A little something sweet to usher in the New Year...

The clock is ticking...we're all anticipating.  The gifts have long been unwrapped, the boxes recycled, Christmas cookies are all gone, but we're still indulging in that lull during this last week of the year.  A New Year is coming!
Crispy chocolate wontons and chocolate-hazelnut (Nutella) wontons
Approaching a New Year is so exciting...it's the prospect of a new start - the hope and anticipation of good things to come, and maybe the opportunity to move on from certain things in the past.  I don't know about you but I don't really make any specific new year's resolutions anymore.  I don't think resolutions are a bad idea at all - it makes us think about ways to improve ourselves.  But, at the same time, don't we tend to make goals that are just a bit too lofty, and thereby maybe setting ourselves up for failure.  So these days, I resolve to just be better.  Do better, live better, be better...so here's to a better 2012!
In my book, living better doesn't mean making it less sweet.  Hence, I'm sharing a little sweet treat today in anticipation of the New Year.  I think life is about balance and living among things that bring you joy.  For me, that means I must have chocolate regularly (I will try not to do it excessively but regularity is a must) and I will continue to experiment in the kitchen, baking and cooking to share with my family and friends, because that brings me joy.
I rarely fry anything (because of the general splattering, mess, and dilemma of what to do with the leftover oil) but New Year's Eve calls for making the effort - although in reality, these chocolate and nutella wontons are very easy to make.  If you'd rather skip the ice cream, these crispy little sweet bites go very nicely with a glass or two of champagne.  However you plan to celebrate, enjoy your New Year's Eve safely and happily.


Merry Christmas!

I just wanted to pop in to wish you a very Happy Holiday! 

One of the cards we received this year had a simple message that resonates with me: "May the joy and peace of the holiday season last throughout the year."  I wish the spirit of celebration, giving, sharing, and peace could be a way of life everyday of the year.  May we find small ways to celebrate each day and focus in on the joy in our lives. 


Tri-color cookies - the twelve hour project

This is it.  You could say I saved the best for last.  This is the recipe I've been most excited and apprehensive about making this holiday season.  The truffles and toffee were great items I made for the first time this year but I've been working my way towards this:  tri-color cookies.  I always called them tri-color or rainbow cookies but they're also known as seven-layer cookies, Venetian cookies, and maybe by other names too.
When I eat these, I think they might just be my very favorite cookies.  But I think calling them "cookies" is a bit of a misnomer and doesn't quite give them their proper respect, if you will.  To me, they're more like petite fours, or mini cakes.  These Italian goodies have been a long favorite of mine.  I think I first tried them many years ago when I was an intern somewhere and picked one up from a dessert platter after a meeting...it made me go wow!  (It seems all my memories involve food in some way). 
Not only are they nice to look at, they are a combination of some of my favorite flavors, almond and chocolate.  Essentially, we have 3 layers of cake made from a base of almond paste (which I adore), fused together by thin spreads of apricot preserve, and topped with coatings of bittersweet chocolate.  It is so delicious.

But look at it.  The prospect of making these was daunting.  There are a lot of layers and steps to mess up!  But you never know and never learn unless you try, and it was time to try.  I call this the twelve-hour project because from start to finish, it takes roughly that much time to get the finished product into your mouth.  A lot of it is waiting (chilling in the fridge) but you still need to devote a good 3 hours or so on your feet.  And if you're like me and only have one 13 by 9 inch pan, you need to bake the layers one at a time and prep the pans after each use.
The best place I know of to get these tri-color cookies is Ferrera Bakery in NYC's Little Italy; they are just about perfect there.  You can see their cookies below and they taste just divine.  I know we'd all prefer not to use food coloring but if there's ever a time to use it, it's here.
Tri-color cookies from Ferrera Bakery in Little Italy (NYC)
So how do the homemade ones stake up against the ones from Ferrera?  To tell you the truth, when I finally had the layers chilling in the fridge, I thought they would turn out too dense, too dry, and just not worth all the effort.  (Did I mention it takes roughly 12-hours to make and put these together?)  But miraculously, I was wrong!  These are amazing!  The layers didn't come out as even or quite as thick as the ones from Ferrera but the taste is spot on. 

If you like these cookies, this is the recipe to use.  My family and I love these; the little one is a big fan and we let him taste first.  His verdict was "they're really good" and "they taste like the ones from the bakery".  Time to jump for joy!!  It really is fantastic, in both texture and taste.  There's plenty of almond flavor from the moist cake layers and a nice chocolate crunch from the top and bottom layers of dark chocolate.  The apricot filling gives it just that bit of tartness that balances everything out.  So to summarize, the effort was not wasted but vastly rewarded.  I see myself making these at Christmas and when I just can't resist the hankering for them.  I better stock up on almond paste.
Well...this kitchen elf is signing off for a bit.  I have lots of presents to wrap and I'm off to enjoy the holiday break with my family.  I've made quite a few old and new recipes this month and I expect to stay busy in the kitchen in the coming days, whipping up one or two favorites.  When Christmas comes, I'll be ready to sit still and savor the moment. 

I wish you all a very happy holiday! 

Update: I love these cookies so much, I experimented and turned them into mini cupcakes.  Take a look at tri-color cookie cupcake bites - they are faster to make!


Another holiday idea - Toffee with chocolate and nuts

I feel very excited stepping into the world of candy making.  I saw this recipe from one of my favorite websites, The Kitchn, and it sounded totally do-able.  As in, I think I can do this.  So with a little faith and preparation, I gave the recipe a try...and what do you know?  It worked! 
As I expected, there is a bit of drama in making toffee.  Expect some spattering butter and be prepared to contend with a very hot and bubbling pot of butter and sugar.  But it doesn't take very much time to put together (though you do have to wait for it to set) and the result is plentiful and very rewarding.  This may be as far as my candy-making adventure goes but I plan to come back to this recipe again and again, especially around the holiday time.  Pack some in cellophane bags or a jar and it makes a great gift.
If you like almond roca candy or heath bars, this one's for you.  The recipe makes over 2 pounds, perfect for sharing during the holiday season.



Chocolate crackles

This Christmas cookie comes to you by special request.  Our resident six-year old wanted me to make some and here they are.  I think these chocolate crackles (sometimes called "crinkles" too) are fairly popular around this time - we've certainly seen them in the various holiday-themed food magazines that have arrived in our mailbox.  The six-year old in question saw these in one of the magazines and said "mommy, can you make that?!"  I'm not sure he remembers I made these last Christmas and I'd plan to whip up a batch anyway.
Just to change things up ever so slightly, I added a touch of almond extract.  I loved this little addition (since I love all things almond) and I'll be sticking with it from now on.  These cookies are soft and moist, reminiscent of a brownie (though not quite as rich), and with the almond extract, similar in flavor to the mini chocolate yogurt cakes.  The snowy look simply justifies eating these chocolate bites during the holidays.
So many cookies, so little time...


Soft and chewy chocolate gingerbread cookies

I think these cookies are pretty special...and perfect for Christmas time.  Even if you don't like gingerbread cut-outs (like me), you might enjoy these.  They're essentially gingerbread chocolate chunk cookies - kind of like chocolate chip cookies with plenty of spice.  One of the things I like most about these is the texture.  The outside is just a bit crunchy thanks to a last minute coating in granulated sugar before baking.  The inside is soft and chewy, best eaten while they're still a little warm from the oven (or heated in the microwave).
These cookies are front and center on the cover of Martha Stewart's Cookies book.  I could hardly resist trying the cover cookie recipe of this book dedicated to cookies.  So I made these last Christmas and we oohed and aahed over them a little because they're different from other cookies we've had.  These have plenty of kick from typical gingerbread spices - and extra special with the use of both fresh and ground ginger -  but the texture and even taste is reminiscent of the more familiar chocolate chip cookie thanks to a little bit of cocoa powder and lots of chocolate chunks in the dough. 
I'll gladly make these every Christmas.


Chocolate truffles with Grand Marnier (or plain)

Here's another sweet item I've wanted to make for some time: chocolate truffles.  This is the perfect time to make some and share with a few friends.  For the grown-up version, I made chocolate truffles with Grand Marnier, or orange liqueur.  Instead of cookies and milk, how about setting this out for Santa this year?
I used a combination of semisweet and bittersweet (70% cacao) chocolate for these truffles.  Omit the Grand Marnier and make plain truffles for the youngsters.  I prefer the taste and look of rolling them in unsweetened cocoa powder rather than confectioners' sugar but I mixed the two up for the sake of easy identification.
I love ganache and truffles are essentially ganache (chocolate and cream) rolled up in truffle shape.  They are very rich so a little goes a long way.  But silky smooth and deep with chocolate flavor, they are a great indulgence during the holiday time.  If necessary, make the truffles in advance and store them in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks (though of course, they taste better the fresher they are), bringing them to room temperature before serving.  You might need to re-roll them in cocoa powder or confectioners' sugar again if it's been in the fridge for a while. 


Easy-peasy peppermint fudge

If you want a break from rolling cut-out cookies and baking during the holiday time, make some fudge!  And make the simple version that takes about ten minutes to put together...hence, the "easy-peasy" moniker.  Last year, I made a batch of cinnamon-chocolate fudge with a sprinkling of salt on top.  This year, I tried this peppermint fudge, which I liked better and has a more festive feel to it.
This is the kind of fudge recipe that uses sweetened condensed milk so there's no need for the candy thermometer.  There is a bit of stirring involved but it doesn't get much more complicated than that.  For flavoring, I added about half a teaspoon of peppermint extract and as a finishing touch, sprinkled shards of broken candy cane pieces over the top.  My only complaint about adding toppings like this on to fudge is they tend to melt once you take it out of the refrigerator but it's the holidays so the tops seem to need a little decor.  The fudge is super smooth and quite tasty.  Keep it in the refrigerator, freeze it, or share it with a friend. 


Warm chocolate pudding cake

When I first saw this recipe months ago, it sounded so good and was something I really wanted to make.  I waited patiently for winter (just about) to come so I that I'd have an excuse to make this rustic warm chocolate pudding cake.  It even inspired me to buy this baking dish months ago - but then again, I'm always discovering something new that I'd like to have for the kitchen.  So I'm sneaking in this recipe in between all the usual Christmas cookies and treats this December.

This is really more pudding than cake.  As you can see, it's not the prettiest of desserts but I think that's also the appeal.  It starts with a brownie like batter on the bottom and a hefty sprinkling of cocoa and sugar over that.  Then, a good cup of hot coffee (or you could use boiling water) gets poured over the top.  In the oven, the cake bakes and much of the liquid gets absorbed but just enough so that the edges are set but the center is jiggly and a little pool of liquid chocolate sauce is created at the bottom.   

I guess what appealed to me so much was this idea of quickly whipping up a warm cake that you can take straight to the table from the oven and scoop up to share with your family on a cold night.  It has casual and hearty written all over it and sometimes you just want that.  I preferred the gooey center while my husband favored the more spongy corners (he tells me it's just like bread pudding but believe it or not, I don't think I've ever eaten bread pudding so I can't attest to it). 
Vanilla ice cream is a must alongside this pudding cake.  I think this recipe has a lot of appeal to it but when I tasted it, I missed that rich, kind of extreme, chocolate flavor (this recipe only uses cocoa powder) that you get from a molten chocolate cake - a very similar concoction to this.  So I was a little disappointed in this pudding cake since I was comparing the two and you  know I'm far more inclined to favor the more chocolaty dessert.  But finally making this pudding cake satisfied a curiosity of mine and for that alone, I'm very happy.



Gingerbread men vs. Sugarbread men

Do you prefer sugar or spice?

In one corner, I offer you the traditional gingerbread men.  On the other side, we have the ever irresistible, and what I call, sugarbread men. 
Excuse the use of "men"...I should say gingerbread/sugarbread people but I'm just keeping things simple.  And all kidding aside, I feel like sugar cookies are a must for us during the holiday season.  Despite my occasional whining about rolling out cookies, I'm starting to get used to it, particularly during these cooler temperatures when handling the dough is a lot easier.  And I think I've discovered the "secret" to a great sugar cookie dough: mix in just a little bit of milk at the end and the dough comes together beautifully, is more moist, and rolls out smoothly. 

I've been making what I call "sugarbread men" cookies during Christmas for a few years.  Every time I make and taste sugar cookies, I'm reminded of how delicious butter and sugar are together. 
I have to say I prefer sweetness to spice.  For as long as I've been making cookies from scratch (which actually isn't all that many years), I've made sugar cookies for the holidays, in various holiday shapes.  I actually never made gingerbread cookies until last year around this time.  And it started because each year, we'd pick up one of those ready-to-go gingerbread houses to decorate at home with our son and usually, the house would come with a couple of gingerbread people and he'd ask to eat one.  Of course, I'd shriek "no, you can't eat that!  Who knows how long those cookies have been in the box!"  And so finally, I appeased the little guy by saying I'd make him some gingerbread cookies myself.
Look, there's gingerbread snow-man too!
So I'm making these gingerbread men cookies last year thinking this is going to be a waste of time.  The boy is not going to like them.  Personally, I don't particularly like them and my husband isn't a big fan either.  I've never been into strong spices (in a cookie) and I'm thinking there's just no way the kid is going to like all that ground ginger, cloves, and such.  Of course, you know where this is going.  The boy liked them...quite a bit.  Maybe not as much as chocolate cake but he liked them.  I was surprised.  So it's a new tradition to make gingerbread cookies around here and it's fun to decorate them and leave them around the house for decor.  I prefer to just use sanding sugar or nonpareil sprinkles on the sugar cookies since they're sweet enough alone, and save the royal icing treatment for the gingerbread cookies.
So I guess I could say there's sugar, spice and everything nice in our house?


Hot chocolate taste test

This little experiment was so much fun!  For a while, I've been thinking about different ways of making hot chocolate (or hot cocoa - I'm just going to use the two terms interchangeably here since I think most of us do) and which my family and I would prefer the most.  So I decided to hold a tiny, totally informal and unstructured, hot chocolate taste test.  Our six-year old was very eager and excited to take part in this
When I think of winter, I think of warming up with cups of hot chocolate.  Ok, I also think of Christmas cookies, chestnuts, cakes, chocolates, and twinkling lights.  But back to the topic at hand.  I love making some hot chocolate to have with our "Christmas treats" throughout December.  We make a little time to gather round in the kitchen with a little plate of treats and some hot chocolate.  
The three types of hot chocolate are ready for tasting, along with some chocolate chip cookies
If you're like me and if we were to take it literally, your hot chocolate is really hot cocoa and you make it from a mix.  I've ripped open many a packet of Swiss Miss in my day (there's no shame in it); as a kid, pouring water over the powder and giving it a stir was as much cooking as I could muster and I was very proud of myself.  Nowadays, it's still a mix but our mix of choice has been Godiva's milk chocolate hot cocoa mix.  Convenience is the biggest draw since you only need to heat up some milk and stir.  We also think it's quite tasty.  But what about homemade hot cocoa using unsweetened cocoa as a base?  Or how about taking it a step further and making Parisian hot chocolate with actual chocolate? 

So this is how we came to our little taste test.  There were just 3 participants: my husband, our six-year old, and myself.  Scientific, it is not, and you could say I should be disqualified since I'm the one preparing the cups.  We just have to remember this is all in the name of fun.

Without further ado, let me introduce you to the three contenders for favorite hot cocoa/chocolate in our household.  All three cups were made with whole milk.  Check out how different each look on appearance alone.
The first cup above is the Godiva hot cocoa mix.  Just add warmed milk to the mix and stir. 
Second, we have a cup made with unsweetened cocoa powder and sugar.  You can say it's our own cocoa mixl; essentially, we're making a chocolate paste as the basis for this hot cocoa. 
Third and last, we have the Parisian hot chocolate.  I guess we can say this is the authentic hot chocolate here.  It's the richest tasting one using bittersweet chocolate.  I have to say that on appearance alone, this would take the prize.  Would you agree?


*Now which cup of hot chocolate/cocoa do you think "won"?  The answer might surprise you.  You'll have to click on to read the results but I do have to say that overall, all three cups of hot chocolate were good.  There was a small difference of opinion (the little one takes a much firmer stance than the wishy washy adults) and we found that we might prefer one over another depending on circumstances.  But we did pick a winner.  The results were not unanimous but two tasters agreed in totality. 


Chocolate peppermint-chip cookies

December is here!  I love this month and what it symbolizes.  It's the holidays!  Everyone's a little nicer (though maybe a little bit more harried too) and it's the season of goodwill, giving, and indulgence.  Speaking of indulgence, am I the only person who secretly enjoys walking down the Christmas aisles at Target or the supermarket?  I was just telling my husband how I wish I could rip open all those bags of treats and sample everything!  A girl can dream.  On the home front, there are many goodies I need/want to make for Christmas but I told myself not to go crazy.  I've narrowed my choices to a couple of standbys and a few experiments this holiday season and we'll see how it goes.  My main focus is to relax, have fun, and enjoy the season.
I feel especially lucky to live so close to New York City at this time of year.  Sure, the crowds are insane but the city has so much to offer. 

Along the theme of winter and Christmastime, I'm offering these chocolate peppermint-chip cookies today.  To tell you the truth, I actually made these months ago when mention of the holidays would've gotten me some funny looks.  I just had a hankering to try it out so I did.  The thing is I love mint and especially mint with chocolate.  Think: mint chocolate chip ice cream, Thin Mint Girl Scout cookies, and mint chocolate candies like Andes.  I love them all and when I think of Christmas, peppermint is one of the flavors I think of.  I am a huge fan of the peppermint bark William-Sonoma sells every year around the holidays - the ridiculously smooth chocolate mixed with peppermint oil and bits of crunchy peppermint candy on top are such an amazing combination.  Those flavors were the inspiration behind these cookies.
The basis for these chocolate peppermint-chip cookies are Martha Stewart's double chocolate cookies, which are among my favorites.  These cookies are brownie-like, slightly crackly on top and dark and chewy in the center as long as you don't overbake them.  I thought I'd just make a slight twist to those awesome cookies by adding some peppermint extract to the dough in place of vanilla extract and incorporating some Andes Mint baking chips.  We enjoyed the result a lot and it's a nice little change for the holidays.  You might consider giving these a try if you like that chocolate-mint combination. 


More pancake breakfasts

Sitting down with your family for a nice, leisurely meal has got to be one of the greatest joys of life.  A leisurely Sunday (or any day) breakfast is one of my favorite things.  And with all the hustle and bustle that's bound to come with the holiday season (which I do love), slowing things down with a warm plate of pancakes and a cup of coffee in the morning is a very good thing.   
A few months ago, I discovered the art and reward of making pancakes from scratch.  I've been making these buttermilk pancakes rather frequently, and I just love them.  But as our six-year old sits at the table and chows them down, he keeps telling me how he likes them "just a little bit."  Apparently, he finds some fault in that tang that comes from the buttermilk.  So I tracked down another recipe for "classic" pancakes that's still fluffy and delicious but without that tangy buttermilk flavor.  Again, I have to say that those super soft buttermilk pancakes are so good.  These are very similar and seriously fluffy and yummy but the buttermilk version remains my favorite.   


Chocolate pudding pie

As I sit here writing this, I am seriously stuffed from our Thanksgiving meal.  I'm not complaining; I feel very lucky to have so much but I do wish I had indulged just a little less.  After the turkey and a long list of side dishes, we scrounged up a bit more room for this chocolate pudding pie.
I considered this our alternative to the traditional pumpkin pie I also made for the first time this year.  As I suspected, the chocolate dessert edged out the pumpkin in popularity at the dinner table (particularly with the kids), although my husband was a big fan of the pumpkin.  There's something about pie that belongs with Thanksgiving.  Any other day, I'd likely go with a lighter alternative and just make chocolate pudding (i.e., without the pie crust).  This is a cornstarch and milk based pudding, rather than the richer egg based variety.  It's slightly richer than Ellie Krieger's lighter chocolate pudding since we use whole rather than 1% milk but it's still relatively light, not overly sweet, and just generally yummy.


Pumpkin pie

For my first serious foray into pie making this Thanksgiving, I knew I wanted to make a classic pumpkin pie.  So I made this "silky smooth pumpkin pie" from Smitten Kitchen, who adapted it from Cook's Illustrated (and if you're familiar with the people at this publication, you'll have high expectations for this pie.)
The "secret" ingredient in this pumpkin pie is candied yams, which I think boosts the flavor of generally rather bland pumpkin significantly.  Secondly, taking the extra effort to strain the cooked filling through a sieve gets rid of any lumps and ensures you have the silkiest possible result.  I would just note that when straining the cooked filling, use a medium-mesh strainer as opposed to fine-mesh.  It's nearly impossible to do with a fine-mesh strainer, which I tried using first.  On my long list of things to be thankful for, I had to make a little room at the bottom to be thankful I recently tracked down a medium-mesh strainer for my macarons. 
I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving celebration.  I hope your table was bountiful and you were surrounded by some of the most important people in your life.  I have so much to be thankful for and I think about it almost everyday of the year.  May we always have a whole lot to be thankful for both during Thanksgiving and the rest of the year. 



Pie crust

For this Thanksgiving, I'm venturing into the world of pie making.  I'm talking real pie, with homemade pie crust.  Yes, I make this lighter chocolate pudding pie on occasion and I've ventured into the world of tarts.  I even made a sweet potato pie a couple of years ago but those pies use a graham cracker crust, which, to me, doesn't quite seem like an authentic pie.   
I guess the reason I haven't made pie before is, well, I don't like them much.  I like a flaky pie crust but I'm not a big fan of fruit desserts (or maybe I just haven't tried enough of them); you know I'm all about the chocolate.  But I'm expanding my horizons while staying true to what I love.  So this Thanksgiving, I'm giving pie a try.  I'm going to make pumpkin pie and chocolate pudding pie.  I hope they turn out and I'm curious as to which will be more popular at the Thanksgiving table.  But before all that happens, I'm starting with the pie dough - an all butter one.
I learned that making a pie crust is harder than it looks and definitely takes practice!  But done right, the recipe is quite simple (particularly when you use a food processor, in my case) and the dough takes less a few minutes to make. 

I've got to tell you that this was actually my second batch of pie dough and the one I made using the food processor.  The first time, I got a little too ambitious and thought I could make the dough by hand.  After reading so much about the importance of not over-incorporating the butter so that the crust bakes up nice and flaky, I completely under-mixed and ended up with large lumps of butter in my dough.   I knew it wasn't right and started reading disaster stories of butter popping out of the crust in the oven when baking because the butter wasn't incorporated enough.  The next morning, I threw that batch out and started anew in the food processor.  I'm so glad I did!  The result of the second batch felt and looked so different from the first.  This one is well mixed but I can still see small specks of butter throughout, which is how it should be.


Chocolate macarons: Take 2

Remember that delicious disaster of mine?  I chronicled our macaron infatuation a few weeks ago and if you recall, my first attempt at making chocolate macarons was far short of perfect...but still ever so tasty.  I wasn't about to go down without a fight - or at least try a few times to see if I could figure it out.  I had to try again and this time, I wanted to gather all the right equipment to see if I'd have better luck. 

So this is the making of Chocolate Macarons: Take 2.   
First, the good news:  this batch came out a lot better!  I have a few authentic macarons!
But the bad news: I still encountered some of the same problems I did last time.  The macarons didn't crack this time but out of 2 sheet pans, the first once again had barely any "feet" (that foamy looking bottom that's a signature of a macaron).  And I still had a hard time removing most of the macarons from the baking sheets.
Nevertheless, this attempt was far better than the first and certainly motivation for me to keep trying.  Instead of ending up with just one quasi-macaron looking confection, I had several serious macarons at the end of this experiment.  I was more careful to salvage what I could this time (instead of eating most of the imperfect macaron shells right off the baking sheet like last time) so I had a good 17 finished cookies to savor with my family. 
Our resident six-year old macaron-lover was again very happy!  I'll never get tired of hearing him say, "they're really good, mommy!"  And considering said child is usually busy running around trying to light-saber something in my vicinity, I'll greedily take the accolades and hope he remembers this the next time we're arguing about him finishing those green beans at dinner. 





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