HoMmme-Made Vanilla Extract

Vanilla Beans generic

Many baking recipes call for the same ingredients: sugar, flour, eggs, butter, vanilla. So if two people make the same recipe, why don’t they taste the same?

Sure, technique matters when baking, as do tools like pans, ovens, mixers, and so on. Don’t worry, this post won’t turn into a chemistry lesson. BUT, what if there was a simple way to take your baking to the next level?

Hint: use quality ingredients. If a recipe calls for butter, and you use “I can’t believe people think this is butter”, it’s not going to be the same!

I’ve found that vanilla packs a big punch on the overall taste of the final product. But as you’re probably aware, most grocery stores sell one or two kinds of pure vanilla extract, sitting on the shelf right next to the imitation vanilla (so tempting, at a fraction of the cost of pure extract!)

One alternative is to make your own vanilla extract. It’s almost as easy as boiling water, I promise. Here’s what you need:

  • 1 cup quality vodka
  • 3 (or more) Vanilla beans
  • 1 glass, airtight bottle

VanillaScore each vanilla bean along the length of the bean with a sharp knife and drop into the glass bottle. Using a small funnel (or a steady hand), pour the vodka over the vanilla beans. Cap and shake gently. Then wait.

Every few days, give the bottle a shake. You’ll notice that the vodka will become dark and very fragrant. After about 8 weeks, the extract is ready to use. It’s not necessary to remove the vanilla beans; the longer the beans sit in the alcohol, the stronger the flavor.

I encourage you to explore the tastes that are out there for different varieties of vanilla. I’ve found a website – Beanilla – that offers several kinds of beans available for purchase. If you live near The Spice House, Penzeys, or similar, they also sell vanilla beans in their stores. I’ve found suitable bottles at places like Homegoods or even the dollar store!

You can also explore making your own extract with other spirits, such as rum. I just finished a batch with rum, and it add a sweet layer to the extract that doesn’t exist with vodka.

So impress your friends, make a few as gifts, and take your baking to the next level!

Simple Yet Delicious [Blackberry] Pies

blackberry crumble pieConfession: I don’t really care for cooked fruit. So, many pies for me are just…ok. But, I’m getting over this either due to aging tastes (booo) or maturity (that sounds better).

What I now like in a fruit pie: Fruit that’s not slimy. Crumble top. And lots of whipped cream!

What I love about fruit pies is that they are really easy to make. I mean, very little measuring, you can cheat with a pre-made crust (I won’t tell anyone), and it won’t be runny if you use this:

Kraft Minute Tapioca.

This will make fruit pies juicy but not runny. No soggy crusts! Bonus: there’s recipes for fruit pies right on the box. And that’s what I use.  Ta Da! TIP: mix the fruit of your choice in a bowl, with the tapioca, sugar, and any other flavors you wish to add (such as lemon juice). Mix well, it’s ok if some of the fruit starts to break down a bit. Let sit for 15 minutes. Stir again. You want there to be some sticky, awesome, delicious sweetened fruit juice at the bottom of the bowl. And don’t worry, the little white bits of tapioca will cook (disappear) into the pie as it bakes.

Whatever berries you chose (here I use blackberries and strawberries), the pie will be better with a crumble crust. At least that’s what my husband says.

CrumbleEasy Crumble Crust

  • 1/3 cup butter, slightly softened (approximately, see note below)
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup oats
  • 1/2 teaspoon of pie spice (or cinnamon, if you prefer)
  • Optional add in: 1/4 cup chopped toasted pecans

Using your fingers (or, if you’re picky, a pastry blender or fork), mix the butter into the dry ingredients. As the butter softens and incorporates, it will start to stick together when squeezed, but crumble easily. This is the texture you want!

strawberry blackberry crumble pieNote: if your crumble is too dry, add more butter one tablespoon at a time. If your crumble is too moist, add more flour one tablespoon at a time. Too much butter will melt the crumble into the pie, too little will leave dry, loose crumbs at the top of the pie. But it will still taste delicious, don’t worry!

Serve with vanilla ice cream or fresh whipped cream.

Chef Dennis’ Pineapple Cake

I’m trying really hard to learn to like cooked fruit. So when a neighbor brought me a whole pineapple, I knew a) I wouldn’t be able to eat it all and b) I don’t really love pineapple upside down cake. What’s an alternative?

Thanks to Google I was able to find Ask Chef Dennis… A blog with this fantastic recipe.

Butter + Fresh Pineapple
Ready for the oven…

My only modification was, instead of just powdered sugar, I made a glaze using 2 Tbls of the cooled leftover pineapple juice butter, a squeeze of lemon juice, powdered sugar and just enough milk to thin to the right consistency.

Thanks to Chef Dennis for this great alternative to pineapple upside down cake!

Tastes like summer…

Bag Your Traditional Chocolate Chip Recipe – And Make These Instead

chocolate chip cookies
Triple Chocolate Chip and Dark Chocolate Chip Pecan

I’ll keep this one simple: This is a better recipe than is on the back of your bag of chocolate chips, AND its easier to measure (and therefore, easy to memorize). Nothing with impress your mother-in-law more than making cookies from scratch by memory. It’s also great for new bakers, as the only equipment needed is a cookie sheet, a 1-cup measure, and a 1-teaspoon measure.

This is a recipe roughly taken from the recipe book I received with my Kitchenaid, but modified to work with a hand mixer.

Full disclosure: I think hand mixers make for better cookies, as you can ensure the ingredients are incorporated throughout the batter (and with less bowl scraping). But you are also welcome to use a stand mixer, especially if you want to double this recipe.

Chocolate Chip Batter

Ingredients

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup light brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 12 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips

Directions

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Sift/mix together flour, baking soda, and salt and set aside.

Using a hand mixer at medium (3) speed, mix butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 2-3 minutes. Add eggs and vanilla, and mix to incorporate.

Gradually add (about a cup at a time) the flour mixture, using the hand mixer at low speed so the flour stays in the bowl. You may need to mix the final cup of flour by hand depending on your mixer’s power.

Add the chocolate chips and stir by hand.

Scoop (or drop) by teaspoonfuls onto a ungreased baking sheet. I always bake with a parchment paper-lined sheet, because hey – no cleanup! Bake for 10-12 minutes, remove from the oven and allow to sit on the cookie sheet for about 2 minutes before moving each cookie to a rack to complete cooling.

 

 

Orange You Glad You Made This Pumpkin Bread

Side View - Pumpkin Bundt

This recipe is based upon my desire to bring a pumpkin dessert to Thanksgiving dinner that covers four bases:

  1. Tastes great,
  2. Looks impressive,
  3. Is easy to make,
  4. Isn’t pumpkin pie.

This bread is in the spirit of autumn and all its pumpkin spice greatness; the cheesecake layer adds an element of tart richness people appreciate around the holidays. Bonus: it really is easy to make, and it’s delicious with coffee (breakfast, anyone?)

Ingredients

Step 1: Cheesecake Layer

  • 1 package (8 oz) of cream cheese or Neufchatel cheese, softened
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tbls all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp orange extract

Don’t be intimidated by the orange extract. It adds a mild hint of flavor that gives depth to the cheesecake layer.

Step 2: Pumpkin Layer

  • 1 2/3 cups of all-purpose flour
  • 1 ½ cups of granulated sugar
  • 1 cup pumpkin puree (not ready-made pie filling)
  • 2 eggs
  • ½ cup vegetable oil
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • ½ tsp salt
  • ½ tsp of cinnamon
  • ½ tsp pumpkin pie spice

Step 3: Orange Glaze

  • 1 ½ cups powdered (confectioners) sugar
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons orange juice

Directions

Preheat oven to 325º. Grease a Bundt (standard 12 cup) or standard (9″ x 5″) loaf pan.

In a medium mixing bowl, combine all ingredients of Step 1: cream cheese, ½ cup sugar, egg, 1 tablespoon flour, and orange extract. Using a hand mixer, beat at medium speed until smooth and set aside.

Using the ingredients in Step 2: Sift flour, baking soda, cinnamon, pie spice, and salt into a medium bowl, set aside.

In a large bowl, combine pumpkin puree, eggs, oil, and sugar, beat on medium speed until well blended. Fold in the spiced flour mixture into the pumpkin mixture until just combined.

batterAdd approximately half of the pumpkin batter to the pan, gently smooth the surface of the batter to ensure an even layer. Top the pumpkin batter with dollops of the cream cheese mixture, using a spoon or small scoop; again smoothing to ensure there’s a cheesechake layer throughout the bread. Top the cream cheese layer with the remaining pumpkin batter.

No need to swirl the layers – the idea is to have a yummy, creamy layer of cheesecake in the middle!

Bake for approximately 60 minutes (slightly less time for the Bundt pan, slightly more for the loaf pan) until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.

Remove from the oven and allow to slightly cool. If using a Bundt pan, invert to a wire rack to continue cooling after about 10 minutes cooling in the pan.

For Step 3, the orange glaze: Sift the powdered sugar into a small mixing bowl. Add 2 tablespoons of orange juice, mix well. Slowly add additional orange juice until the glaze is a thick, yet pourable consistency. Drizzle atop the cooled pumpkin bread, add sprinkles if desired. (Tip: if cooling on a wire rack, set the bread, on the rack, in your sink, then drizzle with glaze. The extra glaze will drip into the sink, allowing easy clean up!)

Store loosely covered at room temperature – if chilled, allow to warm slightly to ensure the cheesecake layer softens.

“Better Than The Box” Chocolate Brownies

Baked brownies
This could be on your plate in about 45 minutes. 

I have a baking confession: for a long time, I had trouble finding a brownie recipe that was better than your standard boxed recipe. There’s something too easy about adding egg, oil and water to a mix and pulling rich, gooey deliciousness out of the oven 30 minutes later. Then comes the guilt: not because of the calories, but because… well, there’s a lot of “stuff” in those boxed mixes. Artificial flavor. Partially hydrogenated oils. I’ve tried lots of brownie recipes, but they’re all so much work for such a slightly better brownie. (Did I ever mention I’m lazy?)

Then I found this recipe, which I’ve modified slightly from Baking Illustrated(P.S. Buy the book, its awesome). It’s the perfect combo of delicious, without a lot of work.

You can alter the intensity of these brownies by using a slightly darker or lighter chocolate.

  • 5 oz of 70% dark chocolate, chopped/broken into chunks. (That’s one whole 3.5 oz bar (10 squares), plus 4 squares, if you don’t have a scale)
  • 2 oz of unsweetened chocolate, chopped into chunks. (Half box of Baker’s Unsweetened)
  • 1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter
  • 3 tablespoons cocoa powder, such as Hersey’s Special Dark.
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup toasted chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 350°. Grease a 8 inch square baking pan.

cut and panIn a small, heavy saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. Add the chopped chocolates and stir continuously until the chocolate is melted. Remove from heat, and whisk in the cocoa powder. Set aside to cool slightly.

Mix eggs, sugar, vanilla extract and salt in a medium bowl. Whisk in the melted chocolate mixture until well blended. Add the flour, stir until combined. Spread into the pan, top with toasted pecans. Bake 35 – 40 minutes.

Allow to cool until room temperature (if you can wait). These brownies supposedly last “up to 5 days in the refrigerator” but how did they figure this out? Mine never last that long!

 

 

 

“SO GOOD” Chocolate Almond Cupcakes

Finished From Above

It doesn’t take much for me to be inspired. I wanted to try to create a chocolate almond cupcake because I had a whole bunch of chocolate covered almonds sitting on my counter and thought, well those two flavors should be in a cupcake.

And here we are.

These are named “SO GOOD” because that’s what people kept saying when they tried them. (Thanks, everyone that tried one!) They are also “SO GOOD” because they’re really pretty easy to make. Win/win.

This is a marble cupcake – part chocolate, part almond, with a chocolate almond frosting.

For the Chocolate Cake Batter
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup of cocoa powder (I used Hershey’s Special Dark)
1¼ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1 2/3 cups granulated sugar
1/3 cup canola oil
2 eggs
1/3 cup milk (I used 1%)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup hot coffee (I used instant coffee added to boiling water, or use your favorite brand)

For the Almond Cake Batter
2/3 cups all-purpose flour, or 1/3 cup flour and 1/3 cup almond meal (I used almond meal for added texture/flavor)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2½ tablespoons canola oil
1 egg
2½ tablespoons milk
1 teaspoons almond extract
1/2 cup boiling water

Preheat oven to 350º. Line a cupcake pan with paper cups, or grease each cup. This recipe makes 20 – 24 cupcakes, which I made in 2 batches of 12.

For the chocolate batter:

  1. Sift flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt into a large mixing bowl. Add sugar and blend well. Using an electric mixer on low, mix in canola oil. Mixture will be relatively dry and crumbly at this point.
  2. Again on low speed, mix in eggs, milk, and vanilla extract. Add hot coffee and mix until just blended.  Set aside.

For the almond batter:

  1. Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt into a medium mixing bowl. Whisk in almond flour, if using, and sugar. Using an electric mixer, mix in canola oil, same as described in the chocolate batter steps.
  2. Mix in egg, milk, and almond extract. Carefully add the boiling water and mix until blended.

Prep for baking:

This cupcake is approximately 2/3 chocolate cake and 1/3 almond cake. I used a medium sized cookie scoop (holds about 2 tablespoons) to prep.

  • Fill 12 lined cups about 1/2 full with chocolate batter. (This is about 2 scoops worth of batter. If you don’t have a cookie scoop, please consider buying one because they’re great for prepping desserts other than cookies!)
  • Add one heaping scoop of almond batter right on top of the chocolate batter. Repeat for each cupcake. Each cupcake gets one almond batter scoop (two heaping tablespoons).
  • Using a clean butter knife, gently swirl the almond batter into the chocolate batter. Use a light touch – the almond batter is slightly heavier than the chocolate, if you’re using the almond meal, and we don’t want it all to sink to the bottom!
  • If you have extra batter, make an all-almond or all chocolate cupcake – don’t waste the batter! 🙂

Bake the cupcakes for 25-27 minutes. Check for doneness at about the 22 minute mark – a toothpick inserted into the middle should come out clean.

Don’t overbake cupcakes! Time will vary depending on the type of pan, amount of batter in each cup, and oven variations. Trust the toothpick method to get it right.

While the cupcakes bake, make the frosting (recipe below).

Pre-Frosted Cupcakes
Cupcakes, Unfrosted

When finished baking, let the cupcakes rest in the pan for a couple of minutes to set. Remove and place on a cooling rack.

Chocolate Almond Frosting

1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup vegetable shortening (I used regular Crisco)
3 – 4 cups confectioners (powdered) sugar
1/2 cup cocoa powder (I used Hersey’s Special Dark)
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
Chocolate covered almonds for decoration

Sift together 3 cups of confectioners sugar and cocoa powder. Using an electric mixer on medium speed, blend the butter and vegetable shortening until well blended.  Add almond extract, mix well. About 1/2 cup at a time, add the confectioners sugar/cocoa powder blend. If frosting isn’t sweet enough for your taste, or if you like a firmer icing, add the additional confectioners sugar and blend on medium-high speed, until light and well mixed.

Frost cupcakes once they are cooled completely.

I topped half of the cupcakes with crushed chocolate covered almonds. I froze them for about 30 minutes and chopped them in a food processor. Or, feel free to add one whole chocolate covered almond to the top of each cupcake. The other half I topped with a piece of salted almond chocolate bar.

Cover to store. Refrigerate finished cupcakes if not eaten within a day or so, but bring to room temperature before serving (or the frosting will be stiff). Enjoy!

Finished Close

Brown Sugar Chocolate Chip Bars: AKA Congo Squares

Congo Bars Closeup
Damon Lee Fowler’s “Aunt Margaret’s Congo Squares”

When I make a version of chocolate chip cookies, and there’s no vanilla in the recipe, I’m immediately weary. Why? I’m an amateur  baker – shouldn’t I trust the professionals?

This time, I do. I trust Damon Lee Fowler and his guide New Southern Baking. 

These prep in no time. Ok, maybe 5-10 minutes. No recipe modifications or adjustments needed.

Why is this recipe beautiful?

  • The bars are delicious.
  • You don’t have to remember to take butter out of the fridge (“softened”); it uses melted butter.
  • In the time it takes to pre-heat your oven, the bars are prepped and ready to go in.

Fortunately, Mr. Fowler’s recipe is not only available in his book (buy it on Amazon), but it’s posted online, thanks to the Savannah Morning News.

I should stress that these are not your standard “chocolate chip cookie bars”. They have rich, brownie-like texture and a depth of flavor from brown sugar/toasted pecan combination that’s not found in a basic toll-house.

Try these! You probably have everything you need in your cupboard, right now…

Congo Bars Plated
This plate was full for 30 seconds. 

Snicker DO doodles

image

The cool thing about cooking bloggers is we do the research so you don’t have to, right?

Tonight’s super quick recipe is a homemade batch of snickerdoodles. Butter, shortening,  sugar, flour… The only thing you may need to swing by the store for is Cream of Tartar. But it’s essential! Oh, and you’ll need to log in to a (free!) account to America’s Test Kitchen. The recipe is here, it’s great, and I promise you won’t mess it up. Just one Drunken Cookie tip:

If you have a choice between a regular cookie baking sheet and an insulated sheet, use the regular sheet. You want the crinkle top characteristic of a classic snickerdoodle, and my cookies on the insulated sheet didn’t “fall” as they cooled. (Still delicious, of course.)

image

Trust me, this recipe is worth the free registration. Your kitchen will smell amazing, and your friends will think you deserve your own baking blog.