Sunday, June 30, 2013

Banana Caramel Bread Pudding

Banana Caramel Bread Pudding - made June 22, 2013, recipe modified from A Passion for Baking by Marcy Goldman
I originally started off with the vanilla bread pudding recipe from A Passion for Baking but I made enough changes to the original recipe that I'm calling this one my own invention.  The real inspiration for this was from a Bananas Foster Bread Pudding I tried when my niece and I had lunch at Angeline's Louisiana Kitchen in Berkeley last month.  I was already predisposed to like it because ever since I went to New Orleans, I've developed a fondness for Bananas Foster.  And I've had a love affair with bread pudding for some time so the two married together in the same dessert?  You know it had to be good.  And it was.  I haven't yet tried to recreate an actual Bananas Foster bread pudding but I thought I'd play with Marcy Goldman's recipe and see what I could come up with.
All modesty aside, what I came up with was serious goodness.  I added mashed banana and caramel to the custard that soaked the bread to ensure the flavor would come out as well as substituted brown sugar for some of the granulated sugar in the original recipe, again to promote that caramel flavor.  Be sure to bake the bread pudding long enough for it to get golden brown and puffy on top so the custard will set when cooled.  What really puts this over the top is, well, the topping.  I caramelized bananas in butter and brown sugar and served it warm over lukewarm bread pudding.  Eeek.  So good. When you're serving this, I recommend you only make enough topping for the amount of bread pudding you plan to serve as that's when the caramelized bananas look their best. Later on, they will look more grey and unappetizing (although they'll still taste good).
This is the kind of dessert that sends me running to the treadmill just so I can have another piece later.  And I eat a smaller dinner so I can have it for dessert.  And when those things still aren't enough, I put on my oldest, most well-broken-in pair of jeans (read: loose waist band), tell myself this is why I can't seem to lose the last 10 pounds then admit I don't really care as long as I can have another piece.  My sweet tooth wins again.
10 cups challah, brioche or egg bread, cut into chunks (I recommend at least 20 ounces of challah)
6 large eggs, lightly beaten
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cups whole milk
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
1/3 cup caramel
1 large overripe banana, mashed
  1. Line a 9 x 13" baking pan with foil and lightly spray with nonstick cooking spray.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, place bread chunks.  In a separate bowl, beat eggs and add sugars to form a paste.  Whisk in melted butter, vanilla, cinnamon, baking powder, flour and salt.  Gradually add milk and heavy cream, whisking to maintain a smooth mixture.
  3. Stir in 1/3 cup caramel and mashed banana.  Whisk, or with an electric mixer, beat mixture until smooth. It's okay for the banana to be a little chunky in the custard. Pour over bread and let stand 10 minutes or so to absorb. Spoon into prepared pan. 
  4. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  5. Bake until firm to touch, about 45-50 minutes, and golden brown on top.
Caramelized Banana Topping
4 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
 2 large bananas, firm and yellow with brown spots on the skin (you don't want it too overripe), sliced in 1/4" - 1/3" slices
  1. Melt butter and brown sugar in a shallow saucepan. 
  2. Add banana slices and saute over low heat until bananas have softened and caramelized but aren't overly mushy.  
  3. Spoon on top of squares of bread pudding and serve immediately.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Soft and Chewy M&M Cookies

Soft and Chewy M&M Cookies - made June 20, 2013 from Averie Cooks
Last cookie for the Cookie Palooza goodie bags.  I thought I had planned ahead and pre-made enough to fill 19 goodie bags.  As soon as I got home from work the night before the event, I turned on the oven and started cranking through all the frozen cookie dough in my freezer.  I parceled out the Caramel Fudge Brownies and the Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Peanut Butter Bars I'd already made and, as the various cookies cooled, started filling the bags.  Only to come up short by 3 bags.  Uh-oh.  I had enough Toffee Cashew Cookies to top off the other 3 bags but then that didn't give those last 3 bags the same variety as the first 16.  Can't have that.  A quick flip through my pin board of Baking Recipes I Want to Try and I pulled up this recipe.  Since I had successfully made cookies from Averie's blog before, it was minimal risk to try a new one.  By the time I realized I needed one more cookie batch, it was late so all I did was mix up the dough and get it ready to bake off first thing the next morning.

Unlike the Toffee Cashew Cookies, these didn't spread too much and remained obligingly at a good thickness.  A nice cookie to use with M&Ms as well.  I ended up making 21 goodie bags as I was paranoid I wouldn't have enough for everyone even after all that baking.  Only to get to the event and discover 6 more people had signed up and joined us and I ran out after all.  Oops.  Sorry to the people who didn't get one!  Oh well, it was fun to bake all that anyway :).
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon baking soda
pinch salt, optional and to taste
1 1/2 cups plain milk chocolate M&Ms
  1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the butter, sugars, egg, vanilla, and beat on medium-high speed until well-creamed, light and fluffy, about 5 minutes (or use a hand mixer and beat for at least 7 minutes). Stop, scrape down the sides of the bowl, and add the flour, cornstarch, baking soda, optional salt, and mix until just combined, about 1 minute. Add the M&Ms and fold in by hand.
  2. Using a medium 2-inch cookie scoop, form heaping mounds. Place mounds on a large plate, flatten mounds very slightly with your palm, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or up to 5 days, before baking. Do not bake with warm dough because cookies will spread.
  3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F, line a baking sheet with a Silpat Non-Stick Baking Mat, or parchment paper and place them on the baking sheet, spaced at least 2 inches apart. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until edges have set and tops are just beginning to set, even if slightly undercooked, pale and glossy in the center. Do not bake longer than ten minutes as cookies will firm up as they cool. Allow cookies to cool on the baking sheet for 5 minutes before removing and transferring to a rack to finish cooling.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Toffee Cashew Cookies

Toffee Cashew Cookies - made June 20, 2013 from Suzanna Winter
Baked without chilling dough first
I pinned this recipe a year ago but never made it.  Although I don't normally like nuts in my cookies, I (occasionally) try to keep an open mind about it and since I like both cashews and toffee, I knew that "one day" I would want to try these cookies.  For the Cookie Palooza goodie bags, "one day" had arrived.  This one stood out, not just because of the picture of nice thick cookies from the original blog I got it from but it also had the trick of dissolving the baking soda in water.  I hadn't thought of making it until the night before our volunteer event so I didn't think I'd have enough time to freeze the dough before baking all of it so it seemed like a perfect opportunity to test that dissolving baking soda trick again.
Also baked without chilling dough first
Hmmm, m'kay, I tried it and it didn't really work this time.  The cookies that were baked straight from newly made dough still spread somewhat thin.  So I only baked one test batch and, since I had a 6:30 am meeting the day of our volunteer event (and a 7:30 and an 8 am), I froze the rest of the dough overnight to bake off before going to RAFT since I was going to be up early anyway.  And....they still spread thin.  Not as thin as the night before but not thick as in the picture from Suzanna's blog.  Not sure what's up with that but the baking soda trick didn't work in this recipe. Taste-wise they were pretty good although next time I would be more generous with the cashews as, despite my no-nuts-in-cookies prejudices, the cashews were great in this cookie.  Or I just like cashews.  I actually really liked the cookie itself and think it would make a good recipe for any type of brown-sugar cookie.  I liked the flavor and the texture, just not the thinness of the cookie. I need to try it again because if you look at the picture on Suzanna's blog, they were exactly what I wanted but didn't get yet it's got to be possible to get them that thick. Hmph.
Baked from frozen dough
1 cup butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup packed brown sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons hot water
½ teaspoon salt
1⅓ cup toffee pieces
1 cup cashew halves and pieces (or more if you choose)
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. Cream together the butter and sugars until smooth. Beat in the eggs one at a time, then stir in the vanilla. Dissolve the baking soda in hot water and add to batter along with salt. Stir in the flour, toffee pieces, and nuts. Drop by spoonfuls onto ungreased pans.
  3. Bake for about 10 minutes in the preheated oven, or until edges are nicely browned.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Macadamia and White Chocolate Chunk Cookies

Macadamia and White Chocolate Chunk Cookies - made dough June 17, 2013 from Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cookies by Alice Medrich
I could have sworn I had made these cookies already but I can't seem to find any evidence that I had, either on my blog or in my files.  I suspect I had planned to make them half a dozen times and something always came up, such as I was out of an ingredient like macadamia nuts or white chocolate chips/chunks.  When I look at something often enough, I can talk myself into believing I'd made it already even if I haven't.  Just to play it safe, I'm going to make them for real instead of just in my head.  Since I was baking a variety of things for Cookie Palooza, I wanted to add a white chocolate macadamia cookie into the mix both to have a different flavor of cookie and because I wanted to try a recipe out of one of my baking books.  I'd been so distracted by pinterest and the plethora of recipes I keep endlessly pinning that I've been neglecting my baking book collection and they're getting a mite dusty.

I baked these off on the night before our volunteer event, along with several dozen other cookies.  I couldn't taste test all the different kinds of cookies I baked that night so I tried this one the next day.  It was okay.  I can't say it's any better than other White Chocolate Macadamia cookies I've made before and I wasn't thrilled that it spread.  I was afraid it would as the dough was rather soft when I put it to chill and yes, it did spread.  I think I would rather make Alton Brown's chocolate chip cookie recipe and just add in white chocolate chips and macadamia nuts to that one.
3/4 cup (2.5 ounces) rolled oats
3/4 cup (3.375 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick/4 ounces) unsalted butter, melted and still warm
1/3 cup (2.33 ounces) granulated sugar
1/3 cup (2.33 ounces) packed brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 large egg
1 cup (4.5 ounces) dry-roasted salted macadamia nuts, coarsely chopped
1 cup (6 ounces) white chocolate chips or chopped white chocolate
  1. Pulverize the oats in a food processor until fine.  Add the flour, baking soda, and salt and pulse to combine.  Set aside.
  2. In a large bowl, combine the melted butter with the sugars and vanilla.  Whisk in the egg.  Stir in the flour mixture just until all of the dry ingredients are moistened.  Let the mixture cool for a few minutes if it is at all warm.  Stir in the nuts and chocolate chips.  Portion into dough balls, cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and preferably overnight.
  3. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Place dough balls 2 inches apart on baking sheets lined with parchment paper.  Bake until the cookies are golden brown at the edges and not shiny or raw looking in the middle, 13 to 15 minutes.  Cool completely before storing or stacking. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Peanut Butter Bars

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Peanut Butter Bars - made June 18, 2013 from Crazy for Crust
Back to Cookie Palooza - this was another of the treats that went into last week's goodie bags and could possibly have been the "healthiest" thing in there.  As long as you ignore the sugar, butter and chocolate and turn a blind eye to the sweetened condensed milk (it's dairy, right?).  And persuade yourself oatmeal and peanut butter make it all good.  This was pretty tasty but I think I should've baked it a little longer. I did bake it for the time suggested in the recipe but I should have let it brown a little more on top so the topping and oats had a bit more "crunch" to them. It would have made a better contrast with the creamy sweetness of the filling.  Next time I might also parbake the bottom crust first before layering on the peanut butter layer and topping, again to make the texture more firm on the bottom.

For the crust and topping:
2 1/4 cups quick oats
1 1/4 cups brown sugar, firmly packed
1 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup butter, softened
    Filling
    1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
    1/4 cup peanut butter
    1/2 teaspoon vanilla
    12 ounces or 2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
    1/2 cup chopped nuts, optional
      1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9 x13” baking dish with foil and spray with cooking spray.
      2. Combine all crust and topping ingredients in a large bowl. Mix with a hand mixer until crumbly (you may need to use your hands to finish this step). Reserve 2 cups of the mixture and press the rest into the bottom of the prepared pan.
      3. Mix sweetened condensed milk, peanut butter, and vanilla in a small bowl with a hand mixer. Pour and spread over crust. Top evenly with chocolate chips and nuts if using. Press remaining crust mixture evenly over the top of the chocolate chips.
      4. Bake for 25-30 minutes until it is brown around the edges. The center will not be set. Let completely cool before cutting into bars.

      Monday, June 24, 2013

      Red Velvet "Flag" Brownies

      Red Velvet "Flag" Brownies - made June 23, 2013, brownie recipe from That Skinny Chick Can Bake
      I still have more recipes from my Cookie-Palooza bakingfest last week to put up but I'm blogging out of order so I can get this post up before the 4th of July.  Just in case anyone wants to make something similar and needs lead time in finding the appropriately colored M&Ms.  I don't pay much attention to M&Ms since I don't really eat them unless they're in a cookie.  But I've been marginally aware that there seems to be an explosion of them on the shelves in all sorts of flavors: dark chocolate, white chocolate, mint, peanut butter, almond, coconut, pretzel, and who knows what else besides the ubiquitous plain and peanut.  I'm also aware that they put out specially-colored ones around certain holidays: pastels for Easter, black and orange for Halloween, red and green for Christmas, browns and oranges for the "autumn mix".  So, since Independence Day is nigh upon us, I thought for sure I'd find red, white and blue ones. Wrong. Target didn't have them.  Neither did Michaels and that exhausted 2 of the 5 stores I regularly shop at for baking supplies/ingredients (Williams Sonoma and Sur La Table being the other 2 for more high end, specialty ingredients and amazon the 5th as my standby source).  Amazon didn't carry them unless you counted the links to candy outlets and the M&Ms online store but then you'd have to order them in each individual color for an arm and a leg or pay 2 arms and 1 1/2 legs for one bag of "USA blend". Plus shipping.  That seemed like an extravagance line I couldn't bring myself to cross, not even in the name of baking indulgence. Don't get me wrong - I've crossed that line plenty of times but not just to get a certain color of M&Ms. That just feels silly.
      So I improvised.  I already knew I wanted to make these red velvet brownies again because they're delicious. And, fortunately, they come with a white chocolate frosting so I already had the background color for the flag, which was especially fortuitous because the white M&Ms are what I didn't have a substitute color for.  The white frosting would have to serve. In a regular bag of plain M&Ms, the red was already the right color.  The blue was not since it leans more towards teal than the dark blue of the American flag. But I couldn't afford to be picky.  Plus, unless I wanted to make one huge flag brownie, I couldn't accurately capture the flag in M&Ms anyway (try spacing out 50 white M&Ms to represent the states of the union).  So we'll have to consider this just a rendition of it.
      At first I tried making the design with regular-size M&Ms but that made for a pretty big flag and an I'm-going-to-be-sick-if-I-eat-the-whole-piece size brownie.  So I went with mini M&Ms instead and got something more normal-size, albeit still a trifle big. If you're going to make this, I advise designing with your M&Ms on a piece of parchment first before you start dropping them onto the frosted brownie, just to make sure you know how you want it to look. BTW, the fun part of this exercise is it forced me to really look at the flag and know which color stripe was on top, which just below the blue portion and which was on the bottom.  My first attempt was a little sketchy (notice the roughness of the frosting and the unevenness of the M&M placement) so I had to try a second one for a slight improvement.  I didn't have the patience to sift through the rest of the bag of mini M&Ms and keep picking out the blue and red ones or the artistic temperament to line them up perfectly or consistently on each one so I only decorated two pieces.  For the rest, I defaulted to the red, white and blue sprinkles from a bottle I bought at Michaels and was able to cut them smaller since it didn't matter how many sprinkles are on each one.  You get the idea.  If you make this ahead of time, cover the brownies tightly with plastic wrap to keep the cut edges from drying out.
      Happy Birthday America!
      1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, at room temperature
      1 1/2 cups sugar
      2 eggs
      2 teaspoons vanilla
      1 1/4 cups flour
      1/4 teaspoon salt
      3 tablespoons cocoa powder
      2 tablespoons red food coloring
      1. Preheat oven to 350. Line 8 x 8 pan with foil and lightly spray with cooking spray.
      2. In a small bowl, mix cocoa powder, food coloring and 1 teaspoon of the vanilla to form a paste. Set aside.
      3. With an electric mixer, cream butter and sugar till light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, then add second teaspoon of vanilla. With mixer on medium, beat in cocoa paste. Add flour and salt, and mix just until combined.
      4. Spread in pan. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool before frosting.
      Frosting:
      1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, at room temperature
      2 1/2 cups powdered sugar
      1 teaspoon vanilla
      4 ounces white chocolate, melted and cooled slightly
      1/2 tablespoon milk
      1. Cream butter with mixer till fluffy. Add vanilla. 
      2. Slowly mix in powdered sugar, then white chocolate. Add enough milk to reach desired consistency. Ice cooled brownies or pipe a star of icing on individual brownies

      Sunday, June 23, 2013

      Caramel Fudge Brownies

      Caramel Fudge Brownies - made June 17, 2013 from Six Sisters' Stuff

      This is the kind of brownie I like - simply, fudgy, no nuts and with caramel.  Plus it adds the caramel "correctly".  If you want caramel brownies that have a ribbon of caramel running through the brownie, the bottom layer (half of the brownie batter) must be partially baked first then the caramel layer added over it.  Otherwise, if you simply spread the bottom brownie layer, then the caramel layer and top with the remaining brownie batter, chances are the caramel layer will incorporate itself into the brownie batter and make it more moist/sweet but not retain much of its original caramel state.  Oh, and the reason I can say that with reasonable authority is I've made recipes that call for doing that and I've experimented on my own and....failed.  Much better to par-bake the bottom brownie layer then spread the caramel over it.

      I made this ahead of time for Cookie Palooza since it was easy to portion out and freeze a few days ahead of time and could fill out a good percentage of the 19 goodie bags I needed.  Mine did not come out as scrumptious looking as the one on Six Sisters' blog.  I might've underbaked it a trifle plus I got a bit of a top crust so it didn't cut as cleanly.  But this is a good basic fudgy brownie and you can't go wrong with caramel.  Truly.  The directions say to leave the oven on while you cool the parbaked bottom layer for 20 minutes before adding the caramel.  I don't like wasting the energy of an empty, hot oven so I did bake a batch of cookies during that time since I still had dozens to bake off anyway so that worked out pretty well.
      1 cup (2 sticks) butter
      12 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
      1½ cups sugar
      4 large eggs
      1 tablespoon vanilla extract
      1¼ cups all-purpose flour
      ½ teaspoon salt
      1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

      For the caramel filling:
      14 ounces caramel candies, unwrapped
      1/4 cup heavy cream (I used whole milk)
      1. Preheat the oven to 350˚ F. Line a 9×13-inch baking pan with foil and lightly spray with nonstick cooking spray. 
      2. In the top half of a double boiler over hot but not simmering water, combine the chopped chocolate and butter.  Stir until melted and combined. Let cool slightly.
      3. Whisk in the sugar, eggs and vanilla until incorporated. Stir in the flour and salt just until combined. Spread about half of the brownie batter in the bottom of the prepared pan in an even layer. Bake for 18 minutes.
      4. Remove from the oven (keep the oven on - I suggest baking something else in the meantime) and let the brownies cool for 20 minutes.
      5. To make the caramel filling, combine the caramels and cream (or milk) in a medium microwave-safe bowl. Microwave for 30 seconds at 50% power. Stir. Repeat the process, keeping a close eye on the mixture as it can burn very easily (make sure you use low heat in the microwave). Continue the microwave process until the caramels and cream are melted and combined. 
      6. Immediately spread the caramel mixture over the bottom brownie layer. Scoop the remaining brownie batter in spoonfuls over the caramel layer and spread it evenly across the caramel layer (spooning the batter in piles over the caramel will help to get an even layer of batter over the caramel). Sprinkle the chocolate chips on top. Bake for 20 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely before slicing and serving.

      Saturday, June 22, 2013

      Chocolate Chip Cookies - dissolve the baking soda

      Chocolate Chip Cookies - made dough June 15, 2013 from Something Swanky

      One of the blogs I follow that has amazing recipes is Ashton's at Something Swanky.  And, like any good baker, I'm always trying out new chocolate chip cookie recipes, to see if I can find something better than the ones I already love and use.  Since I needed a ton of cookies and brownies for Cookie Palooza (see previous post), it was serendipity that she blogged about these chocolate chip cookies.  It seemed like the perfect time to try out her recipe and her method of dissolving the baking soda in water before adding to the dough.  This is meant to have the perfect thickness of cookie without chilling it first.  I was curious so I thought I'd give it a try.  I did have to bend my baking principles though as I'm just not a fan of shortening, especially in cookies.  But all in the name of research.....

      I always chill cookie dough before I bake it.  It comes from years of wanting thick, chubby, chunky chocolate chip cookies instead of thin, flat ones.  There are a few tricks I've learned through the years to achieving cookie thickness: chill the cookie dough and/or bake from frozen dough, use a convection setting on the oven, never bake on hot cookie sheets, don't have your butter too soft before using, and so on.  Ashton's recipe adds another tip: dissolve the baking soda before adding to the dough.  I haven't studied enough of the chemical composition of cookies to truly understand why that would prevent spread, although it's on my to-do list to check out Shirley Corriher's Bakewise since I'm sure she addresses it.

      This dough came out a little soft; I think it was from the added liquid of dissolving the baking soda in 1 tablespoon of water.  Although I made the dough ahead of time and wasn't planning on baking it until the night before Cookie Palooza, I did bake off a test batch right after mixing just to test the dissolving-the-baking-soda experiment.  I was a little skeptical because any time I've baked from dough that soft, the cookies have always spread thin.  But there must have been something to that baking soda trick because, while the cookies did spread, it wasn't as much as I would've expected given the softness of the dough and they still maintained a respectable thickness.  Although I will confess, I froze the rest of the dough anyway and baked it the night before I filled the goodie bags.

      1/2 cup butter, softened but still chilled
      1/2 cup shortening
      3/4 cup brown sugar
      3/4 cup sugar
      2 eggs
      2 tsp vanilla
      1 tsp sea salt
      1 tsp baking soda
      1 Tbsp hot water
      2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
      2 cups milk chocolate chips
      1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
      2. Using a stand mixer, beat the butter and shortening together until well mixed and smooth.
      3. Add the brown sugar and sugar. Beat for 1-2 minutes, until nearly creamy.
      4. Add the eggs, one at a time and mixing in between additions.
      5. Dissolve the baking soda in the tablespoon of water. Add both the baking soda and the vanilla to the mixer and mix well. Mix in the salt.
      6. Add the flour and mix until dough forms.
      7. Mix in the chocolate chips using a wooden spoon or spatula.
      8. Scoop dough by heaping tablespoons onto a parchment lined or silicon lined baking sheet, 2 inches apart.
      9. Bake for 10-12 minutes until edges are golden brown. Let cool on the baking sheet for a few minutes before removing to wire rack to cool completely.

      Thursday, June 20, 2013

      Monster Cookies

      Monster Cookies - made dough June 14, 2013 from Mrs. Schwartz's Kitchen
      One of the things I like about my company is its emphasis on philanthropy and giving back to our local communities.  To that end, every year, each employee is provided with volunteer opportunities as well as one paid day off to do a group volunteer project sponsored by the company and arranged with our community partners and another paid day off to do a personal volunteer day with any charity we choose.

      Last year, my team partnered with another group and volunteered with March of Dimes to set up for their fundraising walk.  This year, we partnered again and are volunteering at RAFT (Resource Area for Teachers).  We included more groups in our volunteer plans and I (rashly) offered to bake goodie bags for all of the volunteers.  Last year, there were 9 of us.  This year, 19.  I hadn’t expected quite so many but I love a challenge.  Whenever I need that many goodie bags, I always plan to make a variety of baked goods, partly to cover a gamut of tastes and partly because, well, I just love to bake.  Did that even need to be said?
      This year’s bake-a-thon posed a challenge since the volunteer event was on a Friday.  That meant I had to do most of the baking the night before since I still had a day job to do and I am obsessed about freshness so I have to bake almost everything at the last minute.  No one is ever getting “day old” cookies from me.  Hours old maybe but not more than 24 hours if I can help it.  Baking for 19 on one night is a little tricky but doable as long as I planned ahead.  Which is what I did for the week leading up to the event.  It’s actually not as hard as it sounds.  Brownies are easily made ahead and frozen; when thawed, they’re as good as new/fresh.  Cookies are the easiest because I can make the dough ahead of time, put them in the freezer and bake them off at the last minute.  So Cookie Palooza began.

      First out of the gate was this recipe for Monster Cookies.  It doesn’t make very many but that was okay because I wanted to be able to make a bunch of different kinds of cookies.  There are no rules that everyone has to get the same exact things in all the goodie bags, right?  As long as they get the same amount at least - "fair" does not mean "the exact same".  What I liked about these cookies is they hardly spread at all and stayed obligingly thick.  They're essentially a peanut butter cookie studded with M&MS and a stray oat here and there.  Despite their thickness, they did seem a bit fragile though so I wouldn't recommend mailing them in care packages.

      1/2 cup or 1 stick of butter (at room temperature)
      1/2 cup brown sugar
      1/4 cup white sugar
      3/4 cup creamy peanut butter
      1 egg
      1 teaspoon vanilla
      1/2 teaspoon baking soda
      1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
      1/2 cup quick cooking oats
      3/4 cup m&ms
      1/4 cup chocolate chips
      1/4 peanut butter chips 
      1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  
      2. Start by combining the butter, brown and white sugars in a large bowl using a hand/stand mixer.  Add the peanut butter and mix to combine.  Add the egg and vanilla, mixing to blend. 
      3. Measure in the baking soda and flour and stir just until combined.  Stir in the oats, m&ms, chocolate chips and peanut butter chips.  
      4. Scoop using a cookie scoop or two teaspoons measuring about 2 tablespoons onto a cookie sheet lined with a Silpat mat or parchment paper.  Press down gently as they do not spread on their own.  
      5. Bake for 9-10 minutes but no longer.  You want these to stay soft.  Remove from the oven and let cool on the cookie sheet for 2-3 minutes then move to a cooling rack. 

      Tuesday, June 18, 2013

      Texas White Sheet Cake

      Texas White Sheet Cake - made June 14, 2013, recipe modified from Chef in Training
      I was so enamored of the Texas Vanilla Cake I’d made earlier that I wanted to make it again.  But, being me, I decided to try a different recipe for it.  This time, this was true vanilla all the way in both the cake and the frosting.  Ironically though, this seemed more like a yellow cake, primarily because of the color of the cake.  Similar to the earlier version I had made, this was really good cake, moist and fluffy.  And I think I’ve solved my underbaking problem.  When I absolutely really, really want to take a cake out because I think it’s done (although with my penchant for underbaking, it probably isn’t), I turn the oven off and let the cake sit in the still-hot oven for a few more minutes.  It calms my twitchy baking nerves about overbaking a cake that the oven is turned off but the cake continues baking a little longer and gets a fighting chance that it’ll actually be baked properly instead of underbaked by too much.  That trick seemed to have worked with both of the Texas vanilla cakes I’ve made recently because the texture has come out perfectly for each one: not too dense from being underbaked and not dry because of overbaking.  Instead it’s fluffy yet moist.  

      Depending on the cake, the toothpick test doesn’t always work.  Sometimes a toothpick that comes out “clean” still isn’t done in the middle.  I usually poke a toothpick in the corner of the cake then another one in the center.  Even if they both come out clean, you can usually tell if the middle isn’t quite done because it doesn’t go in as easily as the corner toothpick and it might come out with a barely discernible wet film coating it.  But the corner toothpick clearly indicates at least that part of the cake is done and further baking might dry it out.  That’s when I usually turn the oven off and give the cake a few more minutes.  A truly expert baker can tell if a cake is done by pressing lightly on the top of the cake and gauging the “spring” of the cake but I don’t make cakes (especially not the same cakes) often enough to trust my judgment on that.  Toothpicks and instinct based on the cake’s appearance usually work for me.  And if those fail, well, it’s “just a cake” and can always be made again later and the mistake learned from.
      1 cup butter
      1 cup water
      2 cups flour
      1 teaspoon baking soda
      1 teaspoon salt
      2 cups sugar
      2 eggs, beaten
      1/2 cup sour cream
      1 teaspoon vanilla extract
      1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste, optional

      Frosting
      1/2 cup butter
      1/4 cup milk
      4 1/2 cups powdered sugar
      1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
      1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Line a 9 x 13 pan with foil and lightly spray with nonstick cooking spray.
      2. Bring butter and water to a boil in a saucepan.
      3. Remove from heat and whisk in flour, baking soda, salt, sugar, eggs, sour cream and vanilla extract until smooth.
      4. Pour into prepared pan.  Bake for 25-30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pan on a wire rack for 20 minutes.
      5. While cake is cooling, make frosting.
      6. Combine butter and milk in a saucepan; cook over low heat until butter melts. Bring to a boil over medium heat.
      7. Remove from heat and add powdered sugar and vanilla extract; beat at medium speed with an electric mixer until spreading consistency.
      8. Spread frosting on top of cake.

      Monday, June 17, 2013

      Cookie Butter Brown Sugar Streusel Bars

      Cookie Butter Brown Sugar Streusel Bars - made June 11, 2013 from Averie Cooks
      Since I’d been surfing Averie’s blog recently, it reminded me that I had pinned another recipe of hers awhile back that I hadn’t made yet.  I still had cookie butter from Trader Joe’s so it seemed like a good time to try out this recipe.  It was simple and straightforward to make, albeit my piping skills leave something to be desired.  Because of the cookie butter in the base, this was almost like a sweeter version of a Biscoff cookie and in chewy bar form.  It’s a good option if you need something a little different from the traditional blondie.

      The only thing I really changed from her recipe was to have the butter in the streusel topping be chilled, not softened.  It's easier to cut into the dry ingredients for the streusel when it's cold as opposed to soft.

      1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted)
      1 large egg
      1 cup brown sugar, packe
      2 teaspoons vanilla extract
      2 teaspoons cinnamon
      heaping 1/3 cup smooth Cookie Butter
      3/4 cup all-purpose flour
      pinch salt, optional and to taste

      For the Streusel Topping
      1/4 cup unsalted butter (half of one stick), chilled
      1/2 cup whole rolled old-fashioned oats (not quick cook or instant)
      1/4 cup brown sugar, packed
      2 tablespoons granulated sugar
      2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
      1+ teaspoon cinnamon, to taste (I used 2 teaspoons, add to taste)
      2 tablespoons Cookie Butter, melted for final drizzle after baking

      1. Preheat oven to 350F. Line an 8-by-8-inch pan with aluminum foil, spray with cooking spray; set aside. 
      2. In a large microwave safe bowl, melt 1/2 cup butter, about 1 minute. Cool slightly.
      3. Add the egg, 1 cup brown sugar, vanilla, and 2 teaspoons cinnamon.  Whisk or stir until smooth. Add the heaping 1/3 cup Cookie Butter, and stir to incorporate. 
      4. Add the flour, optional salt, and stir until just combined; don't overmix. Pour batter into prepared pan, smoothing the top lightly with a spatula; set pan aside.

      For the Streusel Topping

      1. In a medium bowl, add all the streusel ingredients except the 2 tablespoons cookie butter for final drizzle post-baking, and work the mixture with a spoon, a pastry cutter, or your hands until small pebbles form. Sprinkle topping evenly over base layer.
      2. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until center is set and not jiggly; and the edges are set and have pulled away slightly from sides of pan.
      3. After bars emerge from the oven, heat 2 tablespoons of Cookie Butter in the microwave to melt, about 15 seconds. Immediately and evenly drizzle Cookie Butter over the top. Allow bars to cool in pan for at least 30 minutes before slicing and serving. Store bars in an airtight container for up to 1 week at room temperature, or up to 3 months in the freezer.

      Sunday, June 16, 2013

      Lemon Tea Cookies

      Lemon Tea Cookies - made June 8, 2013 from My Madison Bistro

      This was the second cookie I brought to the bridal shower I attended last week and might've been more popular than the peanut butter fudge cookies.  As the father of the bride explained to me, these "were addictive and easy to keep eating".

      This is a simple lemon shortbread cookie, easy to make ahead of time to chill as dough logs in the freezer, then take out, slice and bake whenever you need them.  I advise taking the dough out of the freezer and letting them thaw for 5-10 minutes before you try slicing them.  Otherwise the dough is too hard and can crumble if you try cutting directly from the freezer.  And slice them thick!  These aren't meant to be delicate little cookies but a tea cookie with some substance.  The frosting provides a perfect tartness/sweetness to the cookie and fancies it up a little.  It's a nice "summer" cookie that's not too rich or too heavy.  You just have to be careful of the frosting in very hot temps as it won't set if it's too hot.

      ¾ cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
      1 teaspoon lemon zest
      1 tablespoon lemon juice
      1 ¼ cups flour
      ½ cup cornstarch
      1/3 cup confectioners’ sugar

      for the frosting
      ¾ cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted
      ¼ cup unsalted cold butter, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
      1 teaspoon lemon zest
      1 teaspoon lemon juice
      1. Cream butter, lemon zest and juice until fluffy. In separate bowl, sift dry ingredients and mix into butter on low speed.
      2. Divide in half. Shape each half into an 8×1 inch log and roll in plastic wrap. Refrigerate or freeze for at least 2 hours.
      3. Cut into ¼ inch rounds. Bake at 350 F for 12 minutes. Cool and frost.
      for the frosting
      1. On low speed, mix the cold butter with electric mixer (use paddle attachment for a stand mixer) until smooth. Slowly add confectioners’ sugar until blended. Beat in the lemon zest and juice.

      Friday, June 14, 2013

      Chocolate Peanut Butter Cookies (yes, they're gluten free)

      Chocolate Peanut Butter Cookies - made dough June 7, 2013 from Averie Cooks
      So....confession time.  I know gluten-free is all the rage, especially with so many people having issues with wheat digestion.  Not me.  Iron stomach and all (er, not to be confused with "rock hard abs" - still working on those), I have no problems with wheat, dairy or sugar.  Subsequently, I always give recipes that proclaim to be gluten-free or vegan the side eye, thinking they can't possibly be as good as a "regular" recipe.  No flour, no white sugar, no dairy?  No point.  I know, I know, how politically incorrect and insensitive of me.  But I pass them up all the same.  Except for this one.  I've made recipes from Averie's blog before and they've been pretty fabulous.  Her pictures suck me in first.  Spend 5 minutes looking at her blog and you'll be drooling too.  The pictures of these cookies convinced me I needed to get over my gluten-loving prejudices and give them a try.  They do contain 1 egg so they're not vegan but they are gluten free.
      I was going to a bridal shower last weekend and wanted to bring a cookie plate as part of my shower gift so I thought it would be a good time to include this cookie as part of the offering in case any of the guests ate gluten-free.  Plus, if they didn't turn out, I would have other cookies to fall back on so it seemed like minimal risk.
      This recipe was actually harder than it looks to make.  The first time I made them, I used Scharffenberger unsweetened cocoa powder but the cookies turned out a little bitter.  So I made a second batch and this time - one of the rare times you'll see me do this - I used half Scharffenberger and half Hershey's cocoa.  It helped alleviate the bitterness factor since the Hersheys is more bland.  I also beat the peanut butter and brown sugar longer as Averie's blog says to but I ended up with a much more crumbly mixture the second time around rather than the moist mixture that I had achieved with the first batch when I didn't beat it as much.  I ended up using more peanut butter in the second batch and even then, the mixture was crumbly in the mixing bowl.  However, when I gathered handfuls of it to shape into dough balls, the mixture held up just fine. This makes for a rich cookie so you may want to make them small; think of it as a flourless peanut butter chocolate cookie or, as I like to view it, as baked peanut butter fudge.
      I took the second batch to the bridal shower but I didn't want the first batch to go to waste so I baked those for work the next day.  To offset the bitterness of the cookie, I fancied it up by sprinkling chopped up Reese's peanut butter cups and peanuts on top of the hot cookies as soon as they came out of the oven and drizzling them with warm chocolate peanut butter.  I didn't try the fancy cookies since I already knew what the base cookie tasted like but they went pretty fast from the communal kitchen at work when I brought them in so I assume they tasted okay.

      1 cup + 2 tablespoons creamy peanut butter (i.e. one heaping cup - plain or crunchy may be used; do not use natural or homemade peanut butter)
      1 cup light brown sugar, packed (dark brown may be substituted)
      1 large egg
      1 tablespoon vanilla extract
      1/2 cup unsweetened natural cocoa powder (Dutch-process may be substituted)
      1 teaspoon baking soda
      1. To the mixing bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine peanut butter, brown sugar, egg, vanilla, and beat on medium-high speed until well-combined and the sugar is fully incorporated and is mixture is no longer gritty or granular, about 5 minutes. Stop to scrape down the bowl as necessary.
      2. Add the cocoa powder, baking soda, and beat to incorporate, 1 to 2 minutes. Dough may be a bit crumbly in pieces, but pieces should all stick together forming a large mound when pinched, squeezed, and pushed together. If your dough seems dry, adding 1 to 2 additional tablespoons of peanut butter will help it combine.
      3. Using a 2-inch medium cookie scoop (about 2 heaping tablespoons of dough or 1.80 ounces by weight), form dough mounds or roll dough into balls. Recipe makes 13 cookies; dividing dough into 13 equal portions is another way to do this. Place dough on a large plate and flatten each mound with a fork, making a criss-cross pattern on top. Slightly flattening the mounds before baking ensures they don't stay too domed and puffed while baking because this dough, when properly chilled, doesn't spread much; just don't over-flatten. Cover plate with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or up to 5 days, before baking. Do not bake with warm dough.
      4. Preheat oven to 350F, line 2 baking sheets with parchment parchment; set aside. Space dough 2 inches apart (8 to 10 per tray) and bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until edges are set and tops are barely set, even if slightly underbaked in the center. It's tricky to discern if they're done or not because they're so dark, but watch them very closely after 7 minutes. I recommend the lower end of the baking range. Cookies firm up as they cool, and baking too long will result in cookies that set up too crisp and hard.
      5. Allow cookies to cool on the baking sheet for 5 to 10 minutes before removing and transferring to a rack to finish cooling. Store cookies in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 week, or in the freezer for up to 3 months. Alternatively, unbaked cookie dough can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days, so consider baking only as many cookies as desired and save the remaining dough to be baked in the future when desired.

      Wednesday, June 12, 2013

      Top Favorite: Chocolate Pan Cake with Fudge Frosting

      Chocolate Pan Cake with Fudge Frosting - made June 4, 2013 from A Country Baking Treasury by Lisa Yockelson

      This is one of my favorite renditions of chocolate cake with fudge frosting spread over the warm cake to melt into it and later cool and set.  The cake texture is fluffy and the sweetness of the frosting goes perfectly with the not-too-rich chocolate goodness of the cake.  There's nothing easier to make on a weeknight after work because it's a simple matter of mixing up the cake batter and while the cake is baking in the oven, you can wash up, eat dinner and prepare the frosting, ready for spreading as soon as the cake comes out of the oven.  I made this for a couple of coworkers visiting from our Florida office because of the time factor and ease of preparation.  Not to mention, it's really good.  I think what I like best about it is the texture: not too dense, not too light but perfectly cakey.

      1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into rough chunks
      4 tablespoons unsifted unsweetened cocoa powder
      1 cup water
      2 cups granulated sugar
      2 cups unsifted cake flour
      1 teaspoon salt
      ½ cup buttermilk, blended with 1 teaspoon baking soda, at room temperature
      2 extra-large eggs at room temperature
      1 ½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract

      Chocolate Fudge Frosting
      ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
      2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
      5 tablespoons milk, at room temperature
      1 tablespoon light cream, at room temperature
      1 box (1 pound) confectioners’ sugar, sifted (you can use less if you prefer it less sweet)
      1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
      Pinch of salt
      1 cup chopped pecans, optional

      1. Line a 9 x 13 x 2-inch cake pan with foil and spray lightly with nonstick cooking spray; set aside. Preheat the oven to 400˚F.
      2. For the cake, place the butter, cocoa, and water in a large saucepan, set over moderately high heat, and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat. Sift together the sugar, flour and salt into the large bowl of an electric mixer. Whisk together the buttermilk, eggs and vanilla in a mixing bowl. Pour the hot butter-cocoa-water mixture over the sifted dry mixture and beat on moderate speed until thoroughly blended. Add the whisked egg mixture and continue beating on low speed until the batter is a uniform color, about 1 ½ minutes. Pour and scrape the batter into the prepared pan.
      3. Bake the cake on the lower-third-level rack of the preheated oven for 20 to 22 minutes, or until a wooden pick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean and dry and the cake shrinks slightly away from the edges of the pan.
      4. About 10 minutes before the cake is done, make the fudge frosting. Place the butter, chocolate, milk and cream in a large saucepan, set over low heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until the chocolate has melted down completely. Remove from the heat and beat in the sugar by cupfuls with the vanilla and salt. Blend in the pecans, if using.
      5. As soon as the cake is done, remove it from the oven to a wire cooling rack. Immediately spread the frosting evenly over the top with a flexible palette knife. Let the cake cool in the pan.

      Monday, June 10, 2013

      Vanilla Cinnamon Sugar and Buttermilk Doughnuts

      Vanilla Cinnamon Sugar and Buttermilk Doughnuts - made June 2, 2013 from Channeling Contessa
      So apparently, last Friday, June 7, was National Doughnut Day.  I didn't know that so my timing is off with these doughnuts because I made them before June 7 and didn't blog them until after.  I should pay more attention to the food calendar but I'm usually indifferent to doughnuts.  I mean, I'll eat it if there's one in front of me and it's fresh (nothing worse than a stale doughnut), if I'm at the airport abominably early in the morning and Dunkin' Donuts is the only one open at that hour, or if I'm in a Vegas casino and happen to pass by a Krispy Kreme and my sweet tooth gives it the beady eye.  But I don't love them enough to go out of my way for one and I don't crave them.  Nothing wrong with a good doughnut but they're not high on my list of diet-breakers.
      But for some reason, I did have a hankering for a doughnut last week.  I think it's because I wanted to buy a doughnut pan rather than I actually wanted a doughnut.  Let's face it, it would've been easier to buy a doughnut than to go hunting for a doughnut pan. Yet, it's been awhile since I bought a baking gadget and that just felt....unnatural. I was actually trying not to buy more gadgets but, well, you know.  Sometimes you just have to give in and tell yourself, "it's just a doughnut pan.  Buy it and stop spending all that time and energy wishing you had one." So I did.  I checked that shopping enabler known as amazon but it turns out I could get the same thing cheaper at Michaels by using that week's 50% off coupon.  I don't mind paying for what I want but I'm cheap thrifty enough to get a deal when I can.  And, no, don't ask me why, when I'm not a doughnut person, I want a doughnut pan.  Because it's there.
      There were two baked doughnut recipes I found on pinterest that I wanted to try.  First up was this one from Channeling Contessa.  It seemed like a safe bet to start out with because there are very few things that wouldn't taste good rolled in cinnamon sugar.  When I do buy a doughnut from a doughnut shop, I either get the glazed yeasted doughnut (Krispy Kreme), a cinnamon twist (Dunkin' Donuts at the airport) or an apple fritter (calorie bomb from anywhere).  So I had to adjust my tastebuds' expectations because a baked doughnut is more like a cake doughnut than a yeasted, fried doughnut.  This was lighter than the typical cake doughnut but not as light as a yeasted doughnut.  It was pretty good, thanks to the cinnamon sugar, although I admit I didn't go into raptures over it.  I think that was due more to not being a doughnut person though than the actual recipe itself.  It was easy to make and my spanking new doughnut pan worked beautifully to release them intact when I pulled them out of the oven and turned them onto a wire cooling rack.  The first picture has a darker coating because that's the side I dunked in melted butter before dipping in cinnamon sugar.  The picture below is the underside of the doughnut that didn't get the melted butter treatment.  The cinnamon sugar adhered to it just fine though, albeit a little lighter looking in color.

      2 cups all purpose flour
      1 1/2 cups sugar
      2 teaspoons baking powder
      1 teaspoon cinnamon
      1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
      1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
      1 large egg, beaten
      1 1/4 cups buttermilk
      2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
      2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

      For the topping
      4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
      1/2 cup sugar
      1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
      seeds scraped from one vanilla bean (optional if you don't have a vanilla bean)
      1. Preheat your oven to 350°. Spray the doughnut pan with nonstick cooking spray.
      2. Sift together the dry ingredients for the doughnut batter. In a separate bowl whisk together the wet ingredients. Pour the wet into the dry and mix until just combined. 
      3. Fill the wells of the doughnut pan 3/4 of the way with batter. Bake for 17 minutes until golden brown and a tooth pick or cake tester comes out clean. Let rest in pan for another 5 minutes and loosen them from the pan.
      4. Set up a bowl for your melted butter, and another for your sugar mixture. For the sugar mixture, combine the sugar and cinnamon first. Then work in the vanilla seeds with the back of a fork. Dip the donut first in the butter on both sides, and then in the cinnamon sugar.