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.