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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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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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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cinnamon zucchini cake with cream cheese frosting

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How do we justify putting zucchini in desserts? Carrot cake, for example, while it isn’t my favorite dessert, makes sense to me – carrots are sweet, cake is sweet. I don’t like beets, but I can see why they’re used in cakes, because they’re also sweet (and colorful). Zucchini, though, really isn’t that sweet.

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In fact, it really isn’t that anything – it’s fairly bland, as vegetables go. You could say it adds moisture, but there are plenty of more flavorful liquids to add to desserts than zucchini juice. So are we just trying to make cakes healthier by adding a bland, easily-disguised vegetable? Because trust me, this cake isn’t healthy, and adding a pittance of shredded zucchini to each serving isn’t going to change that.

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It certainly doesn’t taste healthy; it tastes like a delicious lightly spiced cake. Maybe the zucchini isn’t adding anything other than pretty flecks of green and a trick to use up the summer garden excess. I suppose I don’t care, because I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve baked with zucchini and have no plans to stop.

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Cinnamon Zucchini Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting (cobbled together from a bunch of recipes)

Makes 24 2-inch squares

I used one large homegrown zucchini that weighed about 12 ounces. The zucchini at my store are much smaller, so two or even three might be necessary, but they should still weigh a total of 12 ounces.

2 cups shredded zucchini
1 teaspoon table salt
2½ cups (12 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon baking powder
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
½ cup oil
1½ cups (10½ ounces) granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ cup buttermilk

8 ounces (1 package) cream cheese, softened
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups (12 ounces) powdered sugar

1. For the cake: Combine the zucchini and salt in a strainer set over a larger bowl; set aside for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, use a rubber spatula to press on the zucchini in the strainer to release liquid. Discard the liquid.

2. Adjust a rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with nonstick spray. In a medium bowl, mix the flour, cinnamon, baking soda, and baking powder.

3. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a large bowl if using a hand-held mixer), beat the butter, oil, and sugar, on medium speed until evenly combined, about 2 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition, then mix in the vanilla. Reduce the mixer speed to low; add half of the dry ingredients, then all of the buttermilk, and then the remaining dry ingredients, beating just until evenly combined. Stir in the drained zucchini.

4. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan, spreading it evenly to the corners. Bake until the cake is golden on top and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with no crumbs attached, 30-35 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack; cool completely before frosting.

5. For the frosting: In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a large bowl if using a hand-held mixer), beat the cream cheese, butter, and vanilla on medium speed until smooth. Stop the mixer, add the powdered sugar, and beat on the lowest speed until the sugar is incorporated, then increase the mixer speed to medium and beat until smooth and creamy, 2-3 minutes. Spread the frosting evenly over the cooled cake.

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blackberry plum streusel pie

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Usually it works out that I get a bunch of birthday cakes – one that my mom makes whenever my family is all together near-ish my birthday, one I make for my birthday weekend, and one I make to bring to work. But this year I didn’t get any birthday cakes.

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I did, however, get birthday pie, and that was better this year anyway. Not only had I just baked, sampled, and eaten the trimmings of this huge cake, but I baked another pretty cake for a friend’s birthday just a few days before mine. I was pretty much caked out by then, which is perfect timing, because August is time for fruit desserts.

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I love combining stone fruits and berries, and I’d never had plum pie before. Plus, as good as I think my pie crust is, streusel is even better. And as a bonus, I had a batch of vanilla ice cream in the freezer that I’d made to use up egg yolks leftover from one of the cakes, and of course vanilla ice cream, baked fruit, and streusel is a perfect combination.

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It being my birthday weekend and all, I had pie for breakfast, lunch, and dessert. I only added ice cream for the lunch and dessert servings though; let’s not get crazy. But after all that pie, I think I’m ready for some cake now.

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Blackberry Plum Streusel Pie (pie adapted slightly from Gourmet via epicurious; crust from Smitten Kitchen)

Makes one 9-inch pie; about 8 servings

When tapioca is used as a pie thickener, I prefer to grind it up first, so it doesn’t form little beads of juicy filling after it’s baked. However, if you don’t have a method to easily do this, it certainly won’t ruin your pie. My spice grinder is broken and I was too lazy to clean out the coffee grinder, so I tried grinding the dried tapioca in a mortar and pestle. It didn’t work, but the pie was still delicious.

I didn’t peel the plums and didn’t notice any textural issues in the pie. I cut each plum into 8 wedges, but I thought the pieces were too big in the baked pie, so I recommend cutting them smaller.

Pie crust:
1¼ cups (6 ounces) flour
1½ teaspoons sugar
½ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, very cold
⅓-½ cup ice water

3 ounces (1 cup) old-fashioned rolled oats
2.4 ounces (½ cup) all-purpose flour
3.5 ounces (½ cup) granulated sugar
½ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes

1¾ pounds ripe plums, pitted, cut into 8 wedges, each wedge halved crosswise
12 ounces (about 2 cups) blackberries
7 ounces (1 cup) granulated sugar
3 tablespoons quick-cooking tapioca
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
¼ teaspoon salt

1. For the pie crust: Pulse the flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor until mixed. Add half of the butter; pulse once, then add the remaining butter, and process with 1-second pulses until the largest pieces of butter are about ¼-inch across. Add ¼ cup of water; pulse once, then add 2 more tablespoons of water. Pulse a couple times to incorporate the water, then pinch a portion of the dough together; if it crumbles, pulse in another tablespoon of water. If it barely holds together, transfer the mixture to a large piece of plastic wrap. Form the dough into a ball, kneading it once or twice so it holds together. Wrap tightly in the plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour or overnight. Do not wash the food processor bowl.

2. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Roll the pie dough into a 12-inch round on a lightly floured surface. Transfer the dough to a 9-inch pie plate, folding the edge of the dough under itself so the edge of the fold is flush with the outer rim of the plate, and flute the edges. Refrigerate while preparing the streusel and filling.

3. For the streusel: Pulse the oats, flour, sugar, and salt in the food processor until mixed. Add the butter and process until the mixture begins to form clumps.

4. For the filling: In a large bowl, combine the plums, blackberries, sugar, tapioca, cornstarch, and lemon zest. Transfer the fruit mixture to the dough-lined pie pan. Evenly distribute crumbles of the streusel topping over the filling. Transfer to the oven and bake until the fruit is bubbling and the streusel is browned, 75 to 90 minutes. Transfer the pie to a cooling rack and cool for at least three hours before serving.

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brown butter peach shortbread

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I’m in fruity dessert mode lately. Blueberries, blackberries, plums. The peaches came from my coworker, which is always fun – people bring me fruit at work, and I bring it back to them a few days later, mixed with butter and sugar.

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I have another coworker with an apple tree, and that’s a little easier on me since apples have a long shelf-life. The peaches I was given were already very ripe, so I needed something simple that I could bake when I already had dinner to make and mountains of post-vacation laundry to do. Unfortunately, I’d just used up my ace-in-the-hole tart dough on store-bought peaches.

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Fortunately, I found a simple but delicious recipe. This shortbread has the extra step of browning and chilling the butter before cutting it into the dry ingredients, which doesn’t take long and adds a little extra specialness to the dessert. The peaches were small and impossible to remove from the pit, so I skipped peeling, pitting, and slicing in favor of cutting chunks directly from the seed.

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It might have been easy to put together, but the flavor didn’t reflect that. With just a few basic ingredients and plenty of peaches, it tastes like the best of summer fruit. That’s exactly what I’m in the mood for right now.

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Brown Butter Peach Shortbread (rewritten but not changed from Smitten Kitchen)

Makes 24 2-inch squares

The only part of this recipe I thought was annoying was chipping the hardened browned butter out of the bowl. I might line a bowl with wax paper next time so I can just lift the butter out and scrape it off the paper into the food processor.

The peaches my coworker gave me were very small, and I used eight or nine of them, not two. I did not peel them, which was not a problem in the final dish.

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter
1 cup (7 ounces) granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
2¾ cups plus 2 tablespoons (12.6 ounces) all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt
1 large egg
2 peaches, pitted and thinly sliced (between ⅛- and ¼-inch thick)

1. In a medium not-nonstick skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Continue to cook the butter, swirling the pan occasionally, until the milk solids brown and sink and the butter smells slightly nutty. Immediately remove it from the heat and pour the butter into a heatproof bowl. Refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes.

2. Add the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon to the bowl of a food processor; process until the ingredients are mixed, a few pulses. Add the browned butter and process until the largest butter pieces are the size of peas. Add the egg; process until the dough just comes together into a crumbly ball.

3. Spray a 9-by-13-inch pan with nonstick spray. Press three-quarters of the dough into the bottom of the pan. Evenly spread the peaches over the dough, then scatter the remaining dough crumbs over the fruit.

4. Transfer the pan to the oven and bake until the crust is lightly browned, about 30 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool to room temperature before serving.

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spiced layer cake

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Oh, I just do these cakes like they’re no big deal now. Getting back from Iceland Sunday night and having a three-tier fondant-decorated cake ready to deliver by Saturday afternoon after working a 44-hour week? No problem.

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To be honest, it really was manageable. I baked, tightly wrapped, and froze the cake layers before vacation, as well as mixed and colored the fondant. Friday night I made a big batch of cream cheese frosting, layered and crumb coated the cakes, then tediously made way too many pink and purple flowers. That just left about seven hours of cake decorating on Saturday, plus a couple hours at the shower and a couple hours cleaning the kitchen afterward. And then a couple hours napping on Sunday.

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The bottom two tiers were the same as in the last cake I made, vanilla bean and red velvet. The top tier this time was spice cake. It was my first time making spice cake, but I always assumed I’d like it. It would be like apple or carrot cake, but without the fruits and vegetables.

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That describes it pretty well, and I did like it, light with a balanced level of spices. To be honest, I liked baking and decorating the cake too, even in the midst of a busy schedule. These cakes really do get easier every time, although somehow I doubt they’ll ever be no big deal.

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Printer Friendly Recipe
Spiced Layer Cake (slightly adapted from Bon Appetit via epicurious)

I frosted the cake with cream cheese frosting.

2 cups (9.6 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup sour cream, preferably room temperature
½ cup whole milk, preferably room temperature
2 cups (14 ounces) granulated sugar
1½ teaspoons grated orange zest
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
½ teaspoon salt
4 large eggs, preferably room temperature

1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray three 9-inch round pans with baking spray and line with parchment paper. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and spices. In a small bowl or measuring cup, use a fork to combine the milk and sour cream.

2. With a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large bowl if using a hand mixer), beat the sugar and orange zest until fragrant. Add the butter and salt, and beat on medium speed until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating until each is incorporated before adding another. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add one-third of the flour mixture, immediately followed by half of the sour cream mixture. Repeat with another one-third of the flour mixture and the remaining sour cream mixture, then the remaining flour mixture. Beat on low speed for 30 seconds, until evenly combined.

3. Evenly divide the batter between the prepared pans. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of a cake comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Transfer the pan to a cooling rack for 10 minutes, then invert the pans to remove the cakes. Peel off the parchment paper. Let cool completely before frosting.

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