Honey-Lavender Ice Cream with… well, read and see!

I know, I know—we are not exactly in “ice cream season,” but this is not an ordinary, warm weather ice cream, and I found it so interesting, I could not wait until next summer to share it!

My inspiration for this ice cream came very naturally, in the course of conversation with dear friends after a feast that concluded with one of my homemade ice cream recipes. Our friend, Charlotte, casually mentioned that she had once had a chance to try a most unusual ice cream flavor, and that she had lingering regrets over passing on that opportunity so many years earlier. It was bleu cheese ice cream, she said, and she had never stopped thinking about it.

I’ll be honest—my brain could not imagine it. Bleu cheese? In ice cream? Yikes.

But my taste buds took the wheel, reminding me that I have enjoyed many charcuterie boards with the combination of bleu cheese with fresh and dried fruits, and bleu cheese drizzled with honey, and both were fantastic! So if I’ve enjoyed bleu cheese with sweet flavors in other ways, why wouldn’t it be possible—or potentially even good—in an ice cream?

Many years ago, I made a honey and goat cheese ice cream that was fantastic, so it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility. Before long, I joined Charlotte in wondering if bleu cheese ice cream would be amazing—or just weird.

That was about two years ago, and as time rolled along, I moved on to what seemed to be more “normal” ideas for ice cream, including several that I have posted here on Comfort du Jour, but a few weeks ago, Charlotte and her partner, David, joined us for pizza night at our house and she clearly had not forgotten about this most unusual frozen treat, and she put it right out there as a challenge:

“So, what do you think about doing the bleu cheese ice cream?”

And all at once, my brain connected the dots.

The bleu cheese would need a sweet base to carry it, and I remembered the jar of specialty honey—a local one, infused with lavender—that sat mostly untouched in the back of my cabinet. Of course! That would infuse the base of my ice cream, and I would embellish it with additional dried lavender buds, steeped in the cream mixture and strained out before churning. With or without bleu cheese, I knew that would be a delightful dessert, and when I tasted the base, I let go an audible moan. It was, OMG, perfect.



There could be no vanilla in this ice cream because I didn’t want a distraction from the honey or the lavender. Sweetened condensed milk would provide structure to the base, and something else would have to run through the ice cream to split the difference between the sweet, floral background and the salty, funky bits of bleu cheese. Something tart and unexpected (as if bleu cheese wasn’t unexpected enough)—yes, it would have to be balsamic vinegar!


Now, if you had told me a few years ago that I would one day make ice cream with vinegar and bleu cheese, I would have decided then and there that you were completely off your rocker. But this balsamic is not ordinary vinegar—it’s a specialty product, infused with lavender. Something in my subconscious had already predicted this moment, because I found an unopened bottle of the stuff in my pantry overflow. I poured some into a pan and reduced it to a thick, syrupy consistency, which concentrated both its sweetness and its tang, and I drizzled that syrup through the churned base as a ribbon—no, more like a thread—that literally streaks through each scrumptious scoop, accentuating the positives of the warm honey, the fragrant lavender, the sweet cream and yes, the funky bleu cheese.


For this recipe, I recommend a bleu cheese that is not too funky or overly vein-y. I actually picked up three different bleu cheeses to determine which one was right. The first turned out to be too pungent and heavy on the funky veins— better for chunky bleu cheese dressing, and that’s exactly what I ended up making with it. The second bleu cheese had great promise, as the woman in the specialty cheese department at the market described it as being “smoked over hazelnut shells,” but in one taste, I knew that it would overwhelm the delicate lavender (It’ll be great, though, on a charcuterie tray). My third option turned out to be just right, with a classic, salty flavor and nice blue-color veins running through creamy-looking white cheese. I layered crumbles of it over the churned ice cream, which was streaked with a fine drizzle of the balsamic reduction.


I’m not so naïve to think that everyone reading this now would enjoy this ice cream because not everyone has a strong sense of adventure. Frankly, not everyone even likes bleu cheese. If you’d rather have a reduced-guilt vanilla ice cream or a homemade Cherry Garcia, I’ve got you, and you can skip over to those posts for the recipes. No judgment here. But for those of you who do have that adventurous side—you read this to the end, after all—you’re gonna be telling your friends about this one!

Charlotte was thrilled to finally have bleu cheese ice cream, and just in time for her birthday. ❤ 🙂


Honey-Lavender Ice Cream with Bleu Cheese

  • Servings: About 8
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
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Not for the unadventurous, but a sophisticated combination of flavors in an elegant, indulgent ice cream.


Ingredients

  • 3/4 can sweetened condensed milk (about 10 ounces)
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup half and half
  • 3 Tbsp. lavender-infused honey* (see ingredient notes)
  • 1 tsp. edible dried lavender buds*
  • Pinch kosher salt
  • 1 Tbsp. vodka (optional, added at end of churning for improved texture)
  • 1/3 cup lavender-infused balsamic vinegar*
  • 1/3 cup mild bleu cheese crumbles*

I used Cloister brand whipped lavender honey, but there are many notable varieties available with a quick internet search. If possible, choose a honey made locally. The dried lavender buds underscored the floral essence of the honey, and I recommend them. Be sure you select lavender that is labeled as “food-grade” or “edible,” as some on the market are intended for cosmetic formulas only. The lavender-infused balsamic is another specialty ingredient that you can find at any one of the balsamic and olive oil stores that have popped up all over the U.S. If your local shop’s supplier is Veronica Foods, you’re in the right place.

Directions

  1. Heat the milk in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. When it begins to steam around the edges, whisk in the honey to dissolve it. Add the lavender buds to the pan and turn off the heat. Allow the buds to steep until the milk has cooled to room temperature.
  2. Pour 3/4 of a can of sweetened condensed milk into a pitcher bowl. Pour the lavender-infused milk through a mesh strainer into the bowl, discarding the spent lavender buds. Whisk the milks together until evenly blended. Add heavy cream and half and half, whisking to combine but taking care to not whip air bubbles into the mixture. Cover and refrigerate several hours until completely cold.
  3. Heat the balsamic vinegar in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until it reduces in volume and takes on a syrupy consistency. Cool to room temperature.
  4. Set up ice cream machine. Gently whisk ice cream base mixture to reincorporate any ingredients that have settled. Freeze ice cream according to manufacturer’s instructions. In the final minute of churning, add vodka to ice cream and allow it the machine to churn it all the way through.
  5. Spoon about 1/3 of frozen ice cream mixture to an insulated freezer container. Use a whisk to carefully drizzle a slight ribbon of reduced balsamic over the layer of ice cream, and use a toothpick or thin knife to gently marble the balsamic down into the ice cream, but be careful not to “muddy” it. Scatter half of the bleu cheese crumbles over the balsamic, and then repeat with another layer of ice cream, balsamic and bleu cheese. You probably won’t use all of the reduction, but you can use the rest of it to drizzle over the ice cream at serving time. Finish layer the last of the ice cream base on top. Smooth gently, cover with parchment or wax paper and freeze until firm (about 8 hours).


A Pair of Peachy Keen Skillet Desserts

I’m ready for fall—there, I said it. Summer has been wonderful this year, especially for the fact that we have enjoyed the company of friends more this year than in the previous two summers. It’s good to be (mostly) back to normal. But my confession is true; I have found myself longing for the goodness that autumn brings—you know, cooler evening breezes, crisp morning air, comfy sweaters and (of course) the food. Soon enough, I suppose.

As we wind our way through these waning days of summer, I am delighted with the freshness we have enjoyed from our own garden and the various other local sources that have supplied our meals.

We are clinging to the end of fresh peach season here in the South, and I have two delicious desserts to share with you. It is unusual for me to share two recipes at once but, given the short time left for enjoying fresh, in-season peaches, I thought it made sense to present these at the same time. Both are prepared in a skillet, and both include fresh peaches, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. One is super simple to make and serve straight from the skillet; the other is a bit more involved, though not difficult, and serves up with a more elegant flair. Either is delicious, and if you only have enough time (or peaches) to make one of them, you can hardly choose wrong.

Peach Bourbon Upside-down Skillet Cake

The first of these yummy desserts was made “on location,” just about a month ago, during a visit with friends outside Raleigh, N.C. When we arranged our day trip to visit Bob and Peg, I told them I’d love to make a dessert using the fresh peaches off their backyard tree. If you have the time to invest in a few extra steps, this is the dessert I recommend. For me, the trickiest part is inverting the thing while the heavy cast iron skillet is still warm. If you’re comfortable doing so, this cake is well worth the effort, and it’s one that I have made several times over the years. I turned it into a bit of an adventure this time by packing up all the pre-measured ingredients and then assembling and baking it at Bob and Peg’s. This was easier than it might sound, and it went like this:


As with any upside-down cake, this dessert was built backward, beginning with the sticky-sweet, sugary base in the skillet and finishing with the batter that gets poured right on top—which, of course, becomes the bottom after the cake is baked and inverted.

I like a combination of white and brown sugars for the base because the white sugar puts a bit of crunch in the caramel and the brown sugar provides more depth of flavor. Add both to the butter as it melts over a stovetop burner and let it mingle into syrupy lusciousness. If the butter gets a little browned in the process of melting it down, so much the better, and you must know me well enough to know that I had to pour in a shot of bourbon once the sugar mixture was bubbly. Bob was pouring bourbon anyway, and peaches and bourbon is a match made in summer heaven, as far as I’m concerned. Next, arrange sliced peaches all the way around over the butter-sugar base.


The batter for this cake is pleasantly dense, with cornmeal adding whole grain goodness and texture, and buttermilk providing a necessary acidic boost to the baking powder and soda. Begin by beating softened butter and sugar together, then adding eggs and vanilla, and finally blending in the flour and buttermilk ingredients.


Pour the batter over the peaches in the hot skillet and transfer it directly to a preheated oven until the edges have pulled away from the skillet and the center resembles cornbread. After a brief rest, run a knife around the edge to loosen the cake and carefully invert it onto a serving plate. If any of the “upside-down” sticks, replace it on the cake and smooth it while it is still warm. Delicious!


At the end of this post, I will include easy, click-to-print recipe cards for both of these peachy skillet recipes. But first, I must show you what our pal, Bob, was doing to break my baking concentration with his magical cocktail-making abilities. My husband and I always have a wonderful time hanging out with Bob and Peg, and as we waited for the peach bourbon upside-down cake to finish baking, we witnessed a master class in—get this—smoking cocktails. Yes.


Now, the cocktail itself could not have been simpler. No measuring required, even—it was straight up bourbon over a big-ass ice cube. But that smoke infusion contraption took a nice bourbon into a whole new territory, and you can bet I’ll be getting one of those before I present this year’s signature Halloween cocktail. More to come. 😉


Ready to talk about this other delicious, peachy keen skillet dessert? It’s a cobbler!

Peach Praline Skillet Cobbler

For now, let’s shift gears back to the cast-iron skillet and talk about this ridiculously easy cobbler, which I whipped up in no more than 15 minutes, plus baking. The only time-consuming thing here was peeling and cutting up the peaches, which was hardly a burden, given that I thoroughly enjoyed licking the juices off my fingers when I finished. These particular peaches were gifted to us by our neighbor, Pam, following a day trip she had made to the North Carolina mountains. Pam has followed my adventures on Comfort du Jour from the beginning, and she said upon delivering these perfectly ripe peaches, “I can’t wait to see what you create with these!” Well, here it is—a skillet cobbler!


I only used three of the peaches here (they were huge), and that measured about 2 cups, once they were peeled, pitted and cut into bits. In a pinch, I’m sure you could use thawed frozen peaches as well, which means this dessert doesn’t have to be limited to summertime enjoyment.

There are several varieties of cobbler out there, and because we roll pretty casual in the South, I skipped over the options that required making biscuits or pastry dough and steered directly to the “batter” option. This is a dessert that seems incorrect, because the batter is quite runny, and it’s hard to visualize how it will come together in the oven (but it does). The batter is made with self-rising flour, sugar, cinnamon and milk—that’s it. Me being me, though, I had to incorporate some amount of whole grain into it, so for this batch, I also stirred in 1/3 cup of quick-cooking oats and that turned out to be a great decision. Unlike a typical cobbler with juicy, almost soupy consistency, this one held together more like a custard because the oats plumped up inside the cobbler. I would not recommend increasing the oats because it might turn out gummy, and I am sure that quick oats is the way to go. Old fashioned, rolled oats may not cook through as tender, or they may absorb too much of the liquid in the batter.


While I measured and mixed those ingredients, I pre-heated the oven with a half stick of butter in it, and then swirled the browned butter around to fully coat the pan once the oven was hot. The batter is slowly poured into the hot buttered skillet, and then the peaches are arranged (if you want to call it that) all over the top. Typically, a cobbler is sprinkled lightly with sugar before it’s baked, but I can’t stick with typical, so I chopped up some pecan pralines (from Trader Joe’s, but anything similar will work) and scattered those on top instead.

Isn’t this just peachy? 🙂

As I said, you can’t go wrong with either of these peachy keen skillet desserts, so grab your cast iron and peel those peaches and enjoy what’s left of summer.

Peach Bourbon Upside-down Skillet Cake

  • Servings: 8
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This beautiful skillet dessert makes the most of fresh, late-summer peaches, and bourbon marries nicely into the “upside-down” as cornmeal brings texture to every bite.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 stick salted butter (for the upside-down)
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup cane sugar
  • 1 shot bourbon (optional, but heck yes)
  • 4 medium fresh peaches, sliced with peel
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup medium grind cornmeal
  • 1/4 cup toasted pecan pieces (optional)
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, softened (for batter)
  • 3/4 cup cane sugar (for batter)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 cup buttermilk, shaken well
  • Whipped cream for serving

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 375° F, with oven rack in the center position.
  2. Place a 10″ cast iron skillet over medium heat. Heat first amount of butter until melted. Add brown and cane sugars and stir to combine. Let them mingle over the heat until the mixture looks dissolved and begins to bubble. Add the bourbon (if using) and stir to blend. Reduce heat to low and arrange peach slices in a round pattern over the syrupy bourbon mixture. Set aside while you prepare the batter.
  3. Combine flour and cornmeal in a medium bowl. Add pecans, baking powder, soda, salt and cinnamon. Set aside for later addition to the batter.
  4. Using a handheld mixer, cream together the remaining sugar with the stick of unsalted butter. Beat this mixture until it’s lighter and fluffier in texture. Add eggs, one at a time, beating completely to blend. Beat in vanilla.
  5. Use a rubber spatula to fold about half of the flour mixture into the batter, blending until all dry ingredients are incorporated. Gently mix the buttermilk into the batter, and then fold the remaining flour mixture, again blending until no dry spots of flour are visible.
  6. Pour the batter over the peaches in the skillet, taking care not to disturb the arrangement. Gently smooth the batter, and slide the skillet into the oven.
  7. Bake for 50 to 55 minutes, until baked batter has pulled away from the edges of the skillet and the cake portion tests clean when a toothpick is inserted into the center.
  8. Cool 15 minutes before loosening the cake around the edges. Carefully invert the cake onto a large platter. If any bits of peach get stuck to the skillet, place them back into place and smooth the upside-down caramel coating while it’s still warm.
Slice into wedges when cooled and serve with a dollop of whipped cream or ice cream. Wrap leftovers in plastic and keep in the fridge.


Peach Praline Skillet Cobbler

  • Servings: 6
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This recipe is easy as can be, and a bit of quick-cooking oats mixed into the batter gives the cobbler a touch of whole grain goodness and a wonderful texture.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 stick unsalted butter (4 Tbsp.)
  • 3/4 cup cane sugar
  • 1 cup self-rising flour (see ingredient note below)
  • 1/3 cup quick-cooking oats
  • 1/4 to 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • About 3 large peaches, or enough to measure 2 heaping cups (peel and chop)
  • 1/2 cup candied pecans, roughly chopped (I used Trader Joe’s pecan pralines)

Note: self-rising flour already has the proper ratio of leavening agent; if you do not have self-rising flour, use regular all-purpose flour and add to it 1 1/2 tsp. baking powder and 1/4 tsp. salt

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 400° F, with oven rack in center position. Place cold butter in a 10-inch cast iron skillet and put it in the oven during preheating. Keep an eye on it so that the butter does not burn.
  2. Whisk together the self-rising flour, sugar, oats and cinnamon. Add the milk to the dry ingredients and whisk until combined, and no pockets of unincorporated dry ingredients remain. The batter will be quite runny.
  3. Remove hot skillet from the oven and swirl the pan to evenly coat with the melted butter. Slowly pour the batter right into the center of the pan. The butter will naturally scoot out to the edges of the pan, and that’s OK. It may also seem to foam a bit at the edges, which is normal.
  4. Top the batter filling evenly with the peach chunks. Scatter the chopped candied pecans over the top. Bake 40 to 45 minutes, until the cobbler is golden brown and bubbly in spots. Serve warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.


S’mores Brownies

Ooey-gooey. It’s the only honest way to describe a s’more—with its melty, oozing richness of milk chocolate, warmed and softened by a fresh-from-the-campfire toasted marshmallow and squished between two delicately crispy, honey-sweetened graham crackers. It is a little dessert sandwich that says, “come on, be a kid again!” This beautifully sticky, utterly sweet nostalgic treat is fantastic on its own, but now I’ve just gone and made it even more sinful by baking it into a rich, dark, fudgy brownie.

Why in the world would I do such a thing, when I’m supposed to be watching my calories? One reason: National S’mores Day!

You probably think these are ridiculous, and you’re absolutely right!

What Goes Into S’mores Brownies?

There’s no campfire required to make these, and you don’t have to get carried away making them from scratch, either. My s’mores brownie recipe (like all my brownie riffs) is based on my favorite brownie box mix, and I am confident that it would work well with your favorite, too. All you need (besides whatever the brownie box says) is a sleeve of graham crackers, a little melted butter, a jar of marshmallow cream, two Hershey’s milk chocolate bars and a smidge of cream cheese.

The main ingredients are exactly what you’d expect. You’ll also need a little butter, a dab of cream cheese and whatever is required for making the brownie batter.

This would be a fun and tasty activity with the kids, the grandkids, the neighbor kids, the big kid you married or perhaps just the kid in you! There is playfulness in making them, and my hubby even joined the action during assembly—it’s funny how quick he is to lend a hand when dessert is involved, and he was definitely excited about these.

S’mores brownies are excellent when served in their just-cooled state after baking, but (as my husband discovered) they are also great cold from the fridge. My neighbor reports that they are awesome warmed up for a few seconds in the microwave—you know, bringing that melty gooiness back to life. We even tried them warmed with a small scoop of ice cream on top. I think it’s safe to say that there is not a bad way to enjoy a s’mores brownie.

The cold, creamy ice cream was a nice complement to the ultra-rich s’mores brownie.

How to Make S’mores Brownies

Did I mention that making them is easy? You’ll find an easy click-to-print recipe at the end of the post. It includes all the measurements and directions I used. But first, some eye candy!

I started with a graham cracker base—the same as I would make for a cheesecake or key lime pie. My graham crackers were packaged in “stacks,” which are basically just pre-halved graham squares for quick and easy s’more making. I used two stacks for the crumb base. Prepare your baking pan with a few swipes of cold butter along the bottom and sides to ensure easy removal of the ooey-gooey brownies, with all its sticky sweet fillings. Add graham crackers to the bowl of a food processor, and pulse several times to break them up into rough crumbs. Then add the melted butter and pulse again several times, until the mixture resembles coarse, wet sand. Transfer the crumbs into the buttered pan and press firmly onto the bottom, but not up the sides. Bake a few minutes to set the crumbs and then let it cool.


For the marshmallow layer, I used the same trick as in my S’mores Ice Cream last year—I used an electric mixer to combine the entire jar of marshmallow cream with a small amount of cream cheese. This knocks out the airy bubbles, making it more manageable for layering inside the brownies. Scoop this mixture into a zip top bag, seal it and set it aside.


Make the brownie batter according to package instructions. If you are obsessed with dark chocolate (ahem, like me), feel free to add a tablespoon of dark cocoa powder to the dry mix first. I planned to use Hershey milk chocolate in the layers (for its ooey-gooey properties), so the addition of cocoa is how I got my dark chocolate fix. Spoon roughly half of the brownie mixture as evenly as possible over the baked graham crust. Don’t try to spread it, as this will dislodge those beautiful crumbs. Just spoon it and let it ooze into place.


Next, snip a small corner off the bag holding the marshmallow cream and gently pipe it all over the first layer of brownie batter. I did my best to keep this layer from seeping to the edges, because marshmallow tends to turn hard and chewy if it cooks too much. My hubby jumped in to help at this point, as he had opened up the Hershey bars and broken them into individual pieces for layering onto the marshmallow cream. He may also have been doing a little quality control for me—a.k.a. taste testing the chocolate bars—and it was fun hearing him describe how he broke the bars into little pieces like that when he was a kid. You know, to make the chocolate bar last longer. 🙂

We arranged the chocolate with a little space in between so the marshmallow had plenty of room to ooze.


The rest of the brownie batter was layered on, and it was tricky to spoon it on evenly without creating a muddy swirl. Next time, I might use a zip top bag to pipe that on as well, but the swirls were not too pronounced. A few broken pieces of extra graham cracker, and our brownies were ready for the oven! My box mix suggested 45 to 50 minutes, and I gave it the full 50. My s’mores brownies were a bit on the “fudgy” side, and I think a few extra minutes in the oven would have been just fine.

Now, the hard part. Waiting for them to cool!

As much as I’d love to claim that the calories fell out when we cut them into squares (spoiler alert—they didn’t), I think I’ll just declare that I’m glad National S’mores Day only comes once a year!


S'mores Brownies

  • Servings: 9 or 16, depending on how you cut them
  • Difficulty: average
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There’s no campfire required to make these, and you don’t have to get carried away making them from scratch, either. My s’mores brownie recipe (like all my brownie riffs) is based on my favorite brownie box mix, and I am confident that it would work well with your favorite, too.

Ingredients

  • 1 box brownie mix, plus ingredients listed to make them (usually oil, water and egg)
  • 1 Tbsp. dark cocoa, optional for extra rich chocolate flavor
  • 1 sleeve honey graham crackers (or two “stacks,” if your package is like mine)
  • 3 Tbsp. salted butter, melted
  • 7 oz. jar marshmallow cream (or fluff)
  • 2 Tbsp. plain cream cheese
  • 2 full-size Hershey milk chocolate bars, broken into individual pieces
  • 1 or 2 additional graham crackers, broken into pieces for top of brownies

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 325° F, or temperature recommended on the brownie mix. Place rack in center of oven. Butter the bottom and sides of an 8-inch square baking dish.
  2. Break up a sleeve of graham crackers (or two stacks) into the bowl of a food processor. Pulse several times to break them into coarse crumbs. Add melted butter and pulse several more times, until mixture resembles wet sand.
  3. Transfer crumbs to buttered baking dish and press firmly onto the bottom but not up the sides. Use a small, flat-bottomed dish to make this easy. Bake graham crust for about 7 minutes, enough to set the crumbs. Cool to room temperature.
  4. In a small bowl, use an electric mixer or sturdy whisk to beat cream cheese and marshmallow fluff together. Spoon mixture into a quart size, zip top bag. Seal and set the bag aside for now.
  5. Make brownie batter according to package instructions. If using dark cocoa, add it to the dry ingredients before blending.
  6. Carefully spoon about half of the brownie batter onto the cooled graham crust. Do not spread the batter, as this will disturb the delicate crumbs.
  7. Snip a corner of the zip top bag and use it as a piping bag to distribute the marshmallow cream over the brownie batter. Try to keep the cream about an inch away from the side edges of the dish.
  8. Arrange the individual Hershey pieces all over the marshmallow cream. It doesn’t have to be perfect; just aim for uniform coverage with a bit of space in between each piece.
  9. Carefully spoon the remaining batter over the layers of marshmallow and chocolate pieces. I found this easiest by using small spoonfuls, beginning around the edges of the dish first, to keep the chocolate pieces from being pushed to the outside.
  10. Break up about two additional graham crackers (or four, if using the stacks); arrange them randomly over the top of the brownies.
  11. Bake for the full time recommended on the brownie package, until the top of brownies is done to its usual state. (If you’re using a favorite brand, you’ll know what they should look like on top)
  12. Cool to room temperature before cutting and serving.



Almond Joy Brownie Bites

My taste for chocolate has evolved exponentially since childhood. The candy bars I loved back then—Kit Kat, Snickers, Mounds and Almond Joy were some of my favorites—all fall a little flat now that I have experienced fine, artisan chocolates. After you develop a palate for high quality, single-origin chocolate, it’s tough to go back. But occasionally, nostalgia sneaks in and makes me crave a taste of yesteryear, and that’s what happened when I had to reach past a jar of unsweetened coconut to get to my go-to brownie mix.

Why couldn’t I turn my brownies into a play on an Almond Joy candy bar, I thought, but with an elevated presentation and more texture? I reached for almonds, too, and had only one dilemma—how to incorporate the coconut so that it didn’t get lost into the brownies. I didn’t just want the flavors of an Almond Joy to be present, I wanted it to look kind of like an Almond Joy candy bar, too, and that meant I could not just add coconut to the brownie mix. No, I needed to create a filling that would be enveloped inside the brownie, and I wanted it to be bite size with two almonds, just like the candy bar.

These miniature, two-bite brownies were a home run!

I found a recipe on Pinterest for a coconut filling intended for layer cakes, and as I considered the steps of cooking the milk and sugar together until it was dissolved and thickened, it occurred to me: isn’t that basically sweetened condensed milk, and why not just use that? It was perfect for transforming plain, shredded coconut into a thick, sticky, coconutty filling.


My brownie mix got an extra boost of dark chocolate from a spoonful of dark cocoa powder. I did this because I always wished that the candy company had made a dark chocolate version of the Almond Joy—sort of a Mounds-Almond Joy combination thing. I also gave the almond flavor a boost with a touch of almond extract added to the liquid ingredients used to make the brownie batter.


A few more notes worth mentioning before I dive into a visual walk-through of how I put these fun little treats together:

To keep this from being too sweet, I combined equal amounts of sweetened and unsweetened shredded coconut. The latter is sometimes labeled “dessicated” coconut, and you can find it in the baking aisle of a well-stocked supermarket or online from Bob’s Red Mill (where I get it). This is my preferred coconut for most recipes—cookies, smoothies, muffins, etc.—and I chose to use some of it here because I knew the filling would be sweet enough with the addition of the condensed milk and the amount of sweetened coconut. I pulsed the coconut in the food processor, too, to knock down some of the shaggy texture.

My go-to brownie mix is Ghirardelli Dark Chocolate, but (I can’t believe I’m about to say this) the chocolate chunks included in the mix may not be right for this recipe. If you are making this as mini muffins, as I did, you will find that the melted chocolate bits hinder the work of loosening and removing the brownie bites from the pan. The dark chocolate flavor is great but consider using a brownie mix that doesn’t have chips or pieces of chocolate in it; you’ll have an easier time removing the brownie bites without breaking them.

Finally, and this is important, the amounts of brownie batter and coconut filling exceed what is needed in the 24-count mini muffin pan. I had enough of both left over to make a small skillet brownie, and trust me when I tell you, that was not a bad decision either. If you decide to do this, I’d like to suggest that you eat it warm. Mmm…

Yes, really.

OK, preheat the oven to the temperature suggested on your brownie mix, and let’s get this started!

So, was all this necessary? Couldn’t I have just chopped up some Almond Joy candies and added them to the brownies, the way I did with the Leftover Snickers Brownies I made at Halloween a few years ago? Sure, and that would have been tasty, too, but this was a lot more fun. 😊


Almond Joy Brownie bites

  • Servings: 24 brownie bites
  • Difficulty: average
  • Print

This is a fun way to dress up a box mix, bringing together the flavors of a classic candy bar with fudgy, soft and chewy brownies.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup sweetened shredded coconut
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
  • 1/4 cup sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 box brownie mix plus ingredients on package to make them
  • 1 Tbsp. dark cocoa powder, optional
  • 1/2 tsp. almond extract, optional
  • 24 whole raw almonds
  • a few pinches flaky sea salt, optional

Note that this recipe will yield more batter and coconut filling than you will need for a single pan of mini muffin-size brownie bites. Plan ahead to use up the rest in a small baking dish or extra mini muffin pan.

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 325 F, or whatever temperature is recommended for the brownie mix. Generously butter the inside of every cup on a mini muffin pan.
  2. Combine sweetened and unsweetened coconuts in the bowl of a food processor and pulse several times to make a finer texture. Transfer the coconut to a bowl. Add the sweetened condensed milk and stir until evenly blended. This will be a thick, sticky mixture.
  3. Prepare brownie batter, adding the dark cocoa to the dry mix and the almond extract to the liquids. Fill the mini muffin cups about halfway. Scoop out a small amount of coconut filling and roll it between your hands into a ball about the size of a marble. Press the coconut ball into a muffin cup, letting the batter come up the sides around it. Repeat with the remaining muffin cups, then drop a slight spoonful of batter on top to fully enclose the coconut ball. You will have a significant amount of batter left over. See Step 5 for suggestions.
  4. Place two almonds on each brownie bite and scatter a few small pinches of flaky sea salt over the pan. Bake at 325 for 15 minutes. Allow brownie bites to cool in the pan until they are easy to handle. Run a thin rounded knife around the edges of the brownie bites to aid in releasing them. Let them cool completely on a plate or tray.
  5. With the remaining batter and filling, we made a warm miniature skillet brownie for two. This could also be baked up in a small glass baking dish, or make a second batch of mini brownie bites when the pan is fully cooled. Use the same method of layering coconut filling over about half of the batter, then pour the last of the batter over to cover it. Sprinkle with chopped almonds and bake for 30 minutes. Enjoy warm!



Irish Coffee Ice Cream

When it comes to recipe ideas, I have a hard time letting go. My mind will grab hold of a “what if” twist on a classic, and I am off and running until I find the finish line. If that idea seems impossible (or if my first, second and tenth attempt fails), I will ponder it until I figure it out.

This Irish coffee ice cream almost didn’t happen, and that would have been a shame because it shines a light on two things I enjoy—OK, three—coffee, Irish cream and ice cream. You might recall at Christmastime that I had contemplated turning My Dad’s Irish Creme into an ice cream, but I was concerned about how to make it freeze with the amount of Irish whiskey it would take to flavor it correctly. Yes, I have used spirits in my ice creams before, but usually only within the context of a syrup swirl or a splash at the end to help improve the scooping texture. Irish coffee and Irish cream have a great deal of whiskey in them so it wouldn’t be as straightforward. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and when I started searching out formulas for infusing ice cream with booze (and knowing when to say when), I ran across this article on Serious Eats, which gave me enough of a road map to give it a go. But this experiment was not without roadblocks.

The sheer amount of Irish whiskey in this ice cream makes it ultra-scoopable. Is that even a word?

As you can see, it turned out fine, but I had a setback the first time I attempted to freeze the mixture, and it had nothing to do with my formula. Here’s something you may not know, but should, if you happen to have an “extra” freezer that you keep in an unheated garage. When the ambient temperature of the garage (or basement, carport, etc.) drops below the settings on your freezer, trouble kicks in. And over last weekend, we had an overnight low of 19° F (which is, frankly, ridiculous and rare for us in North Carolina this close to Spring), and the freezer bowl for my ice cream maker suffered for it because the freezer could not regulate properly with the fluctuation of the outside temperature. I did not realize this, of course, until I tried to freeze my ice cream base. After more than 30 minutes of churning, my Irish coffee not-quite-ice-cream was basically a thin, boozy milkshake (not exactly a terrible thing, either). But what I really wanted was ice cream.

Armed with the Serious Eats information, I refused to give up when my first attempt at freezing failed. I cleared a space in our kitchen freezer and gave the freezer bowl a good solid 24 hours in deep freeze mode. That made all the difference for the outcome of this ice cream, which is perfect for St. Patrick’s Day.

That frosty mug is so inviting…go on, reach in for the spoon!

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups whole milk

2 Tbsp. espresso powder* (see notes)

1 Tbsp. dark cocoa powder*

2 Tbsp. light corn syrup*

14 oz. can sweetened condensed milk

1 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup 80-proof Irish whiskey*


*Notes


Espresso powder is not just finely ground coffee; this is a specialty ingredient that I used to infuse the milk in my recipe with a deep coffee flavor. Find it in the baking aisle of a well-stocked supermarket or online.

Chocolate is not necessarily an ingredient in Irish coffee, but I considered that a little bit of coffee works to intensify the chocolate flavor of other desserts, so why couldn’t it work the other way around? I chose to dissolve a little dark cocoa powder into the milk at the same time as the espresso powder, and it turned out to be a good decision because my coffee-hating husband found something to enjoy about this ice cream. 😊

I always add a little corn syrup to my ice cream base if I have concerns about ice crystals. Given that I wasn’t sure how the whiskey would behave in the mix, I played it safe.

The Serious Eats article was specific to mention maximum amounts of alcohol that was 80 proof, so I didn’t want to push the limit and mess it up. I used Jameson Irish Whiskey, the same brand I use when I make my Dad’s Irish cream recipe. Lower proof would not be a problem, but if your whiskey is higher, I’d recommend using less.


Instructions

Heat the milk in a saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the espresso powder and dark cocoa powder until dissolved and evenly incorporated. Remove from heat and stir in the corn syrup.

Transfer the milk to a large bowl and whisk it together with the sweetened condensed milk. These ingredients are at opposite ends of the consistency scale, and I like to combine them first so that I don’t accidentally whisk the heavy cream into thickening.

Gently whisk or stir in the heavy cream until blended, then stir in the Irish whiskey. Cover the bowl and refrigerate several hours to overnight (colder is better).

Stir or whisk the ice cream base just before freezing to reincorporate any settled ingredients. Freeze according to manufacturer’s instructions, and don’t be surprised if it takes a few extra minutes to achieve soft-serve consistency. Transfer the churned ice cream to an insulated container and put in the coldest spot of your (inside) freezer overnight before serving.

Because of the high alcohol content, this ice cream will scoop very easily and will melt more quickly than typical ice cream upon serving.



Bananas Foster Ice Cream

Every year, I say that I want to make something elaborate for Mardi Gras—a king cake or jambalaya or étouffée (which my computer just tried to auto-correct as “toupee”)—but I usually miss my chance because I’m tied up making things for Super Bowl or Valentine’s Day. As much as I try, I simply can’t do everything at once.

But because Easter has a floating date (blame it on the moon), so does Ash Wednesday and so does Mardi Gras—and as luck would have it, I have had a little free time after Super Bowl to get my act together in time for this year’s Mardi Gras, which will be March 1. Frankly, I wonder whether I am qualified to make something as traditional as a king cake, given that I have never actually been to New Orleans. I do make a good gumbo, and there was that jambalaya deep-dish pizza last year that was pretty awesome, but I am not prone to do too many repeats, and my craving for a dessert was getting the better of me.

And that’s how this Bananas Foster ice cream came to be.

The Bananas Foster swirl is very prominent and so flavorful.

Bananas Foster is a decadently sweet dessert, native to New Orleans. The traditional recipe involves flaming rum-soaked syrup including brown sugar, cinnamon and butter—all spooned over caramelized bananas and served with a scoop of creamy vanilla ice cream. In a previous season of my life, I experienced the pure joy of having Bananas Foster prepared tableside, and those flavors never quite cleared my imagination. It was all at once tropical, sweet, warm, cold, sensual, creamy, boozy and flat-out amazing. What could possibly go wrong, I thought, in skipping the flambé and just adapting that whole mix into an ice cream?

For the richness factor, I started with my go-to custard base for the ice cream, but I used brown sugar rather than white to lay a foundation of warm, molasses-y flavor. I caramelized a couple of ripe, mashed bananas into a mixture of brown sugar, butter, cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg, then I poured in a shot of aged dark rum from Jamaica (the same rum I used recently in those “air fryer” jerk wings). Both components got an overnight chill, and then I froze the ice cream and layered in the bananas foster filling the next day.

One of these days, I’ll get to New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras properly. Until then, I’ll just put on some beads and some zydeco music and enjoy another scoop of this frozen delight.

Don’t mind me, I’m just having my own private Mardi Gras over here.

Ingredients

1 1/2 cups whole milk

2/3 cup light brown sugar (packed)

3 egg yolks (room temperature is best)

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

Pinch of kosher salt

1 tsp. real vanilla extract

1 Tbsp. vodka or dark rum, optional (added at the end of freezing)

Bananas Foster Swirl

3 Tbsp. salted butter

1/3 cup light or dark brown sugar

3/4 tsp. ground cinnamon

A few shavings whole nutmeg

2 very ripe bananas

1.5 oz. dark rum or spiced rum


Instructions for Custard

Full disclosure: I have made my custard-based ice cream many times, and never had this much trouble with foam. Most of the time, the custard cooks up silky and rich. But I got carried away and whipped my egg yolks too much! The ice cream turned out great, but don’t try to replicate this mistake. 🙂

Place a medium, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Combine milk and brown sugar and cook, stirring frequently, until sugar is fully dissolved and milk is steaming.

Using an electric mixer, lightly whip the egg yolks until they are lighter and somewhat airy. This usually works best with a bit of fine sugar in the bowl, but I skipped that step this time because I was using grainy brown sugar in the recipe.

When the milk mixture begins to barely bubble around the edges, transfer about half of it into a measuring cup. Add the heavy cream to the pot and bring it back up to the steaming temperature.

While that’s going, slowly and gradually add the measured hot milk mixture to the egg yolks (with the mixer running constantly). This step is called “tempering,” and it raises the temperature of the eggs slowly to cook them without scrambling them.

Pour the tempered egg mixture back into the saucepot and cook the whole mixture over medium heat, stirring constantly, until it is steaming again and the custard has thickened enough to coat the back of a spoon. Remove from heat and strain the custard mixture through a mesh sieve to a clean bowl. Stir in the vanilla and let it cool for a few minutes. Taste it, because oh my goodness. I must make more brown sugar ice cream!

Carefully lay a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the custard. This serves two purposes—it prevents a skin from forming on the surface, and it prevents condensation from building and dripping into the mixture. Moisture droplets have a way of making unwanted crystals in the finished ice cream. Seal up the bowl, or cover it with an additional layer of plastic. Refrigerate overnight.


Bananas Foster Swirl

Melt the butter in a medium skillet. Stir in the brown sugar until it seems dissolved and a bit syrupy. Stir in the cinnamon and nutmeg.

Add the bananas to the skillet, one at a time, and mash them into the syrup with a fork. It’s OK to keep a few visible chunks of banana—in fact, I recommend it. When the mixture is bubbling all over, stir in the dark rum until evenly blended. Cook a few minutes longer, until it begins to bubble again, and then remove from heat and let it cool.

Transfer the mixture to a bowl and refrigerate it overnight.


Finishing the Ice Cream

Stir the custard to reincorporate any ingredients that may have settled to the bottom of the bowl. Freeze according to manufacturer’s instructions. When the ice cream has reached the consistency of soft-serve, add the vodka or rum (if using) and churn another minute until it’s fully blended.

Layer 1/3 of the ice cream in an insulated container, then spoon or pipe about 1/3 of the banana swirl mixture over it. Continue with another 1/3 of the ice cream, then another 1/3 of the remaining swirl mixture*. Finish with the remaining ice cream. Freeze several hours to overnight.


*Note

When this recipe was finished, I had about 1/4 cup extra Bananas Foster Swirl mixture left over. You can discard this, or mix it into some muffin or pancake batter, or stir it into Sunday morning oatmeal!



Black Forest Cake

Before we get into it, I’d like to issue my own disclaimer about the inauthenticity of this recipe as a “Black Forest” cake. Any purist would quickly point out that a true, German Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte would be more of a spongy chocolate cake, soaked with kirsch (a clear cherry liqueur) and decorated with whipped cream, sour cherries and shavings of chocolate. But when is the last time you remember me sticking to tradition?

My version of this cake is a departure in almost every category, save for the chocolate and cherry flavors. Cake baking is not in my wheelhouse, so I went for a recipe that I knew I could count on—a sourdough chocolate cake from King Arthur Baking that has served me well before—and I adjusted the fillings to match it. My whipped cream filling is enhanced with mascarpone, making it more substantial to support the sturdy cake. The cake itself is not super sweet, so the cherries had to be. And kirsch liqueur (or any cherry liqueur, for that matter) is nowhere to be found in our liquor stores, so I reached straight for what’s plentiful at our house—bourbon, and that was a very good call.

The cake is not difficult to make, but it is fussy enough that it deserves a special occasion. I was going to save this until the week of Valentine’s Day, but my husband heard on his favorite sports talk show this morning that today is National Chocolate Cake Day, so, heck yeah! We might as well get a jump start on swooning over it. 😉

Every slice has a great balance of cherry and chocolate. Who cares if it isn’t a true Black Forest cake? 🙂

We splurged on this decadent, multi-layer dessert to finish our New Year’s Eve meal of White Clam Pizza and our newest addition, the Oysters Rockefeller Pizza, and the cake was delicious for the occasion (and, remarkably, just as good later as leftovers straight from the fridge).

Frosting a cake requires patience that I do not have (especially at the holidays), so I went for a more rustic appearance, which also afforded us a glimpse of the yumminess that was to come, in the form of mascarpone cream and cherries hanging out the sides. There was no whipped cream wrapped around the outside of my cake and no shavings of chocolate, as one would find on a true Black Forest Cake. But it was delicious, with a capital D.

My layers were a little uneven, but the flavors were phenomenal.

So, is it authentic Black Forest Cake? No, but “Sourdough Dark Chocolate Cake with Bourbon-Soaked Cherry and Mascarpone Filling with Ganache Topping” is a mouthful. Plus, it didn’t fit in the title box. 😉


Ingredients

1 recipe Sourdough Chocolate Cake | King Arthur Baking, baked in 9-inch layer pans* (see instruction notes)

Bourbon Cherries and Syrup

1 lb. bag frozen dark sweet cherries

1/2 cup organic cane sugar

1/4 cup unsweetened black cherry juice

2 oz. bourbon

Mascarpone Filling

1 cup heavy cream

8 oz. tub mascarpone

1/4 cup powdered sugar, sifted

1 tsp. real vanilla extract

Ganache Topping

8 oz. dark melting chocolate wafers

1 cup heavy cream

1 oz. amaretto (optional)

8 bourbon cherries or morello cherries, with stems (for decorating cake top)


Instructions

Bake the cake as instructed on King Arthur website. I followed the instructions with one ingredient adjustment; I replaced half of the natural cocoa with KA’s Double Dark Dutch Cocoa. I am crazy about the deep, dark color and chocolate flavor! Also, I baked it in two buttered and cocoa-dusted 9-inch layer pans rather than the 9 x 13 that was suggested, and the cake was done in 30 minutes. Cool the cake layers completely before removing them from the pans.

Not riding the sourdough train? No problem; use any other dark chocolate cake recipe you like, provided the layers are sturdy.

For the cherry syrup, mascarpone filling and shiny ganache topping, I’ll provide a visual walkthrough, and you can scroll to the bottom of the post for a printable recipe if you want to give it a go in your kitchen. Happy Chocolate Cake Day! 🙂


This is my Black Forest cake.


Snow Day Peanut Butter Cookies

Much of the Southeast U.S. has been under a winter storm warning since we went to bed last night, and as I have watched tentatively out the window today, half expecting the power to go out from wind-toppled trees that have been coated with sleet and ice, I wrestled with my desire to be at the stove and the oven. There’s something very cozy about simmering a stew or pulling a loaf of bread from the oven on a blustery day, and this is definitely one.

It’s pretty on paper, I guess.

The day was beautiful at first, with mainly fluffy snow falling at a steady pace. We knew it would morph into a nasty mix, though, so we bundled up and headed out early for a walk around the neighborhood with our dog, Nilla, who absolutely loves cold and snow. It was beginning to sleet when we got back to the house.

This is Nilla’s favorite kind of day!

After much consideration, I finally gave in to the temptation to bake. It feels risky for many reasons. Our gas range is technically dual-fuel, with a natural gas cooktop but an electric-powered oven, so I had to choose something that could be done quickly (or at least put aside to bake later, should the power go out). Also, I come from a long line of highly accomplished cookie bakers, and that’s a lot to live up to, given that I hardly ever venture into treat baking. On top of that, my dear husband has made a reputation for himself with his own cookie baking, so I’m living on the edge in several ways today.

When Les makes cookies, they are almost always a version of chocolate chip; sometimes they have chips and chunks, with big, chewy bits of dried cherries or cranberries. Sometimes he adds cocoa powder to the dough itself, making them chocolate on chocolate with more chocolate. No wonder he is so popular, right? But he seldom strays from the chocolate chip category, and I wanted something different today.

Several members of my mother’s side of the family have contributed to this collection, but it is mostly sweet treat recipes of my great aunt.

Without my own arsenal of go-to cookie recipes, I reached for a family cookbook—this homemade, 3-ring binder notebook, chock-full of recipes submitted by various members of my maternal family, and especially my great-aunt Adele. She was my Gram’s sister, and she was a master cookie baker if there ever was one. She was so known for her baked goods that her grandchildren called her “Grandma Cookies,” and I have my own memories of the treats she joyfully baked and shared with everyone. At Christmastime, you could count on receiving a box of various homemade cookies—and it didn’t matter if you lived across the street or on the other side of the country. She saved up cracker boxes and tea bag boxes and coffee tins and filled them up with her goodies so you could always have a taste of home.

I’ll never live up to that standard, but I did a decent job with her peanut butter cookie recipe, with a few adjustments of course. First, I made a half batch, because we don’t need 60 cookies when we are stuck in the house. I never use only white flour in any recipe, so I subbed in an amount of whole wheat pastry flour which is nice and soft for tender baked goods. I don’t use shortening either, but real butter worked great. And, because my hubby is so fond of chocolate chips, I divided the dough in half and added mini chocolate chips to one portion of it for his taste, and the cookies turned out great both ways.

Some of the instructions in Aunt Adele’s recipe were a bit vague for this cookie novice but, thankfully, my Aunt Joy offered her experience to help me fill in the blanks.

My great aunt’s original recipe. I halved it and took a few liberties with the ingredients list.

Ingredients

1 stick salted butter, slightly softened* (see notes)

1/2 cup peanut butter

1 cup light brown sugar, packed*

1 large egg

1/2 tsp. real vanilla extract

1 tsp. baking soda, dissolved in a small amount of hot water*

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour

1/2 tsp. kosher salt (or 1/4 tsp. regular salt)*

1/4 to 1/2 cup mini chocolate chips (optional)*


*Notes

Butter should not be so cold that it’s hard, but not room temperature either. When you cream it with the sugar, you want it to be smooth and just slightly firm. I was impatient so I took a shortcut with my straight-from-the-fridge stick of butter.

My great-aunt’s original recipe suggested equal parts sugar and brown sugar, but I like a soft cookie, so I used all brown sugar. When you measure brown sugar, be sure to pack it snugly into the measuring cup. When you turn it over into your bowl, it should mostly hold its shape.

I have long wondered why some cookie recipes call for dissolving the baking soda in hot water. Given that it appears on many of the recipes my grandmother and her family have shared, I even considered that perhaps it was something they all learned from my great grandmother or something. But a quick bit of research (thank you, internet) turned up the real reason—dissolving the soda helps ensure that it can be evenly dispersed throughout the dough. If I were to mix it in with the dry ingredients, it would be prone to clumping. Now we know!

I cook and bake mostly with kosher salt, which has larger crystals than table salt. Those crystals take up more space in the measuring spoon, but some of that space is just air, so I use a little extra. My conversion is probably not exact, but I generally like to add a bit of extra salt to a baked good anyway to enhance the other flavors.

I used mini chocolate chips in half the cookie dough, and kept the rest as simple peanut butter dough. If you want chocolate chips in all the cookies, use 1/2 cup rather than 1/4 cup, as I did for my half-batch.


Instructions

Cream together the butter, peanut butter and sugar until evenly combined and somewhat fluffy.

Add egg and beat until blended. Stir in vanilla, then stir in dissolved baking soda.

Add flour, beating only until incorporated. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides, then mix again only long enough to blend in loose flour.

If using the mini chocolate chips, fold them into the dough. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for about one hour before baking.

Preheat oven to 350° F, with oven rack in the center position, or two racks roughly positioned near the center of the oven.

Roll cookie dough into balls about 1 1/4” diameter. Place them on a parchment lined cookie sheet. Flatten in a criss-cross pattern, using a fork dipped in flour to prevent sticking.

Bake 9-11 minutes, depending on your oven. The cookies will be very puffy, and slightly dry at the edges when finished. Cool on the sheet about two minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack.


Not a bad way to spend a snowy, blustery Sunday!


F.R.O.G. Jam Rugelach

Sometimes, saying your goals out loud is enough to cement them into reality, and this has been true for my quest to have a calmer, more peaceful Christmas season. Letting go of expectations for a “perfect” holiday has given me the freedom to enjoy it more, regardless of how things unfold. One thing I really wanted to do this year (for the first time in a long time) was settle in to making Christmas cookies, and I am on a roll—figuratively and literally—with these sweet little rugelach. They are my first cookies of the season and making them satisfies not only my desire for a pretty holiday treat, but also another item on my culinary bucket list.

As much as I love to bake bread and rolls, I hardly ever bake sweet things, such as cakes, pies or cookies. I’m not sure why, because I do like them, and I have fond memories of doing that kind of baking in my grandmother’s kitchen. The holidays are a perfect time for baking sweets, and so far, I am loving it.

Rugelach (which is pronounced in such a way that it might seem you are gargling with a feather in your throat) is a treat that originated in Poland and is popular in Jewish culture, and it has been on my bucket list for a couple of years. My husband, Les, remembers them from childhood, not only because he is of Polish-Jewish descent, but also from the bakeries and pastry shops all over New York, where he was raised.

It’s a perfect, little two-bite cookie.

The cookies are tiny, which makes them perfect for gift-giving or tucking into an extra little space on a dessert platter. My rugelach dough is made of butter, cream cheese and flour, with only a slight hint of powdered sugar. The rest of the sweetness comes from the layers of filling and the large crystals of sugar sprinkled on top before baking. Given the variety of flavors I have seen, you can put almost anything in rugelach, and the gears of my mind are already spinning ideas for my next batch. This time, I used a jar of jam we spotted while waiting in line to purchase our fancy Christmas tree stand.

No frogs were harmed in the making of these cookies. 🙂

The fruity filling in these bite-sized little rollups is F.R.O.G. jam, with the letters representing the flavors of fig, raspberry, orange peel and ginger. That’s a whole lot of holiday flavor happening in one spoonful, and though Les is not particularly fond of ginger, he likes the other flavors and said my addition of cinnamon sugar and chopped pecans rounded these out nicely for him. The cookies are made in stages, including a significant amount of time chilling the dough, and then the cookies before baking, so plan accordingly.

As always, I learned a few things along the way to making these, and I’ll share those discoveries throughout the instructions below.


Ingredients

4 oz. full-fat cream cheese (this is half a brick package)

1 stick cold unsalted butter

3/4 cup all-purpose flour* (see notes)

1/4 cup whole wheat pastry flour*

1 Tbsp. powdered sugar

1/4 tsp. kosher salt

2/3 cup jam, preserves or marmalade

2 Tbsp. organic cane sugar

1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1/4 cup chopped, toasted pecans

Egg wash and coarse sugar sprinkles, for baking


*Notes

For best results, measure flour using the fluff, sprinkle, level method. If you dunk your scoop directly into the flour bag, you will compact the flour and end up with heavy cookies.

I always sub in a portion of whole grain into everything I bake, but if you do not have whole wheat pastry flour (I like Bob’s Red Mill) or white whole wheat (King Arthur is a great choice), it is fine to use a full cup of all-purpose flour. I personally like the flavor boost of the whole wheat, and it helps me justify eating an extra cookie. 😉


Instructions

Combine flour, powdered sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse a couple of times to blend them evenly. Add cold pieces of butter and cream cheese. Pulse a few times to cut the fats into the dough, then run the processor continuously just barely long enough to see it come together but not long enough for it to clump in a ball around the blades.

Scrape the dough out onto plastic wrap. Divide it into two equal pieces and shape them into disks about the size of hockey pucks. Wrap them tightly in the plastic wrap and refrigerate a few hours to overnight.

The rolling out and rolling up stage of this recipe moves quickly, so I encourage reading through it completely before beginning. As with any butter-based dough, you want to try to keep it as cold as possible so that it remains flaky during baking. Get all your filling ingredients measured, lined up and ready. Warm the preserves in a small saucepan until they loosen up to spreadable consistency, then remove from heat. Divide the cinnamon sugar and toasted pecans so that you have equal amounts for each dough disk. Set up two baking sheets, lined with parchment, and arrange enough space in the fridge to chill them for an hour or two.

Roll the dough out on a lightly floured countertop, until it is about 1/8” thick and roughly 12” in diameter. Working from the edges inward, brush half of the melted preserves onto the dough round. You should see quite a lot of dough through the preserves and try to keep the glaze light in the center of the dough round, which will ultimately be the tips of each rugelach.

Sprinkle the cinnamon sugar all over the glazed dough, and then scatter the toasted pecan bits evenly over the sugar. Lay a piece of parchment or waxed paper over the dough round and gently press to secure the pecan bits into the dough. Carefully peel the paper away and set it aside for the second batch.

Using a pizza wheel, cut the dough into 16 equal triangles, with tips at the center of the dough round. The easiest way to do this is to cut it into fourths, then cut the fourths into eighths and finally the eighths into sixteenths. This will make sense to you when you begin cutting. Some of the pecan pieces will fall off or come loose; just press them back onto the dough.

Beginning with one of the triangles, start rolling from the outer, wide end toward the center, as if rolling up a crescent roll. Keep it tight as you go and place the cookie on the parchment-lined baking sheet. I found it easier, once I had about three of the triangles rolled, to use my bench scraper to loosen a triangle away from the round before rolling. The far-away side of the dough round was the trickiest, and next time I may try rolling it on parchment paper that can be moved around for the rolling step.

When all 16 cookies have been rolled, cover the baking sheet with plastic wrap and place it in the fridge. Repeat with the second dough disk. Chill the cookies for at least an hour before baking.

Toward the end of chill time, pre-heat the oven to 350° F, with the oven rack in the center position. I baked only one sheet at a time, but if you wish to bake both at once, arrange the racks with enough room for both and plan to rotate the pans halfway through baking time.

Prepare an egg wash (beaten egg with a teaspoon of cold water) and lightly brush the chilled cookies. Sprinkle them with a pinch of sugar. You can use decorative sugar or (as I did with my second batch) a pinch of natural turbinado sugar.

Bake for about 25 minutes, until cookies are puffed up a bit and golden brown in color. Cool on the pan for about 5 minutes, then use a spatula to transfer them to a cooling rack.


Happy Christmukkah!


Smoked Maple Bourbon Crème Brûlée

WARNING:
Consumption of this rich and decadent dessert after a big meal may result in excessive lazing on the sofa, and may also force extended procrastination of post-entertaining kitchen cleanup.


At least, that’s what happened at our house—twice.

We had a very small gathering at our home for Thanksgiving—just me, my husband and our friend, Maria. I knew when I was planning dinner that it would not make sense to have large pies, cakes or other desserts that yielded 12 portions. As it is, we are scarce on refrigerator space for the leftover turkey and sides, and we certainly did not need extra portions of dessert hanging around. I wanted to make something special for our intimate holiday, and this crème brûlée definitely fit the bill, both for Thanksgiving Day and again for “leftovers” night on Saturday. And let me tell you, even after said lazing kept us up until after 11 pm washing dishes, I had no regrets about this dessert.

If you follow my blog regularly, you already know about our recent discovery of the Knob Creek smoked maple bourbon—the amazing dark spirit that became the star of our 2021 signature cocktail. I have made crème brûlée before, using the incomparable Ina Garten’s recipe as a guide, but I have never added bourbon to it before now. The warmth of the smoked maple bourbon married so perfectly to the creamy silkiness of our individual little custards, and the maple sugar that I torched on top was exactly what it should have been; crunchy, sweet and toffee-like. The custard inside was silky, sweet and creamy, with hints of the smoked maple bourbon. Yes, it was divine, as you’d expect from a dessert that is made from egg yolks, cream and sugar.


I can only hope that when we smashed the tips of our spoons into the crème brûlée, some of the calories fell out. On second thought, who cares?


Adapted from Barefoot Contessa | Crème Brûlée | Recipes
Recipe yields ~32 ounces, good for 6 to 8 ramekins, depending on their size

Ingredients

3 cups heavy cream

1 small pinch kosher salt*

5 large egg yolks + 1 large egg (at room temperature)

1/2 cup maple sugar* + extra for torching (see notes)

1/2 tsp. real vanilla extract

2 Tbsp. Knob Creek smoked maple bourbon


*Notes

I purchase maple sugar online from Big Tree Maple, a company that is based near my hometown in upstate New York. You might also find it in the baking aisle of a specialty market, or substitute caster sugar, which does not have the maple flavor but is also finely textured for easy dissolving.

Ina’s recipe does not call for salt, but I like to put a pinch in most dessert recipes because it highlights the flavors and balances the sweet.

If you use a stand mixer to make the crème brûlée, keep it fitted with the mixing paddle rather than the whisk, and work on the slowest speed so you don’t create a lot of bubbles. If you mix by hand, use a whisk but keep a gentle touch when adding the hot cream to the eggs.

As if our holiday was not already joyful, I also had the pleasure of finishing our dessert tableside with my kitchen torch, a dramatic endeavor that just pleased the dickens out of my Leo personality.

Let’s do this!

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 300° F. Heat about 2 cups of water in a tea kettle for a water bath. Prepare your ramekins by arranging them in a handled pan with sides at least as high as the ramekins.
  2. In a medium saucepan, heat heavy cream over medium-low heat until hot but not boiling. Stir in a pinch of salt. Transfer the hot cream to a measuring cup with a spout for easier blending in the next steps.
  3. Combine the egg and egg yolks in a mixing bowl, and gradually stir in the maple sugar until the mixture is smooth and even, and the sugar appears somewhat dissolved.
  4. Very gradually pour the hot cream into the egg mixture, stirring constantly to prevent curdling. This is easiest with a stand mixer, but you can do it by hand as well. I recommend placing your mixing bowl on something that will prevent it from slipping while you stir or whisk.
  5. Strain the custard mixture through a mesh strainer over a pitcher bowl or large measuring cup. This is not absolutely necessary, but it will help strain out any curdled bits of egg.
  6. Stir vanilla and bourbon into the custard. Slowly pour the custard into the ramekins. I did this by filling each of them halfway, then “topping them off” around the pan until all were filled equally.
  7. Carefully pour hot water into the pan, taking care to not splash it into the ramekins. The water bath should be about halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Transfer the water bath pan to the preheated oven and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until custards are just barely jiggly. They will continue to cook when you remove the pan from the oven. Allow the pan to cool until you’re comfortable handling them. Remove the ramekins and cool on a rack, then cover and transfer them to the refrigerator for several hours to overnight.
  8. To finish the crème brûlée, remove ramekins from the fridge about 20 minutes before you’re ready to serve. Sprinkle about two teaspoons of maple sugar over the entire surface of each custard. Use a kitchen torch to caramelize the sugar evenly. Sprinkle an additional teaspoon onto each, and torch again. Allow the crème brûlées to cool for at least a minute so the melted sugar will harden and create the beautiful, shiny crust.

I’m thinking that maybe I need to make this again. You know, just to be sure.