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.

Strawberry Lime Cupcakes

It’s June, and June means summer. Even if summer doesn’t technically start for a few weeks, I feel like it’s time to bake with summer flavors, like strawberry. I bought a ton of berries during my last grocery trip – berries are one of my favorite things – and decided to make a puree from some of the strawberries. While strawberry and lemon pair very well, I’d never made a strawberry lime combination, so I decided to give it a try.

These cupcakes use both lime extract and lime zest, but if you didn’t have extract you could just use a bit more zest. They have a lovely, almost pound cake-like texture that pairs well with a smooth buttercream. While lime is the dominant flavor in these treats, the strawberry brings a nice amount of sweetness; next time, I might use a bit less zest or omit the extract in the cupcakes so the flavor is more balanced. They’re still delicious, though, so I consider them a win.

Ingredients

For the cupcakes

  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon lime extract
  • Zest of half a lime
  • 1/2 cup plus 6 tablespoons cake flour
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • Scant 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 8 tablespoons butter, cut into cubes, at room temperature
  • 2 eggs, at room temperature

For the strawberry buttercream

  • 10 tablespoons butter, at room temperature
  • 3 1/2 to 4 cups powdered sugar
  • 1/4 cup strawberry puree
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preparation

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two cupcake pans with paper liners; this recipe made 21 cupcakes.

Combine milk, vanilla extract, and lime extract; set aside.

In a mixing bowl, combine cake flour, flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Beat on medium speed for 2 minutes, then reduce mixer speed to low and add butter a few cubes at a time. Continue to beat for about 2 minutes, until the mixture looks like coarse sand.

Add eggs, one at a time, beating well between each. With the mixer running on low, slowly pour in the milk mixture and add the lime zest. Return to medium speed and continue to beat for 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl well; the batter will become almost fluffy.

Using a 2-inch cookie scoop, drop scoops of batter into prepared cupcake pans, filling about 1/2 to 2/3 full.

Bake for 18-20 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. Remove from pans immediately and cool completely on a wire rack before filling and frosting.

For the frosting, in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter and vanilla extract on low speed until smooth and creamy, about 2 minutes. Gradually add first three cups of powdered sugar in half-cup increments, beating until fully incorporated.

Slowly add strawberry puree, mixing until completely incorporated, about 1-2 minutes, scraping your bowl well. If your mixture is too thin, slowly add more powdered sugar, about 1/4 cup at a time, until you reach a consistency that will be easy to pipe.

Fit a piping bag with a large star tip (I use the Wilton M1) and pipe swirls of frosting onto each cupcake; my recipe made exactly enough for all 21 cupcakes, which is kind of amazing, because that never happens.

Store in an airtight container at a cool room temperature or in the fridge for 1-2 days.

Samoa Bars

Back when I still ate chocolate, I loved Girl Scout Samoas. Today I wanted to recreate them in bar form, and I found this recipe from Just a Taste. Truth be told, I found it more difficult to work with than I’d hoped, so I think I’ll try a different recipe next time.

I do have some suggestions, based both on the comments on the original post and my own experience. I think you could decrease the amount of coconut by at least 1 cup, and you could likely increase the amount of caramel as well. Another baker suggested mixing the coconut into the caramel, rather than pouring the caramel into the coconut, then keeping the mixture warm in the double boiler and adding it to the base a little bit at a time. Also, the base is very crumbly, so I chose not to dip the bottoms of the bars in melted chocolate; I used far less than the original recipe required. Despite being a bit difficult to work with, the bars turned out to be delicious. Mike decided he’s keeping them instead of taking them to work, and I even left a few without chocolate for myself.

Ingredients

For the base

  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup sugar

For the topping

  • 4 cups shredded coconut
  • 20 ounces caramel bits
  • 3 tablespoons milk
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3 ounces semisweet chocolate chips

Preparation

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line a 9 x 13 pan with parchment paper, extending the paper over the sides.

In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside. Cream butter and sugar until fluffy, then slowly add the flour mixture and beat on low speed until the dough comes together. Press into the bottom of the baking pan and bake for 15-18 minutes, until just slightly golden. Cool completely.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place coconut on a rimmed baking sheet and toast until browned, stirring frequently; this takes about 10-12 minutes. Keep a close eye on your coconut, as it can burn easily. Pour into a bowl and set aside.

Place caramel bits, milk, and salt in a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water or in the top of a double boiler and stir until caramel bits have completely melted; this takes several minutes. Stir together melted caramel and coconut and quickly pour over the base, spreading it as evenly as you can; I used a sheet of parchment to press the caramel/coconut mixture onto the base to help it stick. Allow to cool for 30 minutes, then lift out of the pan by the parchment and cut into 2 x 1 bars.

Melt chocolate chips and place in a piping bag fitted with a plain tip (or in a zip-top bag, then snip the corner) and pipe chocolate over the bars. Allow to set before serving; store in an airtight container at room temperature.

Makes 30 bars.

Cinnamon Sugar Donuts

Mike is now working from 5 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., meaning that he gets up ridiculously early. Last night, after he went to bed (at about 8 p.m., not that I blame him) I baked him these cinnamon sugar donuts to take to work. I left them next to our stove, along with his travel mug, a bag of extra bold Earl Gray tea, and a kettle full of water waiting to be boiled. I figure since he’s leaving before the crack of dawn, I can help make his mornings a bit easier.

Truth be told, baked donuts are much better eaten immediately, but I doubt the early morning crew at Pittsburgh’s VA hospital cared about that. Adapted from a recipe at Sally’s Baking Addiction, these treats are quite tasty, and I can imagine making them in the future with different spice combinations. I chose to make about three dozen mini donuts and three regular-sized donuts, but you could do all regular or all mini depending on what you choose.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups flour (use the spoon and sweep method for this)
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 2 eggs, at room temperature
  • 2/3 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup milk, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt, at room temperature
  • 4 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 3 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • About 1/2 cup cinnamon sugar, for topping*

*Mix 1/2 cup sugar with 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon. 

Preparation

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly spray donut pans with baking spray.

Place cinnamon sugar in a medium bowl and set aside.

In a large bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. In a large glass measuring cup, combine eggs, brown sugar, milk, yogurt, melted butter, and vanilla extract and whisk until smooth. Pour into flour mixture and stir together until just moistened and no dry streaks remain; be careful not to over-mix. Your batter should be lumpy and kind of fluffy.

Transfer batter to a large piping bag and pipe batter into the donut wells, filling about 2/3 full. Bake full-sized donuts for 9-10 minutes and mini donuts for 7-8 minutes, until the edges are lightly browned. Remove from oven and cool in the pan for 1-2 minutes, then turn onto a wire rack to cool for another minute. Toss in cinnamon sugar while still warm; this will coat the tops of the donuts. Alternatively, you can dip the donuts into melted butter, then coat them in the cinnamon sugar, but I skipped this step since I didn’t want them to be too gooey by the morning.

Baked donuts are best served immediately, but they can be kept for about a day in an airtight container at room temperature. The cinnamon sugar will start to soften the donuts, but they’re still delicious.

Makes about 4 dozen mini donuts or 16-18 full-sized donuts.

Honey Almond Cake

I bought myself Mary Berry’s Fast Cakes: Easy Bakes in Minutes cookbook for my birthday last summer, and I’m working my way through the British baking queen’s many recipes. I’ve made several adjustments based on ingredients we have available here in the U.S., tweaked the preparation to accommodate those changes, and also swapped out a few ingredients to better suit my tastes.

For example, most of the cakes in this book call for margarine and use the all-in-one method, where you toss all of the ingredients into the mixer and blend it all at once. For this cake, I chose to use butter, and therefore also the creaming method, for this cake because I simply prefer the taste of butter-based cakes to margarine-based ones. The end result is delicious, not too sweet, and a great size for a small dinner party or get-together. It’s the kind of cake you could make if you want a cake, but not a standard-sized, what-am-I-going-to-do-with-all-the-left-overs kind of treat. Note: I found the deep, 7-inch round baking tin on Amazon.

Ingredients

For the cake

  • 10 tablespoons butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 1/4 cups self-rising flour
  • 3/4 cup almond flour
  • 2 tablespoons milk
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract

For the frosting and topping

  • 8 tablespoons butter, softened
  • 2 1/2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
  • 4 tablespoons honey
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons almond extract
  • 1/2 cup slivered almonds, toasted and cooled

Preparation

Preheat oven to 320 degrees. Lightly grease a deep, 7-inch round cake tin and line the base 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 and almond extract, and beat to combine until you have a smooth batter.

Pour batter into prepared tin 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. Once cake has cooled, slice in half horizontally.

To make the frosting, combine butter and powdered sugar in a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and mix until the sugar has been fully incorporated into the butter. Add honey and almond extract and beat until smooth and fully combined.

Spread frosting on bottom layer of cake and top with the second layer; frost the top and sides of the cake, then top with toasted slivered almonds.

Store in an airtight container at room temperature for 2-3 days. Makes about 8 servings.

Almond Buttercream Pine Cones

My lemon almond Yule log was a big hit at our holiday get-together, and these adorable little almond pine cones were probably my favorite part of the cake. You could use them to decorate nearly any type of cake, or even round sugar cookies. I actually think chocolate frosting would make a more authentic-looking cone, but you can use any flavor you like. My almond buttercream worked very well.

I had five pine cones on my Yule log, and they each take about one tablespoon of buttercream and 12-15 almond flakes, so quantities will vary depending on how many you”d like to make, and how large they will be. My pine cones were small, about two inches high, but you could certainly make larger versions.

Ingredients

Preparation

Place buttercream in a piping bag with a large plain tip and pipe about 1 tablespoon of frosting per pine cone.

Starting at the top, place flaked almonds in descending rows for the scales; start with one almond at the top, then add two or three on the next row, and so fort. Gently press almonds into the frosting so they set.

 

 

Clara the Kitchen Mascot

claraMeet Clara, my kitchen mascot. I found her at Crate & Barrel’s after-Christmas sale and couldn’t resist her. I mean, she’s a mouse wearing an apron, oven mitts, and a chef’s hat. What’s not to love?

Clara is named for the girl in the Nutcracker, and though she’s actually a Christmas ornament, I decided to keep her on my kitchen windowsill (sitting in a tealight holder so she won’t fall over) so she can cheer me on in my various baking endeavors. Clara, like me, believes that fear has no place in the kitchen, so she’s always supportive when I want to try something new – though she’d probably appreciate it if I baked with cheese more often.

 

Gingerbread House

IMG_1773Gingerbread houses are charming, aren’t they? I’ve never made one until today, and it didn’t turn out at all as I expected. Perhaps if I have a different recipe for both the gingerbread and the royal icing, I’ll give it another go someday. In fact, this is the first time I won’t post the recipes I used on this blog, because I truly believe there have to be better ones out there.

Like many shoddy construction jobs, I believe the fault in my house lies in my building materials. The gingerbread was far too soft, while the royal icing was far too hard. While I realize that royal icing is hefty stuff, designed to keep one’s gingerbread walls from caving in, mine turned out more like spackle…and it might have been easier to use actual spackle, since no one will be eating this.

Despite the recipe challenges, my end result is a cute and eco-friendly little structure. It’s small, with fairly thick walls, so it would be easy to heat and cool. And yes, those are supposed to be solar panels on the left side of the roof. Perhaps I could have constructed a wind turbine out of some pretzel sticks, but that’ll have to wait until next time.

 

 

Zella’s Homemade Chicken Soup

soup

 

 

 

 

 

Medication does nothing for my colds. While Nyquil usually helps me sleep, there is one thing, and one thing alone, that truly makes me feel better when I am sick: my grandma Zella’s homemade chicken soup. And while soup isn’t baked, of course, this recipe is one I’ve wanted to share for a while.

“Grandma’s making soup on Saturday,” my father would say, upon returning from his parents’ house down the street on any given weeknight. Immediately, my eyes would widen and my mouth would water. Zella’s soup is a two-course affair, the first involving golden broth and homemade egg noodles, the second, flavor-rich chicken, potatoes, and carrots, not diced or chopped so they blend into the broth, but left whole for the second course, a bowl of shredded chicken, mashed potatoes, and carrots, all drizzled with broth. This might sound strange, but to me, it was food heaven.

Growing up I’d sit in Zella’s tidy yellow kitchen and watch, transfixed, as she stirred in the ingredients; I got to help make the noodles, adding egg after egg into her noodle maker, standing at the ready to catch the fine strands from its extruder.  At the age of 26, while living in DC, I traveled home to Pittsburgh one weekend to be taught how to make the soup. There was no actual recipe that Zella could send me, of course. It was all in her head, as much about how you make it as what you put in it.

Yesterday, while I made this, my mom stopped by. “It smells like Grandma’s house,” she said. This rich aroma is distinctly tied with my grandparents, and when I smell it now, I marvel at the power of scent connected to memory. This time, I made her soup in the same pot she used, stirring with her wooden spoon. I’d like to believe she, my grandpap, and my dad were all in the kitchen with me.

Ingredients

  • About 2 gallons water
  • 4 bone-in chicken breasts (or one pick-of-the-chicken package)
  • 1 soup bone
  • 5 stalks celery, leaves removed
  • 1 green pepper, cut in half, seeds and stalk removed
  • 1-2 yellow onions (depending on size), cut in half
  • 1 pound carrots, peeled and cut in half length-wise
  • About 2 tablespoons paprika
  • About 1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
  • 5-6 medium Yukon gold potatoes, peeled
  • 1 bunch Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, bound with a kitchen band or twine
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 12-ounce package fine egg noodles

Preparation

Place chicken breasts and soup bone in the bottom of a large, 2-gallon stockpot. Cover with 1 3/4 gallons water and place over high heat on the stove with the lid tilted open.

Bring to a boil, watching carefully. When foam begins to form on the top, skim off with a small sieve; you will need to do this at least a few times. Continue boiling for one hour.

Add celery, green pepper, onion(s), carrots, paprika, and peppercorns. Reduce heat to medium and simmer for one hour.

Add potatoes, parsley, and salt (to taste-don’t overdo it); simmer for one hour. Once soup is finished, begin boiling water for egg noodles and prepare according to the package directions.

Remove soup from heat and extract the meat, bone, and vegetables; reserve the chicken, carrots, and potatoes (and other vegetables if you want to eat them); discard the bone.

Strain broth through a fine sieve and discard peppercorns.

Serve soup with noodles as a first course, then follow with chicken, potatoes, and carrots. Drizzle some broth over the chicken, potatoes, and carrots for extra flavor.

The Scrap Cookie…

scrap cookie

 

 

 

 

 

With Christmas right around the corner and Hanukkah on day two, I imagine many folks are baking sugar cookies today. And so, I pay tribute to the scrap cookie.

Scrap cookies are always misshapen, but they taste just as good as the regular ones that you’ve rolled, cut, and baked in the shape of pumpkins, turkeys, shamrocks, trees, dreidls, whatever. I encourage all bakers of sugar cookies to embrace the imperfection of the scrap cookie, to hold it up as an example for life in general. While not everything will turn out as pretty as you might have wanted, or look the way you thought it should, it’s still valuable and important.

Plus, the scrap cookie allows you to be as creative as you like. So roll into a ball and press it flat with the bottom of a glass (which is what I always do), or shape it free-form. Either way, you’ll have something tasty.