Saturday, December 31, 2011

Best of The Nonpareil Baker 2011

Statement of the obvious fact that 2011 is over.

Sentimental musings about what a great year it was and how quickly it passed (e.g., "It seems like just yesterday I was making Valentine's Day cookies!"), followed by a clich├ęd statement about my hopes for the new year. Ardent declaration of my new year's resolution(s) and/or why I'm not making any new year's resolutions.

Generic statement of my wish that the new year brings you happiness / prosperity / health / love / success / self-actualization.

Possible played-out joke about "seeing you next year."


...Alllright. Are we good with that? Can we move on to the most-viewed list now?

Because I can totally throw in some Auld Lang Syne lyrics if you want me to. I'll even italicize them.

No? Juuust checking.



I had planned to make a separate list of my personal favorite recipes from the past year, but it turned out that several of them made the top ten. I knew I liked you guys!

Listed below (in no particular order) are six recipes that didn't quite make the cut, but absolutely could not be left out:



And now if you'll excuse me, I must return to my new year's eve celebration.

Which, if you really want to know, mostly consists of drinking diet root beer, sitting next to a snoring bulldog, and witnessing the complete butchery of a beloved Beatles song by the most awkward pairing of performing artists ever conceived.

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Monday, December 26, 2011

Homemade Christmas Gifts


So Christmas is over. Wah wah.

It's depressing, right? I mean, at least for me, the excitement has been building since I ordered my first Pumpkin Spice Latte of the year back in September.

That either makes sense to you or it doesn't.

Also, can we just agree to ignore how troubling it is that I use Starbucks seasonal drink launches as points of reference in my life?

If I were a normal food blogger, I would probably be giving you ideas for New Year's Eve right now. But remember how I said in my last post that I had SOmany/seventobeexact recipes to share with you? Most of them are recipes for the homemade Christmas gifts I made this year.

And obbbviously I couldn't reveal those before Christmas, so I'm sharing them with you now!

For my coworkers, I made homemade hot cocoa mix and homemade marshmallows. This was my first experience using a candy thermometer (other than that one time I made doughnuts... and that other time too), and it was actually a lot less scary than I thought it would be. Anyone can do this!





For my sister, I made chocolate chip cookie dough truffles. They are decidedly one of the best things I've ever eaten.

Too bad they don't pair well with new year's resolutions.




For my mom, I made chocolate almond toffee. Also using a candy thermometer and also not nearly as difficult as I thought it would be. Butter and sugar do all the work.



For my dad, I made chocolate-covered buttercream cherries. They take at least a week to make, but they are so, so, SO much better than the ones you buy at the grocery store.

My dad specifically asked that no one give him chocolate-covered cherries for Christmas this year since he usually receives several boxes and can't eat them all. Being the dutiful child I am, I completely ignored his request and made them for him anyway. He was not disappointed.






I know I completely failed you by waiting to post these until after Christmas, but just think what perfect Valentine's Day gifts they would make! Homemade candy vs. Whitman's Sampler? No contest. Sorry, Whitman's. It's just the truth.

Then again, you could always tuck these recipes away for next Christmas. 361 days? The countdown starts now.

Hot Cocoa Mix
Adapted from King Arthur Flour

2 cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 & 1/2 cups milk chocolate chips
3/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup cocoa powder

Directions:

1. Combine the sugar and vanilla in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until combined.

2. Add both types of chocolate chips to the bowl and pulse until the chocolate is finely ground and combined with the vanilla sugar.

3. Add the cocoa powder to the bowl and pulse until thoroughly mixed with the other ingredients. Check to make sure that no large chunks of chocolate remain.

To use the mix: Add 1/4 cup cocoa mix to 8 ounces hot milk. Stir until the cocoa mix dissolves completely.

Makes about 6 cups of cocoa mix.

Vanilla Marshmallows
Adapted from King Arthur Flour

3/4 ounce unflavored gelatin
1 cup cool water, divided
1 & 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vanilla
powdered sugar, for dusting

Directions:

1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, combine the gelatin and 1/2 cup water. Coat a 9x13-inch pan with nonstick spray or grease with shortening.

2. In a deep saucepan over medium heat, combine the sugar, corn syrup, salt, and 1/2 cup water. Stir the mixture until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat to high and cook (without stirring) until the mixture reaches 240°F on a candy thermometer.

3. With the mixer running on low speed, pour the hot syrup into the gelatin mixture. Increase the mixer speed to high and beat for 8-10 minutes or until the mixture is thick and fluffy. Toward the end of the mixing, add the vanilla.

4. Transfer the marshmallow to the prepared pan and use wet hands to spread it to the edges and smooth the surface. Sprinkle the surface with powdered sugar and allow the marshmallows to set for at least three hours before cutting. Use a greased knife to cut the marshmallows into squares or use a cookie cutter for shaped marshmallows.

Makes about 100 one-inch marshmallows.

Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Truffles
Adapted from Joy the Baker

1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup brown sugar
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup Greek yogurt
2 teaspoons vanilla

2 & 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda (for flavor)
1 & 1/2 teaspoons salt

2 cups chocolate chips
chocolate almond bark, for dipping

Directions:

1. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter for about one minute at medium speed. Add the sugars and beat about two minutes more. Add the yogurt and vanilla and mix until combined.

2. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt. Add the flour mixture to the butter and sugar and mix at low speed until combined. Stir in the chocolate chips.

3. Form the cookie dough into one-inch balls and place them on a cookie sheet lined with wax paper. Freeze for at least three hours before dipping.

4. When you're ready to dip, melt the chocolate almond bark according to the package directions. Remove the cookie dough balls from the freezer and dip each one in the melted chocolate, coating completely. Return the balls to the wax paper to set. To decorate, drizzle any remaining melted chocolate over the balls in a zigzag pattern. Store in the refrigerator.

Makes about 30 one-inch truffles.

Chocolate Almond Toffee
Adapted from King Arthur Flour

1 cup salted butter
1 & 1/2 cups granulated sugar
3 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
2 cups slivered almonds, toasted
16 ounces semisweet chocolate chips

Directions:

1. Spread half of the almonds in a closely-packed single layer on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Sprinkle half of the chocolate chips over the almonds.

2. Melt the butter in a large, deep saucepan over medium heat. Add the sugar, water, and corn syrup and stir to combine. Bring the mixture to a boil, and allow it to boil gently until it reaches 300°F on a candy thermometer. Be sure to watch the temperature closely because the mixture will burn quickly if left on the heat too long.

3. Pour the hot syrup evenly over the almonds and chocolate. Immediately sprinkle the remaining chocolate chips evenly over the syrup, followed by the remaining almonds. Wait one or two minutes, then use a spatula to gently press the chocolate and almonds into the syrup and spread the chocolate evenly over the surface.

4. Cool completely before cutting into squares or breaking into uneven pieces.

Makes about 24 pieces.

Chocolate-Covered Buttercream Cherries
Adapted from Bakergirl

30 maraschino cherries with stems (about one 10-ounce jar)
1 cup powdered sugar
1 & 1/2 tablespoons butter, softened
1 & 1/2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1 tablespoon shortening

Directions:

1. Drain the cherries and pat dry with paper towels. Combine the powdered sugar, butter, corn syrup, and salt in a small bowl and mix with a hand mixer for about one minute. The mixture will look like dry powdered sugar. Using clean hands, knead the mixture until it forms a smooth ball. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for one hour.

2. Divide the dough into 1/2-inch balls. Flatten each ball into a 2-inch circle with the palm of your hand. Wrap one circle around each cherry so that they are covered completely. Place the cherries on a baking sheet lined with wax paper. Cover and refrigerate for one hour.

3. Combine the chocolate chips and shortening in a small bowl and microwave for 30-second intervals until completely melted. Stir until smooth. Hold each cherry by the stem and dip into the chocolate, allowing the excess to drip off. Return the cherries to the wax paper and refrigerate until hardened. Transfer the cherries to a covered container and refrigerate for one to two weeks before serving.

Makes about 30 chocolate-covered cherries.

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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Lofthouse-Style Sugar Cookies with Vanilla Buttercream


I have SO many recipes that I want to share with you! Seven, to be exact.

One has been in the works for over a week. It's okay to be impressed.

Two are dipped in chocolate.

Two require a candy thermometer. Totally not as scary as it sounds.

One is the embodiment of all my childhood hopes and dreams. Seriously.

Two have actual fruit in them. From the produce section... where there are vegetables. I don't know how this happened.

One is covered in a crumbly mixture of flour, butter, and brown sugar.

One is in the oven at this very moment!

And one is thick, impossibly soft, frosted sugar cookies.


Most of the people I've talked to aren't familiar with the Lofthouse brand name, but almost everyone knows what "those really soft frosted sugar cookies they sell in the grocery store bakery" are. Right? I know you know!

These cookies are exactly like those. Except they're homemade. And a thousandmillion times better.

I know it's Christmas Eve and I probably should have posted this a few days weeks ago... but that doesn't mean it's too late! You need something to do between opening presents and eating hickory honey ham tomorrow, right?

I thought so. Merry Christmas!


Lofthouse-Style Sugar Cookies
Adapted from Sing For Your Supper

4 & 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
4 & 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 & 1/2 cups butter, softened
1 & 1/2 cups sugar
3 eggs
1 tablespoon + 2 teaspoons vanilla

Directions:

1. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter for about one minute at medium speed. With the mixer running, gradually add the sugar and cream for about one minute more. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing well after each. Stir in the vanilla.

3. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the dry ingredients. Mix only until all of the flour is incorporated and the dough is uniform. Wrap the dough in plastic warp and chill for at least one hour.

4. When you are ready to bake the cookies, preheat the oven to 350°F. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and allow it to thaw slightly--just enough that you can easily roll it out.

5. Working with half of the dough at a time, roll the dough out to 1/4-inch thickness on a lightly floured surface. Use a cookie cutter to cut out shapes and transfer them to the prepared baking sheets. Re-roll the dough as many times as needed.

6. Bake the cut-out cookies for 10-12 minutes or just until set. Be careful not to overbake! The cookies will likely not brown at all. Cool completely before frosting.

Vanilla Buttercream

1 cup butter
5 cups powdered sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons milk
2 teaspoons vanilla

Directions: Combine the powdered sugar and salt in a medium bowl. In a separate small bowl, combine the milk and vanilla. Cream the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer for about one minute at medium speed. Reduce the speed to low and add the powdered sugar about 1/2 cup at a time. Once all of the sugar is incorporated, add the milk and vanilla. Increase the speed to medium and beat for about two minutes or until the frosting is light and fluffy.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Birthday #24 + Leavenworth 2011

 










Saturday, December 10, 2011

Gingerbread Loaf with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting


I know I already wrote a post about Christmas songs, but seriously? We need to talk about The Twelve Days of Christmas.

Here's where I stand: no matter how difficult a person is to shop for, a bird in a fruit-bearing tree is not the answer. Especially if you are said person's true love.

What's wrong with a box of Frangos and a Starbucks gift card? Even a nice pair of wool socks would be a better choice. Two living things to care for? That's not a gift; it's an obligation. Besides, just think what a PITA it would be to wrap.


While we're on the subject, let's not forget that Mr. TrueLove doesn't stop at the partridge. He also deems it appropriate to bestow two turtle doves, three french hens, four colly (am I the only one who thought it was calling?) birds, six geese, and seven swans.

That's 23 birds. Good luck regifting.

Also, what's the deal with the maids, ladies, lords, pipers, and drummers? Sounds like indentured servitude, if you ask me. Not to mention that 42 people dancing, leaping, piping, and drumming would probably go from entertaining to more annoying than this commercial in about 1.7 seconds.

Winged creatures and stage performers aside, all we're left with are five golden rings. Which is actually a pretty decent gift, since you could probably sell them at Cash 4 Gold and use the money to buy yourself an iPad2. That is, of course, if you have any left after buying all the birdseed and earplugs you're going to need.

Perhaps this is why gift cards were invented.


Gingerbread Loaf with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting
Adapted from King Arthur Flour

For the gingerbread:

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 & 1/2 teaspoons ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
3/4 cup molasses
1/4 cup water
1 egg
1 cup buttermilk

For the maple cream cheese frosting:

4 ounces cream cheese
2 ounces butter
1 & 1/2 cups powdered sugar
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 tablespoon milk

Directions:

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease and flour a 9"x5" loaf pan.

2. Whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg in a large bowl. Combine the melted butter and molasses in a separate bowl, then pour into the dry ingredients and mix until completely incorporated.

3. Add the water and stir until smooth. Combine the buttermilk and egg in a separate bowl, then pour into the batter and stir until combined.

4. Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake for 40-50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the loaf comes out clean. Cool in the pan 10 minutes before transferring to a wire rack. Cool completely before frosting.

5. To make the frosting: Use a hand mixer to beat together the cream cheese and butter for about 1 minute. Add the powdered sugar about 1/2 cup at a time, beating at low speed after each addition. Once the sugar is totally incorporated, add the maple syrup and milk. Beat the frosting for 1-2 minutes, or until smooth. You can adjust the thickness of the frosting by adding more powdered sugar (if you want it to be thicker) or more milk (if you want it to be thinner).

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Monday, December 5, 2011

Cherry Almond Cookies with Vanilla Glaze + How to Host a Holiday Cookie Exchange


I'm not the kind of person who hosts parties.

I'm more of a doesn't-answer-her-phone-if-she-doesn't-recognize-your-number, turns-off-the-TV-and-hides-in-the-corner-when-the-doorbell-rings, pretends-she-doesn't-see-you-at-the-grocery-store kind of person.

Awkward.

But in spite of my social ineptitude, I did host a party! A party that involved 36 dozen cookies. And gingerbread houses that weren't made of gingerbread. And lots of candy and royal icing.

I hosted a holiday cookie exchange! Which pretty much makes me an expert party-hoster (hostess?) and qualifies me to teach you how to host one yourself. Who needs Martha?

Step 1: Set a Date and Invite Guests
  • Send out your invitations 3-4 weeks before the party. I used Evite, which has quite a few holiday-themed invitations, including a couple specifically designed for cookie exchanges.
  • For this kind of party, 8-12 guests is ideal. The fewer guests you have, the less variety you'll have in your cookie selection. On the other hand, the more guests you have, the more cookies each person has to make; if the number gets too high, it may deter people from wanting to participate in the exchange.
  • Ask your guests to RSVP at least two weeks before the party. The number of cookies each person needs to bring will depend on how many guests plan to attend; setting an RSVP deadline will ensure that you can give your guests plenty of notice as to how many cookies to bake.
  • Ask that your guests let you know what kind of cookie they plan to bring when they RSVP. This will allow you to make sure there are no duplicates.
  • Be sure to explain what a cookie exchange is in case your guests aren't familiar with this kind of party. Feel free to use the wording from my invitation:
Please join me for a festive evening of delicious cookies and holiday cheer! 
 A cookie exchange is no ordinary party! For this special occasion, each guest will need to bring a few dozen homemade, holiday-themed cookies. The best part? Everyone leaves with an assortment of cookies to enjoy at home!
Please RSVP by November 20th, and let me know what kind of cookie you are planning to bring. This way I can make sure there are no duplicates; it's more fun if everyone brings something different!
Once I know how many people are attending, I will let each of you know how many cookies to bring.
I look forward to celebrating the season with you!
P.S. Holiday attire is strongly encouraged! 


Step 2: Finalize Details with Confirmed Guests
  • Once all of your guest have RSVP'd or the deadline you set has arrived, contact the guests who will be attending and let them know how many cookies they will each need to bring.
  • The number of cookies you want each person to bring is totally up to you. At my party, there were nine people including myself, and each person brought 4 dozen cookies; this meant that everyone was able to take 5-6 of each cookie home. I felt that this was a really manageable number of cookies for each person to bake, and there were plenty to go around. However, some of the sources I consulted recommended that each person bring a dozen cookies per guest plus an extra dozen to be eaten at the party. Do whatever you think will work best for your guests and your party!
  • Find out what kind of cookie each guest is bringing, if they haven't already told you. If there are any duplicates, find out if either person is willing to bring something different. Or let them bring the same thing... it's up to you! Everyone at my party brought something totally different, which gave everyone a really nice variety to take home.
  • Ask each person to bring enough copies of their recipe for each guest. Alternatively, you can ask each person to email you their recipe so that you can put together a recipe booklet or packet for each person. I'm lucky enough to have a crafty sister who made adorable recipe card sets for each person:

Step 3: Decide On an Activity
  • You'll need something to do at your party other than stand around and eat cookies. Or maybe you won't. But it's always good to have a back-up plan! Some of the ideas that came to mind when I was planning my party were a white elephant gift exchange, a holiday trivia competition, and holiday charades (that's my awkwardness rearing it's ugly head). Ultimately, I decided on a gingerbread house decorating competition!
  • Whatever you choose to do, keep it simple and make sure it's something that will keep people interacting with each other. Gingerbread houses turned out to be a great idea because we were able to sit down and chat while we were decorating. Here are some tips if you want to make gingerbread houses at your party:
    • Keep it simple by using graham crackers instead of gingerbread. This will cut down on the prep work for you and allow people to be more creative by cutting the crackers into whatever sizes and shapes they want.
    • Royal icing will work best for assembling the houses and attaching decorations. I used Bridget's recipe from Bake at 350. I recommend making a double batch and dividing it into 6-8 plastic sandwich bags. Snip one corner off of each bag and use them to pipe the icing.
    • Make sure you have paper plates on hand to build the houses on. This was something I overlooked, which made it a bit challenging for everyone to take their creations home.
    • The more options you have for decorating the houses, the more fun it will be! Here are some of the things we used:
      • miniature candy canes
      • Candy Cane Hershey's Kisses
      • vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry cream wafers
      • frosted shredded wheat cereal
      • licorice
      • miniature marshmallows
      • shredded coconut
      • m&m's
      • pretzel sticks
      • cinnamon imperials
      • christmas nonpareils and jimmies
    • After everyone has finished their houses, have everyone vote for their favorite!

Step 4: Prepare for the Party
  • Collect everything you will need for the party at least three days ahead of time. Here are some of the things you may need:
    • Ingredients for the cookies you're making
    • Hors d'oeuvres and drinks to serve at the party
    • Supplies for the gingerbread houses
    • Paper plates, cups, napkins, and utensils
    • Boxes for packaging the cookies each guests will take home (I used decorative shirt boxes I found in the seasonal section at Target. As an alternative, you can ask each guest to bring a container with them for transporting the cookies.)
    • Parchment paper
    • Platters to display each kind of cookie
  • Do as much prep work as possible for your cookies the day before the party. This will depend on your recipe, but I was able to make my cookie dough the day before and bake them the day of the party.
  • Create a name tag for each cookie; this way the guests won't have to ask or wonder what each one is. I used ornament placecard holders to display a name tag in front of each platter of cookies.
  • If you're putting together recipe cards for your guests, try to complete these at least two days ahead of time.


Step 5: Party time!
  • When guests arrive, ask them to set out some of their cookies on the platters; have an area set aside for them to place any extras.
  • When it's time for everyone to pack up their cookies, let your guests know how many of each kind they can take. To figure this out, divide the number of cookies each person brought by how many people are at the party (including yourself). If it doesn't work out evenly, round down. 
  • Listen to Christmas music, drink eggnog, and have fun!

Please don't hesitate to leave me a comment if you have any questions. A party like this requires a bit of effort to organize, but it's such a fun way to get together with friends and celebrate the holiday season! Listed below are some of the cookies my guests brought to get you started if you do decide to host a cookie exchange or even if you're just attending one:


I made cherry almond cookies with vanilla glaze (recipe below), which are absolutely delicious! I made a double batch in order to yield 4 dozen cookies. Next time I'll probably make a triple batch in order to ensure that there's plennnty of extra cookie dough. Catch my drift?

Cherry Almond Cookies with Vanilla Glaze
Adapted from Giada De Laurentiis

For the cookies:

1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 egg
1 & 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup dried cherries, chopped
1/2 cup slivered, blanched almonds, chopped

For the vanilla glaze:

2 & 3/4 cups powdered sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 tablespoons water

Directions:

1. In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter for about one minute at medium speed. Add the sugar, vanilla extract, almond extract, cinnamon, and salt and beat for about two minutes more, or until the mixture is light and fluffy. Beat in the egg. Reduce the mixer speed to stir and add the flour, mixing just until completely incorporated. Stir in the cherries and almonds by hand.

2. Transfer the dough to a piece of plastic wrap at least 14 inches long. Shape the dough into a 12-inch log with a diameter of 1 & 1/2 inches. Wrap the dough tightly and chill it for at least two hours or up to three days.

3. Preheat the oven to 350°F and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and remove the plastic wrap. Cut the log into 1/2-inch slices. Arrange the slices one inch apart on the cookie sheets and bake for about 15 minutes, or until the cookies are puffed and golden. Transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.

4. To make the vanilla glaze: whisk together the powdered sugar, vanilla extract and water in a medium bowl. If the glaze is too thick to drizzle, add water on teaspoon at a time until it reaches the right consistency.

5. Use a spoon to drizzle the glaze back and forth over the cooled cookies; allow the glaze to set for about one hour before serving.

Makes about 24 cookies.

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