Shortbread all dressed up for the holidays

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There is always some kind of shortbread on my Christmas cookie platter. They’re also usually the easiest cookie to make. A couple years ago, I made pecan fingers, but last year I opted to make these Red Velvet Shortbread Cookies. They were almost as easy as regular shortbread, but dolled up for the holidays by a hint of chocolate, red coloring, and a white chocolate drizzle. They were small, too, so they were perfect for people looking to nibble on treats during Christmas eve.

If you’re a fan of red velvet—as many people are—give this one a shot. You won’t be disappointed.

Ingredients
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup butter, cut up
1 tablespoon red food coloring
3 ounces white chocolate (with cocoa butter), coarsely chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons shortening

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. In a food processor, combine flour, sugar, cocoa powder, and salt. Cover and process with on/off turns until combined. Add butter and red food coloring. Cover and process with on/off pulses until mixture starts to cling. (If you do not have a food processor, cut in the butter and add food coloring, then knead until mixture resembles fine crumbs.) Transfer to a large bowl. Form mixture into a ball and knead until smooth.

On a lightly floured surface, roll dough to a 1/2-inch thickness. Using a floured 1-1/2-inch round cutter, cut out dough. Place cutouts 1 inch apart on an ungreased cookie sheet.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until centers are set. Transfer cookies to a wire rack; let cool.

In a heavy small saucepan, cook and stir white chocolate and shortening over low heat, until melted and smooth. Drizzle cookies with melted white chocolate. Let stand until white chocolate is set.

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Peppermint-powered cookies for the Christmas platter

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If you were a reader of my blog last year, you’ll know that I get intense about Christmas cookies. I’m the designated baker for our extended family gathering on Christmas Eve, and each year I like to find new recipes to add to the enormous platter of cookies for my family to enjoy.

Last year, I found this recipe for Chocolate Peppermint Brownie Cookies in California Bountiful magazine. As you know by now, brownies are my favorite dessert. Adding peppermint and putting them in cookie form seemed like an acceptable idea, so that’s what I did. I liked that the inside was chewy and the outside got slightly flaky when bitten into, just like a perfectly baked brownie. I made them teaspoon-size like the recipe called for, and they were perfect little bites of deliciousness.

If you’re baking cookies for the holidays, try this one. It was a nice, flavor-packed addition to the assortment I made. If you’re looking for a more mellow chocolate cookie, try these totally adorable cocoa cookies instead.

Ingredients
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/8 tsp. salt
2 eggs
2/3 cup sugar
1 tbsp. peppermint extract
1/2 tbsp. brewed espresso (see note)
7 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
3/4 cup chocolate chips
1/2 cup sliced almonds

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Mix flour, baking powder and salt together. Set aside. Using an electric mixer, whip eggs for 1 minute. Add sugar, peppermint extract and espresso and whip on high speed for 15 minutes or until mixture is thick. While eggs are whipping, melt bittersweet chocolate and butter together in a bowl in a water bath.

Fold chocolate mixture into egg mixture until partially combined, as there should still be some visible streaks. Carefully fold flour mixture into batter, then add chocolate chips and almonds. If batter is runny, let it rest for about 5 minutes to thicken.

Scoop generous teaspoonfuls of batter onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake for 10 to 13 minutes or until cookies puff and are cracked on top. Allow cookies to cool before removing from baking sheet.

Note: In place of espresso, you may substitute an instant coffee extract (for example, 5:1 ratio of instant coffee to water).

Abandoning the rules for apple pie

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I’ve always been a by-the-book, play-by-the rules kind of girl. I think with my head instead of my heart and always approach things from the most logical angle I can find. That’s why I always cook according to recipes, too. Except for pie.

Things are different for me when it comes to pie. I’ve made dozens and feel confident that I know what good dough feels like between my fingers, and can trust my senses to guide me to the perfect combination of spices for the filling. This is a rare departure from my normal approach to things. It makes me feel confident in my abilities, enough so that I let go a little and try new things on a whim, instead of following every single instruction in the book from beginning to end. Pie is one of the more forgiving things you can make because you don’t have to rely on leaveners and eggs for consistency. Without those things involved, there’s more of a chance to play without fretting that it will fail entirely.

I went to a friend’s place for a pre-Thanksgiving dinner last night. I volunteered to bring my pumpkin scalloped potatoes and an apple pie, both of which I’ve made a few times before. I based my apple pie on the one from The Joy of Cooking, but improvised on the filling by adding a vanilla bean, honey, and a bit of brown sugar. It turned out really well.

If you ever watched Lee Pace as the charming piemaker in “Pushing Daisies,” you might remember when he said “pie is home. People always come home.” For me, apple pie is something I’ll likely make throughout my life, and I can take comfort in knowing it will turn out, and there’s room to try new things.

Applepie112314So here’s my latest version of apple pie for you to share with your families and friends during Thanksgiving. I hope every bite reminds you of home.

Crust
2 cups flour
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
2 sticks of butter
6 tablespoons cold water

Combine flour and salt in a large bowl. Cut butter into mixture and mix with hands until mixture resembles pea-size pieces. Sprinkle water over mixture and mix in using your hands. When water is combined, divide dough in half. Put each half between two pieces of parchment paper and roll out to about a 12-inch circle. Put dough—still between papers—in refrigerator for about 30 minutes. Once 30 minutes have passed, line the bottom of an ungreased pie dish with one layer of dough, using your fingers to press it to the sides. Refrigerate. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. While oven is preheating, make filling.

Applepie112314-3Filling
6 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and sliced
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon arrowroot or corn starch
2 tablespoons honey
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and insides scraped
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Dash of ground ginger

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and let sit for 15 minutes. Pour mixture into bottom pie crust, letting apples heap in the bottom crust. Cut 2 tablespoons of butter over the top of the filling. Take the top pie crust out and cut holes so the filling can vent during baking. Place crust on top of filled pie and use a knife to cut any crust hanging over the pan. Press crusts together with fingertips to seal. Place pie on a cookie sheet and bake at 425 degrees for 30 minutes, then reduce heat to 375 degrees and bake for another 30 minutes, or until filling is soft when a knife is inserted.

Let cool for at least an hour before serving.

Plum cake: Not just for fairytales

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Plum cake has always sounded like something served in a children’s story, and I’d never really thought about it until one of my co-workers named it as his favorite dessert. I keep a list of my co-workers’ birthdays and favorite desserts so, if I have time when their birthdays roll around, I can bake something for them. I once baked a pumpkin pie for one of my reporters, and he sat at his desk and ate it out of the dish for his lunch that day. I loved that he enjoyed it so much.

Since this particular co-worker was out of the country when his birthday rolled around, I had some time to look through plum cake recipes before I settled on this one. I picked up plums from the farmers market and got to work on it. The batter is a pretty basic mix of ingredients, and it was stiffer than I expected it to be. I figured the juice from the plums would provide the extra sweetness and moisture once it was baked.

Though it isn’t normal for me to give someone something I haven’t first tried myself, I felt pretty confident that this cake turned out the way it was supposed to. My co-worker, of course, told me he had never had a plum cake, so his expectations weren’t as high as I had believed. He enjoyed it, and I was able to sample a bite of it and I was surprised at how good it was. I consider that to be a success for a first attempt.

Ingredients
1 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

Large pinch of salt

1 cup granulated sugar plus 1 to 2 tablespoons (depending on sweetness of plums)

1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened

2 large eggs

6 large imperial plums, halved and pitted

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Heat over to 350 degrees F. Sift or whisk together flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. In a larger bowl, cream butter and 1 cup sugar together with an electric mixer until fluffy and light in color. Add the eggs, one at a time and scraping down the bowl, then the dry ingredients, mixing until just combined.

Spoon batter into an ungreased 9-inch springform pan and smooth the top. Arrange the plums, skin side up, all over the batter, covering it. Sprinkle the top with lemon juice, then cinnamon, then remaining sugar.

Bake until cake is golden and a toothpick inserted into a center part of the cake comes out free of batter, about 45 to 50 minutes. Cool on rack.

Leave it covered at room temperature overnight so the plum juice can soak into the cake around it.

Whiskey cake a divine treat for a dinner party

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My friend threw a Prohibition-themed dinner party on Friday. I figured it would be too obvious to bring a bottle of booze, so I started looking for recipes that included alcohol. Since baking is my thing and the main course was pretty much decided, I decided to look in the dessert section of Bon Appetit, which is where I found this whiskey cake. Whiskey is my preferred spirit and thus one of few I always have on hand, so I decided this cake was the winner.

When I looked at the list of ingredients, I saw that it contained some key ingredients — espresso and vanilla — which are known for enhancing the flavor of chocolate in baked goods. The low amount of flour it called for also meant it would be a very rich, dense cake. The finished product was only about an inch thick, but the intense flavor more than compensated for the lack of volume.

Though the original recipe called for an 8-inch springform pan, mine is 9 inches so I had to make do. It only took 30 minutes for mine to bake completely. I followed the cooling instructions and frosted it the next day. While sometimes you can put the frosting on while the cake is still slightly warm, this is not one of these cases. This frosting isn’t like your traditional buttercream. No powdered sugar is involved, so it has less to keep it sturdy.

In the end, this small-but-mighty cake was a nice treat, and a sweet ending to a fun dinner.

Ingredients
1/2 cup plus Irish whiskey
6 ounces bittersweet (70 percent cocoa) chocolate (such as Scharffen Berger or Lindt), chopped
2 teaspoons instant espresso powder dissolved in 6 tablespoons hot water
1/3 cup blanched almonds (about 2 ounces), lightly toasted
6 tablespoons all purpose flour, divided
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
7 tablespoons sugar, divided
1/2 vanilla bean, or 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 large eggs, separated
Pinch of fine sea salt

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350°F. Butter and flour 8-inch-diameter springform pan.

Dissolve espresso powder in water. Set aside.

Boil 1/2 cup whiskey in small saucepan until reduced to 1/4 cup, about 2 minutes. Combine bittersweet chocolate, espresso powder mixture, and 1/4 cup boiled whiskey in small metal bowl. Place bowl over saucepan of simmering water; stir until mixture is smooth. Remove bowl from over water. Finely grind almonds with 2 tablespoons flour in processor.

Using electric mixer, beat 1/2 cup butter and 6 tablespoons vanilla sugar in medium bowl until fluffy. Beat in egg yolks 1 at a time, then sea salt. Fold in chocolate mixture, then ground almond mixture. Using clean dry beaters, beat egg whites in another bowl until soft peaks form. Gradually add 1 tablespoon vanilla sugar, beating until stiff peaks form. Fold whites into batter alternately with remaining 4 tablespoons flour in 3 additions. Transfer batter to prepared pan.

Bake cake until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Cool in pan on rack 30 minutes. Remove pan sides and cool cake completely.

Frosting
2 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped
2 tablespoons whiskey
1/4 cup butter, room temperature

Combine semisweet chocolate and remaining whiskey in small metal bowl. Place bowl over saucepan of simmering water and stir until smooth. Remove bowl from over water. Add butter to chocolate mixture, 1 small piece at a time, whisking until each piece is melted before adding next. Place bowl over larger bowl of ice water. Using electric mixer, beat icing until thickened to spreadable consistency, about 1 minute. Spread icing over top and sides of cake. This can be made 8 hours ahead. Cover with cake dome and let stand at room temperature.