Monday, December 21, 2009

Cookie Contests and Cousins

When you write a cookbook, you often wonder who is making your recipes, which ones they are choosing, how much they are enjoying them, and what have you. I love getting emails from fans and it is even better when they send pictures (Hint, Hint). Well, it takes the cake when you get an email, pictures AND it's from family! Unbeknownst to me, my cousin Mindy Ruby, who lives outside of Chicago, was quite a busy baker last week. The first I heard of it, she Facebooked me and mentioned that she had made some of my cookies and entered a contest. I had no idea which cookies, but I wished her good luck.

Next thing I know, she announces on Facebook that she's won! Well, you can imagine that a flurry of emails immediately went back and forth. I had to know which cookies she baked, info about her competition, all the details. First of all, LOOK at these fabulous, chocolate chip packed turtle cookies, made by my cousin Mindy.

Here she is, looking as proud as she should! Mindy, well done!

Mindy says it is a bunch of Moms whose kids went to school together. They have been holding the contest for seven years! She won for Best Tasting and Best Appearance. She did Not win the Best Disaster in the Kitchen, which is one of the categories. Phew! They all bring 5 dozen cookies, drink champagne, enjoy appetizers and everyone goes home with an assortment of all the various cookies. My kind of party.

Here are the competitors, by looks alone....well....I am a bit biased:)

And the recipe. Enjoy. It is from A Baker's Field Guide to Chocolate Chip Cookies. Perfect for making this Xmas holiday with the kids home from school. It is one of those very tactile, project-y recipes that kids love to make.

Caramel Chocolate Turtle Cookies

Dough freezes well
Fun to make with kids

Type: Drop cookie

Description: These combine chocolate chip cookies with whole pecans, a layer of caramel and a bit of chocolate on top.

Field Notes: These look like little turtles, if you use your imagination! They are a take-off of caramel/chocolate/pecan turtle candies, but these incorporate chocolate chip cookie dough into the mix. Kids love to eat and to help make them.

45 square Kraft caramels
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into tablespoon-sized pieces
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
2 cups miniature semisweet chocolate morsels
3 2/3 cups pecans halves (you need 225 pecan halves; 5 per turtle)
12 ounces semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
2 tablespoons shortening

1. Unwrap each caramel (they are about 1-inch square and come individually wrapped) and press flat into a round shape to about 2-inches across using your fingers. You want to end up with a 2-inch flat circle about 1/4-inch thick; set aside.

2. Whisk flour, baking soda and salt together in a small bowl to aerate and combine; set aside.

3. In a large bowl with an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat butter until creamy, about 2 minutes. Add sugar and brown sugar gradually, beating until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes, scraping down the bowl once or twice; beat in vanilla, then beat in eggs. Add about one-third of flour mixture and mix on low speed. Gradually add remaining flour mixture, mixing just until blended. Stir in morsels. Chill dough for at least 2 hours or overnight. (You may freeze dough up to 1 month; defrost in refrigerator overnight before proceeding).

4. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper.

5. Drop dough by generously rounded tablespoon 3 inches apart on cookie sheets. Press 5 pecan halves into each cookie mound so that about one-quarter of each nut is embedded in the cookie. You want to situate them so that they look like a head and four feet; the rounded side should face up and they should be flat on the sheet (see photograph). Bake for about 10 minutes or until edges and tops have just begun to turn light golden brown. Center a caramel circle on top each cookie and return to oven for about 4 minutes, or until cookie is golden brown and caramel has softened, but not melted, and is now part of the cookie (it should be attached and almost melted onto it).

6. Place sheets on racks to cool cookies completely. Melt chocolate and shortening in top of double boiler or in microwave and stir until smooth. Pour into parchment cone; this is a lot of chocolate, so you will probably need to use a few cones. Snip a tiny opening and decorate the tops of the turtles. You can make spirals, cross-hatch patterns, zig-zags, etc. Place sheets in refrigerator to firm up chocolate before storing.

Lifespan: 4 days at room temperature in airtight container in single layers separated by waxed (or parchment) paper

Yield: 45 turtles

Good Cookie Tip: Make sure your pecan halves are intact and not chipped, slivered or broken. “Whole” pecan halves will make the best “feet” and “heads”.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Classes at Draeger's with Bissinger's Chocolate

I recently had the opportunity to teach two chocolate classes at Draeger's Markets, one in Blackhawk and one in San Mateo. I was featuring Bissinger's chocolate and holiday desserts from my book Unforgettable Desserts - with lots of do-ahead tips for the holidays. These stores are fabulous, from the very well-stocked book department
to the huge housewares department and their well-known, backlit gourmet section

Bissinger's display was complete with their exquisite chocolate dipped glaceed oranges (seen at the top of the blog entry), special holiday packaging, standards such as their caramel selection (you Have to try the Chardonnay Salt Caramel) and even a gigantic Santa.

Here is the display we arranged in the fabulous glass-walled teaching studio. On the left are the chocolate covered mints, the middle plate has bite-sized caramels and chocolate coconut clusters. The plate on the right has the amazing chocolate dipped oranges, which I can eat all day long.

The class was well attended and the teaching kitchen is the best I have worked in. There are the two screens showing my handiwork up close and with a maximum of about 30 people, everyone can see and hear easily.

I taught Easy-to-Make Holiday Desserts, all from my new book, Unforgettable Desserts. I strive to always point out where you can make components ahead. Especially at the holidays, anything that helps the host/baker save time is a boon! We made Florentine Bars with Candied Orange and Cherries, Blackout Cake, Spiced Pear and White Chocolate Tiramisu Trifle and Pomegranate Panna Cotta with Pomegranate Chocolate Sauce. The trifle first appeared on the 2007 cover of Bon Appetit magazine and you can find the recipe HERE. The photo was taken by Con Poulos (please check out his work) and my desserts have never looked so good.
Below in the foreground you can see the Blackout Cake in its entirety. I am whisking the pudding component in the pic. This incredibly rich, moist cake is super easy. The pudding, which acts as filling and "frosting", is made in one pot on the stove. The cake component can be whisked together in a bowl - no mixer needed. I'm telling you this is the Best birthday cake for chocolate lovers.

In this next picture you can almost see that I am using an offset spatula to spread the florentine topping on top of the par-baked shortbread base. Whenever you are spreading something in a pan like this, an offset spatula makes it a breeze.

Here I am sampling out the Florentine Bars (drizzled with Bissinger's 60% bittersweet chocolate) along with bite-sized samples of the panna cotta, here chilled in Bissinger's chocolate cups.

Try the Florentines today. They are also wonderful with bright red dried cranberries and candied lemon peel.

Florentine Bars with Candied Orange and Cherries

Makes 40 squares


2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into pieces

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Florentine filling:

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into pieces

2/3 cup sugar

1/3 cup heavy cream

3 tablespoons honey

1 cup sliced blanched almonds

1/2 cup dried cherries, chopped

1/2 cup diced candied orange peel

1/4 cup all-purpose flour


2 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate (such as Bissinger's 60%), melted

For the Shortbread: Position rack in middle of oven. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Coat a 13 x 9-inch pan with non-stick spray, line bottom with parchment cut to fit, then spray parchment.

Whisk flour and salt together in a small bowl to aerate and combine; set aside.

Beat butter until creamy with flat paddle on medium-high speed, about 2 minutes. Add sugar and continue to beat, about 3 minutes at medium-high speed, until very light and fluffy. Beat in the vanilla. Gradually add flour, mixing just until blended, scraping down bowl once or twice. Pat crust into an even layer in prepared pan.

Bake crust about 20 to 25 minutes or until just beginning to turn very light golden brown along the edges; it should be dry to the touch. Prepare filling while crust is baking.

For the Filling: Place butter, sugar cream and honey in a medium sized saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until butter melts. Turn heat to medium-high, bring to a boil and cook to 235 degrees F. Remove from heat and stir in nuts, fruit and flour until well combined.

Pour filling over partially baked crust and bake for about 20 to 25 minutes or until filling is bubbling all over and has turned light golden brown all over. Color might be darker around edges. Cool pan completely on rack.

For the Topping: Place melted chocolate in a parchment cone and make a free-form zigzag pattern all over the bars. Chill to set chocolate; cut into 40 bars (5x8). Refrigerate for up to 1 week in airtight container in single layers separated by parchment paper. Bring to room temperature before serving.

I could not have done it without the Draeger's staff. Check out their class schedule and sign up for classes if you can.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Peppermint Twist Cupcakes - Perfect for the Holidays

Here is a recipe for Peppermint Twist Cupcakes from my cupcake book, A Baker's Field Guide to Cupcakes. Great for bake sales, hostess gifts, school parties and snacks at home. Really great to make with kids home for the holidays. Please note that these cupcakes do not develop a large peak. Occasionally someone will write me and complain about the fact the cupcakes are flat-ish on top. I have developed my basic cupcake recipes to be this way deliberately as I think it is easier to frost and decorate them.

Peppermint Twist Cupcakes

Holiday/Event: Christmas/Winter

Description: These feature chocolate cake studded with bits of minty candy cane. Crowning the top is a swirl of white chocolate buttercream with more crushed candy cane sprinkled on top.

Field Notes: These are very simple to prepare, but look fancy. The best way to crush the candy canes is to place them in a sturdy plastic bag, then crush them with a rolling pin by alternately rolling over them and wacking them. You can try a food processor fitted with a metal blade, but it will make a huge racket!

Special Characteristics: Fun to make with kids, Extra fancy


18 white or Christmas themed paper liners

1 batch Chocolate Cupcakes

1 3/4 cups crushed red and white candy canes (pieces should be no larger than 1/4-inch)

1 batch Italian Meringue Buttercream

7 ounces white chocolate, melted and slightly cooled

Pastry bag

Large star tip


  1. Prepare Chocolate Cupcakes batter according to directions through step #3. Fold in 3/4 cup crushed peppermint candy canes. Bake as directed. Cool.

  1. Prepare Italian Meringue Buttercream through Step #5. Beat in the 7 ounces of cooled melted white chocolate. Using pastry bag and large star tip, frost each cupcake with a large swirl on top. Sprinkle remaining crushed candy canes on top of cupcakes. Cupcakes are now ready to serve.

Yield: 18 minty cupcakes

Lifespan: Cupcakes may be baked two days ahead; frosted cupcakes are best served the same day. Store in airtight container.

Chocolate Cupcakes


1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup sifted Dutch-processed cocoa

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into small pieces

1 1/3 cups sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 large eggs, at room temperature

1 cup whole milk


1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line one 12-cup cupcake tin and one 6-cup cupcake tin with paper liners.

2. Whisk flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt together in a small bowl to aerate and combine; set aside.

3. In a large bowl with an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat butter until creamy, about 2 minutes. Add sugar gradually, beating until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes, scraping down the bowl once or twice; beat in vanilla. Beat in eggs one at a time, scraping down after each addition, allowing each egg to be absorbed before continuing. Add the flour mixture in four additions, alternately with the milk. Begin and end with the flour mixture and beat briefly until smooth on low-medium speed after each addition.

4. Divide batter evenly in pans. Bake for about 22 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center shows a few moist crumbs.

5. Cool pan on rack for 5 minutes then remove cupcakes to a cooling rack to cool completely.

Yield: 18 cupcakes

Lifespan: 2 days at room temperature in airtight container; 1 week frozen in airtight container'

Italian Meringue Buttercream


Scant 2/3 cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar

1/4 cup water

4 large egg whites, at room temperature

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into small pieces


1. Place 2/3 cup of sugar and water in a small pot. Stir to wet sugar. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, swirling pan occasionally. Dip pastry brush in cold water and wash down sugar crystals from the sides of the pot once or twice. Turn down heat to simmer gently.

2. Meanwhile, place the whites in your clean, grease-free mixing bowl and whip until frothy on low speed using balloon whip attachment to standing mixer. Add cream of tartar and turn speed up to medium-high. When soft peaks form, add 3 tablespoons sugar gradually. Continue whipping until stiff, glossy peaks form. (This is the meringue part of the buttercream and the frosting may be used as this point for a low fat, marshmallow like frosting; this must be used immediately).

3. Bring the sugar/water mixture to a rapid boil and cook until it reaches 248 to 250 degrees F. As syrup cooks look for visual clues to assess temperature. It starts out thin with many small bubbles over the entire surface. The water will begin to evaporate and the mixture will become thicker. The bubbles get larger and sticky and pop open more slowly. At this point the syrup definitely looks thickened, but it has not begun to color; this is the firm ball stage. If you drop a bit of the syrup into a glass of cold water it will form into a ball. When you squeeze the ball between your fingertips it will feel firm.

4. When syrup is ready pour a thin, steady stream over meringue, without pouring any on the rotating whip or the sides of the bowl. Whip meringue until cool. When the bowl is no longer warm, stop the machine and touch the surface of the meringue with your finger to double check that it is cooled. Turn the machine back on medium speed and add butter, a couple tablespoons at a time. Keep beating until the buttercream is completely smooth.

Yield: about 3 1/2 cups

Lifespan: May be refrigerated in airtight container for 1 week or frozen up to 1 month (If frozen, defrost in refrigerator overnight and bring to warm room temperature before re-beating. In this case I highly suggest warming it in the microwave before whipping.)

Cupcake Mania

Cupcakes are alive and well in Amherst, MA, more specifically in the dining commons of UMASS. I live only 5 minutes away and for the last few years I have made a fall appearance to give away books to students and help (wo)man a do-it-yourself cupcake bar.

My friend Simon Stevenson is head of the pastry shop for the dining commons (DC) and his staff makes recipes from my book, A Baker’s Field Guide to Cupcakes (Harvard Common Press). We create a long buffet table and set out chocolate, yellow and carrot cake cupcakes as well as vanilla, chocolate and Oreo frostings. Also included are several color variations of the vanilla – yellow, green, orange, blue and pink. Some of the frostings are in bowls with icing spatulas at hand, while others are in piping bags fitted with star tips, leaf tips and small rounds. The serpentine table is rounded out with candies and toppings galore: M&Ms, Reece’s Pieces, crushed Oreo cookies, crushed chocolate cookies for the “Dirt & Worm Cookies, cinnamon red-hots, coconut, jimmies and sprinkles of all colors and many different tiny sugar d├ęcor candies. The idea is to take a cupcake of choice (or more realistically, a few cupcakes) and frost and decorate to your heart’s content. I offer design ideas, encourage students with their piping skills and just schmooze and chat about food and baking. Every now and then there is a particularly enthusiastic student; that’s when I whip out a book from under the table and offer it to them, with a personalization. It is a fun evening – albeit sugar, butter and calorie laden.

And then there are the worms. We discovered the first year that we did this that basically it appears that UMASS students thrive on gummi worms. Oh, sure, they take them one by one to place on their cupcakes, but they also take them by the tong-full, transferred to their plate, whether they are decorating cupcakes or not. Handful after handful after handful. I teased the DC manager that they could charge 5 cents per worm and fund the entire dining commons budget. We went through 80 pounds in about 2 hours. We could have easily gone through double – and gummi worms are light! That’s a lot of worms! My theory is that since they are “fat-free” they are one of those foods that people think they can eat with nutritional impunity. They also have a satisfying chew, and I have certainly been known to enjoy them, so it is not that far fetched that if you are a poor hungry college student and you have the opportunity to load up on this treat, that you might just take advantage.

This one girl mastered multi-tasking: chatting on the phone while piping at the same time.

Here are a few young men who were very proud of their creations. There are always as many men as women who partake in our cupcake event; baking and decorating know no boundaries.

It takes a lot of concentration if you have never used a piping bag before.

This girl decided to re-create the sunflower cupcake from the cover of the book.

Here is a picture at the end of the evening I could feel the cookie crumbs and candies underneath my feet on the floor as well. Hey any good party has this kind of aftermath!