Personalized Biscoff Sandwich Cookies for Jessica’s Virtual Bridal Shower

“Those who bring sunshine into the lives of others cannot keep it from themselves.”

One of my favorite quotes, from James Matthew Barrie, truly epitomizes my simply delightful friend Jessica, creator of the scrumptious blog, My Baking Heart. Years back when I first began Hot Oven, Warm Heart and joined the Sweet Melissa Sundays baking group, I had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know Jessica through our weekly correspondence. To this day, I remember how special she made me feel by leaving such thoughtful, kind, elevating comments which I always looked forward to receiving. Upon my return following an extended hiatus from blogging, Jessica reached out to me almost immediately with open arms and it absolutely meant the world. But that’s just Jessica. She’s warm and caring, good-natured and supportive. I’m so lucky to call her my friend, and am overwhelmed with excitement to celebrate her upcoming nuptials! That’s right, Jessica is getting married, and I was granted the opportunity to honor her in a very unique way- a virtual bridal shower.

Organized by the lovely Nikki of Pennies on a Platter, Jessica’s virtual bridal shower is a like an online party, where the guests are a select group of her blogging friends. On October 3rd, each of us will feature a post highlighting a dish that we would bring if everyone could actually get together in person. How neat, right? I was blown away that I was invited to contribute, so I RSVP’d right away, ready to join in on the fun and send best wishes to the bride-to-be!

When it came to selecting my dish, I knew I wanted to bake something sweet, and I decided it was the perfect time to break out two items I was saving for just the right occasion: my Williams Sonoma “Message In A Cookie Cutter” set (a must have for any crazy cookie cutter collector like myself!) and a much coveted jar of Speculoos Cookie Butter Spread (aka Biscoff), which I actually had to go out of state to a Trader Joe’s in CT to get my hands on! I know I’m the last known blogger to gush over the dangerously delectable spread, but I just couldn’t resist jumping on the Biscoff bandwagon. Arguably the Nutella of the new decade, Biscoff can best be described as the ideal amalgamation of peanut butter (in consistency) and cinnamon sugar graham crackers (in flavor). Derived from the much-loved Belgian delicacy, the speculoos cookie, the spread actually has a very interesting back-story. Speculoos cookies are decorative caramelized biscuits traditionally used to celebrate weddings and births (how apropos), commemorate the name day of Saint Nicholas, teach history, and chronicle war in Europe, and they actually make up 20% of all the cookies eaten in Belgium. Already famous overseas, the cookies gained further acclaim when introduced as Biscoff (as in biscuits and coffee) by Lotus Bakeries to North American airline travelers and consumers. So how’d we get from the much-loved spicy crisp cookies to the renowned spread? That’s thanks to the brilliant idea of Els Scheppers, a culinary enthusiast and finalist on the Belgian prime time TV show “De Bedenkers” (The Inventors), who developed a recipe for a creamy spread with the unique taste of the Lotus Speculoos cookies. While she didn’t officially win, she did team up with Lotus to manufacture her creation, and the rest is history. Now Europeans and Americans alike can savor their cookies by the spoonful!

I found a great recipe for homemade Biscoff cookie sandwiches that featured the spread in a luscious, sweet and spicy cream cheese filling. The results were a smashing success: two tender, melt in your mouth, crisp on the outside yet slightly chewy on the inside cookies encasing a light and fluffy, flavor packed buttercream that highlights the best attributes of the silky smooth spread. If you happen to get your hands on a jar, these are a must try!

Homemade Biscoff Sandwich Cookies with Biscoff Cream Cheese Frosting

recipe slightly adapted from Creative Culinary

Ingredients

For the Cookies:

  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 Tbsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp ground ginger
  • *I also added 1/8 tsp cloves
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
  • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract (*I subbed an equal amount of vanilla bean paste- with which I am officially obsessed!)
For the Frosting: (*I found a half batch more than adequate for my cookies, but it’s so delicious, I highly advise making the recipe in full. Oh, the endless possibilities for the leftovers!)

  • 10 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 5 cups confectioners’ sugar, whisked to lighten
  • 2/3 cup Biscoff spread

Preparation

To Make the Cookies:
  1. In a medium bowl add the flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, salt, and baking soda together. Whisk together thoroughly to combine and aerate. Set aside.
  2. In a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter together with the sugar and brown sugar until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla extract and mix again.
  3. With the mixer on slow, add the flour mixture a little bit at a time until the dough is fully combined. Make sure to scrape the sides of the bowl often.
  4. Refrigerate the dough for at least half an hour.
  5. When the dough is thoroughly chilled, preheat the oven to 350F.
  6. Lightly flour a large surface and roll out the dough to 1/4″ thick as best you can. Using a small biscuit or cookie cutter of your preference, cut as many cookies as you can out of the rolled out dough.
  7. Combine the leftover dough into a ball again, and roll out again. Only do this once, as reworking the dough too many times will result in tough cookies.
  8. Bake cookies for roughly 9-10 minutes. Watch the oven very closely after the 7 minute mark. Because of the thinness and high sugar content, the cookies are a lot like caramel and can go from perfect to burnt in a flash.
  9. Allow to cool. Enjoy as is or make this Biscoff sandwich cookie using the following icing recipe.
To Make the Frosting:
  1. In a large bowl with an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese and butter until light and fluffy.
  2. Gradually add the confectioners’ sugar 1 cup at a time, mixing thoroughly after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl often. Continue to beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes.
  3. Add the Biscoff spread and beat until thoroughly blended.

A big thank you to both Nikki and Jessica for including me in this special event. Don’t forget to stop by Pennies on a Platter to see the round-up of all the guests’ dishes, and of course, check out My Baking Heart, where you’re always in for a real treat! Congratulations Jessica, I’m wishing you and Chris an extraordinary wedding day and a beautiful future together.

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Flourless Triple Chocolate Torte

In Yiddish, the word simcha is defined as joy or happiness, but it more commonly refers to a festive occasion, as a celebration marks life’s happiest special events. While I love to bake for my family and friends any day of the week, it is a true honor for me to contribute a baked good that will help commemorate a significant moment in their lives. So when my sister called and asked for a dessert to be served at her friend Lindsay’s baby shower, I jumped at the chance to help. I think I may have jumped too soon, though, as her next sentence included the phrase gluten-free. More specifically, gluten-free cupcakes- I’ve got another Yiddish phrase you may have heard that was befitting this situation- Oy Vey! Okay… a minor hiccup as I’ve never attempted any gluten-free baking before. But I was confident I could make it work. I’d simply do my research, as per usual, land on a reliable recipe, and do the best I could. Oh, wait, there was one other little detail I failed to consider… I was without a kitchen. We had just started a gut renovation, and I no longer had a sink, stove-top, oven, etc. to accommodate any baking at all. Luckily, what I did have is an extremely generous Aunt living nearby, who graciously opened her home and lent me her fabulous kitchen for this project. (Thank you so very much, Aunt Maggie!) With more solutions than problems on the horizon, I felt ready to tackle the challenge.

After reading lots of reviews, I discovered a very informative book dedicated solely to gluten-free cupcakes with plenty of recipes to choose from: Artisanal Gluten-Free Cupcakes by Kelli and Peter Bronski. I settled on the classic chocolate cupcakes, which I figured I could dress up with a white chocolate mousse filling and fudge frosting like my traditional Triple Chocolate Cupcakes. Yet as bake day drew closer, my self-assurance waned, and I convinced myself I’d never pull it off successfully. Usually in this situation I would do a trial run beforehand, but I certainly wasn’t going to inconvenience my Aunt any further just for taste testing purposes and to put my mind at ease. Then, a light bulb moment- why futz with a slew of unfamiliar ingredients and drive myself crazy worrying about sub par cupcakes, when I could simply select a naturally gluten-free recipe more likely to produce delicious results? I was scared of disappointing my sister, but when I threw the idea of a flourless chocolate cake her way, she gave me the green light without hesitation, and thus I was off in an entirely different direction.

This recipe from King Arthur sort of fell in my lap, and offered both ease of preparation and simplicity of ingredients. The best part? It didn’t require xantham gum. Dense and extremely rich, flourless chocolate cakes (or tortes) pack a punch of chocolate flavor in every bite and have a soft, almost mousse-like texture. Most contain ingredients found in every baker’s pantry: unsalted butter for richness, eggs for lift (as there is no other leavening), chocolate and sugar. My recipe also included cocoa powder; depending on the brand, cocoa is about 60% starch, which provides body, structure, and chewiness that would otherwise be missing in the absence of flour. It also called for two chocolate flavor boosters, coffee (in the form of espresso powder) and vanilla (I used my latest obsession, vanilla bean paste). Instead of having to whip the egg whites and yolks separately, my recipe added them whole, eliminating extra steps. And even better, it offered an actual internal temperature to test the cake’s doneness. I must admit, I always hate that part- deciphering if something is done baking or needs another few minutes. I love when my instant read thermometer eliminates the guessing game. While I’m not sure why the magical temperature was 200 degrees, I did learn that the proteins in the eggs coagulate at 165, creating added structure for the cake. After pulling the cake out and letting it cool, I was able to refrigerate it overnight before adding the finishing touches.

Another bonus- baking the day before the event was actually desirable as the texture became even more smooth and fudgy. The “icing on the cake” was the chocolate ganache poured over the entire torte, hiding any and all imperfections, and providing a final glossy coat of pure chocolatey goodness. While still wet, I attached the baby themed, hand painted chocolate decorations I made in advance, and at the last minute, piped the lightly sweetened whipped cream rosettes. (I was worried that the whipped cream wouldn’t hold up through the trip, but my friend Steph offered highly useful advice to ensure it would; add some powdered sugar, which contains cornstarch, to stabilize the cream. Worked like a charm!) It was then ready to make its debut at the celebration.

My sister returned home with glowing reviews to report, and I couldn’t be more pleased. Most importantly, the guest of honor was extremely moved by her friends’ thoughtfulness (I found out right before that the shower was a surprise), and I hope my cake made it all the more special. Congratulations Lindsay, and best of luck with the arrival of your new bundle of joy!

Note: Because there are so few ingredients in this cake, their quality is of the utmost importance. Obviously, the chocolate is the star here: I used a mixture of Guittard and Ghriadelli baking chips along with Valrhona cocoa (swoon), and even though I never tasted this beauty, I can honestly say the intoxicating aroma emanating from the oven while it was baking was the embodiment of pure, unadulterated chocolate. Everyone in the room had to restrain themselves from grabbing a fork and digging in, and my Mom was eagerly gathering the fallen crumbs.

Flourless Triple Chocolate Torte

Recipe by http://www.kingarthurflour.com

Yield: 8″ cake, 8 to 12 servings

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup/6 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips
  • 1/2 cup (8 tablespoons)/4 ounces unsalted butter
  • 3/4 cup/5 1/4 ounces granulated sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons espresso powder, optional
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup/1 1/2 ounces unsweetened cocoa powder, Dutch-process preferred
  • 1 cup/6 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips
  • 1/2 cup/2 ounces heavy cream

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Lightly grease an 8″ round cake pan; cut a piece of parchment or waxed paper to fit, grease it, and lay it in the bottom of the pan.
  2. To make the cake: Put the chocolate and butter in a microwave-safe bowl, and heat until the butter is melted and the chips are soft. Stir until the chips melt, reheating briefly if necessary. You can also do this over a burner set at very low heat. Transfer the melted chocolate/butter to a mixing bowl.
  3. Stir in the sugar, salt, espresso powder, and vanilla. Espresso enhances chocolate’s flavor much as vanilla does; using 1 teaspoon will simply enhance the flavor, while 2 teaspoons will lend a hint of mocha to the cake.
  4. Add the eggs, beating briefly until smooth. Add the cocoa powder, and mix just to combine. (Next time, I’ll sift the cocoa powder into the mixture to avoid having lumps in the batter).
  5. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan.
  6. Bake the cake for 25 minutes; the top will have formed a thin crust, and it should register at least 200 degrees F on an instant-read thermometer inserted into its center. (Start checking a few minutes early, mine was done at 23 minutes).
  7. Remove it from the oven, and cool it in the pan for 5 minutes.
  8. Loosen the edges of the pan with a table knife or nylon spreader, and turn it out onto a serving plate. The top will now be on the bottom; that’s fine. Also, the edges will crumble a bit, which is also fine. Allow the cake to cool completely before glazing.
  9. To make the glaze: Combine the chocolate and cream in a microwave-safe bowl, and heat until the cream is very hot, but not simmering. Remove from the microwave, and stir until the chocolate melts and the mixture is completely smooth.
  10. Spoon the glaze over the cake, spreading it to drip over the sides a bit. Allow the glaze to set for several hours before serving the cake.
  11. Note: I used a combination of 2/3 cup/4 ounces bittersweet and 1/3 cup/2 ounces semisweet chocolate in the cake and the opposite proportions in the glaze.

SMS: Coconut Custard Pie

Anxious anticipation does not begin to describe the build up of emotion brought on by this pie. After noticing it pop up as an upcoming SMS recipe, I began contemplating the perfect opportunity to present it to my Mom, a woman who’s undeniably cuckoo for coconut. As a May recipe, the timing seemed meant to be- Mother’s Day was just around the corner, and I thought it would definitely win me some daughterly brownie points if served as her celebratory dessert. I even considered making individual tartlets to give it some additional panache (I’ve been dying to break in my new pans!), but at the last minute chickened out, fearing that without specific directions on the bake time, I might not be able to accurately assess when they were done. For the best mom in the whole world, it had to be perfect, and neither soupy, curdled, or over-baked custard would do.

I got as far as halfway through crimping before my energy faded away, and sadly came to the conclusion this pie would not reach completion in time for the holiday. Fortunately, I am blessed to have the most understanding, compassionate, encouraging mom on the planet, and sensing I was heartbroken with disappointment, she immediately put my mind at ease, offering to delay festivities for her special day until I was feeling better. A few weeks went by with my unbaked pie crust chilling out in the freezer, yet she waited patiently, without a single complaint, until finally the day arrived when the pie emerged from the oven, everything I had imagined and more: golden brown and bubbly with coconut glistening, filling our home with an aroma reminiscent of an island breeze. After it cooled, was garnished with some fresh whipped cream rosettes, sliced and plated, my Mom could finally take that first bite she’d been longing for since my first mention of the recipe… without hesitation she released a deep and enthusiastic sigh, an ear-to-ear grin plastered on her face. I guess it was all she imagined and more too. In that moment, witnessing her priceless reaction, I think we both felt like the recipients of a very special gift.

When I first read this recipe’s title, I was intrigued and curious about the distinction between a Coconut Custard Pie and a Coconut Cream Pie (something I was more familiar with). I thought it might just be a different name (maybe Melissa wanted it to sound fancy and refined, who knows?) It turns out that although they contain like ingredients, they are not in fact one and the same. A “custard pie” is any type of uncooked custard mixture (commonly composed of milk, eggs, sugar, salt, vanilla extract and sometimes nutmeg) added to an uncooked or partially cooked crust and baked together. Cheesecake, pumpkin pie, lemon meringue, and pecan pie all fall under this category. Alternatively, a “cream pie” is a pie that contains cooked custard poured into a cooled, (fully) precooked crust. After clearing that up, I made sure to alert my Mom, so she wouldn’t be surprised and confused, as this kind of coconut pie was foreign to her taste buds. With expectations adjusted I was ready to proceed with baking, keeping my fingers crossed that as long as coconut remained the star of the show, she’d still swoon over the finished product.

I was pleased to pieces with the simplicity of this pie’s assembly- throw all the custard ingredients a blender, pulse a few times, pour it over the coconut lining the crust, and viola!- it’s ready to pop in the oven. I did hit one little snag, however, with a seemingly odd amount of cornstarch called for in the recipe, not in keeping with any of my measuring utensils. 2/3 teaspoon? What’s with that? Teaspoons are never broken down into thirds- after excessive re-reading and double checking, I even took the book over to my Mom to make sure my eyes were still working. I subscribe to the theory that baking is a science, and measurements are given for a reason- precision is necessary if you want the recipe to work and attain the desired result. I did the math, and decided that 1/2 teaspoon plus a rounded 1/8 of a teaspoon would come closest, but I was definitely not a happy camper, fearing that would surely mean the end of my Coconut Custard Pie. Luckily, it seemed to have no ill effect- but, did anyone else notice this? Hmmm… I’m interested to hear if it was just me.

Though I wasn’t 100% sure that my pie was done at the allotted time, I’m glad I pulled it out with a slight jiggle in the middle. As it cooled, it set up perfectly- creamy, dreamy, and luscious. Every morsel was bursting with coconut flavor (I did give both the custard and my whipped cream a boost, adding a splash of coconut extract, but I think even without it, this pie would please any self-proclaimed coconut connoisseur.) The balance of richness was spot on- rich enough to be a little indulgence, yet light enough to enjoy more than a tiny sliver. The crust was buttery and flakey… though Melissa’s all-butter pie dough recipe won’t replace my go-to (which does contain shortening), it’s a nice alternative, rolled out easily, and was a great complement to the pie’s filling. One sure-fire way to judge a baked good’s deliciousness factor: if it’s polished off quickly- well, let’s just say this one certainly didn’t last long in our household!

I can’t say thank you enough to Ruby of I Dream of Baking for her FABULOUS SMS selection- I urge you to head on over to her site and scoop up this recipe. It’s a keeper for sure! And as always, don’t forget to check out all the other talented bakers’ pies, which were actually posted on Sunday… please pardon my tardiness (I was having a rough day health wise yesterday, which meant postponing my post). I can’t wait to see if this recipe was as big a hit with their families as it was with mine…

including the fluffiest member 🙂 (Don’t worry, Bella didn’t really get any!)

SMS: Peanut Butter Truffles

If you happened to read last week’s post chronicling my recent banana cupcake debacle, you can imagine how incredibly stressed I became when forced to shift gears under a time crunch, and come up with a quick and easy (yet still enticing, delicious, and somewhat impressive) substitute to bake for the very meaningful fund raising event I was contributing to. Thankfully, I could look no further than this week’s yummy SMS recipe, Peanut Butter Truffles, selected by one of our newer members, the highly talented and super creative Mara of Love Your Mother. Judging from the Hazelnut Truffles we made from the Sweet Melissa Baking Book last summer, I had a feeling that they would be similarly simple to assemble, but also rich, flavorful and unique enough for the bake sale. I am pleased to report that the truffles saved the day, and exceeded all expectations. Of course, I couldn’t help but complicate matters by adding extra steps to the project- but really, who could turn down a truffle dressed up with a caramelized candied peanut exterior? I called on David Lebovitz’s recipe (used to top my Black-Bottom Peanut Butter Mousse Pie with Pralined Peanuts), which never disappoints, and the added sweetness of his chopped nuts was the perfect counter-balance to the slightly bitter dark chocolate and salty peanut butter. That little bit of additional effort resulted in a combination that truly danced on the tongue! A few special touches with the packaging- some cellophane goody bags, colorful labels, and orange ribbon (more on the significance of that detail later)- and viola!, my truffles were ready for their debut at the 1st annual National Food Bloggers Bake Sale!

Isn’t it wonderful when you accidentally and totally unexpectedly stumble upon an exciting opportunity through your everyday blog surfing? That’s actually how I first got involved in SMS, and what a serendipitous discovery that turned out to be :)! Well a few weeks back, a digital banner caught my eye, advertising an upcoming event connected to the Great American Bake Sale. Sound familiar?- if you’re a food TV junkie like myself, you may have seen spokeswoman Sandra Lee discussing it on a Food Network commercial. Part of the phenomenal organization, Share our Strength, it’s a national campaign that mobilizes volunteers to host bake sales in their communities in an effort to help end childhood hunger in America. Although I’ve been interested in getting involved for quite a while, that banner convinced me the ideal time had arrived: on April 17th, food bloggers from across the country would unite to support the cause by holding bake sales in their states. I was filled with glee when I got in touch with the fabulous and super sweet Kathy-Ann of Mother May Have, who was coordinating for Massachusetts, and realized I could be a part of this extraordinary day, utilizing my baking to assist those in need. (I love on the Share our Strength website, they proclaim, “Together we can bake a difference!”)

Did you know that nearly 1 in 4 children in America struggle with hunger? That’s almost 17 million kids! With the weakened economy, poverty rates are on the rise, and every day, more and more children wonder where their next meal will come from.

Here’s a look at how Share our Strength is addressing this growing problem:

“Through No Kid Hungry, Share Our Strength funds the most effective anti-hunger organizations across the country, connects needy children and their families with nutritious food, teaches families how to cook healthy on a budget, and provides leadership that brings together public and private decision-makers to end childhood hunger, state by state. These funds help accomplish the following:

* Enroll more eligible kids in school breakfast, after-school snacks and meals, and their families in SNAP (food stamps).
* Bring community gardens and farmers markets to low-income neighborhoods.
* Bring affordable, fresh fruits and vegetables to urban corner stores.
* Teach at-risk families how to plan, shop for, and prepare healthy, low-cost meals at home.
* Help local food pantries, food banks and soup kitchens meet the pressing demand for more nutritious food.
* Increase awareness and understanding of childhood hunger and solutions to it.

Through all these means, [Share Our Strength is] working to ensure that all of America’s children have nutritious food where they live, learn and play.”

Since 2003, more than 1.7 million people have participated in Share Our Strength’s Great American Bake Sale, raising $6 million to make sure no child in America grows up hungry. But the big news? The first annual National Food Bloggers Bake Sale alone raised a grand total of over $16,500! Wow! Go baking bloggers! I felt truly honored to be a part of it, and am already looking forward to next year. I want to say a big thank you to Gaby of What’s Gaby Cooking for coordinating the entire event, and Kathy-Ann for leading us here in Massachusetts. Also- shout out to my new friend Carmen of Baking is my Zen, who just so happens to be a fellow SMSter! Her sale in NJ did amazing, raising more than $600- fabulous job Carmen! To see pictures from our sale in MA (including some of my goodies- the Peanut Butter Truffles and a selection of Coconut Jam Thumbprints made with 5 different types of homemade jams/preserves) check out this slide show.

For more information about Share our Strength and to find out ways you can help, visit their website, http://www.strength.org/. And don’t forget to check out the myriad of truffles whipped up by the other lovely ladies of SMS by exploring the blogroll!

Oh, by the way, the orange ribbon stands for hunger awareness… fitting right?

SMS: Chocolate Pie Crust – Black-Bottom Peanut Butter Mousse Pie with Pralined Peanuts

To my fellow SMS bakers: Please allow me to apologize profusely that I am presenting this post late. Unfortunately, I have been struggling with my health, and while I’ve been trying very hard to keep up with this fabulous group, it has been difficult for me to complete all the assignments by the specified deadlines. This is absolutely not a reflection of my commitment or desire to continue, as I am honored to be a part of Sweet Melissa Sundays and you all mean so much to me. Baking and blogging with you fabulous ladies has been an invaluable refuge for me, and pushing myself to get back in the kitchen has truly been therapeutic and in a way, very healing. I hope you all understand, and will bare with me a bit- I will do the best I can to participate, and share my results as soon as possible! And now, on to the latest assignment… Chocolate Pie Crust with the filling of your choice!

Julia Child said, “Find something you’re passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it.” I think part of the reason I am so passionate about baking, is because it is such a tremendous outlet for artistic expression. Whether you’re developing a harmony of flavors by playing with the combination of ingredients, adapting a recipe to make it your own, or executing your vision for a beautiful presentation, baking provides limitless opportunities to evoke inner creativity. Once the basic techniques are mastered and the kitchen becomes a comfortable domain, the imagination is free to run wild, and the plate transforms into a canvas for works of stunning originality. I attribute much of my culinary creativity to the constant inspiration I receive from my bountiful batch of blogging buddies, whose talent shines through in all the beautiful, mouth-watering treats featured on their sites. So imagine my excitement to discover we’d be tackling the very first SMS selection that encouraged each baker to utilize an additional recipe of their choice from a source outside our common cookbook. We were all to bake the same Chocolate Pie Crust, but as for the filling, we were given carte blanch. As much as I was looking forward to some extra brainstorming and recipe research (one of my favorite pass times), I was even more delighted by the prospect of making the internet rounds to explore the mélange of magnificent pies, each one filled to the brim with passion and creativity.

In most cases, I probably would have spent hours pouring over my collection of cookbooks, browsing my favorite websites, and flipping through my binder of “must-tries,” but this time around, I immediately knew exactly what direction I wanted to go in. I’ve had a certain pie waiting patiently in my mind’s recipe queue, just calling for the perfect occasion to be made. And it was time for this pie’s debut. May I present to you, Black-Bottom Peanut Butter Mousse Pie with a Chocolate Pie Crust and Pralined Peanuts. I know, it’s a (delectable) mouth full. I’ll admit, there are multiple components, which require various steps and a wee bit of time, but the overall process is really manageable and relatively simplistic. And I promise- this one is SO worth the effort.

I started from the ground (or pie plate) up, first making the pie dough. Reminiscent of Pate Brisee- a French short crust pastry dough made from a mixture of flour, a little sugar, salt, fat (butter and/or shortening), and ice water- this dough also contained a good amount of dutch-processed cocoa powder, lending it a distinct chocolatey flavor. Thankfully, I’ve made a few pie crusts in my day and am familiar with the process, so I was confident enough to alter the mixing method called for in the book. I opted to use my handy dandy food processor rather than a pastry blender and brute strength (…it’s in short supply around here!), and it came together beautifully. I’ve found that the two keys to a tender, flakey pie crust are: 1. Keep it COLD and 2. Don’t overmix. Starting with super cold ingredients and ensuring the dough remains thoroughly chilled until the moment it hits the heat of the oven will produce consistently scrumptious results. It is important not to break down the butter too much- when those little flecks of butter in the dough are introduced to heat, they melt, creating tiny pockets in the flour that surround it- the steam that escapes from the butter’s water content lifts these pockets, producing the flakiness we’re all after. Remember, if you can see those flecks, you will have flakes! I like my butter to be frozen when I mix it into my flour, and I try to make quick work of rolling/handling- both help to retain the bits of butter of in the dough. And of course, mix just until the ingredients come together to avoid the pitfalls of a tough, chewy dough (over-developed gluten is never a good thing!) Some say that the food processor makes it easier to accidentally overwork the dough- to prove them wrong, only use it to mix the dry ingredients and cut in the fat. Then, fold the water in by hand and stop as soon as it holds together. An extra tip for this particular dough- instead of rolling it out on a lightly floured surface, why not dust the counter (covered with parchment paper for easy clean-up) with cocoa powder? Works like a charm!

Next came the filling, a succulent contrast of silky smooth dark chocolate ganache and fluffy peanut butter mousse. The ganache is an extra punch of chocolate, playing off the cocoa in the crust, and deepening the flavor. I used a combination of bittersweet and semisweet chocolate- in retrospect (keeping in mind my tasters’ preferences) I would have gone heavier on the semisweet, simply to please my Mom’s delicate palate. But even the dark chocolate hater could not deny the luscious texture this rich layer provides. As for the peanut butter mousse, it is moist and light, yet offers a strong, prominent nutty flavor. When preparing the mousse, take care when folding in the whipped cream and you’ll be rewarded with a nice and airy layer. The first third of your cream can be mixed in a little more vigorously to lighten the peanut butter mixture, but the majority should be folded as gently as possible. It might take a few turns around the bowl before those white streaks disappear, but unless you want dense mousse, stick with it!

To push the presentation over the top, I went a little “nuts” with the garnishes. I thought I needed to add another textural element to my pie- a crunch was definitely in order. I remembered a recipe in David Lebovitz’s outstanding compendium of all things ice cream, The Perfect Scoop, for Pralined Almonds (which I, of course, adapted to peanuts). Having conquered my fear of caramel, these glossy candied nuts were a cinch to pull together, and were made and cooled in the time it took for my pie to chill. Surprisingly, these little gems seemed to steal the show, and were arguably my Dad’s favorite part of the whole shebang. (I caught him making extra trips into the kitchen, sneaking nuts off the baking sheet, and later out of the bag, for the rest of the day.) On his day-two slice, he even sprinkled a few extra on top. On David Lebovitz’s blog, he suggests serving these addictive nuts as an appetizer, and I’m sure they’d be the hit of the party.

With a few finishing touches of a chocolate drizzle and some sweetened whipped cream rosettes, the presentation of this pie is certainly impressive, and I had so much fun dressing it up. When all the elements came together, I was really proud of the finished dessert, and was very pleased by the positive reaction I received from my tasters. I’d definitely place this pie in the “decadent” category, but for a special occasion (especially if you have a chocolate-peanut butter lover in your life), it is fantastic choice that I highly recommend. Keep this one in mind, and before you know it, the ideal opportunity will arise to give it a try. I only wish I had made it sooner!

A big thank you to Donna of L’Amour de Tarte for her bold choice- head over to her website for the Chocolate Pie Crust recipe. Also, check out the SMS blogroll to see what everyone else came up with- I know I’ll be inspired by the plethora of creative ideas! You’ll find all the yummy recipes I went with below:

Black-Bottom Peanut Butter Mousse Pie
Bon Appétit | August 2006 via Epicurious.com

Ingredients:

* 1 1/3 cups bittersweet or semisweet chocolate chips (about 8 ounces)
* 2/3 cup plus 1 3/4 cups chilled whipping cream, divided
* 2 tablespoons light corn syrup
* 2 teaspoons vanilla extract, divided

* 6 ounces (1 cup) peanut butter chips
* 2 tablespoons creamy peanut butter (do not use old-fashioned style or freshly ground)

Directions:

Combine chocolate chips, 2/3 cup cream, corn syrup, and 1 teaspoon vanilla in microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on medium heat until chocolate softens, about 3 minutes. Whisk until melted and smooth. Spread chocolate mixture over bottom of crust. Freeze 10 minutes.

Microwave peanut butter chips and 3/4 cup cream in large microwave-safe bowl on medium heat at 15-second intervals just until chips soften, stirring often. Whisk in peanut butter and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Cool to barely lukewarm. Beat remaining 1 cup cream and 2 tablespoons sugar in medium bowl until very thick but not yet holding peaks; fold into peanut butter mixture in 3 additions. Spoon mousse over chocolate layer. Chill at least 1 hour and up to 1 day.

Pralined Peanuts
Adapted from The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz

Ingredients:

1/4 cup (60 ml) water
1/2 cup (100 g) sugar
1 cup (135 g) whole raw peanuts, unsalted
1/8 teaspoon coarse salt, preferably fleur de sel

Directions:

Mix the water, sugar, and peanuts in a large, heavy-duty skillet. Put the pan over medium high heat and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the sugar dissolves and the liquid boils.

Lower the heat to medium and continue cooking and stirring for just a few minutes, until the liquid crystallizes and becomes sandy. Very soon the crystals of sugar on the bottom of the pan will begin to liquefy. Stir the dark syrup at the bottom of the pan over the nuts to coat them. Continue to stir the nuts and scrape the syrup over them until the peanuts are glazed and become a bit glossy and shiny. (Sometimes I remove the pan from the heat while they’re cooking to better control the glazing, so they don’t get burned.) Remove the pan from the heat and sprinkle the peanuts with the salt. Tip them onto an ungreased baking sheet (I lined with parchment paper) and allow them to cool completely. As they cool, break up any clusters that are stuck together.

Storage: Pralined peanuts can be stored for up to 1 week in an airtight container at room temperature.

SMS: Chocolate-Honey Creme Caramels

So we’re off and running with a brand New Year of Sweet Melissa Sundays, and I’m so pleased to start with a recipe chosen by my adorable and hilarious friend Jeannette of The Whimsical Cupcake: Chocolate-Honey Creme Caramels. Though I didn’t realize SMS was back in action until the last minute, I was able to whip up a batch of these gooey-chewy candies with ingredients I luckily had on hand. And bonus!- I got to use my new handy-dandy digital thermometer.

After I nearly scolded myself trying to take the temperature of boiling-hot, bubbling red raspberry jam (the probe on my old-school thermometer wasn’t long enough to reach when attached to the side of the pot), I decided that with plans to pursue future jam and candy making ventures, I needed to outfit my kitchen with the proper hardware. Of course, I did some online research, reading a slew of reviews, and finally settled on this model, which I found, no problem, at the local Le Gourmet Chef. Does anyone else feel dangerous walking into one of those stores? I feel like I’m rendered powerless when faced with aisles chock full of tempting cooking and baking gadgets, shiny pans of every shape and size, and cutesie kitchen gear that I certainly don’t need, but just can’t live without. Maybe it’s just me. This time I made it out alive with just the thermometer. And a cookie scoop. C’mon, I didn’t have that size! All in all I’d say I was pretty good. Thankfully, I was on a mission. I had to go home and get caramel-izing.

Since my past experience with caramel has been touch-and-go, my heart began beating faster when I read that we’d be exploring it again. But I trust Jeannette, so I was off to the stove! One thing I thought was very interesting, was that nearly all the ingredients were combined at the beginning, and you basically just stir and wait for the mixture to come up to temperature (which, by the way, took between 20-25 minutes!). This recipe called for the syrup to reach the “firm-ball stage,” specifically 248 degrees F. I discovered a wealth of information on baking911.com about the different temperature stages used in candy making- there’s a very helpful chart that demystifies the terminology- and learned that “firm-ball” indicates a final product that is malleable and will flatten when squeezed. With that in mind, I was happy to find my block of set-up caramel exhibited the characteristic description.

After completing the sticky business of cutting into 64 bite-size squares, I offered my Mom a taste, and she hummed her usual “Mmmm!” Always a good sign. She loved the balance of rich chocolate and sweet honey, and thought the taste was exceptional, rivaling gourmet quality. While I didn’t win over my caramel-hating Dad- he too liked the taste, but couldn’t overlook the texture he typically dislikes- I considered these sweets a success, and I’m definitely looking forward to sharing… boy, once these little guys are all nice and cozy in their twisted wax paper wrappers and piled high, there’s really a mountain of ’em. A quarter or half batch probably would have been plenty for us, (I knew I should have followed Hanaâ’s lead!) But, I have a feeling they’ll still somehow end up disappearing!

A BIG shout-out (and thank you) to my dear Jeannette– please head on over to her fabulous blog, The Whimsical Cupcake, for the recipe… not only will you see some mouth watering creations, but I guarantee she’ll put a smile on your face! If you’re like me, and the thought of caramel making evokes your inner cowardly lion, give these relatively simple Chocolate-Honey Creme Caramels a shot, and let me know if you need a personal candy making cheerleader- I’ll absolutely be right there. That’s what virtual baking buddies are all about!

I want to wish all of you a FANTASTIC New Year filled with much love, great happiness, and good health. I am so looking forward to sharing many more of my kitchen adventures with you on Hot Oven, Warm Heart, and baking together with all you incredibly talented bloggers throughout 2010! Let’s have lots of fun creating a wide array of delicious delicacies, and chatting about our experiences. The very best recipes may be yet to come 🙂

The Cake Slice Bakers: White Chocolate Cake + a bonus cupcake!

When I woke up this morning, I peered out my window to discover a world swathed in a blanket of pristine, glistening, pure white snow. Few seasonal panoramas can compare to the beauty of fluffy flakes falling delicately upon unadorned tree branches and layers of freshly collected, bright winter ground cover. It seems only appropriate that the treat I bring you today is in keeping with mother nature’s color palette- a decadent, luscious yet light White Chocolate Layer Cake, this month’s assignment for The Cake Slice Bakers. I’m so glad to be back in action, baking with my fellow blogging buddies, who I’ve missed dearly during my recent absence from Hot Oven, Warm Heart. I can’t wait to catch up and see how everyone dolled up their latest cake. For my own creative spin, I decided to utilize some leftover whipped white chocolate mousse as a filling, and according to my tasters, that element was the perfect addition to an already delicious confection. (You’ll find the recipe below.) Unique and refined with a subtle flavor profile, this elegant cake would be a lovely dessert to grace your holiday table. I guarantee it will disappear well before the snow!

Made of cocoa butter, sugar, milk solids, vanilla, and lecithin, white chocolate is technically not considered chocolate at all, due to its lack of chocolate liquor. It first appeared in Switzerland in the 1930’s, invented by the Nestle Corporation as a way to use up excess cocoa butter, and was later popularized in America with the distribution of Nestle’s Alpine White Chocolate Bar. To select a good quality white chocolate, make sure it contains cocoa butter rather than the substandard brands made with hydrogenated vegetable fat. The inferior preparations might be less expensive, but they also lack the cocoa butter’s characteristic rich, creamy flavor. The tell tale difference between the two is in the color- true white chocolate has a deeper ivory hue, in contrast to the bright white shade of the imitation variety. When working with white chocolate, a good tip is to treat it with care and always melt it over low heat, which will help prevent the common problems of scorching and seizing.

This month’s Cake Slice Baker’s selection features white chocolate in each of the cake’s components: a healthy dose in the batter, more mixed into the cream cheese frosting, and in my case, a little extra in the improvised mousse filling. Instead of baking in the recommended 9” pans, I decided it was the ideal opportunity to break out my adorable new 6” rounds and give a miniature sized version a go. Of course, I called upon my super knowledgeable friend Steph of the famed A Whisk and A Spoon, who has graciously acted as my personal source for any and all baking 911 needs, and she shared her always reliable tips and tricks. I learned that you can pretty much take any standard 9” cake recipe, and successfully cut it in half to produce an irresistible 6-incher, perfect for a small gathering or in my case, just two grateful tasters. Steph pointed out that the key with such recipe modifications is in the baking time. It can vary greatly from the larger version (she recommends checking about 10 minutes early) OR be nearly identical. That was the case with my mini white chocolate cakes, which were ready to come out of the oven at 27 minutes (right in line with the 25-30 minutes suggested in the recipe instructions.) To test for doneness- I recommend adhering to the instructions- the cakes are ready when golden brown, spring back when touched gently in the center, and are beginning to pull away from the sides of the pans. I guess I should have headed the warning mentioned in the book’s Baking 101 section that said checking a cake too soon with a toothpick can cause it to collapse. Whoops! That’ll teach me to be overzealous! But the slight imperfection of a thin concave marking was easily hidden with mousse and frosting, and the cake was none the worse for ware. As with every baking experience, I learned for next time.

And I can’t forget about the bonus cupcake I promised you- it is most definitely a keeper! When my aunt requested something chocolate for her 60th birthday celebration, I knew immediately I had just the thing. By revamping my most-well received cake (of all time!) into cupcake form, I created a batch of knock-your-socks off Super Fluffy Chocolate Cupcakes with White Chocolate Mousse Filling and Fudgy Milk Chocolate Frosting. If the name is any indication- they were a hit! I feel privileged to share this very thoughtful and incredibly kind comment my dear cousin Sheila left on Hot Oven, Warm Heart after the party (It ended up on the “About” page, since I hadn’t posted yet about these yummy morsels. I’m glad to put it in it’s rightful home! Thanks so much Sheil, your words mean the world to me- I love you!)

“Wow is all we can say about the wonderful chocolate cupcake filled with delicious white chocolate mousse! A work of art, but more than that, an explosion of flavors in our mouths. You are truely an artist. Would love to have Gourmet Magazine taste these. Hmmmmm yes indeed. If we still had our restaurant, you would be our baker. Thank you and keep baking, and of course we will be your tasters.
Sheila & Rip
the former Amontea’s Restaurant
YUM”

Here are the recipes I used, which I highly recommend you try!

Ina Garten’s “Beatty’s Chocolate Cake” recipe
*This recipe makes exactly 2 dozen cupcakes- I’ve baked them this way twice, and both times they took 22 minutes (a toothpick should come out with no crumbs attached- don’t worry, they shouldn’t collapse!). It’s most definitely my go-to chocolate cake recipe, and has never let me down!

White Chocolate Mousse
from Sky High: Irresistible Layer Cakes by Alisa Huntsman and Peter Wynne

Ingredients:
4 ounces white chocolate, chopped
1 cup heavy cream
1 egg white
1 tbsp sugar

Directions:
Melt the white chocolate with ¼ cup cream in a double boiler. Whisk until smooth. Remove from the heat and let the white chocolate cream cool to room temperature.

When it has cooled, beat the remaining ¾ cup cream until soft peaks form. In a clean bowl whip the egg white with the sugar until fairly stiff peaks form.

Fold the beaten egg white into the white chocolate cream, then fold in the whipped cream until blended. Be sure not to over mix.

*I only used half of this recipe to fill the cupcakes, but if you have any left over, don’t let it go to waste! Before I had my light bulb moment when I thought to put the rest in my White Chocolate Cake, I planned on making these Whoopie Pies– which will still be on my list!

Cook’s Illustrated’s Foolproof Chocolate Frosting
as seen on America’s Test Kitchen

Note: This frosting may be made with milk, semisweet, or bittersweet chocolate. (*For these cupcakes, I prefer a frosting made with milk chocolate.) Cool the chocolate to between 85 and 100 degrees before adding it to the butter mixture. The frosting can be made 3 hours in advance. For longer storage, refrigerate the frosting, covered, and let it stand at room temperature for 1 hour before using.

Makes 3 cups to frost one 9-inch 2-layer cake (or about 2 dozen cupcakes)

Ingredients:
20 tablespoons (2 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter , softened (60 to 65 degrees)
1 cup confectioners’ sugar (4 ounces)
3/4 cup Dutch-processed cocoa
Pinch table salt
3/4 cup light corn syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
8 ounces milk chocolate , melted and cooled slightly (see note)

Directions:
In food processor, process butter, sugar, cocoa, and salt until smooth, about 30 seconds, scraping sides of bowl as needed. Add corn syrup and vanilla and process until just combined, 5 to 10 seconds. Scrape sides of bowl, then add chocolate and pulse until smooth and creamy, 10 to 15 seconds. Frosting can be used immediately or held (see note).

If those cupcakes don’t put a smile on your face, take a look at my baby in her holiday best! Much love to you all and warmest wishes for a glorious holiday season!

SMS *recipe remix*: Chocolate-Almond Buttercrunch Toffee

Chocolate-Almond Buttercrunch Toffee 1

Do you ever wish life had a pause button? I might be overly influenced by my DVR, but I keep thinking how utterly advantageous a short intermission would be right now so I could have a chance to stop and catch my breath. The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of sickness, stress, and strain, and unfortunately the preoccupation precluded my participation in quite a few weeks of baking and blogging. Some of the baking did take place- it is probably the only thing that has kept me sane throughout- and I even snapped a few photos, but I just couldn’t seem to pull together an accompanying post in time. I can’t wait to share the results in an SMS recipe rewind of sorts- most notably featuring my first ever bread pudding made from Julia Child’s homemade brioche. I even made both the recommended raspberry sauce and a bonus decadent caramel sauce for my mom (the berry-allergic). Coming soon to “Hot Oven, Warm Heart.” But for now, I’m so pleased to get back into the swing of things with today’s assignment, Melissa Murphy’s Butter Toffee Crunch. Sort of.

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Now maybe it was my faulty cheapo thermometer that sprung a leak, or the remnants of dear old Ida, who came barreling into town full force yesterday (I read that humidity/ moisture level in the air can negatively effect the candy making process), or maybe I made a irreparable error along the way (I am a novice at this after all), but the Butter Toffee Crunch was a colossal disaster. The one thing you want to avoid when making candy is the sugar crystallizing, and despite my careful adherence to the directions, that is precisely what happened. I knew as I was pouring the gloppy, bubbling caramel on the baking sheet that something went horribly awry, so I wasn’t too surprised to find a crumbly mess upon attempting the final step of breaking into pieces. The taste sadly solidified my fear that I now had 3 lbs of chocolate and nut covered brown sugar- cloyingly sweet and downright gritty. Now while I can’t pin point exactly which culprit was responsible, I’m a bit doubtful that the recipe would have been successful even if the stars were aligned. To me, the ratios seemed a bit off- especially when it came to the sugar- all 4¼ cups of it. Regardless of the toffee’s texture, the caramel layer was very thick (and I did use the largest rimmed sheet pan in my kitchen)- it was just way too much and made even a small piece overwhelming. The semisweet chocolate didn’t help matters, and without that bitter tang of dark chocolate, there was no contrast to balance the saccharine mixture underneath.

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By the time I realized that my afternoon of candy making was a flop, the sun had set, and I left my kitchen disappointed and demoralized (I know… I take these setbacks too personally… I’m working on it). As I laid in bed running through the steps over and over again in my head, and contemplating the overflowing container of no-good toffee on my counter that I didn’t have the heart to throw away, I hatched a plan for the next morning. I would not end my candy making career on a bad note- instead I would forge forward with a new recipe in hand, and give it another go. Luckily, I wouldn’t be disappointed.

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For toffee #2 I turned to a very reliable source when it comes to the sweets department: David Lebovitz. It just so happened he posted a remarkably similar recipe (same idea, but very different proportions) that I thought might just do the trick. Following his instructions to the T produced a batch of the most delightful homemade toffee I could ever imagine. I had a much better feeling pouring the gorgeous dark amber colored caramel over my toasted almonds, and knew almost immediately it was okay when I watched it set up in a hard, almost translucent layer mere seconds later. As I sprinkled my Ghiradelli bittersweet chips on top, spread them into a shining melty sheet of chocolatey goodness, and distributed the remaining toasted chopped almonds across the surface, I couldn’t help but have a smile on my face. I didn’t say anything to my mom in fear of giving myself a kena-horah (Yiddish for jinxing), but I was hopeful that first bite would confirm my suspicion- this candy would not only be edible, it would be delicious.

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Both my parents proclaimed it far and away the winning candy, much improved from my initial attempt. A nice crunch yielded to a chewy treat with just the right amount sweetness and pronounced chocolate and almond flavors. The simple list of ingredients came together in perfect harmony, producing an indulgent delicacy with addictive properties. After offering pieces to both my mom and dad, I watch them each sneak another taste off the tray a few minutes later- always a good sign. Though reminiscent of the caramel matzoh crunch I make every year at Passover (I will surely be sharing that this Spring), the Chocolate-Almond Buttercrunch Toffee is definitely a stand-out recipe in my repertoire that I will be calling upon for gift-giving this holiday season. Great to have on hand to serve surprise guests who pop up this time of year (you probably have everything you need to make it in your pantry), it is a wholesome, quality sweet that is sure to impress. If you’re looking for a dependable recipe to use as an introduction to candy making, take my advice, and give David’s a try. You won’t be sorry!

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Chocolate-Almond Buttercrunch Toffee
from David Lebovitz

Ingredients:
2 cups (8 ounces) toasted almonds or hazelnuts, chopped between ‘fine’ and ‘coarse’
2 tablespoons water
1/2 cup (1 stick) salted or unsalted butter, cut into pieces
a nice, big pinch of salt
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped, or 1 cup chocolate chips

optional: Ground cocoa nibs and fleur de sel

Directions:
1. Lightly oil a baking sheet with an unflavored vegetable oil.
2. Sprinkle half the nuts into a rectangle about 8″ x 10″ on the baking sheet.
3. In a medium heavy-duty saucepan fitted with a candy thermometer, heat the water, butter, salt, and both sugars. Cook, stirring as little as possible, until the thermometer reads 300° F degrees. Have the vanilla and baking soda handy.
4. Immediately remove from heat and stir in the baking soda and vanilla.
5. Quickly pour the mixture over the nuts on the baking sheet. Try to pour the mixture so it forms a relatively even layer. (If necessary, gently but quickly spread with a spatula, but don’t overwork it.)
6. Strew the chocolate pieces over the top and let stand 2 minutes, then spread in an even layer.
7. If using, sprinkle with a small handful of cocoa nibs and a flurry of fleur des sel. Sprinkle the remaining nuts over the chocolate and gently press them in with your hands.
8. Cool completely (you can pop it in the fridge if you’re impatient, like me!) and break into pieces to serve. Store in an airtight container, for up to ten days.

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To offer a boost of confidence, here are a few tips and tricks I picked up through some research that should make the process a bit more foolproof and less intimidating:
• Before you begin, make sure to read the recipe thoroughly and gather all your ingredients so that they are ready to use- I measured mine out in advance (especially the baking soda and vanilla) so I could grab them at a moments notice when the syrup came up to temperature. I learned that the baking soda is what aids browning and gives the toffee a lighter texture, while the vanilla adds depth of flavor.
• Make sure your candy thermometer is accurate. If you’re unsure, a good trick is to bring a pot of water to a boil- it should read 212° F if you live at sea level. If you find it’s off a degree or two, simply adjust your recipe taking this into account. Also, the tip or bulb of the thermometer should rest above the bottom of the pan for a proper reading.
• Use a heavy bottomed saucepan so the candy will not scorch under high temperatures. In addition, it’s recommended to use a long handled wooden spoon (as opposed to metal), because the sugar crystals are less likely to stick to the wood.
• Take extra precaution when handling hot syrups- just to be safe, it’s handy to keep a bowl of ice water on the counter which you can plunge your hand into immediately to stop a burn if an accident occurs.
• Avoid overstirring- it can overwork the caramel and result in the dreaded crystallization.
• For easy clean up- after the pan cools, fill it with water and bring to a boil. Let stand until the syrup melts away.
• Buttercrunch Toffee will keep for about 7-10 days- store it in an airtight container to prevent softening.
• Most importantly, please keep in mind that every once in a while, candy doesn’t work. It may be too humid, or the sugar decides to crystallize (as in my case), or it’s just not your day. Try your best not to get discouraged; according to David, it happens even to seasoned professionals.
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I can’t wait to visit all my fellow SMSers’ sites to find out if they had better luck with Melissa’s Butter Toffee Crunch (the recipe’s over at “Kait’s Plate”), and catch up with everyone through our comments- I’ve really missed all my lovely baking ladies! Check out the blogroll to see how each fared. Thanks Kait for your fun selection, and for pushing me into uncharted culinary territory!

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The Cake Slice: Cinnamon Pecan Coffee Cake

Cinnamon Pecan Coffee Cake 1

When I began working on “Hot Oven, Warm Heart” a few months back, I was absolutely blown away by the warm welcome and positive feedback I received from the baking and blogging community. As I embarked upon this new endeavor, I was hoping to pursue my passion, expand my skills, and chronicle my culinary adventures, but more importantly, I wanted to form meaningful connections with other people along the way. After joining the Sweet Melissa Sundays group, and getting to know many of the amazing members- all talented bakers with shining spirits, open minds, and kind hearts, I realized I had stumbled upon a rare opportunity to become a part of something truly special. United through a shared experience, the many miles that separate us seem to fade away as we all sit down at one huge virtual kitchen table to enjoy the same slice of freshly baked cake, bite of warm, gooey cookie, or forkful of rich, crusty pie. With each supportive comment, piece of advice, or word of encouragement, new friendships are fostered and the close-knit online family that has formed grows stronger. I am no longer alone when tackling my latest recipe- rather, I have a team of lovely ladies, scattered all over the world, who are always cheering me on, whisking, beating, stirring, kneading, and mixing right alongside.

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I am delighted that today marks the start to a new chapter in my blogging career, as one of the most recent additions to another fabulous online baking group called The Cake Slice Bakers. For the last year, they baked their way through arguably the most innovative book on the market featuring layer cakes, Sky High: Irresistible Triple Layer Cakes by Alisa Huntsman. It was through reading many of their posts that I was persuaded to purchase a copy of my own, and I have since utilized it time and again with phenomenal results for all my celebration cake baking needs. When I read that the group would be moving on to a second cookbook, and temporarily accepting more members, I jumped at the chance to join, eager to take the next step on this inspiring journey, and meet a whole new batch of baking bloggers. Each month we will be trying a different recipe from Southern Cakes: Sweet and Irresistible Recipes for Everyday Celebrations by Nancie McDermott, featuring 65 charming, down-home, sinfully delicious recipes that reflect a region steeped in rich culinary tradition. As a Boston girl born-and-raised, I’m anxious to discover some exceptionally unique cakes that reflect this Southern heritage, and have been passed down from generation to generation. The recipes cover a wide range of cake styles, everything from Bourbon Pound Cake, Lady Baltimore Cake, Lemon-Filled Coconut Cake, and Tomato Soup Cake to Charleston Huguenot Torte, Red Velvet Cake, Blackberry Jam Cake with Caramel Glaze, Chocolate Mayonnaise Cake with Divinity Icing, and Mississippi Mud Cake. We’re kicking things off with a winner, an out-of-this-world Cinnamon Pecan Coffee Cake, and if this choice is any indication, The Cake Slice Bakers have succeeded yet again in their book selection, unearthing an impressive literary gem that just might have found a permanent home on my cookbook shelves.

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Coffee cakes first appeared on the table in seventeenth century Europe, where the earliest versions consumed alongside a cup of coffee were more akin to the sweet yeast breads popular at that time. Recipes for the tasty pastry came to America along with German, Scandinavian, and Dutch immigrants, and during colonial times, the German and Holland communities in New York, Delaware, and New Jersey were famed for their delicious variations. By the late 1800’s, coffee cake recipes evolved, and those being published in cookbooks for everyday American homemakers more closely resembled the cake-like sort we’re used to today. Coffee cakes are instantly recognizable and distinguished by the inclusion of streusel, (a German word meaning “something scattered or sprinkled”). This classic filling and/or topping is a deliciously simple mixture of sugar, flour, butter, spices, and oftentimes nuts, that is usually layered between a sour-cream cake batter and baked into a superb treat- the perfect accompaniment to a cup o’ joe.

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The Cinnamon Pecan Coffee Cake from Southern Cakes is a fabulous representation of the old-timey dessert. Supremely moist with a delicate, tender crumb, it is bursting with flavor and contrasting textures thanks to the crunchy nuts and juicy raisins in the generous streusel. While assembling the cake, I was worried that the proportion of batter to cinnamon sugar mixture was off, fearing filling domination. I was pleasantly surprised to be proven wrong, and found the finished product was well balanced, even with a substantial center swirl, and plenty of sweet crusty topping. Exceeding my expectations, it’s a real crowd-pleaser that would be appropriate not only to serve as a casual complement to morning coffee, but also as an impressive and elegant dessert for a more formal occasion.

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Although I’m confident I will be baking it again in the future, my only grievance with this yummy cake is due to the extensive preparation. I dirtied many a bowl while assembling the different elements, and temporarily turned my kitchen counter into a (well-organized) mess. With a few other coffee cakes under my belt, I felt that this one was a bit fussy by comparison, especially when it came to distributing the rather thick batter on top of the filling. It was not feasible to simply spoon on a mound of batter and spread it evenly with a spatula without pulling up the carefully scattered mixture, and eliminating the possibility of maintaining defined layers. To circumvent this issue, I used a teaspoon to place small dollops of batter close together all over the filling, and then carefully smoothed them out with the back of my spoon, taking care to bring batter all the way to the edge of the pan. It took some extra time and patience, but in the end it paid off, and I was quite pleased with the finished cake’s visual appeal. I also utilized two of my favorite tricks when prepping ingredients- plumping the raisins in boiling water (with a touch of vanilla for flavor) so that they would remain moist during baking, and toasting the pecans. Even if it’s not indicated in the recipe I always toast my nuts, which does wonders to bring out their intense, robust flavor. Of course, these are small touches, but sometimes it’s the little things that elevate a baked good from ordinary to extraordinary, and allow it to realize its full potential.

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If you’d like to give this memorable coffee cake a try, here’s a link to a printable recipe. I can’t wait to experiment with more of the delectable delicacies found in Southern Cakes, and I’m so happy to be exploring this book with The Cake Slice Bakers. A big thank you goes out to the other members who permitted my admission into the group- I’m really looking forward to getting to know all of you! Isn’t it wonderful that cake has the power to bring people together?

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SMS: Spiced Pumpkin Cookie Cakes

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As a special treat, my Mom used to take my big sister Jessica and I to our local bakery, where we were each allowed to make our own selection. While I always hemmed and hawed, usually allured and distracted by the cupcakes topped with a huge pile of frosting meant to resemble Sesame Street characters (to this day I’m baffled by their appeal), I ultimately chose one of two pastries: a half moon cookie (also known as a black-and-white cookie) or a classic whoopie pie. Both featured two contrasting elements, had a soft, tender texture, and were utterly delicious. I have fond memories of savoring every bite of my preferred snack, knowing that I had done something my Mom recognized and appreciated worthy of a sweet reward. To this day, whoopie pies bring back encouraging childhood memories, and yet this recipe marked their inaugural appearance in my kitchen. After completing Melissa Murphy’s Spiced Pumpkin Cookie Cakes, and receiving nothing but glowing reviews from both my family as well as the hospital nursing staff currently caring for Jess (I figured that sharing these pies with her medical providers would be a wonderful way to express my sincere gratitude for all their help), I knew it would not be their final showing in my home this season.

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A whoopie pie, also referred to as a gob, bob, or black-and-white is a type of cookie sandwich composed of two round, mound-shaped pieces of cake, usually chocolate or pumpkin flavored, that are filled with a sweet, creamy frosting. According to Pennsylvania Amish tradition, generations of Amish women would utilize leftover batter to prepare these baked treats, and pack them in their farmers’ lunchboxes. Legend says that upon discovering the cookie cakes in their lunches, farmers would shout with excitement, “Whoopie!”, giving the sweets their unique name. While most renowned in New England, and adopted as a state tradition in Maine, whoopie pies are gaining popularity across the United States.

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Melissa must have missed the memo about the animated farmers’ exclamation, because she titled her recipe “Cookie Cakes”- although it may be a more descriptive name, it’s nowhere near as entertaining to say. Regardless of designation, these delectable little morsels are the ideal antidote to blustery New England weather. Puffy pumpkin cakes accented by warming fall spices and thoughtfully paired with a citrus spiked cream cheese frosting make for an exceptional flavor combination which dances on the tongue. As a New England native, I’m accustomed to the colossal sized saucers sold in bakeries up here that are challenge for one taster to finish without sharing a bite or two. But Melissa’s cakes are of a daintier nature- I made mine a bit bigger than stated in the directions, and my cookies were still only 2½ to 3″ in diameter. The pumpkin imparted a deep burnt orange hue to the cake portion, which contrasted beautifully with the bright white creamy filling. Speckled with finely grated orange zest, the cream cheese, butter, confectioner sugar frosting had that extra punch of bright flavor, a nice twist on the original straight-up vanilla cream. I’ve come to the conclusion that Melissa considers citrus zest one of her secret weapons in the kitchen- elevating the level of sophistication many of her baked goods embody and offering a surprise twist to the classics. In certain applications, I’ve felt it was misplaced and detracted from the overall appeal, however, I feel it gives just the right amount of pep these pies need. I’m even thinking about adding it to my favorite pumpkin loaf recipe- a killer quick bread I will definitely be sharing with you soon!

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I highly recommend you hop over to the kitchen and bake a batch of your own, or bookmark this yummy recipe to serve at your next soiree this season- they’d be the perfect hand held single serve dessert for your Halloween party or even Thanksgiving. If you do whip up some of Melissa’s cookie cakes, I have a few recommendations to expedite the process. Melissa advocates using a pastry bag to pip the batter onto prepared cookie sheets- I found this step unnecessary, and really, if you can avoid the hassle of cleaning out a bag and tip, I say take advantage of the opportunity. I found that my handy dandy small-sized ice cream/cookie scoop worked perfectly, and bonus!- it ensured that all my cookies came out nice and round and exactly the same size, which made for even sandwiches. My scoop distributed about 1 tablespoon of batter per cookie (much more than Melissa’s suggested rounded teaspoon, which seemed kind of measly to me), but the baking time remained the same- mine passed the toothpick test in about 13 minutes. I also ditched the pastry bag for dispersing the frosting- my small offset spatula, which I can’t live without, by the way, worked just fine. I didn’t bother measuring out a specific amount of filling per pie, I simply spread on an even layer that was enough to support the top and leave space between the two halves. A little squish, and you’ll be in business.

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Sending out a big “WHOOPIE!” to Debbie for her fabulous SMS selection. You’ll find the recipe over at Every Day Blessings of The Five Dee’s, in The Sweet Melissa Baking Book, as well as catalogued in my keeper files. And don’t forget to take a peak at the plethora of pies produced by all the other ladies on our blogroll.

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