This cake came to me in a snow-covered dream. I woke up Sunday knowing I had to do three things: shovel my driveway, take my kids sledding, and bake something. It’s no secret I love to be snowed in; I view it as nature’s permission to let everything go — I don’t stress about it, I don’t complain about it, I just let it all go. Northern Virginia was in the epicenter of the recent “snowzilla” storm. We had historic snowfall and the world shut down for a few days. It was pretty wonderful. I’ll be back at work tomorrow, so while I’m enjoying my last day of snowed in freedom, I thought I’d hop back on the blogging wagon and share this wonderful, easy recipe. No mixer required, and I bet you have most of the ingredients in your pantry. Continue reading →
Since this is my second time making these in February (or in two weeks to be more precise), I figured I’d better share the recipe so you can all become addicted, too. I made them first with almonds, and today I made them with pecans. I love them both, but if I had to pick a winner, pecans would take the prize. Either way, they are delicious, and if you don’t like nuts, leave them out altogether.
These really need no introduction. Just look at the pictures, and imagine the taste of salted, caramelized brown sugar with crunchy pecans or almonds and buttery graham crackers.
About 14 sheets of graham crackers broken along perforations into 4 pieces each
2 1/2 sticks butter
2 cups brown sugar, light or dark (I used dark)
1 cup slivered almonds or chopped pecans
Preheat oven to 350.
Line a rimmed 1/2 sheet pan (18x13x1) with parchment or a non stick silicon baking mat. Cover baking sheet with Graham crackers. Get as many as you can on the sheet in a single layer, breaking some if necessary.
In a saucepan, heat butter and sugar until melted and bubbly. Add nuts.
Pour sugar mixture as evenly as you can over Graham crackers. Carefully (it’s hot!) spread to distribute nuts.
Place in oven and bake for 12 minutes.
Remove from oven and sprinkle with sea salt while still hot.
Let cool for an hour at least, but longer is fine, too. Overnight is even better. (Try to wait that long to eat some. I dare you.)
I just got back from dropping off a plateful of these to my grandparents — my grandparents, who are both from Minnesota. So, of course we were standing around in the kitchen, giggling, saying “bars” with that distinctive Minnesota (Minne-SOH-ta) accent. Dontcha know that accent??
My grandpa has a major sweet tooth, and he is known for his love of chocolate, but his favorite dessert is “lemon pie” as he calls it — (lemon meringue pie) — so when I made these bars I knew I’d be surprising him with a delivery. The first thing he said when he took a bite was, “these taste just like lemon pie.” Mission accomplished.
This recipe is almost exactly The Barefoot Contessa’s lemon bar recipe, but I made a few tiny changes. The biggest change was to the crust. Not the ingredients so much, (although I did add vanilla; I am a vanilla-aholic), but the method. The way I do it is faster, since it doesn’t require you have the butter at room temp, but it also just creates a better texture in my opinion.
Here’s how I made them!
2 sticks cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 cups all purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups granulated sugar
1 cup flour
zest of one lemon (zest it before you juice it!)
1 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (about 6 lemons)
1 teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 350.
Butter a 9x13x2 inch baking pan, or spray generously with cooking spray. For extra safety, line the pan with parchment paper (butter or spray the paper too!) so that the edges hang over each side. This will help lift the bars out later. The filling can get sticky, so the buttering and spraying is really important, even if you have a non-stick pan.
Place all crust ingredients in a food processor and pulse several times until combined. You will have a dry, crumbly mixture. It won’t come together like a dough, so don’t worry.
Dump this mixture into the prepared baking pan. Gently even out the mixture, and begin pressing into the bottom of the pan with your fingers and build up about a 1/2 inch edge on all sides. It doesn’t have to be perfectly even.
Bake the crust for 15-20 minutes until just beginning to brown around the edges.
While the crust bakes, prepare the filling:
Combine all filling ingredients in a large bowl and whisk to completely combine.
When the crust is done, pour over filling and return to oven for 25-30 minutes, until the filling is set.
Remove from oven and let cool to room temperature. You can also refrigerate them overnight, which makes them even easier to slice. Either way, when ready to slice, slide a thin knife around the edges to make sure the bars are loose, and if you’ve used parchment you should be able to lift them out in one piece. Place on a cutting board and slice into bars, squares, or triangles and enjoy.
In the pastry/dessert world, it just doesn’t get sexier or more romantic than Crème brûlée. People swoon over this stuff; it is fantastic, irresistible, and so delicious. When I thought about a Valentine’s themed blog post, it was the very first thing that popped into my head.
Crème brûlée is one of those desserts that everyone loves. The funny thing is, most people think it’s terribly complicated and fancy to make. This is sneaky, sexy French simplicity at its finest—4 simple ingredients composed in a way that mystifies people while simultaneously knocking their socks off. It makes people wonder why it’s served in such tiny vessels as they desperately scrape the final bits out with their spoon and look around wondering if anyone will notice them licking their ramekin.
Make this for your Valentine; I guarantee you will both be very happy. (and you’re sure to get lots of smooches.)
**You can find my original crème brûlée article, along with the story of a curious praying mantis, on DcFud.com.**
Classic Crème Brûlée
6 4-ounce ramekins (although I have made this in small coffee mugs and very small mason jars before…. When the urge for crème brûlée strikes, nothing can stop me.)
small kitchen torch
1 vanilla bean split lengthwise, or 2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
2 cups heavy cream
4 egg yolks
1/4 cup granulated sugar
pinch of salt
For the crunchy top:
a few tablespoons granulated sugar
Heat oven to 325 degrees and boil a tea kettle or a small saucepan of water.
Place the ramekins in a baking dish large enough to hold them comfortably and set aside.
Add the heavy cream and split vanilla bean (or extract) to a small saucepan over medium-high heat. You want the cream to get hot, but not boil, so keep an eye on it, and if you see bubbles around the edge, turn off the heat.
While waiting for the cream to heat, whisk the yolks, sugar, and a pinch of salt in a large mixing bowl until the mixture thickens and becomes pale yellow. When you lift your whisk a long ribbon should fall. (You can use a mixer, but I always feel like a very fancy French pastry chef when I do it by hand. Plus, it really isn’t worth dirtying a mixer.)
When both your cream mixture and yolk mixtures are ready, slowly add the cream mixture to the yolks while whisking.
Just as a curdle precaution I then pour this mixture through a fine mesh sieve set over a large measuring cup. (the measuring cup helps with the pouring process.)
Next, divide the mixture evenly between the ramekins. Place your baking dish in the oven, and very carefully add the recently boiled water to the pan, making sure not to get any in the ramekins. Loosely cover the entire dish with foil and bake for 30-40 minutes. When you gently shake the ramekins they will be very loose and wiggly still, but set. They will firm up after refrigeration.
Remove the ramekins from the water bath and let cool to room temp, or if you’re impatient like me, just stick them in the fridge as soon as they come out. Let chill for 3-4 hours (at this point you can let them sit in the fridge covered for 3 days before moving on to the next step)
5-10 minutes before serving, sprinkle each ramekin with a light dusting of sugar. I like a very delicate layer of crispy sugar, but if you like it thicker, just add more sugar. Holding your kitchen torch close to the surface of the crème brûlée move slowly and constantly back and forth until the sugar bubbles and turns a caramel color. The sugar will harden within seconds.
Chocolate Chip Cookies: Ever since I discovered Martha Stewart’s Crisp and Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe, I’ve looked no further. I could make them in my sleep; everyone loves them; they are just so good—chewy and bendy. In fact, every time I make them I say, “these are the best cookies I’ve ever made,” and my son always smiles, rolls his eyes, and says, “You say that every time!” It’s become a joke between us, but they really are! It’s like I forget how irresistibly good a fresh, warm chocolate chip cookie is—even for me, a girl whose salty tooth is far more demanding than her sweet tooth.
So, over the years I’ve been hearing this constant buzz about Jacques Torres, AKA Mr. Chocolate, and his famous NY Times cookie recipe. I thought to myself, “how good can they really be?” I mean, chocolate chip cookies are great, and yes, I’ve been known to eat a few right off the tray while they’re still warm and melty… Is there any other way?? But they’re just one of those things. I didn’t feel the urge to try this hyped up, fancy recipe for something I consider homey and traditional.
Alas, my curiosity got the better of me. Amazon.com supplied me with the bittersweet chocolate fèves, and I followed the recipe exactly—something I never do! Oh boy am I happy I did. Jacques Torres, I doubt you will ever read this, but I am a believer. These cookies are like the Rolls Royce of chocolate chip cookies. They are chewy and soft; just a little crunchy around the edges; loaded with silky layers of chocolate—and the sprinkle of sea salt on top just sends my taste buds to the moon. Salty. Sweet. Irresistible.
I’m still devoted to my favorite recipe (which I hope you will try too!), but these will be my special recipe that I whip out when I’m feeling a little naughty and indulgent. I hope you try them, I promise you won’t be disappointed.
Just a few notes:
Making the dough is pretty standard, but definitely fold the chocolate pieces in by hand. The large, flat size of the chocolate disks is necessary for the layers, and they will break if you toss them in the mixer. (A few will break when you scoop them, but don’t worry!)
Because the dough is cold from the 24-36 hours in the fridge, scooping it is kind of a pain in the neck. I used my biggest scoop, which is two inches in diameter and holds about 1/4 cup of dough. I kind of squished it in with my palm, then dropped it onto the cookie sheet. This part might frustrate you (as it did me!), but I promise it’s worth it!
Last thing: these are meant to be eaten warm, and they really should be, but they are delicious cool as well. How fun would it be to serve a warm chocolate chip cookie to your dinner guests, though. If you had these scooped and ready to go into the oven, you could pop them in half way through dinner, and make your friends feel very special. And very, very happy. The best dinner guests are the ones who aren’t afraid to lick gooey chocolate off their fingers in front of you…
Time: 45 minutes (for 16-cookie batch), plus at least 24 hours’ chilling
2 cups minus 2 tablespoons (8 1/2 ounces) cake flour
1 2/3 cups (8 1/2 ounces) bread flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 1/2 sticks (1 1/4 cups) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups (10 ounces) light brown sugar
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (8 ounces) granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons natural vanilla extract
1 1/4 pounds bittersweet chocolate disks or fèves, at least 60 percent cacao content (see note)
1. Sift flours, baking soda, baking powder and salt into a bowl. Set aside.
2. Using a mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream butter and sugars together until very light, about 5 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Stir in the vanilla. Reduce speed to low, add dry ingredients and mix until just combined, 5 to 10 seconds. Drop chocolate pieces in and incorporate them without breaking them. Press plastic wrap against dough and refrigerate for 24 to 36 hours. Dough may be used in batches, and can be refrigerated for up to 72 hours.
3. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a nonstick baking mat. Set aside.
4. Scoop 6 3 1/2-ounce mounds of dough (the size of generous golf balls) onto baking sheet, making sure to turn horizontally any chocolate pieces that are poking up; it will make for a more attractive cookie. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt and bake until golden brown but still soft, 18 to 20 minutes. Transfer sheet to a wire rack for 10 minutes, then slip cookies onto another rack to cool a bit more. Repeat with remaining dough, or reserve dough, refrigerated, for baking remaining batches the next day. Eat warm, with a big napkin.
Yield: 1 1/2 dozen 5-inch cookies.
Note: Disks are sold at Jacques Torres Chocolate; Valrhona fèves, oval-shaped chocolate pieces, are at Whole Foods (or Amazon.com)
Yesterday was a snow day, the first one of the season, and although I was a little irritated that it decided to happen after my semester was over and on a Sunday, I still loved it. I loved seeing my daughter’s excitement; it reminded me of how I used to feel every time I pressed my nose against a cold window to watch snowflakes fall. It also reminded me of when my son was very young, about 2 1/2, and I picked him up from daycare early one day, just as the first snow started to fall. It was late November–we weren’t really in the full Christmas swing yet–but when he saw the snow he screeched with excitement, “Santa! Santa is coming soon!” and my heart melted.
There is something magical about snow, something I’m glad I never lost when I grew up. A magic that is described so beautifully in the following quote–a quote that I loved so much I tore it out of a magazine years ago and have had hanging in a frame in my office ever since.
“I am younger each year at the first snow. When I see it, suddenly, in the air, all little and white and moving; then I am in love again, and very young and I believe everything.”–Anne Sexton, in a letter to W.D. Snodgrass (November 28, 1958)
Something I love, love, love to do on a snow day is bake. Big surprise. And since I had been eyeing this bag of mini chocolate chips in my pantry for a week or so, wondering what I was going to do with them, the snow day was the perfect opportunity to put them to use.
These muffins are the cutest. A double dose of mini, I use mini semisweet chocolate chips and I make them extra cute by using mini muffin tins. You could certainly make them regular size, and use regular chocolate chips without losing any of their deliciousness (though, you will lose some cuteness I’m afraid). They are so moist, have a perfectly sweet vanilla flavor, and a balancing tang from the sour cream.
This batter is fantastic, and you can use it for any kind of muffin, but the chocolate chips are really, really good. The trick to keeping them suspended and evenly distributed in the batter is to mix them with a tablespoon or two of flour, just enough so they’re evenly coated, before you add them to the mix. This works for anything you’re stirring into batter, and if you’ve ever had your ingredients sink to the bottom of your muffins, this trick will make you very happy!
Here’s the recipe.
Mini Mini Chocolate Chip Muffins
(makes 48 mini muffins or 24 regular muffins)
2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 eggs, at room temperature
2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
1 cup sour cream
1/4 cup milk
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon fine salt
one 12 ounce bag mini (or regular) chocolate chips
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Place paper liners in muffin tins, and for a little extra insurance give them a very light spray of nonstick cooking spray.
Stir dry ingredients together in a bowl and set aside. Reserve about 1/4 cup of chocolate chips for sprinkling on top, and place remaining chips in a separate bowl. Add about two tablespoons of the dry ingredients to the chips and toss to coat.
In a stand mixer, cream butter and sugar for about 5 minutes until light and fluffy. Add eggs and mix to combine. Scrape sides, add sour cream, vanilla and milk, and mix once more until combined.
With mixer on low, add dry ingredients, then quickly add the chips that have been dusted with flour. Do not over mix. Once chips are just incorporated, turn mixer off and give the batter a final mix by hand with a rubber spatula, making sure to scrape the bottom.
Fill muffin tins to the top, and top each with a few chocolate chips.
Bake for about 20 minutes, until just cooked and a toothpick comes out with a few moist crumbs attached.
This is the kind of recipe you want to make for someone you really love, even if they aren’t around to share it.
My brother Julian loved Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups with a passion–something that certainly rubbed off on me. He would have been 38 years old today. I remember his first birthday after he died. It had been a little over 7 months since his accident, and when I realized what day it was I felt this deep emptiness and confusion. It was a shocking emotion that I had never felt before. I remember talking to a friend and telling her how strange it felt to not know what to do. What could I do? It was still his birthday. I didn’t want to just let it pass by; I couldn’t tell him happy birthday; I couldn’t go visit him or call him on the phone. I felt like I couldn’t do anything.
Cooking and baking, for me, is truly an act of love. Although it is often done with whimsy, it is never mindless. I care about what I make, and I think about who I am going to share it with, keeping them in mind during the entire process. So, this is what I decided to do for Julian. Rather than sit around and feel helpless, as I did that first year, I’ve created a tradition of baking something for him every year. The sadness never goes away and I will always miss him, but when I bake something in his memory it’s therapeutic; while I bake I think about how great he was–sweet, funny, handsome, and kind, with a mischievous side and the longest eyelashes you’ve ever seen. Such a special person, gone far too soon. This year, I made my choice with his love of peanut butter cups in mind. I know he would’ve loved these. He might have even loved them enough to forgive us for teasing him for getting so old.
Make these for someone you love, or someone you miss.
The cupcakes are moist and very chocolatey, and the frosting is something indescribably wonderful. I am not a frosting fan; I scrape it off of birthday cakes; I strategically avoid the corner pieces that have loads of it… I could eat this by the spoonful. (I have eaten this by the spoonful.) Just wait… You will, too. I promise. The frosting recipe makes enough for 20 cupcakes, plus a few spoonfuls leftover for shamelessly eating straight from the bowl.
*This recipe was inspired by and adapted from The Barefoot Contessa at Home cookbook. I made a few small changes, but she certainly deserves the credit.
Makes 20 regular sized cupcakes
1 1/2 sticks butter at room temperature
1 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons instant espresso powder or instant coffee
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk at room temperature
1/2 cup sour cream at room temperature
1 3/4 cups A.P. Flour
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon fine salt
Preheat oven to 350, and line cupcake pans with paper liners.
Combine buttermilk, sour cream, and vanilla in a bowl or measuring cup and set aside.
Normally, I’m not a sifter… but I think it’s necessary with cocoa powder. So, over a piece of parchment, or large bowl, sift flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt together.
In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream butter, sugars, and coffee powder until light and fluffy. About 5 minutes on medium-high speed.
Scrape sides, add eggs, and beat again until light and fluffy. About 2 minutes.
Next, with the mixer running on low speed, add the buttermilk mixture and dry mixture, alternately, beginning and ending with the flour. Don’t over mix. Using a rubber spatula, scrape sides and bottom of bowl, making sure everything is combined.
Fill liners almost to the top. I use a large ice cream scoop, and get exactly 20 cupcakes.
Bake for 20-22 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out with a few moist crumbs attached.
Peanut Butter Frosting
(AKA the best frosting you will ever taste. Ever.)
Makes enough for 20 cupcakes, plus a little left over…
1 cup creamy peanut butter
1 cup powdered sugar
1/2 stick butter at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/8 teaspoon fine salt (a pinch)
1/3 cup heavy cream
Combine all ingredients except heavy cream in the bowl of a stand mixer. Mix on low speed at first, then increase to medium-high until well blended.
Scrape down sides, add cream, and beat on high speed until creamy and fluffy.
Fall is here… cool, crisp air; colorful, changing leaves; red wine, fireplaces, and cozy blankets… and enough pumpkin and apple recipes to make your head spin. I have nothing against either of them, but I’ll admit I get bored with them pretty quickly, and by the time Thanksgiving rolls around I don’t even want to look at either one of them. Thank goodness my dad makes the best pecan pie ever. But that’s another post.
So, when I want something different, but something that still evokes that familiar “fall” feeling, pears are the answer. I think they are so much more interesting than apples. They’re like apple’s tall, sexy cousin. Juicy but still firm when ripe, with their signature texture and elegant shape, you can pretty much use them in place of apples in most recipes, and they just make such a difference.
Oh, crostata… I really can’t praise the humble crostata enough. Just as the pear is apple’s sexy cousin, the crostata is pie’s laid back Italian buddy. Essentially an open-faced, free form pie, they take the fear and fiddliness out of pie making. They are supposed to be rustic! Their simplicity is what makes them beautiful. My crust recipe is simple, (Thank you, Barefoot Contessa) and very easy to work with, and once you have the basic method down, you can switch up the fruits, adjusting the flour and sugar depending on the juiciness and sweetness of your chosen fruit. I hardly make pies anymore because I love this so much, and I hope you will too!
For the crust:
3 cups AP flour
1 1/2 stick butter (12 tablespoons), very cold and diced into small cubes
1/3 cup shortening, also very cold. I keep mine in the refrigerator, as this is really the only time I use it.
1 tsp salt
1 tbs sugar
2 tbs vodka mixed with 4 tbs water, very cold (I learned the vodka trick from America’s Test Kitchen a long, long time ago, and it really makes a difference; however, you can leave it out and just use water.)
Place dry ingredients in food processor and pulse to mix. Add cubed butter and shortening and pulse about 12 times until the butter and shortening are mixed throughout. Slowly pour the water/vodka mixture through the lid while pulsing, until the dough begins to clump. Give it one more good, long pulse. Carefully transfer the dough to a floured surface and knead a few times to combine. Divide the dough evenly in half (this makes enough for two crostate. No, that’s not a typo, “crostate” is the plural of “crostata”; “crostatas” is not a word. Your Italian lesson for the day). Place each half between parchment or plastic wrap, flatten into a round disk, and chill for 20-30 minutes. Prepare your fruit while it chills.
After chilling, roll one of the disks out on a floured surface (I like to do it on the parchment I’ll bake it on later) until you have about a 12 inch circle, and a thickness of about 1/4 inch. The edges don’t have to be perfect, just make sure to keep moving the dough and adding flour while rolling to make sure it isn’t sticking. Place rolled out dough in refrigerator for 5-10 minutes before adding fruit.
(Alternatively, you can use this same dough to make a pie. Either two one-crust pies or one top and bottom crusted pie. It’s a very versatile crust; I use it for chicken pot pie too! (again, another post!). You can also freeze it, wrapped tightly in plastic, and just thaw in the fridge before rolling out.)
For the Crostata:
3-4 Bosc pears, ripe but firm, peeled and quartered; seeds and stems removed, then diced into small bite size pieces
3 tablespoons AP flour
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
juice from half a lemon
1 tablespoon butter, diced into small pieces
1 egg mixed with one tablespoon of water
1-2 tablespoons sugar for sprinkling
One rolled out crust, from recipe above, on parchment paper
Preheat oven to 400 degrees, If you have a pizza stone this is an excellent time to use it! If not, place a large sheet pan in the oven while it preheats.
Place diced pears in a large bowl. Add the flour, sugar, cinnamon, salt, and lemon juice and gently toss to combine. I use my finger tips, so I don’t mash up the pears.
Place pears and all their “goo” in the center of your rolled out crust, leaving a one inch border.
Fold dough over the pears, folding and crimping as you go. Brush edges with egg wash and sprinkle with a light dusting of granulated sugar, dot the top of pears with butter, and toss in the oven, either on a preheated pizza stone or preheated sheet tray.
Bake for 25-30 minutes, until crust is golden brown and fruit is bubbly. Let cool for 20 minutes and serve slightly warm with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.