Vanilla Bean Caramels


This weekend was an honest to goodness baking marathon for me.  I baked for nearly two days straight with very little sleep.  But finally I’m sitting down, and I just couldn’t wait to tell you about these caramels.  They may not be the snazziest of holiday treats, but in my book it just doesn’t get much better than really good caramels.  These sweet, chewy candies have flecks of vanilla bean throughout and a touch of fleur de sel that almost sparkles on top.

I think candy making is such fun – there is just something so gratifying about making your own caramels.  It really doesn’t require much effort, just some patience and a candy thermometer.  In fact, I pull up a barstool to the stove, grab a good book and sit reading next to the stove, monitoring and stirring occasionally while the sugar works its magic.  I think anyone would be thrilled to receive these as a holiday gift.  And I’m thrilled to have a few left over to enjoy myself 🙂


Side note – My series of holiday giveaways is starting today on the Facebook page.  Details will be posted before 7 am.  Enter to win a copy of Martha Stewart’s Cupcakes!

Vanilla Bean Caramels with Fleur de Sel
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Yield: 64 caramels
Ingredients:
1 cup heavy cream
5 tbsp. unsalted butter
½ tsp. vanilla extract
1 vanilla bean pod, split lengthwise and scraped
1¼ tsp. fleur de sel, plus more for sprinkling
1½ cups sugar
¼ cup light corn syrup
¼ cup water

Directions:
Line the bottom and sides of an 8-inch square baking dish with parchment paper.  Lightly butter the parchment.

In a small saucepan, combine the cream, butter, vanilla extract, vanilla bean seeds, pods, and fleur de sel.  Heat over medium-high heat and bring to a boil.  Remove from the heat and set aside.

In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar, corn syrup, and water.  Heat over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally until the sugar is dissolved.  Boil, without stirring but gently swirling the pan occasionally, until the mixture is a light golden caramel color.

Remove the vanilla bean pods from the cream mixture and carefully stir the cream mixture into the caramel – the mixture will bubble up, so pour slowly and stir constantly.  Continue simmering the mixture until it registers 248˚ F on a candy thermometer.  Immediately remove from the heat and pour into the prepared pan.  Let cool for 30 minutes, then sprinkle lightly with additional fleur de sel.  Continue to let sit until completely set and cooled.  Cut into 1-inch pieces (a buttered pizza cutter works well).  Wrap the individual caramels in small pieces of wax paper, about 4-inch squares.

Source: Confections of a Foodie Bride

French Butter Cookies


Does this type of cookie look familiar to you?  You know, those tins you buy at the store around the holidays filled with really yummy, slightly crumbly butter cookies?  Guess what?  You can make them at home.  I’m pretty overjoyed about this myself.  I’m normally not one to buy cookies from the store, but any time one of those tins appears at my dad’s house I’m all over it.  There is something about them that is totally irresistible.  I’ve been wanting to make these since last winter but never got around to it.  So many things to bake, so little time!

Of course I know I can always count on Cook’s Illustrated for a stellar recipe and they certainly delivered in this case.  The dough requires very few ingredients, but in the usual Cook’s Illustrated fashion, they have included a special technique to take the recipe to the next level.  In this case, that step is using a soft-boiled egg yolk in the dough.  It sounds a little weird, I know, and I was very skeptical.  Now I don’t know if it really matters because I haven’t tried these without the soft boiled yolk but I can say that I think these cookies are just perfect.  The buttery flavor and slightly sandy texture are spot on.

The article includes a recipe for a basic sablé dough, as well as numerous variations for a range of other shapes and flavorings.  As you can see, I tried a few of these variations myself: the basic sablé, chocolate swirls, vanilla pretzels and chocolate sandwiches.  And let me tell you, I loved every single one of them.  Like, really loved them and didn’t want to share them.  I try not to be overly effusive so you know when a recipe really stands out for me – this is one of those times.  Another huge plus is that the dough for all of these is formed into logs, chilled in the freezer, then sliced and baked (obviously the pretzels are shaped after chilling).  This means they are really convenient for holiday baking because you can make and freeze the dough ahead of time, and then bake when needed.  I still have more than half of these batches in my freezer waiting to be included in this year’s treat bags.  But I really just want to eat them myself.  I love these cookies!

French Butter Cookies
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Yield: about 40 cookies
Ingredients:
For the dough:
1 large egg
10 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
1/3 cup plus 1 tbsp. (2¾ oz.) sugar
¼ tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1½ cups (7½ oz.) unbleached all-purpose flour

To finish:
1 large egg white, lightly beaten with 1 tsp. water
Turbinado sugar, for sprinkling

Directions:
Place the egg in a small saucepan and cover with 1 inch of water.  Bring to a boil.  Once boiling, remove from the heat, cover and let sit 10 minutes.  Meanwhile fill a small bowl with ice water.  Use a slotted spoon to transfer the egg to the ice water and let stand 5 minutes.  Crack the egg and peel away the shell.  Separate the yolk from the white; discard the white.  Press the yolk through a fine mesh sieve into a small bowl.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the butter, sugar, salt and cooked egg yolk.  Beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes, scraping down the bowl as needed.  Turn the mixer to low, add the vanilla and mix until incorporated.  Add the flour and mix on low speed just until combine, about 30 seconds.  Use a spatula to press the dough into a cohesive mass.

Divide the dough in half and roll each piece into a log about 6 inches long and 1¾ inches in diameter.  Wrap each log in a piece of parchment or wax paper.  Twist the ends to seal and firmly compact the dough into a tight cylinder.  Chill in the freezer until firm, about 1 hour.  (At this point, the dough can be stored in a freezer bag and frozen for up to 2 weeks.)

To bake, preheat the oven to 350 ˚F.  Line baking sheets with parchment paper.  Using a chef’s knife, slice the dough into ¼-inch thick rounds, rotating the dough log every few slices so that it does not become misshapen.  Place the cookies 1 inch apart on the prepared baking sheets.  Brush lightly with the egg white mixture and sprinkle evenly with turbinado sugar.

Bake until the centers of the cookies are pale golden and the edges are slightly darker, about 15 minutes, rotating the baking sheets halfway through baking.  Cool on the baking sheets about 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Variations:
Vanilla Pretzel Cookies
Follow the recipe for French Butter Cookies, increasing the vanilla extract to 1 tablespoon and reducing the chilling time to 30 minutes.  Slice the dough into rounds as instructed.  Form each round into a ball.  Roll into a 6-inch long rope with tapered ends.  Twist into a pretzel shape.  Brush with the egg white mixture, sprinkle with turbinado sugar and bake as instructed.

Chocolate Sandwich Cookies
Follow the recipe for French Butter Cookies.  Slice the dough into 1/8-inch thick rounds.  Omit the egg wash and sprinkling sugar.  Bake the cookies as directed, reducing the baking time to 10-13 minutes.  When all the cookies are completely cool, melt dark or semisweet chocolate, spread a thin layer onto one cookie and sandwich with another cookie.  Let sit until the chocolate has set completely.

Black and White Spiral Cookies
Make one batch of French Butter Cookie dough.  Make a batch of chocolate dough by following the recipe for French Butter Cookies, reducing the flour to 1 1/3 cups and adding ¼ cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder with the flour.


To form the spiral cookies, halve each batch of dough.


Roll out each portion on lightly floured parchment or wax paper into a 6- by 8-inch rectangle, ¼-inch thick.  If the dough is at all soft, chill until firm enough to handle.


Place one rectangle of the chocolate dough on top of one rectangle of the plain dough.


Roll out the stacked dough into a 6- by 9-inch rectangle.  Starting at the long end, roll each stack into a tight log.  Twist the ends of the parchment and chill for 1 hour.  Omit the egg wash and sprinkling sugar.  Slice and bake as directed.

Source: Cook’s Illustrated Entertaining, Holiday 2010

Mexican Pizza


For those of you that menu plan, do you ever have a meal that for one reason or another gets pushed back to the following week again and again (and again)?  Once is certainly understandable as plans do change, but when the same meal is delayed week after week, it must be because subconsciously you’re just not feeling it.  I guess that was me with this pizza, which is a bit strange considering that the whole reason I wanted to make it was because I had tried it in a restaurant and loved it.  I had all the ingredients on hand but probably delayed it five weeks before I buckled down and just made the darn thing.  And like so many times when I put off making a recipe, I now want to kick myself in the butt for missing out on this awesome dinner.

It’s certainly a departure from a typical pizza, but in a very good way.  I used a seasoned black bean puree in place of the usual sauce, layered with lots of cheddar and monterey jack cheese (pepper jack would also be great) and topped with corn, tomato, jalapeño, onion and cilantro.  As usual with pizza, it’s very easy to adapt this to suit your tastes.  I thought this had a nice amount of spice – a little spicy, but not so much that Andrew wouldn’t eat it.  In fact, he loved it!  If you want to dial up the spice, add another jalapeño to the toppings or consider pureeing a chipotle in adobo with the black bean mixture.  This was a great meal and I can’t wait to make it again.  And next time, I definitely won’t be pushing it back to the next week.

Other yummy pizza ideas:
Spinoccoli Pizza
Caesar Salad Pizza
Chicken Ranch Pizza
Greek Pizza
Chicken Pesto Pizza

For tips on making great homemade pizza, check out my tutorial.

Mexican Pizza
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Ingredients:
Pizza dough
1 can black beans, rinsed and drained
½ tsp. cumin
¼ tsp. paprika
¼ tsp. cayenne
3 tbsp. chicken broth, veggie broth or water
3 oz. shredded cheddar cheese
3 oz. shredded monterey jack cheese
1 jalapeño, seeded and diced
¼ cup red onion, finely chopped
1/3 cup tomato, seeded and diced
1/3 cup corn (fresh or frozen)
3-4 tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro
Salt and pepper, to taste

Directions:
To make the pizza, preheat the oven and a pizza stone at 500˚ F for at least 30 minutes.  Roll out the pizza dough into a 12-14 inch round.  Lightly brush the perimeter of the dough with olive oil.

Combine the black beans, cumin, paprika and cayenne in the bowl of a food processor.  Puree until ground into a paste.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl.  With the processor running, add the chicken broth through the feed tube until a smooth mixture is formed.  Spread the bean puree onto the shaped pizza crust in an even layer (I used about ¾ of the puree).  Layer evenly with the cheddar and monterey jack cheese.  Sprinkle the jalapeño, red onion, tomato, corn and cilantro over the cheese layer.  Season with salt and pepper if desired.

Transfer the pizza to the preheated pizza stone and bake until the cheese is melted and bubbling and the crust is lightly browned, about 10-12 minutes.  Remove from the oven and let cool slightly before slicing and serving.

Source: Annie original, inspired by Bazbeaux Pizza

Pumpkin Spice Truffles


Once turkey day is over people seem to lose interest in pumpkin and move on to more festive and pretty holiday treats such as cranberry and peppermint-centered items.  And while I’m all about those things (well, less so the peppermint), I’m not ready to give up on pumpkin just yet.  Truffles are always a popular treat around the holidays, and I try a couple new variations every year.  These pumpkin spice truffles are a bit different than typical homemade truffles.  The filling is reminiscent of a pumpkin cookie which makes sense since the main components are pumpkin puree as well as crushed graham crackers and gingersnaps.

The mixture is too soft to form into balls just after mixing, but a quick chill in the fridge or freezer gives it just the right consistency.  It is important to work quickly when dipping the truffles.  Too much contact with the melted chocolate in the bowl can allow any condensation formed on the filling balls to be incorporated into the mixture and possibly seize the chocolate.  Sometimes I will start with a new batch of coating chocolate halfway through dipping just to keep things smooth.  I think these would be a nice addition to a tray of truffles or assorted truffle gift boxes for the holidays.  It’s a tasty way to break up the monotony of all that chocolate.  Not that a platter of chocolate has ever been a problem for me, but you know what I mean 🙂


Pumpkin Spice Truffles
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Yield: about 30 truffles
Ingredients:
1 cup white chocolate, coarsely chopped (about 5 oz)
½ cup pumpkin puree
¾ cup finely ground gingersnaps
¾ cup graham cracker crumbs
2 tbsp. confectioners’ sugar
¼ tsp. ground cinnamon
Pinch of orange zest
4 oz. cream cheese, softened

For dipping:
about 16 oz. chopped white chocolate, melted (or white candy melts)*

For garnish:
Additional gingersnap crumbs

Directions:
To make the truffle filling, melt the white chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over simmering water just until smooth.  Set aside to cool slightly.  Add the pumpkin, gingersnap and graham cracker crumbs, confectioners’ sugar, cinnamon, orange zest and cream cheese.  Mix well until completely blended and smooth.  Transfer the mixture to the refrigerator or freezer until it has thickened up enough to scoop and roll into balls (about 1 hour).

Scoop the filling mixture and roll into balls, about 1 inch in diameter.  Transfer to a parchment- or foil-lined baking sheet.  Transfer the baking sheet to the freezer and let chill until firm, about 2 hours.

When you are ready to dip the truffles, melt the white chocolate or candy melts for coating in a heatproof bowl set over simmering water.  Once completely melted and smooth, carefully dip one of the balls of filling into the chocolate.  Turn quickly to coat and balance on the tines of a fork to shake off the excess.  Transfer to a lined baking sheet and sprinkle with additional gingersnap crumbs, if desired.  Repeat with the remaining filling balls.  Transfer the baking sheet to the refrigerator and chill until the coating is set.

*I prefer the flavor of good quality white chocolate to that of candy melts.  However, melted white chocolate can be tricky to work with sometimes so candy melts may be an easier way to go.

Source: adapted from Whole Foods

Eggplant Marinara Flatbread


Lunch is a meal I struggle with, both at work and on the weekends.  During the week I just do not have much time to throw together a lunch consisting of more than leftovers or fruit, yogurt, cheese and crackers.  On the weekends, I should theoretically have more time and energy but usually I’ve got so many activities and tasks planned that lunch gets pushed to the back burner and I end up making a grilled cheese (or better yet, having Ben make one for me 🙂 )  Not that I don’t love grilled cheese because I really do, but sometimes it’s nice to switch it up a bit.

I’m not one to eat Thanksgiving leftovers more than once or twice, so I planned this eggplant marinara flatbread for a lazy weekend lunch after the big holiday was over.  It really didn’t take much more effort than a grilled cheese and it was a nice change from the usual.  Plus, it’s got lots of things I love: bread?  Good.  Eggplant?  Good.  Cheese?  Gooood.  (Friends, anyone?)  Cut into small slices as I did, this could also make a great appetizer for a party.  It reminds me a lot of an eggplant Parmesan panini but without the trouble of actually making eggplant Parmesan.  Score!

Eggplant Marinara Flatbread
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Ingredients:
4 tbsp. olive oil, divided
6 (1/3-1/2-inch thick) slices eggplant, about 4 inches in diameter
Thick slices artisan bread, such as ciabatta, Italian, etc. (about 9 x 12 inches surface area)
Marinara sauce (about 1 cup)
1 oz. soft fresh goat cheese (I used garlic herb)
¼ cup chopped fresh basil, plus extra for garnish
1 cup coarsely grated mozzarella cheese

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 400˚ F.  Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat.  Season the eggplant slices with salt and pepper.  Lay the eggplant in the heated skillet.  Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, turning, until the eggplant is lightly browned on both sides, about 6 minutes total.  Transfer to a plate and set aside.  Brush the cut side of the bread slices with the remaining oil and cook in the warm skillet on medium-high heat until golden brown, 1-2 minutes.

Lay the bread, cut side up, on a baking sheet.  Spread a thin layer of the marinara sauce on each slice.  Crumble the goat cheese over the marinara and sprinkle with chopped basil.  Lay the egg plant slices on top of the  marinara.  Sprinkle the shredded mozzarella over the eggplant slices and dot lightly with remaining marinara sauce.

Bake until the topping is hot and slightly browned, about 12 minutes.  Slice into small pieces.  Garnish with additional basil leaves as desired.

Source: Bon Appétit, October 2010

Holiday Baking Inspiration

Holiday season is in full swing, and my kitchen has kicked into high gear with lots of baking going on.  In case you are still deciding what to include in your holiday goody bags or just want something to enjoy with your family at home, here are a few of my favorite past recipes.


This cappuccino fudge is one of the two holiday treats I must bake every year.  Even if I’m not making it for others, I always make one batch for us to enjoy around the house.  Fudge is a special treat that I don’t make very often, so I love to savor each piece during the holiday season.


You all know of my obsession with these sugar cookies and decorating them with royal icing.  I just can’t let a holiday pass by without making some festive cookies.  I ordered some new cookie cutters this year and can’t wait for them to arrive so I can get going on this year’s batch!


If you’re looking for a show-stopping holiday dessert, look no further.  This chocolate candy cane cake is beautiful and impressive.  It almost sparkles with the coating of crushed peppermints around the cake.  Even I, a non-mint lover, think this is a pretty tasty cake.


Last year I discovered that I do, in fact, like gingerbread treats and these gingerbread cookies in particular.  In fact I would go so far as to say they were my favorite thing that I baked last holiday season and the thing I am looking most forward to baking this year.  These just taste like the holidays to me.


These chocolate-covered marshmallow cookies are fun to make and to eat.  They are certainly suitable for any time of year, but I think a small sprinkling of colorful sprinkles dresses them up just right for the holidays.


Inspired by the popular Starbucks beverage, these peppermint mocha cupcakes are a popular Christmastime treat.  These are frequently requested by friends and coworkers.  I especially love the red and white swirled frosting!


Homemade hot cocoa mix is a fun and delicious addition to any holiday gift bag and this cocoa is pretty wonderful.  Smooth, rich and very chocolatey, I always make extra for us to have around the house because it is a wonderful treat for a cold winter’s night.


Red velvet cake is often associated with Valentine’s Day, but I love it enough to think it should be enjoyed year-round.  This red velvet cheesecake combines two of my loves – red velvet cake and cheesecake – in one gorgeous dessert that could be easily garnished for a holiday table.


I’ve always enjoyed eggnog and every holiday season I enjoy finding new ways to incorporate it into various baked goods and other treats.  Last year I made this eggnog ice cream and it was fantastic.  I can’t wait to make it again and enjoy a dish while sitting by the fire!


Biscotti are always included in my holiday treat bags because they are so easy to make, go well with hot cocoa, and they keep (and ship) very well.  If you have peppermint lovers on your list, these candy cane biscotti are a great option.

Chocolate Almond Cake


Some people seem to be under the impression that I never have kitchen fails.  Believe me, just like everyone else, I have my fair share.  Granted, they have become fewer and farther between with my increasing experience in the kitchen, but they still happen nonetheless.  This cake was born of a major kitchen fail.  Someone at work had a big birthday that slipped under the radar and some sneaky investigation revealed that a chocolate almond cake would have been his cake of choice.  Fine, great, I was on it.  Except my extensive internet searching really didn’t turn up the sort of recipes I was hoping for, and none from sources that I count as reliable.

Eventually I found something that seemed like it could work, but the cake was way too small for our needs.  I doubled the batter, baked it in a springform, and hoped for the best.  Unfortunately the type of cake I had chosen is one where the usual toothpick test for doneness simply doesn’t work.  The cake appeared totally done from the outside and came out of the springform beautifully but in attempting to transfer it to a platter, it fell quickly to pieces.  It was underdone and inedible.  And, it was 9:00 pm the night before I needed it.  I may have said a few choice words and even shed a tear or two, but I was still determined to make a chocolate almond cake.  I did some quick thinking and searching based on the ingredients I had on hand, and within minutes I had a new game plan.

One of the best things about Bundt cakes is that they are simple to whip up and look pretty when all is said and done.  So, I jazzed up a basic chocolate Bundt with some almond extract, topped it with ganache and sliced almonds and finally I had a product I could live with.  And you know what?  I think this turned out much better than the original (much more complicated) cake would have.  That little bit of almond extract in the cake gave it a great flavor and I had people asking all day what special ingredient I had added to make it taste so good.  Thankfully something good came of the disaster cake endeavor.


Chocolate Almond Bundt Cake
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Ingredients:
For the cake:
2¼ cups flour
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tsp. baking powder
¾ tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp. salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1½ cups sugar
4 large eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. almond extract
1½ cups sour cream
6 oz. bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled slightly

For the ganache:
6 oz. bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
¾ cup heavy cream
1 tbsp. light corn syrup

For garnish:
Sliced almonds

Directions:
To make the cake, preheat the oven to 325˚ F.  Grease and flour a 10-cup Bundt pan.

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt; whisk to blend.  In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the butter and sugar.  Beat together on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, 4-5 minutes, scraping down the bowl as needed.  Mix in the eggs one at a time, blending well after each addition.  Blend in the vanilla and almond extracts.

With the mixer on low speed, add the dry ingredients in three additions alternating with the sour cream, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients and beating each addition just until incorporated.  Mix in the melted chocolate just until combined.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan, spreading the batter evenly.  Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean, about 50-60 minutes.  Let cool in the pan 10 minutes.  Invert onto a cooling rack and gently remove the cake from the pan.

To make the ganache, place the chocolate in a small heatproof bowl.   Bring the cream to a boil in a small saucepan.  Pour the hot cream over the chocolate let stand 1-2 minutes.  Whisk in small circular motions until the mixture is well blended and the ganache is smooth.  Stir in the corn syrup.  Drizzle the ganache over the cooled cake and garnish with sliced almonds before the glaze sets.

Source: adapted from Williams Sonoma