pumpkin chocolate chip bars

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I try to bring something for my coworkers to snack on once a week. Sometimes I feel guilty for ruining people’s diets, but mostly people seem to appreciate it, and, honestly, I don’t do it for them. I do it so I get to do some baking without doing lots of eating.

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Although squeezing baking into a weeknight isn’t always so easy. By the time we get home, work out, make and eat dinner, and maybe fold some laundry, there isn’t a lot of leftover time. I usually end up staying up later those nights, not to mention making us late for work the next morning while I garnish or cut into squares or whatever each particular dessert requires.

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Recipes like this one make it easy.  It’s mixed like a basic cookie dough, butter then sugar then eggs, half a can of pumpkin, stir in a bag of chocolate chips. There are no individual cookies to scoop, no fillings or toppings, just spread the batter in a pan and bake. And, most importantly, the bars that come out of the oven are soft and tender, pumpkiny and chocolately, and perfectly sized for someone to grab a quick square with their morning coffee.

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Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Bars (adapted from Martha Stewart via Sparks from the Kitchen)

2 cups (9.6 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
¾ teaspoon salt
1¼ cups (8.75 ounces) sugar
1 large egg
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup canned pumpkin puree
1 package (12 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with cooking spray. In a medium-sized bowl, combine the flour, spices, and baking soda.

2. 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 sugar. Continue beating on medium-low 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, then the vanilla. Beat in the pumpkin until blended. Reduce the mixer speed to low and gradually add the flour mixture, mixing just until evenly combined. Stir in the chocolate chips.

3. Spread the batter evenly in the prepared pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the pan comes out dry, 35 to 40 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely before serving.

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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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mulled wine cranberry sauce

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This, finally, is the cranberry sauce I’ve been looking for – the one that is worth making not just because making cranberry sauce is fun, but because this is better than anything you could buy. And it’s no more effort than any other cranberry sauce; the only difference between this and the most basic recipe is that wine is used to simmer the cranberries instead of water, and there are a handful of warm winter spices thrown in.

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With so much wine, you might think that the sauce ends up tasting like wine, but that isn’t the case. It tastes like something much more than the in-your-face tart and sweet of regular cranberry sauce, but it isn’t particularly boozy. It’s just deeper, more complex, with a little buzz on your tongue.

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Unfortunately, with half a bottle of wine stirred into one bag of cranberries, there’s no chance of claiming that all the alcohol cooks off, so this isn’t the best cranberry sauce for kids. That’s why my friend offered to bring a can of jellied cranberry sauce for her kids when I invited them over for a big turkey feast.

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When she forgot, we figured what the heck, what harm could a few tablespoons of winey cranberries do? Not much at all, it turns out, as her son took one spoonful of sauce, noted that there was wine in it, and pushed it aside in favor of the stuffing. So maybe it’s not for everyone, but it’s definitely my new favorite.

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(turkey cranberry green chile sandwich on a crescent roll)

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Mulled Wine Cranberry Sauce (adapted from Bon Appetit via epicurious)

I pressed the sauce through a food mill right after simmering, because I like my cranberry sauce smooth.

zest from 1 orange
1½ cups red wine
½ cup (3.5 ounces) packed brown sugar
½ cup finely chopped crystallized ginger
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
12 ounces fresh cranberries

Combine all of the ingredients in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Reduce the heat to low and simmer uncovered until the berries burst and the mixture thickens, about 20 minutes. Transfer sauce to bowl; chill until cold. (Can be prepared 1 week ahead. Cover and keep refrigerated.)

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butternut squash soup with spiced creme fraiche

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I made this pumpkin mushroom soup a couple days ago using butternut squash instead of pumpkin, and it occurred to me that what was a pumpkin phase four years ago is now a butternut squash phase. I’ve been buying about two a week, and I’ve made all sorts of good stuff, like ravioli, chili, and lentil goat cheese salad. I was going to make squash kale pizza tonight, but some friends are getting together for dinner instead. I’m contributing butternut squash and green chile gratin. I thought about bringing this salad, but I already had it on the menu for next week anyway, so I know I’ll get to eat it soon.

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Butternut squash soup has kind of been on my radar to make, but I tried a recipe a few years ago that was good but nothing special, so I hadn’t gone back to the idea since. I ended up making this for a Saturday night dinner that I wanted to be as fall-y as possible. It was the perfect idea for a first course before roast chicken with potatoes and pan-roasted Brussels sprouts and carrots. Even better, a friend of mine was hosting a fall-themed dinner later that week and didn’t have time to test out a soup recipe, so I was able to help her out.

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I loved the soup, Dave loved the soup, my friend loved the soup, and then later that week, the rest of our group of friends said they loved the soup, several asking for the recipe. It’s kind of a subtle set of flavors, with nothing jumping out individually, but everything works well together. The star anise is interesting; if you think about it when you’re eating, it’s evident, but it and the cinnamon and nutmeg are balanced by the savory bay and thyme. The tart garnish (I made crème fraiche for the party but used Greek yogurt at home) was a nice complement since the soup is on the sweet side. I’m so glad I have a great butternut squash soup recipe after all these years – and it makes perfect sense that I would find it in the middle of a butternut squash phase.

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Butternut Squash Soup with Spiced Creme Fraiche (slightly adapted from Allison Vines-Rushing and Slade Rushing’s Southern Comfort via epicurious)

The original recipe calls for the big spices to be tied up in a cheesecloth bundle before being added to the soup. I’m sure they’re easier to remove before blending this way, but fishing out a few spices from a pot of soup seemed easier to me than digging out the cheesecloth from the pantry.

1 large butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cubed
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 large shallots, sliced
8 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
½ teaspoon ground white pepper
1 bay leaf
1 thyme sprig
1 star anise
4 whole peppercorns
½ cup white wine
8 cups chicken or vegetable broth
½ cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Spiced Crème Fraîche, for accompaniment

1. Place a rimmed baking sheet in the oven; heat the oven to 425 degrees. When it’s hot, remove the pan from the oven and spread the olive oil evenly over the surface. Transfer the squash and a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper to the hot baking sheet; stir to coat. Roast the squash until browned on at least one side, about 25 minutes, stirring once.

2. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook, stirring occasionally, until the edges start to brown, 6-8 minutes. Add the garlic, pepper, bay, thyme, star anise, and peppercorns; cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the wine and cook, scraping the bottom of the pot, until reduced by half. Add the roasted squash, broth, cream, sugar, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to medium-low; cover and simmer for 20 minutes.

3. Remove and discard the bay, thyme, star anise, and peppercorns. Puree the soup, either with an immersion blender or by transferring it in batches to a standup blender. Taste for seasoning and serve immediately, topped with Spiced Crème Fraîche. (Soup can be chilled for several days and reheated.)

Spiced Crème Fraîche

I actually don’t know how much of a difference the spices make, but I did like the tart dairy with the soup. Greek yogurt, sour creme, and crème fraîche will all work just fine.

1 cup crème fraîche
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground ginger

Mix all ingredients.

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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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apple cake

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When I saw this beautiful apple walnut cake, with those perfectly arranged apple slices on top, I wanted to make it as soon as possible. I bought the walnuts and apples, I printed out the recipe, and then I…I made a different cake.

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I just couldn’t get past the step that required slicing apples fussily thin and fussily arranging the slices in the pan. I want to be the type of person who spends the time to precisely arrange fruit for the prettiest possible dessert, but I am just not.

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But I have no regrets. The cake I made instead is more rustic than the one that had initially caught my eye, but no less delicious for it. In this case, instead of paper thin apples painstakingly arranged in a pretty pattern, the apples are unceremoniously spread in two layers, one in the middle of the cake and one on top. You still have to peel and core the apples, but the coarse cut takes a fraction of the time as getting out the mandoline to make even slices.

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In its own tall, straight-sided way, this cake is just as impressive as the other. It’s also rich and moist and just sweet enough, filled with baked apples that taste just like fall. I still want to try the apple walnut cake, but it’s going to require magical amounts of free time and patience, especially now that I have an easier recipe in my back pocket.

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One year ago: Notes on planning a Thanksgiving feast
Two years ago: Cranberry Shortbread Cake
Three years ago: Buffalo Chicken Pizza
Four years ago: Breakfast Tacos

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Apple Cake (adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

Apples:
3 pounds apples (about 6 medium), peeled, cored, chopped into ¼- to ½-inch pieces
1 tablespoon cinnamon
5 tablespoons sugar

Cake:
2¾ cups (13.2 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup vegetable oil
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, melted
2 cups (14 ounces) sugar
¼ cup orange juice
1 tablespoon vanilla
4 eggs

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a tube pan, preferably with removable sides, with nonstick spray.

2. In a medium bowl, combine the apples, cinnamon, and 5 tablespoons sugar.

3. In a separate medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and salt in a large mixing bowl. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs, then add the oil, butter, orange juice, sugar, and vanilla. Add the flour mixture to the bowl with the oil mixture and stir to incorporate.

4. Pour half of the batter into the prepared pan. Spread half of apples over it. Pour the remaining batter over the apples, then arrange the remaining apples on top. Bake for 1 hour 15 minutes to 1 hour 30 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean.

5. Transfer the cake to a cooling rack. After 15 minutes, remove the cake from the pan. Cool at least an hour before serving. The cake will keep, covered tightly, for up to 2 days.

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cinnamon macarons with apple buttercream

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Macarons have been all the rage recently, and yet, I’ve had no real desire to make them myself. This, even though they’re known to be finicky, and I do love making my life unnecessarily complicated. But while I do love a challenge, I don’t particularly love meringue cookies.

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This is probably because I’ve never gotten them quite right, as they always seem to be chewy in the center instead of crisp the whole way through. Maybe the precise directions included with many macaron recipes could help me avoid this pitfall. If not, at least they’d be filled with swiss meringue buttercream.

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One of the hallmarks of good macarons is the foamy feet around the bottom edge, which show that your macarons rose up in the oven instead of spreading out. When I started to see those feet form, I made Dave come over to look through the oven window with me and give me a high-five. I was also happy with the smooth tops of the cookies, and it goes without saying that I was happy with the apple buttercream, which was noticeably and pleasantly appley.

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The only problem? A chewy center. I guess practice makes perfect. Fortunately, I think it’s safe to say that meringues are good enough to make again.

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One year ago: Butternut Squash Risotto
Two years ago: Pomegranate Glazed Salmon
Three years ago: Sun-Dried Tomato Jam
Four years ago: Sushi Bowls

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Cinnamon Macarons with Apple Buttercream (adapted from Tartelette)

Makes about 20 sandwich cookies

For a lot of meringue-making tips, read Tartelette’s article.

Meringues:
110 grams blanched almonds or almond meal
200 grams powdered sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon
100 grams egg whites (from about 3 large eggs), aged overnight
25 grams sugar
Pinch salt

Apple buttercream:
4 egg whites
1¼ cups (8.75 ounces) granulated sugar
Pinch salt
24 tablespoons (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
⅓ cup apple butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. In a food processor, process the almonds and powdered sugar until the nuts are finely ground. In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or a large bowl with a handheld mixer), beat the egg whites, sugar, and salt on medium-high speed (high speed if using a stand mixer) until soft peaks form. Use a large rubber spatula to fold the nut mixture into the egg mixture. After about 50 folds, the batter should be evenly mixed, with no streaks of egg white.

2. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone mats. Spray the lined sheets lightly with cooking spray. Transfer the batter to a piping bag fitted with a wide (about ½-inch) round tip. Pipe quarter-sized rounds onto the prepared pans, leaving about an inch between rounds. Gently rap the baking sheet against the counter to pop any large bubbles. Set the piped dough aside for 1 hour.

3. Adjust a rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 300 degrees. Bake one sheet at a time until the cookies are lightly browned around the bottom edges, about 15 minutes. Transfer the baking sheet to a wire rack; cool for about 5 minutes, then use a thin spatula to transfer the cookies from the pan to the wire rack. Cool completely before filling.

4. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or a large bowl if using a hand-held mixer), combine the egg whites, sugar, and salt. Set the bowl over a pot of simmering water, making sure the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water. Whisk constantly until the mixture reaches 160 degrees.

5. 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 8 minutes. Reduce the mixer speed to medium and add the butter 2 tablespoons at a time, adding more once each addition has been incorporated. Increase the mixer speed to medium-high and beat until the buttercream is thick and smooth, 3-5 minutes. Add apple butter and vanilla; mix until incorporated.

6. Pipe the buttercream onto the flat sides of half of the cookies.  Top with the remaining cookies.  Serve immediately or cover and store overnight in the refrigerator (bring to cool room temperature before serving).

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candy corn cheesecake

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I don’t know what it is about candy corn that makes some people eat it until they’re sick, but for the people who love it, they can’t seem to resist.  My sister is one of those people.  She also considers cheesecake one of her favorite desserts, so obviously a cheesecake baked to look like candy corn was the perfect dessert for her.

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It’s just a regular cheesecake with colored batter poured into divided rings. The dividers are carefully removed before baking. However, I refused to buy a special cake batter divider tool, so I looked around my kitchen for alternatives. A 6-inch springform pan would work for the outer ring, and I went really low-tech for the inner ring – a Dixie cup with the bottom cut off. There was some leakage of each color below the dividers, but I think that would be hard to avoid with nearly any set up.

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As for which cheesecake recipe to use, that was easy. It was a cake for my sister, so I made her favorite. It worked perfectly – the batter was thin enough that it didn’t stick to the dividers when I removed them, but thick enough not to mix once the dividers were removed.  My sister loved it just as much as I knew she would – and she even managed to restrain herself from eating it until she felt sick.

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One year ago: Butternut Squash Risotto
Two years ago: Pomegranate-Glazed Salmon
Three years ago: Sun-Dried Tomato Jam
Four years ago: Sushi Bowls

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Candy Corn Cheesecake (adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s Tall and Creamy Cheesecake)

Makes 16 servings

I didn’t want the cheesecake to be too tall, because I wanted slices to have the approximate dimensions of one piece of candy corn, so I cut the recipe down by a fourth, but I think it was too short then. I’ve increased the ingredient amounts back to those in the original recipe, so your cheesecake will be taller than mine.

For the crust:
4 ounces graham crackers (about 8 full crackers)
2 tablespoons sugar
⅛ teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

For the cheesecake:
4 (8-ounce packages) cream cheese, at room temperature
1⅓ cup (9.33 ounces) sugar
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1⅓ cups sour cream

1. For the crust: Grease a 9-inch springform pan and wrap the bottom of the pan in aluminum foil. Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. In the food processor, process the graham crackers until finely ground; 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 of the prepared pan. Bake until fragrant and beginning to brown around the edges, 10 to 12 minutes. Cool on a wire rack while preparing the filling. Reduce the oven temperature to 325°F.

3. For the cheesecake: Working in a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the cream cheese at medium speed until it is soft and creamy, about 4 minutes. With the mixer running, add the sugar and salt and continue to beat another 2 minutes, until the cream cheese is light. Beat in the vanilla. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until each is thoroughly combined. Reduce the mixer speed to low and stir in the sour cream.

4. Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil. Place the foil-wrapped springform pan in a larger baking dish.

5. Arrange molds of 2-inch diameter and 6-inch diameter in the springform pan. Pour uncolored batter into the smallest mold in the middle, to a height about 1-inch below the top of the pan. Color the remaining batter yellow and fill the outermost ring. Use a small amount of red food coloring to color the remaining batter orange and pour the rest of the batter into the second ring. Carefully remove the molds by lifting them straight up out of the batter.

6. Pour the boiling water into the baking dish around the springform pan. Transfer to the oven and bake for 1 hour and 30 minutes, until the center jiggles like jello when lightly shook and a thermometer inserted into the center of the cheesecake reads 150 degrees. Turn the oven off, prop open the oven door, and leave the cheesecake in the oven for another hour.

7. Remove the cheesecake from the oven and the water bath. Cool on a wire rack until it reaches room temperature, then transfer to the refrigerator and chill for at least 4 hours or up to a week.

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chocolate oreo blackberry cake

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I know there are bakers out there who are sad when their birthday rolls around and none of their friends offer to bake them a cake, because their friends are all used to the baker making the cakes. Or maybe their friends don’t feel like their cake could ever live up to one of the baker’s cakes. But even if the baker is the one known for their delicious and beautiful birthday cakes, a birthday cake is more than dessert, it’s a gift, so I understand why people are disappointed when no one makes them one.

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But I am not one of those bakers. Without family or a large group of friends nearby, my opportunities to make dramatic layer cakes are few and far between. My birthday is one of those rare chances, and I soak it up for all its worth. For me, letting me bake my own cake is the gift.

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This year, I did have someone to share that cake with, when my family celebrated my birthday on vacation last week on the beach in Mexico. Vacation baking holds its own challenges, but I can adapt. I did as much as possible at home – mixing up the dry ingredients, measuring and crushing the oreos, and making and freezing the buttercream. The cake itself is an easy one to mix up, no mixer required, but the swiss meringue buttercream needed to be re-whipped after defrosting to restore its smooth and airy texture. My original intention was to smooth the buttercream over the top and sides of the cake and coat the cake with a glossy and dramatic chocolate glaze, but with the scalloped edges of the disposable pans I baked the cakes in, that seemed like a messy prospect. Fortunately, I love the look of an open-sided cake like this.

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With eight people to share it with, this cake went fast! It probably doesn’t hurt that chocolate and berries are such a great flavor combination, not to mention that everyone loves moist cake and fluffy frosting. And the best part is that, since my family celebrated early and this cake was gone by my actual birthday, I get to make another cake just for me!

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One year ago: Pesto
Two years ago: Banana Peanut Butter Muffins
Three years ago: Lemon Meringue Cake
Four years ago: Black (and Pink) and White Chocolate Cake

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Chocolate Oreo Blackberry Cake (cake adapted from Dessert for Breakfast; buttercream adapted from Martha Stewart)

Makes one three-layer 8-inch cake

Note that the 8 ounces of blackberries is before straining. You should end up with about ¾ cup (which is 6 ounces both by weight and volume) of puree.

Cake:
2 cups (8 ounces) cake flour
2 cups (14 ounces) sugar
1 cup (4 ounces) Dutch-processed cocoa powder
1 teaspoon table salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 eggs, room temperature
½ cup vegetable oil
1 cup milk, room temperature
1 cup hot coffee

Buttercream:
8 ounces (by weight; about 1¼ cups) blackberries, pureed and strained
3 egg whites
1 cup (7 ounces) sugar
pinch salt
18 tablespoons (2¼ sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

For assembly:
18 Oreos, coarsely chopped or crumbled

1. For the cake: Adjust a rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour three 8-inch round pans.

2. In a large bowl, mix the flour, sugar, cocoa, salt, and baking powder, and baking soda. In a separate bowl, mix the eggs, oil, and milk. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and whisk until evenly distributed. Pour in the coffee and mix until smooth.

3. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans. Bake for 25 to 35 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of a cake comes out clean. Transfer to a wire rack and let the cakes cool for 10 minutes. Use a knife to loosen the sides of the cakes from the pans, then invert the cakes onto the wire rack and remove the pans. Cool completely before frosting.

4. For the buttercream: Combine the egg whites, sugar, and salt in a heatproof mixer bowl set over a pot of simmering water. Whisk until the sugar dissolves and the mixture registers 160 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Remove the bowl from heat and attach it to a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat on medium-high speed until stiff peaks form and the mixture has cooled to room temperature, about 8 minutes. Reduce the speed to medium and add the butter, 2 tablespoons at a time, beating after each addition. With the mixer on low, add the strained blackberry puree, mixing just until incorporated. Use immediately, or cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days. (Bring to room temperature, and beat on low speed until smooth before using.)

5. To assemble the cake: If necessary, trim the top of each layer to make a flat, even surface. Transfer one layer to a cake plate or large platter. Spread one-third of the buttercream over the cake, then distribute one-third of the crushed cookies evenly over the buttercream. Repeat the layering of cake, buttercream, and oreos twice more. Serve immediately or loosely cover for up to 8 hours.

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lentil salad with squash and goat cheese

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The Great Cookie Craze that is December perplexes me. I understand that with various holiday-related celebrations, there are more opportunities for feasts and drinks than at other times of the year, but the cookie mania goes beyond parties. People send dozens of treats out to families and friends, most of whom are making their own dozens of cookies. The number of cookies in the world exponentially increases for a month.

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The tide turns in January, which, without any significant celebration of its own, becomes the Undo the Holidays month. Poor January, but really, it isn’t such a bad thing. After all, healthy food tastes good too, particularly healthy food that includes goat cheese.

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Tart goat cheese mixed with sweet winter squash is becoming one of my favorite flavor combinations, and kale, with its bitter notes, and lentils, with its meatiness, make it even better. Or, if kale isn’t your thing, arugula adds some freshness to the plate. Nothing about this salad feels like punishment for the past month’s excesses.  But have a cookie afterward anyway; December shouldn’t get to have all the fun.

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One year ago: Nutty Chocolately Swirly Sour Cream Bundt Cake
Two years ago: Chocolate Oatmeal Almost Candy Bars
Three years ago: Herbed Lima Bean Hummus
Four years ago: Pissaladiere

Printer Friendly Recipe
Lentil Salad with Squash and Goat Cheese (adapted from Bon Appétit via Smitten Kitchen)

Serves 4

The original recipe calls for arugula, which I used the first time I made this. (Actually, the pictures seem to indicate I used mixed greens.) The second time, I used kale, which I like even more. I wrote the directions for kale into the recipe; if you use arugula instead, simply add it to the salad at the end. You can also use a smaller pot to cook the lentils if you’re not adding the kale.

¾ cup green lentils
salt
1 butternut squash, peeled and cut into ½-inch cubes, seeds reserved
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon olive oil, divided
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon paprika
1 bunch kale, ribs removed, leaves coarsely chopped
4 ounces goat cheese, crumbled
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar, plus additional to taste

1. Place the butternut squash on a sheet pan. Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, the spices, and ½ teaspoon salt; toss to coat. Roast the squash for 25 minutes, turning once. In a small bowl, mix the cleaned squash seeds with the remaining 1 teaspoon oil and a pinch of salt. Add the seeds to the baking sheet with the squash and continue to roast until the squash is tender and the seeds are browned.

2. Combine the lentils, ½ teaspoon salt, and 3 cups of water in a 3- to 4-quart saucepan; bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer until the lentils are tender, 18-20 minutes. Add the kale to the pot during the last 2-3 minutes of simmering. (The kale will overwhelm the size of the pot at first but will quickly wilt.)

3. Combine the lentils, squash, kale, goat cheese, and vinegar. Season with salt, pepper, and extra vinegar, if desired. Serve.

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