A few words before a New Year...

I hope you've been enjoying a little holiday break this week.  I want to wish you all the best for the New Year.  I hope you are surrounded by love, happiness, peace, security, and good health right now and into 2013.
I have to say that I live in the real world but this is not a space I use for life discussions.  This is largely my "imaginary space" where the only problem we deal with is deciding what to have for dessert, and I'd largely like to keep it that way.  All the same, it's hard to entirely keep out the real world and as a mom of a second grader, my thoughts are often on the tragedy that occured in Newtown, Connecticut.  There are no adequate words, and my thoughts are with the people who are dealing with a type of suffering that I can barely fathom.  I think of the victims and wish strength for their family and friends who face this unimaginably difficult time.  I also think of love and how important it is to bask in it and shine it.

I look for the grace to be able to appreciate my life and the beauty around me every day.  I hope for peace and serenity and a world where children are always safe and we can all live together in not only tolerance, but friendship.
 
See you back here soon.


Holiday snack mix - spiced, glazed nuts & pretzels

With New Year's celebrations approaching, I bring you another little nibble to consider having alongside your glass of champagne or other drink of choice.
I actually made this "holiday snack mix" - another recipe from the awesome David Lebovitz - last weekend for my Christmas party.  I served it up alongside the drinks as a little something to nosh on.  This holiday snack mix is pretty irresistible...there's the crunch, the warm-smokiness of the nuts, and the combination of sweet and salty that's so appealing.
I used a combination of nuts I like most: walnuts, cashews, hazelnuts, and almonds, alongside pretzels.  Add cinnamon and chili powder for the spice while some brown sugar and maple syrup provide the sweetness.  Somewhere in between, there's just a bit of melted butter and a scattering of flaky sea salt.  I was a little nervous about the cinnamon, particularly with chili powder, but I trusted my unofficial baking guru and I liked the combination.  There's actually a "holiday" flavor to them...

This snack mix (holiday or not) is easy and fun to make, great for a crowd.  Plus, it makes a great hostess gift too.  I'm glad I followed my instinct and made a little extra!


Chocolate-hazelnut Christmas cake (200th post)

I'm calling this my Christmas cake for 2012.  It's a fairly simple chocolate hazelnut cake or torte, a recipe from the folks at America's Test Kitchen.  Despite plenty of Christmas cookies and treats, I still wanted a cake to serve for dessert at my usual family Christmas party so this is what we had last night.  There's something special about bringing a cake to the table and passing the slices around.
I had actually intended to make a roll cake.  Specifically, I was going to tackle that heavenly roll cake from Smitten Kitchen, which I've made a couple of times in cake form (it's delicious).  But when I looked at all the things I needed to cook for the party (trying to figure out how to juggle the timing with one oven), the roll cake wasn't an experiment I wanted to try that day.  So I changed gears and went with something simpler.  Truth be told, after a big holiday meal, there's not too much room for dessert.

As you can see, I went a little kitsch with some plastic tree decorations and a dusting of confectioners' sugar "snow" over the cake.  I was inspired by Nigella Lawson, whose cooking shows I love to watch and who I've seen decorate her Christmas cakes this way more than once.  Had they not been out of stock, there would've been little plastic deer among the trees for even more of a winter woodland scene!
As for the taste of this cake, it's not too sweet, not very rich.  The interior is moist and studded with plenty of toasted ground hazelnuts.  I think it made a nice dessert for the grownups alongside our coffee cups and other Christmas treats (the holidays are about abundance and feasting, afterall).  The kids enjoyed ice cream and sugar cookies
Regardless of what you eat, I think it's the togetherness that makes the holidays special.  I am so lucky and happy to be able to gather around with my family as we approach another Christmas.  This is the time of year when we should be reminded of goodness, family, and giving; I am focusing on those things.

Incidentally, this is my 200th post on this here little blog!  I can hardly believe it.  And I must indeed have a "thing" for chocolate and hazelnuts.  I just realized that I made a hazelnut cake with praline and milk chocolate buttercream for my 100th post, a chocolate-hazelnut meringue cake for the blog's one-year anniversary, and now this!!  I guess I really am a creature of habit...


Candied almonds

This is the kind of recipe I like to try out when I want to mix things up a bit.  It's fairly quick, no-bake, and involves something I love to munch on - nutsDavid Lebovitz says he calls on this appetizer more than any other and that grabs my attention.  So if you're a little worn out from all the holiday baking and cookies (I should say, fortunate enough to be worn out because I feel lucky to be occupied in this way), try this easy candy-making for a change like I did a couple of weeks ago.
These are candied almonds, very much like what you can get from Street vendors in New York City.  Incidentally, after many years of living and working in the NYC area, I didn't give those nuts a try until last Christmas when my family and I played tourist and stayed there for a couple of days' "vacation."  I found myself easily munching and crunching my way through my little paper bag of nuts.

I think these homemade candied almonds are all the more addicting and better than the version you get on the NYC sidewalk.  They have the advantage of being homemade, of course, and there's just a freshness to them because of it.  They are crunchy and sweet, with just a bit of salt thrown in to make things vibrant.  As an added bonus to making these, you benefit from a wonderful sweet/nutty aroma of caramelized nuts in your kitchen.
I went with almonds but you can also use peanuts.  I've gained a new appreciate for peanuts lately but couldn't find raw peanuts for this recipe.  In the end, I decided almonds would be a better way to go since they're generally more popular or seem a little more "special" to most people than peanuts, and I planned to pack my batch up as gifts (with plenty left for the cook to nibble on).
For this recipe, you only need 4 ingredients, a big wide skillet or pan, and no more than half an hour's time.  There's a good amount of stirring involved but I found that relaxing - an escape from the world outside - with the reward of watching  these caramelized nuts come into being.  

Tossing these nuts in their sugar coating reminded me of something my grandfather used to make.  He used to toss fried pieces of taro (I'm pretty sure they were fried first) in a wok with a sugar syrup until they were each coated with a thin, white layer of sugar.  Once they were cool enough to eat, we'd bite into it and come into contact with the first layer of sweet, crackly sugar and then fluffy, starchy taro within.  It was one of many interesting things he cooked for us.
But back to these candied nuts; they make a great appetizer or snack to go with drinks at a gathering.  They are also something easy to make for a hostess gift or general homemade holiday gift.  I made these for an ornament exchange party I went to recently.  I love having a good excuse to try something new.


Peppermint brownies topped with candy cane and dark chocolate drizzle

I've made it a point to slow down and enjoy the holidays.  For me, that means being selective about what I choose to take on, keeping my schedule light, getting things done in advance, and just taking the time to sit down and enjoy the season.
There's plenty of cooking and baking (let's not forget eating) involved at this time of year and I enjoy it immensely.  But in an effort to not go crazy or wipe myself out in the name of the holiday season, I've reined in my holiday baking.  I didn't want to look at my Christmas baking list (yes, I have one) like they were must-do's that I had to fit into my schedule.  Instead, I cut it down into a short list of want-to-do's, a handful of recipes that really appealed to me - things I think my family and I will enjoy - so I could also focus on making old favorites.  While there is always room for something new, I want to keep some traditions at Christmastime.
Well, these peppermint brownies were not part of the plan but they made it into my December baking rotation and I'm so glad it did!  It started when I saw these brownies and the look of the chocolate drizzle and crushed candy canes really drew me in.  I suppose I've just got peppermint on the brain come December and, well, brownies are one of the simplest dessert comfort foods that I crave (to make and eat) often.  So since I couldn't stop thinking about peppermint brownies and since brownies are generally easy/no-major-equipment-required affairs, I went for it. 

I was feeling a bit adventurous because instead of following that recipe for the brownies I saw, I did a little spin-off of several recipes, though I kept that original candy cane and chocolate topping that I liked so much.  For my version, I also called on the brownie recipes from BakedSmitten Kitchen's favorite based on unsweetened chocolate, as well as Pioneer Woman's mint brownie bites, which has melted Andes Mints in it!
I started with the Baked brownie recipe in mind because I adore the fudgy texture of those brownies but things got really side-tracked from there.  I decided to omit the brown sugar used in the Baked recipe so that the chocolate flavor could come through more.  Along that thought, I went with unsweetened chocolate (what both the Smitten Kitchen and Pioneer Woman recipes use) for deep chocolate flavor.  I had intended to only add peppermint extract for the mint flavoring but couldn't resist the idea of melted Andes Mints!  I have to admit I have them in the house all year round in a candy dish. 
The brownies turned out to be a real hit!  I know it's hard to go wrong with brownies in general but these were moist and had a nice balance of chocolate and clear peppermint flavor.  The Andes Mints really add minty flavor to the brownies themselves while the unsweetened chocolate rounds it out and makes them a bit more serious and less sweet.  The dark chocolate and crushed candy cane on top make them look festive for the holidays and accentuate the flavors going on.
My seven year old loved these, which makes me really happy!  I intended to pack up the majority of these brownies as a gift and he protested and actually asked me to make more "because they're so good!".  I'm not bragging; I just couldn't believe how much he liked them because I think he's been on a bit of a chocolate overload lately (gotten picky with his selection) since I bake so often.  I think the peppermint flavor really appeals to him (the boy can down a large candy cane in minutes) and kids seem to appreciate brownies with a little frosting or topping on them.  Either way, I felt like I hit a home run or scored a winning goal with this one, and it was a pleasant surprise.


Hazelnut truffles

If there's ever an "appropriate" time for making and eating chocolate truffles, it must be now, during the holidays.  This is the moment to make a batch of these little chocolate orbs that exemplify the magic that is chocolate and cream melded together.
A year ago, I made truffles for the first time during Christmas.  I made them plain and flavored some with Grand Marnier.  The truffles made nice gifts, a lovely grown-up dessert at the end of dinner, and a wonderful treat to savor and indulge in with someone special.
This year, I tried the hazelnut variety.  Besides orange and mint, I love nuts, particularly hazelnuts, with chocolate.  Chocolate truffles are little more than chocolate ganache - a combination of chocolate and heavy cream - at their simplest form.  In this case, add hazelnut liqueur in the form of Frangelico, for hazelnut flavor.  Roll the truffles in chopped, toasted hazelnuts to amp up the flavor and to add some texture.  If you prefer your truffles smooth all-round, you could simply roll them in unsweetened cocoa powder but I really like the chopped nuts in this case.
These truffles are dark, rich, slightly nutty, and smooth (just make sure to bring them fully up to room temperature before serving).  Using a combination of bittersweet and semisweet chocolate (not to mention the liqueur, which isn't over-powering in this recipe) gives them a mature taste.  They're right up my alley since I prefer dark chocolate now that I'm a "grownup", although I must say that I think hazelnut is one ingredient that marries really well with milk chocolate.  But when it comes to homemade truffles, I'd stick with the dark; milk chocolate could be tricky since it tends to stay soft, so you'd need to use less cream to chocolate ratio, and it could be too sweet for most people.
When I buy chocolate truffles, I love the kind encased in a hard chocolate shell.  I've yet to venture into the daunting territory of tempering chocolate (which you'd need to do to achieve that shiny, hard chocolate coating) and I think I'll leave it to the pros.  But this simple homemade version is also decadent and delicious, a real treat for the holidays.  You can get creative with the toppings.  I like covering the smooth truffles with crunchy nuts to accent the flavor here - it's also an easy alternative to getting that contrast in texture (plus, it keeps your fingers clean too).
I suppose that aside from Christmas, truffles are great for Valentine's Day too (another lovely holiday and one that will be here before we know it!).  I also packed a few of these truffles for a friend's birthday.  Makes me feel like a little candy maker!


Dressing up for the holidays (3 cookies)

The holidays are a time for dress-up.  Personally, I love to dress up once in a while for a night out, for a special dinner that I'm looking forward to.  Most of us love an excuse to put on a dress and some jewelry (and use a small purse!) - it's a break from the usual routine, particularly if you're a mom on that treadmill of pick-up/drop-off during the week. 

But this being a baking journal, I'm not talking about dressing up - as in clothes - for the holidays.  I'm referring to "dressing up" your usual treats, taking a spin on them, fancying them up just a bit for this special time of year!
A small sample of my holiday cookie decorating supplies
'Tis the season when people break out the colorful sprinkles, sanding sugar, royal icing, and cookie cutters.  That's the case for me and I like to make some of our family favorite and try a few new cookies, cakes, or candy recipes without going too crazy.  Narrowing down the choice of recipes to try is a difficult process given limited time.  While I'm drawn to new recipes, I also want a sure thing during the holidays.  I think one of the solutions to that is to call up some of your favorite recipes and "dress them up"!

So today, I'd like to talk about three cookie recipes.  They're based on recipes I've made before that my family enjoys, but with a little holiday twist.  Maybe it'll inspire you to call up old favorites and add a little something special to them.

Cherry-Almond Cookies

First up, cherry-almond cookies.  I could write an ode to almond paste - I love it that much!  I love the smell, the taste, the chewy texture it brings to cookies like this one.  I make almond macaroons pretty often, it's one of my favorite cookies, and I also love the pignoli version.  For my holiday spin, I made this cherry version, which is essentially the same almond cookie base topped with a festive-looking candied cherry.  These jewel-like candied cherries are pretty easy to find in the supermarket at this time of year.  My little guy choose green but red is the other option, or a combination of both would be beautiful on a plate.
These almond cookies are easy to make, with just a handful of ingredients.  If almond paste was cheaper, I'd make them every month!  For this cherry version, the only change up I made was to add the candied cherry on top instead of the usual almond slices that I, personally, prefer. 

I was inspired to make a batch of these, thinking of my son.  These are the cookies he'd always pick from the local Italian bakery I used to take him to fairly often.  My husband also likes the cherries but I prefer the basic almond or nut-all-the-way version.  Luckily, there's room for everyone's preference because who says you can't mix the old with the new!  I made a few traditional almond ones for myself but I have to say I love the look of those shiny green baubles on top of these almond cookies for the holidays.

Tuiles with Dark Chocolate

This is a no-brainer and pretty much my life motto when it comes to dessert: Add chocolate! 

Yes - when in doubt, add dark chocolate.  I am a bonafide chocoholic, someone who rarely orders a non-chocolate dessert at a restaurant.  But beyond just that pure love of the stuff, I've been wanting to add a dose of chocolate to a batch of crisp tuile/lace cookies for some time.
My experience with chocolate covered tuiles goes back to that first cooking class I took as a teenager in school.  I adored those cooking classes where I first learned to cook in a kitchen by following recipes.  As I've mentioned before, I used to stop by on my free periods to hang out in the kitchen, help wash dishes (seriously!), and generally soak in the atmosphere.  I distinctly remember a batch of tuiles sitting on the counter there one day and some students drizzling chocolate over them.  I was offered a taste and was amazed by how good they were!  

So calling up those fond memories, I made a batch of almond-butterscotch tuiles, which I like very much.  For the chocolate pizazz, I drizzled (the way I remembered it that day in that class kitchen), dipped, spread, and sandwiched them in bittersweet chocolate.  Any way you do it, you can't go wrong with the addition of dark chocolate against this crisp, sweet, caramelized cookie studded with chopped almonds.  If you like toffee (yum!), you'll like this!
Chocolate adds an extra level of indulgence, richness, and decadence to treats like these.  Beyond tuiles, so many cookies would benefit from a little chocolate dip or coating!  I think the extra step is absolutely worth it during the holidays.
I usually like to make these crisp tuiles to serve along with ice cream, or shape them into serving containers to hold ice cream, but I think they make a very special addition to any Christmas cookie platter whether you add chocolate or not.

Sugar Doily Cookies

Now, finally...sugar cookies; they practically symbolize Christmas to me as far as cookies go, and because of that, I always make some at this time of year.  This is where, the star/tree/Christmas stocking/gingerbread men-type cooking cutters come out, along with a variety of sprinkles and maybe some royal icing.
To dress them up in a different way this year, I went with an idea from Martha and cut them to mimic a doily or lace pattern using small aspic cutters and pastry tips.  I've been drawn to the graceful look of those doily-looking sugar cookies for a while and wanted to give it a try for a special occasion. 

I have to say mine may not be exactly doily or lace like since I don't have enough cutters to make more intricate designs (general skill and patience also lacking).  But this is my interpretation and I really like them; I also wanted to make these cookies now because they remind me of snowflakes.
I think of these as a more elegant spin on sugar cookies.  But that's not to say I didn't put my holiday cookie cutters and sprinkles to use.  Traditions need to be honored!  And no matter what they look like, sugar cookies taste great and always smell delicious when baking.  All you need is a cup of hot chocolate to go along with a few of these.

When I eat a homemade sugar cookie, I'm reminded of how good simple things are...



Chocolate and spice

I've never been a fan of gingerbread or baked goods heavy with holiday spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves.  But a couple of years ago, I tried Martha Stewart's chocolate gingerbread cookies (they're her favorite holiday cookie) and they made me re-evaluate everything because I love those cookies!  They're on my short list of must-bake holiday treats.  I only make them during Christmas and at this time of year, I crave that cookie's combination of spice together with melted chocolate in their "slightly crisp on the outside/super soft-chewy on the inside" form...
Needless to say, a batch of those cookies will make an appearance in my kitchen soon.  In the meantime, I thought I'd try something new but in the same vain.  These chocolate spice cupcakes caught my eye because they are very similar to those spectacular (and rather unusual) cookies with their combination of chocolate and spice.

These upside down cupcakes don't have a ton of fat in them - 5 tablespoons of butter for a dozen cupcakes in the recipe.  The moisture comes from a good dose of molasses.  That, along with ground cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger, make them flavorful, but not rich.  The richness comes in the form of the chocolate ganache coating - the best part of this happy combination, I think.  I like any recipe that gives me an excuse to stir up some rich, velvety chocolate ganache.
Admittedly, I didn't find these little chocolate spice cakes quite as addicting as  the cookies, partly because those have the advantage of melty chocolate goodness warm from the oven, which is how I like to eat them.  But I did enjoy them and think they make a nice holiday treat.  The warm spices are clearly present without being overwhelming, and they taste particularly good with that ganache glaze.  My son loved the "frosting", which he called "the best kind in the world" (that's my boy!) but didn't love the flavor of the cake itself.  Maybe these are better suited for grown-up palates because when a little one sees something that looks like a chocolate cake, he probably expects and wants just that without the spicy surprise.
Do you wonder why these cupcakes are turned upside down?  Why not just make them regular cupcakes with ganache frosting on top?  I wondered the same myself and thought about doing it that way but on second thought, the upside down effect seems appropriate somehow.  This presentation gives these slightly more "mature", little bit more complex, holiday cakes a bit more sophistication and more of a grown-up look.  It makes a fine dessert during the holiday time when meals are a little extra special. 

I didn't buy candied ginger to top these little cakes with like Martha suggests since I don't like them (too blunt?).  Visually, a topping looks very nice though.  I made a festive version for my little one (sprinkles always do the trick) and topped mine with a few grains of sea salt, mainly for that snow-capped look as opposed to taste.
I hope you're enjoying your holiday baking and/or eating, whether you're sticking with old-favorites or trying something new!


Packaging my treats

With the holidays upon us and the idea of homemade gifts, I thought it'd be fun to talk about packaging!
I'm always on the lookout for simple packaging materials for gifting cookies and other treats.  There's absolutely nothing wrong with putting some goodies on a paper plate for your next door neighbor or reaching for the zip lock bags or foil, but in instances where you're doing a little more advance planning, or for special occasions, you may want to pretty things up a bit.

We eat with our eyes first and I think presentation is important since it adds to the pleasure of both giving and receiving.  But at the same time, I'm not overly creative and not one to spend time crafting my own packaging no matter how "easy" it's supposed to be.  Nor do I want to spend an unreasonable amount of money.  So I keep things simple, generally relying on a handful of basic packaging supplies that I thought would be fun to share with you here today.  Here are my basic packaging standbys: 

1. Cellophane bags.  This is my go-to packaging item.  I have plenty of clear cellophane bags I use to quickly package cookies to my friends and family.  For years I bought bags from Sur La Table, a store I could spend hours in, but recently, I've taken to buying the less-expensive version at Michael's.  The ones at Michael's are not quite as clear but they are more than good enough for the job.  I may use the twist ties that come with these bags or use a colorful ribbon. 

2. Glassine envelops.  These glassine envelops or bags are great for packaging one large, or a few smaller, cookies, some nuts, or a slice of loaf cake.  I like these transparent ones that are greaseproof from Sur La Table (though I sometimes also wrap the cookies or cake in a piece of wax paper for additional protection).  You can also get these types of envelops in various colors from Shop Sweet Lulu and Bake It Pretty.

3.  Cellophane wrap.  This may be a bit more "old-school" but rolls of cellophane wrap could be particularly useful around the holidays if you are planning to gift bigger trays of cookies and the like.  I buy mine from my local Michael's and simply tie the package together with a ribbon.
Set your goodies on a plate or embellish it with a piece of doily before wrapping. 

4.  Wax paper.  I never used wax paper (always bought parchment paper only) until last year when a friend gifted me a loaf of her husband's homemade bread wrapped in wax paper.  I wondered why I'd never thought of using simple wax paper for packaging before!  Since then, I stock and use wax paper regularly.  It's more pliable than parchment and cheaper, too.  For things like banana bread, I wrap it tightly in plastic wrap first, then in wax paper, held together with a piece of twine or a ribbon.

5. Baker's boxes.  Who wouldn't love to receive a box of homemade goodies.  It really says "special" to me when something comes in a gift box.  I like to line the box in some colored tissue paper but set my goodies on top of a sheet of wax paper first.
If possible, buy boxes in various sizes, shapes, colors, styles.  I also have some cupcake boxes around the house too.  I like small flat ones with a window (below) for items like truffles that I nest in miniature cupcake liners.
I also like clear acrylic boxes.  If you're lucky, you can find them in craft stores.
I buy various cake or baker's boxes at craft stores, the Container Store, and the packaging sites I mentioned above.

6.  Stickers and labels.  I love stickers and labels!  I buy labels and gift tags from Martha Stewart and Papyrus that I can simply write on.  I bought an embosser from William Sonoma a while back and I do use it occasionally but it doesn't work as well as I'd like it to (the overall imprint doesn't come out quite even).  Along with stickers and labels, stock up on different color ribbons too.


- Click on for a few more ideas...


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