioche in the recipe. Pumpkin, apple, and pear, all together in a rustic, tasty cake. Yumm.

Since I had a large bowl full of brioche, I decided to double the recipe, making two cakes so there would be enough for everyone. That might have been a mistake, since I was getting so distracted. I ended up with an interesting texture to the streusel topping and an oddly large amount with lots of leftovers. (I'll post later about what I did with that.)

When the recipe calls for an 8 x 3-inch cake pan, apparently it really means it. I realized after I'd put both cakes together that my pans are more like 8 x 2-inch. In the oven the brioche rose, pushing chunks of streusel off to burn on the bottom of the oven because I'd forgotten to put in baking sheets. There's nothing like big clouds of smoke issuing from your oven to really make you feel like a pro baker.

Peabody's kitchen is gorgeous and was spotless when I visited her. My kitchen is more of the "Oh, no, company's coming. Get the snow shovel and clean off the counter!" variety. My cookbooks multiply on the cookbook breeding ground (some people might call it an island) and I have recipes printed off the computer drifting around the kitchen like the first snowflakes of winter.

Peabody's kitchen is also very peaceful. Just Pea and her culinary concoctions. As soon as she got to my house the kitchen was stuffed with people. My oldest daughter, my husband, and my two younger children all wanted to meet her and hang around her. Well, who wouldn't? But it didn't make for smooth, effortless baking.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, it's my excuse for what my oven produced. First, billows of smoke, then a cake that fell in the middle. But it tasted good and we had fun!

Fall Brioche Coffee Cake
- adapted from Artisan Bread In 5 Minutes a Day (go there to see how it's supposed to look)

The Streusel Topping:

1 cup oats
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup brown sugar, well packed
1 cup chopped nuts (optional)
1 cup melted butter
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

The Cake:

1 pound (grapefruit-size portion) Pumpkin Brioche dough (make it the day before baking - this will yield enough for 2 cakes plus leftovers)
2 small apples (1 tart and 1 sweet, thinly sliced)
1 large pear, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons brown sugar
zest of half an orange
1 1/2 cups streusel topping (above)

1- Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Prepare an 8-inch x 3-inch round cake pan with grease, a round piece of parchment and a dusting of flour or sugar.

2-To make the streusel: Place all the ingredients in a bowl and toss until well combined.

3- Divide the pound of dough in two equal pieces, form them into balls and roll them out to be just slightly wider than the cake pan. Place one of the disks of dough in the prepared pan. It should come up the sides just a bit.

4- Combine the apples, pear, brown sugar and zest in a bowl. Spread half of the apple mixture on the first layer of dough.

3- Sprinkle with about 3/4 cup streusel. Repeat with other layer of dough, rest of apples and another 3/4 cup streusel. Let the cake rest for 1 hour and 20 minutes.

4- With a baking sheet beneath the cake to catch drips, bake for about 45 minutes , until tester comes out of the center clean. Run a sharp knife around the edge of the cake.

5-Invert the pan onto a plate. Lift the pan off the cake. Peel the parchment paper off the bottom of the cake and then invert onto a cake plate.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

I Puffy Heart Puffy Pancakes

As the temperatures drop lower and lower, and the house gets chillier and chillier, a warm breakfast is something my family appreciates. Most morning that would be oatmeal, but on the weekends, I sometimes splurge and make something special. Recently a good friend gifted me with something delightful that I'd had on my wish list for a long time - an ebelskiver pan.

If you are uninitiated in the joys of ebelskivers, let me fill you in. They're a Danish treat - pancakes cooked in a unique pan that allows them to be turned over to form little puffy pillows that can be filled with whatever tickles your tastebuds, sweet or savory.

To break in my new pan, I naturally opted for sweet (that's just me). I found a recipe for Cinnamon Bun Ebelskivers and figured I couldn't go wrong with that. A pancake with a cinnamon bun inside? Oh, yeah, that's my kind of breakfast!

The batter is easy to throw together. Getting the right amount of batter in each well quickly is a bit of a challenge. A pre-measured batter dispenser would be helpful, but I don't have one, so I just scooped up batter with a measuring cup. It works.

Turning the pancakes takes a bit of practice. I've been told there is a handy wooden tool that's shaped just right for flipping them over. Again, I don't have that, so I used wood skewers. It works.

It's not challenging to make these, just a time commitment to be standing at the stove, pouring, filling, turning, waiting, and serving. If you've got a large family, you could be on your feet for quite a while. Or, you could be more clever than me and have your family take turns making their own. Either way, it's a treat breakfast that will be enjoyed and appreciated.

Cinnamon Bun Ebelskivers
- adapted from Williams Sonoma (who also sell the pans)

For the cinnamon filling:
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 Tbs. all-purpose flour
1 1/2 Tbs. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. salt
4 Tbs. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes,
at room temperature

For the pancakes:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 Tbs. granulated sugar
4 eggs, separated
2 cups milk
4 Tbs. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted, plus more for cooking
Powdered sugar for dusting

1-To make the cinnamon filling, in a bowl, still together the granulated sugar, flour, cinnamon and salt. Add the butter and, using the back of a spoon, mash the butter into the flour mixture until all of it is absorbed into the butter, forming a paste. Set the cinnamon filling aside.

2- To make the pancakes, in a bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt and granulated sugar. In another bowl, lightly whisk the egg yolks, then whisk in the milk and the 4 Tbs. melted butter. Whisk the egg yolk mixture into the flour mixture until well combined; the batter will be lumpy. Using an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites on high speed until stiff but not dry peaks form, 2 to 3 minutes. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the whites into the batter in two additions.

Put 1/8 tsp. melted butter in each well of a filled-pancake pan. Set over medium heat and heat until the butter begins to bubble. Pour 1 Tbs. batter into each well. Spoon 1/2 tsp. of the cinnamon filling into the center of each pancake and top with 1 Tbs. batter. Cook until the bottoms are golden brown and crispy, about 3 minutes. Using 2 skewers, flip the pancakes over and cook until golden and crispy, about 3 minutes more. Transfer the pancakes to a plate. Repeat with the remaining batter and filling.

Dust the pancakes with the powdered sugar and serve immediately. Makes 35 to 40.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Food Blogger Heaven

What would you say if one of your very favorite bloggers wrote to you saying, "I'm in town. Want to go to lunch?"

Umm.....let me think......YES!

That was my enthusiastic answer when the fabulous Jaden of Steamy Kitchen fame said that she was in town on her book tour.

I've had a blog crush on Jaden ever since I first stumbled on her blog. Her posts had me laughing out loud - her infectious personality just sprang out of the written words, beautiful pictures, and smooth, professional videos. So, naturally it was an automatic YES to the chance to hang out with her.

We met at the scenic Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle. It's one of the tourist must-see stops in Seattle. Amazing fresh produce and fish (the lobster tails in that picture are 2 lbs each!) and beautiful crafts fill the market stalls. We wandered through, oohing and aaahing, until our tummies told us it was time to think about lunch.

Here I must pause to let you in on a secret. I'm from the Seattle area, but I don't live in Seattle. If you write to me asking where a great place to eat is, I really can't help you with that. I rarely go into Seattle - all the one-way streets and lack of parking spaces discourage me. So when Jaden asked where we should eat, I drew a blank.

Fortunately, she has an iPhone and Twitters. She sent out a call for help and within minutes we had a handful of recommendations all pointing us to Matt's in the Market. And with good reason - the place is fabulous! You have to know it's there and know how to find it, and then be prepared to wait, but it's worth it.

After we were seated Jaden sweet-talked our serving into asking the chef if we could just have tastes of lots of things from the menu. Soon we had soup and plates with adorable miniatures of the menu items set before us. Jaden asked if she could have the recipe for an amazing dip and the executive chef, Chester Gerl, came out to personally give her the hand-written recipe and then gave her the history of the restaurant, his role in the restaurant, and where all the food came from.

We were ready to be done when we were asked if we didn't want to try the seafood? Well, you can hardly come to Seattle and not have seafood! So we were served bowls of buttery broth with manilla clams, mussels, scallops, and shrimp with the heads and eyeballs still attached. When I confessed to Jaden that I found food with faces a bit terrifying, she happily solved that problem by eating it for me.

At this point we were so full of good food we could hardly move. So when the server brought us a tray with samplings of 3 different dessert and ice cream pairings we said, "thank you, no." Right. We managed to stuff in bites of the mini pumpkin cake with golden raisins, a sorbet we guessed as being squash flavored, brownie topped with peanut butter ice cream and a berry sauce, and bread pudding with cherries topped by vanilla bean ice cream and a maple sauce.

Better than the food, though, was the conversation. I loved hearing about Jaden's new book (available now, makes a perfect Christmas present for yourself or a friend), her career, and her family. Her boys are about the cutest things going and she's a wonderful mother to them.

So, no recipe to share with you today. Just the giddy excitement of a day in the company of one of the nicest, funniest, most genuine food bloggers I know. I hope you get the chance to meet her, too!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Apple Polishing

Every year as fall approaches my husband gets excited about two things - football and apple pie. This year being no exception he started with the subtle hints ("Ooh, apples are in season!"), moved up to not-so-subtle hints ("You know, I really, really like apple pie."), and when no signs of apple pie making appeared in the kitchen, he went for the throat ("If you love me, you'll make me an apple pie," said with enormous Bambi eyes and the trembling lower lip).

Well, for crying out loud, I'll make the pie!

And not just any pie. I had plans for making the ultimate apple pie. The deepest of deep dish apple pies. The apple pie that would force all others to admit inadequacy. The recipe I chose used a springform pan. That's how seriously deep dish it is. And it took 5-6 pounds of apples. Oh, yeah, and it had a streusel topping, too. This big bad boy was going to be awesome!

But the transition from awesome sounding recipe to pie cooling on counter had a few problems. Because it took so long to bake, the crust got tough as dog biscuits. And the apples slices, which had been mounded over the rim when I put the pie in the oven, after cooling sunk down in the middle like a tire with a blowout. And the yummy streusel topping? The butter melted and left pools of grease over the top. Tasty grease, yes, but still not attractive.

I was so disappointed I took no pictures. Instead I'm going to share with you what I did with the leftovers.

When I peeled and cored the apples, I saved those bits in a saucepan, covered them with water, tossed in a cinnamon stick, and let it simmer for an hour or so.

When the water cooled, I strained out the bits and poured the apple water in a jar and stored it in the refrigerator. Why? Because it makes fabulous oatmeal. Replace regular water with the apple water, add chunks of apples to the cooking oatmeal, top with a bit of brown sugar and some cream if you're feeling decadent. You won't believe how wonderful it smells and tastes - full of apples and heady with cinnamon. I promise you you'll never go back to store-bought flavored oatmeals!

Apple Cinnamon Oatmeal

- makes 2 servings

2/3 cup apple water made from organic apple peels and cores*
1/3 cup rolled oats
handful of chopped apple (peel on is fine)

1- In a small saucepan, bring the apple water to a boil. Add the oats and stir to mix. Add the apple chunks.

2- Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the oatmeal is the desired consistency. I like it just when it stops looking soupy.

3- Ladle into bowls and top as you like with brown sugar, milk, or cream. My parents like a blob of peanut butter on theirs, but I think that messes with the consistency.

*This is one place where I must put my dainty foot down and insist on organic. A lot of the pesticide residue on apples is found in the peels and to boil the peels concentrates the residue into the apple water. A bowl of oatmeal in the morning is a delicious, warming breakfast for your family. A bowl of pesticides is not.

Note: the portions I used are for the serving size I like. For heartier appetites, use 1/2 cup oats per person. For daintier eaters, use 1/4 cup oats. The apple water is always in a 2 to 1 ratio with the oats. Twice as much water as oats. Isn't this the easiest recipe ever?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Leaning Tower of Deliciousness

When I was 8 years old my family visited Pisa, Italy. We saw the Leaning Tower and my sister and father actually went all the way up (I don't know if they even allow people on it anymore). I was terrified of slipping, sliding, and falling off the edge, so my feet stayed firmly on the level ground, but the sight was impressive enough from terra firma. How could something so tall lean so precariously without toppling over?

I was reminded of that sight when I made my daughter's birthday cake. She'd selected the Maple Walnut cake from Sky High - Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes, my new go-to cake book. On the day of her birthday I made the cake and all the layers turned out beautifully, releasing nicely from their pans. I let them cool while I put together dinner. Everyone enjoyed the dinner and then started hovering around the cake prep area, as if their presence would aid in the cake construction.

As I put together the frosting I knew trouble was ahead. I had a very soft, whipped cream cheese base, to which I was to add melted butter and maple syrup. Maybe it would magically firm up as I added the butter? Maybe?? No. Common sense was right - it was very thin and drippy.

Looking at the frosting I was fairly sure that it would set up if I chilled it. But I had the birthday girl giving me hungry Bambi eyes. She didn't want to wait till the day after her birthday for her birthday cake. So, against the wisdom of common sense, I went ahead and slathered the cake with the runny frosting and piled up the layers. I tried to get a quick photo of the cake before cutting it, but it wouldn't cooperate. The layers were slipping and sliding over each other like a dog on roller skates. I kept turning the cake plate, trying to find one angle that didn't look disastrous. The whole thing was leaning, leaning, leaning. I gave up and sliced up pieces, the top layer breaking in half with the strain.

Was the birthday girl saddened? Not at all. The cake was delicious. We all marveled that a cake with a cup of chopped nuts in it could be so light, fluffy, and moist. And, I was right. The next morning, the extra frosting I'd put in the fridge was just right.

The moral of the story? As always, it's all about the timing. Don't leave it till the last minute. And if it tilts at an alarming angle, just remember - who would be able to recall that tower in Pisa if it wasn't leaning?

Leaning Tower of Maple Walnut Deliciousness
- adapted from Sky High - Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes

1-1/3 cup walnut halves (make sure they're fresh!)
3 cups cake flour
1-1/4 cups packed light brown sugar
2-1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1-3/4 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp salt
1-1/2 sticks (6 oz) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1-1/2 cups pure maple syrup, preferably light amber
1 whole egg
1 egg yolk
1 cup milk
Maple Cream Frosting
(recipe follows)

1- Preheat the oven to 350 deg. F. Butter three 8-inch round cake pans. Line the bottom of each with a round of parchment paper and butter the paper. Set the pans aside.

2- Spread the walnuts out on a small baking sheet and toast in the oven until fragrant and lightly toasted, 7 to 10 minutes. Let them cool. Leave the oven on. When the nuts are cool, set aside 1/3 cup pretty halves for garnish and finely chop the remaining 1 cup.

3- In a large mixer bowl, combine the chopped walnuts, flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt. With the mixer on low, blend well. Add the butter and maple syrup and beat until blended. Increase the speed to medium and beat until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.

4- In a medium bowl, whisk together the whole egg, egg yolk, and milk. Add this milk mixture to the batter in 2 or 3 additions. Add at low speed to avoid spattering, then increase to medium speed. Scrape down the sides of the bowl after each addition. Beat until well blended.

5- Divide the batter among the three prepared pans. Bake for 32 to 35 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Let he cakes cool in the pans for 10 minutes, then turn out onto wire racks, gently peel off the parchment paper, and let cool completely.

6- To assemble the cake, place one cake layer, flat side up, on a cake stand or serving plate. Spread about 2/3 cup of frosting over the layer, spreading it evenly right to the edge. Repeat with the second layer and another 2/3 cup frosting. Set the third layer on top and frost the top and sides with the remaining frosting, swirling the frosting decoratively with an offset palette knife or the back of a spoon. Garnish with the reserved toasted walnut halves.

Maple Cream Frosting
- (makes about 4 cups)

2 sticks (8 oz) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup maple syrup
12 oz cream cheese, at room temperature
6 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted after measuring

1- Place the butter in a wide medium saucepan and melt over low heat. Add the maple syrup, raise the heat to medium-low, and boil for 5 minutes, stirring frequently so the syrup does not burn.

2- Pour the hot maple butter into a heatproof bowl and let cool to room temperature.

3- Place the cream cheese in a large mixing bowl and beat will with an electric mixer to lighten. Gradually add the confectioners' sugar and beat until smooth. Scrape down the bowl well and continue to beat until light and fluffy. Add the maple butter and mix until completely blended. If the frosting is not stiff enough, you can either add more powdered sugar, or chill it in the fridge for 2 hours.

* The photo of the Leaning Tower is from the Wikepedia post about it.