Limoncello and A Few Other Homemade Gift Ideas

limoncello and cream

When my grandmother was alive, I learned to be careful with my words, especially when paying any compliments.

If I told her I liked her raincoat, five minutes later she would have snuck it into the trunk of my car. If I admired her olive bowl, I would later find it wrapped in paper tucked in my suitcase. If I spent too long thumbing through one of her cookbooks, it soon would be mine.

I was reminded of this feeling earlier this month when Ben and I spent the morning at our friend Jim’s mother’s house learning how to make prosciutto. Before we began, Antonietta showed us the cold room of her basement, where prosciutto, capicola and week-old sausages hung from the ceiling, homemade wine aging in carboys lined the perimeter, and mason jars of homemade tomato sauce, roasted peppers and pickled vegetables filled a closet floor to ceiling.

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Grand Marnier Chocolate Truffles

grand marnier chocolate truffles

After serving a delectable Thanksgiving Eve dinner of cedar-plank grilled arctic char and roasted Brussels sprouts, my mother and aunt poured coffee and passed around plates of these Grand Marnier chocolate truffles, a party trick they learned from their mother, something they always have on hand this time of year.

A cup of coffee, a boozy bite of chocolate — is there a better way to end (start?) the day? This time of year especially, when there never seems to be enough time, having a stash of truffles in the cupboard has been known, in our family at least, to save the day. Truffles make a simple dessert, an elegant homemade gift, a festive treat to break out at impromptu gatherings. One batch, which yields at least 3 dozen, can be made days in advance and stored in the fridge. Just be sure to bring them to room temperature before serving.

Easy to make and pretty to boot, what’s not to love? My gramma taught her daughters well. [Read more…]

AK Cookies

chocolate chip cookies

I need a cookie. You?

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Canal House Chocolate Chip Cookies

stacked

A couple of weeks ago, a friend told me she had checked out Canal House Cooks Every Day from the library and described it as the loveliest cookbook she had seen in a long time. Middle child that I am, afraid to miss out on any fun, I immediately followed suit. That night by the light of my itty bitty book lamp, I poured through every chapter, making mental notes of ingredients to purchase and recipes to try, feeling more wound up with every page I turned, finally closing my eyes to a photo of a sheet pan lined with chocolate chip cookies, the last beautiful image in the book.

The following morning, before even thinking about coffee, I set butter out to soften and turned to the recipe, credited to Katherine Yang, a New York City pastry chef. When the Canal House ladies sought Yang’s guidance for the best chocolate chip cookie recipe ever, Yang passed along this one, a thin and crisp variety, one that perfectly balances that irresistible salty-sweet dynamic — there’s no need to top these off with any flakes of fancy sea salt. Crisp on the edges, chewy in the center, buttery with chocolate chunks throughout, these delicate cookies are enough to convert the thick-and-chewy-chocolate-chip-cookie lover in me forever. They are delectable. Even Ben, who never does any heavy lifting in the dessert department, eats them by the half dozen and swears he could eat them by the whole. I wouldn’t put it past him.

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Brown Butter Blondies with Sea Salt

blondies with brown butter and sea salt

After a month of abstaining from serious dessert (inordinate amounts of dark chocolate, providing heaps of antioxidants, don’t count), a sugar craving and a magazine blurb had me unearthing baking pans and once again scribbling down butter, chocolate and brown sugar on my grocery list. The blurb described a treat offered at San Francisco’s Black Jet Baking Co — brown butter blondies made with Maldon sea salt — which I needed to have in my mouth immediately. Sorry, but I did. [Read more…]

Gingerbread Biscotti And A Few Favorite Holiday Recipes

gingerbread biscotti in jar

Biscotti lovers seem to fall into two camps: those who view dipping as essential and those who view dipping as optional. As you can see from the photo above, I fall into the dipping-is-optional camp. I like my biscotti with a chewy center (a texture achieved by butter, which dipping-biscotti recipes generally do not call for) and a crisp crust, and I like them on the larger, meatier size — I want to eat one (not ten) and feel satisfied.

While I am partial to classic almond biscotti, these gingerbread biscotti are a treat this time of year. This recipe is just a variation of my favorite recipe with molasses replacing some of the sugar and the addition of traditional gingerbread spices: ginger, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. With coffee or tea, a latte or hot cocoa, this dunking-is-optional treat will put anyone in the holiday spirit. [Read more…]

Kristina’s Molasses Crinkles

molasses crinkles

I couldn’t believe the cookies were made with shortening. I’m an all-butter kind of girl. Until a week ago in fact, the thought of shortening, a product I reserved solely for seasoning cast iron skillets, sort of repulsed me. Until a week ago, I also would have told you I could detect the difference between a cookie made with butter and one with shortening. I mean, it’s a rookie skill, right?

So I thought. My cousin Kristina makes the very best molasses cookies I have ever tasted. And they’re not just the best molasses cookies ever; they’re one of the best cookies ever. Last December when I received Kristina’s recipe in the mail and discovered that her legendary molasses crinkles were made with shortening, my earth sort of shattered. I would have bet money they had been made with butter.

But perhaps this was an opportunity, I thought. I would substitute butter for the shortening and then blog about the nearly perfect cookie I had perfected with butter. But once again, my earth shattered. The cookies I prepared with the butter-for-shortening substitution were terrible. The texture lacked the softness and chewiness of Kristina’s, and the flavor, perhaps tarnished by over baking, was just not as I had remembered. Did Kristina in fact use shortening in her cookies? I was still in disbelief.

It was time for me to try shortening. And since I was venturing into the realm of repulsive ingredients, I thought why not try something truly repulsive? This past spring, a friend in CA introduced me to a little product called buttered-flavored shortening, an ingredient she had used in a batch of phenomenal chocolate chip cookies she was so graciously sharing with me.

Butter-flavored shortening. I mean, it doesn’t get much more repulsive than this. Have any of you ever opened a can of this stuff? Have you seen its color? Have you smelled it? Have you ever tried washing it off your hands? Have you reviewed the ingredient list? It’s filled with all of the worst sorts of things — fully and partially hydrogenated oils, mono and diglycerides, to name a few. It’s a list that might appear in Michael Pollan’s worst nightmare. Butter-flavored shortening. Truly, it doesn’t get more repulsive than this.

I couldn’t help but wish my butter-flavored-shortening molasses crinkles to fail. As they baked, I kept thinking, there’s no way my adorable cousin Kristina could use such a vile product. No way. But when I pulled from the oven a pan with nine perfectly golden domed mounds crinkling up at me, I began to believe. And then, after they cooled and I took a bite, and the soft and chewy texture was just as I had remembered, and the flavor, too, was buttery and not at all artificial tasting and spiced with those wintry flavors of cinnamon and cloves, I was convinced. These were Kristina’s molasses crinkles. I had never been so happy to have such a vile product in my pantry.

I had to call Kristina to discuss. “So Kristina,” I said when she answered the phone, “your molasses cookies and I have been on a long journey together, and I’ve finally accepted that you do in fact use shortening, right?”

“Shortening?” she replied. “No, I always use butter. I don’t know what shortening is.”

I had to laugh. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. What had gone wrong the first time I had attempted Kristina’s recipe? Was it just a terribly off day for me in the kitchen? And had I now gone crazy to welcome to my pantry such a product as butter-flavored shortening? What was going on? All of a sudden I heard myself trying to convince Kristina of the virtues of butter-flavored shortening. Kristina, rightly so, would hear nothing of it.

So where does that leave us? Well, I’m afraid, the conclusion to this long-winded post is that my quest to create Kristina’s molasses crinkles continues. The above- and below-pictured cookies were in fact made with butter-flavored shortening and truly were delicious. That said, I know my cousin’s cookies are better, and as soon as I can, I am going to make another batch of each — Kristina gave me some tips, which I enclosed below — and do a side by side comparison.

In the meantime, I guess I’m just going to have to embrace the repulsive yet remarkable ingredient that has entered my pantry. Butter-flavored shortening is here to stay.

molasses crinkles

dough balls

sugar coated dough balls

Molasses Crinkles
Source: Cousin Kristina via Betty Crocker’s Best Cookies
Yield = about 27 cookies

3/4 cup butter-flavored shortening (See notes below for Kristina’s variation made with butter)
1 cup brown sugar (packed)
1 egg
1/4 cup molasses
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt (table salt as opposed to kosher)
1/2 tsp. cloves
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. ginger
granulated sugar

1. Mix shortening, sugar, egg and molasses thoroughly. (I used a stand mixer, but you probably could mix this batter by hand.) Sift (I whisked) all of the dry ingredients together. Add dry ingredients to wet and stir until combined. Chill. (A time wasn’t specified, but I would imagine one to three hours would suffice. I chill the dough and bake off six to nine cookies at a time — the batter will stay good for days.)

2. Heat oven to 375ºF. Roll dough into 1 1/4-inch balls. (I portion my dough into 7/8-oz (28g) balls using my Salter digital scale.) Dip balls in sugar and place sugared side up on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Sprinkle each with two or three drops of water. (This is sort of awkward — I dipped a fork in a cup of water and sort of pulled water from the glass to sprinkle it on top… if that makes any sense. Kristina in fact skips the water-sprinkling step.) Bake 10 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool completely on sheet pan before eating.

Notes: Kristina uses butter in place of the shortening. She also uses a little bit less flour but didn’t give an exact amount — so maybe do a scant 2.25 cups or a heaping 2 cups. She also bakes the cookies at 350ºF for about 8 minutes.

molasses crinkles

Festive Treats, Pressed-Leaf Gift Tags & Happy Halloween!

triple treat cupcakes

Happy Halloween Everyone!

Here in the Stafford household we’re feeling particularly festive. Ella has been dressed in her costume since Monday. Yesterday I made candy corn-topped mini cupcakes. And today I found myself making pressed-leaf gift tags. What can I say? The spirit is strong this year.

The truth is that I made these treats against all of my instincts. I mean, it seems a little unnecessary to bake a peanut butter cup into a cupcake to then top it with more candy. Right? I’d so much rather just eat a brownie. Or a good cookie. Or the peanut butter cup on its own.

That said, these mini cupcakes are festive and fun, and if you’re looking for a way to spruce up your Halloween dessert spread, these triple-treat bites would certainly fit in. Feeling crafty? Adorn a clear plastic goodie bag with a pressed-leaf gift tag (see below) to make lovely little party favors.

Ella wishes you all a very Happy Halloween!
My little trick-or-treater

candy corn topped mini cupcake

Martha Stewart Pressed-Leaf Gift Tag:
gift bag with pressed-leaf gift tag

Halloween candy

unbaked treats

Mini Triple Treat Cupcakes
Source: Everyday Food October 2011

Notes: I used dark chocolate peanut butter cups. I prefer these treats frozen or chilled — they definitely taste better once they’ve cooled to room temperature at the very least.

Pressed-Leaf Halloween Gift Tags
Source: Martha Stewart

Reese's topped mini cupcakes

When People Come to Visit…

almond coconut granola

…it’s always nice to have some baked goods on hand. Here are four that never fail to please.

1. Granola. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t welcome a bowl of homemade granola with milk or yogurt topped with fresh berries or sliced banana first thing in the morning. This also is my go-to gift for a host or hostess and my most-often requested recipe. (Note: I’ve made a few changes, which are listed below. It’s now much less fussy, a teensy bit less sweet, and still just as delicious.)

2. Biscotti. I’ve never had anyone pass on a homemade biscotti with their morning beverage. These are perfect with coffee, tea, hot chocolate…anything really.

baked almond biscotti

3. Salted Oatmeal Cookies. While I consider numbers 1 and 2 to be essentials, it doesn’t hurt to have a jar filled with these salted oatmeal cookies on hand either. I’ve been making this Washington Post recipe since 2007, when my teensy grandmother snipped it out of her Wednesday paper and saved it for me. She was so wonderful. A perfect balance of sweet and salty, these cookies are one of my favorites. Your guests will adore them (and you), too.

salted oatmeal cookies

salted oatmeal cookies

4. Honey Whole Wheat Toasting Bread. Finally, if you’re feeling particularly domestic, it’s especially nice to have a couple of loaves of honey whole wheat bread kicking around. Made with leftover coffee, this good-old-fashioned recipe — no no-knead-super-slow-rise tricks here — hails from the Bakery Lane cookbook. I wish I had a photograph of my mother’s copy, now held together by rubber bands and twine. It’s filled with goodies.

honey whole wheat bread

honey whole wheat bread

baked almond biscotti

Recipes

Notes: I’ve posted the granola and biscotti recipes before but I have updated them a tiny bit. I am preferring things less sweet these days, so I’ve cut back the sugar in the biscotti by a quarter cup, and I don’t bother with the egg wash and sugar glaze before baking — the biscotti are just as delicious. And for the granola, I rarely bother making the candied almonds and cashews, (though they do add a nice touch if you plan on giving the granola as a gift.) I also have cut back the amount of coconut a teensy bit and replaced that amount with more sliced almonds. Again, the granola is just as delicious.

Vanilla-Almond Biscotti
Yield = About 30

Note: My original recipe, which is a little more fussy, offers instructions for folding in pistachios and dried cherries as well as for dipping in white or dark chocolate. It can be found here. Also, and I know this is weird, but I kind of like my biscotti to be a little soft and chewy on the inside, not rock hard. So, if you like yours harder, bake them longer the second time around.

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1¼ cups sugar
¼ cup light brown sugar
2 eggs
1½ teaspoons vanilla
3 cups all-purpose flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ cup sliced almonds

1. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter with the sugars until well blended. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing after each addition. Add the vanilla and blend again.

2. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Stir in the sliced almonds. Add the dry ingredients to the mixer and blend on low-speed until just combined.

3. Remove the dough from the mixer and divide into two equal portions. Plop one portion onto a parchment paper- or Silpat- lined baking sheet. Form into a longish rectangle about an inch high. Repeat with remaining log. If you have the time, chill logs for an hour. (At this point, too, the logs can be wrapped in plastic wrap and chilled for as long as 3 days (maybe longer…never tried it).)

4. Preheat oven to 350˚F. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until the logs are evenly golden brown. Remove from oven and place on cooling rack. Let cool for 5 to 10 minutes. Carefully transfer logs to a cutting board. Cut the log crosswise on a slight bias (or not) with a sharp knife or a bench scraper. Lay the cut slices on their sides on the baking sheet. Return pan to the oven for another 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and let the biscotti cool on baking sheet for 5 minutes before transferring to a cooking rack. Cool completely.

almond coconut granola

Homemade Granola

Notes: As I mentioned above, I have blogged about this recipe before. The original recipe is much fussier, but take a look if you feel like adding more nuts and dried fruit in the mix. Also, I am now actually partial to this toasted muesli recipe — it’s less sweet and easier to throw together.

4 cups (14 oz.) rolled oats
a scant 2 cups (6 oz.) unsweetened or sweetened, shredded coconut*
a heaping 2 cups (7.25 oz.) sliced almonds*
½ cup (4 oz.) vegetable oil
2/3 cup (7.25 oz) honey
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon sea salt or 1 teaspoon kosher salt

*Sorry for the imprecise measurements here. Originally, I used 2 cups of coconut and 2 cups of almonds. I now use my digital scale when I measure out these dry ingredients, so the 6 oz. of coconut (which comes out to be 1.8 cups) is accurate and the 7.25 oz. of almonds is accurate, but I’ve never used my dry measuring cups to figure out precise dry measurements. If this is your first time making this and you want to play is safe, just measure out 2 cups of each the coconut and the almonds. Next time around you will know how to adjust the quantities to get the sweetness right for you. Also, I recently (March 2013) stopped using sweetened shredded coconut in this recipe. Read this post if you are curious as to why.

1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF. In a large bowl, combine oats, coconut and almonds and gently stir or toss with your hands to mix well.

2. In a small saucepan, combine oil, honey, vanilla and salt and heat for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring to emulsify slightly. (Note: Sometimes I don’t even bother heating this — I just whisk it really well and then pour it over. It is a little harder to incorporate into the oats if you don’t heat it up, but I hate having to clean an extra pan. A quick zap in the microwave might be a good option? I don’t own one so I can’t advise on time.) Pour the oil mixture over the oat mixture and with a spatula stir until evenly coated.

3. Spread mixture onto a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes. Remove from oven and stir well, bringing the oat mixture closest to the edges into the center and pushing the center mixture towards the edges. Return to the oven and bake for 10 more minutes, checking when 1 to 2 minutes remain. Be very careful at the end: the coconut will burn easily, leaving the granola with a bitter, burnt taste. Remove pan from the oven, place on a cooling rack and leave undisturbed until completely cool, at least one hour.

almond coconut granola

Salted Oatmeal Cookies
Source: The Washington Post, June 13, 2007

Notes from the Washington Post:

This cookie is all about the oats, without much spice to interfere with their earthy taste. It’s also a great dough to make ahead and keep on hand to bake off a few when the urge hits. Refrigerate the dough for several days. The cookies can be stored in an airtight tin for up to 1 week.

Makes 18 cookies

Ingredients:

12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
1 3/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon table salt (This is my addition — the original recipe calls for no salt in the actual cookie, but I think it needs it.)
2 cups rolled oats (not quick-cooking)
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Sea salt, for sprinkling

Directions:

(Notes: I’ve adjusted the order of instructions. If you’d like to see the original recipe, click here.)

1. In a large bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter for a few minutes on medium-high speed until light and fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the stand mixer bowl and add the sugars, beating until the mixture is well blended. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon and table salt. Stir in the oats, and set aside.

2. Reduce the speed to medium and add the eggs and vanilla extract, mixing until incorporated. Reduce the speed to low and add the dry ingredients, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary and mixing just until they are incorporated. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and chill the dough for at least an hour before baking. (Notes: I like to portion my cookies before chilling because the dough is easier to work with. I also weigh my cookies — I know, it’s totally anal — but doing this does ensure even baking of the cookies. I portion this dough into 1.25 oz balls and then chill all of the balls for at least an hour before baking.)

3. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

4. Form the dough into golf ball-size balls and place about 2 inches apart on the baking sheet. (I bake 6 at a time and flatten the balls slightly when placing them on the cookie sheet.) Sprinkle sea salt generously on top of each ball of dough. Bake 1 sheet at a time for 11 to 15 minutes or until the cookies are puffed and beginning to turn golden, being careful not to overbake. (Notes: Bake one batch and let cool completely before deciding on the time. I find that these cookies really continue cooking (like most cookies) once they’ve been removed from the oven, and these really are best when the center of the cookies is on the chewy/doughy side. I find 13 minutes to be about right.) Place the cookie sheet on a wire rack to cool completely.

salted oatmeal cookies

Honey Whole Wheat Bread
Yield= 2 traditional loafpan-sized loaves

2 + 2/3 cups coffee (at the most — I used less than 1 cup of coffee in this batch and substituted water for the remainder)
2/3 cup water
1/3 cup honey
1 package active dry yeast
1 T. kosher salt
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
4 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
4 cups all-purpose flour

1. Combine coffee, the 2/3 cup water and the honey in a large bowl or in a large bowl of a stand mixer. Stir yeast into 1/2 cup of lukewarm water. Let stand until dissolved then add to coffee mixture.

2. Whisk together salt, cornmeal and flours. If using a stand mixer, add all of the dry mixture to the wet mixture. Knead for about 8 minutes or until the dough is smooth and wrapped around the dough hook. If kneading by hand, stir in about half of the dry mixture. Add more and more of the mixture until you need to turn the dough out onto a work surface to get it all incorporated. Knead for about 8 minutes or until the dough is smooth.

3. Place dough in a large bowl greased with a light layer of olive oil. Turn dough to coat. Cover with plastic wrap or a damp kitchen towel (run a tea towel under hot water, ring it out, then place on top of bowl) and let rise until doubled in bulk (this may take as long as 2 hours). (Tip: If you are looking for a warm spot to let your dough to rise, turn your oven to its highest setting and let it warm for 1 minute. Turn off the heat, place your tea towel-covered bowl of dough inside and close the oven door.)

4. Once dough has doubled, punch it down. Grease two standard sized loaf pans generously with butter. Divide dough into two equal portions. Quickly shape each portion into a loaf-like mass and plop into prepared pans. Let rise until dough reaches just below the top of the pan. This may take as long as 45 minutes. (I like to place my loaf pans on top of the oven while it preheats. This usually speeds up the second rising.) Preheat oven for 375ºF.

5. Bake loaves for 45 minutes. Turn loaves out onto cooling rack. If you can refrain, let cool for at least 20 minutes before cutting.

toasted and buttered bread...so yummy

Rosemary Shortbread + Cute Parchment Paper Packages

Careful. These are addictive. They’ve got that sweet-salty dynamic, but also a hint of rosemary, a savory touch that might lead you to eat ten of them, as you would a cracker. Try not to do that.

Man these are so good. I’m never crazy about breaking out the food processor — so many parts to clean and all — but this machine makes this recipe effortless. It literally takes five minutes to prepare.

If you’re like me, you won’t want to share these with anyone, but they would make a wonderful gift. According to Melissa Clark’s NY Times article in December 2005, these shortbread cookies are her all-occasion go-to gift:

“A friend’s birthday? A box of shortbread cookies wrapped in colored tissue. A colleague’s dinner party? A hostess gift of a vintage tin filled with shortbreads. The holidays? Many, many bright-hued bags filled with shortbread and tied with ribbons.”

Yesterday, feeling inspired, I fashioned a little package out of parchment paper and cooking twine. Then I tucked two squares inside, made a cute little tag, and wrapped it all up. Later that day, I opened the package and ate the treats. As I said, I didn’t want to share these with anyone.

Mmmmm … shortbread. These treats would be perfect with a cup of tea in the afternoon, but are delightful any time of the day really. What’s more, they stay fresh for days though they’ll likely be gone before showing any signs of age. Holiday season is rapidly approaching — practice making these pouches now, and you’ll be golden come December.

I love parchment paper. Have you ever tried to tape it, however? Nothing sticks to it. To make this package, I improvised with a hole punch and some cooking twine. Just fold up a piece of parchment paper to the size of your liking, punch holes in the sides, thread any sort of ribbon or string through the holes and make knots on one side. Ta-da! With some cute ribbon, these packages could be really darling.

With this recipe, you just have to be careful not to over pulse the dough. This is about what it should look like:

The dough is still very crumbly when you pat it into the pan.

Rosemary Shortbread With Variations

Yield: One 8- or 9-inch shortbread, about 16 pieces
Source: Melissa Clark of the NY Times

2 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 scant tablespoon of finely chopped fresh rosemary (see photo above)
1 teaspoon plus 1 pinch kosher salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted cold butter, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 1/2 tsp. honey

1. Heat oven to 325ºF. In a food processor, pulse together flour, sugar, rosemary and salt. Add butter and honey, and pulse to fine crumbs. Pulse a few more times until some crumbs start to come together, but don’t overprocess. Dough should not be smooth.

2. Press dough into an ungreased (or parchment paper-lined for easy removal) 8- or 9-inch-square baking pan. Prick dough all over with a fork. Bake until golden brown, 35 to 40 minutes for 9-inch pan, 45 to 50 minutes for 8-inch. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Cut into squares, bars or wedges while still warm.

For variations of this recipe, see Melissa Clark’s article.

Opposite side of parchment paper package: