Irish Cream Chocolate Cheesecake

The only thing I can think of to make a chocolate cheesecake better is a little bit of booze, and the only thing that can top that is to make it no-bake. Done and done. This easy, no-fuss dessert comes together quickly, and it doesn’t require gelatin or any special measures to set up firmly. Chocolate-flavored graham crackers provide a dark, flavorful base for this cheesecake, and the filling is sweetened cream cheese accented with a ton of chocolate and a wee bit of Irish cream liqueur. I’ve used My Dad’s Homemade Irish Creme, the same as we made at Christmastime, but if you want to make it super easy, make a quick run to the liquor store for a small bottle of Bailey’s.

I used a springform pan for this dessert, but I’ll bet you could also make it in a pie plate with sloped sides for easy serving. Garnish with a dollop of sour cream and fresh berries or a little bit of Jameson-spiked whipped cream. Or, do what we did and just dig in.

This is a wonderful, sweet finish to our St. Patrick’s Day celebration!

The filling is smooth, creamy, silky, dreamy. It is reminiscent of a mousse, but richer!

Ingredients

1 sleeve + 3 chocolate graham crackers

4 Tbsp. salted butter, melted

2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted (plus a bit extra to grease the pan)

Line the bottom of an 8” springform pan with parchment paper, cut to size. Rub unsalted butter on the parchment and sides of the pan. Break up the graham crackers into a food processor and pulse into rough crumbs. Pour in the melted butter and pulse a few times to combine. The mixture should look like wet sand. Press the crumbs into the bottom of the pan and up the sides about an inch. Refrigerate the pan for at least an hour to firm up the buttered crumbs.

For best results, measure out your refrigerated ingredients ahead of time and allow them to come to room temperature before you begin.

Cheesecake filling:

10 oz. semisweet chocolate chips

6 oz. milk chocolate chips* (see notes)

8 oz. pkg. plus 1/2 of second pkg. full-fat cream cheese, room temperature

1/4 cup (superfine) caster sugar

1 1/2 cups heavy cream, room temperature

1/4 cup Bailey’s Irish Cream liqueur*

*Notes

At our house, we really love the flavors of darker chocolate, but blending with milk chocolate is important for texture. Darker chocolate has lesser amounts of cocoa butter, and it can become gritty in recipes. To ensure the creamy, smooth texture that is a signature of cheesecake, it’s best to include some portion of milk chocolate.

Bailey’s Irish cream liqueur is the simplest thing to use in this recipe, but if you have time to make your own (using My Dad’s Homemade Irish Creme recipe), there’s an advantage to doing so. The homemade Irish creme is twice as thick (less watery), so I was able to incorporate two additional tablespoons of that crazy good flavor.

Instructions

Here we go with a visual walk-through, and full written instructions are included at the bottom.

  1. Bring a saucepan of water to a simmer. Place a heatproof bowl over the pan and add the semi-sweet and milk chocolate chips. I used a steamer insert in between, as an extra measure to keep the heating gentle. Do not let water or condensation into the bowl with the chocolate. Heat until chocolate melts, stir it smooth, then let cool slightly. I transferred the melted chocolate to a second bowl to cool it more quickly.
  2. In a separate bowl, beat cream cheese with electric mixer until smooth. Gradually add caster sugar to the cream cheese, scraping down the sides as needed so that sugar is fully blended. The superfine sugar will dissolve pretty quickly.
  3. Lightly whip heavy cream in another bowl until thickened, but not peaked. Stir in Irish cream.
  4. Fold cooled chocolate into cream cheese mixture, then stir in the spiked whipped cream mixture.
  5. Spoon or carefully pour the filling mixture into the springform pan over the chilled chocolate crust. Smooth the top, cover and chill at least two hours, preferably overnight.
  6. To serve, run a hot knife around the edge of the cheesecake filling to separate it from the sides of the pan. Carefully release springform ring and transfer cheesecake to a serving plate. Cut into slices as garnish as desired.

It’ a boozy little slice of Irish heaven.

Want to make it?


Banana Bread with Dark Chocolate and Ginger

When Meghan Markle sits down with Oprah this weekend for a “tell-all” interview about what it was like joining—and then separating from—the royal life, I doubt she will be spilling the tea in a way that the British tabloids (and several American news outlets) would have us believe. Frankly, I doubt the interview will be scandalous at all, given that she and Prince Harry (whom I’ve adored since the day he was born) have plenty of reasons to remain close with the rest of the royal family, not the least of which are their adorable son and the new baby that’s on the way. Honestly, can a girl please just have her fairy tale for a minute?

Mark my word, when this interview with Oprah is over, the only things Meghan and Harry will have disclosed is that they love and respect the Queen, and that they have no hard feelings for anyone in the family, and that they have aspirations in life that cannot be fulfilled while living in a royal fishbowl. Oh, and that the British tabloid media is awful—but we already knew that because we all remember the gut-wrenching evening that Princess Diana died while being chased through Paris by the paparazzi. God bless Harry for wanting to protect his wife and family from all that crap.

Here’s another thing Meghan probably won’t spill the tea about: her recipe for banana bread. I clicked on a headline in my news feed recently, intrigued about the idea that Meghan had a “secret surprise” in a banana bread she had shared while on Royal Tour in Australia a couple of years ago. In addition to her previous career as an actress, Meghan had a lifestyle blog before she became engaged to Harry (just one of many things she had to give up), so I knew that she was a maven in the kitchen, and who doesn’t love a fun twist on banana bread? My hopes were dashed, however, when I read that the two “secret” ingredients she uses are chocolate chips and crystallized ginger. Well, I thought, what’s so secret about that?

Look at these two lovebirds! Dark chocolate is packed with antioxidants and ginger is good for digestion. Good for me AND tastes delicious…yes, please!

First of all, this is not Meghan’s recipe—it’s been around a long time, and I’ve actually been making it this way myself since around 2010, when I had picked up a copy of Molly Wizenberg’s bestseller, A Homemade Life. Molly is also a former blogger and past contributor to Bon Appetit magazine (among other things), and she described this recipe in her book as one that she had adapted from the recipe of a friend of a friend. And that’s how recipes go—we hear about or taste something we like, we ask for the recipe, perhaps we tweak it and send it forward to someone else, and then they share it however they choose. Not much is original in the world of food anymore, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t delicious. And this bread is definitely delicious.

My recipe is a take on Molly’s, which is a take on somebody else’s. 🙂

I’ve been craving the combination of dark chocolate and ginger ever since my new foodie friend Dorothy posted a dark chocolate and ginger tart on her own blog at Valentine’s Day. I haven’t made the tart yet, but I cannot find enough words to describe how much I love these two flavors together. The rich but slightly bitter flavor of dark chocolate holds its own against the spicy bite of crystallized ginger, and the two swirl around each other in an exquisite tango across the taste buds. The friendly and familiar background of an otherwise classic banana bread is a great venue for these two flavors to strut their stuff.

My recipe, of course, is slightly altered from Molly’s, which is slightly altered from somebody else’s, and I have no idea how it may be different from Meghan Markle’s because—as with every other single thing in her life since she met Harry—she has not personally shared her recipe. Somebody else spilled her tea. We only know that Meghan’s banana bread includes some form of chocolate and ginger, and that is enough to convince me that she has excellent taste. But we already knew as much, didn’t we?

You can see the generous bits of ginger peeking out of the banana bread. And all that dark chocolate! Mmm.

Ingredients

1 cup all-purpose flour* (see notes for measuring tips)

1 cup whole wheat pastry flour*

2/3 cup organic cane sugar (reserve 1 Tbsp. to sprinkle on top)

3/4 tsp. baking soda

1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

6 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted and cooled (plus extra butter for greasing pan)

2 large eggs (room temperature)

1 1/2 cups mashed ripe banana* (about 3 large bananas)

1/3 cup Greek yogurt

1 tsp. vanilla extract

3/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips or chunks

1/3 cup finely chopped crystallized ginger


*Notes

For proper measuring, follow the “fluff, sprinkle, level” method. Scooping directly into the flour bag or container can result in a dense batter.

Whole wheat pastry flour is softer than regular whole wheat or even white whole wheat. It’s perfect for pie crust, cookies and quick breads, such as this one. If you don’t have it, or if you prefer all white flour, combine for a total of 2 cups all-purpose flour.

When I say “ripe” bananas, I don’t mean a few spots on a golden banana. They get sweeter as they age, and if you prefer, you can peel and mash them in a bowl and leave them to brown and sweeten a couple weeks in the fridge. But please, use ripe bananas.

The older the bananas, the sweeter the flavor. This is how my grandmother taught me (as long as there’s no mold)!

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350° F, and position rack in center of oven. Grease a 9 x 5” (or equivalent volume) loaf pan generously with butter.
  2. Combine dry ingredients and whisk together in a large bowl.
  3. In a second bowl, lightly beat the eggs with a fork. Add mashed bananas, yogurt, melted butter and vanilla; stir with fork or whisk to fully combine.
  4. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and gently fold with a rubber spatula to combine. Easy does it here, just be sure that all flour is incorporated.
  5. Fold in chocolate chunks and ginger bits, being careful not to overmix.
  6. Transfer the batter into the prepared pan and sprinkle the top with reserved sugar.
  7. Bake about 55 minutes (give or take a few) until the loaf is nicely browned and a toothpick comes out clean. The toothpick test may be tricky because of all the chocolate, so you may need to poke in more than one spot.
  8. Cool the loaf in the pan about 5 minutes, then turn out onto cooling rack and cool completely.
The sugar I sprinkled on top of the batter created a delicate, crispy crust on the banana bread.

Want to make this yummy bread?


Happy Birthday Sourdough Chocolate Cake

We celebrated a birthday in our home this week for the newest member of our happy family. Little Pete turned 5 years old on Wednesday, and the occasion nearly escaped my memory, had it not been for the convenient date and time stamp my iPhone put on this photo.

February 24, 2016; 4:49 p.m.

Yes, my sourdough starter has been with me now for just over five years, and I’m pleased to announce that I’ve finally given it a name. “Pete” the sourdough starter is the namesake of Peter Reinhart, the James Beard Award-winning master baker whose instruction inspired me to begin this lively journey. Many years ago at a local festival of authors and books, I purchased The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, Reinhart’s comprehensive collection of bread rules, formulas, tips and recipes—it’s a 300-page hardcover guide for mastering the art of extraordinary bread. And it was positively overwhelming.

It took me several years to gain enough gumption to actually make my first loaf of real bread and, once I took the greater plunge into building a sourdough culture, I never looked back. Pete began in the tiny kitchen of my former apartment, in a small bowl containing a mixture of whole rye flour and fresh pineapple juice (this was Peter Reinhart’s idea). There were plenty of midnight feedings and nervous watchful moments along the way, and at least once, I feared Pete would not survive my mistakes. Thankfully, the hotline experts at King Arthur Baking talked me off the ledge and helped me correct my feeding rituals. Pete has been thriving ever since. On one occasion, I shared a little bit of Pete with a friend whose daughter wanted to make sourdough, and when the daughter headed west, she took Pete’s offspring with her, and is now making beautiful artisan loaves somewhere in Montana (I’m so proud). I have already shared a few of my simple sourdough recipes here on Comfort du Jour, including English muffins and our beloved N.Y.-style Pizza Dough. If you’re a bread lover, you might also appreciate a glimpse of some of the incredible loaves Pete and I have made together since this adventure began.


It’s exciting for me to see and remember all those loaves. But for this occasion, I wanted to let Pete really show off, and so here’s the exciting news—Pete made his own birthday cake! I’ve mentioned several times that sourdough isn’t merely a flavor of bread, but a method of leavening, and in this richly dark chocolate cake, sourdough discard is the star.

The salted caramel flavor is a perfect match for the ultra dark chocolate cake.

I found the recipe for this cake on one of my favorite sites, King Arthur Baking Company, and I will proclaim out loud that, ingredient-wise, it is the oddest cake I’ve ever made. I will also tell you that it tastes nothing at all like sourdough. It’s a bouncy, spongy very chocolaty cake, and though the KA recipe is for a rectangle cake, I changed it up and did 9-inch layers. I also swapped the coffee-infused icing for one of our most-loved flavors to pair with chocolate, salted caramel. It may strike you odd that I am not sharing a recipe for either, but here’s why—King Arthur already published the cake recipe, and you can find it here (I followed it pretty much to the letter). I’m not sharing the salted caramel frosting recipe because, frankly, I was flying by the seat of my pants when I made it, so I don’t know exactly how much of what went into it. Besides, the texture was a mess. I wanted something akin to buttercream, but I didn’t get the ratios right and my frosting, though delicious and perfectly salted, wasn’t very stable. I will, however, share the photos, purely for comedic value. Those Great British Baking Show contestants have nothing to fear in me! Next year, when Pete turns 6, I’ll probably make challah. 😊


Chocolate-Cherry Tiramisu

“No tiramisu for me, because I don’t like coffee.” This was the reply I’d come to expect from my husband, Les, who definitely does not share my love for a freshly brewed morning cup of java. The classic Italian dessert has long been one of my favorites—its not-so-sweet flavor is perfect for my not-so-sweet tooth. But this issue of coffee has been a real problem for my tiramisu goals. I could make it for myself, of course, but then I would have to eat the whole thing (yikes), and I really wanted to find a way to make it enjoyable for both of us.

Tiramisu is traditionally made of delicate biscotti cookies that have been soaked in rum- or liqueur-spiked espresso, layered with a rich and creamy mascarpone custard and dusted with real cocoa powder. It is, essentially, an Italian version of an icebox cake, and with no baking required, everything about it works—except, for my husband, the darn coffee.

A few months ago, I couldn’t help noticing the ads that kept popping up in my Pinterest feed: “brews like coffee, benefits of cacao.”

OK, I thought, a coffee substitute that might give me an occasional break from the caffeine crashes that disrupt my sleep. So, without any specific intended purpose, I ordered some. I wasn’t blown away by the flavor of it on its own, and though it was interesting, I couldn’t see myself actually trading in my beloved dark roast coffee. Until the day it suddenly hit me: this brewed cacao might work in tiramisu!

As with several other recipes I’ve delayed trying, tiramisu has turned out to be remarkably simple. I leaned on the expertise of Ina Garten, the “Barefoot Contessa” whom I admire not only for her seemingly effortless cooking style, but also for her absolute devotion to her husband. She is always preparing special cocktails and favorite foods for Jeffrey, and I can relate. Ina’s recipe for tiramisu seemed simple enough, and it was very easy to cut the ingredients in half for a smaller portion for the two of us. I made several swaps—cacao for espresso, amaretto for rum, and cherry juice and preserves to flavor some of the mascarpone filling. But the technique and ratios of ingredients are the same, and it turned out perfect for our at-home Valentine’s Day celebration.

Chocolate and cherry together, my valentine’s favorite! The unsweetened flavor of the brewed cacao was a perfect stand-in for the espresso, and I will definitely make this again!

If you’re considering trying this little “pick me up” (it’s what tiramisu means in Italian), here are a few helpful things I learned along the way.

Tips for Tiramisu Success

Eggs are more easily separated while they are cold, but the yolks should be room temperature when you begin whisking for the recipe. The eggs are not cooked in this mostly-traditional recipe, and if you’re concerned about health risks from this, you can find pasteurized eggs in a well-stocked supermarket. They will allow you to stick to the recipe but with complete safety.

The mascarpone, like the eggs, should be room temperature for this recipe. If it is cold, it will clump rather than blend into the yolk mixture.

Brew extra cacao beverage (or espresso) than recommended in case you need it for dipping ladyfingers. The delicate cookies absorb the liquid very quickly, even when dipped for no more than five seconds, and it’s good to have a little extra on hand. This should be cooled to room temperature.

As with most recipes, it’s helpful to have all your ingredients, tools and dishes ready to go when you begin. Ina’s recipe recommended a 9 x 13” glass dish; I halved the recipe and used a 2.75 quart Pyrex dish that measured 8 1/2 x 7″. The recipe yielded six generous portions of tiramisu. With some fiddling, I think you could split the cookies and make it work in an 8 x 8″.

You probably need an electric mixer, either handheld or stand mixer, for this recipe. It would be difficult to properly whip the eggs and mascarpone by hand.

Finally, this dessert needs several hours in the fridge to set up properly, so plan accordingly.

Adapted from:
Barefoot Contessa | Tiramisu | Recipes

Ingredients

3 egg yolks, room temperature (save the whites for your next omelet)

2 Tbsp. caster sugar* (see notes)

1/4 cup amaretto, divided

1 cup brewed dark roast cacao*, cooled

8 oz. mascarpone, room temperature

2 Tbsp. cherry juice

4 Tbsp. premium cherry preserves*

7 oz. (200g) package ladyfingers (biscotti savoiardi)

Double Dutch dark cocoa* for dusting between layers and top of tiramisu

Luxardo premium cocktail cherries, for garnish (optional, but fun if you have them)


*Ingredient Notes

Caster sugar is sometimes called “superfine” sugar, and I’ve chosen it for this recipe because it dissolves more readily than regular cane sugar.

The roasted cacao is made very similarly to coffee, and I prepared it in my French press. You can find the product I used online (just search it once on Pinterest and you’ll get ads for the rest of your life), or check with a local chocolatier to see if they have a similar product. Of course, you could also make tiramisu with espresso, as is traditional.

I made a midstream decision to fold cherry preserves into part of the mascarpone mixture, given that Valentine’s Day was already a chocolate-and-cherry kind of day. This brand is delicious, but a similar thick fruit spread would also work.

The Double Dutch dark cocoa powder is a King Arthur Baking product; it’s a 50-50 mix of regular Dutch-processed cocoa and black cocoa, which is very dark and somewhat bitter. It’s a richer color and flavor than most grocery store cocoa powders, but you could certainly substitute Hershey’s dark or any other cocoa.


Instructions

I have pictures of my adventure, of course! See how it went, and keep scrolling for written instructions and a downloadable recipe for your files. 🙂


  1. Prepare brewed cacao according to package instructions (or use espresso as instructed in a conventional tiramisu recipe. Combine brewed cacao with 2 Tbsp. amaretto in a shallow dish and set aside.
  2. Using the whisk attachment for stand mixer, whip egg yolks at high speed until smooth and slightly thickened. Gradually add caster sugar while eggs are being whisked and continue until sugar is dissolved and the mixture is light, fluffy and lemon-colored.
  3. Add cherry juice, 2 tablespoons of amaretto and mascarpone. Whip into egg mixture at low speed until the mixture resembles that of soft whipped cream.
  4. Divide mixture into approximately half. Fold in cherry preserves to one half of mixture.
  5. Sift cocoa over the bottom of glass baking dish.
  6. Moving quickly, dip the ladyfingers (one or two at a time) into cacao-amaretto mixture, for no longer than five seconds. Arrange them in a single layer over the cocoa powder.
  7. Spread the cherry-infused mascarpone mixture evenly over the ladyfingers, to the edges of the dish, and then sift cocoa over the layer.
  8. Repeat with the remaining ladyfingers, topping the second layer with the remaining mascarpone mixture. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least six hours, or preferably a full 24 hours ahead of serving.
  9. At serving time, cut tiramisu into squares. Sift additional cocoa over the top of each serving and finish with a Luxardo cherry garnish.


Want to give it a go?


You may be wondering if I’m a paid endorser for the products I spotlight on Comfort du Jour, and the answer is “no.” I do not receive money or products for my brand recommendations, and what that means for you is that you can count on me to give an honest opinion. If something changes, I will update my disclosures. Either way, you can still count on me to be honest in my recommendations, as I will only stand behind services and products I believe in. Fair enough? 😀


Chocolate-Covered Cherry Old Fashioned

The whole world seemed to be holding its breath this time last year, as health officials everywhere began sounding major alarms about the potential dangers of COVID-19. If I had known that Valentine’s Day would be one of the last opportunities for life as we knew it—well, I might have made an exception for my usual “let’s stay at home and celebrate” attitude.

Or maybe not. I’ve never quite appreciated the way the food service industry has dealt with Valentine’s Day—raising prices while simultaneously reducing menu options doesn’t seem terribly romantic, just opportunistic. I put this couple’s night out in the same category as New Year’s Eve. Why in the world would a restaurant place restrictions on a “special” occasion, as if they are not capable of handling a full house with their regular menu? It shouldn’t be much different from a typical busy Saturday night. I don’t get it.

Happily though, I love the anticipation of preparing a special dinner at home, and for Valentine’s Day, I pull out all the stops to make decadent dishes for the love of my life. ❤

I have mentioned previously that my husband, Les, is completely crazy over anything that combines chocolate and cherry, as with the triple chocolate-cherry brownie bowls I shared from his birthday last summer, and the entire Valentine’s meal I made for us last year, only a few weeks before I started Comfort du Jour. It was “all about the cherries” for that occasion, and I prepared duck breast with a cherry-pinot noir sauce (it’s what I was making in the “about me” photo in the section at the right, plus chocolate crepes filled with mascarpone and topped with cherry-chocolate sauce, and we began the evening with this candy-inspired cocktail—the Chocolate-Covered Cherry Old Fashioned. Les and I had made fast friends with the classic Old Fashioned, and I knew the cherry and chocolate would give it a perfect twist.

My Valentine’s favorite flavor combination, in a romantic cocktail!

During the holidays this year, we were introduced by his daughter to the most incredible chocolate covered cherries of all time, sold by Trader Joe’s. These sweet little nuggets pack a lot of decadence into one bite, including a rich dark chocolate jacket and a silky, boozy liqueur floating around a candied cherry. It is not unusual for us to choose these little gems for satisfying our post-dinner sweet tooth. We will be bummed when the box is empty, as we will have to wait until next holiday season to get more of them.

This riff on a classic rocks drink replicates the decadent experience of that limited-edition treat, combining the sweetness of cherry and the romance of Valentine’s chocolate with the spirit of bourbon. At our house, we love the accent of almond with cherry and chocolate, so there’s a little splash of amaretto in the cocktail as well. Whether you’re staying home to celebrate Valentine’s Day with a loved one, or simply to enjoy the pleasure of your own company (as you absolutely should), I hope you’ll enjoy this special sweetheart of a cocktail.


Ingredients

Makes one cocktail; simply double ingredients if making for two.

Find the chocolate bitters and cherries in a gourmet shop or online. The Luxardo cherries are, in my opinion, well worth the typical $20.

1.5 oz. bourbon (Elijah Craig Small Batch is on my bar right now)

0.5 oz. (1 Tbsp.) Godiva dark chocolate liqueur

0.5 oz. cherry juice (I used Trader Joe’s, but any brand is fine)

0.25 oz. (1 1/2 tsp.) amaretto

1 bar spoon (about 1/2 tsp.) syrup from Luxardo cocktail cherries* (see notes)

3 drops chocolate bitters*

To garnish:

Cocoa powder (for rimming the glass)

Premium cocktail cherry (such as Luxardo)


*Notes

For the love of cocktails, please put away the artificial maraschino cherries! The Luxardo cherries mentioned here are the Ferrari of all cocktail garnishes, produced in Italy using real Marasca cherries that are macerated in Luxardo maraschino liqueur and packed in the resulting syrup. They are pricey, but completely worth it, and a jar will last a long time. Find these in gourmet shops, the cocktail mixers section of a high-end supermarket or online.

My chocolate bitters are produced by Woodford Reserve (the bourbon maker) and they add depth, not bitterness, to a cocktail. Find them in the cocktail mixers section, perhaps at Total Wine or online.

Instructions

Prepare a double rocks cocktail glass by wetting the rim with a small amount of chocolate liqueur, holding the glass upside-down so that the liqueur doesn’t run down the sides. Then roll only the outside edge of the cocktail glass into a bit of the cocoa powder. This keeps the cocoa outside the drink, giving you an extra hint of chocolate on every sip. Do this a bit ahead of time so that the cocoa rim has time to dry and set up on the glass.


At cocktail time, combine bourbon, chocolate liqueur, amaretto, cherry juice, syrup and bitters in a cocktail mixing glass. Add a cup of ice and stir about 20 seconds to chill down the cocktail mixture. Strain into the cocoa-rimmed glass over a giant ice cube. Garnish with a good cocktail cherry (or take it home by skewering an actual cordial cherry).


If you really want to go crazy with the garnish, gently push your cocktail pick directly through a chocolate covered cherry. Pure decadence!

Want to make this special cocktail?


Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Pretzel Brownies

Pardon me for a moment, as I ponder the best part of Super Bowl LV—I don’t mean the game, though I’m sure that Tampa Bay fans everywhere are still celebrating and bragging on social media about the blowout win. I’m not talking about the fun party, because as much as I love chilling at home with my husband (and making great food together), we were definitely feeling the void and missing our usual houseful of friends and neighbors. Nope, I am calling out the best part. For me, it was these brownies.

With a winning combination of all the right flavors, these brownies deserve their own trophy.

I’m not trying to ruin anyone’s diet or anything; just hear me out for a sec on these brownies. Soft and fudgy, peanut butter swirly, crunchy pretzel salty, holy moly, yum. They smelled fantastic while baking, and I don’t feel one bit ashamed for taking a major shortcut—a box brownie mix.

There, I said it. Though I love my time in the kitchen, especially creating fun, new twists on foods everybody loves (pizza, for instance), I don’t make desserts very often because I don’t have much of a sweet tooth. That’s probably what attracted me to these brownies in the first place—they are not only sweet, but also nutty and salty and crunchy. I’ve adapted these from a scratch recipe by Valerie Bertinelli, the actress who now has her own cooking show on Food Network. I considered (for about a second) making them from scratch myself for our quiet, at-home Super Bowl festivities, but the reality is that Ghirardelli does it way better than I do. It was the peanut butter swirl and salty pretzel topping that won me over, anyway.

I gleaned a few bits of wisdom from the reviews for Valerie’s scratch-made recipe, such as using a smaller pan and a lesser amount of the peanut butter swirl mixture, and then I settled in to enjoy a shortcut version of what so many fellow bakers had to say—”best brownies ever!”


Ingredients

1 box Ghirardelli brand “dark chocolate” brownies, + ingredients to make them, which included an egg, 1/2 cup oil and 1/4 cup water.

1 Tbsp. dark cocoa powder

1/3 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips or chunks

1/2 cup smooth and creamy peanut butter (not the “natural” variety)

1/3 cup confectioner’s sugar, sifted to remove lumps

3 Tbsp. salted butter, melted

A handful of salted mini pretzels, broken by hand

An extra sprinkle of coarse sea salt, if you like a bit more of this contrasting flavor


Instructions

The photos tell the story, but if you keep scrolling, you’ll find a downloadable PDF you can save and print for your recipe files. Enjoy!


  1. Preheat oven to 325° F, with rack in center of oven. Butter a glass 8 x 8” baking dish.
  2. In a medium mixing bowl, combine the peanut butter, confectioner’s sugar and melted butter. I used my handheld mixer for this step, but Valerie mixed it up just fine with a spoon, so do what you like there. Set this mixture aside while you prepare the brownie base.
  3. Add dark cocoa to the brownie mix. Add the egg, oil and water, blending together until all dry ingredients are moistened. Fold in the extra chocolate pieces. Spread batter evenly into baking dish.
  4. Spoon dollops of the peanut butter mixture randomly over the top of the brownie base. You may find that you have a little bit of the peanut butter mixture left over, as I did. But if that’s the case, just follow my lead and eat it straight off the spatula, the beaters, the bowl, and that little bit that spattered on the counter. No problem (it’s delicious).
  5. Use a butter knife blade to drag the peanut butter dollops through the brownies, marbling as much or as little as you like.
  6. Use your hands to break the mini pretzels into pieces, scattering them all over the brownies. Sprinkle on a few pinches of coarse sea salt (optional).
  7. Bake brownies 45 to 50 minutes, according to package instructions. Cool completely before cutting, and try not to eat the whole batch in one evening.

The center of the brownie is soft and fudgy, the corners and edges are perfectly chewy, and that whole peanut butter swirly pretzel thing? Totally elevating my happy!

Want to make these brownies?


Leftover Snickers Brownies with Sea Salt

OK, who else got stuck with a bunch of candy after disappointing trick-or-treater turnout? The whole neighborhood was abuzz last week about whether (or how) to participate in Halloween this year—do we go ahead and buy candy? Will there be any kids? Is it even safe to do it this year? Without a pandemic playbook, we were all just guessing, but the consensus was “let’s give it a go.”

So Les and I scrubbed our hands, dumped our bags of candy into a wide bowl with our long-handled BBQ tongs, placed our face masks on standby and flicked on the porch light to signal our intentions. Mr. Bones did his best to draw them in with his spooky presence and vacant gaze. But when the clock showed 9:30, we gave up, having given out exactly seven pieces of candy—all to one adorable little witch princess.

See you next year, Mr. Bones!

It’s not that much of a surprise, and in some ways I’m relieved because it proves that our community has done a good job of recognizing the safety issues of COVID. Despite our preparation and “no contact” method of distributing the candy, we ended up with nearly as much as we started. In previous years, Les has taken our leftover candy to share with his co-workers, but that standard fallback doesn’t work this year, either.

I guess I had it coming, this big pile of leftover Snickers—just last week, I was re-living the childhood trauma of my father’s annual raids on my Halloween candy, under the guise of a “safety check.” Is this the universe’s clever way of paying me back after all these years?

Though it is true that Snickers has always been my favorite candy bar, there’s a limit to how many of them I can eat before I get bored. I fired up the idea machine in my brain, and these easy-to-make brownies were born. They are the best of both worlds. Rich, dark, soft chocolate-y brownies and sweet, salty, peanut-y candies. What could possibly go wrong?

Ooey gooey, chocolate chewy!

Ingredients

Ghirardelli dark chocolate brownie mix (or your favorite, plus ingredients listed on the box instructions)

10 fun-sized Snickers candy bars (not the “minis”)

Coarse sea salt


Instructions

  1. Preheat oven as instructed on brownie mix. Prepare baking pan as directed.
  2. Cut up candy bars into small bite-sized pieces.
  3. Make brownie mix as directed by box instructions.
  4. Fold in candy bar pieces, then spread batter into the prepared baking pan.
  5. Give the batter a light sprinkle of the coarse sea salt.
  6. Bake as directed on brownie mix and cool completely before cutting.

I need a big glass of milk! 😀

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My Favorite Candy Bar Cocktail

Halloween is not my thing—let’s just put that out there. I stopped celebrating it years ago, mainly because the world is scary enough without conjuring spirits from the dark beyond (I’m looking at you, 2020). But I do love a theme for parties, dinners and drinks, so I’m making an exception long enough to present a series of themed cocktails in advance of Halloween this weekend. The first drink of the series is a sweet one, and a payback to my grown-up self for something I was robbed of as a kid. Allow me to explain:

When I was younger, I did enjoy the fun side of Halloween with friends. My small, upstate New York town was perfect for trick-or-treating because everyone knew everyone else, so there was an innate sense of safety—for the kids and for the parents. We even had some neighbors who passed out treats such as homemade cookies and colorful candied popcorn balls, and this was deemed perfectly acceptable. My Halloween costumes were also always homemade (not always in a good way), and usually a last-minute effort. There was the year I went as a “gypsy,” which meant I was wearing a mismatched set of my mom’s clothes and jewelry, plus a wig. There was also the year that my dad made my costume, the one I was kind of embarrassed to wear next to my friend who was dressed like a beautifully detailed box of Kellogg’s corn flakes. I was supposed to be a tree.


Notwithstanding what I feared were lame costumes, we had a big time in those days, even in the years we had ankle deep snow on Halloween (thanks, “lake effect”), and we were willing to walk as far as it took to fill up our candy bags. For me, the big, fat downside to trick-or-treating was the “inspection” that my father insisted must be done on my bag of candy. I was no dummy, and it was no coincidence that my bag was noticeably lighter after the so-called safety check. Specifically, my “fun-sized” bars of Milky Way and Snickers would be wiped out. Yes, my dad stole my favorite candy bars. Why didn’t I catch on to this trick and hide my treats before handing over the bag? —all I can say is that I was a very compliant kid. My bad.

This year, Les and I have purchased the obligatory bags of candy to pass out to the neighbor kids who ring our bell every year—all three of them. Apparently, we don’t have strong participation in our subdivision, and most of the nearby kids don’t bother looking for porch lights over here. But we will stock up on Snickers, all the same, and we will be generous in handing them out. You know, it’ll be kind of nice to have someone come to the door, and we will take all necessary safety precautions (those long handled grilling tongs will surely come in handy).

If the kids do make a strong showing (who knows what 2020 will bring, right?), we’ll give away all the candy and we will still be able to enjoy the flavors of my favorite candy bar in this cocktail, which is equal parts salted caramel whiskey, peanut butter whiskey and dark chocolate liqueur. A little salted caramel on the rim, a fun-sized Snickers garnish. Yes, it’ll do. 😊

The salted caramel rim makes every sip sweet and sticky.

Ingredients

1 oz. salted caramel whiskey

1 oz. “Skrewball” peanut butter whiskey

1 oz. Godiva dark chocolate liqueur

Salted caramel and fine sea salt (for the rim), small Snickers candy (optional, for garnish)


The only flavor not represented in this cocktail is “nougat,” whatever the heck that is.

Instructions

To rim the cocktail glass, heat a small amount of salted caramel ice cream topping in a small bowl. Sprinkle a small amount of fine sea salt onto a clean paper towel. Use the back of a small spoon to swipe the caramel around the outer edge of the glass rim. Immediately roll the outside edge of the glass on the salted towel. Use a light touch for the perfect amount of saltiness; you don’t want to salt it like a margarita glass! 🙂 Do this a few minutes ahead to give the caramel time to cool and set.

In a cocktail shaker or mixing glass, combine the salted caramel whiskey, peanut butter whiskey and chocolate liqueur. Add ice and stir vigorously until shaker or glass is frosty. Add a large ice cube to your caramel-rimmed glass, and strain the cocktail into the glass. Garnish with a real Snickers bar, just for fun!

No tricks, just a sweet-sippin’ treat!


Triple Chocolate Cherry Brownie Bowls

There’s dessert for the sake of a sweet tooth, and then there’s DESSERT, as is the case with this ultra-chocolate-y, cherry-infused brownie bowl, packed with “Cherry Garcia” vanilla ice cream, studded with sweet cherries and dark chocolate chunks. Oh, and I almost forgot, the cherry syrup. Over the top? Obviously! But this was a birthday dessert a few weeks ago for my husband, Les, who is himself a little “over the top” crazy about any and all chocolate and cherry combinations. And for such an occasion, during a year that has given us too much to worry about and not enough to celebrate, I went all in.

Well, almost. I did take one easy shortcut and I’m not ashamed to share my little secret with you—I never make brownies from scratch. I have a favorite box brownie mix that meets all my picky ingredient requirements, so why put forth the effort to make it “as good as” theirs, when they already have a product that is a winner every time? Ghirardelli dark chocolate is my go-to, and though the brownies are terrific as directed on the box, I sometimes can’t help but elevate them with my own “extras” to highlight certain aspects of the brownies’ personality. It’s easier than you might expect.

For these birthday brownie bowls, I’ve substituted cherry juice for the water called for on the package instructions, and I’ve added a tablespoon of dark cocoa powder plus a handful each of chocolate chunks and cut up dried cherries. That’s it. The simplest flavor swaps, resulting in the most decadent dessert my hubby could have ever asked for on his birthday (or any other occasion). Luckily, for our ever-expanding pandemic waistlines, it will be another year before we indulge to this degree. But it was kinda worth it. 🙂

Chocolate, cherries, more chocolate, brownie, cherry sauce. What could possibly go wrong?

These brownies are super-sized and shaped like a bowl, exactly right to hold a generous scoop of ice cream (which I did make from scratch, but don’t feel pressured to do so). The special shape is courtesy of a fancy-schmancy pan I bought from King Arthur Baking Company. At $30, it was a bit of a splurge, but in this most ridiculous year, I’ve been willing to invest a bit more in kitchen gadgets and ingredients to make our home meal experiences more memorable. Mark my word, it’ll pay for itself by the time the holidays get here, because I’m already dreaming up other ideas.

The pan has a no-fail nonstick coating. The brownie bowl holds a perfect scoop of ice cream.

If you’re not feeling the love for a special pan to make bowl-shaped brownies, don’t stress about it. Make the brownies in a regular pan according to the mix instructions. You can still swap in the special flavor ingredients and have a spectacular dessert with minimal effort. Remember, stressed spelled backward = desserts, and I’m all about flipping things around! 🙂


Ingredients & Instructions

1 box of your favorite brownie mix (make according to package instructions, but adjust as noted below)

Substitute equal amount of cherry juice for the suggested amount of water

Add 1 Tbsp. dark cocoa powder to the dry mix (Hershey’s special dark will do, and it’s easy to find)

Add 1/2 cup dried dark cherries, cut into smaller pieces (fold in after mixing)

Add 1/2 cup dark chocolate chunks or semi-sweet chocolate chips (fold in after mixing)

Bake as directed on the package, but if you use the King Arthur brownie bowl pan, you’ll want to cut the time in half. My brownies were perfect after 25 minutes.

Fill ‘em up!

Cherry Garcia ice cream from Ben & Jerry’s (or whatever other ice cream rocks your world)

I made my own version of “cherry Garcia,” but we usually purchase the Ben & Jerry’s brand, which is great!

Top ‘em off!

Hot fudge topping, whipped cream, or (if you’re feeling inspired) my quick homemade cherry sauce.

Cherry on top of cherries! This sauce is easy to make and also happens to be excellent on crepes or any kind of ice cream.

Cherry Sauce*:

2 cup frozen dark sweet cherries

2 Tbsp. sugar

1 tsp. pure vanilla or almond extract (or 1 Tbsp. amaretto liqueur or chocolate liqueur)

1 Tbsp. dark chocolate balsamic vinegar* (optional)

2 Tbsp. corn starch, mixed with 2 Tbsp. ice cold water

Heat a small saucepan over medium heat. Add frozen cherries and sprinkle sugar over the top. Stir and cook until cherries are softened and mixture is reduced and bubbly (about 15 minutes). Add extract or liqueur and stir. Blend corn starch and water until smooth, and slowly drizzle into the cherry sauce, stirring constantly. Allow mixture to come back up to full simmer, and continue to stir as it thickens further. Remove from heat. Use the sauce warm over dessert or keep in refrigerator up to two weeks.

*This time around, I strained the cherries from the sauce because they went into the ice cream. Half of the sauce was drizzled through the ice cream like a ribbon, and the rest was reserved for spooning over the brownie bowls. It was a delicious labor of love!

This one’s for you, my birthday boy! ❤

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Two Fun Ways to Celebrate National S’mores Day!

Not that there’s anything wrong with just plain s’mores. I love them, personally. The crispy graham cracker, melty gooey chocolate and perfectly toasted (or “accidentally” burnt) marshmallow, all pressed into one delicious little sugar sandwich bite—takes me straight back to 1977 and Allegheny State Park in the middle of summer family camp.

But that was a long time ago, and although I still love the idea of s’mores in my grown-up years, I’m less inclined to imagine making a campfire or even firing up the chimenea on our patio. I mean, it’s the middle of summer, you know? I’d rather crank the oven up to 450° F because inside, I have air conditioning. And why would I do something as simple as s’mores, when I can over-complicate them into something more visually decadent?

Consider instead these two tasty treats, bearing every last detail of s’mores, but without the campfire smell permeating your clothes, without the bugs and without smoke getting in your eyes. First of all…


S’mores Pizza!

Oh yes, all the flavors of the campfire classic.

Warm and gooey, stupidly sweet and completely kid-friendly. If I had kids, I would expect them to want this for sleepover parties, or maybe even in lieu of a birthday cake.

For the crust, I leaned on my pals at King Arthur Baking (did you notice, they changed their name!), and did a quick modification to their recipe for whole wheat pizza crust. Who knew that every kid’s favorite cracker is whole grain? Yes, whole wheat flour is also sometimes called “graham flour,” and it’s the basis for graham crackers, so it also will be the base for my s’mores dessert pizza. I took the King Arthur recipe, cut it in half, converted for sourdough, increased the sugar by four times and swapped in coconut oil.

This crust took a good while, because it’s a slow-ferment yeast bread, and the sourdough conversion and extra sugar slowed it down even more. I was OK with this delay because I’m a bread nerd. If you want something quicker, pick up some whole wheat dough at Trader Joe’s, or go with a basic chocolate chip cookie dough, but use whole wheat flour and save the chocolate chips for a topper. In fact, I want to make my next s’mores pizza that way to appease my husband, who has s’mores apathy. This is not his fault. First of all, he was not a Girl Scout. Secondly, he was raised in NYC, and they didn’t exactly have campfires on the fire escape of his apartment building. But if the s’mores are piled onto a giant cookie? That, I suspect, would be right up his alley. I might even go nuts next time and pile the s’mores toppings onto a brownie base. For crying out loud!

For the toppings here, I got things started with a thin slathering of Nutella. I know, hazelnut is not “traditional” for s’mores, but I haven’t found a spread that is only chocolate, so it’ll have to do. Besides, you barely taste the hazelnut underneath all the other stuff that is traditional for s’mores—the graham crumbs, chocolate bits and (of course) the pillow-y miniature marshmallows.

Want to try it? Check your pantry for these items, or mask up and head to the grocery store to get them.


Ingredients

Whole wheat pizza dough or cookie dough substitute

Nutella or similar chocolate spread

Graham crackers, some crushed, some pieces

Chocolate chips or chocolate chunks (I used semi-sweet for my experiment, but I think milk chocolate would melt better)

Miniature marshmallows

A big glass of cold milk (trust me, you’ll want this after a big sticky slice of s’mores pizza)


Instructions


And then, into a 450° F oven, just long enough for the chocolate to melt and the marshmallows to get toasted. This didn’t take long, maybe 5 more minutes.

The marshmallows got SO puffy during the baking!


This pizza satisfied my once-in-an-adult-blue-moon craving for s’mores, but I will tell you honestly that the end result (by the time I finished taking pictures and slicing it) was a bit on the chewy side, which was oddly addictive for me, but my hubby did not love it and it was a total “no-go” as leftovers. The best thing about real s’mores is that they provide immediate gratification, a fleeting taste of pure and simple decadence.  Once a marshmallow has been toasted then allowed to cool, it becomes overly sticky and loses the gooey deliciousness that makes a simple s’more so ridiculously good. So, if you intend to give this a go, may I suggest you have a few hungry friends nearby (safely distanced, of course) and ready to indulge? Everyone grab a slice and eat it, straight from the oven.


Or, if your properly distanced friends are all members of the over-21 crowd, lean into this adaptation instead:

S’mores Martini!

For adult s’mores lovers, only.

The distinct flavors of your favorite summer camp treat, with vanilla and chocolate spirits, and neatly dispensed in a chilled 4 oz. glass, complete with graham crumb rim and floating a toasted mini marshmallow garnish.

Kumbaya, y’all.


Ingredients

1.5 oz. vanilla vodka (I used Absolut)

1.5 oz. crème de cacao (light or dark, but not creamy)

Graham crumbs

Mini marshmallows

You will also need a petite cocktail glass and a kitchen torch or stick lighter. A cocktail mixing glass or shaker will be helpful, or improvise with a glass measuring cup.


Instructions

  1. Combine the vanilla vodka and crème de cacao in a cocktail mixing glass (or a bowl that is wide enough to dip your glass rim into). Carefully lower the rim of your chilled cocktail glass into the alcohol mixture, then roll the edges into the graham crumbs until coated all around. Put the glass in the fridge or freezer while you prep the marshmallows.
  2. Arrange the mini marshmallows in a heated cast iron skillet, and use a kitchen torch or stick lighter to gently “toast” the edges of the marshmallow. Watch it closely to keep them from burning (unless you like the burned edges, as I do). The goal is to get a nice toasty color on them and help them stick together in a cluster. Use a small spatula to transfer the garnish to a plate or cutting board to cool.
  3. Add ice to the cocktail mixing glass (or pour the alcohol from the bowl into a shaker with ice) and stir (or shake) about 20 seconds, until the outside of the mixing container is frosty. Strain into the cocktail glass. Top with marshmallow garnish.