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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Hershey's Kisses Candy Cane Swirl Cheesecake and the Beauty of Cream Cheese

I love trying out new recipes, but it seems I'm always trying out new recipes.  It seems wherever I go, I am always bringing something new and untested.  Whenever I bring a dessert to any gathering, I also bring along some disclaimers and apologies, like "Warning, everybody: I tried a new recipe, so I have no idea how this cake will taste" or "I'm sorry these cookies turned out a little dry--I was testing a new mixing method."  This past weekend I brought a cheesecake recipe I have never tried before to my brother's Christmas party, and due to the magic of cream cheese, it was delicious.  No disclaimers.  No apologies.

As you may know I have a weakness for all things Hershey and so as soon as I saw this lovely cheesecake on the Hershey website, I knew it would show up at some gathering this holiday season.  I love Hershey kisses and although the Candy Cane Hershey Kisses are cute and tasty, they really don't hold a candle the original milk chocolate Kisses.  But, just add a little cream cheese... and voila! You have an irresistible dessert!

Cream cheese has that kind of effect on just about any food, any time of day.  Put cream cheese on your English muffin instead of butter and it's a highly satisfying breakfast.  Add a little cream cheese to your sandwich instead of mayo, and yum!  Spread a little cream cheese on a Wheat Thin, and you have a delightful little snack.  Mix a little cream cheese into your mashed potatoes and your guests will all be asking for your mashed potato secret.  Mix any cookie or fruit into cream cheese and bake it over a cookie crust and you have a rich, delectable dessert.  

Cream cheese truly is a magic food and if you are a fan of peppermint desserts, you can't pass this up.  In fact, even if you don't really like peppermint desserts, this one may change your mind.  I love cheesecake and this one turned out wonderfully rich and perfectly sweet.  Bring this one to your Christmas dinner and you'll be a cheesecake hero!

The two little adaptations I made were the topping and the mixing of the candy cane swirl into the cheesecake.  If you were to follow the directions on the Hershey website, the swirl would show up mainly on top on the cheesecake and not all throughout (unlike the picture on website--I can't figure out how they did that--It almost looks like there are whole kisses in the cheesecake).  So I altered the mixing instructions and was pleased with the result.  As for the topping, instead of placing whole Candy Cane Kisses on top of the cheese cake, I chopped them up and sprinkled them in a circle on the cake.   Also, be sure to use vanilla wafers for the crust--it was wonderful!

Here is my adapted recipe:

Hershey's Kisses Candy Cane Swirl Cheese Cake

Crust Ingredients:

1 1/2 cups vanilla wafer crumbs (Hershey's Kitchens say about 45 cookies, but I say it takes a few more than that)
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 cup butter, melted

Cheesecake ingredients:

3 packages of cream cheese, softened
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 eggs
42 Hershey's Candy Cane Kisses, divided
1 Tablespoon milk

Instructions for Cookie Crumb Crust:

Heat oven to 350.  Stir together cookie crumbs and sugar.  Blend in melted butter.  Press crust mixture onto bottom and 1/2 inch up side of 9-inch springform pan. Bake 8 minutes.  Cool.

Instructions for Cheesecake:

Heat oven to 350.

Beat cream cheese, sugar and vanilla in large bowl until smooth. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Set aside.

Remove wrappers from candies. Place 30 candies and milk in medium microwave-safe bowl. Microwave at MEDIUM (50%) 1 minute; stir. If necessary, microwave at MEDIUM 15 seconds at a time, stirring after each heating, until candies are melted and mixture is well blended when stirred. Blend 1/4 cup cheesecake batter into candy mixture.  Pour half of remaining cheesecake batter onto cooled crust.  Drizzle half of the candy cane mixture on top that that.  Add remaining cheesecake batter.  Drizzle remaining candy cane mixture.  Gently swirl the cheesecake batter and candy cane mixture together with the blade of a knife for a marbled effect. 

Bake 45 to 50 minutes or until center is almost set. Remove from oven to wire rack. With knife, loosen cake from side of pan.  While cheesecake is cooling chop up remaining 12 Candy Cane Kisses.  When cheesecake is still slightly warm, sprinkle chopped up Kisses around the outside edge.  The warmth from the cake will melt them on.  When cheesecake is cool, remove sides of pan. Cover and refrigerate until well chilled.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Peppermint Bark Brownies and a Letter to Santa

Dear Santa,

I made you some Peppermint Bark Brownies--I hope you like them!  They're yummy and easy to make--a perfect Christmas dessert!  I'll give you the recipe in case you or Mrs. Claus want to make them.  

Want to hear something funny?  When my dad was a kid, he never really believed in you.  You see, they didn't have a chimney in their house, and so at Christmastime my grandfather would put a big piece of cardboard onto the wall with a fireplace painted on it.  That's where they would hang their stockings, and that's where he said Santa would come into the house to deliver the presents.  My dad found this a little a dubious and never really bought it.  

I, on the other hand, always believed in you.  Even though I also found the chimney thing a little hard to believe (I mean, if you're supposed to be so fat, how are you going to fit down someone's chimney?  Besides, you'd get your nice red suit all dirty at the first house.) I figured if you have elves and flying reindeer you're not going to have any trouble finding a magical way to get into people's houses.  What I always wanted to know was how do you manage to slow down time to get to every kid's house on the same night?  But I knew you were real. I never doubted it.  (Except that time the neighbor kid told me there was no Santa, but what does he know?  His No-Santa theory was full of holes, anyway.  I mean, who eats the cookies the kids leave out if there's no Santa?)  Thank you for the notes you always left for me every Christmas telling me how good I was and to always listen to my parents. (Did you know your hand-writing looks a lot like my Dad's?)

I remember driving home from Grandma's house every Christmas Eve looking frantically out the window scanning the sky for the red glow of Rudolph's nose, and listening for sleigh bells.  My dad or one of my big brothers would sometimes spot you saying, "Look!  There he is! I see him!"  I would lean towards the window trying desperately to see, but before I could catch a glimpse of your famed reindeer-drawn sleigh, I would always hear a disappointed, "Aw, you missed him.  He's gone.  But he was up there all right!"

Anyway, my Christmas list this year has some really easy items on it, like a heat-resistant spatula set and a small cookie scoop.  There are some long shots on there like a new car and a better paying job. And although, I'm pretty positive that on Christmas morning I'm not going to see a new car in the driveway or a terrific job offer letter under the tree, why take chances on not asking?  And there are some nearly impossible requests on my list, but since I want them with all my heart, I couldn't leave them off, like for my family to all live in the same city and for my Grandma to not have Alzheimer's anymore.  I'd give anything to hear her funny advice or to make Chrusciki with her.  Although I enjoy and appreciate your presents every year, it has always really been family that makes Christmas special.  As it should be.

Fly safe, Santa!


PS.  Here's that recipe:

Peppermint Bark Brownies

Your favorite brownie recipe or a package of your favorite brownie mix
2 cups white chocolate chips
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
12 candy canes

Start off by making a 9 x 13 pan of your favorite brownies.  

While the brownies are cooling unwrap the candy canes and put them in a ziplock bag.  Using a rolling pin or a meat mallet, crush the candy canes into little pieces.

After the brownies are cool, melt the white chocolate chips together with oil in a heat safe bowl over a pot of boiling water, stirring gently.  When completely smooth, spread melted chocolate over brownies.  Sprinkle candy cane bits over the white chocolate.  (I like to press the larger bits gently into the melted chocolate, because they have a tendency to pop off when the chocolate is cool.)  Let cool completely before serving (about a couple hours).  I recommend cutting the brownies before the chocolate is completely cool while it is still a little soft and has some give to it.  Otherwise, the white chocolate will crack while you are trying to cut it.  

Enjoy!  God Bless and Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Cookies & Cream Cookies and a Thanksgiving treat

Holidays used to be all fun and no stress.  When you're a kid, life itself is pretty much all fun and no stress, but holidays are especially that way.  When you're a kid, all you have to do is show up and wonderful things happen.  People give you candy and let you run around in the dark on Halloween.   They feed you delicious food till you're ready to burst on Thanksgiving.   And on Christmas, there are toys and cookies galore!  Now that I am an adult, a little more is required of me than to simply show up.  There is candy to buy, costumes to be made, food to prepare, parties to plan, and presents to wrap.  But my favorite part of the holidays remains the same.  I love baking cookies.  This past Thanksgiving, in addition to the cheesy vegetable casserole I brought, I tried out a new cookie recipe and it completely won me over, not to mention everyone else who tasted it!

I can't let a holiday go by without baking something sweet, and since cookie season is upon us I decided to try these Cookies & Cream Cookies and bring them in little goodie bags for each family.  I happened across the recipe online and instead of taking its place on my mental to-bake list, this recipe simply demanded to be made.  In fact, I stopped at Wegman's that very day and bought the key ingredient, Hershey's Cookies 'n' Creme Drops.  It's hard to say why I was so compelled to make these cookies.  Maybe it was the use of yummy Hershey drops (I am a huge Hershey fan).   Maybe it was the chocolately-ness of the recipe (I am a huge chocolate fan).  Or it could be the opportunity to make cookies (I am a huge cookie fan).   Now that I think about, it's really quite obvious why I needed to make these! 

The recipe turned out amazingly good.  Really.  Really good.  I don't want to oversell these cookies... but... they tasted like they came straight from heaven!  There is no doubt in my mind that you will love them.  The Hershey Cookies 'n' Creme Drops alone are fantastic, and if you like cookies and cream, my recommendation is that you buy two bags--one for baking and one for snacking.  

With Christmas around the corner, I know I will be trying out new recipes and making old favorites.   There is holiday shopping to do and gifts to wrap and parties to plan.  But no matter how much holiday stress comes my way, I excitedly await baking sweet delights like these.   Enjoy!

Cookies & Cream Cookies
Slightly adapted from Cookies and Cups 

2 sticks butter (1 cup)
1 1/4 cup white sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2 tsp. pure vanilla
1/2 cup dark cocoa powder (I used Hershey's Special Dark)
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp. baking powder
1 cup mini semi-sweet chocolate chips (I used regular size chocolate chips)
12 oz. Hershey's Cookies 'n' Creme Drops

Preheat oven to 350.

Cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy.  Beat in eggs and vanilla.

On low, slowly beat in cocoa powder until well incorporated.  Mix in your remaining dry ingredients. (I deviated from the instructions a little here and sifted together the cocoa powder, flour, baking powder, and salt in a separate bowl and then mixed them into the butter/sugar mixture.  They came out absolutely fine.  Next time I will try it the way Cookies and Cups instructs because her way only dirties one bowl.)

Fold in the Cookies 'n' Creme Drops and chocolate chips until evenly incorporated. 

Drop by large tablespoons on a parchment lined baking sheet.

I recommend under-baking these, so bake for approximately 12 minutes or until edges are set.  (I began checking at 10 minutes.) 

When done baking let cool baking sheet for 2 -3 minutes before transferring to wire rack to finish cooling. (I let cool on baking sheet for 5 minutes.)

Update:  After making these a second time, and trying beating the cocoa into the butter/mixture before adding the rest of the dry ingredients, I find I prefer my method of sifting the dry ingredients together then beating them all in at once.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Duncan Hines Cookies & Creme Cake and Family Dinner

Once in a while my family, or whoever is in town and available, gets together for a family dinner. Sometimes, Dad makes his famous spaghetti and meatballs. Other times, Mom makes her famous roast chicken with gravy. There's always a little wine and a wedge of Jarlsburg cheese and crackers before dinner and a homemade dessert to follow (usually made by me). On rare occasions, such as last week, I actually attempt to cook dinner. Last week, I made salmon, spinach and brown rice (which were not remarkable), and Duncan Hines Cookies and Creme Cake (which was a big hit). But no matter who cooks or what the occasion is, there is something special about a family dinner.

It's funny that these little dinners should make such an impression on me. Nothing really momentous ever happens. The evening is underscored by a quiet baseball or football game, which Dad keeps on for the sports fans in the family. We sit and talk and play with the little ones. Our conversation keeps to family, the news, my mother's latest garage sale find, or my dad's latest home improvement project. No deep personal revelations. No impassioned speeches.

After dinner we clean up a little and have dessert. Then when the little ones are ready to nod off, we call it a night. My dad (who's a mush-ball, like me) and I always end up remarking to each other how nice the evening was, using the phrase "really nice" all too abundantly

If it's not the conversation or the food or any special occasion, then what makes these family dinners so special is just that--it's family.  It's dinner.  That's all you really need.  There is something sacred about breaking bread with your loved ones.  There is something comforting about sharing a meal.  As long as you're together that's all that really matters.

But a slam-bang dessert doesn't hurt either.  Last week, one of my favorite bakers, Duncan Hines, came through for me again.  I have yet to try a from-scratch white cake recipe that tastes as good as Duncan Hines, but I'm sure that's not going to stop me from trying out every delicious-looking white or vanilla cake recipe I find.  In fact, I have a recipe binder full of them.  When I find a winner I will post it.  But if you're looking for a simple, yet impressive cake, this is it.  Duncan Hines never fails.  And combine that with the goodness of Oreos, and you've got yourself a delightful dessert.  It's simple to make so go ahead and try this cake--it will make your next family dinner really nice.

Duncan Hines Cookies and Creme Cake

1 package Duncan Hines Classic White Cake Mix
3 large egg whites
1 1/3 cups water
2 tbsp. vegetable oil
1 cup cream filled chocolate sandwich cookies, coarsely chopped (I used slightly more than 1 cup and will probably try even more the next time I make this cake.)
1 tub Duncan Hines Creamy Home-Style Butter Cream Frosting (I used my favorite buttercream frosting recipe.)
additional cookies (optional)

Baking Directions:

1.  Preheat oven to 350ºF. Grease and flour two 9-inch round cake pans.  (I used 8 1/2 inch pans)
2.  Combine cake mix, egg whites, water, and oil in large mixing bowl. Beat at low speed with electric mixer until moistened. Beat at medium speed for 2 minutes. Fold in 1 cup cookies. Pour into prepared pans.
3.  Bake 28 to 31 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pans 15 minutes. Remove from pans; cool completely.
4.  Fill and frost cake with frosting. Garnish with additional cookies, if desired.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Emily's Best Oatmeal Cookies and a Smile

Watch out, Chocolate Chip Cookies, there may be a new favorite in town!  This past summer an old friend of our family, Emily, visited us and brought her family, fond memories and... her White Chocolate Cherry Oatmeal Cookies!  I have never had such a delightful surprise in an oatmeal cookie before.  Such a perfect combination of flavors, I had to get the recipe!

Emily is the daughter of my father's best friend.  She is one of three daughters, all of them older than me and two of them my brothers' ages.  Each summer our families would spend two weeks vacationing together on a lake, many years even sharing the same cottage.  And for a little girl with two stinky older brothers, spending two weeks out of every year in the company of these girls was heaven!

When I was just 6, the girls were young teenagers, and I was absolutely fascinated by them.  Their clothes, their hair, their makeup, their was all so new and interesting.   I was enthralled by the way they giggled, the way they turned their collars up, and the way they wore their bracelets. It was wonderful.  Although I love my brothers, I found the difference between them and these girls to be vastWhile my brothers mainly treated me to tickling, teasing, and other forms of big brother torture, these girls played Barbies with me and french-braided my hair.  They also seemed to have a magic power over my brothers, and commanded their attention in a way I couldn't understand. 

Of Emily, I remember her smile the most from those days.  She seemed to have the biggest smile on her face all the time, and to my childish mind, I thought that meant her life must be perfect.  When Emily came to visit us this past summer, I figured as an adult, I would see her differently.  But the smile was exactly the same, and again, I thought that must mean her life is perfect.  Although I find it hard to believe anyone's life is perfect, I am now of the belief that a smile can go a long way to giving that impression.   So, smile, folks!  :)

No matter if your life is perfect or not, I am certain Emily's Best Oatmeal Cookies would be a perfect addition to it.  Emily's recipe calls for one cup of mix-ins, so you could make Emily's Best Cranberry Walnut Oatmeal Cookies, or Emily Best Chocolate Chip Raisin Oatmeal Cookies, or whatever combination you can dream up, but the White Chocolate Cherry combination is truly amazing.  I recommend you start with that one.  And if these cookies don't put a smile on your face, then I'll eat my hat.  So, here it is:

Emily's Best Oatmeal Cookies

1/2 cup shortening
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 cup sugar + additional
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons water
1 egg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup white whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 1/2 cups rolled oats
1 cup mix-ins (see note)

1. Preheat oven 350 F.

2. Cream together shortening, oil, 1 cup white sugar, and 1/2 cup brown sugar. Add egg and beat until light and fluffy. Mix in water and vanilla extract.

3. Sift together flours, soda, and cinnamon. Add to sugar mixture and mix well.

4. Mix in oats and your choice of mix-ins.

5. Shape dough into 1-inch balls and place on cookie sheets lightly coated with cooking spray or lined with parchment paper. Flatten dough with glass bottom coated with cooking spray and dipped in white sugar.

6. Bake for about 8 to 10 minutes, until lightly brown.

7. Allow cookies to cool on baking sheet for 1 minute before removing to wire rack to cool completely.

Emily's note: Choose your own combination of mix-ins for this recipe.  Total amount should equal one cup.  Try dried cherries and chopped almonds, cranberries and white chocolate chips, walnuts and raisins or macadamia nuts and white chocolate chips.

Monday, October 17, 2011

A Quilt for Dallas

Dear Dallas,

Who can get into more mischief, make me laugh more often, and take on more impossible tasks with a hopeful optimism than any other little boy I know? It's you, sweet boy. And you're only two! Your smile is contagious. You have a Superman opinion of your abilities. Your energy would rival the Energizer bunny.  

Even at one, you were making us laugh with your antics.  One time when the cable guy came to your house, you secretly absconded with some of his tools from his toolbag and hid them in your hideout under the stairs.   But, it wasn't stealing--it was a trade.  Because later on, he discovered a stash of your magnetic alphabet letters in his bag.  Silly Dallas!  

You know that blue and orange quilt in your bedroom?  The one Grammy Suz and I made for you? Well, here's the story of that quilt...

The story of Dallas's quilt begins long before the flicker of life that is Dallas first came to be. The story of Dallas's quilt is a special story because it begins with the two Dallases who came before you--these two little ones who lived, and were loved, but who never made it to birth.

You know, Dallas, your daddy, Christian, and your mommy, Kristi, are neither of them the type of people who bottle things up. They wear their hearts on their sleeves. And while other couples might keep certain things close to the vest, Chris and Kristi made their baby schedule known to the family. The excitement of anticipating their first born was shared by us all, and as soon Kristi knew there was life inside her, so did we, with a picture of brilliant blue plus sign sent to our phones!

They had just moved away from their beloved home of Dallas, TX, and were missing it terribly. And so, boy or girl, they decided the name would be Dallas. Kristi, an artist and designer, had been contemplating colors for the new baby's room, and so, boy or girl, Dallas' room would be a pale light blue with a bright orange peel accent. The joy of this little life spread through the family like a Texas wildfire. I hurried over to the nearest quilt shop to look for fabrics and inspiration, and came home with a fabric or two and a definite design idea. But Dallas the First lived no more than a few weeks in the womb. The joy came to an abrupt halt. The quilt design and fabrics were put away.

After wiping away tears that were much larger than Dallas the First had ever been, we moved on, and it wasn't long before news of Dallas the Second was happily proclaimed. There was joy once again, and I went back to work collecting fabrics for the quilt. I went to every fabric store in a 50-mile radius. The colors had to be perfect, so I asked any and all the women both working and shopping at these stores for their opinions. The blues had to be soft and go well together but not be too alike. The oranges had to blend to be the perfect brightness without being garish. As soon as I had the perfect combination of fabrics, I set to work cutting and sewing.

We were all so hopeful. Kristi set to work putting your room together, and Chris wore the proud air of a papa-to-be and was absolutely positive it would be a girl. And when we all sat around the Thanksgiving table that November, we had a lot to be thankful for.
But December came and so did the bad news. Dallas the Second had stopped living, little more than two months in the womb. There was a procedure, and the baby was gone. The quilt was put away, in favor of tear-stained tissues.

Then the darkness came again. Christmas, that year, was strained and sad. We all felt the absence of that little joyous life we loved.

Then the new year came and brought well-needed happy news of a little person in the making. It was you, Dallas. And for nine months we held our breath in wait. Every day was a prayer; every week, a victory; and every morning sickness of Kristi's, a blessed curse. Each month felt like a lifetime. It was a nine-month marathon that you were getting closer and closer to winning. And we all rooted for you with so much love in hearts! I finished sewing the quilt layers and passed the quilt along to my mother. Grammy Suz sewed love into every hand-quilted stitch. And then, right on time, you kicked your way into the world. And the first thing you did, Dallas, as those who were present can attest, was to lift your head and look around, as if you knew how anxiously we had been waiting to meet you.  You are loved, Dallas, more than you could ever imagine.

And so, sweet Dallas, I hope you treasure your quilt, and I hope you know that the real treasure.... is you.

Love forever,
Aunt Mary 

Dallas and Christian
Dallas and Kristi

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Yummilicious Blueberry Crumb Bars and the Meaning of Life

Blueberries. Sugar. Butter. Flour. These are the primary ingredients for these Yummilicious Blueberry Crumb Bars. Each of these ingredients has a mission. A very clear purpose. Take butter, for instance. Butter is a tasty fat. That's how it is used in baking. This is how it enhances every food it encounters. Or sugar. Sugar is a sweetener. There is no mistaking its purpose. It clearly sweetens everything it comes into contact with. There are no questions, no grey areas, no wondering. These ingredients do what they're supposed to do. And very well, I might add. Especially in these Yummilicious Blueberry Crumb Bars.

But what about my purpose? My mission? Why isn't my mission in life as clear as sugar's mission? Why can't I achieve my purpose with the same ease as butter can? How is it that a brainless, ordinary thing like sugar can accomplish so much, so easily; when unique, extraordinary things like human beings find accomplishment so difficult?

I have no answers. I can only send these cosmic questions out into the webosphere. In any event, no matter how much I may be at a loss to accomplish, or to even know, my purpose, it is comforting to witness the perfect accomplishment of purpose of the ingredients for these Yummilicious Blueberry Crumb Bars. I found the recipe on
Smitten Kitchen, and after tasting them, I had to add "yummilicious" to the name for obvious reasons.

So, when you are wondering what your purpose is or feel like you can't make things work, just make these blueberry bars and watch how easily and profoundly these simple ingredients all come together.

Yummilicious Blueberry Crumb Bars

Posted on
Smitten Kitchen, who adapted it from 

1 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup cold unsalted butter (2 sticks or 8 ounces)
1 egg
1/4 teaspoon salt
Zest and juice of one lemon
4 cups fresh blueberries
1/2 cup white sugar
4 teaspoons cornstarch

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). Grease a 9×13 inch pan.

2. In a medium bowl, stir together 1 cup sugar, 3 cups flour, and baking powder. Mix in salt and lemon zest. Use a fork or pastry cutter to blend in the butter and egg. Dough will be crumbly. Pat half of dough into the prepared pan.

3. In another bowl, stir together the sugar, cornstarch and lemon juice. Gently mix in the blueberries. Sprinkle the blueberry mixture evenly over the crust. Crumble remaining dough over the berry layer.

4. Bake in preheated oven for 45 minutes, or until top is slightly brown. Cool completely before cutting into squares.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Buttermilk-Blueberry Breakfast Cake

Baking, for me, is both a comfort and an adventure.  While I love the sweet results of baking, I am always a little fearful of having a recipe go terribly wrong.  And oftentimes, it does.  In fact, most of the time, my baking is a comedy of errors.  If I ever were to host a baking show, it would no doubt be on the Comedy Network.  Inevitably, I pull the results of my baking adventure out of the oven and go "hmm..."  Maybe I overmixed the batter?   Maybe I undermixed?  Maybe my baking soda is old and no longer effective?  Maybe the eggs really should have been room temperature?  Maybe the butter was too soft?  In the end, I chalk it up to my crazy oven.  (Now that I think about it, it seems every place I've ever lived, I'm plagued with a crazy oven.  Hmm...)

Among the many recipes that didn't make it onto the blog due to slightly disastrous results were the Champagne Cupcakes (hmm... it had a slightly metallic taste), the chewy, fudgy, triple chocolate brownies (hmm...are they supposed to feel like bricks?), and the Hershey Perfectly Chocolate Cake (hmm...3 minutes out of the oven and the cupcakes were so shriveled and sunken, they look like they have been sitting out for a hundred years---but, never fear, folks, this Hershey fan will continue to ruin this recipe several more times in hopes that I can find the "perfect" secret).

Recently, however, while making dinner for my parents, I tried two recipes from Alexandra's Kitchen that turned out delicious.  So far, the recipes that Alexandra posts have yet to disappoint.  In fact, I defy you to find a clunker at  For dinner, I made her zucchini fritters, and even though I did not use the tzatziki sauce (I used sour cream instead) and left out a couple of ingredients from the fritters, they were awesome. 

The star of the night, though, was the Buttermilk-Blueberry Breakfast Cake.  Just look at her pictures and tell me, who could resist giving this a try?  I generally don't keep buttermilk on hand, but I had bought it for a recipe and was excited to use it in this wonderful creation and am now a buttermilk convert!  I'm not sure why this is a "breakfast" cake because it tastes too sweet, too delightful to be in the company of bran muffins and pancakes.  It was delectable!  Absolutely heavenly.  Try it.  You'll love it.

A couple more recent winning recipes that didn't make it onto the blog, including Red Velvet Cupcakes and Outrageous Chocolate Chocolate Cookies, were left out merely because I didn't have the time to photograph them.  I don't think (from the way that cake looked and smelled) that I wouldn't have had the patience to take some pictures before devouring it completely, if it weren't for the fact that Mom was there.  She was the art directer for the photo shoot, and together we managed some lovely pictures before the three of us dug into this delicious cake.  She also helped out with a few dishes and tidying up while she was there (which I didn't discover until after she had left and found that a bunch of stuff has been magically put away.)  Thanks, Mom. 

And so, the moral of this story is:  Moms are awesome, my crazy oven tries to ruin my baking, and this Buttermilk-Blueberry Breakfast Cake is a definite, hands-down winner.

Buttermilk-Blueberry Breakfast Cake

Serves 6-8

½ cup unsalted butter, room temperature
2 tsp. lemon zest or more — zest from 1 large lemon (I used dried lemon peel, but fresh lemon zest is best)
7/8 cup + 1 T. sugar
1 egg, room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla
2 cups flour  (I used white whole wheat flour)
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. kosher salt 
2 cups fresh blueberries
½ cup buttermilk (If you don't have buttermilk, go out and buy it--it's worth it.)

1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Cream butter with lemon zest and 7/8 cup of the sugar until light and fluffy.

2. Add the egg and vanilla and beat until combined. Meanwhile, toss the blueberries with ¼ cup of flour, then whisk together the remaining flour, baking powder and salt.

3. Add the flour mixture to the batter a little at a time, alternating with the buttermilk. Fold in the blueberries. 4. Grease a 9-inch square baking pan (or something similar) with butter or coat with non-stick spray. Spread batter into pan. Sprinkle batter with remaining tablespoon of sugar. Bake for 35 minutes. Check with a toothpick for doneness. If necessary, return pan to oven for a couple of more minutes.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Katharine Hepburn's Brownie Recipe

I love old movies. Those old black and white classics from the 30s and 40s, like It Happened One Night or Sabrina.  No movie stars of today come close to being as suave and magical as Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, and of course Katharine Hepburn.  So, when I happened across Katharine Hepburn's brownie recipe, which first appeared in The Ladies Home Journal in 1975, there was no doubt in my mind that I needed to make these brownies.    

Until I found this recipe, in my world, there were only two brownies I would ever make and no reason to ever stray from them.  The first is, of course, Betty Crocker's Fudge Brownie Mix.  Betty has a monopoly on fudgy brownies.  She got it absolutely right.  Easy to make and fantastic to eat!  Why even try to bake up something better?  The second recipe, is the healthy brownie recipe I make when I really want brownies but less of the guilt associated from pigging out on those wonderfully fattening treats.  These two types of brownies can answer any brownie occasion. 

And yet, upon discovering this recipe, I stumbled on the world of from-scratch brownies, a world I look forward to exploring.  Katharine Hepburn's brownies are certainly the moistest brownies I've ever had.  They are truly amazing.  I can't imagine how she kept her figure eating brownies like this.  Seriously, this recipe is basically just chocolately, sugary butter.  I mean, how can that not be good?  In fact, these brownies deserve just as much fame as Kate, herself.  ...And the Oscar goes to Katharine Hepburn's brownie recipe!   (Applause)  

As I made these very special brownies, I had one of my favorite Katharine Hepburn movies on, Holiday.  Kate plays the down-to-earth sister of the girl that the happy-go-lucky Cary Grant character is engaged to.  When Cary meets Kate, it's kismet, and suddenly the spoiled sister is not the apple of his eye.  To catch my favorite line from that movie click here and go to 0:06.   

And so, it seems my brownie universe has expanded.  My list of two brownies recipes has expanded to three, and I'm eager to explore other recipes to try.

My recommendation to you is to find a copy of a great Hepburn flick (Holiday, Bringing up Baby, or The Philadelphia Story are my favorites) and make these brownies.  You'll be in Katharine Hepburn heaven!

Katharine Hepburn's Brownies

In 1975, Katharine Hepburn gave her family brownie recipe to gossip columnist Liz Smith to publish in her column.  And that’s how The Ladies Home Journal first introduced the world to these delicious brownies.

2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 cup granulated white sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup chopped walnuts (I opted not to put these in)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F (165 degrees C) and place rack in center of oven. Butter and flour an 8 inch (20 cm) square baking pan. 

Melt the chocolate and butter in a stainless steel bowl placed over a saucepan of simmering water. Remove from heat and stir in the sugar. Next, stir in the vanilla extract and eggs.

Finally, stir in the flour, salt and chopped nuts (if using).

Pour into the prepared pan and bake for about 30 - 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove from oven and let cool on a wire rack. Serve at room temperature or chilled. These freeze very well.

Makes 16 brownies.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Strawberry Summer Cake

Summer.  We, here in the chilly north, try to take full advantage of this extraordinary season.  As far as seasons go, winter is our star player.  It lasts about six months, stealing as much time as it can from it's neighbors, autumn, and sometimes completely obliterating spring, which are both beautiful seasons up here but much too short.  Summer, however, is when everything happens.  There are outdoor concerts, festivals galore, restaurants with outdoor seating, and vacations and day trips planned for every household.  In my family, we go to Keuka Lake, to a special spot that has seen generations of us enjoying the healing waters of Keuka.

One of my favorite weeks on Keuka Lake is the one that brings a week-long visit from my aunt and uncle and cousins.  Spending time with this family is like spending time at a mental health spa.  They're all so open and easy.  (4 out of 5 of them either work in, worked in, or aspire to work in the mental health field, so you get the picture.)  They all talk about stuff and make you feel good about yourself.  It's really very refreshing.

These are the cousins I grew up with.  We are the fab four.  Brett, who is a year younger than me, creamed me at my very first snowball war when we were kids.  He's fascinating, has visited parts of the world I didn't even know existed, and always knows how to be goofy enough to get me to laugh.  Lorelei is my soul sister.  Even though she cut all the hair off my favorite Barbie doll when she was 4, I have forgiven her, and there's nothing we can't say to each other.  Evan is the youngest, but could very well be the most mature of us all and is the easiest person to be around.  He and I have had the most interesting and memorable discussions during our long car rides home from the university we both attended.  And together we have formed a dynamic bocce team (family tournaments only), and even though we've pretty much lost every game we've played, I wouldn't change it.

Since it was my cousins' week at the cottage, I wanted to bring a special dessert.  Inspired by the summer berries in the supermarket, I decided to try
this recipe from Smitten Kitchen.

I decided since strawberries are healthy, this should be considered a health food (like my logic?), so I went ahead and made it with half whole wheat flour.  I also followed Smitten Kitchen's advice and used a smidge less sugar than called for.  It turned out delightful.  (But it would have been even better with whipped cream or powdered sugar on top!)

As soon as I brought this summer cake the lake, I went right to work photographing it.  Here is my lovely picture:

Now, I suspected that one of my family members would lend their creative talents to the photo shoot and I was not disappointed.  My dear aunt, AJ, came to my rescue with this lovely setup: 

Beautiful!  We're done, right?  Wrong.  She had even more great ideas:

Now doesn't this look tempting?  But you don't have to take my word for it.  Here's what my family had to say:

Maverick (my uncle):  "Scrumptious with a light fruity taste."
Evan:  "I keep looking at it and telling myself 'No, Evan no.'"
A.J.: "Sweet strawberry season...Mmm.  It's good."
Mom: "A dessert you can eat."  (Thanks, Mom.)

So, go ahead and make a Strawberry Summer Cake for yourselves before it's too late!!!

Strawberry Summer Cake

From Smitten Kitchen, who adapted it, only slightly, from Martha Stewart

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus extra for pie plate
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour  (I used a blend of all-purpose and whole wheat flour)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1 cup (I used about 7/8 of a cup) plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar  
1 large egg
1/2 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 pound strawberries, hulled and halved

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter a 10-inch pie pan or 9-inch deep-dish pie pan.  

Whisk flour or flours, baking powder and salt together in a small bowl. In a larger bowl, beat butter and 1 cup sugar until pale and fluffy with an electric mixer, about 3 minutes. Mix in egg, milk and vanilla until just combined. Add dry mixture gradually, mixing until just smooth.

Pour into prepared pie plate. Arrange strawberries, cut side down, on top of batter, as closely as possible in a single layer.   Sprinkle remaining 2 tablespoons sugar over berries.

Bake cake for 10 minutes then reduce oven temperature to 325°F and bake cake until golden brown and a tester comes out free of wet batter, about 50 minutes to 60 minutes. Let cool in pan on a rack.  Serve with whipped cream or powdered sugar on top.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

A Quilt for Ella

Ella is my niece.  The first of my parents' grandchildren.  The eldest child of my eldest brother.  A pioneer of her generation in my family.  Upon her arrival, I became Aunt Mary for the first time.  And her baby quilt was the first one my mother and I collaborated to make.  

Since then my mother and I have made three more baby quilts.  Our process is always the same.  While I get to design the quilt and piece it together, my mother does the hard labor portion, the actual hand-quilting.  My mother, however, would describe the partnership a little differently.  She might say while I have to do the drudge-work of collecting all the fabrics, cutting them, and sewing them all together, she gets to add the essential finishing touch, the loving hand-quilting. Either way, it works out pretty nicely, and we've come up with some beauties. 

Ella is currently three years old, and a thoroughly interesting little girl.  She is and always has been a little wisp of thing; blonde, blue-eyed and skinny.  She's always exploring her world, flitting about like a fairy or a sprite, constantly finding new things to laugh at, play on, or ask "why" about.  Her explorations of the backyard have led her to discover an imaginary "mean beast" that she delights in running away from.  She has coined a new color: "um" which is the color of grass.  Her creative naming extends to her stuffed animals, which include a bunny named Ah-peet, a bear named Wineglass (we're still scratching our heads at that one, but it has an interesting ring to it, don't you think? Kinda rolls off the tongue), and a giant pink hippo named Hoppy.  She has two little dolls, both named Debbie.  To differentiate, she uses the hair color to tell them apart--they're sometimes referred to as Red Debbie and Yellow Debbie.  She loves learning new things and listens all too closely to anything new we might be discussing.      

As soon as we heard the announcement that this little bundle of joy was on the way, I knew I had to make a baby quilt for my niece or nephew. (Since my brother and sister-in-law were leaving the gender of the baby a surprise, I had to design a gender neutral quilt.)  I felt the best way to celebrate this new addition to our family was with a brightly-colored Muppet quilt!  Sis-in-law loves the Muppets and so do I!  

The Muppet characters came from a vintage flat sheet I got on Ebay.  After a good washing and ironing, I realized this vintage sheet was a little threadbare, so I fused a stiffener to back of each of those squares.  The other colors I carefully placed so that no two same colors were touching one another.  

I actually had a machine quilting place do a little of the quilting (about 30 percent of it is machine quilted, which also meant I didn't have to baste the quilt-yay!) while Mom did the rest, including the Muppet characters.  The fill is very thick, and although I'm sure it'll be cozy, I've decided I like thinner quilts for the little ones.

This quilt's bright happiness perfectly suits Ella.  I hope she'll use it and have it for years to come.