For my little ninja

This is the time of year when I find myself making - or attempting to make -things that I normally wouldn't.  Last year, there were owl cupcakes (which are rather adorable, actually).  The year before that, I made spider cupcakes which involved some legwork in tracking down licorice wheels.  This year, I've played around with peanut butter cups and donut holes and now, we have these...
Ninjago cupcakes - my son is a big fan of Ninjago!
I don't generally do cute - or crafty even - because I don't have the patience for it and because I prefer old-fashioned chocolate cake with no frills over playing with frosting.  But for whatever reason - come holiday time particularly - I start seeing cute ideas and something inevitably catches my eye and I have to go there...
This time, I've gone Ninja!  If you have a 7 year old (or thereabouts), you might know what I'm talking about.  Ninjago is big.  It's all about Ninjago - the legos, the show, the corresponding spinners and cards.  Not surprisingly, my little guy will be a ninja this Halloween and I expect to see plenty of 2nd grade ninjas parading around next week (assuming Halloween is not a complete wash-out due to the storm).
Special thanks to my husband for patiently taking pictures of these Ninjago cupcakes for me
I hadn't planned on doing anything "special" for the occasion because, frankly, Halloween is not my favorite holiday (I'm really looking foward to Christmas though).  But when I stumbled upon pictures of ninja cupcakes online, I thought they would amuse my rapidly growing little guy...I wouldn't go so far as to say impress him because he doesn't impress easily. 

I had a lot of reservations about making these.  It's one of those frosting projects that I don't exactly adore or have a lot of experience with so I wasn't sure I'd be able to execute it.  The cupcakes I saw online were done using store-bought frosting and I wanted to stay homemade as much as possible but thought it might be difficult to get homemade frosting colors bright enough.  In the end, I decided not to let perfection be the enemy of the good.  Happily, they actually turned out to be fairly easy and I was really happy with the result!  Best yet, it put a smile on my little ninja's face.  Another added bonus, these cupcakes actually tasted good!
The ninjas of Ninjago (my son would be able to rattle their names off for you) each sport a different color: red, blue, green, white, and black.  To keep things simple, I stuck with red and blue since they are my son's top  two favorites (although this changes from day to day).  I am really grateful for Martha Stewart's recipes, which rarely steers me wrong and didn't here.  I made these using Martha's yellow buttermilk cupcake and buttercream frosting recipes.  I didn't need much frosting on these cupcakes - one stick of butter was more than enough to decorate all dozen (I even threw some extra frosting out).  And the cake itself was tender and flavorful, a big improvement from my last yellow cake experiment.
I got a real kick out of seeing smiles crop up on the faces of the little ones that we share these cupcakes with.  But most importantly, this was for my special little ninja.  For him, I say "may you unlock your true potential..." (Ninjago people will know what I'm talking about)


Impromptu Friday night dessert for two

It's Friday!  We're having another at-home date night tonight.  I'm taking it easy; my husband will bring home the take-out dinner and I've put together this relatively spontaneous little chocolate tart for dessert.  Inspiration is everywhere but in this case, the idea to throw this together came from a magazine...
Mini Chocolate Ganache Tart: digestive biscuit crust and ganache flavored with Grand Marnier
One of the things I love to do is go off to the bookstore early in the morning when there's barely anyone there.  I order an icy frappucino, something to eat, and sit for a while thumbing through magazines.  What a luxury!  I was indulging in this way a few days ago and looking through the latest issue of Donna Hay magazine.  Do you know Donna Hay?  I think her magazines are works of art - the food looks beautiful but sounds relatively uncomplicated and approachable.  Amidst all the beautiful food in the latest issue was a chocolate tart, strikingly topped with chocolate dipped pretzels.  The crust is what caught my attention.  It was made with digestive biscuits and pretzels, and that's what gave me the idea for this impromptu dessert on this Friday night.
You see...I have a tube of digestive biscuits that my mother in law gave us sitting in the pantry.  Since my house doesn't really lack for desserts, I doubt we'll ever get to those biscuits properly.  So when I read the ingredient list for Donna Hay's chocolate tart, I bypassed the pretzels but thought: "why not use up a few of those digestive biscuits for a tart crust?" and fill it with a simple chocolate ganache.
To me, the contrast between the grainy, whole wheat flavor and texture of the digestive biscuits against rich chocolate ganache filling sounded like a good match.  And to make things a bit more interesting, I added a dash of Grand Marnier (my husband likes Grand Marnier but you could use Amaretto, Kahlua, or another kind of liqueur) to the ganache to spike up the flavor a little bit further.  You could skip the liqueur and substitute a small dash of vanilla extract instead.
Since it's date night and we're baking a bit on the fly today, it's just a wee mini tart for two.  I happen to have one random, roughly 4 1/2-inch, mini tart pan with a removable bottom that I put to use here.
I am ready to start the weekend and enjoy the lull before the storm - literally!  Unfortunately, there's talk of a major storm/hurricane coming our way on the East Coast.  I'm hoping it will be a whole lot less serious than what the weather reports are predicting right now.  I certainly do not want any repeat of what happened last year right around Halloween.  Let's think positive thoughts and above all else, be safe!


Chocolate cake donut holes for my munchkin

As the weather turned seriously chilly recently (although nowadays, anything below 60 degrees equates to "freezing" for me), I've been nesting.  Okay, definitely not nesting in any way relating to having another child but nesting in the sense of wanting to stay home, cook, bake, eat, and repeat.

I've been making some "old-school" favorites lately...baking banana bread, different kinds of cookies, and chocolate cake, in addition to the recent items I've posted.  And as much fun as it can be to try new recipes and talk about them here, it puts a big smile on my face when I go back to those "old" recipes I love and smell/taste those familiar foods.  There have also been plenty of pancake breakfasts on weekend mornings as well as explorations on the savory end.  I've been cooking cauliflower, roasting squash, and learning to make tandoori chicken in the oven to create semi-homemade Indian dinners.  Needless to say, I have been going through a lot of groceries lately for our family of three!
My slightly larger-than-they-should-be Chocolate Cake Donut Holes made for my munchkin
I don't know if you feel the same way but as it turns colder and the days get shorter, I get hungrier and have this desire to stay close to home, particularly in the evening.  I want a cozy dinner at home with my family and a little something sweet to cap off the day (or to brighten up the midday).  Sometimes it means sharing a plate of cookies, other times it may be a slice of cake (cake is a really good thing).  This time in the sweets department, I went ahead and tried something different, something especially for the little one closest to my heart.
I stepped out of my comfort zone and made a batch of "munchkins" for my munchkin, if you will.  I saw this recipe for chocolate cake donut holes (shaped like donut holes or what we call "munchkins" but they're really little fried chocolate cakes) on this beautiful blog and I thought I'd try it for the little guy, who, like most kids, loves his (occasional) donuts and munchkins/donut holes from Duncan Donuts.  And the thing is, my little guy always goes for the chocolate ones when it comes to those munchkins so these are right up his alley. 
I found nonpareil sprinkles worked best for these donut holes but it's a chance to have fun with holiday or everyday sprinkles (my son likes green)
Now, the good news is my little munchkin was excited about this endeavor and he really liked these cake/donut holes!  I was surprised, but he really enjoyed them.  Taste wise, he preferred the simple glazed ones (that's his usual munchkin preference though he requested a mixture of both plain glazed and sprinkles for this homemade experiment) but he was also obviously drawn to some of the "special" ones with sprinkles - particularly, the green one since that's one of his favorite colors.  And I say I was "surprised" he liked them so much because for me, while this was an interesting project, it's not something I would make again.  I found the cake batter and finished cake too dry (I had to add extra buttermilk in the end to make the dough bind together better) and dense, and the flavor too mild.

And with few exceptions, I rarely make fry food at home and these chocolate cake donut holes are fried.  I seriously can't believe I basically fried chocolate cake!  There are obviously plenty of reasons against frying and I agree, which is why I rarely do it.  I don't enjoy the "fragrance" that lingers in the air after frying but I have to say the actual smell of chocolate frying is pretty good!  And frying these little bits of cake cake gives the crust a nice crisp texture and fried at the right temperature, with the help of a thermometer, they do not absorb much oil.
Can't forget Halloween is coming...
A simple glaze is a must for these.  The cake balls need the added moisture and sweetness.  A subsequent roll in sprinkles is not be mandatory but I highly recommend it.  Aesthetics is important in this instance and these should be fun and not taken too seriously.  They clearly won't put Duncan Donuts out of business but it put a smile on a 7-year old boy's face.
Cute on the outside but, unfortunately, dry on the inside (not every recipe can be a winner...)
Now, let me tell you...this whole exercise has got me craving beignets.  "Luckily," the little one is not a fan of those or I might have an excuse to go there.  He's got this thing against a lot of warm/hot foods (a clear exception being a warm molten cake but the ice cream on top mitigates that).  But my husband and I sure wouldn't mind a few of those warm doughy donuts covered in powdered sugar, preferably served with a bowl of warm chocolate sauce for dipping.  But I think I'll go to a restaurant and let someone else do the frying...



Homemade peanut butter cups (for Halloween)

Are you a fan of Pinterest?  I love checking out the "Food & Drink" category.  There are amazing photos of all kinds of food and sweets (not to mention cool tips and tricks) to ogle over.  Plus, it's nice to know there are so many people like me, who are obsessed with food!  I've actually tried a couple of recipes I found via Pinterest and this one came about the same way.
Homemade peanut butter cups caught my attention partly because I thought my little one would enjoy it.  With Halloween around the corner, I also can't help but have candy bars on my mind, especially since they're everywhere right now.  And once in a while, I just get a hankering to try making homemade copies of store bought things - even though it usually ends up reminding me there's a good reason why the item is best store bought.

With Halloween in mind, I sprinkled some black and orange nonpareils over some of my peanut butter cups.  Why not add different kind of sprinkles for whatever holiday you're celebrating.  Kids are big fans of sprinkles and they were the first of my little batch to go.  But I'm not suggesting you make these to pass out on Halloween...I actually don't think that would be practical (please read on)...

To make these, you layer chocolate, peanut butter whipped with a bit of butter and confectioners' sugar, then chocolate again, in some cupcake liners.  Freeze each layer for about 15 minutes and before you know it, unwrap your liners and you have homemade peanut butter cups.  It's not exactly Reese's Pieces but I really like being able to see the layers of chocolate and peanut butter, and I think it's a fun little project to do if you're into making homemade renditions of store bought candy.

For the chocolate, I used a mix of (mostly) semisweet and milk chocolate.  You could use what you prefer; milk chocolate would be sweeter and should give you a softer texture than dark.  I used standard cupcake size wrappers to make my peanut butter cups.  You could go mini, using a mini muffin tin and liners.  That would be a little more labor intensive but looking back now, I actually think minis would've been a better idea.  Since these tend to melt (you need to store them in the refrigerator, the chocolate is not tempered) and be a bit messy to eat, it'd be a big plus to be able to pop one whole piece into your mouth! 
Overall, this was a fun little project.  The plus side is you made very tasty homemade peanut butter cups!  The downside is you can't really transport these since they're a little messy to handle.  They start sweating and melting on your fingers once taken out of the refrigerator - and you do need to let them rest a few minutes at room temperature before eating so that the chocolate layers aren't quite so hard (those chocolate layers are purely melted chocolate, with no butter or corn syrup to soften them).  In contrast, the peanut butter layer is softer than the chocolate and tends to squish out when you bite into it. 

To contain the mess a little, I think it's a good idea to serve each one of these in a cupcake wrapper so that there's something to hold onto.  But hey, store bought candy can be messy too, right?
The kids I served these to needed a lot of napkins but they were very happy (which makes me happy)!  Now if only there was a recipe for homemade Kit Kat bars...


Warm individual brownies with ice cream

I don't watch a lot of TV in general but I do watch plenty of cooking shows.  I DVR my favorites (Giada deLaurentiis, Ina Garten, The Pioneer Woman, The Chew, The Cook's Illustrated shows on PBS...) but sometimes, I use the shows more as background noise while I'm thumbing through magazines or reading rather than something I'm watching earnestly.  It's not very often I'll watch a show that captures my undivided attention and makes me want to run into the kitchen to make a particular dish...
But it happened a couple of months ago when I was watching Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa.  The premise was cooking restaurant food at home and it caught my attention when she started talking about re-creating a fish dish she had at Spago and then making a visit to Rao's in New York (that restaurant that's virtually impossible to get a reservation into).  Man, the food on this show looked amazing!  I wanted to make the prosciutto wrapped bass and skillet brownies right away!

I couldn't stop thinking about that dessert...warm (practically hot) individual brownies made in cute little individual portion skillets, served right from the oven with vanilla ice cream!  That pretty much sums up my ideal dessert!  The only problem was I didn't/don't have 3 1/2 inch mini cast iron skillets!  I actually thought about buying some but I knew that wouldn't be a smart move, particularly without even trying the recipe first.  I figured I could use ramekins but those little skillets really do look adorable! 
So my lack of mini skillets kept me from making these warm individual brownies for a while.  I finally decided to use these disposable baking cups from Garnish, a site I discovered recently and just adore!  You could definitely bake these individual brownies in ramekins, disposable pie tins or a cast iron skillet of whatever size you have (to share, family-style).  You'll need to adjust the baking time depending on what size dish you use but it's relatively easy to tell when the brownies are ready - they will puff up slightly, crust and firm up on top, but should still have a little wiggle to them when lightly moved.  You don't want to over bake them. 
These are very much like molten chocolate cake, only with a bonus crusty top.  And we seriously loved the crust on these brownies that you can literally pick off with your fingers and eat.  Just crack into that sweet, crusty, chewy surface and spoon your way into the soft, warm, gooey center.  Topped with some homemade vanilla ice cream, it was a delicious after lunch dessert for us on a recent Sunday.  
I couldn't get this simple dessert out of my mind and I'm sure glad I tried it.  If I had any complaint, I'd say the brownies were just a tad sweeter than necessary but that's just me being picky.  And by the way, I made the prosciutto roasted bass featured on the same show less than a week after watching it and that was delicious too! (I skipped the roasted vegetables and just baked the fish and topped it with a simple squeeze of lemon.  The ham really kept the fish moist and added a great salty flavor.)

I've been doing a few brownie recipes lately but it's just the kind of simple yet utterly satisfying dessert I love to bake and eat!


Apple-frangipane galette

It's apple season!  Fall has arrived and that probably means at least one requisite visit (particularly if you have children) to the farm for a hay ride and some apple and pumpkin picking.  If you're lucky, maybe you'll be able to pick some tomatoes on the vine and roast them for dinner too.
Golden delicious apples we picked and used for this galette
I buy apples every week and "enforce" them on my 7-year old son, who unfortunately receives them with predictable dismay 85% of the time.  He'll eat them...eventually.  It "only" takes about an hour for him to finish an average size one I sliced.  So this apple galette wasn't made with him particularly in mind.  But this is for anyone who love apples, almond flavor, and a flaky, buttery, just-sweet-enough crust.
The French term galette basically refers to a casual, rustic kind of free form tart, which appeals to me since it's a whole lot less intimidating than making an apple pie.  This recipe comes from my well-used copy of Ready for Dessert.  It looked and sounded like something I could do and perfect for this current apple season.
You could make peach, pear or some other stone fruit galette but I like the classic apple and I get a chance to use some of the fresh apples we picked.  This apple galette starts with a really easy crust.  Easy as in you can use a food processor, stand mixer, or even just a pastry blender and your hands to make it (although I had a very bad experience attempting to make dough by hand and prefer the food processor).

A layer of frangipane beneath the apples makes this galette just a bit more special.  Frangipane is an almond pastry cream made mainly with almond paste, butter, sugar, and eggs.  I think the idea of trying the frangipane filling appealed to me as much as making this fruit tart as a whole because I adore almond paste and desserts incorporating some kind of almond/nut component.  And the frangipane really adds a great extra layer of flavor and aroma to the overall.  As a bonus, it acts like insulation between the crust and apples so that the bottom of the crust stays crisp and intact!
I think one of the things I like best about this recipe is how simple it turned out to be.  Yes, there are a few steps involved but each one is fairly quick and easy.  You can (and should) make the dough and frangipane a couple of days ahead of time.  So while it does require some advance planning,  it is by no means a burden.  The other great thing is I think this kind of tart lets the fruit shine.  In this case, I used red and yellow golden delicious apples we picked from our seasonal apple picking trip a few days prior.
Now, I have a tip (for what it's worth): when you go apple picking, please look around and see if the farm sells honey and if so, buy a jar.  I've been just a little turned off by honey lately though I use some almost everyday with my bowl of oatmeal.  I think most of those little jars of honey bears just don't have enough, or the right, flavor.  Your local farmer's market is another possible source for good honey but I struck gold on our apple picking trip when I grabbed a jar there.  It is so good, it makes me want to eat it plain.
This made a chilly, wet Fall day a little sweeter...
Drizzle just a little bit of some good honey over a slice of this galette and it's another level bliss.  Take it one step further and add a scoop of vanilla ice cream (I've gotten a bit into the habit of making my own) and the story is finished.

This is one of those desserts I'm really proud I made because it's so different from what I'd normally bake and eat.  I love making a new discovery, learning new techniques, and tasting new flavors.  Sharing with family and friends makes it all the more rewarding.


My first lemon bars

I associate lemon bars/squares with school bake sales but have you ever actually seen lemon bars at a school bake sale?  I remember (fondly) that school bake sales were all about Entenmann's fudge cakes and cupcakes when I was growing up in Brooklyn.  I never once saw lemon bars and, I know this might sound unlikely, I don't think I've ever eaten one!  Until now, that is...
I've had (and love) lemon tarts but not a basic lemon bar with shortbread crust and lemon curd topping that I can pick up with my hands and devour.  Although I have to ask...is it still lemon curd when there's no butter and you add flour to it?

I've wanted to make lemon bars for a while since I love lemon but I was really motivated to bake a batch after seeing a recipe for a lighter version in Cooking Light magazine. 
But to make a long story short, I actually did not make the Cooking Light version but went with the well-known Ina Garten recipe instead, with some help from Smitten Kitchen.  Although I love the idea of lightening up these rich treats (pine nuts in the crust sounded good to me), how can I make a lighter version before making/tasting the "real" thing first?  So as a compromise, I just made a smaller version of the real thing.

And I think this is the real deal...rich, buttery (very fragrant) shortbread crust and tangy yet sweet lemon filling.  I'm glad I didn't slim down the lemon layer.  I actually figured I'd like a bit more lemon to shortbread ratio, and I was right.
I didn't know making lemon bars could be a bit of a high wire act though!  I thought I came a little too close to over baking mine.  Who knew you could over bake lemon bars!  I was worried about under baking - you read about fillings not setting and how difficult they are to cut.  And of course, since I divided the recipe in half and baked them in a 9-inch square pan instead of a 9x13 inch pan, the timing was thrown off.  And boy, I had lots of ugly air bubbles on top of my lemon bars - why hasn't anyone talked about that?

Luckily, I found that after cutting away the dried sides of my lemon bar, the center was still soft and, almost surprisingly at this point (since I'd lost confidence), very tasty!  Maybe it just goes to show you do need to bake lemon bars a bit longer than you think.  Next time, though, I'll play it safe and keep a closer eye on the oven.  I think the idea is to remove them about 5 minutes after the filling sets; directions are not very precise, for sure.

And also luckily, a generous dusting of powdered sugar does a good job of hiding those unsightly air bubbles.  The downside is that this almost-mandatory powdered sugar topping melts once covered so it's not ideal to travel with them (another point against the bake sale idea - particular during humid weather) or if you want to package them as a gift.
Now I know what the big whoop is about lemon bars.  They're a great balance between sweet and tangy, with that fresh lemon cutting through the rich buttery flavor of the crust.  And is it me or is there something a little extra special about bar desserts?  Casual yet special.  Next time you're at a bake sale, see if you find lemon bars.  They may be geared more towards adult rather than young palates but look at it this way, we all become adults eventually...


That "Fat Witch"

I'm not calling anyone "fat" or a "witch"; I'm talking about brownies!  And I wanted to try this recipe because Fat Witch brownies have bewitched me for years.  They just might be my favorite brownies of all time though I'm a little confused when it comes to the exact reasons why.
Years ago, I was drawn into the Fat Witch Bakery in Chelsea Market by not only the general promise of brownies but also by their adorable name and packaging.  And I was hooked after the first bite of my free sample.  There is something about those Fat Witches!  It's odd because I actually find it hard to describe their flavor.  It's not a chocolaty brownie.  For me, the appeal is their dense, moist, fudgy texture combined with this delicious, rich butter-chocolate-vanilla flavor.  I like to describe it as this alluring "vanilla" flavor but I think maybe it's some magic potion of butter, chocolate, and vanilla swirled together.

I've tried their boxed mix in an effort to get my Fat Witch "fix" at home.  Those taste pretty similar to the actual ones from the bakery but not quite, and they somehow have a boxed mix taste (or aftertaste) to them, in my opinion.  Then...a couple of years ago, the Fat Witch Brownies cookbook came out.  Some of the reviews were pretty harsh (and the negative reviews stay with you, don't they).  Some people said the recipe simply does not produce the brownies you buy from the store.  Plenty of people raved about them too.
Mixed results.  After trying the recipe myself, I'd have to say the homemade version was not as good as the ones from the bakery.  Whether that is because the bakery uses superior ingredients and a more expert hand or if this is not actually the exact recipe, I can't say.  What I do know is mine seemed like a paler version of the real thing.  But that doesn't mean it wasn't good.  It was quite tasty but I'm not sure the final result is enough motivation for me to go into the kitchen and make this particular recipe that calls for so much butter (and sugar), if given other options.  The recipe uses a solid 1 3/4 sticks of butter for a 9" square pan's worth of brownies.  And you use chocolate chips, just 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons worth.

As I mentioned, the Fat Witch brownies are not intensely chocolaty in flavor (unlike the Scharffen Berger brownies, for example) but the batch I made from scratch had even less chocolate flavor than I expected.  Texturally, the true center of the brownies came out dense, moist, and fudgy - as I hoped they would be - but the sides or edges were more on the cakey side (there are 4 eggs in this recipe).  Maybe the recipe doesn't translate well on a small scale?
A couple scoops of homemade caramel ice cream to accompany my Fat Witch brownie
In the end, I ended up with a somewhat "watered-down", albeit still good, version of the actual thing.  I suppose I could try to tweak the recipe (by adding more chocolate, more espresso powder than what I already used to amp up the chocolate flavor, and maybe reducing the amount of eggs) if there were not so many other delicious brownie recipes out there to bake and eat.

To be sure, I'll still be drawn to the real thing, those little Fat Witches chanting my name whenever I visit Chelsea Market...they are definitely good witches.


Chocolate-hazelnut biscotti

I've discovered that biscotti is a great thing to make and keep around the house.  I prefer the traditional kind, made without butter.  And being by definition, twice-baked, they are crunchy and dry, and stay that way for a good couple of weeks stashed in an airtight jar.
Serve biscotti with or as dessert (we had it one night with coffee and a generous scoop of gelato to continue the Italian theme).  They make a great afternoon nibble, a natural accompaniment to a cup of coffee, espresso, or tea any time of the day.  For those who don't like their biscotti too hard and crunchy (I think that's the best part), you can bake them for a slightly shorter time and there's always the option of dunking them in your hot drink, where they soften up instantly.
This batch of chocolate-hazelnut biscotti came about on a whim.  I hate to waste and as I was looking at my pantry shelf, I knew I had to do something about this small box of hazelnuts I had sitting there, taunting me with one of those impending "best by" dates.  I considered making a batch of cookies but then thought of using them in biscotti.  I generally prefer "plain" biscotti but the richness of the hazelnuts stand up well against the dark cocoa flavor of these.

I've made two kinds of biscotti before this: almond and pistachio with orange zest.  These offer a darker flavor and I think the hazelnuts really cut across the dark cocoa very well.  I used this recipe but made a few changes.  I'm not sure this is something to brag about but in an exercise in restraint, there's no actual chocolate in these biscotti, only cocoa powder.  I omitted the chocolate chips from the recipe in order to keep it on the light and lean side, which is how I think of biscotti.  However, I bet biting into studs of chocolate would add another level of deliciousness...
I also opted to forgo a glaze (actually, the first time I'd heard of a glaze for biscotti).  Before the first bake in the oven, you could brush the top of the logs a beaten egg and sprinkle coarse sugar over it.  I don't really see the need for that here.  Given how crunchy and flavorful these are already, I don't think the extra sugar on top would add much more to them. 

I love how I can get a nice little chocolate kick from these biscotti without eating something too rich or sweet.  And if you enjoy hazelnuts, their flavor really pops in these biscotti.


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