Fran's truffle brownies (with Vietnamese coffee ice cream)

Could I possibly interest you in another brownie recipe?  In all likelihood, you already have a favorite one of your own but when it comes to things like brownies (things that we like to eat with regularity), I think there's always room to experiment and try one more variation.
That's what I figured when I spotted this recipe for truffle brownies from Fran's Chocolates.  I think I must've first heard about Fran's from Ina Garten, who would rave about the company's caramels on her show.  I've since sampled some of their chocolates but haven't been to Seattle where their boutiques are located to really explore their offering.  The chocolates that I have tasted were delicious so if I ever find myself in Seattle, you can bet that will be a key stop. 

So I trust that Fran knows her chocolate and I wanted to make these truffle brownies I saw online.  I thought they'd make a nice dessert on their own, or paired with ice cream.  
I churned up a batch of Vietnamese coffee ice cream to go with the truffle brownies.  I was inspired by a spurt of warm, sunny weather we were having a couple of weeks ago and while that might have distracted me to the point of baking these brownies a few minutes longer than I wish I had, they were still satisfying.  The truffle brownies are moist and have a texture that's somewhere between cake, brownie, truffle, and chocolate mousse.  How can you not want to try that!
Cut into small squares, I individually wrapped and kept my stash of truffle brownies in the fridge.  I shared some with a friend and the rest, we enjoyed on their own as well as a nice bonus accompaniment with a bowl of ice cream!  There are few things better than brownies and ice cream.  



Brazilian cheese bread (pão de queijo)

One of the fun things we did recently on vacation in Aruba was having dinner in a Brazilian steakhouse, a churrascaria, featuring amazing grilled meats that are brought table-side in skewers, sliced to order.  It's an endless parade of succulent barbecued meats you enjoy with a generous buffet of side dishes.  
Throughout the years, the idea of going to a churrascaria had popped up but we never actually found the occasion to go.  My husband and I thought our meat-loving "little" guy (who is almost a teenager now!) would enjoy it so we took advantage of going to one when we were in Aruba.  We were right about the young one enjoying it; in fact, we all loved it. 

I could go on and on about the delectable meat - the juicy and succulent picanha (top sirloin) cut and such - but what I wanted to focus on here today is something that was served in a little bread basket at our table at the steakhouse.  They turned out to be Brazilian cheese bread, or small cheese rolls or puffs, called pão de queijo.  
My husband fell hard for these little rounds of cheese bread!  I thought they were good (I mean, it's cheesy bread so what's not to like) but I have to admit I was more focused on eating Brazilian black beans, rice, and sampling all the meat.  But I do remember the rolls - particularly not only for their great cheesy flavor but the uniquely chewy texture that made them so interesting.  

They are not your typical fluffy, soft breads rolls but more like French gougeres but with a very different interior texture.  Brazilian cheese bread is soft and slightly crisp on the outside but dense and incredibly chewy inside.  The key is they're made with tapioca flour, which give it its distinctly chewy, stretchy texture.  
My husband was really smitten by the little Brazilian cheese bread and kept talking about it.  So naturally, I came home and read up on it a little bit and decided to try making them after finding a recipe.  It was a fun project and they turned out very well!  My husband swears they're just like the ones we had at the restaurant.  I say they're close enough and more importantly, we had a lot of fun talking about and tasting these at home.  It's always fun to relive vacation memories and make them last by recreating it in some way.  
Weekend dinner!  This meal featured Jacque Pepin's recipe for crispy chicken thighs and of course, the Brazilian cheese bread 



Peanut butter chocolate chunk cookies

Last Friday, I was in the kitchen making cookies again.  Nothing out of the ordinary there.  If I needed a reason, I'd say it was Friday and the sun was shining and it actually looked as though spring might be here to stay.  
But we don't need any particular reason to make cookies any/all the time other than simply wanting to make life a little sweeter with a little treat.  Cookies are quick and easy to make, and ever so universally beloved.  It really is the simple things - and the little things - in life that make it special, and I am grateful for cookies.  I love baking them, eating them, and sharing them.
Just as cookie-making is a routine, this is not the first peanut butter chocolate chunk cookie I've made.  It's a good thing there are so many versions of everything, always a slightly different yet still familiar recipe, to try on our favorite themes.  And chocolate chip cookies, peanut butter, cookies in general, are some of my favorite themes.  

So last Friday, I was filling our cookie jar with the latest batch of cookies - these peanut butter chocolate chunk cookies.  I saw them recently and was just waiting for a day to make a batch because, again, favorite themes play on repeat and make us happy.  
And they did make us happy because these are some solid cookies peanut butter and chocolate cookies.  If you share some of my favorite themes then you can imagine that you really can't go wrong with this formula - soft, chewy chocolate chunk cookies full of peanut butter flavor.  A mix of dark and semisweet chocolate gives the cookies a little variety and interest.  I think they're the kind of cookies meant to come out of your home oven.  And I sure hope my oven continues to churn out cookies like these for a long, long time to come.  



Flourless chocolate almond butter cookies

I'm going to say honestly that I have something of a love-hate relationship with these flourless cookies.  
Despite a few trials with certain flourless cakes and cookies, I still find that I generally don't love them (of course, there are always plenty of exceptions...such as flourless chocolate cake - the kind leavened with eggs - and macaroon cookies, which I do love).  Fortunately, I have no need to avoid gluten so I don't purposely seek out gluten-free baked goods. These flourless double chocolate almond butter cookies intrigued me because they looked wonderful and I was happy to have the chance to use almond butter in baking.  In the last couple of years, I've come to enjoy almond butter almost as much as peanut butter.  
Somehow, I think I was expecting conventional, sturdy, cookies to come out of the oven but these are truly the flourless kind - super moist.  Just beneath the thin, dry crust that develops on top of these cookies, the center is ultimately fudgy and chewy.  And therein lies the love part of the equation.  The moist, chewiness - almost brownie-like texture - is something I adore and find addicting.  As such, these cookies remind me of energy bars/balls made with dates that I am still trying to figure out whether I like or not.
All in, I'm a fan of the chocolaty, salty, rich flavor and the chewy texture of these chocolate almond butter cookies yet I miss the sturdiness of the traditional cookie (clearly, I need to approach it with proper expectations).  They may not be my regular cookie of choice but they were certainly a nice change once in a while.  Since they are so moist, I find it best to store the cookies in a single layer, in the refrigerator.  We actually found we preferred them cold. The fudge factor increases and the cookies were easier to handle/hold.  Serving these cookies with a scoop of vanilla ice cream would not be a bad idea.  



Petit fours

After 7 years of blogging, with plenty of home baking throughout that time, it amazes me that there are always still things I've wanted to make and find myself finally doing for the first time.  
This time, I'm finally making petit fours (or petits fours, or "fancies", as the Brits call them). Really, they're nothing more complicated than small bites of iced almond cake but made ever more attractive - and, yes, just a bit fancy - by their petite size.  I've always been drawn to pretty little things, particularly in pastel colors, and I've always adored these little cakes that look like miniature presents all on their own.  I recently made them right before Easter and they are perfect for celebrating spring, or for a wedding or baby shower, a tea party, or, thinking slightly ahead, for Mother's Day.  
These petite cakes are great for any celebration...including a 7th blogging anniversary!  Yes, it's now 7 years since I started this little blog and I have a healthy roster of favorite recipes, and lots of memories and learning, to show for it.  I've slowed down the pace of my blogging quite a bit in the last year or so but I am cooking and baking as much - if not more - than ever.  It's nice to spend time baking family favorites and to try recipes on a whim without documenting every endeavor.  No matter how much or how little I blog here going forward, I hope to be baking and cooking - trying new things and learning along the way - for a long time to come.  
Now back to the petite cakes.  As you might know, I favor small batch baking and as simple a process as possible so that's the approach I took here.  After looking and saving many petit four recipes through the years, I settled on a recipe from Martha Stewart that I've had my eye on for a long time.  I made a few adjustments by dividing the recipe in half and using apricot preserves as a filling instead of cherry.  
It starts with a moist almond sponge cake.  Once baked in a single layer, the cake is sliced crosswise to be stacked into 2 layers.  I filled the center with smooth apricot preserves, reminiscent of one of our favorite things - Italian tri-color (or rainbow) cookies.

Some petit four recipes call for frosting.  A layer of frosting on top of the cake can provide a smoother surface for the glaze to rest on but I think this version without it is simpler and I like the sharp flavor from the jam filling.  These petit fours are coated with a basic glaze of confectioners' sugar and milk.  I really like this simple 2-ingredient glaze from Martha Stewart that doesn't require corn syrup, and you can tint it to whatever color you like; I went with white and a pale pink.  There's plenty of room for customization in not only the jam filling you use but also the color and design you choose for your glaze.  I topped some of the cakes with ready-made sugar flowers.
And now because this is me, the resident chocoholic, I could not resist coating some of my petit fours in chocolate!  They might not be quite as visually appealing but they sure taste amazing; I used (one of) my favorite 70% dark chocolate and the combination of almond cake, apricot jam, and dark chocolate is, as always, stellar.  
So here's to great times in the kitchen and at the table!  Let's celebrate as often as possible and may there always be some form of cake involved!



Breakfast (for dinner) potato skins

I begin typing up this post on the first day of spring and the brink of yet another nor'easter here in New Jersey.  School will be closed again tomorrow and I find myself, once again, hoping for the best.  It's hard to believe it's officially spring today (as I write this) and Easter is only a short week or so away.  Looking on the bright side, it means warmth, sunshine, flowers, and colorful produce is on its way too.  I have to believe it. 
In the meantime, I thought I'd take my mind off storms by thinking and writing about food.  It's always about food.  When a storm is imminent, we immediately think about food and hit the grocery stores.  I've already got a bowl of oatmeal chocolate chip cookie dough sitting in the fridge, ready to be baked tomorrow while we're hunkered down at home.  As long as we don't lose power, we'll be good to go.  

But how about an egg dish and something hearty while we're still waiting for spring to actually be felt?  We love eggs and come Easter time, it seems especially appropriate to feature them.  My fellas also love twice baked potatoes and I these potato skins are a great way to have it all.
Cheesy potato shells holding a egg, topped with bacon is a hearty and satisfying dish for any meal.  I adapted this recipe from Smitten Kitchen's latest book and I'm dubbing it breakfast (for dinner) potato skins because, frankly, I can't imagine "whipping" these up for breakfast given the time it takes to get them ready.  I took a shortcut by microwaving the potatoes instead of baking them in the oven; that shaves about 40 minutes from the cook time but you'll still need up to an hour to (leisurely) get them on the table.  

So if you want my advice, make these for brunch, lunch, or dinner.  There's nothing like a good potato and some eggs to fuel you through the long winter (I mean, spring...) days.  


Cream scones

Sometimes, I buy cream for a particular recipe and find myself with some leftover that I'd like to use up.  This last time, I thought I'd make some cream scones.
These cream scones are made with butter, egg, and cream - these are rich, crumbly, somewhat flaky, biscuit-like American-style scones.  They're a bit like shortbread cookies with a soft interior.  (In contrast, British-style scones are more cake-like, fluffier and softer - well-suited for splitting and topping with things like clotted cream and jam.)
Once in a while, I'll make a batch of scones and pop them in the freezer so we can have them freshly baked and warm for breakfast.  It's very easy to take them straight from the freezer and into the oven.  So this is what I had in mind and what I did.  That said, it's a struggle for me to work with this kind of American-style scone dough (so it's good to have more practice)...I find the dough generally dry and it's tricky to bring it together to shape and cut without over-handling it.

Frankly, I muddle through and do the best I can.  And while British-style scones might be better suited for splitting and slathering with jam and whatnot, I still sliced these and spread them with things like lemon curd (I use this small-batch recipe) and strawberry jam.  

That way, no one really notices if my scones aren't quite as light and tender as they could be!  

Before baking, I brushed the tops of the scones with cream and showered them with sanding sugar for a little extra color and even more texture.  As you can see, these scones are quite biscuit-like with a flaky, crunchy top and sides.  I didn't manage to slice them without breakage - be ready for lots of crumbs while eating these!



Easy puff pastry ("rough puff")

This may be my year of making things I didn't think I'd ever attempt to make! From bagels to English muffins (both of which I've now made several times), I moved on to...puff pastry.  At least, it's a simplified, easy puff pastry recipe - what's been called the "rough puff".
Incidentally, I can't stop saying "rough puff" after hearing the term.  So what makes it a rough puff?  Well, rather than having to go through the intricate and very time-consuming process of rolling out a butter packet and incorporating it into the dough, folding, rolling, and repeating the process several times between refrigeration (reasons I've never been tempted to try making puff pastry), this dough starts off a bit like pie dough and comes together in no time.  We're talking 15 minutes if you're efficient and maybe more like 30 minutes if you're not, like me!

This recipe is another I learned about from the fabulous site, Dessert for Two.  As you can gather from the photos above, cubes of butter are cut into the flour, then brought together with ice water to form a rough dough.  You roll the dough out into a rectangle, fold it like a letter, give it a quarter turn, then roll it out again.  Repeat this process of folding, turning, and rolling 6-7 times (no refrigerating in between) and you have your rough puff pastry dough.  
You don't need me to tell you there are so many uses for puff pastry.  I decided to take my rough puff and use it to make some shortcut chocolate croissants (or pains au chocolat) and chocolate-almond croissants.  I've done it before using store-bought puff pastry. 

True croissants involve leavened dough.  It's basically a cross between a yeasted dough and butter-layered dough like puff pastry.  The result is a stretchy, chewy, yet flaky texture, that's, of course, encased in buttery richness.  For a shortcut, puff pastry alone will due here.  I filled the dough generously with chopped dark chocolate, and for the almond version, I tucked in a bit of almond paste as well.   
The rough puff I made may not have boasted tons of layers but the result was very similar to what I get when I use store-bought puff pastry for this purpose.  My family really enjoy my endeavor and the rough puff was truly surprisingly easy. This experience may help me work up the courage to branch out even further...maybe try my hand at actually making a small batch of homemade croissants (or chocolate croissants) one of these days!



Chocolate chocolate-chip pancakes

Yes, sometimes breakfast gets a little extra indulgent and borders on dessert.  I can think of no better excuse (though who needs one) to indulge than Valentine's Day so the weekend beforehand, we did just that as I served up these chocolate pancakes for breakfast.  
These chocolate pancakes are made with buttermilk - tender, fluffy, and light, chock full of chocolate flavor from cocoa powder as well as mini chocolate chips that I folded into the batter.  I substituted some of the all-purpose flour with white whole wheat flour and I think these pancakes can really handle it.  In fact, I think chocolate and whole wheat flour work really well together in general, often giving the finished product a subtle nutty flavor and texture.  
It's a little like eating a light and fluffy chocolate cake.  Think of it as an alternative to chocolate muffins.  I'd like to think I showed some restraint in not topping the pancakes with chocolate sauce like you often see.  As tempting as that may be, some berries and a few extra sprinkles of mini chocolate chips does the trick.
Looking at these pancakes is helping me deal with Valentine's Day withdrawals.  I hope you had a lovely one, filled with love and plenty of chocolate!  Lucky for me, there's Chinese New Year to continue the celebrations and the feasting on sweets.  I can't complain at all!


Valentine "Kisses"

It's almost Valentine's Day!  I love this little holiday because I adore all the hearts, the pink & red, the treats, the chocolate, and symbols of love.  We can all use more expressions of love and we can all appreciate a little sweet treat!  
I've been in the Valentine spirit and trying to spread a little of it through food.  These cookies are an example of that.  I'm calling them "Valentine Kisses" - essentially, they're soft chocolate cookies with a Hershey's Kiss on top.  I first saw this recipe as rainbow kiss cookies from Sally of Sally's Baking Addiction; I spotted them around Christmas and the colorful nonpareil sprinkles caught my eye and I haven't stopped thinking about them.  
Since I didn't get a chance to make them over Christmas, I thought I'd make them as a Valentine treat, and simply swapped the rainbow nonpareil sprinkles with pink-and-white ones.  You can easily customize these cookies for any holiday/occasion.  Sprinkles are versatile and always, always smile-inducing!  These cookies are not only fun to look at but really tasty.  They are soft and a little fudgy inside, packed with plenty of deep chocolate flavor.  The little chocolate Kiss on top makes the cookies what they are (and they are so cute to look at) but they're frankly equally good without it.  You'd just have to rename them from "kisses" to "bon bons" or something.
I could not resist making them in their original rainbow version as well.  They really make me smile!
Whatever sprinkles you roll these kiss cookies in, I think they're bound to make you smile and remind you of the joy of chocolate (not that anyone needs a reminder of that)!



Easy English muffin recipe!

Here's another first for me and something else I didn't expect to be making myself at home: English muffins!  I can hardly believe I made these and how incredibly easy it was!  I'd already hit the jackpot recently with the easy bagel recipe but, believe it or not, these English muffins could well be even easier and just as good.  I'm floating on cloud nine in the kitchen lately.
English muffins are actually one of my favorite things.  Whether slathered with almond or peanut butter, or in breakfast sandwich form, they feature heavily in my breakfast routine.  I really never felt the urge to make them given how complicated and mysterious the process seemed - from the yeast dough to shaping them into tart rings and then cooking over a griddle rather than baking in the oven.  I was satisfied with the English muffin bread recipe I learned a couple years ago.

So what changed?  Well, I was watching Gesine Bullock-Prado's show (which is really terrific), Baked in Vermont, and she said making English muffins was as simple as making pancakes!  She said she wasn't kidding, and let me tell you...she really wasn't kidding!  
I was a little skeptical that it might be too good to be true but there was little risk to trying so I decided to make a half batch of 4.  I literally stirred the dough together right before I left to pick up my son from school and the dough was ready when I got home.  Using instant yeast, it only takes a half-hour rise before the dough is ready to be cooked over a griddle!
I did not use tart rings to cook these English muffins.  I simply shaped them with wet hands into a rough round; I don't know about you but the English muffins I buy are never perfectly round and I'm more than fine with that.  The dough is sticky and is firm and thick enough to handle and to hold its shape.  I cooked the first side for about 10-12 minutes under medium-low heat, then flipped it and let the other side cook for the same amount of time.  It was truly minimal work and I was shocked!

I was amazed to see English muffins in my kitchen in such a short time and almost equally surprised when I sliced it open for breakfast the next day and saw nooks & crannies accounted for!  I used an equal mix of all-purpose flour and white whole wheat flour.  Since these are made via a quick rise, I thought they would be quite bland but I think the whole wheat flour added a great nutty flavor to them that I always enjoy.  They were really terrific - just toasted and slathered with butter and whatnot.
Equally, they made excellent bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches!  My son actually said these English muffins are better than the regular ones that I buy.  That is a serious testimonial.  I just couldn't believe I made breakfast sandwiches using homemade English muffins.  It took me a few days to get over the wonder of that...



Mont Blanc chestnut tartlets

There are many pastries/desserts I love that I frankly never plan to make.  They are far above my skill level and it just makes much more sense to leave it to the professionals.  I would say Mont Blanc - a dessert I adore featuring pureed chestnuts - was one of them.  Somehow I'm able to say "was" because I recently made some in my very own kitchen!
I suppose it started with a jar of roasted chestnuts.  After the holidays, I look out for them at William Sonoma when they typically go on sale.  I was only able to get my hands on 2 jars this year and after using one to make a ragù, I kept thinking about two Mont Blanc recipes I'd spotted lately...one from Angelina's in Paris (which I have tasted and well-remember) and a feature in the November/December issue of Bake from Scratch.

I had particularly high hopes for the recipe from the magazine but upon looking at it, I was totally intimidated because it involved a good half a dozen steps - from making the pastry crust, an almond cream, then meringues, the chestnut paste, and whipped cream before assembling!  But I still couldn't stop thinking about it and I thought I could make a simplified version leaning on the Bake from Scratch recipe(s)...
So that's how mine came about - a simplified Mont Blanc in tartlet, or mini tart  form, each just a little over 2 inches in diameter.  And while there are variations on the Mont Blanc, mine starts with the almond pastry crust.  Inside the crust, I nestled a little sweetened chestnut puree or chestnut paste before I piped a peak of sweetened whipped cream on top.  Finally, I piped the chestnut paste all around the whipped cream.  
In essence, I skipped the meringue you sometimes find at the bottom of a Mont Blanc (it's not my favorite component anyway) and there's no almond filling.  Instead I just added some of the chestnut puree at the base of the tart for a little more chestnut flavor.

Since Mont Blanc means "white mountain" and that's what the pastry is supposed to resemble, a dusting of confectioners' sugar is very appropriate...but as I discovered, the confectioners' sugar melted very quickly on top of the chestnut puree, seemingly before I could lift the camera and focus. [Interesting tidbit: I just learned that there are 2 types of confectioners' sugar, 10x finely ground that we typically see in the supermarket, and 5x, which is coarser and what you'd use for garnishing when you don't want it to melt on contact with the food.  Makes so much sense!  Now I just need to find out how to get my hands on the 5x variety.]
If you could do me one favor, it would be not to look too closely!  If you don't scrutinize too hard, you might not notice the uneven piping and wiggly lines.  Needless to say, my version is not only simplified but rustic.  That said, I couldn't help but feel excitement - and a little sense of pride - at having made one of my favorite desserts, even if it is a simplified version.



Easy bagel recipe!

I found my first 2018 baking inspiration in the form of these incredibly easy - and tasty - homemade bagels!
I first saw them from Skinnytaste's Instagram account and when she posted the recipe, I barely waited a day to try them.  If you like bagels and wish you could eat them more often (like me), you'll surely be tempted because they are practically 2-ingredient bagels that takes very little time to make from scratch!

Even if you don't use self-rising flour and break down the components (adding baking powder and salt yourself), you only need 4-5 ingredients: flour, baking powder, salt, non-fat Greek yogurt, and an egg white to brush the top with, plus any optional topping you might like on them.  I had everything I needed to make these without going to the grocery store.  It sounds incredible but really, it works and it's tasty to boot!  
Did I also mention, they're only about 150 calories each, with 26.5 grams of carbs?  I don't know about you but though I adore bagels, I don't eat them very often as I try to watch my intake of refined carbs.  Making them myself and having this lighter option is a fabulous discovery.  Not to mention...I made bagels!  How neat is that!

For my inaugural batch of bagels, I used 2/3 all-purpose flour and 1/3 white whole wheat flour.  Next time (and there will be plenty of opportunities), I plan to increase the whole wheat proportion further.  
The non-fat Greek yogurt is key.  They work some kind of magic so that the bagels turn out with a nice soft texture and have a slightly tangy, salty bite.  These are not the traditional super-dense, heavy bagels.  My bagels were still very soft inside after 2 days sitting at room temperature.  
I toast them up and they're good plain, with butter, cream cheese, and almond butter - to name a few options.  All I can say is if you enjoy bagels and want a lighter option, try making these very easy ones!  These are going to have a place in our breakfast routine from now on.  I think that's a pretty great way to start of the new year in the kitchen!



Chocolate hazelnut toffee

Happy New Year!  It's that time again when I slowly float back down from cloud nine, and settle back into our everyday post-holiday life.  And believe me, I'm landing on some very freezing cold ground!  I sure hope you had a wonderfully relaxing and happy holiday!  We enjoyed every moment of it.  My family and I so look forward to the quiet time of that last week or so of the year and even with all the high expectations, it never seems to disappoint.  
It made me realize how wonderful the gift of time really is.  Not having to rush and having plenty of time to spend with each other, cozy and snug (which we were in general except for a 16-hour power outage), lingering over meals and savoring the calm for about 10 days straight is really as good as it gets for me.  I think my husband and I get recharged and live off of the annual holiday hiatus for months after.

Now, while the holiday baking frenzy has come and gone (and it was glorious while it lasted!), I wanted to share the last treat I made before the New Year.  I always like the idea of making toffee and candies because it's not only a lovely little nibble to add to all the Christmas cookies, it's great for gift-giving.  Pop some into a bag, jar, or tin, and you've got a lovely little hostess gift.  
This time, I made hazelnut toffee, with big chunks of whole roasted hazelnuts, topped with a coating of dark chocolate.  You can add a sprinkle of sea salt on top to finish but I kept it plain.  I'm always a little nervous when it comes to making toffee but it's so rewarding in the end.  If you use a candy thermometer and cook the mixture to 300 degrees, you'll end up with toffee that's just properly firm and crunchy but infinitely easy to bite into and eat.  

I'm a big fan of this since I love hazelnuts and there is obviously plenty of delicious hazelnut flavor and aroma in this toffee.  And the dark chocolate layer on top is a must-have in my book.  Honestly, a great homemade toffee isn't hard to make and maybe we shouldn't relegate it to the holidays.  I'm sure most people would enjoy a little homemade toffee in their life any time of the year!  Although with Chinese New Year coming up, I can't help but think this toffee would make a great sweet gift for the occasion as well.



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