Chocolate-chestnut thumbprints

We may be in the midst of Thanksgiving prep (those grocery stores are jam packed!) but it's Christmas that I can't get my mind off of.  I'm always eager to get started on holiday baking!  It's such a wonderful time of year; I only wish we had more time (I think two months would be perfect) between Thanksgiving and Christmas to stretch it out and enjoy it more.  Short of moving to Canada where we can celebrate Thanksgiving in October, I guess we have to make do with our schedule.  That means it's time to get started on cookies!  I have old-favorites to make but I eased into my holiday baking with this batch of chocolate-chestnut thumbprint cookies, a chocolate chip cookie filled with chestnut cream. 
Chocolate chip thumbprint cookies filled with chestnut cream
There's something about thumbprints that screams 'holiday cookies', right?  And this is the time of year when we look for simple recipes that have a little spin or twist to them that make them a bit extra special.  I've wanted to try this recipe for a long time because these cookies are like that - very easy to make, with a little twist in the middle.  The base cookie dough is essentially a chocolate chip cookie. Make an indentation in the center and fill it with a dollop of chestnut cream for a different spin.
You might know that I love chestnuts, in all forms.  If that's not the case for you or if you can't get your hands on chestnut cream ("crème de marrons"), you can also fill the cookie centers easily with a spoonful of Nutella chocolate-hazelnut spread (I bet you have that!).  If you don't mind a little more work, I think a fudge filling like the one I used for the fudge oatmeal cookies would work beautifully.  
I filled my thumbprints with chestnut cream as well as Nutella.  If you find the kind of chestnut cream that comes in a tube, it makes filling the thumbprints so easy.  

Between the two, the chestnut cream filling gives you a different flavor component, a milder kind of sweetness.  It's a fun change and a little twist to the usual.  The Nutella, or a chocolate filling, will give you more of a familiar, traditional chocolate chip cookie taste.  Both are good.  My husband and I liked the chestnut combination; the little one preferred the Nutella.
The cookies up front are filled with Nutella

Matcha financiers...with white or milk chocolate filling

I have long been a fan of baked goods and desserts made with matcha.  This finely milled green tea powder provides a subtle dose of bitterness that mellows the sweetness of desserts and creates a kind of savory aspect to the sweet that works really well, in my opinion.
It took me long enough but I finally ordered some culinary-grade matcha (I knew just what to get thanks to Nami at Just One Cookbook) and started my green tea adventures with a batch of matcha financiers.

Bear with me as I repeat: I love financiers!  I bake mine in muffin tins and I think these French tea cakes are like the best muffins on earth.  Made with a generous amount of butter, as well as with ground nuts and egg whites, these little cakes bake up crisp along the edges and meltingly moist and flavorful inside.  I have made hazelnut ones and experimented with a pistachio version; now, I got to try a batch of green tea!
These green tea financiers did not disappoint; they were what a good financier should be - rich, moist, flavorful.  I usually make financiers with brown butter (a recipe from Paris Sweets that I'm devoted to) but that's not the case here, and I was afraid I'd miss it; happily, these were still rich, nutty, and delicious.  The green tea flavor is discernible but not overpowering (to me, anyway...if you're not sure how you feel about it, start with a smaller amount of matcha).  I think this is a great example of East meets West in the world of desserts.
I baked these matcha financiers in mini as well as regular-sized muffin tins. Generally, the little ones bake up more evenly throughout, whereas the larger ones tend to stay slightly wet in the very center.  Given their richness, mini's are a good option but my family and I actually really like the slightly under-cooked centers so we have a preference for the larger ones.  And like all financiers, these are best eaten fresh after the edges have cooled to an almost shattering crispness.  You can store the batter in the fridge for 3 days and bake them in batches.  I find that briefly re-heating leftovers the next morning in a warm, 325 degree oven, brings back that crisp freshness as well.  

Now onto the filling option.  Dorie Greenspan (whose recipe this is, and who I kind of think of as the American authority on baking French desserts at home) reminded me that matcha pairs really well with chocolate.  It made me think of green tea Kit Kat bars, which my son first tried while we were on vacation in Canada and loves to relive how good they are!  So, I went ahead and gave the chocolate combination a try. First, white chocolate...
And then I tried milk chocolate as well...

Chocolate chip-almond muffins

Some people can never have too many pairs of shoes...for me, I can never have too many muffin recipes!  And when I saw a chocolate chip-almond recipe recently, I knew I had to try it asap.
I've been on the lookout for a good almond muffin recipe - preferably one involving chocolate - for a long time.  I'm thrilled I found a terrific one recently.  This recipe comes from Williams-Sonoma Home Baked Comforts and what I really like about it is the addition of almond meal in the batter.  That, along with buttermilk, creates a wonderfully moist, tender, and flavorful muffin!  Throw some mini chocolate chips into the mix and we're really in business. 
Since I was a little concerned that the muffin batter itself might not be flavorful enough, I debated whether I should add a little almond extract or orange zest into the mix.  I settled on orange zest and I'm really happy I did!  The fresh zest contributes such a burst of flavor.  It brings a freshness and brightness to the muffins.  And the combination of orange with chocolate is always a great marriage because one brings out the best in the other.  The orange seems to heighten the chocolate flavor even more.

The recipe was meant for mini muffins but to be honest, I think regular-size muffins are mini enough as it is so I made them standard size!  
When I eat a good muffin like this, I often wish I could reach for another one immediately.  While I certainly wanted another one after I polished off my first, one of these moist, fluffy muffins was almost surprisingly satisfying.  I think it has a lot to do with the almond adds a subtle richness.

So if you're like me - that is, if you like making and eating muffins, and enjoy the combination of chocolate and almonds (with orange, at that), do give these a try!

It's somebody's birthday, somewhere...

At my house, I kicked off November with a birthday cake!  
A 6-inch yellow cake with chocolate buttercream makes me think: "Birthday"!
It's my husband's birthday later this month though that isn't exactly the reason for this cake (although celebrating early and often is a wonderful thing).  I'll be making him the chocolate-hazelnut meringue torte for his actual birthday, as per his request, but maybe I've got birthday on my mind or I'm just constantly looking for a reason to celebrate and make a cake (plus, try out a promising recipe) because I just thought to know, it's somebody's birthday, somewhere!  It doesn't have to be your actual birthday to pop a candle on it and celebrate!  

Are you with me...or am I crazy?  I think my family might think I'm a little nutty (my son sure gave me some funny looks when I kept insisting it was his birthday) but I hope you're with me, and I hope this inspires you to pop a candle or two on your next cake and let everyone around you make a wish before digging in.  Why not! 
For this "birthday cake", we're talking about a delicious yellow cake.  I haven't had a lot of experience with it but I can now officially say that I have a go-to recipe for moist, fluffy, tender, flavorful, homemade yellow cake.  And though I did not grow up eating yellow cake with chocolate frosting as my birthday cake (it was mainly ice cream cakes, then chestnut filled sponge cakes for me), I think of this combination as the quintessential American birthday cake.
This little 6-inch cake was very, very well received at my house.  My son polished off as much as I would give him and was surprised by how much he enjoyed it.  My husband seriously raved about it, which is a good thing since he is the upcoming birthday-boy.  He says it's unlike any other yellow cake he's had but I'd argue that it is like the very kind of box yellow cake that we've somehow elevated in our minds. This is the homemade form of how we remember (accurately or not) boxed yellow cake to be.  It's moist; it's dense yet light and fluffy, as well as flavorful with the taste of vanilla and rich eggs.  It makes for an excellent layer cake in both texture and flavor.
You probably won't be surprised that the credit for this great recipe goes to America's Test Kitchen via their Cooking for Two cookbook.  No matter if you make it for two or four, you'll probably just wish you had more of this cake and want to double this recipe next time.  That's because they've done the legwork and pinned down the right ratio of butter to oil, the ideal amount of buttermilk and eggs needed to give us a homemade yellow cake that has all the light texture of a box cake but with all-natural flavors.

For the chocolate frosting, I went with my son's favorite from Beatty's (or Ina's) chocolate cake.  I don't mean to doubt the folks at America's Test Kitchen at all but the chocolate frosting this yellow cake recipe was paired with called for double the amount of chocolate I used, as well as a lot more butter, and involved corn syrup.  I bet it's delicious but, believe me, the chocolate buttercream I use is tried and true in our house.  It is chocolaty and creamy. The beauty of pairing it with this yellow cake is that the contrast makes the chocolate frosting pop.  It's worth every calorie as you savor the strong chocolate flavor against the moist vanilla cake. It made me understand why this chocolate-yellow cake combination is such a classic for birthdays, which are like the most important days of our lives (not that I'm being dramatic or anything).  

Pappardelle with porcini and shallots

It seems like I've been seeing mushrooms everywhere I turn - featured in magazines and cooking shows - and since I'm a big fan of it myself, I was inspired to try a new recipe.  I've never cooked with dried mushrooms with the exception of Chinese shiitake and this pasta dish gave me the chance to cook with dried porcini mushrooms.  
Pappardelle pasta with dried porcini, shallots, garlic and thyme
I've been having a great time trying out new savory recipes and been rewarded with some definite keepers.  This one goes on that list.  This pasta (I used pappardelle, which I love, but you could also use tagliatelle or other noodles) is coated with a light sauce that's like a ragu, in my mind, only it's vegetarian and quick to make.  

The porcini mushrooms are so intense - meaty, and with a strong flavor that carries the dish.  I played around with the recipe a bit, doing things like using shallots instead of onions and less tomato paste than called for because I wanted the porcini flavor to be the main focus.  
A little goes a long way with the dried porcini and when you reconstitute it in a little stock, you end up with not only moist, plump mushrooms but also a deep, dark, flavorful liquid that becomes a serious flavor addition to your dish.  

This made a very delicious, satisfying weekend lunch recently.  Even the little guy, who's no longer a mushroom fan (he once was as a toddler) enjoyed some while my husband savored his generous bowl.  That always puts a smile on my face.
If you like mushrooms but rarely cook with dried ones, maybe it's time to mix things up and give it some attention.  I am eager to make porcini risotto soon.  

Brown butter vanilla bean cake with chestnut cream filling

Have you noticed the deluge of cookbooks published recently?  Maybe the timing has to do with the upcoming holiday season but I just don't remember noticing such a swell of cookbooks being published around the same time before.  I'm talking cookbooks from...The Kitchn, Skinnytaste, Joy the Baker, How Sweet Eats, the guys from Baked, as well as new editions from Ina Garten, Martha Stewart, Yotam Ottolenghi...and a lot more!  I'm excited about it all because it means more inspiration, more deliciousness to see and discover.
One of the baking books I was really impressed with is Dorie Greenspan's latest, Baking Chez Moi.  It shouldn't have come as a surprise since I think Dorie's books are always so substantial - as in, there's just so much substance to them.  Her recipes are so detailed, but not complicated.  She provides tips and suggestions to guide you towards being as successful as possible in the kitchen.

I saw many recipes I'd like to make in the book.  I started right at the beginning, with a very simple (but smart) "weekend" cake.  It's the kind of simple yet delicious dessert the French bake at home.  It's easily prepared, with staying power to sit around for a few days to be enjoyed at any time when the mood is right.  I love this kind of cake.  Break out the bowls and whisks!  It feels comforting both to prepare as well as to eat.
The texture of this cake is firm and sturdy but moist.  It has a chewiness to it; my son thought I'd used almond paste because of the nutty, chewy, moistness of it that resembles certain almond paste bakes.  As for flavor, it's rich and full of the deliciousness of brown butter, something I'm in awe of every time I stand by the stove swirling my little pan making a batch for one of my favorite recipes, financiers (coincidentally, another recipe I picked up from one of Dorie's books).  It's called beurre noisette, or hazelnut butter, for a good reason.  Cooking the butter, letting it sizzle and brown, somehow releases an aroma and flavor like caramelized hazelnuts.  It's kind of magical, and delicious in combination with the flavor of fresh vanilla (and a touch of amaretto) in this cake.

This cake is meant to be easy, transportable, low-maintenance.  By all means, make it as intended...or...give it a little twist like I did it.  The original recipe was meant for a standard-size loaf pan.  I divided the recipe in half and made a smaller 6-inch round version that's perfect for my family to enjoy over a weekend.  And because this cake reminded me so much of those delectable financiers (it looks and taste quite similar), I decided to split my cake into two layers and add a slather of chestnut cream in between.  
You can certainly leave the cake plain, without any filling, but I love chestnut cream (and chestnuts, in general) and almost every time I make financiers, I tuck a small spoonful of it into the ones for my husband and I.  I think the flavor of the chestnut cream complements the brown butter - there's a certain similarity in the nuttiness of their flavors.
I had every intention of making this an actual weekend cake but I have to admit this little cake vanished before the weekend appeared for us...

Devil's Food cupcakes with a chocolate-apricot surprise

It's no doubt that the seasons, as well as the holidays that come and go with them, have a big impact on my cravings.  So it's probably no coincidence that I found myself craving Devil's Food cake in the past few weeks.  Although, to be quite honest, I crave chocolate all the time!  If I'm not having some type of chocolate dessert at the end of the day, I will eat a couple squares of chocolate at some point during the day, almost every single day.  It's like an unwritten rule.  I find that I'm a much happier person when I have some chocolate in me.  
Instead of a cake, I thought I'd make a few cupcakes and put some of my Halloween-theme cupcake decorations to use!  These devilishly dark chocolate cupcakes are my kind of Halloween treat.

For fun and a little variety, I stuffed the cupcakes with a chocolate apricot filling before baking.  I stirred melted chocolate together with a little apricot preserve and butter, let the mixture cool and stiffen enough to roll into balls, and then chilled them until time to bake.  I was a little too generous with my chocolate-apricot surprises (in my greediness, I made the chocolate rounds larger than I should have).  The heavy filling mostly sank to the bottom but if you'll do as I say, not as I do, and go a little lighter on the filling, you should have more success.  Regardless though, the extra chocolate from the filling melds into everything while adding moisture and the apricot flavor, while not very distinct, provides a little note of fruitiness in the background that's quite nice.  The cupcakes themselves are so moist and just heavenly for any fellow chocoholics out there.
Inspiration really is everywhere.  In this case, the inspiration for the filling came specifically from a recipe, which originally involved red velvet cupcakes, that I found in a book - a cozy, culinary-themed mystery book to be exact.  You probably know the type of book I'm talking about - the kind that often have corny titles and silly covers. They may seem silly at first glance but I have to admit I'm a fan of many of them and judging by the proliferation of these types of mystery books, I'd say there are many people who enjoy them like I do.  Life is serious enough as it is and, sometimes, I just don't want anything too "heavy" and I totally welcome a reprieve in the form of some light, entertaining, good reads.

The other thing I was also channeling with these cupcakes is America's Test Kitchen's ultimate chocolate cupcake recipe, which is a full-on chocolate cupcake with chocolate frosting that includes a round of chocolate ganache placed in the cupcake batter right before baking.  It sounds like chocolate heaven and I wonder why I've yet to make that exact recipe!  And lastly...these cupcakes had me thinking of Italian tri-color (or rainbow) cookies - something we love dearly at my house - which have apricot and chocolate elements to them.  
I hope you have a fun and safe Halloween!  Remember to devour some devilishly good treats, all the better if it involves some good dark chocolate.

Vanilla bean macarons with ganache filling

One of the benefits of starting this little blog 3 years ago is learning to make many things I'd otherwise buy. I've discovered lots of great recipes and I'm constantly craving something I've made before and itching to get in the kitchen to make it again.
Learning to make macarons has been one of the more memorable challenges.   It's not necessarily hard but a little unpredictable.  The learning process was a drawn-out one of trial and error (with a change in oven thrown in the midst) and to this day, I never know how a batch will turn out.  But, ironically enough, doing this blog has loosened me up a lot in the last few years.  I don't stress about things turning out perfectly (because they don't and you need to do things for the joy of it) though I'm obviously hopeful for a tasty outcome.  And with macarons, every time we spend $2.50-$3.00 buying one of them, I think to myself: I've got to make a batch so I don't get rusty! 
I won't be so silly as to compare my homemade macarons with the ones at the pastry shop but boy, you save so much money making them yourself - and a girl has to be practical sometimes!  Honestly, they taste great even if they don't turn out with perfect feet or in one uniform size.  

At home, I stick with the basics (chocolatecoffeepistachioetc.) and this time, I decided to make "plain" vanilla bean macarons with my default filling, chocolate ganache.  I attempted to fill some with strawberry preserves (and really, the almond-vanilla macaron shells are great to fill with just about any flavors you like) but I found it too thin as a macaron filling.  It's curious because I've often seen fruit jams as an option for macaron filling but I'm starting to think you'd need to reduce/thicken it a bit first, or stir it into some white chocolate ganache.  My mind always reverts to chocolate.
Macarons always make me think of Ladurée, the Parisian house where it all started. About 2 years ago, a Ladurée boutique opened in midtown Manhattan and earlier this year, another opened in Soho.  This location in Soho is not only a boutique but also a tea salon/restaurant.  Needless to say, I've been wanting to go and my fellas and I finally had a lovely breakfast there recently.
Living in New Jersey, we try to hop into Manhattan some weekends to do a little exploring and eating.  On this recent weekend morning, I had to be in the city for another appointment and having a quiet, early breakfast at Ladurée sounded like a great option since that rather-rambunctious 9-year old of ours would be in attendance.  We had tea, hot chocolate, croissants, breads, and dessert!  We had a lot to cover on my first sit-down visit.  And my, I had a lovely time - a better time than I expected, actually. Ladurée is a place that is somehow at once both whimsical and sophisticated.  I loved the ambiance and their signature color palette of pastels.  If I could convince someone to sell me those plates and cups, I would be in heaven.  

The visit to Ladurée definitely encouraged me to go home and "whip up" a batch macarons for myself.  


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