gingerbread cake

I’m very aware when putting up Christmas decorations that they’re going to need to be taken back down soon enough. I keep my decorations minimal. A 2-foot tree I bought in college, one string of lights, some pretty candles. When we get back from visiting our families a week after Christmas and start dreading the return to work on Monday, it’ll only take a few minutes to pack up the holidays until next year. I won’t make treats for that.

But I did make treats for decorating. It hardly seems worth it, since it took us longer to dig the box of Christmas stuff out of the garage than it did to spread the cheer around the living room, but everything is more fun with food. Gingerbread is the perfect accompaniment to Pandora’s Holiday Jazz station and the ceramic trees my Grandma gave me ten years ago.

I’ve never had a bad gingerbread, but this one – dense and spicy and moist – is just perfect for December. Maybe I will make another batch when we put the decorations away…

One year ago: Brussels Sprouts Braised in Cream
Two years ago: Candied Orange Peel

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Gingerbread (from Claudia Fleming via Smitten Kitchen)

Please note that this cake is better if made a day in advance. After removing it from the pan, let it cool completely, then wrap it tightly in plastic wrap.

Cooks Illustrated recently published a recipe for gingerbread that’s very similar to this, except they stir the batter a bit more to give it more structure, to avoid the sinking that’s evident in the photo above.

1 cup oatmeal stout or Guinness Stout
1 cup dark molasses (not blackstrap)
½ teaspoon baking soda
2 cups (9.6 ounces) all-purpose flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch of ground cardamom
3 large eggs
1 cup (7 ounces) packed dark brown sugar
1 cup (7 ounces) granulated sugar
¾ cup vegetable oil
confectioners sugar for dusting
lightly sweetened whipped cream for serving (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Generously butter a bundt pan and dust with flour, knocking out excess.

2. Bring the stout and molasses to a boil in a 2-quart saucepan and remove from heat. Whisk in baking soda; cool to room temperature.

3. Sift together the flour, baking powder, and spices in a large bowl. Whisk together the eggs and sugars in a separate bowl. Whisk the oil, then the molasses into the egg mixture. Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture; whisk until combined.

4. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and rap the pan sharply on counter to eliminate air bubbles. Bake in the middle of the oven until a tester comes out with just a few moist crumbs adhering, about 50 minutes. Cool cake in pan on a rack 5 minutes. Turn out onto rack and cool completely.

5. Serve cake, dusted with confectioners sugar, with whipped cream, if desired.

R.I.P. This cake stand, which I broke 30 seconds after taking these pictures.

bolognese sauce comparison

(Anne Burrell’s recipe)

Have you ever had a traditional Bolognese sauce? Not just tomato sauce with ground meat mixed in, but one that involves milk and wine and hours of simmering. Just a few ingredients, but when they’re combined just right, the result is a complex, rich blend with incredible depth. Served over a bowl of creamy polenta with a sprinkling of parmesan cheese and a glass of good red wine on the side, there can be no more comforting, warming food.

The first Bolognese I made was Marcella Hazen’s recipe. She is to Italian food what Julia Child is to French food; certainly a trusted source. In her method, a class mirepoix (or, technically, “soffritto” in Italian) of carrots, celery and onions is lightly cooked in butter, then ground meat is added and cooked just until it loses its pink. Stir in milk and let it bubble until only its delicious fat is left in the pot, then pour over some wine and let it simmer away, and only then, finally, after an hour of slow simmering, are the tomatoes (whole, canned) added – and simmered for 3 more hours.

After all that, however, I found Hazan’s recipe to be a little too vegetably. But Cooks Illustrated’s recipe for classic Bolognese is identical except for a smaller amount of vegetables. With only a couple tablespoons each of onions, carrots, and celery, it almost seems like they’re not worth adding, but there isn’t a thing I would change about the recipe.

Bolognese sauce takes a lot of time, yes, but it isn’t a lot of work. It’s my favorite type of recipe, in that it’s undemanding, but if you do happen to be in the kitchen (and I always am) you can stir to your heart’s content. But I suppose the long simmering time intimidates people, because there are a crop of supposedly weeknight friendly Bolognese sauce recipes popping up. In general, I’m not a fan of these types of recipes, because what they save in cooking time they make up for in ingredient prep.

(Cooks Illustrated’s Classic Bolognese)

Then I kept seeing another type of Bolognese with great reviews. This one uses only tomato paste as its source of tomato flavor. And if anything can be identified as authentic in a recipe like Bolognese, it’s the tomato paste version, with a heavier meat influence and just a hint of tomatoes.

(Cooks Illustrated’s Classic Bolognese)

Authenticity aside, I wanted to know which was best. So I baked up three batches – my favorite version from Cooks Illustrated, their weeknight version, and Anne Burrell’s annoying (please don’t yell at me in the recipe, thank you) but well-reviewed tomato paste-based recipe.


(Anne Burrell’s recipe)

The quicker “weeknight-friendly” recipe was, as I expected, the most work, with more ingredients and dishes necessary to mimic the slow-cooked flavor of the other two recipes. However, after all that and a shorter cooking time, its flavor did nicely mimic that of the other, more tomato-rich Cooks Illustrated recipe. I don’t believe Dave could tell the difference. My only complaint was that the meat was slightly tough.

Dave had a few interesting comments about Burrell’s Bolognese. The sauce is simply a classic mirepoix, beef, wine, tomato paste, and herbs, yet Dave detected flavors of mushrooms and possibly Worchestershire sauce in it – two ingredients high in umami, the fifth basic flavor that is best described by “meaty”. In fact, mushrooms are added to CI’s quick Bolognese to increase the meaty flavor that doesn’t have time to develop through a long simmer. One thing that was obvious to both me and Dave was the unusual texture of Burrell’s sauce; to me, it seemed slightly mealy, but Dave was kinder with “fine-grained”.

(Cooks Illustrated’s Weeknight Bolognese)

Dave couldn’t choose a favorite, with his usual “different but good” response, but I’m still stuck on my classic, tomato-heavy slow-simmered method. It’s intensely rich and meaty, but it has a bright balance from the tomatoes. Burrell’s meatier sauce was delicious too, and maybe all those tomatoes aren’t quite as traditional, but, frankly, I like tomatoes. And since Bolognese – any version – is one of those dishes that improves by being made in advance and will suffer no ill effects from being frozen, I see no reason to spend extra time cooking a supposedly quicker “weeknight-friendly” version. Besides, I like watching ingredients bubble away, increasing in intensity as they decrease in volume until they settle into something delicious.

left to right: CI Classic, CI Weeknight, Anne Burrell

One year ago: Thai-Style Chicken Soup
Two years ago: Pumpkin Ginger Muffins

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Classic Bolognese (from Cooks Illustrated)

Enough to top 1 pound of dried pasta

If you double this recipe – and considering how well it freezes and reheats, you should – the simmering times will need to be extended.

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons minced onion
2 tablespoons minced carrot
2 tablespoons minced celery
¾ pound ground beef chuck
table salt
1 cup whole milk
1 cup dry white wine
1 (28 ounce) can whole tomatoes, packed in juice, chopped fine, with juice reserved

1. Heat butter in large, heavy-bottomed Dutch oven over medium heat; add onion, carrot, and celery and sautè until softened but not browned, about 6 minutes. Add ground meat and ½ teaspoon salt; crumble meat with edge of wooden spoon to break apart into tiny pieces. Cook, continuing to crumble meat, just until it loses its raw color but has not yet browned, about 3 minutes.

2. Add milk and bring to simmer; continue to simmer until milk evaporates and only clear fat remains, 10 to 15 minutes. Add wine and bring to simmer; continue to simmer until wine evaporates, 10 to 15 minutes longer. Add tomatoes and their juice and bring to simmer; reduce heat to low so that sauce continues to simmer just barely, with an occasional bubble or two at the surface, until liquid has evaporated, about 3 hours. Adjust seasonings with extra salt to taste and serve. (Can be refrigerated in an airtight container for several days or frozen for several months. Warm over low heat before serving.)

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Bolognese Sauce (slightly rewritten to remove all of Anne Burrell’s vulgarity)

Enough to top 1 pound of dried pasta

1 large onion or 2 small, cut into 1-inch dice
2 large carrots, cut into ½-inch dice
3 ribs celery, cut into 1-inch dice
4 cloves garlic
Extra-virgin olive oil, for the pan
Kosher salt
3 pounds ground chuck, brisket or round or combination
2 cups tomato paste
3 cups hearty red wine
Water
3 bay leaves
1 bunch thyme, tied in a bundle

1. In a food processor, puree onion, carrots, celery, and garlic into a coarse paste. Heat a large pan over medium heat; add a slick of oil. Add the pureed vegetables and season generously with salt. Bring the pan to medium-high heat and cook until all the water has evaporated and they brown, stirring frequently, about 15 to 20 minutes.

2. Add the ground beef and season again generously with salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, 15-20 minutes, until browned.

3. Add the tomato paste and cook until brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the red wine. Cook until the wine has reduced by half, another 4 to 5 minutes.

4. Add water to the pan until water is about 1 inch above the meat. Toss in the bay leaves and the bundle of thyme and stir to combine. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce to a simmer, stirring occasionally. As the water evaporates you will gradually need to add more, about 2 to 3 cups at a time. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for 3½ to 4 hours. Adjust the seasoning with salt and serve immediately.

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Weeknight Bolognese (from Cooks Illustrated)

Enough to top 1 pound of dried pasta

½ ounce dried porcini mushrooms
1¼ cup white wine (Riesling, gewürztraminer, white zinfandel, xx)
½ small carrot, peeled and chopped into rough 1/2-inch pieces
½ small onion, chopped into rough 1/2-inch pieces
3 ounces pancetta, cut into 1-inch pieces
28 ounces whole tomatoes with juice
1½ tablespoon unsalted butter
1 small garlic clove, pressed through garlic press or minced
1 teaspoon sugar
1¼ pound meatloaf mix or equal amounts 80 percent lean ground beef, ground veal, and ground pork
1½ cup whole milk
2 tablespoons tomato paste
Salt
⅛ teaspoon ground black pepper

1. Cover porcini mushrooms with ½ cup water in small microwave-safe bowl; cover bowl with plastic wrap, cut a few steam vents with paring knife, and microwave on high power for 30 seconds. Let stand until mushrooms have softened, about 5 minutes. Using fork, lift porcini from liquid and transfer to second small bowl; pour soaking liquid through mesh strainer lined with paper towel. Set porcini and strained liquid aside.

2. Bring wine to simmer in 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat; reduce heat to low and simmer until wine is reduced to 2 tablespoons, about 20 minutes. Set reduced wine aside.

3. Meanwhile, pulse carrot in food processor until broken down into rough ¼-inch pieces, about ten 1-second pulses. Add onion; pulse until vegetables are broken down to ⅛-inch pieces, about ten 1-second pulses. Transfer vegetables to small bowl. Process softened porcini until well ground, about 15 seconds, scraping down bowl if necessary. Transfer porcini to bowl with onions and carrots. Process pancetta until pieces are no larger than ¼ inch, 30 to 35 seconds, scraping down bowl if necessary; transfer to small bowl. Pulse tomatoes with juice until chopped fine, 6 to 8 one-second pulses.

4. Heat butter in 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat; when foaming subsides, add pancetta and cook, stirring frequently, until well browned, about 2 minutes. Add carrot, onion, and porcini; cook, stirring frequently, until vegetables are softened but not browned, about 4 minutes. Add garlic and sugar; cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add ground meats, breaking meat into 1- inch pieces with wooden spoon, about 1 minute. Add milk and stir to break meat into ½-inch bits; bring to simmer, reduce heat to medium, and continue to simmer, stirring to break up meat into small pieces, until most liquid has evaporated and meat begins to sizzle, 18 to 20 minutes. Stir in tomato paste and cook until combined, about 1 minute. Add tomatoes, reserved porcini soaking liquid, ¼ teaspoon salt, and pepper; bring to simmer over medium-high heat, then reduce heat to medium and simmer until liquid is reduced and sauce is thickened but still moist, 12 to 15 minutes. Stir in reduced wine and simmer to blend flavors, about 5 minutes.

(Cooks Illustrated’s Weeknight Bolognese)

cranberry apple galette

I used to have a friend who always served steamed broccoli with her lasagna. “Everyone does salad with their lasagna”, she scoffed. But it seems to me that everyone does it because it works so well.

Cranberry and orange are another combination that is classic simply because it’s good. Cranberry and lime…well, I don’t know, because I wasn’t brave enough to try it. I do love tart foods, but since I knew I’d be sharing these, I took the safe and familiar route with cranberry and orange.

And it tasted just as good as I expected. I’m almost positive the cranberry-lime variation would have been wonderful too. Of course I can’t be sure, having taken the safe route.

The sisters of Celestial Confections chose this galette for Tuesdays with Dorie, and they have the recipe posted. Make minis at your own time-consuming risk, by cutting 3-inch circles from the rolled dough and stuffing them in muffin cups before filling. Don’t bother trying to fold the sides in. Bake until bubbling and browned, 18-20 minutes.  Also, I used this galette dough, because I already had some in the freezer.  I suspect its malleability helps with maneuvering the dough circles into muffin cups.

One year ago: Cran-Apple Crisps
Two years ago: Rice Pudding

cranberry shortbread cake

I finally figured out this cake. Before I saw the whole recipe title, I thought it was cranberry shortbread, and I was picturing something like lemon squares but with cranberry sauce on top – which, by the way, is a great idea. Then I realized it was a cake and pictured fluffy layers below and on top of the jam.

Once I was eating it, I realized that it’s like strawberry shortcake – except in cake form! Which really explains why it’s called shortbread cake, doesn’t it?

It’s a fun concept, even if isn’t my brilliant lemon-but-actually-cranberry-squares idea. In fact, I think it tastes kind of like Christmas. I hadn’t realized that Christmas tasted like a sweet-tart cranberry jam paired with a flaky light sweet biscuit/cake/cookie. But I’m not surprised.

Jessica chose this for Tuesdays with Dorie, and she has the recipe posted. I skipped the orange segments in the cranberry jam (but did use the zest and juice). I strained my cranberries through a food mill, mostly because I don’t get to use my food mill very often but also because I think cranberry skins are irritating. I increased the salt in the cake too, and I added a pinch of salt to the cranberry jam.

One year ago: Chocolate Caramel Chestnut Cake
Two years ago: Kugelhopf

fold-over pear torte

You didn’t think I’d miss a week of Tuesdays with Dorie, did you? I’ve been in the group for two and a half years, haven’t missed a week yet, and don’t plan to start now. Being late is, of course, a different story. Being late is what I do.

Although if I’d realized how involved this recipe was, I might have procrastinated enough to be even later – pie crust, peeled and chopped fruit, and a custard that involves a mixer. Having overzealously planned my weekend cooking (as always), I jumped in, rushed, without looking at the recipe, with the kitchen counters covered in dinner dishes.

My measurements were imprecise, my rolling was sloppy. While the tart baked, I shaped over-risen bagel dough, realizing too late that the tart and the bagels needed the same oven at the same time but at very different temperatures. The bagels won and the tart (torte?) was under-browned.

But good nonetheless. Pears and rummy custard and dough are such a great combination. Even if it was a lot of steps. It’s worth it to keep my unbroken record of not skipping a week (although not necessarily being on time).

Cakelaw chose this for TWD and has the recipe posted.

One year ago: Chocolate-Crunched Caramel Tart
Two years ago: Lenox Almond Biscotti

cream cheese spritz

I was so disappointed a few years ago, when I was sure I had a great family recipe to share, something everyone I knew who’d tried it had loved, something I hadn’t seen before on other cookie plates, something that had been a classic in my family for as long as I could remember.

But, a quick internet search indicated that everyone knew about cream cheese spritz cookies already! It’s on every well-established recipe website, in every magazine at some point in its history, in so many blogs, and hey! It’s in this blog now too. And not even at Christmastime! Yes, I make cream cheese spritz year round, because they are so darn good.

That being said…there are other spritz cookie recipes out there that are worth making, right? Please let me know if you have any! It would be nice to get some more use out of my cookie press. Although, even if I only use it for this one recipe, it’s worth having just for that.


Poor deformed cookies. Clearly I need more spritz practice.

One year ago: Basic Lentil Soup
Two years ago: Snickery Squares

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Cream Cheese Spritz

I’ve tweaked the amount of butter and cream cheese from the standard recipe, just so that it uses a more convenient amount of cream cheese. Also so that it’s even cream cheesier, which is never a bad thing.

14 tablespoons (1¾ sticks) unsalted butter, softened
4 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup (7 ounces) sugar
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2½ cups flour (12 ounces) all-purpose flour

1. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 350ºF. Line a baking sheet with a silicone mat or parchment paper.

2. Fit the mixer with the paddle attachment and add the butter and cream cheese to the mixer bowl (or a large mixing bowl with a hand-held mixer). Beat on medium-low speed until the butter and cream cheese are soft and creamy, about 1 minute. Add the salt, then, with the mixer running, slowly pour in the sugar. Continue mixing on medium speed until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. With the mixer running, add the egg yolk and vanilla and beat until thoroughly incorporated, about 1 minute, stopping the scrape the mixer bowl as necessary. Reduce to mixer speed to its lowest setting and gradually add the flour, mixing just until incorporated.

3. Fill the cookie press with the dough. Spritz the cookies onto the prepared baking sheet.

4. Bake the cookies for 8-10 minutes, until they no longer look wet on top and the edges are slightly browned. Let the cookies cool for several minutes on the baking sheet, then transfer to wire racks to cook completely. Sealed in an airtight bag, the cookies will keep for several days.

roll-out sugar cookie comparison

You know those people who decorate sugar cookies so beautifully it’s hard to believe those works are art are edible? Yeah, I am not one of them. I haven’t made sugar cookies in months, and you know why? It’s a pain in the butt, and the results of my decorating are never up to my standards.

You know what’s even more of a pain in the butt? Making five different recipes! On the other hand, if I’m going to go through the trouble of mixing, rolling, baking, and decorating cookies, I want to be sure I’m using the best recipe I can, and it’s hard to know that without making a bunch and comparing. So that’s what I did.

I asked around to see what recipes people recommended and settled on this one from Annie’s Eats, this one from Ashlee’s Year in the Kitchen, this one from Martha Stewart, and the version I’ve been using for the last year or so, an adaptation of this one. (That’s only four recipes and I said I made five – I messed one up and had to remake it.) Because it’s easy to adapt the flavorings to personal preference, I used the same amount of vanilla, almond extract, and lemon zest in each recipe.

What I’m looking for in a sugar cookie is full flavor – some are bland – and tenderness without being too delicate. It needs to hold its shape of course, although I’m not opposed to a slight puff in the oven. I think a few flecks of lemon zest give sugar cookies a more balanced flavor without making them noticeably lemony. I am not particularly interested in recipes that do not require an overnight rest, as they tend to require too much flour, resulting in a bland, tough cookie. This actually makes sugar cookies a convenient comparison post because I could divide the tasks into separate days – making the dough, rolling it out, baking it, and decorating the cookies.

I thought all of the recipes were equally easy to mix up and roll out. I thought they all held their shape adequately during baking, although Ashlee’s cookies puffed a bit more than the others, while Annie’s were on the other extreme, retaining perfectly straight sides in the oven.

After tasting, the two favorite recipes were mine and Ashlee’s. The cookies from my recipe (the gorillas) were described as soft, chewy and flavorful. Ashlee’s (the tigers) were puffy, fluffy, and soft – tasters like the texture better but there was a slight preference for the flavor of my recipe.

Annie’s cookies (the elephants) were soft, although not chewy, but they were powdery and not as flavorful. Because this recipe uses only powdered sugar with no granulated sugar, the powdery texture is not a surprise. I’m sure this all relates to how well they hold their shape during baking as well, in addition to the lack of any chemical leavener. The universal least favorite was Martha Stewart’s recipe (the hippos), which was too hard, too chewy, and too dense, perhaps because it uses less butter than any of the others.


(I would just like to clarify that Dave outlined the hippo and gorilla. I was happy for his help, and I think he might even have had a little bit of fun.)

Which will I choose in the future? Oh, who knows. Probably my recipe, because it’s a classic sugar cookie recipe. There are no tricks up its sleeve; it just happens to have just the right ratio of ingredients. And for the record, the one thing that all of my tasters agreed on after I made them compare the cookies pre-frosting was that buttercream makes sugar cookies that much better.

One year ago: Lemon Cream Cheese Bars
Two years ago: Raspberry Bars (these are wonderful)

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Roll-out Sugar Cookies

2½ cups (12 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 egg
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon almond extract
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup (7 ounces) granulated sugar
¼ teaspoon lemon zest

1. In a medium bowl, mix the flour and baking powder. In a one-cup measuring cup, lightly beat the egg with the extracts.

2. In the bowl of a standing mixer (or in a large bowl with a handheld mixer), beat the butter and salt on medium speed until smooth. With the mixer running, gradually pour in the sugar; add the lemon zest. Beat on medium until fluffy, about 1 minute. With the mixer running, pour in the egg mixture and continue beating until incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the mixer bowl. With the mixer on low, gradually add the flour and mix just until evenly blended.

3. Lightly knead the dough to form a ball, press it into a disk 1-inch thick, and wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 2 hours or overnight.

4. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. Adjust a rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 375F. If you’ve chilled the dough overnight, it’ll need to sit at room temperature for half an hour or so to soften slightly. On a very lightly floured sheet of wax paper with a sheet of plastic wrap on top of the dough, roll the dough out to ¼-inch thick. Cut cookies using a floured cookie cutter. Re-roll scraps, always using as little flour as necessary.

5. Bake the cookies, one sheet at a time, for 5-9 minutes, until they no longer look wet on top. The baking time will depend on the size of the cookies you’ve cut. You don’t want the bottoms to be browned, except for maybe just a bit on the edges. Let the cookies rest for a couple minutes on the sheets before transferring them to cooling racks to finish cooling. Decorate as desired.


(The snakes are a mixture of the last dough scraps from all five recipes.)

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Ashlee’s Famous Sugar Cookies (rewritten from Ashlee’s Year in the Kitchen)

For my comparison, I used the same amount of vanilla, almond extract, and lemon zest for each recipe. This was significantly less lemon zest than Ashlee’s recipe calls for. A full tablespoon will give the cookies a distinct lemon flavor.

Ashlee indicates that the dough can be rolled and cut right after mixing, but I have my doubts. I chilled overnight just for convenience, but it was a very soft dough, and I think it would be difficult to cut and transfer cookies while the dough is room temperature.

24 tablespoons (3 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1½ cups (10.5 ounces) granulated sugar
½ cup (2 ounces) powdered sugar
4 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon almond extract
1 tablespoon lemon zest
5 cups (24 ounces) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt

1. Adjust a rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 400F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.

2. In the bowl of a standing mixer (or in a large bowl with a handheld mixer), beat the butter and sugars on medium speed for 5 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing until each is incorporated before adding the next. Add the extracts and lemon zest and beat for 10 seconds. Add the baking powder and salt and beat until combined. With the mixer on low, add the flour 1 cup at a time, mixing for 15 seconds between each addition.

3. Wrapped tightly in plastic wrap, the dough can be refrigerated for up to a week, or it can be rolled and cut right away (see note). Roll out to a thickness of ¼-inch and use a floured cookie cutter to cut desired shapes.

4. Bake on the prepared sheet for about 7 minutes, until light golden brown on the bottom edges.

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Ella’s White Sugar Cookies (rewritten from Annie’s Eats)

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup (4 ounces) powdered sugar
1 egg, beaten
1½ teaspoon almond extract
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon salt
2½ cups (12 ounces) all-purpose flour

1. In the bowl of a standing mixer (or in a large bowl with a handheld mixer), beat the butter on medium speed until smooth. Add the powdered sugar and continue mixing until evenly blended. With the mixer running, pour in the egg, extracts, and salt and continue beating until incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the mixer bowl. With the mixer on low, gradually at the flour and mix just until evenly blended.

2. Refrigerate for 2 hours or overnight.

3. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. Adjust a rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 375F.

4. Roll to ¼-inch thickness on a well-floured surface. Cut with floured cookie cutters. Place on prepared cookie sheets. Bake at 375°F for 8-10 minutes. Cookies should not brown. Transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

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Sugar Cookie Cutouts (from Martha Stewart)

4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1. Sift flour, baking powder, and salt into a bowl.

2. Put butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on medium speed until pale and fluffy. Mix in eggs and vanilla. Reduce speed to low. Gradually mix in flour mixture. Divide dough into quarters; flatten each quarter into a disk. Wrap each in plastic. Refrigerate until firm, at least 1 hour or overnight.

3. Preheat oven to 325 degrees with racks in upper and lower thirds. Let one disk of dough stand at room temperature just until soft enough to roll, about 10 minutes. Roll out dough between two pieces of plastic wrap to ¼-inch thickness. Remove top layer of plastic wrap. Cut out cookies with a 4-to-5-inch cookie cutter. Transfer cookie dough on plastic wrap to a baking sheet. Transfer baking sheet to freezer, and freeze until very firm, about 15 minutes. Remove baking sheet from freezer, and transfer shapes to baking sheets lined with nonstick baking mats. Roll out scraps, and repeat. Repeat with remaining disk of dough.

4. Bake, switching positions of sheets and rotating halfway through, until edges turn golden, 15 to 18 minutes. Let cool on sheets on wire racks.

And – this is what happens when you add baking soda to your sugar cookies instead of baking powder.  They puff and turn yellow.   The tiger is the recipe made correctly, with baking powder; the giraffe has baking soda.

apple muffins

I don’t know why I feel the need to state this every year, but, again, for the record: I am pro New Year’s Resolution. Yes, we all know that you can resolve to make changes any day of the year. So what? New Year’s Day is the official last day of holiday craziness. It’s the perfect day to start thinking about new routines.

Besides, this year, I also moved from the East Coast to the Southwest; from a suburb of one of the country’s largest cities to a very small, very isolated town; from an apartment to a house; from the subtropics to the desert. Dave is starting a new job; I’ll be starting one new job this week, plus interviewing for two others. I didn’t just make a New Year’s resolution; I made a resolution for this new life.

My goal is, in a nutshell, to be perfect. That sounds obtainable, right? More realistically, it’s to be a person I can be proud of. And, yes, part of that, the easier part actually, involves fitness.

Fortunately, eating healthy isn’t a bit challenging when there are recipes like this one. Nothing about these indicates that they’re better for you than most muffins. But with whole wheat pastry flour substituting for half of the flour and applesauce taking the place of some of the fat, they’re downright wholesome. They’re also fluffy and light and delicious.

Muffins = one small step toward a more perfect me! Now I just need to keep it up for ever or so, plus be more productive, creative, organized, active, outgoing, focused, positive, motivated…

Two years ago: Macaroni and Cheese, Banana Cream Pie

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Apple Muffins (from Ellie Krieger)

12-16 muffins

My batter seemed a little too liquidy. Next time I’ll reduce the buttermilk to ½ cup.

The original recipe says it makes 12 muffins, but I had extra batter.

cooking spray
¾ cup (5.25 ounces) plus 2 tablespoons packed brown sugar
¼ cup chopped pecans
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup (4.8 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 cup whole-wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup canola oil
2 large eggs
1 cup natural applesauce
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¾ cup lowfat buttermilk
1 Golden Delicious apple, peeled, cored and cut into ¼-inch pieces

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Coat a 12-capacity muffin pan with cooking spray.

In a small bowl, mix together 2 tablespoons of the brown sugar, the pecans and cinnamon.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the all-purpose and whole-wheat flour, baking soda and salt.

In a large bowl, whisk the remaining ¾ cup sugar and oil until combined. Add the eggs, one at a time, whisking well after each addition. Whisk in the applesauce and vanilla.

Whisk in the flour mixture in two batches, alternating with the buttermilk. Whisk just until combined. Gently stir in the apple chunks.

Pour the batter into the prepared muffin pan and sprinkle with the pecan mixture. Tap the pan on the counter a few times to remove any air bubbles. Bake for 20 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center of one of the muffins comes out clean.

Let cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Run a knife around the muffins to loosen them and unmold. Cool completely on the rack.

lamb stew

Whenever I eat lamb, my first whiff of it always seems a little…off. Is lamb like feety cheese – stinky, but in a good way? Or am I just attuned to beef, and I’m surprised when the lamb smells different? Whatever, I’ve decided that I officially like lamb. Stinky or not.

This stew is not any sort of authentic ethnic lamb stew – not Morrocon or Irish or whatever. It’s just lamb stew. It’s what I was in the mood for at the time – chunks of lamb, onions, root vegetables, thyme, and dark rich beer.

My only uncertainty was which type of lamb meat to use. I usually use beef chuck roast for stew, but what is that equivalent to for lamb? Certainly not sirloin, which was one of my few options. I also didn’t want to use expensive rib chops. Leg? Too big. Shanks? Dur…I don’t know. I went with a combination of sirloin meat and loin chops. I think blade chops would be a great option, but my store didn’t have them.

Whatever I did must have worked though, because the stew was just great. So rich and hearty and comforting. And distinctively…lamby. Which is a good thing.

One year ago: German Apple Pancake

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Lamb Stew

The type of lamb to use is ill-defined, because a variety of lamb cuts might not be available and a number of different cuts will work. If you can find them, go for blade chops. I used a combination of loin chops and a sirloin steak, and it worked out very well. If the cut you use contains bones, use the higher amount of meat (around 3 pounds); otherwise, use around 2 pounds of meat.

I served this over mashed potatoes, which I really enjoyed. You can also replace the parsnips with potatoes if you want something a little more like traditional stew.

Serves 6

3 tablespoon vegetable oil
2-3 pounds lamb meat, fat trimmed and cut into 1-inch chunks, bones reserved (see note)
salt
3 onions, chopped course
1 (12-ounce) bottle of stout
2 cups water
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon dried thyme (or 2 sprigs fresh)
12 ounces carrots, halved lengthwise and sliced on a slight bias about ½ inch thick
12 ounces parsnips, halved lengthwise and sliced on a slight bias about ½ inch thick
¼ cup minced parsley

1. Adjust a rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 325 degrees. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a 5-quart Dutch oven over medium to medium-high heat. Add half of the meat, with pieces spaced about one inch apart. Cook without stirring for 2-3 minutes, until the first side is dark brown. Turn each piece to another flat side and cook for another 2-3 minutes, until the second side is dark brown. Continue cooking and turning the pieces until all sides are dark brown, about 10 minutes. Remove the lamb from the pot and place it on a plate. Repeat with another tablespoon oil and the remaining lamb. (If you use a 7-quart Dutch oven instead of a 5-quart, you might be able to fit them all in one batch.)

2. Reduce the heat to medium. Add the last tablespoon of oil to the empty, unrinsed pot, then add the onions and a pinch of salt. Sauté the onions, scraping the browned bits from the bottom of the pot and stirring occasionally, for 8-10 minutes, until the onions are softened and browned around the edges.

3. Add the browned meat, lamb bones, beer, water, 1½ teaspoons salt, pepper, and thyme to the pot with the onions. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, then cover the pot and place it in the oven. Cook for one hour, uncovered.

4. Add the carrots and parsnips to the stew and cook for another hour, or until the meat is tender and the vegetables are softened. Remove the lamb bones, stir in the parsley, adjust the salt and pepper if necessary, and serve.

pecan pie

Conversations from this Christmas:

  • Me: I was thinking we could all go to the botanical garden’s light show like we did a couple years ago.
  • My sister: Oh yeah, we did that last year too, so it’s a new tradition.

  • 4-year old, after opening a present: A truck! Vroom vroom! Can I open another present now?
  • His mom: No, the tradition is that we all take turns, so you need to wait until Aunt Bridget and Grandma each open a present; then it will be your turn again.

  • My brother: Are we really going to go look at the luminarias across town? It’s already after 10pm, and it’s 15 degrees out.
  • The rest of us: Of course we are! It’s tradition!

We take tradition seriously in my family, and that extends to the holiday meal. It’s turkey and fixings, and variations are not appreciated. Complaints will be lodged if the cranberry sauce has too much orange zest, the stuffing has too much sausage, or, worst of all, pumpkin cheesecake replaces the pie.

So I waffled on what to do with Dorie’s pecan pie recipe – I liked the idea of adding bitter ingredients like chocolate and espresso to cut the sweetness of regular pecan pie, but I didn’t want to make something so different that my mom would have to make her standard pecan pie recipe as soon as I went home to satisfy her craving. I ended up reducing the chocolate from 3 to 2 ounces, skipping the cinnamon because I didn’t really want it, and skipping the espresso because I didn’t have any available.

And it was great! I’ve tried a number of pecan pie recipes, and this is the only one that I’ve really enjoyed. The small amount of chocolate was a nice treat, but mostly it was the brown sugar and the balance of corn syrup to pecans that made this pie so good. In fact, everyone liked it – even those of us who don’t traditionally even eat the pecan pie.

Beth chose this pie for Tuesdays with Dorie, and she has the recipe posted.

One year ago: Tall and Creamy Cheesecake