Monster Brownies

Halloween is days away, and I’ve spent most of the afternoon baking for the kids in my life. My goddaughter Maureen, her little sister Margo, and our nephew Dylan are all receiving these monster brownies, a fun treat involving a very basic brownie recipe, some Halloween sprinkles, and candy eyes.

Note to other bakers: candy eyes will dissolve in the oven, so I strongly recommend placing the eyes immediately after you remove the brownies when they’ve finished baking.

Ingredients

  • 10 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled for about 1 minute
  • 2 eggs
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
  • 2 tablespoons brewed coffee (it’s fine to use leftover coffee from the morning)
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon espresso powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • Halloween sprinkles
  • Candy eyeballs

Preparation

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line an 8 x 8 baking tin with foil and spray with baking spray.

In a large mixing bowl, combine melted butter, eggs, sugar, brown sugar, vanilla, and coffee and mix well to combine. Whisk in cocoa powder, espresso powder, and salt until well blended, then add flour and mix until just combined; you don’t want to over-mix your batter. Pour mixture into prepared tin and scatter sprinkles over the top.

Bake for about 30-32 minutes, being very careful not to over-bake. Brownies are done when a cake tester comes out with just a few moist crumbs stuck to it. Remove from oven and immediately press candy eyeballs into the top, giving a bit of thought to where your cut lines will be.

Cool brownies completely; cut into 16 squares. Store in an airtight container; if shipping, pack well between layers of waxed paper or parchment.

Mississippi Mud Brownies

Mississippi mud treats apparently come in many forms; cake, pie, and brownies. Wikipedia says the cake version is the original, resembling the banks of the Mississippi River. Having never been to the banks of the Mississippi, I’ll have to take Wikipedia’s word for it.

Though I usually avoid chocolate as a potential migraine trigger, I had a small bite of these brownies, and it was heavenly. It reminded me a bit of fudge, the homemade kind that a favorite aunt or beloved neighbor might make each Christmas. The original recipe comes from Grandbaby Cakes, and I adapted it just slightly to increase the amount of icing and fully cover the treats. Next time, I might mix some pecans into the brownie batter in addition to the topping.

Ingredients

For the brownies 

  • 4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
  • 12 tablespoons butter
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 1/2 cups toasted chopped pecans
  • 3 cups miniature marshmallows

For the icing

  • 8 tablespoons butter
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • 6 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 4 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Preparation

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9 x 13 baking tin with baking spray.

In a large saucepan, heat chopped chocolate and butter on low until completely melted. Remove from heat and stir in sugar, then eggs, one at a time. Stir in flour in two batches until batter is smooth and pour into the prepared tin.

Bake for 25-27 minutes, until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out with a few moist crumbs. Top with toasted chopped pecans and miniature marshmallows.

For the icing, heat butter, milk, and cocoa over low heat and cook until the butter melts. Pour into the bowl of a stand mixer and add 2 cups powdered sugar, beating to combine. Add vanilla and remaining powdered sugar, beating until smooth.

Working quickly, pour icing over the pecans and marshmallows, coating completely. Allow to cool about 1 hour, until icing is set. Cut into squares; store in an airtight container at room temperature for 2-3 days. Makes 24.

Maple Sandwich Cookies

It’s maple season. Yes, I know – pumpkin spice is all the rage in October. I have absolutely nothing against it, but it’s not the only fall flavor, right? Maple is one of my favorite flavors regardless of the month, especially when paired with pecans. But for a while I’ve been meaning to make a maple sandwich cookie, so here we are.

Mike’s colleagues loved these, but truth be told, I think they’re just a bit too sweet. I know! Me, thinking something is too sweet…but on occasion, it does happen. The cookies themselves are absolutely delicious, as is the maple cream filling. I think you could leave the cookies plain, and perhaps pair the filling with a different, slightly saltier cookie. Ah well. As long as someone enjoyed them, that’s all that matters.

Ingredients

Maple Cookies

  • 8 tablespoons butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup shortening
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup pure maple syrup
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1 3/4 cups flour

Maple Cream Filling

  • 8 tablespoons butter, softened
  • 2 tablespoons maple syrup
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons heavy cream
  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon maple extract

Preparation

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a mixing bowl, beat butter and sugar on high speed for 30 seconds. Add sugar, brown sugar, maple syrup, baking soda, cream of tartar, and salt. Beat until combined, scraping the sides of your bowl a few times. Beat in egg yolks and vanilla, then beat in flour.

Using a 1-inch cookie scoop, scoop dough into balls and drop about 2 inches apart on the baking sheet. Bake for 11-13 minutes, until edges are light brown. Remove from oven and cool on baking sheet for 2-3 minutes, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely.

To make maple cream filling, beat butter on medium speed for about 1 minute; add maple syrup, 1 tablespoon heavy cream, and 1 cup powdered sugar and beat to combine completely. Add remaining powdered sugar, heavy cream, vanilla extract, and maple extract and beat until smooth.

To assemble, flip cookies over and spread filling on half the cookies, then top with the remaining cookies to make sandwiches. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for 3-4 days. Makes 24 sandwiches.

Apple Cake

As a woman who doesn’t really like cooked fruit, my experience with fruit-based cakes is fairly limited. I see them all the time on the Great British Baking Show; impressive concoctions involving currants, cherries, and a range of other dried or fresh fruits mixed into spiced batter. Some people have theories about coating fruit in flour before mixing it in; others, like me, just toss it and hope for the best.

This cake is a gift for my friend Arvind and his wife, who just had identical twin girls (and they are beyond adorable). Because no one in my life can mark any major event without some type of baked good, I’ll be dropping this off at their house tomorrow, along with good wishes for the little ones. I hope it’s delicious; the original recipe came from Recipe Tin Eats, and was incredibly easy to make. I can see serving it with caramel sauce or perhaps some vanilla ice cream.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 3/4 teaspoon cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 1/4 cups sugar
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 cups chopped Granny Smith apples (about 2 large apples)
  • 1/2 cup flaked almonds

Preparation

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper on the bottom and sides.

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. In a separate bowl, stir together sugar and vegetable oil, then stir in eggs and vanilla extract. Pour into flour mixture and stir until just combined; be careful not to overmix. Stir in apples and pour batter into prepared pan; it will be very thick. Smooth the top and sprinkle on flaked almonds.

Bake for 40-50 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean (mine baked for 42 minutes, but the original recipe states that depending on your oven, it can take more than an hour). Remove from oven and place on a wire rack; let cool 10 minutes, then remove outer ring from the pan and allow to cool completely.

Store in an airtight container at room temperature for 2-3 days. Makes about 12 servings.

Orange Scones

Years ago Mike and I lived on Capitol Hill, and I took the red line metro from Union Station to work each morning. Amid the morning rush stood Au Bon Pain, bustling with commuters buying coffee and breakfast treats. The pastry display at ABP was a delight for the senses; baskets sat on metal utility shelves holding heaps of buttery croissants, Danish pastries filled with cheese and fruit, blueberry muffins the size of your head, and one of the most delicious treats ever: the orange scone.

While the recipe below is a cream scone variety, I’m positive the ABP orange scone was a butter variety because of its texture. Cream scones are tender and cakey, while butter scones have a crisper outside and a craggy interior. Does craggy seem like an odd adjective for a baked good? Perhaps, but if you’ve ever had a butter scone, you’ll know what I mean: it’s a drier texture, perfect for slathering with jam or lemon curd. Whether you go with the cream variety or the butter variety, orange makes a great scone flavor. I suspect mixing in some miniature chocolate chips in these would be a good idea…maybe next time.

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cup (180 grams) flour, measured by the scoop-and-sweep method or by weight (I measured by weight)
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Zest of 1/2 small to medium orange
  • 3/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons heavy cream, divided
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/4 teaspoon orange extract
  • About 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • 4-5 teaspoons fresh orange juice

Preparation

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and orange zest. Combine vanilla, orange extract, and 3/4 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons heavy cream and drizzle over flour mixture, stirring gently to combine. You want a “shaggy” dough, with no loose flour at the bottom of the bowl, but the dough should not be sticky.

Gently shape the dough into a ball and turn out onto a lightly floured counter top. Press the dough into a circle about 5 1/2 inches wide.

Using a knife or bench scraper, cut the dough into 8 wedges. Transfer to a baking sheet, placing the wedges in a circle with about 1 inch between them. Brush the tops and sides with remaining heavy cream to help them brown.

Bake for 14-16 minutes, until light golden brown on top; I used a cake tester on one scone to make sure the center was baked through. Remove from oven and allow to cool, then combine powdered sugar and enough orange juice to make a medium-consistency drizzle. Pour over scones; allow to set before serving.

Store leftovers in an airtight container at room temperature for 1-2 days.

Nut Bars

Read any article about healthy eating habits and it’ll tell you to keep healthy snacks like almonds not just in your pantry, but with you when you’re on the go or at your desk at work. I aspire to be a healthy snacker, but truth be told most of the nuts I buy for snacks end up in baked goods.

These nut bars, adapted from a recipe I found at Taste of Home, are definitely not in the healthy snack category. I adapted mine to include pecans instead of pistachios, but I suspect any nutty combination would work for these treats. The bar base is far more crumbly than I expected it to be, so I think I need to mix my dough better next time. In any case, they’re delicious. Next time, I might sneak a bit of maple flavoring into the honey/sugar mixture.

Ingredients

For the crust

  • 12 tablespoons butter, cut into cubes
  • 2 1/3 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 egg, at room temperature, lightly beaten

For the topping

  • 1 cup toasted hazelnuts, cooled and chopped
  • 1 cup lightly salted cashews
  • 1 cup lightly salted almonds
  • 1 cup pecans, chopped
  • 2/3 cup honey
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 6 tablespoons butter, cut into cubes
  • 2 tablespoons heavy cream

Preparation

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a 9 x 13 baking tin with foil and grease it with butter.

In a large bowl, stir together flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs, then stir in egg. Press into the bottom of the baking tin and bake for 18-20 minutes, until light golden brown. Cool crust completely.

In a medium saucepan, combine honey, brown sugar, and salt over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Bring the mixture to a boil and boil without stirring for 2 minutes; remove from heat and stir in butter and heavy cream, then return to the heat for about 1 minute, stirring constantly, until the mixture becomes smooth. Stir in nuts.

Pour over cooled crust and bake for 15-18 minutes, until topping bubbles at the edges. Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack completely; lift out of pan and cut into squares; I made small, approximately 1 x 1 squares for more bite-sized treats, but you could cut larger squares if you like. My batch yielded 48 squares.

Chocolate Chip Shortbread Wedges

“Mom, do we have more of that little bread?” asked Alec Sutton, age five. His mom, my dear friend and colleague Anne, had no idea what he meant until she saw him reach for the bag of shortbread I’d given her for Christmas last year. I love this story for many reasons; first, Alec is one of the most adorable and observant kids you’ll ever meet, and second, I love how children’s minds process information. Shortbread and little bread make perfect sense as synonyms when you think about it. Since hearing this story, my shortbread has been referred to as little bread in our circle of friends.

Anne and Alec moved from Pittsburgh to Altoona to be closer to their family, and I sincerely miss working with her. During my visits to the Steel Tower, I’d always sit at the table behind Anne’s cube, and we had many great conversations and funny times. I’m hoping this chocolate chip “little bread” will make a nice housewarming gift for Anne and Alec in their new place. This batch makes 24 wedges, so I sent some to Anne and Alec and some to my nephew Roman as his back-to-school gift. Shortbread ships very well, so it’s easy to send wherever it needs to go.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup butter
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 1/3 cups flour
  • 1 cup miniature chocolate chips

Preparation

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Lightly grease two 8-inch round cake pans. Reserve about 2 tablespoons chocolate chips to sprinkle over the top of your dough.

In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together butter, sugar, salt, and vanilla. Add flour and beat to combine completely, then stir in chocolate chips.

Divide dough in half and press into the bottoms of the cake pans, using the palm of your hand to create an even surface. Prick all over with a fork, then sprinkle remaining chocolate chips on top. You can skip this step if you like – the chocolate chips do flatten out a bit when you turn the shortbread out of the pans later on.

Bake for 32-35 minutes, until the edges are golden brown. Remove from oven and gently loosen the sides, then allow to cool in the pans for 5 minutes. Gently flip onto a cutting board and slice each round into 12 wedges, then place wedges on a wire rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to about 5 days; if shipping, pack between layers of waxed paper.

M&M Brownies

As a godmother and aunt, care packages are my thing. I love pulling together fun items and pairing them with baked goods, packing them up and sending them to Maryland, North Carolina, California, and the other places where my dear ones live.

For my goddaughter Mo and her little sister Margo, craft projects and art supplies feature heavily in the Aunt Amy care package. Since it’s back to school time, I wanted to send the girls some back-to-school (even-if-school-is-the-kitchen-because-of-coronavirus) treats. These fudgy chocolate brownies, complete with miniature M&Ms, accompanied some fun “paint your own solar system” string lights for the girls last week. They went crazy, apparently, over both the brownies and the string lights. It’s always nice to make people happy.

Ingredients

  • 10 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled for about 1 minute
  • 2 eggs
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
  • 2 tablespoons brewed coffee (it’s fine to use leftover coffee from the morning)
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • About 1/3 cup miniature M&Ms

Preparation

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line an 8 x 8 baking tin with foil and spray with baking spray.

In a large mixing bowl, combine melted butter, eggs, sugar, brown sugar, vanilla, and coffee and mix well to combine. Whisk in cocoa powder and salt until well blended, then add flour and mix until just combined. Reserve about 1 tablespoon of M&Ms to sprinkle on the top. Pour batter into prepared pan and sprinkle remaining M&Ms on the top.

Bake for about 30-32 minutes, being very careful not to over-bake. Brownies are done when a cake tester comes out with just a few moist crumbs stuck to it. Remove from oven and cool in pan completely before cutting.

Remove from pan and cut into 16 squares. Store in an airtight container at room temperature, or store between layers of waxed paper, well padded, if shipping.

Pumpkin Pecan Bundt Cake

My mom has some dietary restrictions, and she tends to stay away from dairy. Last night Mike and I went to her house for dinner to celebrate my birthday, and I figured baking a dairy-free cake was the least I could do for the woman who gave me life. After all, she’s the one who did all the hard work, right?

Dairy-free baking isn’t always as challenging as it might seem, and there are many recipes out there that don’t require a range of bizarre ingredients to substitute for butter or milk. Most vegetable cakes, like this pumpkin cake, use oil instead of butter. Such cakes are usually fluffier than butter-based cakes, and tend to keep their moisture longer. And if you choose to bake your cake in a Bundt tin, as I did here, there’s no need for a buttercream or cream cheese frosting; you can whip up a simple glaze icing with just powdered sugar and water. I’m happy to report that Genny loved this cake, so it’s one I’ll make again for her in the future.

Ingredients

  • 3 cups flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 3 eggs
  • 15 ounces pumpkin puree
  • 3/4 cup chopped pecans, toasted and cooled
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 4-5 teaspoons water

Preparation

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Generously grease a 10-inch Bundt pan.

In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking soda, and pumpkin pie spice; set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, stir together sugar and oil until very well-combined. Add eggs, 1 at a time, mixing very well after each.

Stir in flour mixture and pumpkin alternatively, stirring until well-combined and smooth. Fold in toasted pecans, then spoon or pour into prepared pan.

Bake for about 45 minutes, then check with a cake tester or toothpick; continue baking for a few minutes at a time, checking frequently, until the cake tester comes out clean. My cake baked for about 50 minutes.

Remove from oven and cool cake in pan for 10 minutes. Flip out onto a wire rack to cool completely before glazing and drizzling.

To make the glaze, in a small bowl, combine powdered sugar and 2 teaspoons water. Continue adding water until glaze reaches a pourable consistency, then pour over cake and allow to drip down the sides.

Store cake at room temperature for 2-3 days. Makes about 12 servings.

Tree Trunk Cake

It’s my 43rd birthday, and as always, I’ve baked my own cake. I love the woods, so I decided to make an orange almond honey cake and decorate it like a tree trunk. It was actually much easier than I expected because my main tool was a small offset spatula, which worked really well for the bark and tree ring details. I did pipe some ferns and mushrooms as well, and I’d intended to make a little hedgehog to sit on the top, but I ran out of frosting. Maybe next time.

Fair warning: this cake is in no way, shape, or form low calorie, low fat, or remotely healthy. All told, the cake and its frosting include six eggs and five sticks of butter. Granted, I’m not eating the entire cake myself, but if you’re the dieting type, I’d say this may not be the treat for you.

Ingredients

For the cake

  • 1 1/2 cups (2 1/2 sticks) butter, softened
  • 1 cup light brown sugar
  • 4 tablespoons honey
  • 6 eggs
  • 2 1/2 cups self-rising flour
  • 1 1/2 cups almond flour
  • 4 tablespoons milk
  • 2 teaspoons almond extract
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • Zest of 1 1/2 oranges

For the frosting

  • 1 1/2 (2 1/2 sticks) cups butter, softened
  • 5 – 6 cups powdered sugar
  • 3 – 4 tablespoons honey, to taste
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1 teaspoon orange extract

Preparation

Preheat oven to 320 degrees. Lightly grease two deep, 7-inch round cake tins and line the bases with parchment paper.

In a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together butter and light brown sugar until light and fluffy. Add honey and blend to combine, then add eggs, one at a time, beating well and scraping the sides of the bowl between each addition. Add self-rising flour and almond flour, then milk, vanilla extract, and almond extract, and beat to combine until you have a smooth batter.

Pour batter into prepared tins and bake for 40-45 minutes, until well risen and the top of the cake springs back when lightly pressed with your finger.

Remove from oven and allow to cool for about 10 minutes, then turn onto a wire rack and cool completely.

To make the frosting, beat butter on medium speed for 1-2 minutes. Add 5 cups powdered sugar and beat on low speed until the sugar is fully incorporated into the butter. Add honey and extracts and beat to combine, then add enough additional powdered sugar to make a medium-stiff consistency frosting.

To decorate: Divide frosting into one larger portion and two smaller portions. Tint largest portion dark brown and cover the sides of the cake with it, then use a small offset spatula to pull frosting upward to make bark ridges, reserving a small amount to swirl into the top of the cake. Tint one of the smaller portions light brown and frost top, using your spatula to make tree rings. Add small portions of darker brown and swirl to accent the rings. Reserve remaining light brown for mushrooms.

To make the ferns, tint one portion of frosting moss green. Fit a piping bag with a plain tip and pipe stems, the switch to a leaf tip and pipe leaf shapes. Tint remaining frosting darker for a second color and repeat.

To make the mushrooms, fit a piping bag with a petal tip and fill with remaining light brown frosting. Pipe stacked horizontal ribbon-like rows on waxed paper squares on a flower nail and chill for about 5 minutes, then press into the sides of the cake. Add a few leaves of fern-like foliage onto the tops.

Store cake at room temperature; makes about 12 servings.