maple nutmeg cookies

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There are more practical things I could be doing with my time, but none of them are as fun as baking cookies. This is why I have three types of Christmas cookie dough and a Christmas cake in my freezer. Plus I’ll be 8 months pregnant at Christmas, and I never know when my body is going to cry uncle and let me know that I can’t keep up my normal level of activity indefinitely.

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I have five more holiday treats planned (plus decorating that cake in the freezer), which seemed ambitious until I talked to someone who makes at least twenty types of cookies every December. Still, the only way I can get it all done and still enjoy my life is by spacing it out, and I have so many plans this year that my holiday baking spilled over into November. This is not a hardship, as I’m not sad about having more excuses to play with butter and sugar, even if it does mean using red and green food coloring before Thanksgiving.

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With no food coloring here, these cookies work for either holiday. They’re simple but not plain, as the maple flavor really is evident. Cutting them into fall leaves makes them seem more appropriate for Thanksgiving, but they’re going in my Christmas care packages anyway – along with at least five other treats.

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Nutmeg Maple Cookies (adapted from Gourmet via Smitten Kitchen)

Yield depends on size of cutters used; I made at least a hundred 1-inch cookies (which took forever)

I can’t find Grade B maple syrup where I live, but I do have maple sugar in the pantry, so I substituted 2 tablespoons of that for an equal amount of granulated sugar. The original recipe suggests adding a few drops of maple extract, if you’re more likely to have that around than maple sugar. I also considered starting with a couple extra tablespoons of Grade A maple syrup and simmering it down to ½ cup; if you do this, be sure to let it cool to room temperature before adding it to the dough.

I substituted some brown sugar for white sugar and added vanilla to the original recipe, because I thought both would help bring out the maple flavor.

I know it’s annoying to chill the dough and then have to wait for it to soften up again after chilling, but it’s so soft at room temperature that there’s no way you’d be able to transfer the cut shapes to a baking sheet. You could, however, roll it out immediately after mixing (you’d need a pretty big area) and refrigerate it until it hardens enough to cut and transfer, which would only take 15 minutes or so. I often do this with the scraps.

I tried baking the cookies for 8 minutes and for 10 minutes. The cookies baked for 8 minutes were just a bit chewy. The cookies baked for 10 minutes were crunchy, which isn’t usually my preference but was nice here. If you want your cookies softer, increase the brown sugar to ½ cup and decrease the granulated sugar to ½ cup and bake for 8-10 minutes, until the tops looks dry but the edges aren’t browned.

3 cups (14.4 ounces) all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg or ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 sticks (16 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 teaspoon table salt
¾ cup (5.25 ounces) granulated sugar
¼ cup (1.75 ounces) light brown sugar
1 large egg yolk
½ cup Grade B maple syrup
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

1. In a small bowl, combine the flour and nutmeg. Place the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a large mixing bowl if you’re using a hand-held mixer) and beat on medium-low speed until it’s smooth. Add the salt and both sugars and continue beating on medium-low until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 2 minutes, scraping the sides of the bowl as needed. Add the egg yolk and mix until fully incorporated, then, with the mixer running, gradually add the maple syrup and vanilla extract. Reduce the mixer speed to low and gradually add the flour mixture, mixing just until evenly combined. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and chill for 2 hours or up to two days.

2. Adjust a rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone mats.

3. If chilled for longer than 2 hours, let the dough sit at room temperature until it’s just soft enough to roll out. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough to a thickness of ⅛-inch. Use floured cookie cutters to cut shapes; transfer the shapes to the prepared pans. Re-roll and cut shapes from the scraps, using as little flour as possible.

4. Bake the cookies until the just golden around the edges, 10 to 12 minutes. Let the cookies cool on the pan for about 2 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack cool completely.

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marbled pumpkin cheesecake tart

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I’m finding that I don’t prefer eating the desserts I bring to events at the events I bring them to. For one thing, by the time I’m finished baking them, I’ve been surrounded by sugar for so long that I’ve lost interest in eating it. For another, and this is surely the real issue, I’ve usually spent the whole party grazing on the food that the host or other guests have provided, and I’m simply out of room for dessert.

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I haven’t figured out just what to do about this yet. When I brought the chocolate port wine cake to a crowded party, I didn’t think the host would notice that a slice was already taken out (for pictures! and to save for later), but much to my embarrassment, she most definitely did. I’ve taken to bringing a container with me and sneaking – or openly snagging, depending on how friendly I am with the host – a piece to bring home. Every bite of that treat will be savored over my tea the next morning, far more than if I tried to stuff in more food after gorging on stuffed jalapenos.

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This was a classic example. I brought it to a party last year, set it on the dessert table already crowded with cookies and cupcakes, then went outside to drink cocktails and eat pulled pork. One of my friends makes green chile cheese rice for most potlucks, and it’s one of my favorites, so that was my dish to overeat that night. After several servings, I was in no mood for a slice of tart.

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But I hadn’t yet established my policy of bringing a slice home for the next day, so I stuffed some down without the wherewithal to gauge flavor and texture details. So then I had to make it again. This time I just brought it to work, and after all the treats I’ve shared there, no one would begrudge me a tart with one slice removed. This time I got to eat it at home by myself after the workday; it isn’t as good as a weekend morning after a party, but at least I paid attention to how good it was this time.

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Pumpkin Cheesecake Tart (adapted from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook)

8-12 servings

The original version of this recipe has a full cup of cream in the pumpkin batter and none in the cheesecake batter. On her blog’s cookbook page, Deb mentions that she’s received feedback that the two batters were difficult to swirl together due to their different consistencies, so she recommends using two tablespoons of cream in the cheesecake batter and ⅞ cup (which is 1 cup minus those 2 tablespoons) in the pumpkin batter. I found that using a little more cream in the cheesecake batter and less in the pumpkin batter worked even better for me.

I used pumpkin pie spice because I’m lazy, but if you don’t keep it around, the original recipe calls for 3⁄4 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1⁄4 teaspoon ground ginger, 1⁄4 teaspoon ground cloves, and a few fresh gratings of nutmeg. I’ve also added a step for pre-baking the crust to make it a little more sturdy.

4 ounces gingersnap cookies
3 ounces graham crackers (5½ full sheets)
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter, melted
¼ teaspoon salt

Cheesecake batter:
4 ounces cream cheese, softened
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
pinch salt
1 large egg yolk
¼ cup heavy cream

Pumpkin batter:
1 large egg
1 large egg white
1¼ cups (10.5 ounces) pumpkin purée
¼ cup (1.75 ounces) granulated white sugar
¼ cup (1.75 ounces) brown sugar
½ teaspoon table salt
1½ teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¾ cup heavy cream

1. For the crust: Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. In the food processor, process the gingersnaps and graham crackers until finely ground (or put the cookies in a large ziploc bag and use a rolling pin to crush them, then transfer them to a bowl); you should have about 1½ cups crumbs.
Add the sugar and salt and pulse to combine. Pour the melted butter over the crumbs; pulse until evenly coated. Press the mixture evenly onto the bottom and up the sides of a 9-inch round (or equivalent size) tart pan. Bake until fragrant, 10 to 12 minutes. Cool on a wire rack while preparing the filling. Increase the oven temperature to 425°F.

3. For the cheesecake batter: In a small bowl, use a whisk or hand mixer to beat the cream cheese until creamy. Add the sugar and salt, mixing until evenly combined. Add the egg yolk and cream, mixing until smooth. Set aside.

4. For the pumpkin batter: In a medium bowl, whisk the egg and egg white until broken up. Add the pumpkin, sugars, salt, and spices, mixing until smooth. Add the vanilla and cream and mix until evenly combined.

5. Spread the pumpkin batter evenly over the cooled crust. Use a spoon to dollop the cheesecake batter over the pumpkin batter, then run a knife through the cheesecake batter, dragging it into the pumpkin batter to create swirls.

6. Transfer the tart to the oven and bake for 10 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees and continue baking until the center of the tart is just slightly jiggly, 30 to 40 minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack and cool completely before serving. (Can also be covered and refrigerated overnight.)

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lemon cheesecake

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I read somewhere the sanctimonious line that “eating for two while pregnant doesn’t mean eating twice as much, it should mean twice as healthy.” I decided early on that my my regular diet is plenty healthy, so my extra calories could come from string cheese, cereal, and a few more servings of dessert. As a result, I’ve started making the occasional dessert just for me and Dave to have at home, which pretty much never happens otherwise unless it’s our birthdays.

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Of course, more dessert isn’t so bad when you’re growing a new little person, which I am but Dave is not. So sometimes the desserts are just for me. I didn’t exactly hide this one from Dave, but I just sort of never offered him any. I’d only made a mini version, and it was just too good to share. He never showed any interest, which was a relief. I did make a big version first, to share at work, but when I didn’t get my fill from the two slivers I saved for myself, I needed a little one to hoard to myself at home. Hey, I’m growing a tiny person, I deserve my own tiny cheesecake, right?

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Lemon Cheesecake (slightly adapted from Cook’s Illustrated)

I made a few changes to this. First, if you make the lemon sugar in the food processor before the crust mixture, you don’t have to clean the processor bowl between uses; a little lemon in the crust is okay, but trace amounts of cookie crumbs in the cheesecake is not. Second, I accidentally overbaked mine slightly the first time, but I thought it was the perfect texture. The same week, my brother baked it to the temperature recommended in the original recipe and found it underdone for his taste. Therefore, I’ve increased the goal temperature of the cheesecake from 150 degrees to 155 degrees. Third, my brother and I both agreed that we prefer making the curd in a double boiler instead of directly in the saucepan. For both of us, when made in the saucepan as per the original recipe, the curd curdled. The lumps smoothed after straining, but I feel more comfortable using a double boiler and it isn’t more work, so I’ve adapted the recipe for a double boiler.

1¼ cups (8¾ ounces) granulated sugar
1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
¼ cup lemon juice
1½ pounds (three 8-ounce packages) cream cheese, room temperature
4 large eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon table salt
½ cup heavy cream

Cookie-Crumb Crust:
5 ounces animal crackers
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
⅛ teaspoon table salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Lemon Curd:
⅓ cup lemon juice
2 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
½ cup (3½ ounces) granulated sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes and chilled
1 tablespoon heavy cream
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch table salt

1. To make lemon sugar: Process ¼ cup (1.75 ounces) of the sugar and the lemon zest in a food processor until the sugar is yellow and the zest is broken down, about 15 seconds, scraping down the bowl if necessary. Transfer the lemon sugar to a small bowl; stir in the remaining 1 cup (7 ounces) sugar. Do not wash the food processor.

2. For the crust: Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 325 degrees. In the food processor, process the cookies to fine, even crumbs, about 30 seconds (you should have about 1 cup). Add the sugar and and salt; pulse 2 or 3 times to incorporate. Add the melted butter in a slow, steady stream while pulsing; pulse until the mixture is evenly moistened and resembles wet sand, about ten 1-second pulses. Transfer the mixture to a 9-inch springform pan; using the bottom of a ramekin or dry measuring cup, press the crumbs firmly and evenly into the pan bottom, keeping the sides of the pan as clean as possible. Bake until fragrant and golden brown, 15 to 18 minutes. Cool on a wire rack to room temperature, about 30 minutes. When cool, wrap the outside of the pan with two 18-inch square pieces of foil; set the springform pan in a larger baking pan.

3. For the filling: In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a large bowl if using a hand mixer), beat the cream cheese on low to break it up and soften it slightly, about 5 seconds. With the machine running, add the lemon sugar in a slow steady stream; increase the speed to medium and continue to beat until the mixture is creamy and smooth, about 3 minutes, scraping down the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. Reduce the speed to medium-low and add the eggs one at a time; beat until incorporated, about 30 seconds, scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl well after each addition. Add the lemon juice, vanilla, and salt and mix until just incorporated, about 5 seconds; add the heavy cream and mix until just incorporated, about 5 seconds longer. Give the batter a final scrape, stir with a rubber spatula, and pour into the prepared springform pan; fill the larger baking pan with enough hot tap water to come halfway up the sides of the springform pan.

4. Bake until the center jiggles slightly, the sides just start to puff, the surface is no longer shiny, and an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center of the cake registers 155 degrees, 60 to 70 minutes. Turn off the oven and prop open the oven door with a potholder or wooden spoon handle; allow the cake to cool in the water bath in the oven for 1 hour. Transfer the springform pan without the foil to a wire rack; run a small paring knife around the inside edge of the pan to loosen the sides of the cake; cool the cake to room temperature, about 1 hour.

5. For the lemon curd: Set a metal or glass bowl on top of a saucepan that contains 1 inch of simmering water (do not allow bottom of the bowl to touch the water). Add the lemon juice to the bowl and heat until the juice is hot but not boiling. Whisk the eggs and yolk in a separate bowl; gradually whisk in the sugar. Whisking constantly, slowly pour the hot lemon juice into the eggs, then return the mixture to the bowl set over the saucepan and cook, stirring with a rubber spatula, often at first and constantly when the mixture begins to thicken, until the mixture registers 170 degrees on an instant-read thermometer and is thick enough to cling to a spoon, about 5 minutes. Immediately remove the bowl from the saucepan and stir in the cold butter until it’s incorporated; stir in the cream, vanilla, and salt, then pour the curd through a fine-mesh strainer into a small nonreactive bowl. Cover the surface of the curd directly with plastic wrap; refrigerate until needed.

6. To finish: When the cheesecake is cool, scrape the lemon curd onto the cheesecake while it’s still in the springform pan; using an offset icing spatula, spread the curd evenly over the top of the cheesecake. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 3 hours or up to 24 hours. To serve, remove the sides of the springform pan and cut the cake into wedges.

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apple slab pie

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I’m such a hoarder. A couple months ago, I oh-so-casually asked my coworker how her apple tree was doing this year, and, just as I’d hoped, the next day she brought in a bag of apples. A big bag, which she said I was welcome to take, but she’d give away whatever I left behind to other coworkers. I really wanted them all – I had so many apple plans! – but I tried not to be greedy. I ended up with something like fifty apples.

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And I still have about twenty in my fridge. I made this, I made baked apple oatmeal, I made applesauce to put in the apple oatmeal, I made apple cinnamon rolls, I sautéed apples to top pancakes, I ate apples as snacks, and then…I kind of lost interest. Not that I ran out of apple recipes I want to make, but I also want to make pumpkin recipes and lemon recipes and chocolate recipes.

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Even this pie-that-serves-a-crowd hardly made a dent in my stash. It does have a higher ratio of crust to fruit than a regular pie, but if you make an excellent pie crust, one that’s flaky and crisp and buttery, that’s not a bad thing. But maybe it’s time to make a regular apple pie to use up some more apples. In fact, a deep dish pie is probably best. Or, maybe I can keep hoarding my apple stash for just a little while longer. I still have a few fun apple recipes up my sleeve.

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Apple Slab Pie (slightly adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

3¾ cups (18 ounces) all-purpose flour
1½ tablespoons sugar
1½ teaspoons table salt
24 tablespoons (3 sticks) unsalted butter, very cold
¾ cup very cold water

3½ to 4 pounds apples, peeled, cored, and chopped into approximately ½-inch chunks (about 8 cups)
⅔ to ¾ cup sugar (depending on how sweet you like your pies)
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
⅛ teaspoon table salt
1 tablespoon lemon juice

To finish:
2 tablespoons heavy cream

½ cup confectioners’ sugar
1 tablespoon milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. For the crust: Mix the flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor. Cut the butter into ½-inch cubes; add to the food processor and pulse until the largest pieces are pea-sized. Transfer the mixture to a bowl; stir in the water. Divide the dough in half and wrap each portion in plastic wrap; chill at least 1 hour or up to 2 days. If chilled longer than an hour, leave the dough at room temperature for at least 30 minutes to soften before rolling.

2. For the filling: In a small bowl, combine the sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon, and salt. In a large bowl, toss the apples with the lemon juice. Add the sugar mixture and stir to evenly coat.

3. Adjust a rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 375 degrees. Line the bottom of a 15-by-10-inch (or something roughly equivalent) baking pan with parchment paper.

4. On a lightly floured surface, roll one portion of the dough to a 18-by-13-inch rectangle. Transfer the dough to the prepared baking sheet. If it breaks, patch the pieces together. The dough should overhang the pan rim. Roll out the second portion of dough to a 16-by-11-inch rectangle.

5. Spread the apple mixture evenly over the crust-lined pan. Top with the second portion of dough. Seal the edges of the two sheets of dough together, trimming excess if necessary. Crimp the edges if you’d like. Cut about twelve 2-inch slits into the top crust. Brush the top crust and edges lightly with the 2 tablespoons heavy cream.

6. Bake until the crust is golden brown and the filling is bubbling, 40-45 minutes. Remove the pie from the oven and transfer to a cooling rack. Cool about 45 minutes, until the pie is warm but not hot. (Can also be stored overnight at room temperature.)

7. For the glaze: In a small bowl, combine the confectioners’ sugar, milk, and vanilla extract. Drizzle the glaze over the cooled pastry.

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slow ferment pizza dough

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Since I make pizza once every two weeks or so, it’s only natural that my dough recipe has evolved over the years. The recipe I’ve been using lately doesn’t bear much resemblance to my favorite from several years ago beyond the obvious flour, water, and yeast. My current favorite couldn’t be easier to make – with a few caveats.

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The first is that it’s best if you think ahead – far ahead, if you can. I usually mix the dough on Monday night to cook it on Friday night. That being said, if I didn’t decide I wanted pizza until Thursday, I’d still use this recipe, with just a one-night rest.

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The second is that I’m using flour I special-ordered from Italy. I’ve entered the deep end, where flour for pizza is no longer taken out of the grocery budget, it comes out of my fun money allowance. But then I tried the recipe with bread flour (King Arthur), and to be honest, it was so good that it doesn’t seem like the special flour is worth the splurge.

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So, thinking in advance helps, and fancy flour might help, but after that, it’s just mixing up flour, water, yeast, sugar, and salt. I don’t bother with a whole wheat pre-dough; I just use half whole wheat flour in the dough, and the long wait in the fridge is plenty of time to soften the grains. I also don’t put much effort into kneading the dough. I mix it, put it in the fridge overnight, and spend a minute or two kneading it once it’s evenly hydrated. If you’d rather do all the work up front and forget about it for a few days, you can just knead it longer right after you mix it up.

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Then it sits in the back of the fridge until I’m ready for it at the end of the week. I come home from work on Friday, take the dough out to warm up, and go sit in my favorite chair with a book and my cat. An hour or two later, somewhat refreshed, the dough is easy to stretch out to a circle and ready to top.

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Another pizza splurge I indulged in last year was a Baking Steel. It does make homemade pizza better, and I recommend it, but of course a pizza stone will do a fine job too. With the Baking Steel, it gets so hot that the dough crisps and browns within a few minutes, so I put it on a high rack and turn the broiler on when the pizza goes in. This is not recommended with a stone, since the direct heat could cause it to crack (heck, in my experience, anything causes them to crack!).

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And then you’ve got pizza as good as you can get with a home oven. The bottom is crisp and browned, the middle is full of bubbles, the dough has great flavor on its own, even without whatever delicious toppings you pile on top. I’ve been making this new favorite for almost a year, and I have no plans to change it up – but you never know. There’s always something new to try, so maybe in a few years, I’ll be sharing yet another new and improved pizza method.

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Slow Ferment Pizza Dough
(adapted from Serious Eats’ Cold-Fermented Pizza Dough)

I’ve reduced the yeast from Kenji’s recipe, because with the full amount, my fermented dough was developing an unpleasant sour aroma.

Whether baking on a steel or a stone, I’ve found that the dough is easiest to transfer to the oven with parchment paper, but it crisps and browns better if the paper is removed once the dough sets. Furthermore, a baking steel is hot enough to burn the paper after a couple minutes in the oven, creating a mess.

10 ounces (2 cups) bread flour or 00 flour
10 ounces (2 cups) whole wheat flour
2 teaspoon salt
⅔ teaspoon yeast
½ teaspoon sugar
1¾ cups water

1. In a medium bowl, combine all of the ingredients until there are no dry bits remaining. Tightly cover and store in the refrigerator, at least overnight or up to 5 days. The following day, knead the dough for about a minute, until it’s smooth and elastic. Cover and refrigerate. (Alternatively, the dough can be kneaded for about 5 minutes right after mixing, with no additional kneading necessary.)

2. About two hours before baking, remove the dough from the refrigerator. Use a dough scraper or rubber spatula to transfer the dough from the bowl to a damp dishtowel or a lightly floured surface. Use a knife to divide the dough in half. Shape each portion into a ball. Cover the dough balls loosely with plastic wrap; leave at room temperature for 1½ to 2 hours, until the dough is easily stretched.

3. About 45 minutes before baking the pizzas, place a baking steel (about 6 inches from the broiler) or pizza stone (lowest rack) in the oven; heat the oven to its hottest setting. Line a pizza peel or the back of a baking sheet with parchment paper.

4. Stretch one portion of dough to a 10- to 12-inch round; lay it on the parchment paper. If necessary to even out thick areas and fix the shape of the dough, pull the edges to an even circle. Top with desired toppings.

5. Transfer the pizza on the parchment paper to the heated steel or stone. If using a steel, immediately turn the oven off and the broiler on to its hottest setting. After 1 minute, use a metal spatula to lift the pizza while using tongs to remove the parchment paper. Continue cooking until the cheese is bubbling and the bottom of the crust is spottily browned, about 4 additional minutes for a baking steel or 6-7 minutes for a baking stone. Use the metal spatula and pizza peel to remove the pizza from the oven and transfer it to a cooling rack. Cool for about 5 minutes before cutting and serving. Repeat with the remaining dough.

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banana caramel whoopie pies

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The thing I hate about whoopie pies is that they’re called whoopie pies. Remember that most of what I bake gets shared at work, and there’s something that feels unprofessional about leaving a post-it in the office kitchen with the word ‘whoopie’ on it. I get a few snickers every time I make them – except for the time I cheated and called them sandwich cookies instead.

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They are their own category of sandwich cookie though, with a distinctly cakey cookie layer that makes them almost like cake and frosting that happens to look like cookies. In these, the frosting steals the show, with homemade caramel sauce mixed into creamy smooth buttercream. The cookies, however, aren’t to be overlooked either, and the banana is a great match for the caramel. Altogether, they’re worth a few giggles at work for such a tender cookie and generous layer of delicious buttercream.

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Banana Caramel Whoopie Pies (from Annie’s Eats, who cobbled the pieces together from Martha Stewart [cookies] and David Lebovitz’s The Perfect Scoop [caramel sauce, which I’ve adapted])

If you don’t want to make swiss meringue buttercream, cream cheese frosting with caramel sauce would be great. If you don’t want to make caramel sauce, plain cream cheese frosting would still be good.

For the caramel sauce:
½ cup sugar
¼ cup water
1 teaspoon light corn syrup
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons heavy cream
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

For the cookies:
2 cups (9.6 ounces) all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ cup mashed banana (from about 2 small bananas)
½ cup sour cream
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup (3.5 ounces) granulated sugar
½ cup (3.5 ounces) light brown sugar
1 large egg
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

For the filling:
2 large egg whites, at room temperature
½ cup (3.5 ounces) granulated sugar
pinch salt
11 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
⅓ cup caramel sauce
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. For the caramel sauce: Add the sugar, water, and corn syrup to a 2-quart saucepan. Cover and heat over medium-high heat until simmering, then remove the cover and let simmer until the mixture is a deep amber color, swirling the pan occasionally at first and more often as the sugar browns. Add the cream, which will foam violently, and stir over medium-low heat to combine. Remove from the heat and stir in the salt and vanilla extract. Let the sauce cool to room temperature. (Caramel can be made up to a week in advance.)

2. For the cookies: Adjust a rack to the middle position and heat the oven to xx degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone mats. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and baking soda. In a small bowl, whisk together the banana and sour cream.

3. Place the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a large mixing bowl if you’re using a hand-held mixer). Beat the butter on medium-low speed until it’s smooth, then add the salt and both sugars. Continue beating on medium until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 2 minutes, scraping the sides of the bowl as needed. With the mixer running, add the egg and vanilla extract. Reduce the mixer speed to low and gradually add half of the flour mixture, then all of the banana mixture, then the remaining flour mixture. Continue mixing on low just until evenly combined.

4. Transfer the dough to a large piping bag fitted with a ½-inch round tip (or a ziploc bag with a ½-inch opening cut into a corner). Pipe 1-inch rounds of dough onto the prepared baking sheets with 1 inch of space between them. Bake until firm, about 10 minutes. Transfer the baking sheets to cooling racks; allow the cookies to cool on the pans for 5 minutes, then transfer them directly to the cooling rack.

5. For the buttercream: In the stainless steel bowl of a stand mixer (or a large stainless steel bowl if using a hand-held mixer), combine the egg whites, sugar, and salt. Set the bowl over a saucepan containing 1 inch of simmering water, making sure the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water. Whisk constantly until the mixture reaches 160 degrees.

6. Fit the mixer with the whisk attachment; beat the egg white mixture on medium-high speed until stiff peaks form and it has cooled to room temperature, about 6 minutes. Reduce the mixer speed to medium and add the butter 1 tablespoon at a time, adding more once each addition has been incorporated. Increase the mixer speed to medium-high and beat until the buttercream is smooth and holds peaks, 3-5 minutes. Add the caramel sauce and vanilla; mix on low until incorporated.

7. Spread about 2 tablespoons of buttercream over the flat side of half of the cookies. Top with the remaining cookies, flat sides down. Serve immediately, or cover tightly and store in the refrigerator for up to 2 days, bringing to room temperature before serving.

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caramel apple cinnamon rolls

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Okay, my coworkers are officially spoiled. Usually I pass off the treats I share with them as more for me to play in the kitchen than for them to indulge, but when your coworker brings you a pan of homemade cinnamon rolls still warm from the oven, covered in caramelly cream cheese frosting, you’re spoiled. And I’m spoiled too, because I got to eat a nice warm sweet roll (or two) at work too.

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It did take me all week, but that’s how yeast breads go on workdays. I could have skipped a whole wheat pre-dough on something so obviously not health food, but since it’s so easy and I knew it wouldn’t make anything worse, I figured a little extra fiber couldn’t hurt. After that rested overnight, I mixed the rest of the dough and let it rise most of the way before stashing it in the fridge. The third night, I rolled, filled, and cut the dough, then again let it partially rise before putting it in the fridge overnight. Finally, three days after starting the rolls, I woke up in the morning and preheated the oven to bake them.

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Well, the rolls took a little longer than I expected to bake and I was late to work that day, but no one minded. (My diabetic boss couldn’t care less about cinnamon rolls; he’s just a nice guy.) And I got a few “this is the best thing you’ve ever made” comments from my spoiled but appreciative coworkers, which, combined with indulging myself, makes it all worth it.

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Caramel Apple Cinnamon Rolls (adapted from Annie’s Eats)

Makes 12 full-size cinnamon rolls or 24 smaller cinnamon rolls

I made these partially whole wheat by making a pre-dough by stirring together 5 ounces whole wheat flour, ¼ teaspoon salt, and ½ cup water and letting it sit, covered, at room temperature overnight. The next day, I mixed this pre-dough with the butter, milk, yeast, sugar, and eggs before adding the remaining 1¼ teaspoons salt and 15-16 ounces flour.

Because I made small cinnamon rolls to share at work, even ¼-inch diced apples seemed too big. I gave them a few pulses in the food processor to chop them finer. The larger dice would work fine for full-size rolls though.

6 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup milk
½ cup water
1 envelope (2¼ teaspoons) yeast
¼ cup (1.75 ounces) granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1½ teaspoons salt
4-4¼ cups (20 to 21¼ ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the work surface

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 large apples, peeled, cored and cut into ¼-inch cubes
¾ cup (5.25 ounces) brown sugar, divided
⅛ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

¼ cup caramel sauce
1 cup (4 ounces) powdered sugar
4 ounces cream cheese, softened

1. For the dough: Melt the butter in the microwave or in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the milk and water. Transfer this mixture to the mixer bowl with the yeast, sugar, eggs, and salt. Mix on medium-low speed with the paddle attachment until evenly combined. Attach the dough hook, and, with the mixer running on medium-low speed, gradually add 4 cups (20 ounces) of flour. If the dough sticks to the bottom of the mixer bowl during kneading, add the remaining ¼ cup flour, 1 tablespoon at a time. Knead for 6 to 8 minutes, until the dough is smooth and elastic (or knead for about 10 minutes by hand). It will be soft. Coat the bowl and dough with a thin layer of vegetable oil. Cover and set aside to rise until doubled in size, 1½ to 2 hours.

2. For the filling: Meanwhile, melt the butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the apples, ¼ cup (1.75 ounces) brown sugar, and salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the apples are softened, about 12 to 16 minutes. Remove from the heat and let cool. When cool, add the remaining ½ cup (3.5 ounces) brown sugar and the cinnamon.

3. Spray a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with oil. When the dough is sufficiently risen, transfer it to a lightly floured work surface. Roll it out to a 12-inch by 16-inch rectangle. (If you want to make small rolls, divide the dough in two and roll each portion out to 12-inches by 8-inches.) Spread the filling evenly over the dough, leaving a ½-inch border along one longer edge free of filling. Starting at the longer edge with filling (for both full-size and smaller rolls), roll the dough tightly, sealing it with the clean edge. Using either a serrated knife or unflavored dental floss, cut the dough into 12 (or 24, for smaller rolls) evenly-sized rolls. Arrange cut-side up in the prepared pan. Cover and set aside to rise until puffy, about 1 hour.

4. Adjust a rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Uncover the rolls and transfer the dish to the oven. Bake until the tops are browned and an instant-read thermometer inserted near the center of the pan reads about 185 degrees. Transfer the pan to a cooling rack.

5. For the icing: Using a whisk or electric mixer, combine the caramel sauce and powdered sugar. Mix in the cream cheese until the mixture is smooth. Once the rolls have cooled for about 10 minutes, pour the icing over them. Serve warm.

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stovetop macaroni and cheese

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There are three things that lead to difficulties with self-control for me – chocolate chip cookie dough, macaroni and cheese, and alcohol. I’ve found a handful of tricks for dealing with the alcohol one (although tiki drinks can be tricky since even one can be strong enough to lower my resistance to more!), but with the other two, the best way I’ve found of controlling them is not to be around them. We normally eat macaroni and cheese maybe once a year, even though it’s one of my favorite foods.

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I’ve told myself for years that when I got pregnant and couldn’t drink alcohol or eat cookie dough, I’d make up the extra calories with macaroni and cheese. It turns out that making up extra calories hasn’t been an issue; since I got that positive test back in May, all I’ve wanted to eat is dessert. Pasta is tasting extra delicious too, and yes, especially when it’s coated in cheese.

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I love the baked recipe I’ve been making for years, but then someone mentioned the blue box mac and cheese, and while I haven’t had severe cravings, maybe I’m more suggestible than I would normally be. I couldn’t stop thinking about that blue box. Unfortunately, the last time I bought it, I distinctly remember being disappointed that it was bland and mushy.

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I figured there had to be a way to make a creamy, smooth sauce using real ingredients. It turns out, the most popular recipes for stovetop mac and cheese aren’t so different from the blue box; you still coat the cooked pasta with butter, then add milk and cheese – except in this case, that cheese is real shredded cheddar, not a powder. And it tastes reminiscent of that blue box, in the best possible way. Plus, the pasta doesn’t dissolve in my mouth before I get to chew it! This is so good and so easy that maybe one day, my daughter will be nostalgic for this recipe instead of that blue box.

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Stovetop Macaroni and Cheese (not really adapted from Cook’s Illustrated)

I’ve only made this with all cheddar cheese. Monterey jack could make the sauce smoother, but it won’t be as flavorful. I tried a different recipe that called for a combination of cheddar and American cheese, and, while the sauce was creamier, the flavor of the American cheese dominated, and I prefer cheddar. With just cheddar, the sauce is plenty smooth and creamy for me.

So far, I’ve only made a half recipe (multiple times), using a 5-ounce can of evaporated milk. It seems like plenty of liquid.

2 large eggs
1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk
¼ teaspoon hot pepper sauce
2 teaspoons table salt
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon dry mustard, dissolved in 1 teaspoon water
8 ounces elbow macaroni
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
12 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, American cheese, or Monterey Jack cheese, grated (about 3 cups)

1. Meanwhile, heat 2 quarts water to boil in large heavy-bottomed saucepan or Dutch oven. Add 1 1/2 teaspoons of the salt and macaroni; cook until almost tender, but still a little firm to the bite. Drain and return to pan over low heat. Add butter; toss to melt.

2. Meanwhile, mix eggs, 1 cup of the evaporated milk, pepper sauce, 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, pepper, and mustard mixture in small bowl; set aside.

3. Pour egg mixture over buttered noodles along with three-quarters of the cheese; stir until thoroughly combined and cheese starts to melt. Gradually add remaining milk and cheese, stirring constantly, until mixture is hot and creamy, about 5 minutes. Serve immediately.

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berry jam and chocolate mousse tart

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It doesn’t always rain here, but when it does, it’s on the day of the backyard party you’ve been planning for six months. Fortunately, it wasn’t my party, but by the time the host decided she had to cancel, I had already spent several hours preparing several thousand calories worth of tarts to contribute. Of course we’d had nothing but warm, sunny days for weeks beforehand.

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With our plans suddenly cancelled, we weren’t sure what to do with ourselves – or what to eat for dinner. We ended up inviting a few people who were also invited to the party over to our house, hoping we could cobble together a meal from everyone’s party contributions. Unfortunately, that left us with a random assortment of mushrooms, two seafood dips, two tarts, and four cocktails.

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I stashed the tart with the longer shelf life in the fridge to bring to work on Monday, defrosted shrimp for the dips, and sautéed the mushrooms and put them on toast with melty cheese. We ordered in chicken wings to round out the meal (and to satisfy Dave’s craving) and passed around cocktails. It wasn’t the night I’d planned, but it was fun nonetheless.

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I didn’t let anyone leave until they’d eaten a slice of tart, and then I foisted (most of) the leftovers on them too. After eating my way through baking, having a slice with guests, and knowing I’d be having a slice of tart #2 on Monday, I figured I should limit myself to just a sliver for Sunday. But don’t think I didn’t have regrets after I’d indulged in my tiny sliver.

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Yes, this is a rich dessert and should be shared with a crowd, but it’s also so good it’s hard to give it away. The berries brighten up all that chocolate, and the airy mousse layer disguises the heavy cream that makes it so fluffy. As it was, I enjoyed this much more than I would have after stuffing myself with seafood boil, so maybe it’s good that the original party was cancelled.

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Berry Jam and Chocolate Mousse Tart
(adapted from Love and Olive Oil)

The original recipe calls for a homemade jam made from tart cherries, but it’s been years since I’ve seen frozen tart cherries for sale, and I’ve never seen them fresh. I went to amazon to order my own tart cherry jam, but then fell down the jam rabbit hole and ended up with marionberry instead. Any good berry or cherry jam would do here.

I don’t know if baking the tart crust is necessary. It’s not called for in the original recipe, but I was worried it would be crumbly without baking. I baked it at a very low temperature to avoid burning the chocolate. I also reduced the filling because I had too much (which I happily ate with a spoon).

5 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 ounces dark or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1½ cups chocolate wafer cookie crumbs (from about 7 ounces cookies)
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
⅛ teaspoon table salt

5½ ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 cup heavy whipping cream, divided
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup (8 ounces) berry jam

1. For the crust: In a small saucepan over medium-low heat or a microwave-safe bowl in the microwave, melt the butter. Remove from the eat and add the chocolate; stir until the chocolate is melted.

2. In a food processor, process the cookies until finely ground. (Alternatively, place the cookies in a large ziploc bag and use a rolling pin to crush them, then transfer to a bowl.) Add the sugar and salt; pulse to mix. Add the melted butter and chocolate and pulse until the crumbs are evenly moistened. Transfer the mixture to a 9-inch round or equivalent tart pan with a removable bottom and press firmly into the bottom and up the sides of the pan. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes or until firm.

3. Heat the oven to 200 degrees. Transfer the crust in the tart pan to a baking sheet. Bake at 200 degrees for 12 minutes. Cool to room temperature.

4. For the filling: Transfer the chocolate to a heatproof bowl. In a small saucepan over medium heat, heat ⅔ cup of the heavy cream until it simmers but is not boiling. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate; gently stir until the chocolate and cream are evenly mixed. Add the butter in ½-tablespoon increments, stirring until each one is melted before adding another. Stir in the vanilla extract.

5. In a separate bowl, whisk (or use a hand mixer) the remaining ⅓ cup heavy cream until it forms soft peaks. Gently fold one-third of the whipped cream into the chocolate mixture, then add the remaining cream, folding until no white streaks remain.

6. To assemble, spread the jam in an even layer over the bottom of the cooled crust. Pour the chocolate mixture over the jam and spread into an even layer. Refrigerate until set, at least 2 hours or overnight.

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crostini topped with ricotta and braised zucchini

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I often prepare elaborate multicourse meals just for me and Dave. Almost invariably, when I ask him to name his favorite course, it’s the meat, and just as often, mine is the carbs, although sometimes I make an exception for artichokes. This meal left me with a tough choice – bread is always a favorite, especially topped with cheese and vegetables cooked well, but I was also really pleased with the sauce I’d made from my homegrown tomatoes to serve over pasta. Dave, unsurprisingly, chose the ribeye.

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I was being stingy with the tomato sauce, both because it took longer to prepare and because my garden gives me more zucchini than tomatoes, so I certainly ate the most of this one. It might seem bland – neither ricotta nor zucchini is known for their strong flavors – but good bread, a generous drizzle of olive oil, and a sprinkle of large-grained sea salt add plenty of interest.

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Considering that these toasts include a starch, a protein, and a vegetable, I could have skipped the pasta (and hoarded the sauce instead) and meat entirely! Dave might have missed his steak, but I certainly wouldn’t have minded filling up on these. Who needs multiple courses when the first one is so good?

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Crostini with Ricotta and Braised Zucchini (inspired by Annie’s Eats; zucchini adapted from Rachel Eats via Orangette)

Makes about 24 small toasts, depending on the size of your bread

If you have a flaked salt, kosher or Maldon, it adds a fun crunch when sprinkled on top.

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 clove garlic, peeled and smashed
3 small to medium zucchini (about 12 ounces), ends trimmed, sliced ¼-inch thick
¼ teaspoon salt, plus more for sprinkling
1 small sprig basil, leaves removed and torn (optional)
1 (12-inch) baguette, sliced ¼-inch thick
1½ cups ricotta cheese

1. In a medium nonstick skillet, heat the oil and garlic over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the garlic is lightly golden, 4-5 minutes. Remove and discard the garlic. Add the zucchini and salt to the skillet; cook, stirring occasionally, until the zucchini is softened and lightly browned in spots, 25-30 minutes. Stir in the basil leaves, if using.

2. Meanwhile, heat the broiler. Arrange the bread in a single layer on a baking sheet. Broil until just golden. Flip each slice of bread and return the baking sheet to the oven; lightly toast the second side.

3. Spread some ricotta over each slice of toast. Top with a layer of zucchini, then drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt.

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