December 27, 2010

Maple Pecan Shortbread Cookies

I used to work for Starbucks in California. In the pastry case, full of terrible-for-you and not-even-that-good-tasting pastries (I guess I would rather have homemade), there was one treat that stood out. A scone. A maple oat nut scone to be exact. This scone had a wonderful maple flavor, was studded with pecans, and iced with a perfectly sweet glaze. So many delicious flavors converging in one little pastry!

But, I moved to Oregon and, alas, the Starbucks in Oregon do not carry the delectable maple oat nut scones. Sad, sad day.

These maple pecan shortbread cookies have been on my to-bake-soon short list ever since I opened my copy of Martha Stewart's Cookies. I've made many wonderful cookies from that book in the intervening years before finally getting around to these. I'm sorry it took me so long.

These cookies knocked the socks off of everyone I've shared them with. They really are a perfect winter cookie. As I've already established, maple and pecans are a natural and particularly tasty pairing. The shortbread here only compliments and highlights these homey and satisfying flavors.

In fact, these taste just like a cookie version of my favorite and now distant scones. These cookies will more than suffice in their absence. I will definitely curl up with a small stack of these and a cup of Starbucks coffee. I will once again know maple pecan bliss. Thanks, Martha!

Maple Pecan Shortbread Cookies
  • 2 3/4 cups flour, plus more for work surface
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup pecans, finely chopped
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temp.
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup pure maple syrup, preferably grade B
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1/4 teaspoon pure maple extract
  • 1 large egg lightly beaten
  • 24 pecan halves, for decorating
  • Turbinado sugar (or regular sugar) for sprinkling
  1. Sift flour and salt into a bowl. Whisk in chopped pecans.
  2. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat butter and sugar on medium-high speed until smooth and light, about 1 minute. Add maple syrup, egg yolk and extract. Beat on medium until well combined. On low speed, gradually add flour mixture, beating until just combined. The dough should be smooth and pliable. 
  3. Turn dough out onto plastic wrap. Flatten into a disk, wrap it up and refrigerate until firm, 1 /2 hours to overnight.
  4. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment.
  5. On a lightly floured work surface, roll out dough to 1/4 inch thick. (I had to let my dough warm up a little before it would roll out.) Cut out rounds using a 2-inch cookie cutter. (The only cookie cutter I had was heart shaped, though the hearts didn't really turn out in the end.) Place on a baking sheet. Brush the tops with beaten egg and place a pecan half in the center of each cookie. Sprinkle cookies with sugar.
  6. Bake cookies, rotating halfway through, until golden around the edges, about 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. 
Makes about 2 dozen

December 23, 2010

Roasted Pear Salad with Blue Cheese and Walnuts

Ever have a recipe that you know you want to make, but it takes you a little while to actually get around to making it? Ever have one that took you two years to finally make? Well, this is mine.

I first saw this recipe while I was at the gym. I've mentioned before that watching the Food Network was basically my main reason for going to the gym. (I don't have cable, OK?!) If my timing was wrong, I'd get stuck with Paula Deen or Sandra Lee. But if the stars aligned in my favor, I'd get to watch Ina Garten's show, The Barefoot Contessa.

Ina's recipes always look delicious and she seems like she'd be a sweet person to have as a next door neighbor. So there I was one day, all sweaty and whatnot, and Ina comes on and makes this wonderful looking pear salad. It's got blue cheese and walnuts and dried cranberries, and all manor of delicious ingredients. And it doesn't look hard to make. I put it on my mental list of recipes I really want to try.

Subsequently, I went so far as to bookmark the recipe on my laptop. It languished there for two whole years. I never forgot about this recipe, but somehow I never went out of my way to get the ingredients, either. Then last week, somehow after all this time, it happened.

Pears were on sale at my normal supermarket, so I bought two. Later, on a whim, I stopped at a Grocery Outlet--which by the way has an excellent cheese selection if you didn't already know. I got a big hunk of blue cheese for next to nothing. I knew I had nuts and cranberries on hand. This was finally coming together! I picked up some spinach and lemons and I was ready to go.

Or so I thought. As I started making this salad, I realized that I used up my dried cranberries making some cookies recently. I dug around and found some dried blueberries--sometimes you have just have to substitute. Then I got to the part about apple cider, which I never have on hand and forgot to buy. "Oh man, I really blew it now," I thought. Just when I thought I had it! I was trying to come up with something I could use in place of apple cider...

when Mark reminded me that I randomly happened to have some on hand, probably for the first time ever. I am working in a fifth grade class and after their Christmas party we had extra Martinelli's left over. The teacher gave me a bottle. I had completely forgotten about it. But there it was in my refrigerator--a veritable Christmas miracle, if you ask me!

Long story not-so short, this recipe finally came together (in adapted form) two years after it initially piqued my interest. It was oh so worth the wait.

Roasted Pear Salad with Blue Cheese and Walnuts
  • 2 pears, ripe but still firm
  • 1/4 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice (from about 1 lemon)
  • 3 oz. blue cheese, crumbled (plus more for sprinkling)
  • 1/4 cup dried blueberries or cranberries
  • 1/4 cup walnuts or pecans (plus more for sprinkling)
  • 1/2 cup apple cider
  • 2 tablespoons red wine or port
  • 1/3 cup lightly packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 lb. baby spinach or arugula
  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Peel the pears and slice them in half lengthwise. Chop off a little of the rounded sides so that they will be sit steadily in the baking dish. Scoop out the seeds with a spoon or melon baller, leaving a well for the filling. Toss the pears in the lemon juice, to help them from browning. Arrange the pears, core-side up in a small baking dish and set aside.
  2. In a small bowl, mix together the blue cheese, berries and nuts. Divide the mixture among the wells in the pears, compacting it into the wells and mounding it up a bit. (If you have extra, sprinkle it on the salad.)
  3. In the same bowl, mix the apple cider, wine and brown sugar. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Pour over and around the pears in the baking dish. Bake pears, basting occasionally with the liquid, until tender--about 30 minutes.
  4. Meanwhile, just before the pears are done, whisk together the olive oil and lemon juice. After you take the pears out of the oven, add 1/4 cup of the basting liquid to finish the dressing. In a large bowl, toss the greens with the desired amount of dressing. Pour rest of dressing into a serving vessel.
  5. Separate the greens onto 2 large plates. Place 2 warm roasted pear halves on each bed of greens and sprinkle with desired about of blue cheese and nuts. Serve immediately, with extra dressing on the side.
Serves 2 as a main course or 4 as an appetizer

December 20, 2010

Browned Butter White Chocolate Chip Cranberry Cookies

Let us talk about decadence. Let us talk about Christmas cookies. Let us talk about butter. Lots and lots of butter--browned butter to be exact.

These browned butter chocolate chip cookies have that caramelized, butterscotch-y taste that makes the most memorable chocolate chip cookies so memorable. They also have those crispy-delicious crunchy edges juxtaposed with a soft center. It is impossible to choose my favorite part of these cookies--it is the overall experience that makes them so grand.

These cookies, when made with white chocolate chips and dried cranberries, are not messing around. This is one rich, sweet cookie. But I contend that the holidays are a perfect time for this cookie. We all indulge a little this time of year, right? These cookies also involve two extra steps. When you are baking a lot for the holidays, maybe you are not inclined to make cookies that have two extra steps. Maybe you just want to get the cookies over with. Those regular cookies will taste good, I don't doubt it for a second.

BUT, I assure you these cookies will taste better. Like many things that take a little extra effort, it is worth it! First, there is the browning of the butter, which imparts a lovely depth and adds extra complexity. I actually really like this step because when I want to make cookies, I rarely remember to get butter out so it can warm to room temperature. Here you melt the butter, so it eliminates that problem altogether.

The second extra step doesn't take much effort, just a little extra time. You whisk the butter and sugars and then let them rest. Over an interval of about ten minutes, you repeat that process a few times. During this step, the sugars dissolve. To be honest, I don't know exactly how dissolved sugar helps these cookies. You'll have to ask Cook's Illustrated about that. Maybe it's a textural thing. All I know is that it works.

So bake a batch or two. Share some. Save plenty for you and yours. Curl up on the couch near the Christmas tree. Have your friends and family gather 'round and give everyone a cookie. To me, this is what the holidays are all about.

Browned Butter White Chocolate Chip Cranberry Cookies
  • 3 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 28 tablespoons (yes, 3 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups dark brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 4 teaspoons vanilla
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • 2 1/2 cups white chocolate chips
  • 1 1/2 cups dried cranberries
  1. Put an oven rack in the middle position and heat oven to 375 degrees. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper. 
  2. Whisk the flour and baking soda together in a medium bowl. Set aside.
  3. In a large heatproof bowl, cut 8 tablespoons (1 stick) of butter into a few pieces. Set aside. Heat 20 tablespoons (2 1/2 sticks) of butter in a light colored skillet over medium-high heat. (Do not use a non-stick pan if you can avoid it. You need to see the color of the melted butter to know when it has browned.) Once the butter is melted, continue cooking and stirring until the butter is a dark golden brown and has a nutty aroma, 2-3 minutes. (This will seem to take awhile, but change will happen quickly so pay close attention.) Remove the skillet from heat and our into the large bowl. Stir until all of the butter has melted.
  4. Add both sugars, salt and vanilla to the butter and whisk until fully incorporated. Add the eggs and the egg yolks. Whisk until smooth. Let the mixture stand for 3 minutes, then whisk for 30 seconds. Repeat process of resting and whisking 2 more times. The mixture should be thick, smooth and shiny.
  5. Stir in the flour mixture until just combined. Stir in white chocolate chips and cranberries, making sure no flour pockets remain.
  6. Spoon dough in 3 tablespoon portions spaced 2 inches apart on prepared baking sheets. (These cookies will spread, so I recommend 8 to a sheet for perfect cookies. 10 to a sheet if you don't mind the edges sometimes touching.) Bake cookies 1 tray at a time, rotating halfway through, until the cookies are golden brown and still puffy; the edges will have begun to set, but the centers will still be soft--10 to 14 minutes. 
  7. Cool cookies on the baking sheet placed on a wire rack until the cookies can be transferred to the rack itself to cool completely. (If you can wait that long.)
Makes 3 dozen cookies

December 13, 2010

Pumpkin Spice Layer cake with Caramel Cream Cheese Frosting

Is it so wrong to eat birthday cake for breakfast? Yeah, I didn't think so, either.

I relish the opportunity to make fancy cakes, since I so rarely get the chance. I guess that's not exactly fair---I could make a fancy cake anytime, really, but that would be a dangerous, dangerous idea. I reserve my fancy cake baking to birthdays. Usually my own.

This year I was agonizing over two really amazing-sounding recipes, but an informal poll on the Recipes For Laughter facebook page proved the pumpkin spice cake the most popular. I'm glad it was. It's hard to say which aspect of this cake was my favorite. The cake itself has the perfect dense-but-fluffy crumb---maybe even the platonic ideal of a birthday cake crumb. The combination of spices in this cake was truly spot on. The spices made this cake seem more pumpkin-y than any other pumpkin dessert in my recent memory, yet the flavor was not at all overwhelming (as some heavily
spiced cakes tend to be). This cake had a perfect balance of warm spices and pumpkin flavor. It easily could have been my favorite part of this cake...if it weren't for the frosting.

By now you may have picked up on the fact that I am an unrepentant cream cheese frosting enthusiast. Give me any excuse to top something with cream cheese frosting, and I will. But, this cream cheese frosting was a revelation. You make a quick and easy caramel from powdered sugar and heavy cream, then mix it into your typical cream cheese frosting. I love caramel nearly as much as I love cream cheese frosting, so this was a match made in frosting heaven. It was bordering on cloyingly sweet, so if you are not really into that, I would recommend adding less powdered sugar or adding more cream cheese to mellow out the sweetness a little.

I think this cake would have been even more perfect with some candied pecans on top, but I ran out of time before my guests arrived. I guess I should stop throwing myself birthday parties...

Ok, that's not going to happen. There's no way I'm giving up an excuse to make myself fancy cakes. Even if that means I have to eat cake for breakfast for days afterward.

Pumpkin Spice Layer Cake with Caramel Cream Cheese Frosting
For the Frosting:
  • 1 pound of powdered sugar, divided (from a 1 pound box, or approx. 3 1/2 to 4 cups)
  • 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon heavy whipping cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 8-ounce package cream cheese, room temp.
  • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temp.
For the cake:
  • 3 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
    T's cake-slicing ability is unmatched.
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg*
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1 15-ounce can of pure pumpkin
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 1/4 cups vegetable oil
  • 4 large eggs
  • 2 teaspoons finely grated orange peel
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour two 9-inch cake pans, tapping out any excess flour.
  2. Sprinkle 1/2 cup powdered sugar over the bottom of a small non-stick skillet over medium heat. Cook without stirring until the sugar melts. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is a deep amber color, about 2 minutes more. Stir in 1/2 cup cream, vanilla and salt--be careful, as the mixture will bubble up. Stir until any caramel bits have dissolved. Stir in remaining 1 tablespoon of cream. Strain caramel sauce into a small bowl and cool to room temperature.
  3. Whisk flour, baking soda, baking powder and spices (through cardamom) in a large bowl.
  4. In another large bowl, beat pumpkin, sugar and oil with an electric or stand mixer. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating to incorporate between each addition. Mix in orange peel. Add flour mixture, beating on low just enough to blend.
  5. Divide batter between prepared pans and bake until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean--about 33 minutes. Cool in pans on racks for 10 minutes. Carefully invert cakes onto rack and then turn them top-side up to cool completely.
  6. While the cakes are baking, sift the remaining powdered sugar into a medium bowl. Using an electric or stand mixer, beat the cream cheese and butter in a large bowl. Gradually beat in powdered sugar. Beat in the cooled caramel. Cover and chill frosting until firm enough to spread, about 2 hours.
  7. When cakes are cool, use a long serrated knife to cut the rounded top of off of one of them, leaving a flat surface. Place that cake on a cake plate cut-side up and cover with 3/4 cup of frosting. Place second cake on top. Cover top and sides of cake with remaining frosting.
Serves 12-16

Note: Cake can be made up to 2 days ahead. Just cover and chill. Let stand at room temp. 2 hours before serving.
*Buy whole nutmeg wherever bulk spices are sold. Whole nutmeg looks expensive, but if you just buy one (which is more than enough for this recipe) it will probably cost you less than a dollar. Grate the nutmeg with a microplane or the finest holes on your grater just before using.

December 12, 2010

Brussels Sprouts Gratin

Brussels Sprouts are a seriously misunderstood and undervalued vegetable. I love brussels sprouts. I think I have always loved them, but ever since I have discovered the many ways of preparing brussels sprouts, I seriously cannot get enough of them. I also love helping people learn to love brussels sprouts. If I can convert one person to become a non-eater to an eater with one dish, then my job is done.

I found this recipe in Bon Appetite under the 'Learn to Love It' section. Of course I had to test out the recipe. I ended up making it for Thanksgiving and it was a hit! Who wouldn't love brussels sprouts combined with cream and cheese? It's a great every day dish as well, a hearty side to any meat dish.

What's in it
1 lb brussels sprouts, stems and outer leaves removed
2 Tbl butter melted plus enough to butter dish
1 tsp salt
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1/2 C heavy cream
1/2 C grated white cheddar cheese
1/2 C bread crumbs

How it's made
Preheat oven to 400 degrees and butter a 2 quart baking dish. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, add the brussels sprouts and cook 8 minutes. Drain the brussels sprouts and coarsely chop.

Transfer brussels sprouts to baking dish and toss in the pepper flakes and salt to taste. Spread evenly and pour the cream on top. Sprinkle with the cheese and bread crumbs and drizzle butter on top. Bake until bubbly and golden brown, about 15-20 minutes.

Vegan Chocolate Cupcakes

My good friend Michelle just came back home from 3 months in South America (why do my friends always leave me?!!) and seeing as she is vegan, and hadn't had dessert in so many months, we had her over for American Dinner and vegan cupcakes. I didn't have a complete recipe, seeing as she is the one with 'Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World', so I pieced something together from my 'Moosewood Desserts' cookbook. It's a take on their Six Minute Chocolate Cake recipe.

These cupcakes are a cinch to make, and incredibly delicious. Andy couldn't get enough of them. They are delicious on their own, but could easily be embellished to make a seasonal cupcake. I pondered putting crushed candy cane on top, but figured I'd go the purist route the first time around. I did decorate with some Pilsbury frosting I had laying around, piping it on to spell out words and silly decorations.
What's in the cupcakes
1 1/2 C unbleached flour
1/3 C cocoa powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 C sugar
1/2 C vegetable oil
1 C cold water or coffee
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 Tblsp apple cider vinegar

How the cupcakes are made
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a large bowl mix together all the dry ingredients, including the sugar, with a whisk. In a small bowl or measuring cup mix together all the rest of the ingredients except for the vinegar. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients, then mix in vinegar into mixture with a whisk. The vinegar will react with the baking soda to make bubbles and a bit of foam. Spoon batter into cupcake tins lined with paper, filling 2/3 full. Bake for 20 minutes. Cool on rack when done. Prepare glaze as cupcakes bake. Makes 18 cupcakes.

What's in the glaze
4 ounces semi sweet chocolate chips (about 1/4 to 1/3 of a bag)
1/4 C hot water or coffee
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

How the glaze is made
In a double boiler (or a pot of 2 cups boiling water, with a larger metal bowl rested on top) melt chocolate, stirring often until melted and smooth. Remove from heat and stir in water and vanilla until combined and smooth. Spoon glaze over each cupcake (about 1 spoon per cupcake) and using the back of the spoon, spread glaze in a circular motion to cover the cupcake. Place in the refrigerator at least 20 minutes to harden the glaze. If putting crushed candy cane or chocolate chips, or mint UFO's on top, place before putting in fridge. If using frosting to pipe on decoration, do so after glaze is hardened.

December 1, 2010

Double Chocolate Peppermint Cookies

At the risk of sounding over dramatic, I will say it anyways: these are perhaps the best cookies I have ever made. Seriously. The most fascinating part is that one cookie is totally satisfying, they are that good. Usually one cookie follows another follows another, until you're stuck with a belly full of cookies. Of course I am also a sucker for chocolate and mint, being a huge fan of hot chocolate mixed with peppermint schnapps. These spirited little cookies have the perfect balance of chocolates and peppermint, walking a fine line between cookie and brownie - a good choice for any holiday party or dessert. The original recipe is courtesy of Bon Appetite magazine, but I have made a couple adaptations for the normal baker.

What's in it
2 1/2 C bittersweet chocolate chips (15 oz), divided
1 1/2 C unbleached flour
1/4 C unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp instant espresso powder (it's worth it!)
1/2 tsp salt (unless you are using salted butter)
1/2 C (1 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature
1 C sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp peppermint extract
2 eggs
4 candy canes coarsely crushed (they will be different sizes, that's ok)

How it's made
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.

Whisk flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, espresso powder and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.

In a large bowl, beat butter until creamy. Beat in extracts and sugar until smooth. Add eggs and beat until combined. Set aside.

In a small metal bowl, measure out 2 cups chocolate chips, and place bowl over a small pot of boiling water (not a rolling boil, more like a simmer). Sir chips until smooth and melted. Measure 1/2 cup melted chocolate and set aside. If you keep it in a metal measuring cup, you can set on top of the oven to keep it warm as the oven pre heats.

Beat in remaining melted chocolate into butter mixture. Add the dry ingredients and mix until just blended. Stir in remaining 1/2 cup chocolate chips. (Ok, I added more than that...)

Using a tablespoon, scoop out small balls of dough and place on cookie sheet 1 1/2 inches apart. If you can shape them to be more round than blob, they will come out prettier when baked.

Bake cookies about 8 or 9 minutes, until they are cracked on top and tester comes out clean. Don't be fooled by the melty chocolate chips inside, though! Let set on baking sheet for a few minutes, then move to cooling racks. You can keep them on the parchment paper on top of the racks if you'd like, to minimize cleanup.

If necessary, re-warm reserved melted chocolate until melty. Using a fork, drizzle melted chocolate in zig zags across baked cookies. Sprinkle crushed candy on top, then drizzle with a bit more chocolate. Once all the cookies are baked and decorated, transfer onto one baking sheet and stick in the refrigerator to set the chocolate, about 20 minutes.

You should be able to get all the cookies on two baking sheets if they are a good size. If you need to use one twice, be sure it cools down in between, to minimize the dough melting and spreading out.

You can freeze these cookies up to three weeks in advance if you want to get a jump start on baking for the holidays. Freeze in an air tight container, and eat them cold or at room temperature, depending on your preference.