Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas!

From our family to yours...

Wishing you all the joy and blessings the Christmas season brings. Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Andes Mint Cookies

Matthew is all about Santa Claus this year. And while that has been great fun, Paul and I also want him to begin understanding the true meaning and origin of Christmas. So, we have been reading him stories about the birth of Jesus and saying our nighttime prayers in front of our nativity scene hoping that some of this will begin to sink into his little noggin, although I am suspecting that quite a bit of room has been taken up with thoughts of flying reindeer, dancing snowmen named Frosty, and little elves constructing toys in a workshop at the North Pole.

We have a Little People nativity playset that my parents gave to Matthew as a gift for his first Christmas. Both he and Emma have enjoyed playing with it very much during this Advent season. The other day, while straightening up the family room after putting the two of them down for a nap, I spied the results of Matthew's play for the day.

Apparently, he thought Mary and Joseph needed an upgrade from that slow donkey. Thomas the tank engine will surely get them to Bethlehem faster!

And who is better suited to guard the baby Jesus, lying helplessly in his manger, but a ferocious dinosaur!

Little kids crack me up! Although it is no laughing matter. Matthew has been taking all the Christmas preparations very seriously. Just look at his concentration while decorating sugar cookies...

Emma, on the other hand, is content just to eat the cookies. We had to cut her off after four. She has teeth now and I really would hate for her to receive her two front teeth and her first cavity for Christmas.

The recipe for today is another new addition to our Christmas baking list that is sure to be a keeper for years to come: Andes Mint Cookies. Paul loves all types of candy - gummy worms, blowpops, starkists, and so on. But when it comes to chocolate, he can pretty much take it or leave it. However, he is always talking about how much he loves Andes Mints. Of course, I scoff at this. Of all the delicious and yummy chocolate confections out there, why does Paul's favorite have to be the after dinner mint they pass out at Olive Garden when the waiter brings your check? If I am craving chocolate, I don't think I will ever think: "Gee, I could really go for some Andes Mints right now." NO. 

But, since I love my Paul so much, I gave this recipe for Andes Mint Cookies top priority in the baking timetable because I was pretty sure that he would love them. And he did. 

He took one bite and rolled his eyes towards me and said in a very silly voice: "I love you."

My husband is almost as easy to please as my son.

If you are a fan of the mint and chocolate combination, you will swoon for these cookies. While not the prettiest cookies in the world, they are certainly delicious with a piping hot mug of cocoa or a cool glass of milk. I gave most of our first batch away much to Paul's dismay. He is pleading for me to bake another batch this afternoon. However, since this recipe is so easy, I'm thinking of giving him an opportunity to flex those domestic muscles by baking himself a batch!

Andes Mint Cookies
from Bakeaholic Mama

2 cups flour
2/3 cups cocoa powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (1 cup) butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups chopped Andes Mint Chocolate

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line baking sheet with parchment paper. Set aside.

Sift together in a medium bowl, flour, baking soda,salt, and cocoa. Set aside. In your electric mixer cream butter and sugars together until fluffy. Add in eggs one at a time, being sure to thoroughly mix each one into the batter. Stir in the vanilla. Slowly add the flour mixture. When everything is incorporated, fold in your Andes mint pieces with a wooden spoon or sturdy spatula.

Drop in tablespoon-sized balls on your cookie sheet (for some pretty huge cookies!).

Bake for about 8-10 minutes or just until the edges are set. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Rolo Cookies

Christmas preparations have been so much fun this year! Matthew is at an age where he is finally able to get into the spirit of the season and share in the anticipation of Christmas morning. Of course, immediately following Thanksgiving Day, he was asking when we were going to get our tree and put lights up on the outside of our house since pretty much everyone else in the neighborhood already had their decor fully displayed. When I informed him that he had to wait another week for us to pick up our Christmas tree, he pretty much broke my heart when he tearfully replied: "It's ok Mommy...the trees are all gone. I understand." He actually thought we were not going to get a Christmas tree for our house.

Matthew was so excited to finally bring our tree home!

Baby Emma, on the other hand, was not enthused in the least. She was just cold.

When tree-trimming day finally arrived, he was ecstatic. We drove to a Christmas tree lot near our house, unpacked everyone from the car, and then checked the price tag on the nearest 7-foot tree. We balked at the price: $85 for a Christmas tree!?!?: We turned right back around and tucked everyone back into the car. Matthew was quite solemn as we strapped him into his seat: "I sorry Mommy. All the Christmas trees are gone. There are no more for us."

It was the saddest thing ever.

Luckily, the drive to the next, more reasonably priced Christmas tree lot did not take long. Within 10 minutes, we selected and tied down a beautiful blue spruce to the trunk of our car. Matthew could not have been happier: "Thank you, Mommy! Oh thank you for our Christmas tree!"

Sometimes he is a bit too easy to please.

It was so much fun to decorate the house and the tree with Matthew. He placed the majority of the ornaments on the tree...and for that reason we have about 90 ornaments on one lower left corner of the tree and the remaining 20 or so selectively scattered throughout the rest of the branches. We'll have to fix that after Matthew goes to bed.

Emma is really impressed with the tree. And the ornaments. Actually, she would prefer to be eating the ornaments but luckily the prickly branches are keeping her at bay for now.

The Christmas baking frenzy continues with these delicious Rolo cookies. Rolo candy, those delicious caramel-filled chocolate nuggets, are one of my favorite candies. I remember how me and my sister Catherine would search the living room couches for loose change before heading over to our dance lessons just so we could buy and share a package of rolos from the vending machine. I have a feeling ballerinas are not supposed to eat copious amounts of chocolate before practice. Maybe that was why I never made it as a prima ballerina.

Anyway, back to these cookies. A basic, fudgy chocolate cookie batter is whipped up and then wrapped around Rolos. While they bake, the chocolate center melts into the cookie batter and the caramel becomes very soft. The results is a perfectly fudgy cookie with a smooth caramel center. Delicious! I like these best fresh from the oven, but you can easily pop a cooled cookie into the microwave for a couple seconds to simulate that fresh-from-the-oven experience.

Rolo Cookies
adapted slightly from Two Peas and Their Pod

2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup cocoa powder
1 cup butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup light brown sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 Bag of Rolo candies, unwrapped (this is a major pain)
Sugar (for rolling the cookie dough balls in)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or silicone mat. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, sift flour, baking soda, salt, and cocoa. Set aside.

With a mixer, cream butter and sugars together until smooth. Add in eggs, one at a time, beating well before adding the next. Next, add in vanilla extract. Mix until blended.

Slowly add flour mixture to sugar mixture and blend well. Take a spoonful of chocolate cookie dough and wrap around one Rolo candy. Make sure Rolo is completely covered with cookie dough. Roll dough ball in sugar and place on prepared baking sheet. Continue until you run out of cookie dough. I got a little less than 3 dozen cookies.

Bake cookies for 7-10 minutes. Remove from oven and let sit on cookie sheet for 3-5 minutes. Move to a cooling rack and cool completely.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Cranberry Bliss Bars

Have you ever had one of the Cranberry Bliss Bars sold by that really big coffee company with a store on every corner? I usually am not tempted by the treats displayed at coffee shops, but these cranberry bars are a frequent craving. I tried one a few years ago and have been eager to try a copycat recipe ever since (mainly so I did not have to pay $2.50 for a slice). The Christmas season provided a perfect opportunity to finally give these bars a try.

I loved everything about this recipe. It was simple, easy, quick, and the results were fantastic. I think the homemade version might even taste better than the ones sold at the coffee shop. But really, who can resist a chewy, moist white chocolate and cranberry-studded blondie topped with a white chocolate cream cheese frosting, sprinkled with chopped dried cranberries, and drizzled with melted white chocolate. Any way you make it, it's bound to taste heavenly!

Unfortunately, my picky almost-four-year-old balked at the thought of even trying one of these ("No Mommy...NOOOO. That's disgusting!"). He's not a big fan of good desserts. He's currently going through a phase where his idea of a gourmet treat is a Dum-Dum lollipop or a box of Nerds.

Oh well. More for the rest of us normal people with taste buds!

Cranberry Bliss Bars
from The Girl Who Ate Everything

Note: For an additional layer of flavor, you can add 1 tablespoon of orange or lemon zest to the frosting.

For the Blondies:
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) salted butter, cubed
1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup dried cranberries
6 ounces white chocolate chips

For the Frosting:
1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese, softened
1 cup powdered sugar, sifted
6 ounces white baking chocolate, melted (I used Baker's)
1/2 cup dried cranberries, chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 13" x 9" baking dish with nonstick spray.

In a medium bowl, melt the butter for one minute in the microwave. Stir in brown sugar until well combined. Scrape the butter & sugar into a large bowl and let cool to room temperature. Use an electric mixer to beat in the eggs and vanilla. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt and cinnamon; gradually add the dry mixture to the butter mixture. Stir in the cranberries and chopped chocolate (the batter will be thick).

Spread the blondie batter into the prepared pan. Bake for 18-21 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean, taking care not to overbake. Cool completely on a wire rack before proceeding.

To prepare the frosting, beat the cream cheese and powdered sugar with an electric mixer until well blended. Gradually add half of the melted white chocolate and beat until blended (if adding the optional citrus zest, throw it in now!). Frost the blondies. Sprinkle with the chopped dried cranberries and drizzle with remaining melted white chocolate. Store in the refrigerator until ready to slice into bars and serve!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Homemade PayDay Bars

I'm not a huge candy person. At least not anymore. Now that I am becoming older and more decrepit by the minute, most chocolate, candy, and caramel makes my teeth hurt horribly. So I do my best to try to avoid such treats because toothaches really bother me, more so than any other pain. 

However, there are two candy bars that I have a very hard time resisting: Almond Joy and Payday candy bars. Paul also has a slight obsession with Payday bars (he thinks they are a great energy bar substitute) so when I came across a super duper, ridiculously simple recipe for homemade Payday bars, you betcha that I added it to my Christmas baking list.

This recipe is so ridiculously easy and can be thrown together in about 5 minutes. I brought a batch in to the childcare workers at our YMCA and they quickly disappeared. Numerous requests for the recipe followed the cookie massacre. I was almost a little embarrassed to give it out. One of the ladies, after I had finished verbally dictating the recipe to her, actually commented: "That's it? Oh, well...I just thought it would be a bit more complicated than that!"

It's actually a bit dangerous that these are so easy to make.

Deliciously dangerous.

Homemade PayDay Bars
adapted from Cookies and Cups

16 ounces salted, dry-roasted peanuts
2 cups peanut butter chips
3 tablespoons butter
1 (14 oz) can sweetened condensed milk
1 (10 oz) bag of mini marshmallows
Fleur de sel (or another flaked sea salt), for sprinkling

Spray a 9 x 13" pan with baking spray or grease with butter. Sprinkle 1/2 peanuts in the bottom of the pan, reserving the other half for later.

In a large microwave safe bowl, heat peanut butter chips and butter in 30-second increments on 50% power, stirring between each interval until melted and smooth.

Pour in you sweetened condensed milk and microwave on high power for 1 more minute. Stir until smooth and combined. Fold in marshmallows to peanut butter mixture until evenly coated and then pour/scrape over your peanuts in the pan. Spray a spatula or your fingertips lightly with cooking spray if necessary to aid in spreading the mixture into your pan evenly.

Press the remaining nuts into the marshmallow mixture. Sprinkle with flaked sea salt and chill for about an hour.

Cut into squares and serve or store in an airtight container.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

My Favorite Peanut Butter Cookies

While shopping by myself last weekend (a rare treat indeed), the song You Don't Know You're Beautiful by One Direction began playing over the speakers:

Baby you light up my world like nobody else,
The way that you flip your hair gets me overwhelmed,
But when you smile at the ground it ain't hard to tell,
You don't know [oh oh],
You don't know you're beautiful.

A young girl, about the age of twelve or so, began excitedly declaring: "Oh my gosh, oh my gosh! I LOVE them SO much! They are so HOT!"

That song evokes some strong feelings from me as well but they are so very different than the overly dramatic romantic fantasies of that pre-adolescent girl. The song reminds me of my baby Emma simply because it was on the radio constantly around the time of her birth. Immediately after delivery, finding myself alone with my brand new baby in my arms, I had the sudden urge to sing to her. So, of course, the first song that pops into my head is whatever the radio has been blaring for the past couple weeks. And at the time of Emma's birth, that song was You Don't Know You're Beautiful. And the song has become a theme song of sorts for her. We all sing it to her: me, Paul, and even little Matthew has been known to sing a line or two to his little sister. And wherever I am, whatever I am doing, if that song should suddenly start to play, I always am transported back to that time, a mere 8 months ago, when I held my baby girl for the first time. And that little baby really does light up my world like nobody else.

Matthew also has a song. And for months and months after his birth, it would bring tears to my eyes each time I heard it. The song is Soul Sister by Train and it was the #1 song in the country when Matthew was born. It played as Paul and I drove Matthew home from the hospital while holding hands and feeling remarkably terrified by the magnitude of our new responsibilities as parents to this little tiny person. I still sing this song to Matthew whenever he needs comforting after whacking his unusually large head against the corner of our table or waking up at night from a bad dream.

Neither song is the conventional lullaby we mothers are supposed to sing for our children like Baby Beluga or Rock-a-Bye Baby (although that one always gave me the creeps what with singing about the cradle falling over and the baby catapulting out), but no matter what kind of day I am having, if either song should suddenly come on the radio, I can't help but peek in my rearview mirror at my two little angels in the backseat and feel so incredibly blessed.

The recipe I am sharing today is the very first cookie we made as part of our Christmas baking fest: Peanut butter cookies! And not just any peanut butter cookies. These are the BEST peanut butter cookies out there. They are soft, moist, and full of peanutty (is that a word?) flavor. I found these while perusing through The Magnolia Bakery Cookbook. While I wanted to make pretty much EVERYTHING in that cookbook, the first recipe I decided to try were these cookies. And I am so glad I did. I am normally not a big fan of peanut butter cookies since I think they usually end up tasting incredibly dry. Not these. Plus, you get a double-dose of peanut butter flavor from the addition of both peanut butter chips and crunchy peanut butter. I only wish I had had this recipe while I was pregnant with Emma and craving peanut butter like a madwoman. If you or someone you love is a peanut butter lover, this recipe will not disappoint!

The Best Peanut Butter Chocolate Cookies
adapted from The Magnolia Bakery Cookbook

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup chunky peanut butter
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 tablespoon milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup peanut butter chips
1 cup chocolate chips
2 tablespoons granulated sugar (for rolling)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt together in a large bowl and set aside.

In another large bowl, beat the butter and the peanut butter together until fluffy.  Add the sugars and beat until smooth. Mix in the egg, milk and vanilla.  Add the flour mixture and beat thoroughly, starting at low speed and working up to medium-high. Stir in the peanut butter and chocolate chips.

Place the 2 tablespoons of sugar on a plate. Drop rounded teaspoonfuls  of cookie dough into the sugar and roll to coat. Place onto ungreased baking sheets, leaving about 2 inches in between.   Gently press the top of each cookie with your thumb to slightly flatten.

Bake for 10 to 12 minutes. Do NOT overbake. Cookies may appear to be underdone...but have no fear, this makes them extra delicious. Cool the cookies on the sheets for 1 minute, then carefully remove to a rack to cool completely.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


There are no less than 20 items on my Christmas baking list. It's getting a little out of control as I will be out shopping and suddenly remember a new treat that I would like to add to the list. While the usual family favorites like these Candy Cane Crisps, Chocolate Babka, and World Peace Cookies are included on the list, there are also a gazillion recipes that I have not yet tried before (and might end up hating). I like using the Christmas season as an excuse for experimenting.

So, I thought I had my baking list complete until I found a box of phyllo dough in my freezer. And suddenly Baklava catapulted itself to the top of my baking list.

I LOVE baklava. It is probably one of my favorite sweet treats. A sweet blend of nuts sandwiched between layers of buttery phyllo dough and drenched in a honey syrup - who can resist? There is a Greek festival held every summer here and I love going just to sample the baklava. Ever tried baklava slightly warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream? Divine.

I have made baklava a few times before and always end up tweaking the recipes a bit. I have tried baklava with a variety of nuts - pistachios, almonds, walnuts - and found that I really do prefer an all-walnut baklava over any other nut variation, although a blend of walnuts and almonds was a close second. I also like my sugar syrup to have a high concentration of honey as well as some citrus flavors. This version below has just the right amount (in my opinion).

Baklava is really, really easy to make although the assembly is time-consuming and a bit tedious. Thankfully, little Emma was napping peacefully and Matthew was mesmerized with A Charlie Brown Christmas while I was working on this recipe. It was a nice, therapeutic change from the last dessert I made where Emma got fussy right during a critical point in the process and ended up crawling over and gripping onto the bottom of my pant leg while I tried to finish everything off (it's a lot more difficult to move about the kitchen with a whining 20-pound baby wrapped around your ankle).

My Little Shackle.

Baklava is certainly a labor of love, but the end result is so worth it. Plus, it makes a fantastic homemade Christmas gift. Opa!


Note: To make this baklava, I tweaked and combined two different recipes. I like a large amount of honey and citrus notes in the sugar syrup like in this recipe but used the method for layering the nuts and phyllo detailed in a recipe from The Best International Recipe Cookbook.

For the Honey Syrup:
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
1 cup honey
1 large strip of orange peel (removed using a vegetable peeler or paring knife)
1 large strip of lemon peel
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

For the Nuts:
12 ounces walnuts
1 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 Tablespoons white sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt

For the Pastry:
1 lb. Phyllo Dough, thawed
3 sticks unsalted butter, clarified

Make the Syrup:
Combine all ingredients for the syrup in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring frequently until the sugar and honey completely dissolves. Remove from the heat and allow to cool completely.

Make the Nut Filling:
In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the nuts until they are finely ground. Place the finely ground nuts in a medium bowl and stir in the cinnamon, sugar, and salt. Set aside.

Prepare to Assemble the Pastry:
Clarify the butter by melting in a medium saucepan over low heat. When the butter is completely melted, use a spoon to carefully remove the white solids that rise to the top. Do the best that you never ends up being perfect. Set aside.

Unwrap phyllo dough and place between sheets of wax paper to prevent the dough from drying-out (or you can cover with plastic and then cover again with a very, very slightly damp kitchen towel).

Assembly Part I:
Put one sheet of phyllo dough on the bottom of a 9 x 13 inch baking pan. Brush this piece of dough evenly with clarified butter. Add 7 more sheets of phyllo dough (8 in total) on top of the first piece. Brush each piece with clarified butter before putting on the next sheet of dough. When layer 8 is finished, evenly spread 1 cup of the nut mixture on top.

Assembly Part II:
Place one sheet of phyllo dough on top of the nut mixture. Dot this piece of phyllo carefully with butter.
Add 5 more sheets of phyllo dough (6 in total), brushing each piece with clarified butter before adding the next sheet. When layer 6 is finished, evenly spread 1 cup of the nut mixture on top.

Assembly Part III:
Repeat steps from second part. Afterwards, preheat the oven to 300 degrees with a rack in the center position.

Assembly Part IV:
Place one sheet of phyllo dough on top of the nut mixture. Dot this piece of phyllo carefully with butter.
Add 7-9 more sheets of phyllo dough (8-10 total), brushing each piece with clarified butter before adding the next sheet. On the last layer, do not brush with butter. Instead, firmly press down on the dough, getting out all air pockets. Pour the reserved 4 Tablespoons of butter on top and spread evenly.

Cut the Baklava:
Using a short serrated knife, carefully cut the baklava into small, 1-inch or so pieces. You can cut them in small squares or make diagonal cuts for diamond-shaped pieces of baklava.

Finish the Baklava:
Bake the Baklava for 90 minutes in the preheated 300 degree oven. During the baking, the phyllo will brown and crisp evenly on top. After the baklava is done baking, remove from the oven and immediately pour the cooled honey syrup evenly over the top. You should hear a nice sizzling sound as the syrup is poured over the baklava. Set the pan on a wire rack to cool completely. Once the baklava is cooled to room temperature, cover and refrigerate. In my opinion, baklava gets better as it sits so it is best to let it rest in the fridge for about 24 hours before you plan to serve it. Enjoy!

Friday, December 6, 2013

Pumpkin Whoopie Pies with Maple-Cream Cheese Filling

The sixth day in December is the Feast of Saint Nicholas. As a child, I always looked forward to waking up and eagerly peeking inside the shoe I had left outside the door the night before to see what jolly old Saint Nick had left for me (usually socks and some gold coins). It's a fun tradition that I am excited to share with my children. In previous years, we always left something in Matthew's shoe but he never really appreciated or comprehended why we did it. Last year, it just really confused him. For weeks afterwards, he was constantly checking various shoes throughout the house for candy and chocolate. It was a bit annoying.

However, this year we thought Matthew must be old enough to really understand this and some of the other Advent traditions. Last night, in preparation for Saint Nicholas Day 2013, Paul and I read Matthew a story about Saint Nicholas and then had him select a shoe to place by the fireplace (along with a little penguin slipper that belongs to Baby Emma - he wanted to be sure that she did not miss out!). We explained that since he has been a very good boy, Saint Nicholas was going to visit our house while he was sleeping and leave him some treats in his shoe. Matthew seemed to understand perfectly and went to bed happily and without a fuss.

This morning, Matthew woke up bright and early and came to our room asking: "Is Saint Nicholas here?"
Paul answered: "Let's go downstairs and see what he left you!"

Matthew excitedly led us down the stairs and into the family room. We switched on the lights, revealing that the shoes Matthew had left out the night before were now filled with candy, packets of hot cocoa, and a tiny little snowman mug. At this point, Paul and I were expecting to hear squeals of glee from our little Matthew, but instead he just stood there, staring blankly at his shoe as if in a deep trance.

"Uhhh...Matthew?" Paul poked him with his forefinger.

Suddenly our child seemed to break out of his stupor and looked around, acting confused: "But...where did Saint Nicholas go?"

He was completely disappointed that jolly old Saint Nicholas was not there in the flesh. Despite our best attempts to explain the tradition to Matthew, I think he was half expecting us to have breakfast with Saint Nicholas in the morning. No worries, he quickly got over his disappointment, ate one of his lollipops, and then wiped his sticky, sticky fingers on the coffee table (gah!).

Saint Nicholas also left a very nice gift for Paul (a six pack of his favorite beer) and Baby Emma (Strawberry Banana baby food).

The Christmas baking season is upon us! I have finally finalized my list of goodies to make for gifts. There are always a few batches of the same family recipes to be made every year but I like to add in a couple new recipes to try.

First up is a recipe that I have made quite a few times before: Pumpkin Whoopie Pies with Maple Cream-Cheese Filling. Ever since I received the Baked cookbook, I have worked my way through several of the recipes and every single one has been fantastic. This one, however, takes the cake! It is one of my favorite treats - soft, cakey pumpkin cookies sandwich a perfectly creamy, sweet, maple-kissed cream cheese frosting. Delicious. And so easy and fun to make!

Paul is not as wild about all things pumpkin like his crazy wife. Which is why in years passed, I have made these and gifted them to others without saving one for him to try. This year, I had just finished up a batch when he came home from work. He immediately devoured two whoopie pies and declared that for his birthday this year, all he wants is for me to bake a batch of these and stick a candle in one of them. Big compliment. But he's still getting an actual layer cake.

Make these. You'll thank me later!

Pumpkin Whoopie Pies
adapted slightly from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon ground cloves
2 cups packed dark-brown sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
3 cups chilled pumpkin purée
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups confectioners sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
3 tablespoons maple syrup (the real stuff - and Grade B if possible!)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
To Make the Whoopie Pies:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, whisk the flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves together and set aside.

In a separate bowl, whisk the brown sugar and oil together until combined. Add the pumpkin puree and whisk to combine thoroughly. Add the eggs and vanilla and whisk until combined.

Sprinkle the flour mixture over the pumpkin mixture and whisk until completely combined.

Use a small ice cream scoop with a release mechanism to drop heaping tablespoons of the dough onto prepared baking sheets, about one inch apart. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until the cookies are just starting to crack on top and a toothpick inserted into the center of the cookie comes out clean. Remove from the oven and let the cookies cool completely on the pan while you make the filling.

To Make the Cream Cheese Filling:

Sift the confectioners' sugar into a medium bowl and set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment, beat the butter until it's completely smooth, with no visible lumps. Add the cream cheese and beat until combined. Add the confectioners' sugar, maple syrup, and vanilla and beat until smooth. Be careful not to overbeat the filling, or it will lose structure.

To assemble the Whoopie Pies:

Turn half of the cooled cookies upside down (flat side facing up).

Use an ice cream scoop or a tablespoon to drop a large dollop of filling onto the flat side of the cookie. Place another cookie, flat side down, on top of the filling. Press down slightly so that the filling spreads to the edges of the cookie. Repeat until all the cookies are used. Put the whoopie pies in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes to firm up before serving.

The whoopie pies will keep for up to 3 days in the refrigerator.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

TWD: Challah

Challah! It's what we've all been baking up for this week's edition of Tuesdays with Dorie. I have gone on and on many a time about my love for Challah and how it is my favorite yeast bread in the whole wide world. I have a favorite recipe that I make over and over, but I am always up for trying a new recipe for it. Plus, it's a bread that the whole family looks forward to eating. This was baking in the oven when Paul came home from work and breathed in the unmistakable aroma of freshly baked bread. He immediately galloped into the kitchen and excitedly asked: "Are you making challah?"

Then he got out the butter (his favorite condiment) to soften. See? Everyone in this household enjoys a slice (or five) of challah!

My standard challah recipe calls for oil instead of butter and a touch more sugar. It's soft, sweet, and pretty much challah perfection in my opinion. However, I thought this recipe came pretty close to matching it in taste and texture. Overall, I thought this version was a bit more time consuming than my standard challah, the hardest part being all the waiting time between rises - it seemed like forever until we could pull a fresh loaf out of the oven. The texture of this bread is soft and almost pillowy, the taste is buttery and slightly sweet, and it was the perfect accompaniment to our dinner of Thanksgiving leftovers (I think we're only about halfway through our leftover stuffing, turkey, and mashed potatoes...did we make too much this year?).

This is an excellent recipe. I urge you to give it a try and perhaps give a loaf or two away as Christmas gifts along with a jar of homemade preserves if you're super into fancy DIY gifts (it would definitely be a jar of Smucker's in my case).

adapted from Baking with Julia

For the dough:
1 1/2 tablespoons active dry yeast
1/2 cup tepid water (80-90 degrees)
1/3 cup sugar
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon honey
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
4 large eggs
6 1/2 cups (approximately) bread flour

For the egg glaze:
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1 tablespoon milk or cream

Whisk the yeast into the tepid water. Add a pinch of sugar and let rest for about 5 minutes or until the yeast dissolves and blooms.

Meanwhile, cut the butter into small pieces and place in a saucepan with the milk. Heat until the milk is very warm and the butter is melted. Pour into the bowl of a stand mixer and add the 1/3 cup sugar, honey, and salt. Stir to dissolve the sugar and salt. Take the temperature of the mixture and make sure that it is no higher than 110 degrees before proceeding with the recipe. If necessary, let it cool.

Add the creamy yeast to the milk mixture along with the eggs. Stir with a whisk to combine. Add about 5 cups of flour and, using the paddle attachment, beat with the stand mixer on low speed until very well combined. Add flour, bit by bit, until the dough begins to gather around the paddle. At this point, switch to the dough hook and gradually add additional flour as needed to make a soft dough that cleans the sides of the bowl. Knead on medium-low for 8-10 minutes or until soft, smooth, and elastic.

Coat a large bowl with a little bit of oil. Form the dough into a ball and transfer it to the bowl. Turn once to coat, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise until doubled, about 60-90 minutes. When the dough has fully risen, deflate with your fist, cover as before, and let it rise until it doubles again, about 45 minutes.

Line two baking sheets with parchment or silicone baking mats. Deflate the dough and turn it onto a lightly floured work surface. Divide the dough into two portions and return one portion back to the bowl and cover. Cut the other portion of dough into three equal pieces. Using your hands, form each piece into a 16-inch long rope. Braid the three ropes together, tucking the ends under. Transfer the braided loaf to one of the prepared baking sheets and cover with a slightly damp towel. Repeat with the second portion of dough.

Let the loaves rise at room temperature for 40 minutes or until soft, puffy, and doubled.

Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat to 375 degrees.

To make an egg glaze, whisk together the egg, yolk, and 1 tablespoon of milk or cream. Brush the tops and sides of the challah loaves with the glaze. Let the glaze set for 5 minutes, and then brush again. Reserve the remaining glaze for brushing the loaves during baking.

Bake the loaves in the preheated oven for 20 minutes. The loaves will expand and expose some of the inner dough. Brush the newly exposed dough with the reserved glaze and continue to bake for 15-20 minutes longer, or until an instant read thermometer inserted into the thickets part of the braid registers 210 degrees.

Transfer the loaves to a wire rack and let cool completely before slicing.