salted brown butter rice crispy treats

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Dave and I threw a couple Friday afternoon happy hour parties a while ago. The idea was that they would be really casual – just come over, hang out a bit, and then go on with your weekend. Dave joked that he was kicking everyone out after two hours.

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It worked out perfectly. Everyone we invited showed up and they really did leave after two hours, so we had the kitchen cleaned and were sitting down to relax with the last of the sangria by 8pm. I don’t know what everyone else did afterward, but…well, our friends are in their 30s and 40s, probably nothing exciting.

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We planned the first get-together on Thursday and it was happening Friday right after work, so this didn’t leave me much prep time. Everything I made was simple – bread with cheeses, salami, and sun-dried tomato jam, olives and marinated artichokes, popcorn with truffle salt, cayenne-spiced brittled peanuts, and these rice crispy treats. Thursday after work, Dave pretty much followed after me and cleaned up as I cooked.

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We came home from work on Friday, spent fifteen minutes setting out food and sangria, two hours chatting and eating with our friends, then fifteen minutes cleaning while congratulating ourselves on a party well thrown. People kept telling me that these were the best rice krispy treats they’d ever had, and I managed not to tell them that while a big pinch of salt and nutty browned butter helps, the real secret is almost three times the butter as the traditional recipe. A clean kitchen by 8pm and not telling your guests how much butter is in the food? That’s entertaining success.

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Printer Friendly Recipe
Salted Browned Butter Rice Crispy Treats (adapted from Deb Perelman’s Smitten Kitchen Cookbook)

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter (wrapper reserved)
¼ teaspoon table salt
1 (10-ounce) bag miniature marshmallows
6 cups puffed-rice cereal (about half of a 12-ounce box)

1. Butter (or coat with nonstick spray) a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.

2. In a large pot over medium-low heat, cook the butter until it melts, then turns brown and smells nutty, stirring frequently. Remove from the heat; stir in the salt, then the marshmallows, stirring constantly until the mixture is smooth. Fold in the cereal.

3. Transfer the mixture to the prepared pan. Use the reserved butter wrapper to press the mixture into the pan. Cool completely. When cool, invert the mixture onto a cutting board and cut into 24 squares. Serve.

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pumpkin pie

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Let me be frank: The recipe on the back of the can of pumpkin makes a perfectly good pumpkin pie. I have no beef with this pie. It’s the one I ate growing up, and I’ll still certainly grab a slice if it’s available. But at some point, it occurred to me that pumpkin pie is a custard pie, and it should be more custardy – smoother, richer, creamier. It still needs to be firm enough to form straight-sided slices, not puddles, but it shouldn’t be solid.

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I blame the evaporated milk. I like evaporated milk in my salmon pesto pasta recipe as a healthier alternative to cream, but we’re talking now about a dessert that’s eaten after one of the most decadent meals of the year. Is this really the time to cut calories? Stick with heavy cream for dessert.

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But there’s another requirement I have for pumpkin pie, and that is that it be easy. If the filling requires steps beyond mixing everything in the blender, I’m not interested. Not because a great dessert isn’t worth some effort, but because I’ve found that for pumpkin pie, extra effort just isn’t necessary. You can make yourself a perfect pumpkin pie – silky and rich, firm enough to form slices but still soft and smooth – with no more effort than it takes to make the recipe on the back of the pumpkin can.

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Pumpkin Pie (adapted from Bon Appetit’s Spiced Pumpkin Pie and Cook’s Illustrated’s Silky Pumpkin Pie)

1 unbaked pie crust, rolled, transferred to pan, chilled (recipe below)
1 (15-ounce) can pumpkin puree
¾ cup (5.25 ounces) granulated sugar
3 large eggs plus 1 large egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger
⅛ teaspoon ground allspice
⅛ teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup heavy cream

1. Adjust a rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 400 degrees.

2. Remove the pie crust from refrigerator; line the crust with foil and fill it with pie weights. Bake on a rimmed baking sheet for 15 minutes. Remove the foil and the weights; bake 5 to 10 more minutes, until the crust is golden brown and crisp. Remove the crust and baking sheet from oven. Retain the oven temperature.

3. Combine all of the ingredients except the cream in the food processor or blender. Add the cream; pulse. Pour the mixture into the crust.

4. Return the pie plate with the baking sheet to the oven and bake the pie for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to 300 degrees. Continue baking until the edges are set (an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center should register 175 degrees), 20 to 35 minutes longer. Transfer the pie to a wire rack and cool to room temperature, 2 to 3 hours.

Pie Crust (rewritten from Smitten Kitchen)

1 single-crusted 9-inch pie

1¼ cups (6 ounces) all-purpose flour
½ tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon table salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, very cold
⅓ to ½ cup ice water

1. Mix the flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor. Cut the butter into ¼-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. Wrap in plastic wrap; chill at least 1 hour or up to 1 day. If chilled longer than an hour, leave the dough at room temperature for at least 30 minutes to soften before rolling.

2. Roll out the dough on a generously floured work surface to make a 12-inch circle about ⅛-inch thick. Roll the dough loosely around a rolling pin and unroll into a pie plate, leaving at least a 1-inch overhang all around the pie plate.

3. Working around the circumference, ease the dough into the pans by gently lifting the edge of the dough with one hand while pressing into the plate bottom with other hand. Trim overhang to ½-inch beyond lip of pie plate. Fold overhang under itself; edge should be flush with edge of pie plate. Using thumb and forefinger, flute edge of dough. Refrigerate dough-lined plate until firm, about 15 minutes.

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almond lemon cream cheese coffee cake

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I’ve gotten in the habit of eating just crumbs of each treat I bake. This sounds stingier than it is. While the goal really is to limit my indulging, what inevitably happens is that I “accidentally” create crumbs. Maybe one square of a bar cookie is too rectangular compared to the rest; I better shave a sliver off. Or maybe, in the work kitchen, someone only ate half a cookie (always the same person, and she usually comes back for the other half soon enough); that doesn’t look appetizing, so I’d better eat the other half. Oops, while I was cutting slices of cake, a whole chunk fell off this one; there’s no size limit on crumb, so it counts and I get to eat it.

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The result is that I eat more and enjoy it less. Instead, I’ve started cutting myself a serving and setting it aside until I get home from work, so I can sit down and truly savor it. That’s exactly what I did with this cake, and I was so excited to get home at eat my slice. Especially once my coworkers started coming by my office to rave about how good the cake was. This went faster than anything I’ve ever brought in!

Which, unfortunately, means it was gone by the time I found out that Dave had eaten my piece – in addition to the piece he’d already grabbed from the office kitchen. Oh, I know, it sounds terrible, but as much as I wanted to give him the guilt trip to end all guilt trips, the fact is that it wasn’t exactly his fault. I’d cut my slice and then set it on the counter too close to where he was laying out his lunch. He thought I put it there for him. Still, I was very, very sad.

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This did not stop the stream of coworkers telling me how good the cake was. Obviously I needed to make it again, so I did, less than a week later (I would have made it that very night if I’d had time!), and this time I hid my slice so there’d be no confusion. And it was as good as they said – Buttery and sweet, lemon-scented, some crunchy bites with almonds, and of course my favorite was the streak of cheesecake through the middle. It all worked out in the end, but I definitely learned a lesson.

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Lemon Almond Cream Cheese Coffee Cake (from Cook’s Illustrated)

I made almost no changes to the original recipe. I did substitute ¼ cup Greek yogurt for ¼ cup of the sour cream. Also, my tube pan has a detachable bottom, so I removed the sides, and then the cake was kind of stuck on the bottom portion with the center tube. The cake was too delicate to lift off of the bottom. I ended up chilling the cake overnight and removing the cake from the base in the morning, when it was firm. Then I let it warm up before serving.

Lemon sugar-almond topping:
¼ cup (1.75 ounces) sugar
1½ teaspoons finely grated zest from 1 lemon
½ cup sliced almonds

Cake:
2¼ cups (11¼ ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1⅛ teaspoons baking powder
1⅛ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon table salt
10 tablespoons (1 stick plus 2 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened but still cool
1 cup plus 7 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon finely grated zest plus 4 teaspoons juice from 1 to 2 lemons
4 large eggs
5 teaspoons vanilla extract
1¼ cups sour cream
8 ounces cream cheese, softened

1. For the topping: Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Stir together the sugar and lemon zest in a small bowl until combined and the sugar is moistened. Stir in the almonds; set aside.

2. For the cake: Spray a 10-inch tube pan with nonstick cooking spray. Whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together in a medium bowl; set aside. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter, 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar (7.875 ounces), and the lemon zest at medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes, scraping down the sides and bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Add the eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition, about 20 seconds, and scraping down the beater and sides of bowl as necessary. Add 4 teaspoons vanilla and mix to combine. Reduce the speed to low and add one-third of the flour mixture, followed by half of the sour cream, mixing until incorporated after each addition, 5 to 10 seconds. Repeat, using half of the remaining flour mixture and all of the remaining sour cream. Scrape the bowl and add the remaining flour mixture; mix at low speed until the batter is thoroughly combined, about 10 seconds. Remove the bowl from the mixer and fold the batter once or twice with a rubber spatula to incorporate any remaining flour.

3. Reserve 1¼ cups batter and set aside. Spoon the remaining batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Return the now-empty bowl to the mixer and beat the cream cheese, remaining 5 tablespoons sugar, lemon juice, and remaining teaspoon vanilla on medium speed until smooth and slightly lightened, about 1 minute. Add ¼ cup of the reserved batter and mix until incorporated. Spoon the cheese filling mixture evenly over the batter, keeping the filling about 1 inch from the edges of the pan; smooth the top. Spread the remaining cup of reserved batter over the filling and smooth the top. With a butter knife or offset spatula, gently swirl the filling into the batter using a figure-8 motion, being careful to not drag the filling to the bottom or edges of pan. Firmly tap the pan on the counter 2 or 3 times to dislodge any bubbles. Sprinkle the lemon sugar-almond topping evenly over the batter and gently press into batter to adhere.

4. Bake until the top is golden and just firm, and a long skewer inserted into cake comes out clean (skewer will be wet if inserted into cheese filling), 45 to 50 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and firmly tap on counter 2 or 3 times (the top of the cake may sink slightly). Cool the cake in the pan on a wire rack for 1 hour. Gently invert the cake onto a rimmed baking sheet (the cake will be topping-side down); remove the tube pan, place a wire rack on top of the cake, and invert the cake sugar-side up. Cool to room temperature, about 1½ hours. Cut into slices and serve.

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caramel apple cheesecake bars

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Fall in upstate New York, where I went to graduate school, was amazing. Even my drive through town to work was gorgeous, passing hillsides of brightly colored trees. I lived a couple blocks away from a cider mill, and Dave and I made a point to go there every year for cider, doughnuts, and squash so oddly shaped they looked deformed. It was my favorite place to buy apples too; some, like Empire and Cortland, even named for the area.

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The only problem was that fall came too soon, at least for this lover of summer. It seemed like it had hardly warmed up after the long freezing winter before it started getting chilly again. For this reason, I had a strict rule of no fall-inspired foods until October – no pumpkin, no candy corn, no apples.

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It’s kind of the opposite here in southern New Mexico. I’m tired of being hot and welcome the chill we’re getting in the mornings and evenings. I’m not quite ready for pumpkin – things need to cool off a bit more, so I probably will wait until October. But apples are just right.

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These apples are piled on top of a cookie crust and a cheesecake layer, then topped with streusel and caramel. I saw the recipe on a blog and was aghast at how rich it was until I traced it back to its original source, Paula Deen. This is my first time making one of her recipes, but my understanding it that it’s par for the course.

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In this case, it definitely works. I’ll add another apple next time, because the apples were pretty balanced with the other components, and I want them to stand out more. But having those other components come forward is not a bad thing, because each one was so good. Somehow, the combination of everything didn’t make these overpoweringly sweet or unpleasantly rich.  Really, these were a perfect fall treat.

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Caramel Apple Cheesecake Bars with Streusel (adapted from the Food Network via Closet Cooking; caramel sauce from Smitten Kitchen)

There are a lot of steps, but none of them are hard.

If you like to line your pans with a double layer of aluminum foil for bar cookies for easy removal, this recipe is a good candidate for that. I prefer not to, and the first bar I removed crumbled. The remainder were easy enough to get clean slices of with a spatula.

Streusel:
1 cup (7 ounces) firmly packed light brown sugar
1 cup (4.8 ounces) all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon cinnamon
⅛ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, room temperature
½ cup quick cooking oats

Apples:
4 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and finely chopped
¼ cup (1.75 ounces) sugar
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon lemon juice
pinch salt

Cookie base:
2 cups (9.6 ounces) all-purpose flour
½ cup (3.5 ounces) firmly packed brown sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) butter, room temperature

Cream cheese layer:
2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, room temperature
pinch salt
½ cup (3.5 ounces) sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Caramel sauce:
½ cup (3.5 ounces) granulated sugar
¼ cup water
1 tablespoon corn syrup
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubes
⅛-¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon lemon juice
⅓ cup heavy cream

1. Adjust a rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-by-13-inch pan generously with cooking spray.

2. For the streusel: Add the sugar, flour, cinnamon, and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade; pulse to combine. Add the butter and process until the mixture is crumbly. Add the oats and pulse just to combine. Transfer to a bowl and chill. Do not wash the processor bowl.

3. For the apples: In a medium bowl, mix everything. Set aside.

4. For the cookie base: Add the flour, sugar, and salt to the food processor bowl; pulse to combine. Add the butter and process until the mixture is crumbly. Press into the bottom of the prepared pan. Bake until lightly browned around the edges, about 15 minutes.

5. For the cream cheese layer: While the cookie base is baking, beat the cream cheese and salt with a mixer on medium-low speed, until softened. Add the sugar and continue mixing until the mixture is smooth. Add the eggs, one a time, mixing just until combined. Mix in the vanilla extract.

6. Pour the cream cheese mixture over the warm crust. Spread the apples over the cream cheese batter, then top with the streusel, breaking it until ¼- to ½-inch chunks. Bake until the top is browned and the cream cheese filling is set, about 30 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and cool completely.

7. 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 honey-colored, swirling the pan occasionally at first and more often as the sugar browns. Add the butter, which will foam violently, and stir to combine. Stir in ⅛ teaspoon salt, lemon juice, and heavy cream. Once the mixture cools slightly, taste and add more salt if necessary. Let the sauce cool to room temperature before topping the bars. (Caramel can be made up to a week in advance.)

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mixed berry buttermilk bundt cake

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If Labor Day is the last hurrah of summer and fall officially starts September 23, what does that make the rest of September? It’s getting darker, but the leaves aren’t changing yet, and tomatoes are really picking up this time of year. Plus, there was a 2-for-1 sale on berries at the grocery store this week!

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I didn’t intend to add even more berries than the recipe calls for, but I confess I got carried away by the sale. Somehow, I ended up with at least three times more berries than this cake required. Adding an extra cup to the cake didn’t make a dent in the excess, but I couldn’t resist.

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And then I was at the store a few days later, and they announced that berries were on an even better sale! It was so hard to resist, but we hadn’t finished the last batch!  Maybe I need to make more cake, before the last vestiges of summer are gone.

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Printer Friendly Recipe
Mixed Berry Buttermilk Bundt Cake (adapted from Cory Schreiber and Julie Richardson’s Rustic Fruit Desserts: Crumbles, Buckles, Cobblers, Pandowdies, and More via Smitten Kitchen)

Cake:
2½ cups (12 ounces) plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon table salt
1¾ cups (12.25 ounces) granulated sugar
3 large eggs, room temperature
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¾ cup buttermilk, room temperature
3 to 4 cups (12 to 16 ounces) mixed berries

Glaze:
1½ cups (6 ounces) powdered or confections’ sugar
juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, very soft

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a Bundt pan or spray with baking spray. In a medium bowl, combine the flour and baking powder.

2. Place the butter, lemon zest, salt, and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium-high speed for 3 minutes, until light and creamy in color. Mix in the eggs one at a time, until incorporated, then add the vanilla. With the mixer on low speed, add one-third of the flour mixture, followed immediately by half of the buttermilk, mixing just until incorporated. Repeat with another third of the flour and the rest of the buttermilk, then the last of the flour. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and mix for 15 seconds longer. Carefully fold in the berries.

3. Transfer the batter to the prepared baking pan, smoothing the top. Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

4. Combine the powdered sugar, lemon juice, and butter; whisk until smooth. Spoon over the cooled cake.

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berry tart with mascarpone cream

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In late August, I always start to get a little bit panicked about the end of summer. This, despite the long six months of summer we get in southern New Mexico and despite the months of temperatures reaching nearly 100 degrees. This, despite the breathtaking beauty of upstate New York’s fall, despite the pumpkins and apples, football and fall fairs that I loved when I lived there.

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But for me, fall can’t beat summer. I love being not just warm, but hot. The 4th of July is my favorite holiday. Homegrown tomatoes are my favorite food. I love wearing skirts and hate wearing pants.

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I love peaches and zucchini and berries. I already made Dave’s favorite pie once this summer, not that it isn’t good enough to have more often. But I was hosting an Italian-ish dinner party so wanted an Italian-ish dessert. This was perfect. A sweet cookie crust, a simple mascarpone-based creamy layer, lots of fresh berries, and none of that gelatinous shellack that fruit tarts often include. The custard layer was similar to pastry cream, but it required just a few minutes of mixing instead of egg-separating, heating, tempering, whisking, straining, and cooling.

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It’s been a long, hot summer here. My tomato plants haven’t done well, although I’m grateful for the occasional fruit they do give. But I’m as ready as I ever am to move on to fall. I’m thinking about braising and roasting. But I can’t quite shake that tug of dread to say goodbye to my favorite season, and fresh berries are just part of the reason.

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Berry Tart with Mascarpone Cream
(crust rewritten from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From my Home to Yours; filling adapted from Gourmet via epicurious)

Crust:
1½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup (2 ounces) confectioners’ sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
1 stick plus 1 tablespoon (9 tablespoons) very cold (or frozen) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 large egg yolk

Filling:
1 cup (8 ounces) mascarpone cheese
⅓ cup well-chilled heavy cream
¼ cup (1.75 ounces) sugar
1½ cups raspberries
1½ cups blueberries
1½ cups blackberries
2 tablespoons red currant jam or raspberry jelly
2 tablespoons dark berry liqueur such as blueberry, blackberry, or cassis or port

1. For the crust: Put the flour, confectioners’ sugar, and salt in a food processor and pulse to combine. Scatter the butter over the dry ingredients and pulse until the butter is coarsely cut, with some pieces the size of oatmeal flakes and some the size of peas. Stir the yolk with a fork and add it a little at a time, pulsing after each addition. Process in long pulses until the dough forms clumps and curds; the sound of the machine working will change. Scrape the sides of the processor bowl to incorporate any unmixed dry ingredients.

2. Grease a 9-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom. Press the dough evenly over the bottom and up the sides of the pan. Freeze the crust for at least 30 minutes before baking.

3. Center a rack in the oven and heat the oven to 375 degrees.

4. Spray a piece of aluminum foil with nonstick spray and fit the foil, oiled side down, tightly against the crust. Put the tart pan on a baking sheet and bake the crust for 25 minutes. Carefully remove the foil. If the crust has puffed, press it down gently with the back of a spoon. Bake for another 8 minutes or so, or until it is firm and golden brown. Transfer the tart pan to a rack and cool the crust to room temperature before filling.

5. For the filling: In a bowl with a whisk or an electric mixer, beat together the mascarpone, cream, and sugar until the mixture holds stiff peaks. Spoon the mixture into the shell, spreading it evenly.

6. In a large bowl, combine the raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries. In a small saucepan, simmer the jam and port, stirring, until reduced to about 3 tablespoons; pour over the berries. With a rubber spatula, gently stir the berries to coat evenly. Mound the berries decoratively on the mascarpone cream. The tart may be assembled 2 hours ahead and chilled; bring to room temperature and remove the sides of the pan before serving.

chocolate chip cookie dough cupcakes

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I might have mentioned, once or twice, that I am a fan of cookie dough. Any cookie is good, but chocolate chip is the best. And not any of those new recipes that are based on melted butter, those make greasy dough. I want the classic light and fluffy, pale, grainy dough. For me, the chocolate chips are mostly a distraction, but I figure they’re part of the package.

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But it’s my birthday, and I guess chocolate chip cookie dough is not an appropriate celebratory dessert to share. I figured these were the next best thing. A yellow cake adapted with extra brown sugar and chocolate chips, an eggless cookie dough filling, frosting with brown sugar and even raw flour, all topped off with the most adorable chocolate chip cookies you’ve ever seen. Do you know how many opportunities this was to eat something resembling chocolate chip cookie dough? A lot.

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I have to admit that my favorite part was the filling – pure dough, with none of this cake distraction. The frosting was impressive too, the raw flour and brown sugar really made it resemble cookie dough. It was pretty much the perfect birthday cake for me, especially because there’s extra filling in the fridge for the rest of the weekend.

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Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Cupcakes
(adapted from Annie’s Eats and Martha Stewart’s Yellow Cake recipe)

Makes 30 cupcakes

I baked the cookies a week early and froze them. I made the filling two days early. I made the cupcakes the night before, then filled, frosted, and garnished them the morning before I served them.

For the cake:
1½ cups (7.2 ounces) all-purpose flour
1½ cups (6 ounces) cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
12 tablespoons (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1¼ cups (8.75 ounces) brown sugar
½ cup (3.5 ounces) granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs, at room temperature
¼ cup canola oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1¼ cups buttermilk, room temperature
1 cup (6 ounces) chocolate chips

For the filling:
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup (3.5 ounces) brown sugar
¼ cup (1.75 ounces) granulated sugar
2 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (5.6 ounces) cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 cup (6 ounces) chocolate chips

For the frosting:
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup (3.5 ounces) light brown sugar, packed
2 cups (8 ounces) confectioners’ sugar
⅔ cup (3.2 ounces) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

For the garnish:
mini chocolate chip cookies (optional)
chocolate chips (optional)

1. For the cake: Adjust an oven rack to the middle position; heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line 24 muffin wells with paper cups. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder, and baking soda.

2. In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a large bowl if using a hand-held mixer), beat the butter, sugars, and salt on medium speed until light and fluffy, 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 oil and vanilla. Reduce the mixer speed to low; add the dry ingredients in three additions, alternating with the buttermilk and ending with the dry ingredients. Beat each addition just until incorporated. Stir in the chocolate chips.

3. Divide the batter between the prepared muffin cups, filling each cup about two-thirds full. Bake for 16-20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of a cupcake comes out clean. Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool. Remove the cupcakes from the pan after 5 minutes. Cool completely before filling and frosting.

4. For the filling: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a large bowl if using a stand mixer), beat the butter, salt, and sugars on medium speed until light and fluffy, 1-2 minutes. Add the milk, beating until incorporated, then mix in the vanilla. Reduce the mixer speed to low and gradually add the flour, mixing just until incorporated. Stir in the chocolate chips.

5. For the frosting: In a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the butter at medium-high speed until smooth, about 20 seconds. Add the brown sugar and salt; beat at medium speed until pale and fluffy. Reduce the speed to low and slowly add the confectioners’ sugar and flour; beat at medium-low speed until most of the sugar is moistened, about 45 seconds. Scrape the bowl, add the vanilla, and beat at medium speed until incorporated, about 10 seconds, then increase the speed to medium-high and beat until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes, scraping down the bowl once or twice.

6. To assemble: Use a paring knife to carve a cone out of the center of each cupcake, leaving at least ¼-inch of cake on the bottom of the cupcakes. Fill each divot with filling. Frost the cupcakes, completely covering the filling. Garnish with cookies and additional chocolate chips, if desired.

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all-grown-up s’mores bars

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I’m going to say something here, and it might shock you: These were too rich, and they were too chocolately. I know, you’re thinking that that isn’t possible because you love rich food. Or you’re thinking that the easy solution is to serve small pieces. But the problem goes beyond that – it’s an issue of balance, of mimicking everything that’s good about a s’more, but in an elegant way that doesn’t require a campfire.

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S’mores are mostly marshmallow, a generous amount of graham cracker, and just a small wedge of chocolate. Any more chocolate and the heat of the marshmallows won’t be able to melt it. It’s a ratio that’s pleased people for generations; we don’t need to change it now.

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These bars, on the other hand, were reversed: almost all chocolate and a smidgen of marshmallow. Both layers on their own were everything you could hope for, the chocolate mousse airy and smooth with enough bitterness to balance the fluffy toasted marshmallow topping. This wasn’t an issue of quality, just of relative quantities.

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So, for the recipe below, I’ve mixed around the ratios. No, I haven’t tried it myself, but each portion is basically the same recipe as the original, just scaled up (in the case of the marshmallow) or down (the chocolate). With these new proportions, you’ll have a treat to please everyone, with plenty of marshmallow and graham cracker and still more chocolate than you get in a real s’more, but not so much that it’s the only thing you notice. All that with no sticky fingers afterward.

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Printer Friendly Recipe
All-Grown-Up S’mores Bars (adapted from Jill O’Connor’s Sticky, Chewy, Messy, Gooey)

For the graham cracker crust:
3 cups crushed graham cracker crumbs (from about 26 full crackers)
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1 tablespoon granulated sugar

For the chocolate filling:
6 large egg yolks
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar, sifted
2 tablespoons cognac or brandy
2 tablespoons Kahlua
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
⅛ teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons (1½ sticks) unsalted butter
1½ tablespoons Dutch-processed cocoa powder
9 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons heavy cream, whipped to soft peaks

For the Marshmallow Fluff meringue:
5 large egg whites
Pinch of salt
⅛ teaspoon cream of tartar
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1½ cup Marshmallow Fluff

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9×13-inch baking pan with oil.

2. To make the crust: Combine the graham cracker crumbs with the melted butter and granulated sugar until well combined. Press into the bottom of the prepared ban. Bake the crust until it starts to brown and become crisp, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely.

3. To make the filling: Using an electric mixer, beat the egg yolks and confectioners’ sugar together in a large bowl until they are thick and the color of butter. Beat in the cognac, Kahlua, vanilla, and salt.

4. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over low heat and whisk in the cocoa powder until smooth. Remove the pan from the heat, add the chocolate, and stir until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth. Let cool slightly, then gradually beat into the egg mixture.

5. Fold the softly beaten heavy cream into the chocolate mixture just until combined. Spoon the chocolate cream over the graham cracker crust, smoothing it evenly with a spatula. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate until very firm, at least 4 hours or up to overnight.

6. When ready to serve, make the meringue: Using an electric mixer set at low speed, beat the egg whites until foamy. Add the salt and cream of tartar and beat at medium speed until soft peaks form. Beat in the vanilla. Add the Marshmallow Fluff to the egg whites a little at a time, beating constantly until stiff peaks form. Spread the meringue on the chocolate layer, using the back of a spoon to create peaks. Toast the meringue using a kitchen torch or the broiler. Cut into squares and serve immediately.

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blackberry pie bars

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We planned a picnic with my sister and her family recently, and two things were certain: I wanted to make these pie bars, and my sister wanted to make potato salad. So we had the important things figured out. I ended up making pizza wraps (the first time I’d ever made wraps!), and she brought deviled eggs. We both threw some cherries into our picnic baskets, because that’s what you do in the summer.

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It was a nice hike in the mountains, and a nice lunch, but mostly I just wanted to get to dessert. And that wasn’t the only waiting I had to do, as these took about three times longer to bake than I was expecting. I was mystified at the time, but eventually I figured out the culprit – the blackberries that I most definitely had not gotten around to defrosting before baking.

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They were certainly worth waiting through the hike (which I enjoyed anyway) and the lunch (same) and the extra oven time (not so much), because they were a perfect casual summer dessert. They had the perfect balance of fruit and buttery dough.  They were the perfect cap to a great picnic in the woods.

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Printer Friendly Recipe
Blackberry Pie Bars (adapted from Rebecca Rather’s The Pastry Queen via Pink Parsley)

Crust and topping:
3 cups (14.4 ounces) all-purpose flour
1½ cups (10.5 ounces) sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1½ cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, chilled

Fruit filling:
4 large eggs
2 cups (14 ounces) sugar
1 cup sour cream
¾ cup (5.25 ounces) flour
¼ teaspoon salt
zest of ½ lemon
1 teaspoon almond extract
2 (16-ounce) packages frozen blackberries, thawed and drained

1. Adjust the rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with nonstick spray.

2. To make the crust and topping, combine the flour, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse a few times to mix. Cut the butter into ½ inch cubes and add it to the flour mixture. Process until the butter is evenly distributed but the mixture is still crumbly, 30-60 seconds.

3. Reserve 1½ cups of the mixture to use as the topping. Press the remaining mixture into the bottom of the pan, and bake 12-15 minutes. Cool for at least 10 minutes.

4. To make the filling, whisk the eggs in a large bowl, then add the sugar, sour cream, flour, salt, lemon zest, and almond extract. Gently fold in the berries and spoon the mixture over the crust. Sprinkle the remaining flour mixture evenly over the filling, and bake 45 to 55 minutes, until the dough is set and lightly browned on top.

5. Cool at least 1 hour before cutting into bars, or scoop out of the pan to serve cobbler-style.

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goat cheese almond strawberry cheesecake

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Sometimes you just nail it. I remember years ago, when I was barely starting to get into making rustic breads, I baked the best baguettes I’d ever made. I don’t remember what meal I cooked to serve with the bread, but I distinctly remember having leftovers of the main dish while we filled up on bread. Later, despite my best efforts, I was never able to reproduce that bread.

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Let’s hope this cheesecake doesn’t go the way of that bread, because I nailed it again and I definitely want it to be just as good next time. It might sound like an odd idea – how could goat cheese in cheesecake be even better than cream cheese? Honestly, I don’t know; I was trying to use up a big package of goat cheese.

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But, it was better. It was the best cheesecake I’ve ever made. Everyone who ate it raved; some said it was the best thing I’ve baked. Most said they wouldn’t have been able to taste the goat cheese if they hadn’t known it was there, and I agree; it was subtle, just a bit of extra tartness. The almond flavor wasn’t noticeable and even the strawberry was on the subtle side, but I’ll tell you this – there is not one thing I’d change about this, because it was perfection. And it had better be just as good, just as soft and creamy, next time I make it.

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Printer Friendly Recipe
Goat Cheese Almond Strawberry Cheesecake (adapted from Love and Olive Oil)

Crust:
8 ounces vanilla wafers, ground to make 2 cups crumbs
1 ounce (¼ cup) almond meal
pinch salt
5 tablespoons butter, melted

Filling:
2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, room temperature
8 ounces goat cheese, room temperature
1 cup (7 ounces) granulated sugar
⅛ teaspoon salt
¼ cup sour cream or Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon almond extract
3 eggs, room temperature
6 ounces whole fresh or frozen strawberries, thawed and drained if frozen, pureed

1. For the crust: Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray the bottom of a springform pan with nonstick spray. Either grind the cookies with a food processor or place them in a ziptop bag and crush with a rolling pin. Add the almond meal, salt, and butter to the crumbs and stir until evenly mixed. Press the crumbs into an even layer covering the bottom of the prepared pan.

2. Bake the crust for 10 minutes, or until fragrant. Let cool on a wire rack. Reduce the oven temperature to 300 degrees.

3. For the cheesecake: With a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or with a hand mixer), beat the cream cheese and goat cheese at medium-low speed until smooth. Add the sugar and salt; continue mixing for about 2 minutes, until the mixture is light and creamy. Add the sour cream and flour, then vanilla and almond extracts, and the eggs one a time, mixing just until each one is incorporated.

4. Pour ¾ of the batter into the cooled crust. Mix the strawberry puree into the remaining batter. Dollop it over the plain batter in the crust and use a butter knife to gently swirl it.

5. Bake for 55 to 65 minutes or until the top is just barely jiggly. Remove the cake from the oven and place on a wire rack; run a thin knife or spatula around the edge to release the cake from the sides of the pan. Let cool completely to room temperature, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight before serving.

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