Saturday, December 25, 2010


Once I discovered that it doesn't always take 9 years to make candy (if you're doing correctly), I guess maybe you could say I went a little overboard on the confectionaries.  But once I saw the gorge display of unique holiday chocolate barks in last month's issue of Martha Stewart Living, I couldn't wait to try out a few to finish off my holiday candy boxes.

I know it may be a little late for holiday cooking at this point, but just wait for that week-long lull between Christmas and New Year's when you've got nothing but piles of leftover dried fruit, nuts, and citrus falling down around you.  Then you'll be back :)

The basic recipe for this bark is super simple: just 1 pound of chopped dark, white or bittersweet chocolate depending on the recipe, and then whatever toppings your little heart desires.  Melt the chocolate in the top of a double boiler (or, let's be honest, a pan placed on top of another pan of simmering water) pour into prepared pans, top as desired, then pop them into the fridge to cool. And that's it. Srsly. 

A note on prep: there are also about a million ways to prepare these (...or at least 3) depending on the final look you're going for.  The easiest is simply to grease a cookie sheet or line it with a silicone baking mat, then break it into pieces by hand once it has cooled.  A great idea for gifting would be to line mini loaf pans with parchment then wrap the final product like homemade candy bars.  I just sprayed aluminum loaf pans with cooking spray, but I imagine you could also pour these into adorable holiday candy molds too.  See? A million ways.

Dried Cranberry, Pistachio and Toasted-Coconut White Chocolate Bark
1 lb white chocolate, chopped, melted and poured into prepared pans
1/4 cup each dried cranberries, roasted salted pistachios, large flake unsweetened coconut

Dried Cherry and Orange Zest Bittersweet Chocolate Bark
1 lb bittersweet chocolate, chopped, melted and poured into prepared pans
1/4 cup each dried cherries and finely grated orange zest

Each recipe fills 2 regular-sized loaf pans

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Boys of Baking

Don't get too excited ladies, we're not talking about the new 2011 Calendar you can expect under your tree this year :) Since beginning my blog, I've gotten to hear great stories from my friends about their baking exploits.  Surprisingly, a number of these came from my guy friends, eager to share that they, too, liked to bake the occasional cupcake or had learned to bake the most incredible fruit pies with their grandfathers growing up.  And so, in their honor, I am starting the Boys Who Bake series on The Cupcake Avenger.  Please join me in welcoming my second-ever guest blogger and super brave friend Matt Sullivan who agreed to be featured in volume 1!  Hit me up at if you'd like to be considered for the next installment of Boys Who Bake!
I was invited this week by my friend Hilary to write a guest spot for the "Cupcake Avenger". Yes, I am a male. And yes, I just successfully baked something. I consider this a minor victory for men everywhere. 

This may be blasphemous, but I decided to make my medium muffins vice cupcakes. And muffins are just bald cupcakes, right? :)

I spent some good time looking at recipes for this venture, and narrowed my focus down to creating something healthy I could bring back to my office, as we are constantly inundated with all sorts of caloric-packed treats. I finally landed on Oatmeal Blueberry Muffins, and found the healthiest recipe I could find. However, I currently live in the Middle East, and finding everything I needed for this was difficult and/or impossible. I did the best I could. 

The baking was actually quite fun. I am already ready for an encore. Perhaps if Hilary will host me again in the future I can take a crack at something a wee bit more complicated. 

When it was all said and done, they turned out rather flat looking, but they are delicious! It's an added bonus knowing they aren't completely terrible for you. 

*It is of note to point out I listened to rock music while I was baking to make this experience as masculine as possible. 

Here is the recipe for anyone who wants to try it out as well:
Oatmeal Blueberry Muffins
1/2 cup flour
1 3/4 cup uncooked oatmeal
5 Tbs Splenda brown sugar blend
1 Tbs baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup skim milk
1/4 cup Egg Beaters or 1 egg equivalent
1/2 cup unsweetened apple sauce
2 Tbs vanilla extract
1 to 1 1/2 cups blueberries (thawed, if frozen)
1 Tbs Splenda
1 Tbs ground cinnamon

1. Preheat oven to 375° F and line a standard 12-cup muffin pan with paper baking cups.

2. In a medium bowl, combine flour, oatmeal, brown sugar blend, baking powder and salt. Mix well with a spoon.

3. In a small bowl, using a spoon or fork, combine vanilla extract, skim milk, Egg Beaters, and apple sauce.  Mix well.

4.  Add this mixture to the flour mixture and beat until ingredients are well-blended.  Fold in the blueberries.

5. Pour an equal amount of batter into each cup until cups are about 2/3 to 3/4 full.

6.  Combine Splenda and cinnamon; sprinkle evenly over muffins.

7.  Bake for 20-25 minutes or until lightly browned and a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.

Each muffin provides approximately 115 calories, .9 g fat, 0mg Cholesterol, 120mg sodium, 21.9g Carbohydrates including 2.1g of Dietary Fiber and 8.3g Sugar and 3.8g Protein

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Let It Snow

And so the first flakes have fallen on the DC area and residents wasted no time in responding with the traditional panic-stricken hissy fit.  After fighting my way home from work in the daunting 1" of slush, I was about ready to have a hissy fit myself, when I met a woman and her grandson in the lobby of my apartment building.  They were grinning ear to ear because it was the first time either of them had seen snow.  This totally made my day, and I guess it's those little things that we should remember not to take for granted this time of year.

These snowflake cookies will definitely NOT give you a hissy fit, because I think they are possibly the easiest cookies ever to make.  They are also super versatile and you can decorate them any way you like.  My grocery store happened to have uber adorable Andes holiday baking chips, but you could also substitute crushed candy canes, or nothing at all--the peppermint extract provides excellent flavor.  A little hint of red or green food coloring would also be great for the season, but maybe not quite so snowflake-like...

Peppermint Snowflake Meringues
3 large egg whites
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon pure peppermint extract
1/4 cup Andes Mint holiday baking chips (optional)
Clear sanding sugar (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 175 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper, set aside.

2. Put egg whites and sugar in the heatproof bowl. Set bowl over a pan of simmering water, and stir gently until sugar has dissolved and mixture is warm to the touch, 2 to 3 minutes.

3. Transfer bowl to an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, or beat with a hand mixer. Mix on medium-high speed until stiff peaks form. Mix in peppermint extract and baking chips, if using.

4. If desired, fit a pastry bag with an open star tip and pipe small star shapes onto prepared baking sheets. Sprinkle each star with sanding sugar, if using.

5. Bake cookies until crisp but not brown, about 1 hour 40 minutes. Let cool completely on sheets on wire racks.   Makes 3-5 dozen, depending on size.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Fleur de Sel Caramels

Because it sounds fancier than "carmels."

I've never really been much of a candy maker (see: the fudge from hell). But for the holidays this year I plan to give homemade candy boxes as gifts for friends, and was inspired by a gift of gorgeous French fleur de sel to try these salted caramels (sorry to ruin part of the surprise for some of you!)

I know fleur de sel sounds super fancy and intimidating, but it's essentially just a coarse grain of salt that's now often available in most grocery stores, and is excellent for seasoning almost anything that calls for regular table salt.  As for those of you saying "Carmel and salt?? Eew!" The chocolate-covered pretzel people are way ahead of us on this one and we've never looked back. Just trust me on this one.

If you're sending any care packages to friends and family overseas this year, these candies are also an excellent choice because you get that homemade touch without having to worry about them getting stale, melted, smashed or otherwise manhandled en route.

As for the carmel vs. caramel debate, I'll leave that one up to you.  And that really annoying McDonald's carmel latte commercial.

A couple of notes: The recipe below is the "short cut" version.  Instead of using sweetened condensed milk, you can also substitute 2 cups half-and-half or light cream, but this may take about 60 minutes to reach firm ball stage, instead of about 20. 

There's really no easy way to cut carmels without making a sticky mess.  Let the carmel sit for at least 3 hours to help them set before you start cutting.  I read a tip about using a buttered knife, but didn't really find this to be any more effective.  Using your sharpest knife, press quickly and firmly on the back of your knife with your non-cutting hand to sort of "press" the caramels rather than using a back-and-forth cutting motion. After each row of candies you cut, run your knife under very hot water to remove any excess before moving on to the next row. 

As for the wrappers, I just cut waxed paper into 5x4" squares though, after the mind-numbing task of cutting and salting about 75 caramels, you may want to save your sanity by just purchasing pre-cut candy wrappers. Other than that you're on your own :)

Fleur de Sel Caramels
1 cup butter
1 16-oz pkg packed light brown sugar
1 14-oz can sweetened condensed milk (or 2 cups light cream)
1 cup light corn syrup
1 tsp vanilla
Fleur de sel

1. Line an 8x8x2" or 9x9x2" baking pan with foil, extending foil over edges of pan.  Butter or spray the foil.  Set aside.

2.  In a heavy saucepan with high sides melt butter over low heat.  Add the brown sugar, sweetened condensed milk (or cream, if using) and corn syrup; mix well.  Cook and stir over medium-high heat until mixture boils.  Insert a candy thermometer.  Reduce heat to medium; continue boiling at a moderate, steady rate, stirring frequently, until the thermometer registers 248°F, firm ball stage.  Adjust heat as necessary to maintain a steady boil.

3.  Remove pan from heat; remove thermometer.  Stir in vanilla.  Quickly pour mixture into prepared pan.  When firm, use foil to lift out of pan.  Cut into 1" squares and press each piece lightly onto a small plate of fleur de sel, wrap as desired.  Store up to two weeks.  Makes 2 lbs, or about 64 pieces.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Minty Fresh

My oven runs hot. I know this. And yet I still manage to overbake my cookies. Every. Single. Time.  And, of course, this time was no exception. Though I suppose there's something to be said for consistency, I always seem to forget that cookies will continue to bake ever so slightly once removed from the oven.  Though not burnt, mine lost that delicious, right-out-of-the-oven-chewiness as they cooled in favor of a tougher, are-you-trying-to-make-biscotti-here-or-what?? texture.  So, even if you think your cookies might look like they may need to bake ever so slightly longer...DON'T.  Don't be like me, and pop them back into the oven for another two minutes even though you know your oven overcooks.  Sigh. 

These cookies are also an example of what happens when you have a driving urge to bake something but no real inspiration for ingredients or flavors combos--so you just make the recipe from the back of the Nestle Toll House chocolate chip package.  But not just any chocolate chips mind you, limited edition dark chocolate and mint chips.  Ooooohhh.  I couldn't help myself when I saw the holiday-themed bag in the store, and grabbed a pack before really thinking ahead to what I would do with this delicious find.  Luckily, Nestle is one step ahead and gives this recipe for Mint Chocolate Delights as well as another recipe for your standard chocolate chip cookie substituting the holiday morsels.

A couple of notes:  This dough is sticky like woah, so you may be better off to stir by hand rather than with electric beaters if you don't have a stand mixer. 

Mint Chocolate Delights
2 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup baking cocoa
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter or margarine, softened
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 2/3 cups (10-oz. pkg.) Nestle Toll House Dark Chocolate & Mint Morsels

1. Preheat oven to 325° F.

2. Combine flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt in small bowl. Beat butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar and vanilla extract in large mixer bowl until creamy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Gradually beat in flour mixture. Stir in morsels. Drop by well-rounded tablespoon onto ungreased baking sheets.

3. Bake for 11 to 13 minutes or until cookies are puffed and centers are set. Cool on baking sheets for 2 minutes; remove to wire racks to cool completely.

Makes about 3 dozen