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Thursday, November 14, 2013

Chocolate Zucchini Cake with Bride's Frosting and a Family Tradition

Memories sometimes have a way of getting all wrapped up and mixed together. The mere sight of a frosted window pane can bring to mind every Christmas at Grandma's house I ever spent, or the smell of a new book can bring to mind the excitement of the first day of school (back when your school supplies consisted of crayons, a lunch box and Elmer's glue). This is the case with my favorite family cake recipe. This cake was the one that my mother made for pretty much every special occasion, and it brings to mind all sorts of good memories.

It brings to mind my mother's recipe binder, which I always held in fascination when I was a child. It was bursting with handwritten recipes, pages from magazines, and recipes cut from box tops and food labels, which she would Scotch tape to pieces of filler paper. I remember the excited glow I felt whenever I saw my mother pull her recipe book out of the cupboard. If she was going to make something ordinary, like spaghetti and meatballs, I would wander away and let her be, but if it was something wonderful, like her powered sugar cookies or Grandmother's Pound Cake, I would pull up a chair to the counter and stand on it while supervising the entire process. I would lick the beaters, the bowl, and the spatula when she was done with them. And even when she tried to scrape every last bit of batter from the bowl, I could always manage a taste or two from the remnants. If she was making roll out cookies, I was the expert cookie cutter and would help sprinkle them with sugar before they went into the oven (always keeping an eye out for stray scraps of cookie dough to munch on). Sometimes, as her recipe binder can still attest to, I would decorate her recipes with little hearts and drawings of me. Today, Mom's recipe binder is a little bigger, and holds more than just recipes; it holds memories too.

This wonderful cake also brings to mind that special moment during a birthday party when the blowing out of the candles was to occur.  This ritual was always magical for me, no matter whose birthday it was.  As soon as the cake was positioned in front of the birthday boy or girl, my cousins and I would gather close to the cake and wait with hungry eyes and eager hearts.  The grown-ups were always much slower in breaking up their conversations and getting over to the table, so we always had time to map out which piece we wanted.  A corner piece or a piece with a frosting rose on it was a high value piece, but I always wanted a piece with writing on it--maybe an "M" or part of the word "Happy."   Every family birthday party photo we have shows our excited little faces front and center by the cake, ready to watch and possibly help out if needed with the blowing out of the candles. (Grown-ups always seemed to need help with that, and now that I'm a grown-up, I always seem to need to my nieces' help, too.)  Maybe it was the candles glowing or the fact that a wish was soon to be made and possibly granted or maybe it was the simple, sweet fact of cake and ice cream, but my childish heart always beat with anticipation as I gazed on the pristine cake while the candles were lit and everyone started to sing.  I realize now that the birthday cake ritual combines everything I value most: family, song, wishes, and, of course, cake.    
All the birthdays, anniversaries, and baby showers where this cake was served run together into one massively happy occasion.  Birthday candles, birthday wishes, Mom's recipe binder, presents, laughter, and good times all wash together into one lovely memory that this cake never fails to bring to mind.   

It is a box cake moistened up to perfection with some shredded zucchini, and topped with our famous Bride's Frosting, which is a family legend all by itself.  Apparently my grandmother passed this recipe down to her three daughters, each one receiving a slightly different version, leaving them wondering, to this day, which recipe is the authentic one.  

My mom made this recipe in a 9x13 pan, and after it was cooled, she always sliced a long, skinny piece of cake from one end for us to taste before she frosted it.  I make the recipe as a double layer cake.  Here is our treasured recipe, and I hope it becomes a part of your family traditions as well. 

Chocolate Zucchini Cake with Bride's Frosting

Chocolate Zucchini Cake Ingredients:
1 package Duncan Hines Dark Chocolate Fudge Cake Mix
3 eggs
1 1/4 cup water
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 cup shredded, unpeeled zucchini

Bride's Frosting Ingredients:
(To cover the top of a 9 x 13 cake, make a half recipe)
1 cup milk
1/4 cup flour
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup shortening
3 cups confectionary sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (I use clear imitation vanilla extract)


To start the frosting, combine 1/4 cup flour and 1 cup milk in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring contantly until think.  Put mixture into the fridge to cool.

For the cake, preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  Grease and flour a 9 x 13 inch pan or two 8- or 9-inch pans.  Pour dry cake mix into a bowl, and add eggs, water and oil.  Beat for 2 minutes at medium speed.  Fold in zucchini.  Spread evenly into prepared pans.

Bake for 35-45 minutes, until toothpick comes out mostly clean and top springs back when touched.  Don't worry if it takes longer than you would think.  The zucchini makes it very moist.  Let cool in pans on a wire rack.

For the frosting, beat shortening and butter together.   Add vanilla.  Gradually beat in confectionary sugar until fluffy.  Add cooled milk mixture, and beat until creamy.  

Frost cake and serve!

(My mother's recipe of Bride's Frosting, which is the true version Grandma used to make, no matter what my aunts may say, uses half the amounts I named above.  It is enough to frost the top of a 9 x 13 and possibly the sides if you use it sparingly.  Here are the original amounts:
1/2 cup milk
2 tablespoons flour
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup shortening
1 1/2 cup confectionary sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla)


Monday, September 9, 2013

Turbinado Sugar Cookies and My Quest for the Unattainable Healthy Cookie

I have a love-hate relationship with sugar.  Whenever I make a couple batches of cookies for a friend, as much as I try to get the temptation out of the house as quickly as possible, it usually turns into one batch for the friend and one batch for me!   I do occasionally try to be healthy, and my forays into baking often lead me to experiment with healthier recipes.  I have dabbled with alternative sweeteners and have a pantry full of healthier flours.  I dream that someday I might perhaps find that magical, healthy sweetener that won't pack on the pounds and the perfect grain that turns my cookies into health food!  My experiments have sometimes had disastrous results: cookies that apparently tasted like tobacco (not that I have any idea what tobacco would taste like, but if you want to know, I'll send you the recipe) and to sweet breads that tasted like spinach (a taste I try to avoid in my baked goods). But this experiment was a definite winner in the taste category, even if I didn't achieve the health factor.  I will definitely be making these Turbinado Sugar Cookies again!

As I delved in to the world of alternative sweeteners, I made a startling discovery.  There are way more sweeteners than I ever could have imagined!  To my amazement, I discovered that people are baking with honey, agave nectar, turbinado sugar, demerara sugar, moscovado sugar, stevia, xylatol, coconut sugar, brown rice syrup, maple syrup, molasses and a host of other sweeteners!  And, to my dismay, I also discovered that there is no such thing as a healthy sweetener.  Sure, honey has some vitamins and antioxidants; and raw sugars, being less processed might be better for you than white sugar, but the cold, hard truth is: cookies will never be health food.  Despite that, I know I will continue to experiment until I find the healthiest, tastiest versions of those unhealthy foods I love so much!  Besides, why limit myself to one form of sugar when there are so many other sweeteners to choose from!

Turbinado sugar is a less refined product of sugar cane.  Yes, it's still processed, but not as much.  And since the sugar crystals are larger and retain more moisture, your baked goods will be moister.  Turbinado sugar has a slight molasses flavor, and this fantastic sugar makes the star ingredient in these amazing turbinado sugar cookies!  As I pulled together the ingredients, I promised myself I would only eat one of these cookies as a taste test and only after they were all baked and cooled...but...well, I had one as soon as the first batch came out of the oven and that was the beginning of the end for me.  I quickly developed an infatuation with these cookies, and proceeded to taste several more that night... and several more the next day.  Apparently, I'm very serious about taste testing new cookie recipes!  

These cookies are delicious, comforting and delightful!  The turbinado sugar makes them moist and tasty on the inside and wonderfully crunchy on the outside.  Even for those of you with the same love-hate relationship with sugar that I have, these are a must-try! 

Mary's Turbinado Sugar Cookies

2 3/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1 1/4 cup turbinado sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
extra turbinado sugar for rolling (1/4 - 3/4 cup)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees Farenheit. 

In a medium bowl, stir together flour, baking soda and salt. Set aside.  

In a large bowl, beat butter for 30 seconds or so until creamy.  Add 1 1/4 cup turbinado sugar and beat for 2 minutes or so.  (If you like sweeter cookies use 1 1/2 cup turbinado sugar, and for less sweet cookies, use 1 cup.)  Add eggs and vanilla extract and beat well.  Beat in half of the flour on a low medium speed.  Then stir in the remaining flour until combined.  

Form 1 1/2 inch balls of dough and roll in the extra sugar.  Chill the dough balls on wax paper on a plate in the freezer for 5 - 10 minutes.  (This will make the cookies more puffy and less flat.  If you like flat sugar cookies, ignore this step and put the dough balls right into the oven.)    Place chilled dough balls 2 inches apart on a baking sheet and bake for 8-9 minutes.  (I've noticed that different cookie sheets and different ovens can make a big difference, so the baking time could be anywhere from 7-10 minutes.) Cool on cookie sheet for 5 minutes, then transfer to wire rack and cool completely.  Enjoy!  

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

World Peace Cookies and Exploring the World of Chocolate

I love chocolate.  I think I've mentioned this before.  And believe it or not, as simple as it sounds, a Hershey bar is my favorite way to enjoy chocolate.  If I had to choose one method of loving and honoring chocolate for the rest of my life and never ever stray from it, I think it would have to be the Hershey bar.  Luckily, no one is asking me to do that!  I love chocolate in any format!  I love milk chocolate, dark chocolate,  hot chocolate, chocolate cake, chocolate muffins, chocolate cookies, chocolate ice cream, chocolate mousse, chocolate fondue, chocolate breakfast cereal, chocolate candy, chocolate brownies...I even love all those chocolatey desserts I have yet to try!  I love them all!  Yes, the Hershey bar is perfect, but that doesn't mean I am going to stop exploring every possible way to enjoy chocolate.  And so, for those of you who want to explore the world of chocolate with me, here is one more treat to try:  World Peace Cookies.

I, like most humans, am a creature of habit.  I order the same dish at my favorite restaurant.  I watch my favorite movies over and over again until I have them memorized.  I eat the same (yummy) pancakes every weekend.  Sure, I love to explore, travel, try something new and make new friends, but there are times when the same old thing is exactly what I want.  Like when I go to the same restaurant with the same friends, order the same dish and sip the same wine, I feel the same sense of complete joy I always do!  It's perfect.  There are times when I want to lie on the same beach with the same people every summer at the lake.  There are times when these good things aren't good enough just once, but they need to be enjoyed again and again.

But, now and again, we all need to do something different, whether we want to or not.  Once in a while, it's important to pick a new kind of book or try a new hobby or learn a new dance step.  Because you never know when you might discover your new favorite thing.  When it comes to baking, for me, it's easy to step outside the sameness routine.  I love to try something completely new whenever I can.  I'm always finding new recipes to try and tweaking old ones.  Sure, I've got my stand-bys, my go-tos, and my favorites, but new sweet creations are catching my eye all the time.

For me, chocolate is the best of both worlds.  I know whatever chocolatey dessert I whip up next is going to be fun and super-tasty!  So, I bravely try every chocolatey recipe I can find. 

These cookies have been making the rounds on the internet.  Just google World Peace Cookies, and you'll see what I mean.  I first saw them on Smitten Kitchen, and then I noticed them on Alexandra's Kitchen.  After that, I knew I had to make them.  Now that I have, I can safely say they are delicious!  They have a luxurious texture and a winning taste!  And I am happy to pass along these deliciously addictive cookies to you!  I know I've posted more than one chocolate cookie recipe here and more to come, but these are a must-try!  Oh, and the name is absolutely perfect.  If everyone in the world would just stop all their feuding for moment and have one or two of these delicious cookies, all their troubles would be forgotten. 

World Peace Cookies
From Dorie Greenspan

Makes about 36 cookies

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 stick plus 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup (packed) light brown sugar
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon fleur de sel or 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped into chips, or a generous 3/4 cup store-bought mini chocolate chips

Sift the flour, cocoa and baking soda together.

Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter on medium speed until soft and creamy. Add both sugars, the salt and vanilla extract and beat for 2 minutes more.

Turn off the mixer. Pour in the flour mixture, drape a kitchen towel over the stand mixer to protect yourself and your kitchen from flying flour and pulse the mixer at low speed about 5 times, a second or two each time. Take a peek — if there is still a lot of flour on the surface of the dough, pulse a couple of times more; if not, remove the towel. Continuing at low speed, mix for about 30 seconds more, just until the flour disappears into the dough — for the best texture, work the dough as little as possible once the flour is added, and don’t be concerned if the dough looks a little crumbly. Toss in the chocolate pieces and mix only to incorporate.

Turn the dough out onto a work surface, gather it together and divide it in half. Working with one half at a time, shape the dough into logs that are 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Wrap the logs in plastic wrap and refrigerate them for at least 3 hours. (The dough can be refrigerated for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 2 months. If you’ve frozen the dough, no need to defrost it before baking — just slice the logs into cookies and bake the cookies 1 or 2 minutes longer.)

Getting ready to bake: Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 325°F (160°C). Line two baking sheets with parchment or silicone mats.

Working with a sharp thin knife, slice the logs into rounds that are 1/2 inch thick. (The rounds are likely to crack as you’re cutting them — don’t be concerned, just squeeze the bits back onto each cookie.) Arrange the rounds on the baking sheets, leaving about one inch between them.

Bake the cookies one sheet at a time for 12 minutes — they won’t look done, nor will they be firm, but that’s just the way they should be. Transfer the baking sheet to a cooling rack and let the cookies rest until they are only just warm, at which point you can serve them or let them reach room temperature.

Storage: Packed airtight, cookies will keep at room temperature for up to 3 days or they can be frozen for up to 2 months. They can also be frozen in log form for up to 2 months and can be sliced and baked directly from the freezer, adding a couple of minutes to the baking time.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Triple Chocolate Mousse Torte and the Best Party Dessert

Everyone always wants to be the one person at the party who brought the best dish. Whether it's your great-grandmother's lasagna recipe with homemade sauce or cupcakes you bought from the grocery store, everyone wants their offering to be valued above all others.  Let's say you're bringing dip to a party.  It's your favorite recipe.  You've got your dip carefully prepared, and on your way, you're thinking of how everyone will fall into raptures over your dip.  As soon as you set it on the table, you envision there will be a marked change in the room.  The very presence of your delicious offering will brighten every face and put a sparkle in every eye.   You can hardly wait for the onslaught of love and adoration your dip will bring you.

You finally arrive and enter the room with an air of importance.  You masterfully deposit your dip into the center of the table and uncover it with a flourish.  The dip seems to radiate deliciousness, making the cheese ball and the vegetable tray tremble in fear.  It's not long before the first chip breaks the surface of the pristine dip.  You discreetly watch people's reactions out of the corner of your eye, while pretending to be paying attention to another conversation.  And then it comes.  "Wow!  This is amazing!"  "Did you try this dip?"  "Who brought the dip?  It's fantastic!"  "I can't stop eating it!"  "I need this recipe!"  Suddenly, everyone is ecstatic.  You become a hero, with the magical dip that saved a mediocre party, transforming it into something spectacular.  You think proudly to yourself that your dip could very possibly save the world.

Believe it or not, this could happen to you.  Only instead of a dip, the magical dish is a dessert.  Triple Chocolate Mousse Torte.  This dessert provides the most delicious slice of chocolatey heaven you will ever experience.  No lie.  I saw it first on Annie's Eats and fell in love with the triple chocolately layers.  Every time I bring this dessert to a gathering, the chocolate fiends in the room are entranced.  The layers are rich and delicious, yet light and velvety.  An all around winner.  People have asked me to bring this again and again.  It never fails to please.

You will love this Triple Chocolate Mousse Torte and so will all your friends.  You will be the hero who saved the party.  You will be the superstar with the out-of-this-world dessert that has everyone swooning.  I promise. 

Triple Chocolate Mousse Torte
Posted on Annie's Eats


For the bottom layer:
6 tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into 6 pieces, plus extra for greasing the pan
7 oz. bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
¾ tsp. instant espresso powder
1½ tsp. vanilla extract
4 large eggs, separated
Pinch of salt
1/3 cup light brown sugar, packed

For the middle layer:
2 tbsp. cocoa powder, preferably Dutch-processed
5 tbsp. hot water
7 oz. bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped (or you can use semi-sweet chocolate)
1½ cups heavy cream
1 tbsp. granulated sugar
Pinch of salt

For the top layer:
¾ tsp. powdered gelatin
1 tbsp. water
6 oz. white chocolate, finely chopped
1½ cups heavy cream


To make the bottom layer, butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan. (I lined the bottom of the pan with a parchment round for easy removal later.) Center a rack in the oven and preheat to 325˚ F. Combine the butter, chocolate, and espresso powder in a large heatproof bowl set over simmering water. Stir occasionally until the mixture is smooth. Remove from the heat and let cool slightly, about 5 minutes. Whisk in the vanilla and egg yolks. Set aside.

In a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites and salt on medium speed until foamy, about 30 seconds. Crumble half of the brown sugar into the mixing bowl with your fingers to remove any lumps. Beat until incorporated, about 15 seconds. Add the remaining brown sugar and continue to beat on high speed until stiff peaks form, about 1 minute more. Using a whisk, mix one-third of the beaten egg whites to the chocolate mixture to lighten it. Fold in the remaining egg whites gently with a rubber spatula until no streaks remain. Pour the batter into the prepared springform pan and smooth the top with a spatula.

Bake until the cake has risen, is firm around the edges and the center has just set but is still soft (should spring back after pressing gently with a finger), about 14-18 minutes. Transfer the cake to a wire rack to cool completely, at least 1 hour. Do not remove the cake from the pan. (If not making the second layer right away, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to proceed.)

To make the middle layer, whisk together the cocoa powder and hot water in a small bowl; set aside. Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over simmering water, stirring occasionally until smooth. Once melted, remove from the heat and let cool slightly, 2-5 minutes.

In the clean bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the cream, sugar and salt on medium speed until the mixture begins to thicken, about 30 seconds. Increase the speed to high and whip until soft peaks form when the whisk is lifted, 30-60 seconds. Whisk in the cocoa powder mixture until smooth. Using a whisk, mix one-third of the whipped cream to the chocolate mixture to lighten it. Fold in the remaining whipped cream gently with a rubber spatula until no streaks remain. Pour the mousse into the springform pan over the cooled cake and tap gently on the counter 3 times to remove air bubbles. Gently smooth the top with a spatula. Wipe the inside edge of the pan to remove any drips. Refrigerate for at least 15 minutes while preparing the top layer.

To make the top layer, sprinkle the gelatin over the water in a small bowl and let stand at least 5 minutes to soften. Place the white chocolate in a medium bowl. Bring ½ cup of the cream to a boil in a small saucepan. Remove the pan from the heat, add the gelatin mixture and stir until dissolved. Pour the hot cream mixture over the white chocolate and let stand about 1 minute. Whisk until the mixture is smooth. Cool to room temperature, about 5-8 minutes, stirring occasionally.

In the clean bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the remaining 1 cup of cream at medium speed until it begins to thicken. Increase the speed to high and whip until soft peaks form when the whisk is lifted, 30-60 seconds. Using a whisk, mix one-third of the whipped cream to the white chocolate mixture to lighten it. Fold in the remaining whipped cream gently with a rubber spatula until no streaks remain. Gently spoon the white chocolate mousse into the pan over the middle layer. Smooth the top with an offset spatula. Return the cake to the refrigerator and chill until set, at least 2½ hours.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Go for it: Oreo Cheesecake Brownies

It is not my intention to cause a sugar addiction in myself or anyone else. (As I am slightly addicted to sweets, I am obviously failing at this.)  I am well aware that healthy eating is not only better for you, but it's the "in" thing right now.  (Just go to the bookstore and you'll see an abundance of popular diet books and celebrity-endorsed healthy cookbooks.)  Not only that, but it seems biology is totally against us when it comes to staying thin or losing weight. (It can take weeks of diet and exercise to lose 5 pounds, but a weekend of over-indulgence and you gain 10!)  Despite all this; despite the fact that you're probably trying to get into bathing suit shape for the summer; despite the plain and obvious fact that even if you were to indulge yourself, the sinful combination of brownies, Oreos, and cheesecake would the worst choice you could make; you need to make these brownies.  It's that simple.

Yes, we all want to eat healthy and look amazing, but you need to experience these brownies.  They are a show-stopper.  You need to throw caution to the wind and take on the mind-blowing combination of Oreos (possibly the world's favorite cookie), cheesecake, and brownies in one delicious recipe.  Any recipe that contains Oreos is a winner in my book.  But, combine that with cheesecake and brownies, and you've got a champion!

I found these brownies on Sweet Pea's Kitchen and I knew, the moment I laid eyes on them, that it was destiny.  They turned out as delicious and decadent as I had imagined.  (And don't hate me for saying this, but they get better every time you make them!)  I made them a few times before I even had the patience or presence of mind to take a picture.

Yes, they are layered with sugar and fat.  But for one day, let go of your rules and guidelines.  Forget the diet and put away the exercise equipment.  Go ahead, make these brownies, and eat them without shame.  You can thank me later.  (But don't talk with your mouth full.)

Oreo Cheesecake Brownies
Adapted from Sweet Pea's Kitchen
Originally from Sugar Plum

1/2 cup unsalted butter
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese, softened
3/4 cup confectioners' sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened dark cocoa powder (I used Hershey's Special Dark)
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 1/3 cups coarsly chopped Oreos

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Line an 8 x 8 inch baking pan with parchment paper or foil.  Butter or spray the pan/lining.

Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in sugar and bring to a boil, whisking frequently. Boil for 1 minute. Set aside to cool for 5 minutes.

Beat together cream cheese, confectioners' sugar and vanilla extract with a mixer on medium speed until combined, about 1 minute.

In a medium bowl, sift together flour, cocoa powder and salt; whisk until combined.

In a large bowl, whisk together eggs until combined. Whisk in melted butter/sugar mixture until well combined. Stir in flour mixture until just combined, followed by Oreo cookies.

Spread half of brownie batter into the prepared baking dish, followed by cream cheese layer.  Dollop the remaining brownie mixture over the cheesecake layer and swirl with a knife or spatula.

Bake for 25 minutes, until brownies and cheesecake are set. A knife inserted into the cheesecake mixture should come out clean and the edges will be lightly browned.

Let cool completely in pan on a cooling rack before lifting out the parchment paper or foil to remove the brownies.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Day the Moon Smiled and a Poem

There is one face that is familiar to all people.  Every nation that ever existed even in the farthest reaches of the earth know this face.  It is the moon.  The man in the moon has been watching humanity since our beginnings, and we all know his face.  I have been fascinated with the moon all my life, and even though I know the moon is unchanging, I have witnessed a profound change in the man in the moon.

Ever since I was a baby and first turned my gaze to the moon, I saw in its frozen face a sad expression.  No matter what art had depicted or what tales had been told or what other people could see, to me the face of moon was sad.  It was a woeful, mournful expression, like the moon was crying out.  I thought it was a shame that the face of the moon should hold, for eternity, such a sorrowful expression, but nothing could be done about it.  It was the moon.  It would never change.

Then, about three years ago, one night I looked up and saw the most extraordinary thing.  The moon was no longer sad.  That sorrowful expression of woe was gone.  The moon was smiling.  Laughing, even.  I was astounded.  How could these features have changed?  I was awestruck that the face of moon should show me something so different from what I had seen before.

Then, this past year, I looked up at the moon one night as I walked to my car after work, and once again the moon's face had changed.  This time, the moon was singing.  The moon was singing a soulful song, it's face full of emotion.

And so, impossible things can happen. Change can occur in the most unlikely places.

by: Mary Wojciechowski

Enchanting moon
You pull the waters from the shores
And the secrets you steal from our hearts
Are replaced by your tremulous moonsongs.
Heavenly moon
Your river flows
Like a stream of darkness
Delighting my soul with ripples of stars
Washing away reality and lies.
Distant moon
Your ever changing, ever different
Face is the faceless lover to my dreams
Which nightly dance at your silver threshold.
Mysterious moon
The songs you spin from my dreams
Sing from my frightened outstretched heart
And fills the voids of space with music
Your enchanting moonsongs.

*Photo from, "This ... photo of the moon was taken by astronauts on the International Space Station during the Expedition 24 mission, mid-2010. CREDIT: Rocscosmos." 

Monday, April 1, 2013

Pretzel Hugs and the Easter Bunny

Once again, I've stumbled upon a perfectly addictive little treat! Pretzel Hugs!!! These came onto my radar when a friend of the family gave us a gift bag of these at Christmas. They tasted so good and looked so adorable, I knew I had to make some of my own. Since M&Ms always come in such festive colors, these little babies make perfect party favors! (Or just make a whole batch for yourself--I won't tell!) 

Yesterday was Easter, and I have to say, I think the Easter Bunny has one of the best jobs I can think of. He works one night a year, and best of all, brings baskets full of sweets to everyone! I'm not sure what makes a rabbit particularly suited to that task (I mean, rabbits prefer leafy vegetables, right?), but he really does have a fantastic job. Now, I'm not trying to go after the Easter Bunny's job, but I couldn't help giving some Easter treats of my own yesterday. And so, I made little bags of pretzel hugs to give to my aunt and cousins.

Pretzel hugs are a breeze to make, they look cute, and they are dangerously addictive. I brought a batch into work last week, and they were gone by noon. There are plenty of recipes out there for these simple treats, but I found that I needed the Hershey Hugs to be completely melty before I would drop the M&M on top, so here's my method:

Pretzel Hugs

small pretzels  (little wagon wheels or square waffle ones are perfect)
M&Ms  (festive colors are great!)
1 bag Hershey Hugs

(You will also need parchment paper. Without it, the pretzel hugs will become melded to the cookie sheet.)

Preheat oven to 175 degrees Farenheit. Line a cookie sheet with a piece of parchment paper.  

Spread out enough small pretzels onto the cookie sheet for each Hershey Hug.  

Place one unwrapped Hershey Hug on top of each pretzel.  Bake at 175 for 7-10 minutes.  When the Hershey Hugs have melted enough that they have relaxed their shape, take them out of the oven.  (Note: The white chocolate on the outside will melt faster than the milk chocolate on the inside.  You will need to wait until the entire thing is soft, inside and out.)

Place an M&M on top of each melted Hershey Hug.  Let them set in a cool place.  (It's cold up here in the north, even in springtime, so I just put the cookie sheet outside for 10 minutes, but you can use the freezer or the fridge.)

And remember:  Give a friend a hug, and they'll love you all day.  Give a friend a Pretzel Hug, and they'll love you for a lifetime! (Okay, maybe a slight exaggeration, but you get the picture.  These are really, really yummy!)

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Mary's Whole Wheat Pancakes and How I Learned to Love Maple Syrup

Pancakes would have to be on my list of favorite foods.  It's right up there with chocolate and ice cream.  Ever since I was a kid, I've loved pancakes.  I remember watching Saturday morning cartoons in my PJs while my dad made batch of pancakes on the griddle.  It was heaven.  Now I make my own pancakes (still in my PJs) and it's still heaven.  Especially since I've developed my own rockin' recipe for whole wheat pancakes!

When I was a kid, I would drown my pancakes in syrup.  Not that weird-tasting maple stuff that comes from a tree!  Yuck!  No way!  The REAL stuff!  Aunt Jemima, Mrs. Butterworth, or Hungry Jack.  Now and again, my mom would try to give me one of the cheaper store brands, but I couldn't be swayed from my favorites.  Sure, there's all sorts of preservatives; sure, it contains the dreaded high fructose corn syrup; sure, it's made in a food processing plant; but I didn't care.  I liked it.  I swore I would never eat and certainly never like that maple stuff. 

But then I grew up and, living out in the world on my own, I moved into a house with six other girls in West Philadelphia.  We tried to keep things pretty organized over at 332 (our address, and also the slang term we used for the house). Money towards bills and groceries were due on the first of the month in little envelopes pinned to bulletin board in the kitchen.  We each had a weekly chore, and to keep things sane, we didn't rotate chores all the time.  Your chore was your chore. Every week.  My chore was vacuuming.  I was okay with that.  I would rather vacuum than do the grocery shopping every week.  I didn't envy the grocery shopping chore (or the wash-the-kitchen floor chore!).  The girl saddled with grocery shopping had to make a trip to the supermarket every week in a vain attempt to please six other girls' appetites and manage to feed them all on a tight budget.  (She also had to give up her parking spot in a crowded West Philly neighborhood--and I can tell you, parking spots are urban gold.)  She bought store brands whenever possible.  She used coupons and shopped the sales.  You could request something you really wanted, and if it was within the budget, she'd try to get it.  Otherwise, you eat what she bought, and that was the end of it.  She was rather health-conscious and always bought loads of fruits and veggies each week.  And because we were all girls, there was ALWAYS a few tubs of Edys Ice Cream in the fridge, and a giant bag of chocolate chips in the pantry.  

Because I no longer did my own grocery shopping, I started eating healthier.  I began with baby steps.  I would cook up a little broccoli, chop it up and toss it in my bowl of (store brand) mac and cheese.  I tried oatmeal for the first time.  One of my housemates even tried to teach me how to make a veggie omlet.  (I still can't fold an omlet.)  And for those times when all I wanted for dinner was ice cream, the freezer was always well-stocked.  The one thing I thought I'd never get used to was the syrup she bought.  Instead of my favorite chemical/preservative laden syrup, she bought the giant container of all-natural maple syrup.   

At first, I ate it begrudgingly.  That maple taste was over-powering.  I didn't like it.  After a while, I got used to it.  I didn't think it was the cat's pajamas or anything, but I ate it.  Pancakes remained one of my favorite foods, and the maple syrup didn't really get in the way of my enjoyment of them.

After one year, I had become a convert.  By that time, I had moved to a studio apartment and was able to buy syrup of my own choosing.  But I had gotten so used to real maple syrup that my old favorites, Aunt Jemina, Mrs. B., and Hungry Jack, were (to my extreme surprise) tasteless!   That flavored corn syrup I used to love had become an overly-processed chemical goo that didn't even taste like food!  I needed my maple syrup to enjoy my pancakes!  I craved that sweet natural flavor!  No processing.  No chemicals.  Just nature's own sweet sap from the beloved sugar maple!

Today, I am still an ardent maple syrup lover! I love it's natural goodness!  I love that unique North American flavor it imparts to my pancakes, and I won't eat any other syrup.    

A few years ago, I decided I need a healthier pancake and after trying some pancake mixes from the health food store, I decided the best way to go was to develop my own recipe.  After looking online at bunches of recipes, I noticed they all have sugar in them.  Since maple syrup is all the sugar I need on my pancakes, I took bits and pieces from the recipes I found and made my own.  I discovered that whole wheat flour, sprouted what flour, buttermilk, and vanilla can combine to make delicious pancake heaven!

In a perfect world, we all have sprouted wheat flour and buttermilk on hand, but since those items are not necessarily in every kitchen, the good news is the recipe tastes good no matter what substitutions you use.  But I would have to say that the buttermilk imparts a magical goodness to the pancakes that I want everyone to experience.  Also, the vanilla is so important that whenever my dad makes this recipe, he doubles the vanilla!  And the sprouted wheat flour gives the pancakes a lovely texture and a deeper flavor.  Try this recipe as written and you won't go back to your "just add water" preservative patties you used to eat.  

Also, try going with real maple syrup.  It may take a while to love it, but believe me you will thank me a year from now!!!

Mary's Whole Wheat Pancakes

Dry ingredients: 
½ cup whole wheat flour
½ cup sprouted wheat flour (Any other kind of whole wheat flour can be substituted—I’ve used spelt flour, whole wheat pastry flour, and another half cup of whole wheat flour.  It all tastes good!) 
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt

Wet ingredients:
1 egg
½ cup milk*
½ cup buttermilk*
1 tablespoon oil
1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat griddle to 400˚F.

Whisk together dry ingredients and wet ingredients separately. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir until combined. Grease or butter hot griddle. Scoop using a 3 tablespoon cookie scoop or ¼ measuring cup onto hot griddle, cooking a few minutes on each side.

*If you don’t have buttermilk, instead of 1/2 cup of milk and 1/2 cup of buttermilk, you can do one of the following: 1.) Use 1 cup of milk.  2.) Use one cup of a buttermilk substitute: Add 1 tablespoon white vinegar or lemon juice to a cup of milk and let sit for 5 minutes, then use as needed.  I do this when I don't have buttermilk and the pancakes are fantastic!

Optional add-ins: Add a cup of blueberries, chopped strawberries, chopped apple or anything else you can think of to add some flavor.  When adding fruit, cook for a minute longer to make sure fruit gets fully cooked and the pancake won't be too soggy.

For Waffles: Use 2 tablespoons of oil instead of one.

Blueberry pancakes

Strawberry pancakes

Monday, March 4, 2013

Midnight Sin Chocolate Cake and Too Many Recipes

I love collecting recipes.  I have a shelf full of cookbooks, many of which I've never tried a single recipe from, and stacks of magazines with Post-Its sticking out of most of the pages.  But mainly, my recipe collection takes the form loose leaf pages printed out from the internet that pile up on my desk, get crammed into my recipe binder, or find their way to random parts of the house.  Despite this seemingly overwhelming number of good recipes waiting to be tried, I always seem to be at a loss when an occasion arises for which I need a killer dessert.  I saw this cake recipe months ago, and finally gave it a whirl for a friend's birthday.

I love seeing a heavenly recipe and deciding that my future holds it's yummy goodness.  It's like having your cake and eating too.  I can hold in my mind the promise of something homemade and delicious without the calories.  Of course, once my mind gets too full of amazing cookies (Martha, I'm making these someday, soon, I promise!) brownies (I'm going to need a couple days to work off the calories when I make these babies), or cakes (*sigh* This one is going to be vanilla heaven!) then I need to bake!  Recipes like this Midnight Sin Chocolate Cake usually pile up because I either have no time to make it or no occasion.  Cakes are especially difficult to find an occasion for, since I find that cookies and other portable goodies are better for parties.  But when I was invited to Girls Night In/Birthday Party, I jumped at the chance to make this wonderful cake from the blog, Not So Humble Pie.

This cake is for the true chocoholic.  Chocolate cake, chocolate mousse and chocolate ganache all in one.  If you're not a true chocolate lover, don't even attempt it.  You're not worthy.  Of course, I altered the recipe a bit.  I used my own chocolate cake recipe.  I'm sure Shirley Corriher's chocolate cake from her book Bakewise is fantastic, and I will try it someday, but I felt safer with my own.   I did make the ganache that Not So Humble Pie used, but if I make this again I will use a slightly softer ganache and have made the change below.

So, here it is, folks!

Midnight Sin Chocolate Cake
Inspired by Not So Humble Pie

(Mary's note: I made the mousse a day ahead of time, and I used water instead of the liqueur.)
Chocolate Mousse: 
Not so Humble Frangelico Dark Chocolate Mousse
Posted in Not So Humble Pie who adapted it from Pure Chocolate

5 large egg yolks
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup Frangelico hazelnut liqueur (or substitute 1/3 cup water)
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate (preferably 66% cacao), finely chopped
1 cup heavy cream, chilled

In a heat safe bowl, beat the eggs and sugar together until the mixture is uniform and light in color. Place over a double boiler and whisk until slightly thickened. A ribbon of the egg sugar mixture should flow back into the bowl when the whisk is lifted and the sugar should just be beginning to dissolve. Add the Frangelico (or water) and then continue to whisk over the simmering water until the mixture hits roughly 160°F and coats the back of a spoon. Remove from heat and add the finely chopped chocolate. Stir until your arm cramps or the mixture becomes cool to the touch, whichever comes first (roughly 10 minutes).

Set the chocolate aside and beat the heavy cream to soft peaks. Fold the cream into the chocolate, then cover and chill for at least 4 hours.

Chocolate Cake:

2 cups sugar

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup Hershey's Special Dark cocoa
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup boiling water

Heat oven to 350°F.  Grease and flour two 9-inch baking pans.

Sift together sugar, flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl.   Add eggs, milk, oil and vanilla.  Beat with a mixer on medium speed for 2 minutes.  Stir in boiling water.  (Batter will be thin.)  Divide batter into prepared pans.   

Bake 30 minutes or until tops spring back at touch.  Cool 5 minutes in pans and then remove to wire racks to cool completely. 

Adapted from Not So Humble Pie

1 cup bitter-sweet chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup heavy cream (40%+ milk fat is ideal)
1 tablespoon butter (salted or unsalted is fine)

Measure out the chocolate into a bowl. Bring the butter and heavy cream to a low boil over medium-high heat and pour over the chocolate. Give the chocolate a shake to submerge and allow to stand for 5 minutes, then stir until smooth.

To Construct Cake:

Assemble your cake by placing one round onto your serving platter. Reserving 3/4 cup for garnish (keep chilled), spread the mousse to form an even layer on top of the cake. Top with the second cake round, touching up the sides with an offset spatula if necessary.

Pour the ganache onto the cake, smoothing over the top with an offset spatula. Return the cake to the fridge and allow the ganache to cool.

When cool, you can put the finishing touches on the cake. Take the reserved chocolate mouse and fill a piping bag, fitted with a large star tip. Drop small dollops of mousse around the perimeter of the cake.

Keep the cake chilled until ready to serve. Then allow to stand for 10 minutes before cutting and serving. Store the cake in the refrigerator, covered to keep it from absorbing odors, for up to 5 days.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Vanilla Sable Cookies and Just Being Yourself

This is a recipe for a vanilla cookie.  As a chocoholic, a baker extraordinaire, and a lover of sweets, this simple vanilla cookie shouldn't interest me much.  It's not chocolatey.  It's not frosted.  It's not stuffed with something.  It's not even ooey gooey.  This previous post is more more my style: a scoop of delicious chocolate chip cookie dough sandwiched between two soft, delicious chocolate cookies.  But this Vanilla Sable Cookie is so perfectly marvelous, it doesn't need frosting or chocolate or even bits of candy bar sprinkled on top.  It is simply delicious just the way it is!

In life, we all need moments like that, when what we are is good enough.  No need to impress or sparkle or perform.  No need to look perfect or pretend we've got life all figured out.  At work, we tend to want to be flawless.  At home, we tend to want to be "right."  Those moments when we can let down our guard are rare and precious.  It's true, I can be lazy and messy, and I tend to be forgetful sometimes.  In the role of flawed little me, I am flawless!  We need moments to shine at simply being human.  So, take a moment and acknowledge the fact that even though you may not have perfect hair or the perfect family or the perfect job, you are marvelous, just the way you are!

These little Vanilla Sable Cookies are a perfect example of this.  There have no frosting, no filling, and no chocolate chips.  There is no excitement.  No one says "Wow!" when they look at these.  But just one taste brings to light the simple beauty of vanilla.   And most likely, you'll eat several before the day is through.  They are just plain good.  Try them!

Vanilla-Bean Sable Cookies
Adapted from Fine Cooking

2 soft plum vanilla beans (I used 1-2 tablespoons of vanilla bean paste)
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/3 cup confectioners' sugar
1 large egg yolk
2 cups all-purpose flour

1 large egg yolk
Sanding sugar (I used turbinado sugar)

Cut the vanilla beans in half lengthwise and scrape out the seed pulp into a small bowl.  Add the sugar, and stir until blended. 

In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment or in a large bowl with a hand mixer, mix the butter on low speed until smooth and creamy  (you don't want it to get light and fluffy), about 1 minute. Mix in the salt.  Add the vanilla sugar and the confectioners' sugar and mix until smooth, about 1 minute. Scrape down the bowl as needed.  Add 1 large egg yolk and mix for 1 minute. Still on low speed, mix in the flour until just blended; the dough will be soft. 

Turn the dough out onto a clean surface and knead it gently a few times. Divide it in half and shape each half into a 9-inch log.  Wrap each log in wax paper or parchment paper and refrigerate for at least 3 hours. 

Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.  Combine 1 egg yolk with a splash of water and apply the logs using a pastry brush or your fingers.  Roll each log in sanding sugar until well-coated. (I sprinkled the sugar on.)  Trim the ends of the logs if they're ragged.  (I ate the ragged pieces...yum!)  Using a sharp knife, cut each log into 1/2-inch-thick rounds.  Place them on baking sheets 2 inches apart.  Bake each sheet until cookies start to brown around the edges and the bottoms are golden, 15-20 minutes.  (Mine were done in 14 minutes.)  Let cool on the sheets for 5 minutes, then transfer to a cooling and let cool completely before serving.  Sables shouldn't be eaten warm; they need to cool so that their texture can set properly. 



Thursday, January 17, 2013

Brownie Cookie Dough Sandwiches and Trying to Eat Healthy

Last week I was invited to one of my first parties of the new year, so I decided to bring a brand new dessert.  A new year brings new outlooks, new resolutions, new diets, new plans, and a whole new you.  The fact that the new year comes immediately following a high-stress, high-calorie holiday only emphasizes everyone's resolve to become more healthy, more productive and more centered.  For me, I am in a constant battle with my unending craving for sweets, so a new year's resolution to eat healthier is not new to me.  The fact that I always seem to want to bake a crowd-pleasing, gut-busting chocolatey dessert like these Brownie Cookie Dough Sandwiches doesn't help my resolution, but it does put a smile on my face.

Don't get me wrong--I am all for eating healthy, whole foods!  But now and then, I allow myself to indulge.  One day, I may be eating salads all day (yay, me!), and the next I am making a batch of my favorite chocolate chip cookies (and taste testing the recipe every step of the way!).  One minute I'm preaching the virtues of fruits and vegetables  to my family (seriously, raw fruits and veggies are miracle foods!) and the next minute I am indulging in a half a dark chocolate bar dipped in peanut butter (I swear, this has to be a healthy snack--it's just got to be!).  The battle between healthy eats and chocolatey sweets rages on in my little world, and you, my friends, are the beneficiaries of each and every time the sweets side wins.

This recipe was definitely worth a devastating loss to my healthy eating side.  The chocolate cookie was soft and delicious.  The cookie dough filling  was sweet and delectable.  They were sinfully good!  In fact, you may need to go to confession for the sin of gluttony after eating more than one of these.  I was in love with these cookies from the first bite and I'm sure you will be too!

The only alteration I made to this fabulous recipe from Heat Oven to 350 was to throw in a few more mini chocolate chips.   I couldn't find a 13 ounce container of marshmallow creme at the grocery store, so I bought a 16 ounce container of Marshmallow Fluff and used my kitchen scale to measure out between 12 and 13 ounces.  Luckily, after assembling all the sandwiches, there was some filling left over, and since I can't stand to see sugar go to waste...  yum!  

Anyway, here is a recipe you won't regret making!

Brownie Cookie Dough Sandwiches
From Heat Oven to 350

Yield: 15 sandwich cookies

For the cookies:

1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups unsweetened cocoa powder (I used Hershey's Special Dark cocoa powder)
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda

For the filling:

1 cup unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 1/2 cups flour
1 13oz. container of marshmallow creme
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup mini chocolate chips (I used closer to 1/2 cup)

Instructions for the Cookies:

Heat oven to 350 degrees.  In a large bowl, cream together butter, brown sugar and white sugar until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla extract and then the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.  Combine the salt, flour, cocoa, baking powder and baking soda, and gradually stir into creamed mixture. Shape dough into 1 1/2 tablespoon-sized balls and place on a baking sheet.  (Heat Oven to 350 then recommends flattening the dough balls with the bottom of a glass, but I found this step was not necessary.)  Bake 8-10 minutes or until the cookies are puffy and the tops are cracked, but still soft. Allow cookies to cool for 5 minutes on the baking sheet before removing to a wire rack to cool completely.

Instructions for the Filling:

Cream butter until fluffy.  Add sugar and beat well.  Add the flour and beat untill all the flour is incorporated. Add remaining ingredients and beat until mixture is smooth.  It will be fairly thick. 

Instructions for assembling sandwiches:

Scoop about 3 tablespoons of filling onto the bottom of a cooled cookie.  Top with another cookie and EAT!