Soft and Salty Goodness

Soft pretzels make me happy. Whether they come from a street cart in New York City, an Auntie Anne's in a shopping mall food court or a ballpark, I tend to pick pretzels as my go-to snack. (I'm not sure why I feel they're a healthier option. I just do.) 
Last week I had a hankering for a soft pretzel and rather than scour the streets for the closest food cart, I decided to make my own. Enter...Google. 
Within seconds of a simple search for "Homemade Soft Pretzels" I had the recipe and it was underway. I've never watched Alton Brown or made any of his recipes before but this was easy and delicious. (And easy and impressive. For my readers, you know this is a favorite combination of mine.) Click here for the recipe from the FoodNetwork
I made these pretzels on a Thursday afternoon in preparation for a Saturday Halloween party. (The recipe said they could keep for up to 1 week in an airtight container.) When I finished they were picturesque. (See above!) I was so pleased with them (and myself!) and packed them away for the weekend's festivities. 
Come Saturday, they still tasted great but the salt had dissolved a bit and they looked more swollen than crisp. I would MOST DEFINITELY recommend this recipe but would urge you to serve them the day of baking them. 
So...what about you? What's your go-to snack? (And have you ever made them yourself??)


Now I know how "CRACKer" Jacks got their name.

Fall is in full-swing. Pumpkins decorate the stoops of my neighbors' homes. The doorbell is constantly chiming with the arrival of trick-or-treaters. And ladies (and men alike) are dressed a little too risque for my liking. (Seriously? A "Sexy Sanitation Engineer?" Really? Must we fish-net EVERY profession?) 
Tackling one of the most nostalgic holidays, I wanted to re-create one of the most child-like treats I know...Cracker Jacks! Luckily, my current obsession is Baked Explorations, the latest cookbook by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito. I covet their recipes and this one is precisely one of the reasons why. 
This year I hosted a Halloween Party and wanted my spread to be filled with sweet and savory treats that reminded guests of childhood fare. Circus, carnival, comfort. With homemade soft pretzels, bat- and ghost-shaped sugar cookies and an open-bar (a candy-bar that is) this caramel corn was the addiction of the evening. One taste and you finally understood why it was called CRACKer Jacks. This stuff is addictive and sinful! (And easy and impressive. Two of my favorite things!) Enjoy!!

Caramel Popcorn with Peanuts and Chocolate - aka "Home Grown Cracker Jacks" from Baked Explorations...
1 cup unpopped kernals or 24 cups popped corn.
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
2 cups firmly packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
2 tbsp unsulfured molasses
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups peanuts (honey-roasted!)
8 oz good-quality dark chocolate, melted and tempered.

Pop popcorn any method you prefer and let them cool. (I just used Newman's Own Natural Microwave Popcorn.) Preheat the over to 25- degrees F. Place the popcorn in a large roasting pan. (I just used an oversized baking sheet. It was a bit messier but still worked!) Line a sheet pan with parchment (wax) paper. 
In a medium saucepan over low heat, start to melt the butter. Add the brown sugar, corn syrup, and molasses, and stir gently with a heatproof spatula. Continue to cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture starts to boil. Clip a candy thermometer to the side of the pan and bring the syrup to the soft-ball stage, appox 240 degrees. (I use my espresso machine's thermometer!) Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the salt, the baking soda, and vanilla. Pour the caramel over the popcorn, coating as much as you can. Toss and coat. Toss and coat. Sprinkle with the peanuts. Use the spatula to fold the popcorn until it's completely coated with caramel. Toss and coat is the main action with this recipe! ;)
Place the roasting pan (or large cookie sheet) in the oven and bake for 15 minutes. Use a spatula to lift, flip, and coat the popcorn in the warm caramel, then continue baking for another 20 minutes. Cool the carmel popcorn in the pan/sheet for 5 minutes and transfer it to a lined sheet pan. (I just placed wax paper over my countertops.) Cool for appox 15 minutes and drizzle the chocolate in crisscross patterns over the top. Let the chocolate set before breaking the popcorn into serving-size pieces. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week. 


It's official. The moon said so.

Football season is in full-swing, the school supply section at Target is calling to me and I've already met my quota for Pumpkin Spiced Lattes at Starbucks. It can only mean one thing. Fall is here. 

In addition to donning my favorite scarf, the change of the season makes me crave the flavors of pumpkin, nutmeg, apples, cinnamon, cranberries and anything involving butternut squash. And while typically my fall baking consists of my grandmother's famous Pumpkin Cookies and Nigella's Guinness Chocolate Cake, this season I feel like building out my repertoire with some new takes on my favorite fall flavors. The list is growing but here's a start that should take me through at least October!

Martha Stewart's Marzipan Pumpkin Petit Fours
BAKED's Vanilla Bean Caramel Apples
Cake Love's Pumpkin Clove Pound Cake
The Boozy Baker's Hard Cider Apple Pie
Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It's Graham Crackers
Martha Stewart's Pumpkin Whoopie Pies
Epicurious Mocha-Hazelnut Macaroons

What's on your fall must-bake list?

(Photo: Martha Stewart)


Fall into Flavor :: Cornmeal-Thyme Cookies

It's barely September but the smell of fall is in the air...and in my kitchen. 
As a subscriber to Martha Stewart's Cookie-of-the-Day I get a daily dose of sweet inspiration delivered to my inbox each morning. This week's note spoke to me for some reason and I dove right in!!
As a fan of the salty/sweet, this was the perfect dish. Coupled with a touch of Molly Moon's Vanilla Bean ice cream it added a completely different taste and delivery to the dish. Tiny cookies, mini ice-cream sandwiches, huge taste! What's the saying? Good things come in small packages? In this case...they're right!! 

Click here for the cookie recipe. Once complete and completely cooled, add 1 tablespoon of vanilla ice cream between two like-sized cookies and freeze. Wrap in parchment paper to appropriately portion/package. I like to wrap with twine or a lovely ribbon for presentation!!


Olive Oil Cake - Easy. Exquisite. Italian.

No, the title is not a self-descriptor. It's simply the three words that come to mind when I think of my favorite Olive Oil Cake recipe. Last summer I was lucky enough to take an Italian Cooking Class from Diane Lavonne of Diane's Market Kitchen. Along with falling head over heels in love with the KitchenAid pasta attachment, adopting the Microplane as my new must-have tool and experiencing the stomach-turning ins and outs of cleaning a squid, I was introduced to a lovely Italian dessert (or dolce), the Olive Oil Cake. (Torta di olio di oliva - sounds heavenly, right?!)

This cake is not overwhelmingly sweet, it's light with a hint of citrus (freshly squeezed oranges add flavor and moisture to this cake) and it's relatively easy yet impressive. (Love it when those worlds collide!) Plus, it's the perfect dinner party cake to fill your home with a fragrant sweetness while baking. Just pop it into the oven when your guests arrive and by the time you're ready for some after-dinner espresso, it's ready and waiting!

Torta di olio di oliva - Servings: 12
3 eggs
1 1/4 cups sugar
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3/4 cup milk
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1 1/4 cups flour
pinch salt
1 orange, zested and juiced
1/2 cup pignolia, pine nuts
4 tbsp sugar, to top

Preheat oven to 350. Butter and flour a nine inch cake pan.
Mix together all of the dry ingredients.
In a large bowl, whisk eggs and 1 cup of sugar. Add olive oil, milk, juice and zest. Mix well. Add the dry ingredients and stir until smooth. Pour into prepared pan and top with pine nuts and remaining 1/4 cup of sugar. Bake for 40-50 minutes or until a tester comes out clean.


A Sweet (and salty) Spring

As quickly as corn syrup, sugar and a little water can transform into a sticky sweet caramel - poof! Spring is over. It passed so quickly and alas, I was post-free. Of course I haven't been sweets-free. In fact, there have been several tasty adventures over the past few months: a new love (aka recipe) became an old friend, dozens of cupcakes were pumped out for Seattle's first Cupcake Camp, I met the famous Johnny Cupcakes and checked several bakeries off the list during a recent trip to New York City. 

Here's a re-cap of my sweet (and salty) Spring:
Sweet? Check. Salty? Check. This cake has quickly shot to the top of my go-to cake list. While it is a labor of love (I'm averaging 4 hours!) the look, taste and praise is worth the constant focus of watching sugar caramelize. I've made this cake for a dinner party, an Easter brunch and a 40th birthday party - all to rave reviews. Whomever coined the phrase "that takes the cake" has not tried this one because I'm not sure who could take this! The boys from Baked share this recipe beautifully in their cookbook Baked: New Frontiers in Baking but of course Ms Martha had them on her show and shared the recipe here

7 hours in line...2 cupcakes. I've been a fan of t-shirt entrepreneur Johnny Cupcakes for a few years now - even shelled out $40 for a black cotton tee simply for the words: Make Cupcakes Not War. (How could you resist that mantra?) When I heard that Mr Johnny Cupcakes himself was hitting the road for a Suitcase Tour I marked the date on my calendar and cleared my schedule. By the time he made it to Seattle, word had traveled about the 8 hour waits, the fans camped out overnight, the craziness that was following Mr. Cupcakes. I admit, I was a little turned off by the hype but I guess it got the best of me because there I was, standing in line with the best of them...in hour 6, still no cupcakes. I was amazed at the following Johnny Cupcakes has created and the fact that people would stand in line for over 24 hours for t-shirts! (Heck, I was one of them. But let's be honest, I really just wanted a Johnny Cupcakes-branded cupcake from Trophy Cupcakes.) So, with the sun down and the temperatures headed down as well, I finally made it in the door to peruse the tiny selection of tees. I loaded up on stickers (they're so fun!) picked out the special Suitcase Tour tee and last, but certainly not least, bought two lovely cupcakes. Cupcakes with an edge. Was it ultimately worth it? Not really. Were the cupcakes amazing? Most definitely. Judge for yourself...check the video of Johnny Cupcakes in Seattle. 

Calling all campers! When I heard about Seattle's first Cupcake Camp (via @bellacupcakec) I knew it the kind of camping I could do - no sleeping bag or bug spray required. I immediately signed up to bake and donate 48 cupcakes. Enlisting some help from my dear friend Celeste, we gathered our ingredients and set aside our Friday night for some wine and lots of baking. We used a favorite recipe from the Barefoot Contessa...I call them "Fork and Knife Cupcakes." Rather than skimping on the serving and making minis, we produced full-fledge individual cakes. Dense cakes more fitting of a large mug rather than a "cup." When the big day finally came, we loaded up our creations and brought them bright and early to an event space in South Lake Union. We had no idea what to expect or what to do. One thing that was clear...we had arrived at the cupcake mecca. Tables and tables of beautiful creations. Smiling faces. Sugary air. While it was crowded and there were lessons-learned that I'm sure they'll apply to next year's event, it was a unique and tasty event - and one that I will most certainly participate in again next year. Maybe next time as a competitor! 

I heart New York. On a springtime trip to NYC, my sister, some of our friends and I packed our weekend visit with brunch, cocktails, shopping and bakeries! A favorite from the weekend? Brooklyn-based, One Girl Cookies. What can I say? They had me at the Pumpkin Whoopie Pie with ricotta cream cheese filling. (By the way, mark my words - I think the Whoopie Pie is the new cupcake.) One Girl Cookies is a beautiful store brimming with glorious petite cookies (so that you can enjoy two bites of this, two bites of that, oh, and two bites of that one too!) with lovely names like "Lucia" and "Sadie." It's the classic cookie...with class. It's girly and dainty and sinful at the same time. Their touch isn't only in their baked goods but of course the packaging as well. Each box comes complete with a vintage family photo. It's like you can smell the fresh baked cookies coming from their grandmother's kitchen...and right into your hands. A perfectly perfect stop in an otherwise less than perfect weekend. 


Makin' Whoopie...pies.

A dessert hamburger? A BFO (Big Fat Oreo)? Part cake? Part cookie? Dare I say...the new cupcake!?
"Whoopie Pies" have been a favorite sweet of mine since, well, long before I even had my first cupcake. Growing up in Maine they were regular fare at birthday parties, fancy restaurants, road side cafes and even gas stations. Heck, there's even a Whoopie Pie Festival! New Englanders claim them as their own, but according to Food Historians (and the wiki-gods) Amish women would bake these (known as "hucklebucks" at the time) and put them in farmers' lunchboxes. When farmers would find these treats in their lunch, they would shout "Whoopie!"
This baked good consists of two round-shaped mounds of chocolate (sometimes pumpkin) cake with a sweet, sugary, creamy frosting sandwiched between them. Simply put, this is a serious dessert! 
Over the weekend, my friend and fellow New Englander, celebrated her 40th birthday. To treat all of the party goers, I made a batch of Whoopie Pies, this time using a creamy peanut butter frosting in the middle.  They were a huge hit with the mostly west coast crowd. I used a Martha Stewart recipe but have to believe there's a more authentic/down-home one out there - sorry Martha! And speaking of more authentic/down-home items...here are some Whoopie-centric sites to learn more about these "wicked" good treats! 
- Wicked Whoopie Pies in Richmond, Maine
- Labadie's Bakery in Lewiston, Maine


Just for the "Helvetica" of it!

I just adore the internet! It enables me to connect with people like that * (insert snap!), it allows me to connect with my family and friends (or ex-boyfriends!) on a whim and provides me with endless amounts of inspiration and wants. Today's want?? Helvetica Cookie Cutters from Beverly Hsu. 

These creations combine two of my favorite things - cookies and type design. Helvetica, a tried and true typeface that has stood the test of time is the perfect pair for this classic treat. You could send a sugar cookie love letter! Make your resignation letter a bit more bearable or simply say "hello!" a little sweeter! 

Beverly Hsu...these are simply wonderful! I hope to one day add them to my cookie cutter collection!

Now...what would I spell....hmmmmmm....


Daily Dose of Martha

For the past 10 days, I've been receiving some daily (and delicious) inspirations from Martha Stewart. Her "Cookie of the Day" e-mails arrive in my inbox and provide a sweet nudge towards the kitchen. One glance at her Chocolate-Orange Espresso Thins, one mention of her Cigarettes Russes, one sentence into the description of her Mocha Madeleines and I'm ready to call it a day and head home to begin the baking. If you're looking for some new delights or a new twist on old favorites, Martha's Cookie of the Day provides a seemingly endless list of sweet inspirations. Which one will you bake tonight?