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!)

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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 🙂

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!

Joy Heart 2

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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Joy Heart 2

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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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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Joy Heart 2

SMS: Hazelnut Truffles

Hazelnut Truffles

My first introduction to the world of gourmet candy was the classic Lindt milk-chocolate truffle and it was love at first bite. I pulled both ends of the glossy red wrapping to reveal a humble chocolate sphere, unadorned, unexceptional, and vaguely reminiscent of the ubiquitous Hershey’s kiss. But with one taste, I realized that this sophisticated treat was in a class of its own. When the hard outer shell (also known as couverture) gave way to a silky smooth, melt-in-your-mouth, luscious center- I was pleasantly surprised to discover a novel chocolate eating experience. This heavenly confection remains one of my all time favorite sweets, but with a lack of homemade candy making knowledge and familiarity, I’ve never attempted to produce a batch of my own. So I was very pleased to discover that Annie of Living Life Foodcariously selected Hazelnut Truffles for this week’s Sweet Melissa Sundays recipe. Transforming from baker to chocolatier for a day was a delightful change of pace, and I was amazed by the ease and simplicity of the candy making process.

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A French creation, the original chocolate truffle was merely a ball of ganache, made of chocolate and cream, and often flavored and rolled in cocoa. According to legend, it was invented in the kitchen of French culinary legend Auguste Escoffier during the 1920s. One day, his stagiaire, or apprentice, attempted to make pastry cream, but he accidentally poured hot cream into a bowl of chocolate chunks rather than the intended bowl of sugared egg. As the chocolate and cream mixture emulsified and hardened, he found he could work the chocolate paste with his hands to form a bumpy, lopsided ball. After rolling the new creation in cocoa powder, he was struck by its resemblance to the luxurious mushroom truffles found in the forests of the Périgord region of France and the Piedmont area of Italy. This resemblance gave the chocolate truffle its name. Because the actual truffle was very expensive and eaten only by the royals and extremely wealthy, the shared name gave the new chocolate creation elevated status.

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Today, French chocolate truffles epitomize the finest and most luxurious candies in the world. What’s more, truffles are taken so seriously in France that an annual contest is held to judge the best from each individual region of the country. In many French chocolate production factories, the finest and freshest ingredients are reserved exclusively for making truffles. By making my own truffles, I can understand the importance of quality ingredients- especially when there are only four components to speak of.

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Chocolate. Cream. Liquor. Nuts. That’s it! And if you can chop up the chocolate, heat up the cream, combine the two, and then stir in the liquor and nuts, you can make delicious truffles too! All you need now is a little patience- 2 hours for the mixture to firm up in the fridge- but then you’re all set and ready to roll. Literally. Form that decadent ganache into balls and roll around to coat in whatever you fancy (hazelnuts were called for in this recipe, but any other nut could easily be substituted, not to mention the traditional cocoa powder, less conventional coconut, or even trendy spices) and you’re ready to open up your very own chocolate shop. Generally, the ganache used for truffle filling is made with a 2:1 ratio, two parts chocolate to one part cream, but by switching up the liquor or extract, and outer coating, the same basic recipe can be adapted to produce countless flavors and variations.

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The hazelnut truffles from The Sweet Melissa Baking Book exemplify the ultimate chocolate sweet. The textural contrast of the rich, creamy, almost velvety core and the crunchy bite of the toasty hazelnut exterior allow these truffles to dance on the tongue. They are luscious little nibbles that are sure to impress your family and friends… that is, if you decide to share! And bonus! If something happens to go awry in the kitchen, just remember, it may be the next remarkable culinary discovery of the century 🙂

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Head on over to Living Life Foodcariously for the recipe, and see what all the other SMSers did with their truffles by exploring the blogroll. Thanks Annie– what a great pick!

Joy Heart 2

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!

Joy Heart 2

SMS: Chewy Peanut Butter Cookies

Chewy Peanut Butter Cookies

I’ve always had a penchant for peanut butter, especially when featured as a foil ingredient in one of many perfect pairings: peanut butter and jelly, peanut butter and banana, and of course, the ultimate combination, peanut butter and chocolate. The first candies consumed from my Halloween loot were usually Reese’s peanut butter cups, and as a Brownie, Thin Mints and Samoas didn’t hold a candle to my favorite girl scout classic, Tagalongs, or peanut butter patties. Despite my preference for peanut butter, I must admit it is an under-utilized item in my kitchen. But with this week’s SMS pick, Chewy Peanut Butter Cookies, I got to grab my jumbo jar of creamy Skippy and mix up a simple yet scrumptious batch of goodies, filling my home with a warm, nutty, comforting aroma that transporting me back to my childhood.

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In these timeless treats, the peanut butter is front and center without any other flavors competing for attention. Charming and unpretentious, they are easy to whip up on a whim, with all the ingredients likely to be in your pantry. A few months ago when my Aunt Maggie and I got together for a baking date, we fell back on PB cookies after eliminating some flashier desserts that required items we didn’t have on hand. We actually used a similar recipe to the variation in the Sweet Melissa Baking Book, and though the differences were subtle, I think I preferred this latest version. Stephanie of Ice Cream Before Dinner mentioned she selected this SMS recipe because it produced a simple and not so fancy cookie that would ultimately be an enjoyable crowd-pleaser. With soft, tender centers, crispy edges, a delicate texture, and predominant peanutty flavor, they definitely live up to their name and expectations.

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Peanut butter cookies are actually a part of American culinary history. George Washington Carver, an African-American agriculturalist who promoted the peanut as a replacement for the cotton crop, compiled 105 peanut recipes from various cookbooks, agricultural bulletins and other sources. In his 1916 Research Bulletin called “How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption,” he included three recipes for peanut cookies calling for crushed/chopped peanuts as an ingredient. Later, in the early 1920s, peanut butter was listed as a primary ingredient in the cookies.

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And did you ever wonder the origin of the traditional criss-cross pattern? Leave it to Pillsbury to establish this characteristic look- the Peanut Butter Balls recipe in the 1923 edition of Pillsbury’s Balanced Recipes contains the first known written instance of instructing the baker to press the cookies with the tines of a fork. Because of the dough’s density, it will not cook evenly without being pressed, and a fork is definitely a convenient tool in every kitchen to complete this job. The cross-hatched marking immediately identifies the peanut butter cookie, distinguishing it from any other variety, and adding to its delightfully rustic appearance.

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These cookies were fun and fast to bake, and would be a great project to do with kids. Since this recipe edges out others I’ve made in the past, I think it will be a permanent addition to my cookie-baking repertoire. Thank you to Stephanie of Ice Cream Before Dinner for her delicious down-home selection, and if you feel like filling your cookie jar with a batch of your own, head on over to her adorable site for the recipe. And you can see all the other SMS baker’s treats by checking out our blogroll, now featuring a few new members (myself included)!

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