Happy Spring!

I’m busy with schooling and getting ready for Easter dinner, which will be similar to last year’s meal but with different desserts and maybe a few changes in the veggies. This week is Spring Break for most of this town, but we’re taking our school break later, when the Grandparents come for Tartlet 1′s birthday. Last week Tartlets 3 & 4 had spring parties in their art preschool classes, so I made sugar cookies for the snacks. I used lemon in both the cookies and the frosting.

This batch isn’t my neatest as I was scrambling to have them finished the morning of the class, but my tip for good frosting results is to use a zip baggie with the corner snipped off to pipe icing around the edge and let it sit for a few minutes before you fill the rest. It will keep the frosting from running off the edge and give a sharper result.  These sat a little too long waiting for their filling so they have a more pronounced outline.  The kids especially love to decorate their own cookies.

Sugar Cookie Frosting
3 Tbsp. melted butter
4 c. powdered sugar
1/2 t. lemon extract
milk to reach desired consistency

Mix together until smooth. Dye as desired.

Awesome. Spectacular. Meh.

We hosted a student lunch yesterday and I made a couple of desserts for it. This one came from a cookbook my mom gave me for Christmas: The Taste of Home Baking Book and I have to tell you, that I don’t really think it deserves to be on the shelf next to Dorie’s Baking book. I know, many people are huge fans of Taste of Home, but I find most of the recipes are old Pillsbury Bake-Off repeats, nothing new, and what I generally refer to as ‘fake foods’. Not that they are somehow plastic and inedible; this dessert certainly is edible and sweet, but the main ingredients are pudding mix and Cool Whip. And it’s not that I’m so snobby that I would never eat those things, because I’ve clearly posted food with pudding mix and Cool Whip before. And I do think there is a place for a super quick crowd pleaser, but I have to tell you that I really prefer ‘real food’. That’s why, in the future, I’m more likely to make my cream puffs like this again than as a ‘Midwest dessert casserole’.

But this was extremely popular and wins for ‘ooey, gooey, super sweet’ dessert. It was also easy to make it in stages. I made the cream puff crust Friday night and then mixed the pudding on Saturday and topped with the Cool Whip and then refrigerated it until Sunday afternoon when I added the caramel and chocolate toppings and hazelnuts. None of the steps took more than a few minutes and it was called alternately ‘Awesome’ and ‘Spectacular’ by the guests. I actually thought about using pistachio pudding and pistachios on top for a green dessert. :-P So, for Mat, here’s the recipe. I hope you still fit in the tux! ;-)

Cream Puff Dessert (from The Taste of Home Baking Book)

Base:
1 c. water
1/2 c. butter
1 c. flour
4 eggs

Filling:
1 pkg (8 oz.) cream cheese, softened
3 1/2 c. cold milk
2 pkgs (3.9 oz each) instant chocolate pudding

Topping:
1 carton (8 oz) frozen whipped topping, thawed
1/4 c. chocolate ice cream topping
1/4 c. caramel ice cream topping
1/3 c. chopped nuts (recipe calls for almonds, I used hazelnuts)

Preheat oven to 400 F.

In a large saucepan, bring the water and butter to a boil over medium heat. Add flour all at once; stir until a smooth ball forms. Remove from the heat; let stand for 5 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Continue beating until mixture is smooth and shiny.

Spread into a greased 9 x 13-inch baking dish. Bake at 400 F for 30-35 minutes or until puffed and golden brown. Remove to a wire rack to cool completely.

For filling, beat the cream cheese, milk and pudding mix in a large mixing bowl until smooth. Spread over puff; refrigerate for 20 minutes.

Spread with whipped topping; refrigerate until serving. Drizzle with the chocolate and caramel toppings; sprinkle with nuts. Refrigerate leftovers.

As for me, I preferred Dorie’s Chewy, Chunky Blondies (p. 109), full of coconut, chocolate, butterscotch chips, Heath toffee bits, pecans, and lots of butter and sugar!

Shortbread Bars

When I have someone over for dinner in the middle of the week, I often pick some quick and easy dessert so I don’t derail schooling in favor of entertaining. I’d much rather bake something fancy than be the taskmaster for school, but I don’t want our schooling to drag on to ‘infinity and beyond’, so I usually force myself to be reasonable. Last night Crystal joined us for a very homey dinner of ham and split pea soup (or split ham & pea soup) with roast beef hash & frozen veggies for those who prefer not to eat soup. You can tell she’s becoming ‘family’ rather than ‘guest’ when I’m serving such plain fare!

For dessert we had shortbread bars. This is a basic recipe that I use over and over. Some of my favorite variations are to leave out the mini chocolate chips and put lemon or orange zest and/or extract in the crust and my all-time favorite filling is raspberry seedless jam, but I also like blackberry, boysenberry, cherry, or huckleberry. Strawberry is what I had in the cabinet yesterday. Sometimes I add nuts (1/2 c. chopped pecans), especially to the top layer. It’s really fast to threw together and it’s usually pretty popular. I frequently double the recipe for a 9 x 13 pan when I’m serving a crowd.

Shortbread Bars

2 c. flour
1/2 c. sugar
3/4 c. butter (or margarine)
1/4 t. salt
1/2 t. vanilla

1/2 c. mini chocolate chips

10 oz jar berry preserves

Heat oven to 350 F. In large mixer bowl, combine flour, sugar, butter, salt, and vanilla. Beat at low speed until mixture resembles coarse crumbs (or cut in butter by hand). Stir in chocolate chips. Reserve 1/2 – 3/4 c. crumb mixture.

Press remaining mixture into the bottom of a 9-inch square baking pan. Spread preserves over crumb mixture. Sprinkle reserved crumb mixture over the top and, if desired, 1/2 c. chopped pecans.

Bake for 35-40 minutes or until lightly browned and preserves are bubbly. Cool completely; cut into bars.

Nanaimo Repeats

Peanut Butter Nanaimo Bars

Unlike some people, I like repeats. Or at least I like some repeats. I don’t want to break my leg again or be in another car accident or go through labor and delivery again. For some things once (or four times, in the case of the latter) is enough. But some things can bear repetition. Muffins, cookies, and pies, some things just taste good enough to have again, just like they were, or close to like they were, the first time, the second, the thirty-second. I wouldn’t want to eat them every week, but Nanaimo Bars are a tasty treat that are requested from time to time. I made some for Crystal last week, now that she can have the occasional egg, and The Husband suggested I make some for the student lunch yesterday. So I made three trays — orange, mint, and peanut butter.

Mint Nanaimo Bars with Andes Candies

Now we’ll take a break from Nanaimos and try something else. Like, pie. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, you may enjoy these links. First, Cooking Debauchery made Alton Brown’s Browned Butter Chocolate Chip-Cherry Cookies, which I saw on Tastespotting with the label “not your average chocolate chip cookie”. Secondly, you simply must see Megnut’s Mean Chocolate Chip Cookie. Thanks to MN for sending me the link.

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope you had a good night to end 2007 and ring in 2008, whether that meant going to bed early, watching Dick Clark in your bathrobe, or partying ’til dawn. We had our annual New Year’s Eve Party/Open House event.

We never know from year to year exactly how many people will come and how long they will stay — I think our largest crowd at midnight was around 21, our smallest was just our family b/c everyone went home by 11 PM! When we were listing our RSVPs, Tartlet 1 was jumping up and down in excitement that it looked like the kids were going to outnumber the adults — at one point we had 32 adults and 32 kids on the list and then she asked if I had included us. No. WHOO-HOOO! She cheered. Neenerneenerneeeeenee! But one family left two of their kids at home and another left all four kids at home, but then an adult couple called to cancel . . . our final count, including our family, was 33 adults, 32 kids. She pouts. :-( Boooooo!

So, given that for our guest list, I tried to pick some things that would suit all palates. We had a lot of repeats. I made the perennial favorite with both adults and kids, mini calzones/pizza pockets, PBJ cut out sandwiches (using cookie cutters to make shapes — crustless sandwiches in fun shapes are always popular with the little crowd), and industrial meatballs from Sam’s in the crockpot served with bottled sauces — sweet and sour, BBQ, and marinara. We also had cheese plates with crackers, chips and salsa and guacamole, veggie plate, beef skewers with balsamic vinaigrette marinade, chicken skewers in both peanut butter/yogurt and garlic lemon flavors, and bruschetta. And my favorite artichoke dip, which appears every year, usually in better focus than here. Even though I fully understand, I was a little disappointed that by the time I was done bringing the waves of hot food out of the kitchen around 8:30, many of the people were already heading home with their little tykes.

For desserts I often make some spectacular new thing, but that didn’t happen this year. Instead we had some of these repeats, with filberts instead of almonds, and some of these repeats in both orange and an experimental mint version. C doesn’t like her chocolate dark. At all. But she loves Andes candies. So, for her sake, I made some with melted Andes candies on top instead of unsweetened chocolate and then sprinkled them with chopped bits. It got a thumbs up approval. I also made baklava using pistachios instead of walnuts and I used lemon in the syrup, as well as some cheesecake squares, some of which I topped with canned cherry pie filling. We had a platter of fresh fruit — pineapple, honeydew, and cantaloupe. And I made some special brownies for Mrs. V, who can now eat cocoa again!! Now there’s something to say ‘Whoo-hoo!’ about because carob? What, is that short for caribou dropping or something? Blech. Her brownies were made with cocoa, rice flour, sorghum flour, honey, egg, xanthan gum, cream of tartar, baking soda, and pistachios. They were a little weird in the baking — I think my oven was running very hot :-P so the edges were getting burnt while the middle turned out rather fudgy.

Once I closed down the kitchen and joined in the action of the party, after more than half the people went home, we got a telephone pictionary game going, followed by a couple rounds of Catch Phrase. I *LOVE* telephone pictionary, which seems very odd to me. I mean, normally I’m the sort of person who likes to think about things for a long time and not be very spontaneous so a game in which you have 30 seconds to either write a phrase from a picture or draw a picture to match a phrase, with all sorts of surprises along the way, seems like a game I would normally avoid. But I’ll join in a telephone pictionary game any time. This time around I think the funniest twist (certainly the most macabre) came from Abram’s phrase of ‘one giant step for mankind’ which ended with a picture of a person being run over by a train. The more adjectives and adverbs you use, the more likely your phrase will distort by the time it gets back to you . . . and then there are players like my Tartlet 1 who didn’t know what to write or draw a couple of times so she just made something up — as in totally unrelated! There are those who play the game trying to keep it as close as possible to the original version and there are those who play to see twist wildly . . . and seriously, which is more fun? The twisted ones, of course! But especially when the animals are misinterpreted and actions are poorly illustrated.

When I was in college I had a very good friend, the best friend I’ve ever had. In fact, it seemed like we shared a brain. Unfortunately, she always had it while I was in calculus, but we played regular Pictionary like you wouldn’t believe. One of us would start to draw a line and the other would guess it almost immediately. The other people would say — how on earth does that line look like ‘hopping on one foot’?! And we’d just shrug — I knew what she was drawing. The trouble with telephone pictionary is you need 14 people (in our game last night, anyway) who can do that to keep the phrase the same throughout the round.  Anyway, thanks to all those who joined us for the night, however much of it you were able to share with us, and I wish you all a very happy new year!

A Little Christmas Baking

Over the last couple of weeks there’s been a little Christmas baking going on here. (I recognize that as feigned surprise!) I made cookies for The Husband’s Christmas Party and to give away to neighbors and friends. Already, before Christmas is even here, nearly all the cookies are gone. Fortunately, the majority of those calories are not staying in the family, just some of them. I made some old favorites — almond balls, shown on the top tier and made without almonds — I used pecans and walnuts on some and others weren’t rolled in nuts at all; Russian Teacakes (aka Snowballs or Mexican Wedding Cakes) , on the middle tier; Chocolate Crinkles, on the middle tier; Sugar Cookies, on the bottom tier using star and Christmas tree cutouts;and peanut butter cookies, on the bottom tier. In addition to those in the picture, I made Peanut Butter Balls and both plain and orange Nanaimo Bars.

The Russian Teacake has always been a part of my winter memories. I did not grow up celebrating Christmas (although I very much enjoy doing so now), but everyone we visited had Christmas cookies and nearly everyone had Russian Teacakes. They are very fast to make, look pretty, and taste good so it’s easy to see why so many people make them.

The ones pictured here follow the old Betty Crocker recipe closely, except I use pecans instead of walnuts in mine. Sometimes I use orange flavoring in them, or wrap the dough around a Hershey’s kiss, and some like them with a little dollop of lemon or lime flavored cream cheese filling. However you prefer them, they look pretty and dainty on the plate and taste lovely, but, if you are like me, they may leave a dusty tale-tell trail of powdered sugar down the front of your black holiday dress! ;-)

Russian Teacakes

1 c. butter
1/2 c. sifted confectioners’ sugar
1 tsp. vanilla (or orange, almond, etc)
2 1/4 c. flour
1/4 t. salt
3/4 finely chopped nuts (I prefer pecans and hazelnuts but I want to try pistachios too)

Mix butter, sugar, and vanilla thoroughly. Stir flour and salt together; blend in. Mix in nuts. Chill dough.

Heat oven to 400 F. Roll dough in 1″ balls. Place on ungreased baking sheet. Bake 8-10 minutes, or until set but not brown. While warm, roll in confectioners’ sugar. Cool. Roll in sugar again, if desired.

Retro Candy

When Dolores posted the Retro Recipe Challenge for October, I knew immediately what I was going to make.

I’m not exactly sure who initiated the fantasy of the stay at home mom just sitting around eating bonbons and watching soaps all day, but he didn’t quite get it right. At least, it’s not how my day goes and I have yet to meet another mom who would describe her day that way. Maybe I just move in the wrong circles.

My entry comes from the 1963 Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book, which has a section in the back of favorite cookies by time period. In the 1955 – 1960 section is the recipe for Bonbon cookies. It says:

Candy-like cookies in vogue — Women were fascinated by these beautiful and delicious cookies which were baked as cookies, served and eaten as candies. Excitement over Bonbons brought more candy-cookies, Toffee Squares and Cream Filberts, for example.

Bonbon Cookies

1/2 c. butter
3/4 c. sifted confectioner’s sugar
1 Tbsp. vanilla (3 tsp)
food coloring, if desired
1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1/8 tsp. salt

fillings: candied or maraschino cherries, pitted dates, nuts, or chocolate pieces
Bonbon Icing (below)
toppings: chopped nuts, coconut, colored sugar

Mix butter, sugar, vanilla, and food coloring. Measure flour by dipping method or by sifting. Blend flour and salt in thoroughly with hand. If dough is dry, add 1 to 2 tbsp. cream.

Heat oven to 350 F. For each cooky, wrap 1 level tablespoonful dough around a filling suggested above. Bake 1″ apart on ungreased baking sheet 12 to 15 min or until set but not brown. Cool; dip tops of cookies in Icing. Decorate each cooky with one of the toppings suggested above. Makes about 24 cookies.

Bonbon Icing:
Mix 1 c. sifted confectioner’s sugar, 2 1/2 tbsp. cream, 1 tsp. vanilla, and red, green, or yellow food coloring, if desired.

Chocolate Bonbon Icing:
Make Bonbon Icing except add 1 sq. unsweetened chocolate (1 oz.), melted, and use 3 tbsp. cream.

Chocolate Bonbons:
Make Bonbon Cookies except blend in 1 sq. unsweetened chocolate (1 oz.), melted.

Penuche Bonbons:
Make Bonbon Cookies except use 1/2 c. brown sugar (packed) in place of confectioner’s sugar.

I updated mine slightly by using three different fillings: Ghirardelli chocolate, dried cherries rather than candied, and pistachios.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to let Alice take care of the house while I take my plate of bonbons into the living room and sit on the sofa with my feet propped up and watch some soaps, or read my Ladies Home Journal. ;-)