Monday, November 28, 2011

Dark Chocolate Chip Comfort Cookies

Since I scaled down our Thanksgiving meal to the point where it wasn't much more complicated to make than a typical weeknight dinner, I uncharacteristically found myself with a lot of free time Thanksgiving morning. That meant I got to lounge around on the sofa watching the parade and putting together silly Photoshopped pictures for a friend.

Exhibit A of my boredom:

Exhibit B:

And Exhibit C for a different friend:

But once the parade was over, the cranberry sauce for our fabulous turkey burgers was made and chilling in the fridge, and my husband was taking a pre-Thanksgiving meal nap I found myself even more bored than before. What to do, what to do?

I'd been craving chocolate chip cookies for weeks and had just bookmarked an intriguing-looking recipe from Bakerella for chocolate cookies made with peanut butter and dark chocolate chips that are otherwise similar to the chocolate chip cookies I'd been craving. So I decided to whip up a batch. This turned out to be a wonderful decision as they were just as easy to make as chocolate chip cookies but the addition of that peanut butter elevates them to a whole new level. Frankly, I probably would have passed up the Nestle dark chocolate chips in favor of something a little fancier but because Bakerella seemed to be such a big fan of them I picked up a bag when we were doing our Thanksgiving grocery shopping. Boy am I glad I did. These cookies wouldn't be nearly as impressive without that flavor balance.

Since I was incapable of following instructions for any of the recipes I made this weekend, I also changed things up a little with these. I tossed in a few peanut butter chips to go along with the peanut butter in the dough and added some cinnamon since I adore the combination of cinnamon with chocolate. I didn't bother to roll them into perfectly formed balls before baking either, but I'll go ahead and admit that that's because I didn't bother to thoroughly read the directions. Instead I used a cookie scoop and just plopped the blobs of dough onto cookie sheets. The cookies seem none the worse for wear as a result of my mistake as the cookie scoop not only kept the cookies to a uniform size but it also helped shape the dough a bit. I'm also not a huge fan of nuts in cookies so I skipped the optional step of coating each cookie in chopped pecans. If you want to go that route head over to Bakerella's post for all of the details. I refuse to sully my blog with such a thing!

The best part is that my husband's not a big fan of chocolate so I get to keep these all to myself. Which is a good thing because they're so good I think blood might spill if he were to try to take some. Half of the batch went straight into the freezer and I will happily nosh on them in the weeks to come. I suspect that when that supply runs out I'll go ahead and make some more. This recipe just might replace plain old chocolate chip cookies in my baking repertoire when I want to make some easy comfort food.

Dark Chocolate Chip Comfort Cookies
Recipe adapted from Bakerella

1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup cocoa
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup butter, slightly softened
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup peanut butter
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
10 oz. dark chocolate chips
1/2 cup peanut butter chips

1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2) In a small bowl, mix flour, cocoa, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon using a wire whisk and set aside.
3) In another bowl, cream butter, sugar and peanut butter until light and fluffy.
4) Add eggs and vanilla and mix until combined.
5) Add flour mixture to creamed mixture and mix until combined.
6) Stir in dark chocolate chips and peanut butter chips.
7) Roll cookie dough into 1-1/4 inch balls. (Or not. Be a rebel like me.)
8) Place on parchment paper covered baking sheet and bake 10 minutes.
9) Place cookies on cookie rack to cool.
Makes about 30 2-inch cookies.

Overnight Blueberry French Toast

What holiday weekend would be complete without an indulgent breakfast or two? Or, in my case, four. By the time my husband and I got done working our way through the half dozen donuts from the Amish market (best donuts ever!) and the cinnamon buns we bought on impulse because they were in the day old section it was already Saturday and the loaf of bread I'd bought to make French toast had aged quite a bit. No worries, since the recipe I was planning to use would only be improved by the aging process. I wanted to make a French toast casserole I could prepare the night before and bake first thing in the morning, so the extra dryness of the bread only helped with the overnight soaking process.

I used a recipe for overnight blueberry French toast from Real Mom Kitchen as my jumping off point but made quite a few changes from the original recipe. For one, I omitted the blueberry syrup since I'm a traditionalist and prefer maple syrup instead. I also reduced the amount of cream cheese to four ounces since the entire package seemed to be an excessive amount. I like to save on calories and fat wherever I can and still got plenty of little bites of cream cheese in each serving. In addition, I couldn't bear to empty out the entire carton of eggs as the recipe called for 12 so I checked out some similar recipes online and based on those only used eight. I added a tiny bit more liquid to compensate but honestly couldn't tell anything was missing or wrong with the finished product as a result of that change. To enhance the flavor I added some vanilla extract and a dash of King Arthur Flour's unique citrus and vanilla flavoring, Fiori di Sicilia. Finally, because it was Thanksgiving weekend, I threw in some cranberries along with the blueberries for good measure and topped the entire thing with a dusting of cinnamon.

The dish does have to bake for an hour so it was good to be able to get all of the prep work done the night before. The end result was a perfectly baked dish with slightly crispy bites on top and moist bites from the middle. I had no problems with sogginess, as some French toast casserole recipes sometimes suffer from. The amount of fruit called for is perfect and those small bits of cream cheese are a clever addition. What I'm happiest with were my flavor additions as I really think they made the dish something special. I'll admit that I even had some for dessert later in the day because I couldn't stop craving it.

Overnight Blueberry French Toast
Recipe adapted from Real Mom Kitchen

12 slices bread, cut into cubes (I used a 16 oz. loaf of French bread, Texas toast also works well)
4 ounces cream cheese, cut into cubes
1 cup blueberries (fresh or frozen)
1/2 cup cranberries (fresh or frozen)
8 large eggs
1/3 cup sugar
2 1/4 cups milk (I used 1 1/4 cups skim milk and 1 cup cream)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon Fiori di Sicilia (optional)
1 teaspoon cinnamon (or more if desired)

Arrange 1/2 of the bread cubes in a greased 9 x 13 pan.
Sprinkle cream cheese cubes, blueberries, and cranberries evenly over the bread cubes.
Top with remaining bread cubes.
Mix together eggs, milk, sugar, vanilla, and Fiori di Sicilia.
Pour over bread cubes, sprinkle cinnamon on top, and cover pan with foil. Let chill in refrigerator overnight.
Bake covered with foil at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 30 minutes or until fluffy and golden. Serve with maple syrup. Serves 8.

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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Pumpkin Crème Brûlée

Obviously this information comes a little too late for you, but I can report that pumpkin crème brûlée makes for a unique and delicious Thanksgiving dessert. My Thanksgiving meal this year was nontraditional what with a main course of herbed turkey burgers with goat cheese and cranberry sauce so why should the dessert follow the traditional rules? Not to mention that I hate making pie crust so this seemed like a much better dessert option for the day. Why muck about with a fussy pie crust when I can play with a blowtorch instead?

I halved Emeril Lagasse's recipe from Food Network since it has such rave reviews. Sure enough, it was creamy and perfectly flavored and practically foolproof. I did wind up with slightly dark tops that tasted a little burnt, but that was easily scraped off with a spoon before adding the crisp sugar topping. I also used more than the paltry amount of sugar called for on top so there could be a nice, thick crisp layer to break through. Yum yum! No need to wait until next Thanksgiving to make this for yourself.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Cupcake Recipe That Lied to Me

Oh yes, this is quite the tale of deceit. It is the story of an innocent little baker, eager to please her book club group with some tantalizing seasonal cupcakes. She scoured the internet searching for the perfect recipe and slaved away in the kitchen, only to be crushed by sadness at the discovery that her cupcakes tasted nothing like the ingredients she'd put into them. It is a dramatic tale of loss and betrayal, worthy of being ranked with Shakespeare's best. Or not. Perhaps it's just another all too common story of trying out an recipe from a random blog and coming up with something less than stellar. Reminds me that it's sometimes best to stick with recipes from published cookbooks.

The recipe in question was meant to be Eggnog Cranberry Cupcakes with White Chocolate Spiced Buttercream from Your Cup of Cake. From my book club's taste test the only flavors that could be detected in the finished product were the cranberry and the spice. Disappointing because my husband loves white chocolate and we both love eggnog, so I was hoping for a great combination of seasonal flavors here. Unfortunately, the eggnog flavor disappeared completely and there wasn't enough white chocolate in the frosting to actually give it that flavor. Still, the amount of spice is spot on and the frosting is nice and fluffy. If I hadn't told anyone what the cupcake was supposed to be they would have happily assumed I'd served them spiced cranberry cupcakes.

On top of that I took the trouble to leave a comment on the blog post basically saying that while the cupcakes were good they were not as advertised/what I expected so I was left disappointed. I didn't intend for it to be a mean comment or anything, just trying to help other readers out in case they're tempted to try this recipe. When I visited the page again later in the day to work on this blog post I noticed that the blogger had deleted my comment. That makes me a little mad. That's pretty poor blogging behavior right there, to censor things so only comments from adoring fans are shown and "real" comments from people who have tested the recipe get deleted. Despite the number of other delicious-looking cupcake recipes on her blog I don't think I can trust that her blog posts or the comments are honest and helpful so I'll pass on making anything else from her blog.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

DIY Harry Potter Wands

To cement my status as the nerdiest nerd who ever lived not only did I, a fully-fledged adult, visit The Wizarding World of Harry Potter but I also made magic wands for my friend and me to carry around the theme park. I found a few online tutorials and used them as a jumping off point but pretty much made it up as I went along.

Casting a spell on the Hogwarts Express

I started with a humble chopstick, which I rolled into the center of a tube of construction paper, rolled to be slightly narrower at one end. The tutorials I found said to fill the tube with oodles of hot glue, which is a fine idea in theory but turned out to be difficult to do in reality. I did my best but even after redoing one of the wands there were still a few empty pockets where the hot glue didn't reach before it hardened. Still, I figure that between the chopstick and all of the paint the wands will hold up just fine for casual use. I'll avoid casting Unforgivable Curses with these wands just to be on the safe side.

I snagged the idea to add glass stones at the end from a tutorial at Kate's Escapades with the added idea to personalize each wand with different images Mod Podged to the underside of each glass stone. I'd done something similar in the past making magnets from this tutorial at Sew Woodsy. I just clipped the images from catalogs, hers a sequined green fabric from Boden and mine a cross from an image of the Queen's crown in some British catalog I receive.

From there it was just a matter of adding paint and some decorative details with more hot glue. There's no right or wrong way to do this so I got creative and did the best I could with my unwieldy glue gun. Because my friend and I have such different personalities I thought I'd make her wand a nice brown "wood" with green and silver accents. My wand, on the other hand, would have to be dark and evil as befits a wizard like myself. I painted hers brown, piped on some hot glue in swirly patterns (lots of great ideas for different patterns here), and painted over those details with silver and green metallic paint. To give it a more textured look I used a sponge brush and lightly painted over the entire thing with a mixture of dark gray paint and water. Mine was done the same way with dark gray paint and silver accents.

I'm happy to report that the wands worked perfectly. Here I am getting ready to use mine in a crowded store to compel this woman to move out of my way:

Alright, alright. I felt a little goofy walking around brandishing my magic wand but we wound up getting a few compliments on our homemade wands. We even got one from someone who works there and proclaimed that they looked nicer than the ones they sell in the gift shop for $30. The cutest part was when my friend was sternly warned by the conductor of the Hogwarts Express to be careful when waving her wand about as wand safety is so very important. Too true. I guess we have a lot to learn before we're fully qualified to use these things.

I know it looks like I'm casting a spell on my friend's armpit. That's because I am. If it works, she'll never grow hair there again! Guess I should have been considerate and cast the spell on her other armpit as well. Oops.

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Photo A Day [Days 385-389]

Golly gee, I have a lot of catching up to do around here. I have been absent for far too long. October turned out to be quite a busy month for me what with turning 30 for the first time, visiting Napa, CA and dining at one of the finest restaurants out there, the French Laundry, and taking a second vacation to a place I've been dying to visit ever since it opened: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park. What better way to both celebrate and ignore the fact that I'm getting old? So many adventures meant blogging took a back seat to my going out and actually living my life.

Luckily for you I have many photos to share. The photo above is from the amazing replica of Hogsmeade village they've created for the theme park. Being there was truly like walking into the pages of the books. Below you can see one of my favorite parts of the park, the inside of Hog's Head pub. There they served all of the treats from the books including butterbeer, pumpkin juice, and imported British beers. Not to mention the place was tastefully decorated, as you can see.

The highlight of the trip was getting to experience all of this with my best friend. Jessica and I have known each other for almost 20 years, and when I realized the number was that big I was a little shocked. She's such a great person with fun spirit so I couldn't imagine a better companion for the trip. As you can see, she has no shame when it comes to enjoying herself.

I also decided to shake things up a bit and try a new hairdo. I'm not 100% happy with it but my attitude about my hair is that it'll always grow back. No harm in trying something different now and then. Here you see my true nature shining through:

This last picture has nothing to do with my trips but I felt like getting back in the Photoshop groove and put this together.