Thursday, December 28, 2006


Lebkuchen is a form of gingerbread common in Germany. The difference between Lebkuchen and what we Americans typically think of gingerbread is it's made with honey instead of molasses, hence the lighter color. Lebkuchen was developed in the 13th century by Franconian monks though the development of the name Lebkuchen is still a mystery. The most likely explanation is it comes from the Latin word for a flat, unleavened loaf, libum. However the more popular (and less academic) belief is the name comes from the German word Leben, which means life. In fact, it is believed that eating these "life cakes" can chase away the winter blues.

The city most famous for its Lebkuchen is Nuremberg. Located on a major spice route, records show Lebkuchen was baked in Nuremberg since the late 14th century. Nuremberg Lebkuchen is a protected food product in Europe and its production is strictly controlled. The highest quality Lebkuchen of Nuremberg is given the title Elisen, supposedly named after a daughter of a Nuremberg baker.

This particular recipe uses crystallized ginger instead of the more common candied fruit. This change causes the spicy flavor of ginger to be strong in these bars. The bars themselves are dense but soft. The bars do rise slightly while baking but they will basically be the thickness you roll them out to be. If you try to roll them out thin like a sugar cookie I believe you would get a hard, dense cookie that might be tough to chew. The dough is sticky, very sticky. It was probably the toughest cookie/bar/etc. dough I've worked with yet. And there is the time factor. The dough must chill overnight in this recipe (and many others). I recommend that when chilling the dough, gently work it into a ball shape so only a small portion of the dough touches the bowl. It will be much, much easier to remove from the bowl the next day. Still, the rewards of this delicious bar outweighed the work involved.

from page 198 of the The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion: The Essential Cookie Cookbook

Makes about 24 bars

3/4 cup (9 oz) honey
1/2 cup (4 oz) light brown sugar
1 large egg
2 tsp chopped lemon zest or 1/4 tsp lemon oil
2 tsp chopped orange zest or 1/4 tsp orange oil
2 1/4 cups (9 1/2 oz) unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 cups (2 oz) finely chopped blanched almonds
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tsp ground cloves
3 rounded Tbls (1 3/4 oz) diced crystallized ginger
6 Tbls brandy
1 cup (4 oz) powdered sugar

Combine the honey and the brown sugar in a saucepan and bring to a boil while stirring occasionally. Once boiling, remove from heat and let it cool until it's only slightly warm. Using a food processor, chop the crystallized ginger until it is fine. Mix the honey-brown sugar mixture, egg, lemon zest or oil, and orange zest or oil in a large bowl until they are well mixed. Add in the spices, flour, crystallized ginger, baking soda, and almonds and mix until they are thoroughly mixed. This produces a stiff and very sticky dough. Very sticky. Cover the bowl, put in the refrigerator, and let sit overnight.

When you are ready the next day, preheat the oven to 350° F and grease a 9x13 inch or equivalent sized pan. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and place on a lightly floured surface. Roll out the dough to fit into the pan. The dough will be very sticky but try not to over-flour everything. Put the dough in the pan. I rolled it onto the rolling pin and then unrolled it in the pan. Fit the dough into the pan the best you can but don't press down too hard. I greased my fingers and that worked pretty well. Bake for about 20 to 22 minutes. In the meantime, mix the brandy and the powdered sugar. This glaze isn't very thick. The bars are down when a cake tester or toothpick comes out clean. Transfer to a cooling rack immediately and begin glazing. Apply the glaze in layers so each layer has time to soak in and harden. Once fully glazed and cooled, cut into 1x2 inch bars. If you store these in an airtight container with a slice of apple, they will stay soft.

Also on Just Baking.

Lebkuchen at Wikipedia
German Embassy in Washington DC
Nuremberg Gingerbread Tour
The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion: The Essential Cookie Cookbook
Germany's Regional Recipes
German Cookery: The Crown Classic Cookbook Series (Crown Classic Cookbook)
The German Cookbook: A Complete Guide to Mastering Authentic German Cooking

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas!

Via: VideoSift

Via: VideoSift

Saturday, December 23, 2006

A little something for Christmas

I entered December with the start of a plan. I envisioned two weekends where I would be able to bake cookies like pfeffernusse, try my hand at lebkuchen, maybe tackle a mincemeat pie. But the plan changed, neither weekend could be used. Weekday nights are tough because by the time I get home from work and get ready, it's already well into the evening.

Still, I wanted to do something. This led to two late nights of making nut clusters, barks, and dipping. I was able to do this by using chocolate flavored and vanilla flavored almond bark. Made to be melted and dipping, almond bark (sometimes referred to as candy coating) works well as a time saving and cost saving alternative to real chocolate. Especially for dipping, where the most important flavor is the item dipped and not what it's dipped in. Plus, a few people in my family don't eat chocolate but they can still have the vanilla version. Time is saved because there is no tempering, just melt and go. Need more? Just add it and melt. Much, much simpler and no worrying about bloom. Qualitywise, let's be honest and say this isn't going to wow any chocolatiers or chocolate sophisticates who sample hand-rolled truffles infused with basil and topped with sea salt. Really, the quality is on par with a chocolate bar from Hershey's or Nestle and most people will appreciate the effort you put into making it.

All in all, I was able to make a selection of items for small gifts. Lorrie and I both brought some to work. A little bag to a friend here and there. Enough to bring with use to both family Christmas celebrations. Below is a list of things I made.

  • Cherry vanilla bark
  • Vanilla-covered and chocolate-covered toasted coconut marshmallows
  • Vanilla-covered and chocolate-covered shortbread
  • Chocolate-covered Nutter Butters
  • Mint chocolate-covered graham crackers
  • Mint-covered Oreos
  • Vanilla-covered Oreos with crushed peppermint candy canes
  • Vanilla-covered peanut butter and Ritz cracker sandwiches
  • Cranberry and pistachio vanilla mendiants
  • Various chocolate-covered nut clusters
  • Vanilla almond bark
  • Peanut clusters, Almond clusters, and mixed nut clusters

I wish I had the time to bake though. I was looking forward to having some fun trying recipes though now I won't feel guilty about showing up empty-handed.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

My second set of bars

I needed another batch of bars for the reception after my grandmother's funeral and the rule for no chocolate was still in effect. I had planned on trying a recipe for Lebkuchen at sometime during the holiday season and thought this would be a good time to make it. The only book I had with me was the King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion, which in this case wouldn't have been my first choice. There's nothing wrong with this book, quite the contrary, but when I originally thought about baking Lebkuchen I had chose the recipe in Mimi Sheraton's wonderful book The German Cookbook: A Complete Guide to Mastering Authentic German Cooking.

I wrote more information about Lebkuchen and the recipe I used is in this post here.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Chewy Date-Nut Bars

I decided to help my mother and my aunt out by making some bars for the reception after my grandmother's funeral. When I volunteered I didn't have any set plans or recipes in mind so I started paging through the bar cookie section of the King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion,trying see what jumped out at me. I have to admit, this is my favorite book. Every recipe I've tried worked the first time and tasted great. The variety of recipes means I have recipes for just about any occasion. In fact, when I first started baking again over a year ago, this was the first book I bought and have used consistently since.

While paging through the different recipes, I only had one guideline in mind: no chocolate. I wanted something that everyone could try and Lorrie and my uncle Joel don't eat chocolate. It was a good thing I had this rule too. These were one of the few non-chocolate choices at the reception. Other people had brought a lot of things that contained chocolate. This date bar caught my attention because the description talked of yellowed recipes and of days past. 'Historic' or 'back in the olden days' anything will always make me stop and look.

Now, my dad likes date bars a lot. My aunt Nancy makes date bars he absolutely loves. Her bars have a very strong date flavor (duh, hence the name) which is not the rest of the family's cup o' tea. These bars had a more subtle date flavor and received a thumbs up from every member of the family and many of Lorrie's coworkers. I really thought these bars were good. They were moist and chewy with a little sweetness and a little flavor of date while the walnuts provided a little tooth when you bit into the bars. I will make these again.

Chewy Date-Nut Bars
from page 195 of the The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion: The Essential Cookie Cookbook

Makes about 16 bars

2 large eggs
1 1/4 cups (5 1/4 oz) unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup (8 oz) brown sugar (I used dark)
1 cup (4 oz) chopped walnuts
1 cup (5 1/4 oz) chopped dates
Powdered sugar for dusting

Preheat the oven to 400° F. In a mixing bowl large enough to hold all the ingredients, beat the eggs until frothy. In a different bowl, add the flour, salt, baking powder, and brown sugar and whisk together until they are sufficiently mixed. Add these dry ingredients to the eggs and stir until mixed. Fold in the dates and walnuts. Grease a 9x9 inch pan. Put the batter into the pan and spread evenly. I recommend using your fingers. Make sure they are well greased because this batter is very sticky. Bake the bars for 18 to 22 minutes. They are done when they are golden brown and the top of the bars is shiny. Since we want chewy bars, not crunchy, the center should be slightly wet when a toothpick or tester is inserted into the middle. Overbaking will dry these bars out making them crunchy. Cool them completely before cutting. Dust the tops with powdered sugar.

Monday, December 11, 2006


My grandmother passed away on Saturday, her 84th birthday. She finally succumbed to the complications of Alzheimer's disease. The service is Tuesday at the little country church where she taught Sunday school, sang in the choir, and worshiped for all her life. She will be laid to rest next to her husband of over 60 years, Walter, but she will also be among family and close friends who left this mortal coil before her for this country church cemetery is essentially our family's cemetery.

Driving up to Green Bay to say good-bye, I was flooded with memories. Staying over at her house and watching one of her favorite shows, Johnny Carson. I thought it was the greatest thing in the world to be able to stay up way past my bedtime. I still do. Sledding down the hill in her backyard in winter. Playing the card game Rook. Looking out the window on Christmas waiting for her and grandpa to arrive. OK, waiting for them to arrive so we could open presents but still, waiting for them to arrive. I remember being shy and embarrassed as she proudly showed off her young grandson to her friends. She was there for all of my achievements as I grew into a man. Birthdays, graduations, awards, plays, games; I can't picture one without her. She enjoyed crochet and the afghan she made me when I was young always made it onto my bed in winter and it is still one of my prized possessions, safely hidden from the two feline terrors in our house. Sunday dinners are another wonderful memory. I would give my eyesight for one more Sunday dinner of hers. Or even just one more bag of her rolls!! She was the baker in the family. I can only hope to one day bake the way she could. Sadly, Alzheimer's claimed many of her recipes before she could pass them on. Potato pancakes, bread, fudge, dressing (stuffing); all we have left are approximations and best guesses. In a lot of my writing there are references to Germany and my German cookbooks. My family's ancestry is German and my grandparents could speak it fluently. I purchased these cookbooks to help me understand the basis for her recipes so that one day I might be able to recreate some of the greatness from her kitchen. I know she would have enjoyed this site. I could go on but it's hard to see what I write through the tears.

Still, while we here all mourn her loss, I know one man who is happy. My grandfather is now reunited with the love of his life.

Grandma, I love you and I miss you.

As a tribute, I am including one of her recipes we do have, Ice Box Crunch.

4 cups flour
3 Tbls. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1 pkg. dry yeast in 1/4 cup warm water
1 cup shortening
1 cup warm milk
2 eggs

Sift dry ingredients. Add shortening. Mix like pie crust. Beat eggs and mix with milk. Add yeast and pour into dry mix. Mix well. Put in refrigerator.

Roll out like pie crust. Put your favorite filling on, or cinnamon and nuts. Lap the sides together. Fold the ends up. Bake 30 to 40 minutes at 350°. This is similar to Kringle.

I hope you enjoy this recipe. If you do or if this post moved you, please donate to the fight against Alzheimer's, either now or when you have a chance. Thank you.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Sugar Almonds

While doing research for an article about Stollen for Just Baking, I ran across a recipe for sugar almonds that piqued my curiosity. I was intrigued by the simple list of ingredients and the method used to create a hard candy shell, so I gave it a try. The results were surprisingly excellent. The candy coating gave the almonds a good crunch when you bit into them. The flavors of the sugar, cinnamon, and almonds were well balanced. No flavor overpowered another. The small amount of cinnamon was noticeable and highlighted the sweetness of the sugar. These almonds would be popular served at a party or on a dessert tray. They would also make a wonderful gift from your kitchen, in a decorated jar or container.

The key to the recipe is not overcooking the almonds, a lesson I learned the hard way. While preparing a batch I was paged for work and ended up overcooking the almonds because of the distraction. Although the shell still formed and had the desired crunchiness, the flavor and texture of slightly burnt almonds made them unpleasant to eat. I also made batches in different size pans (two and four quart) and found that the bigger pan made it easier to keep the almonds separate at the end.

The recipe is from German Cookery: The Crown Classic Cookbook Series (Crown Classic Cookbook). It’s recipe number 494 (page 199), which is in the candies section of the chapter entitled “Christmas Cakes and Candies”.

Sugar Almonds
4 Tbls. water
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup shelled almonds (do not use blanched)
1/4 tsp. cinnamon

Grease a jelly roll or similar pan and place two forks by it. Combine water and sugar in a heavy bottomed sauce pan and heat until this forms a thick syrup. The water will boil off. When the syrup is ready, remove it from heat, gently add in the almonds, and stir constantly. Continue to stir until the sugar syrup begins to crackle, which does not take long and occurs while the syrup is still liquid. Place this over heat again. The sugar will crystallize and form a white grainy coating; continue heating and stirring until all the sugar is melted again. Once all the sugar is melted, mix in the cinnamon. Remove from heat and pour onto greased pan. Separate the almonds with the forks, working quickly before they cool and fuse together.

As posted at Sugar Savvy or as one of the featured articles at Well Fed...

Sources for Sugar Almonds:

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Chocolate Covered Espresso Cookies

I'm always scanning the other food blogs looking for something I think Lorrie will like. I saw these espresso cookies from alpineberry and I knew I had to make them for her. After finding them a month ago, I finally had the opportunity to make these last night and tonight. They were great. The original recipe was strong in the coffee flavor but not sweet. In my opinion they were more like a digestive biscuit from the UK than what Americans traditionally think a cookie is. That sounds worse than it is, it just means they are not sweet. I actually dislike super sweet and sugary and I found these very tasty right out of the oven. But a slight modification and use of the double boiler will up the sweetness level against the coffee flavor. I think I like these better than chocolate covered Oreos or Nutter Butters. These should be very popular when she brings them to work tomorrow!

I changed the recipe slightly. Dark brown sugar instead of light brown sugar gives them a little more sweetness and a darker color. I used white chocolate and added the ground espresso beans to the chocolate to give it a little grit, a little coffee flavor, and a speckled effect.

Chocolate Covered Espresso Cookies
(modified version of the ones Mary at alpineberry made which she adapted from Fine Cooking)

Makes about 28 cookies

4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature
1/3 cup lightly packed dark brown sugar
1 tsp instant espresso powder
2 tsp water
2 tsp finely ground espresso beans
1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1/8 tsp salt
enough white chocolate to cover 28 cookies

Dissolve the instant espresso powder in the water. Cream the butter and dark brown sugar together. Once it's well blended, add in the water and dissolved instant espresso powder and mix well. Finally add in the rest of the ingredients minus 1 tsp of the espresso beans until they are just mixed. Roll the dough into a log and then wrap in plastic wrap. Use the plastic wrap to form the dough into the log, it will be more consistent. The dough log should be about seven inches. Put in the refrigerator overnight and no more than a couple of days. Preheat the oven to 350° F. Cut the cookies from the dough, about 1/4 inch thick. Place on cookie sheet and bake for about 12-15 minutes. The cookies are done when the sides are brown and the cookies appear dry. Cool on a rack for about an hour. Melt the chocolate and add in the 1 tsp of the espresso beans. Dip the cookies, covering them with a thin layer of the chocolate. Place on wax paper and allow 10 minutes to set and then place in the refrigerator for another 10 minutes. Store in an airtight container in a cool place.

I'd like to say I made these in conjunction with the National Cookie Day but I didn't know yesterday was that until I saw a post about it on Cooking Is Medicine. Probably should have been more on top of that. By the way, it is also National Cookie Cutter Week so celebrate by helping me determine what these are!

My first post at Just Baking

Stollen is a traditional German fruitcake made to celebrate the Christmas season. Although many recipes exist, the most famous is the Dresden Stollen ("Dresdner Weihnachtsstollen" in German). The city of Dresden is also where Stollen was first created in the 15th century and sold at the Striezelmarkt Christmas market. Originally called Striezel, the once folded over shape of the Stollen was meant to represent the baby Jesus in swaddling clothes. Later miners renamed it because they thought it looked like the opening to a mine or Stollen.

Continue reading at Just Baking...

Sources for Stollen:
Interesting fact I couldn't fit into the article: Martin Luther refers to "butter-letters" in his writings at the start of the Protestant Reformation so the desire to improve the taste of Stollen actually had a tiny part in the Saxony's change from Catholicism to Protestantism.


Stollen is a traditional German fruitcake made to celebrate the Christmas season. Although many recipes exist, the most famous is the Dresden Stollen (”Dresdner Weihnachtsstollen” in German). The city of Dresden is also where Stollen was first created in the 15th century and sold at the Striezelmarkt Christmas market. Originally called Striezel, the once folded over shape of the Stollen was meant to represent the baby Jesus in swaddling clothes. Later miners renamed it because they thought it looked like the opening to a mine or Stollen.

The original recipe for Stollen contained no dairy products. Historically, the Advent season was a time for fasting and things like milk and butter were not allowed. So the original Stollen was hard and relatively tasteless. In 1674 Prince Elector Ernst and his brother Duke Albrecht petitioned the Pope to allow their bakers to use butter. The Pope granted them a “butter-letter” which allowed only them the use of dairy during the fasting period. A few years later other bakers were also allowed to use butter but they had to pay a fine. The fines for using butter stopped when Saxony became Protestant.

Every year in Dresden they hold the Dresden Stollen Festival. It occurs on the Saturday before the 2nd Sunday of Advent, which is December 9th this year. Over 700,000 people take part in a day which includes a parade and the ceremonial cutting of the 3 to 4 ton giant Stollen by the Royal Master Baker and the Stollen Maiden. Pieces of the giant Stollen are sold to guests with part of the money generated going to charity.

The recipe below is from Mimi Sheraton’s wonderful cookbook The German Cookbook: A Complete Guide to Mastering Authentic German Cooking. It is on pages 450-451 and is bookended by two other recipes for Christmas breads. While researching the history of Stollen, I also found this was the recipe promoted by the German Embassy in Canada.


Makes 3 loaves

1-1/2 cups raisins
1 cup chopped citron
1 cup chopped candied orange peel
1/2 cup rum
6 to 8 slivered blanched bitter almonds or 1 teaspoon almond extract
2 envelopes dried powdered yeast
1/2 cup luke-warm water
1 tablespoon sugar (optional - used to activate the yeast quickly)
2 cups milk
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1-1/3 cups butter
1 lemon rind, grated
2 tbs. rum
2 cups flour
4 eggs, lightly beaten
5 to 7 cups flour
1-1/2 cups chopped blanched almonds
melted butter
granulated sugar
confectioner’s sugar (vanilla flavored is preferred)

Soak the raisins, citron, and orange peel in rum for about an hour and then drain but save the rum. Follow the directions on the package to activate the yeast in warm water. Scald the milk and add the sugar, salt, and butter. After the butter has melted, add to the mixture the rum, lemon peel, and almond extract if you are not using bitter almonds. Let the mixture cool until it is lukewarm in temperature. Add the yeast mixture to this as well as 2 cups of flour. Mix thoroughly and let it sit in a warm area with no draft until the dough blisters (about 15-30 minutes). When the dough is ready, lightly beat the eggs and add them in. Slowly mix in the additional 5-7 cups of flour until the dough is not sticky, but soft and light and smooth enough to handle.

Dry the soaked fruit and lightly dredge it with flour. Place the dough onto a thoroughly floured board to knead. While kneading, add in the fruit, almonds, and bitter almonds if you are not using the almond extract. Continue kneading until the dough is smooth and elastic and blisters. Form a ball and put in a floured bowl. Brush the dough with melted butter, cover with a thin towel, and place in a warm, draft-less area to rise for about an hour. The dough should double in bulk. Punch the dough down and divide into three smaller balls.

Let the dough rest for 10 minutes and then roll each ball into an oval about 3/4 of an inch thick. Brush the tops with melted butter and sprinkle a small amount of sugar over them. Fold each oval in half length-ways so the edge of the top half doesn’t quite meet the edge of the bottom half. Place all three loaves on a buttered baking sheet and again brush with melted butter. Allow the loaves to rise in a draft-free, warm area until they double in bulk again (about 1 hour).

Preheat your oven to 425° F. First bake the loaves for 10 minutes and then turn the heat down to 350° F. Bake the loaves for roughly 45 minutes. The loaves are done when they are golden brown. Remove from the oven and place on a cooling rack. While still warm, brush the loaves with melted butter and generously sprinkle the confectioner’s sugar over them. The confectioner’s sugar should cover the top of the loaves like an icing.

Stollen is served in 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch slices and sprinkled with additional confectioner’s sugar. It does store well in a cool place (not in the refrigerator).

As posted at Just Baking.

The photo used was taken from the Flickr account of Rene Schwietzke and used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

And the winner is...

A few weeks back I asked for your help to Name this thing I made. Well the votes are tallied and the winner is: Nutter Scotch Haystacks!

Thanks to all those who voted and commented!

Also, I've noticed that there are a good number of people looking for recipes using chow mein noodles. Using this as a base, I have a couple of variations you can try.
  • Replace the butterscotch chips with peanut butter chips and then drizzle with melted chocolate or top with marshmallows.
  • Replace the butterscotch chips and peanut butter with 1-1/2 cups of chocolate chips and 2/3 cup of coconut.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

My Thanksgiving

I had the pleasure of spending Thanksgiving this year not in the cold climate of Wisconsin or Michigan but instead in bright and sunny Florida! With their temperatures in the 50's - same as here. Yay. Anyway my sister had moved there back in March and my family went down to visit her. We were also celebrating my dad's 60th birthday. We actually had our Thanksgiving dinner on Wednesday and then spent the day at Epcot in Walt Disney World. on Thursday. Dinner was good and Epcot was a blast My favorite thing was the World Showcase, specifically Norway, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Even did a little shopping and picked up some new cookbooks. They are Norwegian Touches: History, Recipes, Folk Arts Notably Norwegian;Germany's Regional Recipes;and German Cookery: The Crown Classic Cookbook Series (Crown Classic Cookbook).The Norwegian cookbook appealed to me because a lot of the recipes were about cookies and other baked goods. The other selling point is each recipe is introduced by a short paragraph on who submitted the recipe and a little background on the recipe itself. It may discuss a particular tradition or what the recipe means to that person. I picked up the two German cookbooks because I like the recipes. Most of my ancestors were German and I would like to try cooking some of the recipes as they should be made and not reinterpreted for the American public (stollen comes to mind as an example of this trend). It would also be interesting to see how some of my family's recipes differ from the recipes in these books. Plus I like books so they made nice souvenirs.

But unfortunately all this fun has been followed by a downside. Somewhere along the way I picked up a cold. There's probably a connection between my cold and hurtling through the air in a metal tube filled with kids of various ages for a couple of hours but I'm digressing. So there won't be much cooking and baking for me until I feel better. Especially in the case of recipes. I prefer to try a recipe first and have people taste-test it before I post about it, good or bad. They may pick-up on things I don't and vice versa. Plus anything I taste right now has the subtle hint of the Walgreen's NyQuil knock-off to it.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving!

I'm taking a little break for the next couple days while I spend Thanksgiving Day wandering around Epcot. Have a safe and happy Thanksgiving!

This picture was taken in 2002 by Del Merritt while on a golf trip. We were playing Peninsula State Park Golf Course when this picture was taken.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Pistachio & Apricot Muffins, Take Two

Last month I tried a recipe for pistachio & apricot muffins that I didn't like. It was heavy on the flour and the muffins were dry. I liked the combo of pistachios and apricots so I vowed to try again. This past weekend I did.

Rather than go all nuts swapping out ingredients and changing quantities right away, I decided to change the recipe slightly. Instead of superfine sugar, I used honey. I did this to add sweetness but more importantly, moisture. The first batch was very dry and hard to mix together. This batch was still a little sticky but was much easier to fold the ingredients. So here is the changed recipe.

Pistachio & Apricot Muffins
based on the Pistachio & Apricot recipe on page 274 of the 500 Cupcakes: The Only Cupcake Compendium You'll Ever Need by Fergal Connolly.

Makes 16 regular sized muffins

1 1/3 cups (8 oz) dried apricots
4 tbsp. brandy
4 cups (17 oz) self-rising flour
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
3/4 cup honey
2 eggs
3/4 cup buttermilk
1/4 teas. + a pinch baking soda
1/2 cup (3 1/2 oz) shelled pistachios

Give the apricots a rough chop and soak them in the brandy for about a hour. Preheat the oven to 325° F. Remove the apricots from the brandy and puree them in a food processor until smooth. Some small chunks of apricot is fine. In a medium sized bowl, cut the butter into the flour until it resembles breadcrumbs and then dust with the additional baking soda. In another bowl, beat the eggs slightly to break up the yolks. Add the honey, buttermilk, and the apricots and mix them together. Combine all the ingredients into the bowl with the flour and butter and stir until everything is just combined. Spoon the mixture evenly into baking cups. I use a 1/4 cup ice cream scoop to measure and place the batter in the cups. Bake for 20-25 minutes, checking after about eighteen minutes. These are done when a cake tester or toothpick comes out cleanly.

These turned out better. The muffins rose more while baking and weren't so dense. Still, they are not light and fluffy. You could taste the apricots and honey but it still had a slight flour taste. These were also sweeter than the previous batch. The taste does improve with age. Lorrie mentioned the picture looks like a jalapeno corn muffin and while that definitely doesn't describe the flavor, that observation is spot-on to the feel and texture of this muffin.

But I think I can do better, maybe next time I'll try reducing the flour. Check back after the holiday season for the next episode of what is now becoming a regular series, Pistachio & Apricot Muffins.

Also, I know the name is Cookies, Et Cetera so you'd think there would be more cookies on this site. Well, all I can say is they're coming. I may have been focusing on the 'et cetera' part for a little bit but in December I will definitely be baking more cookie recipes and sharing them here.

Peppermint Bark

Every year around this time the number of catalogs in my mailbox explodes. Catalogs for fruit, nuts, paper, teddy bears, flowers, you name it, they have a catalog and they will send it to you for free. I even received a catalog this year for English muffins. English muffins! After checking out all of the things they have to offer, I am always amazed at the prices of everything knowing that people order out of these catalogs all the time. If they didn’t, there wouldn’t be a catalog dedicated to English muffins. I understand that. But still many of the things they offer for $25-$30 plus shipping and handling are easy to make and giving something homemade instead of out of a catalog just makes the gift that much more special.

Peppermint bark is one of those things. There are tons of different variations of peppermint bark. Most center on crushed peppermint candies in white chocolate or white candy coating. A few more will include peppermint extract. These recipes are good but it doesn't take that much more work to turn this into a treat people will rave about. The peppermint bark I make has two layers of chocolate plus peppermint extract and is topped with crushed candy canes. I like this recipe because of the combination of chocolate and peppermint. Most barks made with white candy coating or white almond bark have vanilla flavoring that you may or may not be able to taste. This recipe balances the peppermint flavor with the chocolate, you will taste both. Also, the dark and white layers plus the crushed candies looks cool and professional. People will think you ordered it from a catalog.

I also like this recipe because it is very easy to change. The bottom layer of chocolate can be anything you want: dark, semisweet, milk, etc. You can add more or less peppermint extract. The crushed peppermint candies can be put in between the layers or swirled in the white chocolate. Flip the dark and white layers or make it in a pan half the size and cut the thicker bark into smaller, bite-size pieces. You can do anything you want to make this recipe your own.

Peppermint Bark

Makes just under 2 lbs of candy

1 lb (16 oz.) chocolate (I use dark)
12 oz. white chocolate
3/4 tsp. peppermint extract
Ten 6-inch candy canes

Bring water to a boil in the bottom of a double boiler. There should be some space between the water and the upper portion of the double boiler. In the meantime, line the bottom of an 11′ by 17′ or similarly sized cookie sheet with sides with aluminum foil or wax paper. Once the water is boiling remove it from the heat and replace the top of the double boiler. Put about 3/4’s of the chocolate in the double boiler first and melt until it is smooth. Add in the rest of the chocolate and 1/2 tsp. of the peppermint extract. Stir until all the chunks have melted. Pour the melted chocolate into the lined cookie sheet and spread so the thickness is just under a quarter of an inch. Let the chocolate sit for a moment so it cools slightly and then place the cookie sheet in the refrigerator for 20 minutes. While the first layer chills, crush the candy canes. I usually start with ten 6-inch candy canes. If this is not enough for coverage, you can always do more. The size of the broken candy canes should be about the size of a pea. Take the bottom layer of chocolate out of the refrigerator so it warms slightly before the second layer is applied. Again boil water in the bottom of the double boiler. Clean out the upper portion of the double boiler with hot water only, no soap, and dry thoroughly. Once the water is boiling, remove it from the heat and put the top of the double boiler back on it. Place 3/4’s of the white chocolate into the double boiler and stir until it is melted. Add the remaining white chocolate and 1/4 tsp. of peppermint extract and stir until smooth. Pour this evenly over the first layer of chocolate. This layer will be thinner than the first. Sprinkle the top with the pieces of crushed candy canes. Again let it sit for ten minutes before placing it in the refrigerator to set. After an hour the bark should be ready to be broken into pieces. Store in an airtight container in a cool place or freeze. Allow it to come to room temperature before serving.

Just a note on crushing the peppermint candies. I place the candy canes in a freezer bag and use a hammer to break them to the size I want. It’s fun to take out your frustrations and beat the bag of candies against the counter top as some sources recommend but I don’t. First, I've found this method doesn’t break the candies evenly and you use more (and waste more) candies. The other issue I have is the broken candies tear even the stronger freezer bags and by the third hit, clouds of powdered peppermint candies are covering the counter top. Using a hammer or meat tenderizer will allow you to control how the candies break and avoid serious clean-up.

As posted at Sugar Savvy.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Name this thing I made

The holidays are coming up and I am starting to plan what I'm making for gifts. I won't repeat exactly the same stuff as last year, I want to do a few new things. One item I plan on doing is chocolate covered nut clusters. First, I wanted a test batch to play around with. Work out things like how am I going to drop them, onto what, does that fit into the fridge, etc. Things I don't want to figure out the day of while trying to bake a batch of cookies too. Plus I wanted to try out different flavors and textures. I know chocolate and nuts go together but what else could work. Growing up I remember seeing these sea urchin-like things on cookie and candy platters. You know what I'm talking about, the dried chow mein noodles covered in chocolate and dropped in a spiny cluster. After randomly perusing one of my cookbooks, I ran across a recipe for something similar using butterscotch chips and peanut butter. They called them Butterscotch Haystacks. I know peanut butter is popular with the people regularly test my creations (Lorrie's coworkers) so I modified the recipe so the focus was the peanut butter.

based on the Butterscotch Haystack Recipe on page 444 of the The King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion: The Essential Cookie Cookbook

Makes about 36 pieces

3/4 cup (4 1/2 oz) butterscotch chips
3/4 cup (7 1/8 oz) smooth peanut butter
4 1/2 cups (7 7/8 oz) dried chow mein noodles (make sure you have ones that are in decent condition)

First place sheets of wax paper on two 9x13 inch cookie sheets or similar low sided pans. Then combine the butterscotch chips and peanut butter in a large saucepan. Place over low heat. You don't need to drag the double boiler out for this if you stir regularly. Once the mixture is smooth and the color is consistent throughout, carefully add the chow mein noodles. Stir until the noodles are fully covered. A gentle hand is needed because the harder you stir, the more snaps and cracks you will hear. Breaking the chow mein noodles is bad. Nobody wants to eat a chunky, bumpy, peanut butter noodle ball. Nobody. Use two spoons to form the noodle pile, for lack of a better term, and place on the wax paper. Pop these into the refrigerator until they're set and then store in an airtight container.

Biting into one of these gave a definite crunch, which I liked. I hate biting into chocolate-coated pretzels rods and oops, no crunch. Stale. A thorough coating prevents this. The peanut butter taste was dominate, but good. The butterscotch made its presence known in the aftertaste and seemed to add a richness to the peanut butter.

Once they were done and packed, it was time to name them. I was still stuck in the Northwoods theme from the muffins so my initial attempt was 'Peanut Butterscotch Beaver Dams'. See how the 'Peanut Butter' and 'Butterscotch' were combined in a little word flow, nice right? But this seemed very long and I wanted a name that didn't take longer to say than it did to actually eat one. Lorrie and I batted around ideas but nothing stuck.

Lorrie took them to work the next day and held a contest: Name This Treat. She gave them some choices and let them vote. So that's what I am going to do here as well.

Here are your choices:

  • Beaver Dams

  • Nutter Dams

  • Candy Dams

  • Nutter Scotchies

  • Nutter Scotch Pixies

  • Nutter Scotch Haystacks

  • Nutterscotch Stacks

  • Nutter Nests

  • P&L Pullaparts

So vote early and often in the comments. If you have a different suggestion, that's fine too.

I enjoy doing this site

Coming up with ideas for posts and then actually making them is a lot of fun. They say that when you do something you love it shows. I don't know who 'they' are but the sentiment is correct. Somebody did notice. The good people over at the Well Fed Network noticed and offered me a chance to be a contributor on two of their sites: Just Baking and Sugar Savvy. The Well Fed Network is a collection of fifteen food and wine orientated sites dedicated to bringing you high quality articles and ideas you can use.

I will let the sites describe themselves:
Just Baking - Fresh from the oven, we'll be talking about cookies, cakes and breads, and we won’t stop there.
Sugar Savvy - Fabulous content on chocolate, the latest candy bars, gum flavors and much more in the world of sweets.

So come on by, check them out. I should have my first posts up in a short while. I've added links to those sites in the "Sites that inspire me" section on the right side of your screen.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Northwoods Bran Muffins

On a typical day my breakfast is a muffin from the cafeteria at work. Nothing too fancy, a bran muffin, maybe a cranberry one. This past Sunday I was paging through my King Arthur Flour Baker's Companioncookbook, looking to see if was anything a little healthier to make when I stumbled on a recipe for raisin bran muffins. This sounded pretty good to me so I made a shopping list and went about my business. Later when I was getting ready to make the muffins I mentioned to Lorrie what I was making and she suggested cranberries instead of raisins (she hates them). I had already planned to modify the recipe so this wasn't a big deal. We called these Northwoods bran muffins because maple syrup and cranberries are two things that the northwoods of Wisconsin are known for.

This post is part of Cate's ARF/5-A-Day Tuesday round-up of recipes that use antioxident rich foods at Sweetnicks.

Northwoods Bran Muffins
based on the Raisin Bran Muffins recipe on page 72 of the The King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion: The All-Purpose Baking Cookbook

Makes 12 regular sized muffins

1 cup milk (I used whole)
1/3 cup (2 3/8 oz) vegetable oil
2 large eggs
3/4 cup maple syrup (from Wisconsin actually)
3/4 cup (1 1/2 oz) wheat bran
1/2 cup (1 3/4 oz) old-fashioned rolled oats
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt (I used earth salts)
1 1/4 cups (6 1/2 oz) + 1 tablespoon whole wheat flour (I used 100% organic)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup (3 oz) dried cranberries

Preheat the oven at 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Combine the milk, oil, eggs, and maple syrup. Add the wheat bran and oats and set aside for about 15 minutes. In another bowl combine the flour, salt, cinnamon, and baking powder; whisk thoroughly. If needed, give the cranberries a rough chop so they are about the same size as raisins. Fold the dry ingredients and the cranberries into the soaking bran and oat mixture. Dish out into muffin cups and bake for about 15 minutes. These are done when a cake tester comes out cleanly.

I like these muffins but I wasn't prepared for the taste when I first tried them. I had the sugary, cakey muffins they sell at work in my mind and these are definitely not that type of muffin. It was the whole wheat taste that threw me. Also these are not sugary. If you want sweeter it would probably be safe to put another 1/4 cup of maple syrup and/or another 1/4 cup or so of cranberries without having to adjust the flour in the recipe. Lorrie brought these to work and a coworker (who was unable to have some of the other sugar-laden creations I sent in for dietary reasons) enjoyed these immensely.

I am also very happy to be sharing my first recipe.

These muffins also appeared at Just Baking.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Pumpkin Muffins

This past Sunday I tried a second recipe from the latest book in my collection, 500 Cupcakes: The Only Cupcake Compendium You'll Ever Need. I was not thrilled with how the Pistachio & Apricot Muffins turned out and when I needed to make my Halloween cupcakes I went elsewhere for recipes I trusted more. However, I don't want to condemn a book from one bad recipe and other recipes that seemed very different than recipes from other books so I made a batch of cupcakes using a different recipe. I'm glad I did. This time things turned out much better.

Pumpkins are everywhere this time of year so I tried the Halloween Pumpkin Muffins from page 198 of 500 Cupcakes. Unlike the last muffin recipe I tried from this book, the dry ingredients to wet ingredients ratio was more on par with what I expected. A major difference this time was the amount of flour was less than half the Pistachio & Apricot Muffins. Also, no butter. This recipe called for vegetable oil. Flavoring was pumpkin puree, cinnamon, and allspice. I used canned pumpkin and I don't regret it one bit. I made my own fresh pumpkin last year and it was fine and all but a lot more work (I roasted) for results that were a little better. Not to say I wouldn't do it again, especially if I was making a soup or something and wanted to use the pumpkin halves as bowls or if I got a really good deal on pumpkin. It's just in my opinion the canned pumpkin is pretty good for something coming in a metal container. But I'm digressing. I combined the dry ingredients and the wet separately and then folded the dry in until they were just mixed.

Now here's where the book got a little screwy. The recipe says this makes 6 large muffins. When I hear large muffins, I think of ones bigger than my fist, six to a pan large. The muffins you get at a coffee shoppe and you need both hands to carry the plate kind of big. The intro caption for this recipe says "Decorate these cupcakes with skeletons for when the trick-or-treaters come calling." I'm reading the recipe thinking, yeah, these trick-or-treaters are going to work themselves into a frenzy when I pop open the door and reward their shy/enthusiastic "Trick-or-treat!" with a frosted muffin the size of their head! But that's not the picture the book gives me to use as a guide. The picture given with the recipe shows what I consider a standard size, twelve to a pan size. Reality is there is enough batter to make six large or twelve regular muffins but still a little weird. These really were good looking muffins coming out of the oven. The book has these cupcakes with cut-out fondant but I didn't want to do that, I was planning on using a cream cheese frosting. I didn't have a chance to make a homemade frosting for these so I just used one of the store bought whipped varieties. To top them off, little candy sprinkles shaped and colored like autumn leaves.

I liked these muffins. They were moist and tasted wonderful. The cream cheese frosting was a good choice flavorwise. The pumpkin flavor of the muffin was strong and matched well with the frosting. The candy sprinkles not only added color but a little crunch too when you bit into them. I know these went fast when Lorrie took them to work. I would definitely recommend this recipe.

OK, 500 Cupcakesis now one for two as far as the recipes are concerned. I want to try one or two more before I post of review of the book. I'm hoping the other recipes turn out like this.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Halloween Cupcakes

For Halloween this year, Lorrie and I had decided to do some kind of baking project. We thought about mailing cookies to some friends and what-not and that was the plan when I left to do the shopping. I was walking through Bev's World looking at the chocolate molds and inspiration struck. I grabbed a couple of the Halloween molds that would be perfect for decorations on the top of...cupcakes! Cupcakes are not things I tried before and I thought this would be a great time to try. I thought I could do some vanilla cupcakes and some chocolate. Instead of frosting, we would roll fondant and use a circle cutter and then put the little chocolates on top. So I picked up the necessary supplies and went home to convince Lorrie that this was the way to go. Eventually, she agreed.

First thing I had to do was make the little chocolate bits to put on top of the fondant. I picked up three molds: one mold that were half inch by one inch and said 'BOO' and two molds that had little half inch square cats, witches, ghosts, jack o' lanterns, bats, and skulls. This wasn't that hard. The candy meltsI was using melted easily in squeeze bottles after a couple quick zaps in the microwave. The squeeze bottles let you control how much and where you put the candy so I also reduced the need for scraping. I didn't need the backs to be completely smooth. In fact, I made a point on the backs so it would stick into the fondant and hold its place a little better. The standard color for skulls and ghosts was white, the color for jack o' lanterns and witches (I know weird but it balanced out the number of candies) was orange, and the color for cats and bats was black. To get the black candy I added black candy coloring to dark chocolate melts. For the mold with the word 'BOO' I pretty much stuck to orange and white candy melts. The candies set pretty quick in the fridge since the candies were small and thin. I did try 'painting' the molds a little more this time. With a toothpick and the black candy melts I added eyes to some of the jack o' lanterns and the ghosts and did hats on some of the witches. Still not near perfect, beautifully painted candies but I am slowly getting better at it.

For the cupcakes I chose two recipes from a cookbook I ordered a couple of weeks ago, The King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion: The All-Purpose Baking Cookbook. I like the other King Arthur book I have and it hasn't let me down so I believed these recipes would work. For the plain or vanilla cupcakes I chose the Classic Yellow Cake recipe on page 352. One batch of this recipe yields twenty-four cupcakes. I made two batches of this recipe so we could pick the best ones to use. The first batch didn't rise as much as the second batch but that isn't saying much. These cupcakes didn't rise much beyond the cups I put them in. They tasted good and to me that's the most important thing. The flatness and uniformity of these cupcakes lent themselves to using the fondant but then again maybe I'm just trying to find the positive of their appearance. In any case, they tasted good and looked fine decorated and I'd definitely use this recipe if I needed to do cake rounds for decorating. For the chocolate cupcakes I used the Devil's Food Cake recipe on page 351. This is my favorite of the two cupcake recipes I made. These rose much more in the cups and I probably overfilled them a little but I like the extra top. The flavor was good, a nice chocolate that hung around a little in the aftertaste. I also made two batches of these. Yes, two batches. For those of you not counting along at home, that's ninety-six waiting to be decorated.

Well, not exactly. Like I said we picked through and got rid of ones that didn't look right and so forth. Mainly it was excluding a lot of the first batch of the yellow cake ones but there were a couple of devil's food cake ones that were rejected. Having chosen the best ones, we set about decorating them. The idea was to have two colors, orange and purple, for the cupcakes. These seem to be predominate Halloween colors when we were looking at Halloween decorating ideas. I purchased white fondant and colored it myself. This sounds like it's going to be much more complicated than it really was. The toughest part? The actual mixing of the color into the fondant. The fondant I purchased was in two-and-a-half pound blocks. I worked about a quarter of a block at a time. It has the consistency of clay so working in the coloring was a lot of folding and stretching and recombining until the color was uniform. I alternated between doing orange and doing purple and I didn't really have any issues being consistent in the coloring. All the orange looked the same and all the purple looked the same. I would roll a little out, cut out the circles, and pass them to Lorrie. She secured them to the cupcakes by first brushing the cupcakes with a light coat of corn syrup. Once dry, the corn syrup held the fondant firmly in place. Rolling out the fondant is much like rolling out dough for cutout cookies, you need a well-floured surface and rolling pin but in this case, that flour is actually powered sugar.

Once all the cupcakes had the fondant layer, I gave them a dusting of pearl dust and then placed the candies. Pearl dustis used to give fondant a little shine or sparkle. Using the pearl dust took a little getting used to. A little goes a long way as I learned the hard way. My first couple cupcakes or so had a lot on them and they took a definite silver tinge to them. As with all of these new things I was trying I became better as I went. After all the cupcakes had a coating of pearl dust, Lorrie and I arranged the candies on top. It came out to be three different pieces per cupcake, usually one of each color though there was some variation. After laying out all of the candy on top, I put them in place with a light dab of corn syrup.

We had some baker's boxes to put them in and lined the bottoms with Halloween themed paper from the scrapbooking section of Michaels. The cupcake liners were Halloween themed until I blew past the seventy-two cupcake mark and then I used some plain ones that had a second aluminum cup (they are actually meant to be baked without a muffin pan, you just put these on a cookie sheet). Lorrie and I each took a box to work the Monday before Halloween.

End result? They looked good and tasted even better. The fondant tasted better the next day. I have to admit I thought it was a little chewing gumish when I first tried it plain but when I had a cupcake the next day it was good. The finished product reminded me a little of a Hostess cupcake in look and feel when I bit into one, but better tasting. I do think this would be a good way of doing a creme filled cupcake, sometime in the future.