ABC: Cinnamon Chip Pecan Scones with Brown-Butter Vanilla Bean Glaze

Arguably one of the best perks of blogging is the ability to connect with others who share a similar passion, and form genuine friendships in the process. I am so thankful that I met highly talented, especially thoughtful and caring blogger, Hanaâ of “Hanaâ’s Kitchen,” who has not only taught me a great deal about baking, but has also been a strong support along the way. I am so excited to be joining a fantastic group she began called the Avid Baker’s Challenge. Currently baking out of The Weekend Baker by Abigail Dodge, the avid bakers make a selected recipe together each month and then share their results. For May, our project was scones, with the flavor profile baker’s choice. Oh, the possibilities! Seriously, I played around with different combinations for the majority of the month of April. Does your mind ever wander to ponder the potential taste of a soon-to-be-made baked good, or is it just me?

Originating in Scotland, the first scones were made with oats, shaped into a large round, scored into four or six wedges (triangles) and griddle-baked over an open fire (later, a stovetop) like a thick pancake. With the advent of baking soda in Victorian times, scones were baked and transformed into customizable teatime accompaniments. With strong historical ties to England as well, scones are steeped in British tradition, and are a distant relative of the crumpet and English muffin. Unfortunately, they are often known to be dry as a bone, tasteless, and only made palatable by the addition of plenty butter, clotted cream, jam, or lemon curd. Their modern American counterpart, a quick bread closely related to biscuits, reflects our taste for rich, sweet breakfast pastries. Through the years, scones became coffee shop regulars, usually over-sized, misshapen muffin or cake-like objects, far removed from their British ancestors.

Since the last time I made a batch, I read about a variety of techniques aimed at creating the ultimate light and flakey scone, avoiding heavy, leaden variations at all costs. One method focuses on incorporating the butter, as lofty pastry depends on distinct pieces of butter distributed throughout the dough that melt during baking, allowing steam to escape and leaving pockets of air behind. To achieve this, the butter must be as cold and solid as possible until baking. The problem with traditional methods of cutting butter into flour, either with your fingers or a food processor, is that the butter becomes too warm during the process. A number of sources. including Cooks Illustrated and one of my favorite cookbooks, A Passion for Baking by Marcy Goldman, point to a fresh idea- freezing the butter and grating it on the large holes of a box grater before quickly and evenly cutting it into the flour. This succeeds at keeping the butter cold, and the the interior of the resulting scone tender and moist without being overly dense. I couldn’t wait to try such a novel concept, and this baking assignment seemed like the perfect opportunity.

I also called upon numerous other tips I found through research in my quest to achieve my best ever scones:

  • Just as the lightest bread is produced from the wettest dough, scone dough should be quite soft- resist the temptation to work more than 1-2 tablespoons of additional flour into the dough, just enough to facilitate handling.
  • Don’t overmix! In fact, work it as lightly and minimally as possible. Never knead the dough (beyond bringing it together) to avoid activating the gluten in the flour any more than necessary.
  • When shaping, either form a round and cut into wedges, or use a biscuit cutter, however, don’t twist it when you push down. It will seal the edges of the dough and prevent the scone from rising as high as possible.
  • If you use an egg wash or dairy glaze on top of your unbaked, cut scones, try not to let it drip down the sides. This also inhibits the rise.
  • Before a trip through the oven, chill scones for about 15 minutes in the freezer or an hour in the fridge- ensure the pieces of butter throughout are as cold and solid as possible.
  • Add ½ cup of water to a pan and place on the lower rack of the oven 10 minutes before you bake the scones- this will create a steamy environment that will assist with the rise. Also, bake scones in the upper third of the oven.
  • Don’t overbake or the resulting scones will be dry and crumbly. Look for bottoms that are golden brown and tops that are set but only lightly golden.
  • You can freeze scones before baking and pull them out as needed- simply shape, cover with plastic wrap and freeze until solid, about an hour. Bag airtight and return to the freezer. When you’re ready to bake, there’s no need to thaw them; just place frozen scones on a pan, and bake as directed, giving them about 5 additional minutes.
  • Although scones are best eaten straight from the oven, and certainly the day they’re made, leftover baked scones can be frozen too. When you want to serve, the author recommends that you thaw and reheat them in a skillet or griddle, covered with foil or a lid, heating on low to medium-low until warmed through.

So did my batch benefit from all the tips and tricks I found? Well, their crisp outer crust gave way to a light, fluffy, moist interior packed with layer upon layer of flakey goodness. A slight tang from the buttermilk paired beautifully with the warmth of the spicy cinnamon and toasty pecans, and was foiled by the sweet nuttiness of the brown-butter vanilla bean glaze. Tender and buttery, these scones made my inspiration (a scone often ordered by my Mom along with her latte) a distant memory. Let’s just say they were my first ABC success, and I can’t wait to explore all the recipes to come. Don’t forget to check out what all the other bakers’ made this month, and grab a copy of The Weekend Baker. Thanks again Hanaâ for including me and making me feel so welcome 🙂

Note: To recreate my flavor profile- add 1/4 tsp cinnamon to the dry ingredients, and stir in 2 oz cinnamon chips and 1 1/2 oz chopped toasted pecans (about 3/4 c add-ins total). While the scones are baking, make a half-batch of this glaze, using an equal amount of vanilla bean paste (one of my FAVORITE ingredients… I love those magical little black dots!) instead of vanilla extract. Drizzle over the cooling scones and Viola!

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The Cake Slice: Cinnamon Pecan Coffee Cake

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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: Sticky Buns with Toasted Almonds and a bonus bun throwdown!

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Dear my beloved yeast breads,
I must offer my sincerest apologies that your first appearance on Hot Oven, Warm Heart is devastatingly belated. I simply cannot believe that you have not yet been featured in all your glory- but you have not been forgotten, and can no longer be ignored. Let me assure you, however, you are now, and always will be my very favorite baked good to create in the kitchen. The feel of your soft, supple dough giving way as my hands lovingly knead you into submission, the smell of fermentation wafting through the air, the sight of your magic in action as you climb up the sides of my Grandma’s big yellow bowl, reaching the top and peaking over to say “hello Joy, I’m ready, let’s go!”- these are just a few of the reasons I am captivated by your enchanting disposition. Ever since that first loaf of cinnamon raisin swirl bread, I knew you were special and would forever hold a place in my heart, along with top honors in my baking repertoire. Please forgive me for my indiscretion, and allow me to introduce you in one of your most irresistible forms, the sticky bun.
Love,
Joy

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The origin of the sticky sweet, large-size caramelized cinnamon roll popularized in North America and aptly called the sticky bun, was clearly influenced by British, Dutch, and Germanic cookery and baking. Before the sticky bun came two central predecessors, the Brit’s Chelsea bun and the German’s Schnecken. First created in an eighteenth century Bun House in Chelsea, Great Britain, the Chelsea bun is made of a rich yeast dough flavored with citrus zest and cinnamon or a spice mixture. The dough is spread with brown sugar, butter, and currants, rolled into a spiral shape, sliced into individual buns, given a sweet glaze covering, and baked. On the other hand, Schnecken, which means “snail” in German, are also yeast-raised sweet rolls, whose dough is spread with sugar, nuts, spices, and raisins, rolled, sliced, and baked in muffin tins with either honey or sugar and butter in the bottom, creating a glaze. The appearance of Schnecken in America can be traced back as early as the 1680’s, when they became popular among bakers in Germantown, Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia suburb. As more German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania Dutch Country in the 18th Century, Schnecken became a signature pastry of the area, which it remains today. The sticky bun combines the size and make-up of the Chelsea bun with the fillings and coatings of Schnecken, taking the best elements of both pastries and transforming them into a truly irresistible treat, steeped in cultural history.

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As one of my favorite yeast breads to make, sticky buns make a regular appearance in my kitchen. Though the multi-step process sometimes seems daunting and time consuming, they are a great do-ahead recipe, and a fantastic crowd-pleasing sweet that you can assemble the day before serving. Just recently, I baked a batch to serve with morning coffee when entertaining one of my closest friends (who shall remain nameless)- by the end of our get-together, she managed to devour three, and I realized that a tray of hot, fresh buns just out of the oven and still oozing cinnamon-y goodness was potentially dangerous to leave in the center of the table! A great sticky bun can be a real show-stopper- if they’re too yummy to stop at one, then I know I have a winner on my hands.

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Coincidentally, not two days after breaking out my go-to recipe, I checked the SMS site only to find that my next assignment, as chosen by Jen of Not Microwave Safe, was Melissa Murphy’s Sticky Buns with Toasted Almonds. At first glance, I considered passing, but then I recognized the opportunity I had on my hands. What a perfect chance for a sticky bun throwdown! By tasting the two recipes side-by-side, it would be much easier to discern the subtle nuances differentiating the buns, and hopefully, with the help of my tasting panel (a.k.a family), I could select the preeminent favorite. Would the new bun on the block surpass my old standby in taste, texture, appearance, and originality? I simply had to find out. Needless to say I’ve had quite a few buns in my oven this past week, but after much kneading, proofing, punching, rolling, sprinkling, slicing, baking, and glazing, I’m happy to report a winner has been determined. Before I announce the award for my #1 bun, let’s take a closer look at the competitors.

In this corner, Melissa Murphy’s Sticky Buns with Toasted Almonds.

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In fairness to the competition, I decided to follow the recipe to the letter, making no changes or substitutions. While the dough itself came together quickly and was easy to handle, I felt it was a little stingy for a batch of twelve buns. By the time it was rolled out to the size rectangle indicated in the directions, it was quite thin, and I almost had problems with tearing and leaking (luckily I solved the issue with some crafty bun cutting). But it was the filling itself that I found flawed. Divergent from the melted butter/brown sugar combination that I’m used to, Melissa’s recipe calls for an egg wash and granulated sugar. After applying the wash, my dough was, well, wet, making it difficult and messy to roll up. I was displeased with the visual appeal of my buns when first shaped and placed in the pan, but I remained hopeful that after they rose, baked, were doused in sticky glaze and covered with lots of toasted almonds, the final product would not reveal the many imperfections. (Thankfully this theory proved accurate). My finished buns were lovely- lofty, delicate, moist, and well coated in a deep, dark, viscous glaze. Most striking, however, was the lack of flavor cohesion. Instead of coming together harmoniously, the ingredients were highly discernable- the strong tastes of orange zest (in the dough) and maple syrup (in the glaze) almost overpowered the bun itself, detracting from the overall eating experience. But truthfully, all criticisms aside, the buns received high praise from all who tasted them, and if there were no competition or comparison, they would certainly be considered a delicious treat, and just plain finger-lickin’ good.

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And in this corner, may I present to you the Cook’s Illustrated Overnight Sticky Buns.

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Now I must admit, I may have been a bit biased because this recipe has never failed me- consistently producing some “knock-your-socks-off,” crave-worthy, can’t-leave-the-table-without-eating-three-of-‘em sticky buns.

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The dough is more substantial than Melissa’s, and is also much richer with added eggs and butter, imparting tremendous tenderness and a soft, supple texture. It is an absolute dream to handle and roll out, slices beautifully (with the help of a serrated knife and a spray or two of Pam) and rises into perfectly spiraled, nice and neat puffy little clouds of dough.

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Though you must wait patiently during the buns’ short stay in the oven, you’re rewarded with the tantalizing and intoxicating aroma of warming spices that permeates the entire home. A dozen buns emerge in less than half an hour, beautifully golden brown and somehow utterly inviting.

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The cinnamon brown sugar filling adds great depth of flavor, really driving home the taste of caramel. But what truly sets these special buns apart and makes them unforgettable is the double ooey gooey glaze. Yes, these outstanding buns not only receive the traditional bottom of the pan glazing treatment, they are also topped with yet another glaze that is mixed with the toasted pecans and generously spooned over each individual turned out bun as it cools. I am convinced it is this brilliant double-glazing technique that delivers the ultimate sticky bun experience in each and every bite, and as far as I can tell, no other bun in the land holds a candle to this champion.

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So, I’m sure many of you are currently suffering from sticky bun overload (if there is such a thing), but I highly recommend that you bookmark this particular version, and place it in your must-try files, maybe to make an appearance on National Sticky Bun Day- February 21st. Now, I’m confident that I represent the dissenting opinion on Melissa’s buns since they were truly quite tasty, but in the end, they just did not have enough of a “wow factor” to de-thrown my longstanding favorite. They still receive two thumbs up from this bun baker, and I wouldn’t hesitate to give them my seal of approval.

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A big thanks goes out to Jen of Not Microwave Safe for her terrific selection, and affording me the opportunity to orchestrate my very own throwdown. It was so much fun baking back-to-back batches of buns, and evaluating the pros and cons of each. I can’t wait to explore the other SMS bakettes’ blogs to check out all the creative ways everyone played with the recipe. I just have to note that although I tried to prepare my buns exactly as directed, I couldn’t help but make a few very minor alterations. Instead of topping my buns with chopped whole almonds, I elected to toast up some sliced almonds, simply for aesthetic appeal. More importantly, in order to avoid dry, hard, over-browned buns, I had to pull mine out of the oven much earlier than the instructed 45 minutes- they were fully baked between 25-30 minutes, so if you decide to give the recipe a go, please start checking early! My other recipe offered a great tip to test the buns for doneness- insert an instant read thermometer into the center of a bun, and if it’s reached 180°, they are finished baking. Finally, instead of removing each bun from the pan individually with tongs (which I feared would squish them), I turned them all out at once by flipping the pan over directly onto my serving platter. Just a few notes that I hope help you along the way!

I encourage you to head into the kitchen to whip up your own batch of sticky buns- you will not be disappointed! And if you’re a nervous yeast bread virgin with any questions or concerns, I’d be happy to offer my assistance- just leave a comment and ask away!

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SMS: Snickerdoodles and Operation Baking GALS

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A batch of snickerdoodles brought to a staff meeting began my illustrious career as the workplace baker at the YMCA Childcare center. One taste of the sweet, spicy golden cookies, and the other teachers were hooked- they were impressed by my apparent flair for baking, and from that day on, I was the go-to girl for birthday cakes and all other special occasion treats. I was more than happy to undertake that role, but I always found it funny that what convinced them of my talent was one of the simplest goodies ever to emerge from my kitchen.

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A sugar cookie dressed up with a dusting of cinnamon, the snickerdoodle is composed of mere pantry ingredients: butter, sugar, eggs, and flour, and has a much fancier name than makeup. Older recipes for this classic utilize a combination of cream of tartar and baking soda as a leavening agent, which give the resulting cookie its characteristic tang, whereas more current recipes call for baking powder instead. I’ve made them both ways, and in my opinion, you can’t go wrong. Snickerdoodles are deliciously addictive and it’s hard to eat just one!

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Though the etymology is debatable, the name “snickerdoodle” has been traced back to the German word “schneckennudeln.” “Schnecke” means “snail” in German, and according to “Slumps, Grunts and Snickerdoodles: What Colonial American Ate and Why” by Lila Perl, a “shnecke” was also a German name for a cinnamon pinwheel that resembles snails. The development of the name probably reflects the cookie’s history, which dates back to Nineteenth century New England, when cookies were given odd and whimsical names like Graham Jakes, Jolly Boys, Tangle Breeches, and Kinkawoodles. No matter how they were dubbed with such a quirky moniker, most would agree that “snickerdoodles” is as fun to say as they are to eat.

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In a stroke of serendipity, Spike of Spike Bakes selected snickerdoodles as this week’s pick for SMS. I had consulted The Sweet Melissa Baking Book for that very recipe recently when I was assembling my package for Operation Baking GALS. You may have noticed the special icon on the right column of my site that designates my participation in this amazing charitable organization. Operation Baking GALS is a group of volunteer bakers from all across the country who come together each month to collectively send homemade goodies to troops currently deployed overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a fantastic way to show our support and give these brave men and women a little piece of home.

After my first three rounds of baking, I was inspired to take on a leadership role by organizing a bonus team with a unique mission. Team Oven Loving for the Recovering was born to serve the courageous soldiers who are recuperating from injury at the Army Medical Center in Bethesda, MD. My heart ached for the pain (both physical and emotional) they face every day, but I knew that the wonderful Baking GALS volunteers could help lift their spirits by sending along their thoughtful and delicious care packages. By working with Command Master Chief Wendy Fischer and head Baking GAL Lyndsay Leybold, we developed a plan and a partnership, and I have been proud to lead this extraordinary team for the last 4 rounds of baking. Our packages are incorporated into a special Friday night program, where the soldiers and their families come together to share a delicious home-style meal, ending with cookies and treats galore. I recently received a letter from the Command Master Chief expressing their deep appreciation for our generous contribution, but in truth, it has been my honor and privilege to bake for these admirable soldiers and their families. Operation Baking GALS and Team Oven Loving for the Recovering hold a permanent place in my heart, and I am looking forward to continuing my work with this exceptional organization. If you’re interested in more information or getting involved, please feel free to get in touch with me either right here in the comments section of my blog or via email at joy.d.saunders@gmail.com. And for a little inspiration, here’s a look at the 20+ dozen cookies I’ve sent so far! 🙂

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Thanks again, Spike, for selecting the delectable snickerdoodles– I’m sure they were a hit with the soldiers! Head on over to Spike Bakes for the recipe if you’d like to give them a try!

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