Holiday baking, 2019 (part 1)

The holiday season is my favorite excuse to amp up on baking.  It's a year-round sport for me but come late November through the month of December, baking takes on a whole extra level of sweetness.  I'm savoring this time in the kitchen, and I thought it'd be fun to once again cobble together pics of some of the baking that's been going on in my kitchen.  We're baking plenty of family-favorites, with some new recipes mixed in.
Let's start with the peppermint-chocolate macarons shown above.  I'm no stranger to trying macaron recipes and even though it's always a high-wire act with uncertain results, I can't help myself.  Since it's the holidays, it's all about the peppermint - my son's favorite flavor this time of year - so I went with the chocolate and peppermint combo using Martha Stewart's recipe in her latest book, Cookie Perfection.  I wish I could say my macarons were perfection but I did have some cracked shells.  Overall, though, we ended up with a solid batch of macarons.  It was the first time I flavored the macaron shells with peppermint (as opposed to adding it in the chocolate ganache filing) and we really liked the result.
Did I mention it's all about the chocolate-peppermint right now?  I snuck in an early batch of my son's favorite peppermint brownies a few weeks ago.  By request, I'm actually making another batch today as I type this.  
For me, it's time to stock up on almond paste during the holidays.  A batch of pignoli cookies hit the table this season and I also made the cherry-almond macaroons just yesterday.  
They bake up, and disappear, very quickly.  I love having almond paste around and making some version of these chewy almond macaroons whenever I have extra egg whites on hand.
During this season of warm drinks, it's also nice to have simple cookies like hazelnut biscotti around for dipping.  I love a dry, crunchy biscotti filled with nuts!  It's also a great option when you want something a little less rich - that way, you have space for all the other chocolates and treats around us this time of year.  



Chestnut fondant

Holiday time is all about sugar, spice, and everything nice.  It  conjures up all sorts of cozy images and makes me crave many kinds of foods, like chestnuts.  It's one of my favorite things and this is the time of year when fresh chestnuts pop up at the grocery stores.  I love eating good fresh chestnuts, and I also adore chestnut flavored desserts.  My love of chestnut desserts has been pretty well documented here but I'm always on the lookout for more.
So I'm back with yet another chestnut dessert, a little treat I shared with my husband recently.  It was a very simple chestnut fondant - the French style of cake that is nearly flourless, usually quite rich and moist.  The recipe comes from Paris Chez Sharon; I have seen her post the chestnut fondants from the Parisian market, Marché Maubert, on her Instagram account and drooled over them for a long time so I was thrilled when she shared her recipe for it over at her blog.  
And chestnut cream (or chestnut spread) is again our direct path to a simple chestnut dessert.  Think of this mini fondant loaf cake as mostly chestnut cream, enhanced with a smidgen of dark chocolate, a dab of butter, some egg yolks, and held together with just a spoonful of flour.  This fondant is similar to a flourless chocolate-chestnut cream cake I've made before; I'd say this fondant really lets the chestnut dominate, and I love it all the more for it. 
Because there are lots of Christmas cookies and treats to be devoured this month, I made a "baby" loaf (half the original recipe) in a paper loaf pan about 4 1/2 x 2 1/2 inch in size.  The mini loaf is perfect for my husband and I to tuck into and share as an after-dinner treat for a couple of nights.  This way, I also have leftover chestnut cream to use for a host of other delicious purposes (like in financiers slated this weekend).  

With so much deep chestnut flavor, a small wedge (or two) is really satisfying.  I love the depth of sweet, nutty, chestnut flavor.  The fondant is super moist, a little chewy, and every little compact bite is a wonderful seasonal gift to the chestnut lover.  I am so happy to discover this recipe!


Chocolate mint crunch bars

Baking is a year-round "sport" for me but there's an added layer of purpose and excitement around it when we start talking about holiday baking!  I must start thinking about Christmas cookies, and holiday baking in general, the minute the temps start dropping.  Peppermint things start popping up in the kitchen, and it's been happening already.  It's also no coincidence that chocolate and mint is one of my son's favorite combos.
A new and simple chocolate-mint idea popped up into our kitchen last week, and it was inspired by my teen.  We keep a candy dish near our door, with a mixture of small chocolates.  The other day, my son took a small Nestle Crunch, then followed it with an Andes Mint; he then started raving about how delicious the combination was!  It gave us all a good laugh but it got me thinking...
...I could easily make that combination happen for him!  So I went out shopping for some puffed cereal and this 3-ingredient chocolate mint crunch bar came to life.  
I literally chopped up a mix of semi-sweet chocolate and Andes Mint candies, melted it down, and stirred in puff cereal before setting it into a pan to set.  Using Andes Mint packs a strong minty punch and eliminates the possible issue of the melted chocolate seizing if you were to add peppermint extract to it instead.
This fun little happenstance project was a hit with the teen, who was tempted to write to Nestle requesting a mint version of their Crunch bar!  He was very pleasantly surprised when I presented him with his inspiration.  We can all vouch that a chocolate-mint crunch bar is a very delicious thing, and we're happy to make and eat our own homespun version of it for now.


Berry pretty raspberry soufflés

Fall is undoubtedly cookie-making month for me.  With cooler temps and more time at home now that we're back on the school schedule (more time for me, that is, but busier-than-ever for our high school freshman), I find myself whipping up batches of cookies on the regular.  It's a comforting routine - a mix of baking therapy and a way of expressing love and nurture in a small way.  So I'm all for cookies.  But that said, I try to mix in a little something different once in a while.  Cue the soufflés!
I've made soufflés a number of times but they're definitely not something I do on the regular.  In some ways, you have to hype yourself up a little bit and focus.  It's a little bit of magic and when the spell works, it's a great trick.
A few months back, I spotted a trio of beautiful soufflés on Erin McDowell's Instagram account.  You can see a photo and the recipe, here.  Is it any wonder I ran out and bought a bag of frozen raspberries right away to make sure I try it at home?

I do have this nagging thought that I should've went with the blueberry version to see if I could reproduce that gorgeous purple-blue hue, especially when I realize I'd made raspberry soufflés once before (albeit different), but pink and raspberry won out.  This raspberry soufflé recipe is different from the other I've tried in that it requires an extra step - pureeing the fruit and passing it through a sieve to remove the seeds so that you have a beautiful, smooth, bright red raspberry puree to infuse your soufflés with.  It results in the more even pink hue throughout the soufflé.  
That extra step of pureeing the fruit does take some time and patience but it was worth it.  And when the recipe works just as written, with the soufflés rising steadily and calmly (no tipping over), you feel such a thrill of success.  It's a great sight to behold but, alas, it is a very quick "high", as soufflés begin to deflate as soon as they come out of the oven.  But that's alright...sometimes you just have to life for the moment (and just hope there will be lots and lots of "moments").


Ice cream sandwiches

I know fall is fast-approaching and it's time for pumpkins and earth tones but can we squeeze in one more summer treat?  Let's sit back and have an ice cream sandwich, as we flip through our summer photos and reminisce (because it already feels like a long time ago).
I finally made ice cream sandwiches this summer.  My son adores a good ice cream sandwich and it's one of those things I've been meaning to make - instead of buy - for so long now.  After tackling ice cream tacos, I figured it was past time.  And really, this is just a matter of making the thin, brownie-like, cake layer, then a little quick work (and okay, a teeny bit of mess) spreading some good ice cream in between.  Extra credit if you feel like adding some chocolate magic shell and sprinkles.  

I went with a recipe from The New York Times - it's really simple and I liked the appeal of thin brownie-like cake that's soft, slightly fudgy and chewy, as the cap between some good vanilla ice cream.  And when I conferred with my son, we agreed that a classic vanilla ice cream is the best choice for an ice cream sandwich; it's hard to beat that simple contrast between chocolate and vanilla that somehow seems to make both taste better.  
If you want to make it a real project, homemade ice cream is an option, but to save a ton of time, buy a high-quality ice cream to use here.  You want the denser kind that has a higher fat content and less air/overage.  Not only will the ice cream sandwich taste better and be more substantial, it will be easier to work with and less mess, as the ice cream melts a bit slower.  We liked Haagen Dazs ice cream best for this job; Ben & Jerry's is a good second choice in this case.  

You'll feel great having these treats wrapped up and stocked in your freezer.  They will go quick!


Levain Bakery style cookies

Somehow we went from June to September!  Summer break flashed by all too quickly despite our best efforts to slow it down.
Copycat Levain Bakery style cookies I make at home
It was a busy summer!  We savored the break, took a couple of trips, and got a lot of things done in between.  The big guy started high school!!  I spent the summer trying to come to terms with this huge milestone and all that goes with it.  Now, my nerves are settling down and we're adjusting to fall routines and life with a busy high schooler.  I'm thinking about warm comfort foods - like big, warm, melty chocolate chip cookies!

If you live around New York City or ask New Yorkers about places for great chocolate chip cookies, you're likely to hear about Levain Bakery.  Known for their big cookies (and I do mean, big, as they weigh in at 6 ounces a piece), typically served up still warm from the oven, they have a serious cult following.  To me, the Levain cookies are all about texture.  The huge cookies are crisp on the outside and so soft, gooey, and melty in the center.  This divine texture - served up in a big way - is what makes me crave them.  And as big as they are, these cookies go down easy and are quite easily habit-forming.
Actual Levain Bakery cookies. A box of these were recently gifted to us (what a treat!) so we finally had the chance to taste all four varieties made by the bakery.
Levain only makes 4 kinds of cookies (shown above): chocolate chip walnut, dark chocolate chocolate chip, dark chocolate peanut butter chip, and oatmeal raisin.  

I had my first Levain cookies in 2017 (photos of their chocolate chip walnut cookie from that day below) when we stopped by one of their NYC locations (miraculously, no line at the time) and bought the chocolate chip walnut and chocolate chocolate chip cookies.  Recently, we received a box of each as a gift and got to try them all.
I have to say that my favorite is the chocolate chip walnut and it's my favorite one to mimic at home!  I've also made the chocolate peanut butter chip because I couldn't get it out of my head after someone mentioned it was their favorite of the lineup; I made a version before I even had the chance to try the real thing! 

So I'd like to share the two copycat versions of these cookies I make at home.  They are great for when you're in the mood for some seriously hearty, delicious cookies to warm up your fall and winter days ahead.  You can find different renditions of these cookies but I'm happy with the following two recipes I landed on, which are now firmly in my cookie-baking repertoire.   


Ice cream tacos and life in June

June is always a busy month around here, with my son's birthday, Father's Day, and the buzz and activities surrounding the end of the school year falling on this special month.  This year, my son turned 14...
...and he graduated from middle school!
These last 3 years have flown by!  You realize time will go fast going in but it still surprises you.  And it's incredible how much change and growth has taken place during that time.  The kids have worked hard and my husband and I are so particularly proud of our kiddo, who is rapidly growing up before our eyes!
So we've been pretty busy celebrating around here!  We don't want to stop but exhaustion is starting to seep in and we'll take the summer break as a time to chill and relax before gearing up for High School!  There's plenty of excitement (and hopefully, celebrations) on the horizon.

And speaking of celebrations, I sit here typing on the first day of summer.  Rain is coming down (yet again) but sunshine is expected this afternoon and the entire weekend.  It makes me think of upcoming July 4th and what kind of treats we might want to have then.  When it's summertime, I always think ice cream so I'm recommending a batch of ice cream tacos! 
I recently made these for Memorial Day weekend and they went down a treat.  The homemade shells (which are like ice cream cones in the shape of taco shells) can be filled with any flavor ice cream you like; I went with vanilla chocolate chip as well as pistachio ice cream.  Topped with some homemade chocolate magic shell and sprinkled with sprinkles or nuts, they are fun to look at and delicious to eat.  The ice cream tacos are festive and celebratory, and I'm all for celebrating as much as possible (particularly, with ice cream)!


A healthy chocolate chip cookie I *really* like

I'm not a big fan of labeling foods "healthy" or "unhealthy" except in extreme cases.  To me, I say we use common sense and maintain a happy relationship with food as something that nourishes us and provides us with a lot of joy.  When it comes to dessert, I say enjoy reasonably but also, fully.  So I'm not always particularly on the lookout for "healthier" desserts but I am always open to finding delicious recipes that are maybe a bit smarter and utilizes more wholesome ingredients.  It's kind of a win-win.
This recipe is one of those win-win's and I'm really excited to have tried it and to now be able to enjoy it going forward!  

When I first spotted these "best healthy chocolate chip cookies" on Food52, I might have instinctively done a quick eye-roll but their appearance quickly won my interest.  They just looked so good!  Eyeing the list of ingredients, I was happy to see some of my favorite things featured - almond butter, oats, walnuts, chocolate chips (of course).  I've been renewing my love affair with walnuts in baked goods in particular lately - thanks to making and becoming smitten with a copycat recipe for Levain Bakery style chocolate chip walnut cookies (maybe more on that another day), my whole family has come around to toasted walnuts in treats.
I did go rogue and went off-script a little with this recipe.  These cookies were meant to be "gluten-free" but I substituted a couple tablespoons of almond flour for white whole-wheat flour.  From past experience, I've just not been a fan of purely almond flour-based baked goods and I'm not adverse to a little whole wheat flour in my cookies and cakes.  Since I used salted almond butter instead of unsalted (since that's what I use regularly and have on hand), I adjusted the salt in the recipe down slightly.  Sprinkling additional salt on top of the cookies before baking is nice but I find it didn't really need it.  I was a little heavy-handed when it came to the chocolate chunks and walnuts I added into the cookies, and it was the right move. 
I was so happy these cookies baked up firm and sturdy, not wet and almost falling apart as "healthy" cookies sometimes can be.  I was really thrilled when I tasted them!  Coconut sugar lends a mild sweetness and the nutty flavors really come through, along with pops of dark chocolate.  The texture is crisp along the edges and moist and chewy in the center.

As I was eating these, I would say "I think the oats make it"...then I'd change my mind and think, "the walnuts make it".  I finally realized it's the whole package.  It's all the elements working really well altogether.  I'm satisfied eating one of these cookies.  It has me feeling good, not weighed down or sluggish.  This really is a cookie I happily get behind; I not only like it, I love it.  And the fact that the ingredients are a little wiser, and it's a smarter cookie option than most, is a truly wonderful bonus.



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