A Sugar Cookie Year in Review, plus How to Make Snowflake Sugar Cookies

Today is the last day of 2011, and it felt only appropriate to focus today’s post about my resolution from this past year. Now, I’m not usually one to make resolutions. I like making goals throughout the year, not waiting for one arbitrary date to challenge myself. Plus, resolutions have the terrible reputation of being useless things you stick to for a week, maybe even an entire month, before letting them peter out and die. But this year, I really did want to focus on one thing throughout the year: I wanted to find that perfect sugar cookie recipe, and learn how to decorate ike a pro. 

My first attempt resulted in a chewy whole wheat sugar cookie. They were a far cry from the soft, melt-in-your-mouth-and-surely-laden-with-shortening iced concoctions you find in the grocery store bakery section, but they were still good in their own way. They were heartier, and although I knew they wouldn’t be My Recipe in the end, I really liked them and would surely consider making them again under different circumstances. As for my decorating skills, well…it was my first try. It took hours, my back ached afterwards, and they looked shoddy at best.

Then there were the ones I made for mardi gras. These were closer to what I wanted from a sugar cookie recipe, but still, something was missing. A lot of people really liked them, but I wasn’t satisfied. I found them to be dry and bland without the saving grace of royal icing, and I foolishly used a dark baking sheet that turned the bottoms of my cookies an ever-appealing shade of burnt. The decorating may have improved – I was certainly more ambitious this time around – but I still had a long way to go.

Next came the soft and chewy sugar cookies from Brown Eyed Baker. I was able to use whole wheat flour and get away with it, which was a definite plus. They were buttery and sugary, which was what I really wanted. However, they spread like crazy in the oven, making them a better drop cookie than roll-and-cut. Still, it didn’t stop me from chowing down on five in one sitting, probably in a mere blink of an eye, and L loved them, too. Clearly, I needed a combination of the past two recipes – I needed a cookie that would hold its shape like the mardi gras ones, but have all of the flavor components of these most recent ones. 

 And then, I found it: the holy grail of sugar cookies. The dough was soft and a joy to work with. They froze well. They baked well. They tasted like the best possible version of those soft and sweet sugar cookies from the store, without all of the pesky chemicals and preservatives. They held their shape. They were rich. There is not a single person who has tasted these cookies and not fallen absolutely head over heels in love with them. The first time I made them was for a little pre-movie party L and I had for the Deathly Hallows (part 2) premiere last summer. Although the conditions for decorating with royal icing were atrocious – think humid and hot – I persevered and actually wound up with half decent cookies. I was still very clearly working on finding the right consistency needed for piping and flooding, and the designs looked decidedly amateur (which, hi, they were). It was the first time I really accepted the fact that it was going to take me more than a year to develop the kind of skill I was interested in, but at least I had my recipe.

The next time I made an attempt was for my sister and her boyfriend’s (M&M) housewarming party. I helped to “cater” the gathering by making an array of desserts, including house-shaped sugar cookies. I have to say, these are by far the most inspiring ones I’ve made to date. I was ambitious with my use of colors, which helped, and free-handed the windows, doors and rose bushed. Again, I struggled to get the right consistency and wound up with some “bleeding” houses, but all in all I was really proud of them. I was improving! The only thing my mom said was that I couldn’t do this as a business because I’d have to charge an arm and a leg for the amount of time it takes me to finish a batch. It’s true – that was definitely something I needed to work on – but I was more focused on perfecting the skill. Speed would come over time.

 After that, it was a long time before I made any cookies at all. I planned to do some for my birthday, but then there was this whole fiasco with that celebration, I got really frustrated, and it never came to fruition. It was Halloween before I tried again, and I didn’t even have my meringue powder with me to do royal icing. I used a buttercream as a stand in and decided to make pumpkin-shaped sugar cookies anyway, and while I’m pleased with the results, I can’t really count it as a step towards my goal, especially since the thing I need to work on the most is getting the right consistency of the icing. One thing I did attempt with this batch, though, was substituting 100% white whole wheat flour in for the all-purpose. Everyone really liked them still, but I wasn’t as pleased. Sure, they still tasted excellent – beyond excellent in fact – but the difference was noticeable. I may try to sneak in a small amount of whole wheat flour – maybe ½ cup or so - but in the end, I’m not willing to sacrifice taste for just a small increase in fiber.

 And then there were the snowflakes. I changed something with these, too – I used my MoreFiber Stevia Baking Blend. I just figured, what the heck – they weren’t the focal point of the dessert, and hopefully the royal icing would mask any small changes in taste. The dough was noticeably less soft when being rolled out – I had much more of an issue with cracking than I ever had before – and the finished product was just slightly off. L didn’t notice a difference, but my mom and I did. It wasn’t that they tasted bad (well, my mom thought so, but we’ve quickly determined that she just does not like stevia, and I may be starting to agree); it just didn’t taste as good. The stevia brought the cookie down from ethereal to earthly – it was just another sugar cookie. Good, sweet, nice to look at…but not something that I could enthusiastically eat an entire batch of without even thinking. Not something that would make the ensuing bellyache totally and irrefutably worth it. I learned that this cookie recipe is not to be tampered with. That doesn’t mean that I’m not going to try. After all, I’m too stubborn and incurably curious not to play around with a recipe until there is just nothing more to try with it. However, I’m now a skeptic with this recipe. Any change that I make has to be imperceptible; otherwise I’m going back to full-fat, full-sugar, and full-satisfaction original.

Now that we’ve reached these cookies, I suppose I should tell you how to make them. Well, the first step is to not do what I did – that is, realize that your icing consistency is a little off but be too stubborn to take it out of the bag and try again. It was a miracle that they came out half as aesthetically pleasing as they did, because I had icing running all kinds of amuck. It opened my eyes to the fact that I need to sit down, maybe not even with a batch of cookies, and just pipe until I get a feel for the right thickness and thinness for both piping and flooding. That really is the key to decorating a good cookie. If you can hone that skill, even if you’re the least artistic person in the world, you can create a decent cookie – I’m convinced.

So what have I learned about decorating sugar cookies with royal icing in 2011?
  1. You need patience.
  2. Invest in multiple standard tips and couplers so that you don’t need to waste time and energy washing between color changes, if you have them. I don’t know the size tip I use – I should research it – because my tip set didn’t come with labels. But I do only own one coupler and one of each type of tip, and anytime I do several colors it becomes a real hassle. 
  3. Don’t be stubborn. Admit when you’ve made an error, and start over. You won’t get better by throwing the towel in this time and saying you’ll work on it next time. 
  4. When you’re first starting out, try to even just practice with white icing, as I’ve done here. It removes the added complications of colors and intricate designs. Once you feel comfortable with the basics, then start being more ambitious with colors and details.
 And now I bring to you:

How to Make Snowflake Sugar Cookies

The “Ingredients”
1 batch snowflake sugar cookies
½ batch royal icing
1 icing bag
1 small, round tip with coupler
1 plastic “squirt” bottle (like for ketchup)
1 toothpick
edible “pearl” sprinkles1
tweezers, washed thoroughly

The Method

 Once your cookies have baked and cooled completely, arrange them spaced out on a relatively high counter – you don’t want to be hunched over while you decorate. I often decorate my cookies on the cooling racks or a cooled baking sheet, but any flat surface protected by wax paper for easy clean up is fine. 

Adjust the thickness of the icing in order to pipe it, add what you need to the pastry bag (placing the bag in a tall glass and inverting it a little is an easy way to get the icing in), and keep the rest closed in an airtight container. Outline each of the cookies. Use your non-dominant hand to guide the pastry bag and keep your other hand steady, and don’t hesitate in your motions. The more fluidly you work, the more seamless your cookies will look. Tap the tip down at each change of direction to ensure precision. If there’s a break in the icing, simply go back and fill it in. When all of the cookies are outlined, let them dry for at least one hour.

 After about 45 minutes, thin out your icing to a good flooding consistency. Most people say that if you dip a knife or spoon into the icing and then pull it out, the drippings should absorb back into the icing and return to a smooth surface within 10 seconds. I’m still working on this. Once you think you have the right consistency, cover the icing again and let it sit for 10-15 minutes. When you return, there will be air bubbles – stir these to break them up, and then add what you need to the squirt bottle. Add a generous amount of the thinned icing to one cookie; I usually find it easiest to start at the center and make branches out to the outer crevices. Let that cookie start to spread while moving on to the next. Work on 2-3 at a time, as you feel comfortable. Once the last in that grouping has icing on it, return to the first with the toothpick and smooth the icing out to all corners, adding more icing if necessary. Repeat this process until all of your cookies have been flooded. Any air bubbles that appear on the cookies themselves can be popped with the toothpick. Let the cookies set for several hours, preferably overnight.

Once the flooded cookies are completely dry, thicken the leftover icing up again to a piping consistency, and transfer to the piping bag (you may want to use a fresh one for this). Work on just one cookie at a time. Draw a straight line from a scant millimeter of one tip of the snowflake to a scant millimeter of the snowflake tip that is directly 180° across from it. Repeat for the remaining two sets of tips, so that you wind up with an “x” design with a vertical line through it. Add two small “v” shapes to the end of each tip, and one small dot mid-way between each line, just above the center. Finally, add a little bit of extra icing to the center and, using your tweezers, gently place one edible pearl in the center. Repeat for the rest of the cookies. Allow to dry completely before packaging in an airtight container. Store at room temperature.

1I’m quickly discovering how many baking decorations are made with hydrogenated oils. These pearls, along with those quintessential ice cream sprinkles (I call them “jimmies” – you know, not the granulated kind, the other kind), are no exception. I’m sure the amount of synthetic fat in 1 pearl is not going to wreak havoc on your body, but if you’re as insistent as I am on avoiding them whenever possible, either don’t add the sprinkles or knock them off before eating. I did the latter, since I now have an entire container of them to go through since I bought them before I got on this whole anti-trans fat kick.

If the written description is confusing, you can find a wonderfully helpful video post about snowflake decorating over at University of Cookie, which is an all around fantastic resource for anyone interested in working on their cookie skills. My cookies were fairly small, so I stuck to some of the simpler designs, but with a bigger cookie you can make some truly elaborate snowflakes.

Now, I’m off to make some peanut butter cup brownie bites and vanilla ice cream for tonight’s festivities (which may, in fact, wind up being me, L, pajamas, and the tv – oh, and copious amounts of dessert!), and gear up for 2012! I wish everyone a happy and healthy New Year, and all the luck with any resolutions you may have set.

UPDATE: I recently found two fantastic blog posts on decorating with royal icing. The first is all about the supplies you should have on hand, and the second is about coloring and preparing the icing, complete with great tips on icing consistency. I haven't tried them out yet but I'm definitely eager to now!


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Cranberry-Orange "Petits Cakes" with White Chocolate Buttercream Filling

If we were face to face right now, I would be on my knees. My hands would be clasped together in a plea. My grin would be so wide you’d barely be able to see the rest of my face. I would be asking you, beseeching you, to make these cakes. I have gone nuts over desserts before, and likely even on the pages of this blog, but never have I felt so emphatically about a recipe. At least, I don’t think I have.

I’m calling these petits cakes, though I know it’s a brutal Americanization/butchering of the French language, because they were intended to be petits fours, but rather than cut the cake into teensy tiny squares, I went with more substantial, full-size servings instead. It was really more for my own sanity, and to accommodate the normal-sized sugar cookie I wanted to adorn each cake with. They really are petits fours at heart.

 The cake, halved and brushed with white chocolate liqueur.

Speaking of little cake squares and hearts, petits fours will always hold a place in mine. My family often went to this one bakery not too far from my house – every birthday cake, Saturday morning cinnamon bun, and just-because-we’re-going-to-be-passing-by box of assorted treats came from this shop. And, although I loved their birthday cakes, my true allegiance as a child was to the vanilla petits fours. Beautiful little rectangles enrobed in smooth, rich white fondant and topped with piped buttercream flowers in assorted colors, they were likely the first proof of how easily I could knock back an alarming amount of even the most decadent treats. Whereas the richness would likely stop most people at just two or so of these petits fours, I could finish off a box like it was my job. Whenever they were in the house – and trust me, they didn’t last long – I’d be sure to get my share throughout the day. Yes, even starting with breakfast. Clearly, I was not always so focused on proper nutrition.

Now that I’m older, I certainly don’t eat petits fours for breakfast. I also haven’t been to that bakery in a long, long time, in fact eschewing most pastry shops for their inevitable use of shortening. I know, I know, how snotty (and stubborn) of me. This means that I also haven’t eaten a petit four in longer than I can remember, and yet it was almost by chance that I thought to make my own last week.

 The cake, halved and topped with buttercream and cranberry filling.

I was all set to just make decorated sugar cookies to bring to L’s dad’s Christmas Eve dinner, when I realized that C’s girlfriend (C being L’s brother), who happens to be downright awesome at decorating sugar cookies with royal icing, would also be contributing a plate of knock your socks off cookies. I know it’s not a competition, and that L’s family wouldn’t jeer at my still inferior decorating skills; it just started eating away at me and I got more and more uncomfortable with the idea of our two plates of cookies sitting side by side on the kitchen counter. All upset, I woke up Friday morning and frantically weighed my options. I didn’t want to give up the cookies because I’m still trying to practice my skills, and it seemed silly to totally abandon that opportunity for such practice just because I was intimidated; on the other hand, I really wanted to make something special, something that would stand out. When I came across a recipe for Petits Fours on Annie’s Eats, it struck me – I can have my cake and eat it, too! And by that I mean, I could still practice my decorating skills with sugar cookies without making them the focal point of my dessert – they would just be the garnish of the petits fours! It was perfect.

I wasn’t quite satisfied with Annie’s recipe, though. I wanted to incorporate this white chocolate liqueur I’ve been trying my best as a sorry excuse for a drinker to go through on my own; I also wanted a fruit filling that would be more seasonal than most berries are at this time of year. Cranberry came to mind, but how was I supposed to get cranberry jam? What about the cake flavor – would lemon still work, or should I change it? I wanted a pure white cake with a pure white sugar cookie – would the vibrant cranberry filling pop in a good way, or just look like my seemingly virginal cakes were bleeding a slow and painful death? I spent so many hours brainstorming the logistics of this cake, to the point where even though none of these recipes are my own creation, I feel a sense of pride in the finished product.

What I brought with me Saturday night to L’s dad’s house was a plate of thinly glazed orange cakes sandwiched around layers of thick, sweetened homemade cranberry sauce and white chocolate (liqueur) buttercream, each topped with their own haphazardly decorated (yet remarkably elegant) snowflake sugar cookies. Tomorrow’s post will go more into the sugar cookies themselves – an appropriate end to 2011, I think, with my resolution to perfect the art of sugar cookie decorating – but today I won’t hold out on you with the cakes themselves.

To warn you, they are ridiculously sweet and rich. L actually didn’t particularly like them – he’s not a big icing person, and even the thin layer of buttercream mixed with all of the other sweet components, particularly the fondant, was just too much for him. But everyone else raved, including myself, and I usually tend to hold back on my own desserts. You bite into one of these cakes and the soft cake just melts in your mouth, releasing a burst of orange encased in a sweet, slight crunch from the hardened fondant glaze. You chew for a moment, and your taste buds are greeted by the spiked white chocolate-sweetened cranberry combination, and pure sweet is replaced by an indulgent richness. This is a cake to be savored. Eat it slowly. Close your eyes after each bite. Swallow with a subtle pang of regret that you can’t keep experiencing those flavors over and over again. Or, go and sneak another serving and relive the moment all over again. This dessert is other-worldly, more than a show-stopper in both appearance and taste. I meant to write about this earlier in the week so that you could make this for New Year’s Eve, but even now that it’s more last minute I urge you to change your plans. And this is me, a diehard chocoholic, telling you to drop everything and make something that doesn’t have even half an ounce of real chocolate in it. That is not advice to be taken lightly, my friends.


Cranberry-Orange “Petits Cakes” with White Chocolate Buttercream1
Yield: 18 servings

The Ingredients – The Buttercream2
1 ½ ounces white chocolate3
½ cup butter, softened but not quite room temperature
1 ½ cups powdered sugar
2 tablespoons white chocolate liqueur, plus more for brushing the cake

The Ingredients – The Cranberry Filling2
3 cups cranberries
⅓ cup sugar4
¾ cup water, divided
2 tablespoons cornstarch

The Ingredients – The Cake
6 eggs
½ teaspoon cream of tartar
1 ½ cups sugar, divided

1 teaspoon orange zest (from 2 oranges)
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons orange juice
2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour

The Ingredients – The Fondant
4 ½ cups powdered sugar
½ cup water
¼ cup light corn syrup
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon almond extract

The Method
Begin with the buttercream: melt the white chocolate in a double boiler or a large glass bowl set over a sauce pan with a small amount of simmering water. Stir once in a while and keep the heat low to prevent burning. When it’s melted, remove from the heat and set aside to cool. Meanwhile, beat the butter until light and fluffy. Add the powdered sugar in gradually, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Pour in the liqueur and melted chocolate and continue beating to incorporate. Refrigerate in a covered container to store, bringing to room temperature (which should take just a few hours depending upon the temperature of the house) to ensure spreadability before using.

Next, make the cranberry filling: combine the cranberries, sugar, and ½ cup water in a medium saucepan and place over medium heat. Cook while stirring frequently until the mixture starts to boil and the cranberries pop. Mash the cranberries down a little bit with the back of your spoon as you go. Remove from the heat. In a separate, smaller bowl, mix together the remaining ¼ cup water and cornstarch and then stir into the hot cranberry mixture to thicken. Set aside to cool completely, at least an hour. For a completely smooth filling, puree in a food processor once cool.

Finally, move onto the cake itself: separate the eggs and allow both the whites and yolks to sit at room temperature for 30 minutes. Beat the egg whites and cream of tartar on medium speed of a stand mixer until soft peaks form. Slowly add in ½ cup sugar and increase the speed to high until stiff peaks form. Transfer to a large mixing bowl and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 325° and lightly grease a 9x13” pan with cooking spray.5

Add the egg yolks to the stand mixer (you don’t need to worry about washing because you did the whites first), and beat on  high speed until thick and lemon-colored, approximately 5 minutes. Add in the orange zest, juice, water, and vanilla extract and lower the speed to medium just to combine the new ingredients. Gradually add in 1 cup of sugar before increasing the speed again to medium, and continue beating until the mixture thickens slightly and doubles in volume, approximately 5 minutes.

Mixing by hand, sprinkle ¼ cup of the flour at a time over the egg yolk mixture, folding until combined between each addition. Next, fold 1 cup of the beaten egg white mixture into the yolk mixture, and then gently fold the yolk mixture into the remaining whites. Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan and place in the oven for 27-30 minutes, or until the cake springs back lightly in the center upon being touched. Remove from the oven, run a knife or soft spatula around the edges, and invert immediately onto a cooling rack to cool completely.

Once the cake has cooled, slice it horizontally into two halves, as equal as possible.6 Brush each cut side with a generous amount of white chocolate liqueur. Spread a layer of the white chocolate buttercream on top of one of the cut sides, and top the buttercream with a thin layer of the cranberry filling. Place the other cake half (with just the liqueur on it) on top, cut side down, and even out as best you can. Using a serrated knife – running it under hot water can help – cut the cake into 18 equally-sized mini cakes; I cut it into thirds lengthwise, then crosswise halved it and cut each of those halves into thirds. If desired, slice a centimeter or so off of all of the edges for uniformity (I didn’t both doing this, but it does conveniently leave some pretty tasty cake scraps for you to munch on).

Finally, turn to the poured fondant: arrange the cakes at least an inch apart on cooling racks with wax paper underneath. Place the racks close to the stove top. Combine all of the fondant ingredients in a double boiler or large glass bowl over a pot of simmering water. Heat, stirring occasionally, until lukewarm. Lower the heat to the lowest setting possible and return to the mixture from time to time to stir it. Armed with a knife in one hand and a ladle or spoon in the other, portion the thinned fondant mixture over the cakes, allowing it to spill over the sides (use the knife to smooth the fondant over the entire cake). You will waste a lot of fondant, so feel free to pull the maneuver that I did and swap out the used wax paper for a new sheet and recycling the fondant that has pooled on the new one. This is the trickiest, fussiest part of the whole cake, so just be patient.

Use any extra fondant to help adhere any garnishes or decorations. Set the cakes aside to cool and allow the fondant to set, then refrigerate as best you can (I just kept mine in less well heated parts of the house and in my trunk).

1Sources: the buttercream (The Pioneer Woman, adapted), the cranberry filling (All Day I Dream About Food) the cake and fondant (Annie’s Eats, adapted)
2If you’re pressed for time on the day that you plan to serve these cakes, both the buttercream and cranberry filling can be made up to a few days ahead of time. Refrigerate until ready to use, and leave a few hours the day of assembly for the buttercream to return to room temperature and soften up.
3Be wary of white chocolate if you’re the kind of person who pays attention to ingredients and the nutritional components of food. Many white chocolate chips are little more than chemicals and partially hydrogenated oils; I used a few squares of dove white chocolate, which is the real deal.
4I think that you could get away with decreasing this to 3-4 tablespoons. The rest of the dessert is so sweet that you really don’t need it, and leaving a little tart bite in the filling may actually make the cake even better.
5The bottom of my cake stuck to the pan – not horrendously, but it did stick, so feel free to be a little bit less judicious with your use of cooking spray. “Lightly” may not be enough in this case.

This recipe may look daunting, and it’s certainly time consuming, but it really isn’t too treacherous and can easily be split up over several days. Just leave at the very least the assembly for the final day. It really is fantastic – I’m actually all set to make the cake portion again to serve with a chocolate fondue on New Year’s Day!


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Thirty Minute Thursdays: Wonderful Walnut-Spinach Pesto over a Homemade Ravioli Flop

This week did not go as planned. I sat down on Tuesday to write about these to-die-for petit fours cakes that I had made over the holiday weekend, and just then, the phone rang. My grandfather. A fall. A broken hip. Maybe fractured. I spent the rest of the day at the hospital, keeping both him and my grandmother company while he waited to be taken into surgery. Thankfully, the fracture was small and the surgery went well, and he is now on the road to recovery.

All of this to say, my plans for the past two days were thrown out the window, and all of the productivity I had planned for – including things related to this blog – were little more than a joke. I felt a twinge of regret for being so absent, though understandably so, over the holiday weekend, and had every intention of coming back this week full force. And suddenly, it’s already Thursday, and so the petits fours will have to wait at least one more day, making way for a Thirty Minute Thursday post.

One of my latest meals from Rachael Ray’s book was a mushroom ravioli with a walnut-spinach pesto. The recipe was actually for tortellini and pesto, using pre-made frozen cheese tortellini, but I have always wanted to try making my own. So, I followed the recipe for the pesto, and instead of dumping some frozen ravioli into a pot of boiling water, I laid out my newly purchased wonton wrappers and got to work on a different recipe for fresh ravioli I had bookmarked most likely centuries ago.

The ravioli were a total bust. I don’t really know what happened, though I’m thinking I may have boiled them too long, since they absolutely fell to pieces. It was, as I so aptly wrote in my notes about this dish, a hot mess. I also didn’t find the crudely salvaged meal to be particularly filling, despite the high-fat and, therefore, high-calorie nature of pesto. Making the pesto with a cheese-filled tortellini would likely solve that problem, but so could throwing in a protein like tofu, chicken, or fish.

The pesto itself, on the other hand, was very nice. It was easy to come together, though maybe it wound up being less pureed than I typically expect from a pesto sauce. This is either a result of my “trusty” little mini-chopper that I use instead of a real food processor, or just the nature of the recipe itself. It was even a little spicy, and I can’t quite place why that was (there’s really nothing in it that has any heat). The combination of spices must have just come together in this synergistic way so that the sauce was greater than the sum of its parts. Or, my taste buds have gone totally wacky and you should no longer listen to a word I say. Let’s go with the first one, ok?

One Year Ago: Oatmeal, 3 Ways

Walnut-Spinach Pesto, courtesy of Rachael Ray’s Classic 30 Minute Meals
Yield: enough for 10 servings of pasta

The Ingredients
4 ounces chopped walnuts
1 cup chicken (or vegetable) broth
10 ounces baby spinach
4 cloves garlic
⅔ cup grated parmesan cheese
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

The Method
Toast the walnuts in a dry pan on the stove or in the toaster oven until lightly browned, shaking occasionally and checking often. Set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, bring the broth to a boil in a sauce pan and then remove from the heat. Working in batches, puree the spinach, walnuts, broth, and garlic in a food processor. Transfer to a large bowl and stir in the remaining ingredients. If using for pasta, add the cooked pasta and toss until evenly coated.


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Lemon & Parmesan Kale Salad for the Win!

Welcome back, everyone! I hope that you had an enjoyable weekend, whether you were celebrating the holidays or not. I know that it was a whirlwind for me, but I had an incredible time with L’s family and am really looking forward to telling you about some of the things I made for dessert for both Christmas Eve and Day. I need a breather, though – a little reprise from all of the holiday baking and traveling. I’ve always found the day after Christmas to be a little anti-climactic. The Christmas songs go away, the energy from Christmas morning wanes but doesn’t go away completely – I find myself up today, drinking a glass of almond milk in preparation of returning to my workout routine after a few days of sacrificing it for the sake of getting all of that baking done, and I’m almost thinking to myself “Well, what now?”

This kale salad is anything but anti-climactic, though. In fact, I was so skeptical about it because I wasn’t fully convinced that I even liked kale beyond kale chips, but my produce calendar said it was in season and I’m up for giving anything a second chance. Plus, I always feel like salads should be doing more for me nutritionally than my beloved romaine, yet sometimes a big plate of raw spinach really rubs me the wrong way. As it turns out, kale is the perfect blend of the two! It has the light taste of romaine – not the same watery crunch, but still very far from the chew of spinach – with all of the nutritional powerhouse qualities of spinach. It’s absolutely my new favorite salad base!

I quartered the recipe and wound up with enough for about 2 pretty voluminous, though not necessarily entirely filling, portions. When I first made it, I ate it with an egg casserole; the next day I just had it on its own and both times it was nothing short of amazing. The vinaigrette, which I’ve made twice now and have gotten big compliments on it from everyone, is full of depth from a good olive oil and flavor from the citrus and parmesan. Lemon and parmesan really do go well together (and, by the way – I have officially switched over to the Real Deal parmesan; no more of that awful canned Kraft stuff here at Floptimsim!), and you don’t need much of the cheese to get the desired flavor. The pine nuts added a toasty chew, too. Plus, the salad got arguably even better overnight –the next day I was practically in heaven. You need to make this salad. You just do. If you’re looking for a lighter reprieve from the sugar rush of this weekend, this is perfect. If you could care less about healthy eating but just want a ridiculously good salad, a real crowd pleaser (does anyone need an idea for a New Year’s Eve or Day gathering recipe??), this is perfect, too. In fact, I don’t know if there is a situation where this salad wouldn’t be perfect.

One Year Ago: Croquembouche (Espresso Cream Filled Choux Pastries)

Lemon & Parmesan Kale Salad, adapted from Confections of a Foodie Bride
Yield: 4-6 side, 3-4 main dish servings

The Ingredients
4 cloves garlic, finely minced1
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon vinegar2
⅔ cup oil
⅓ cup shaved parmesan
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 bunch kale, rinsed and well dried
¼ cup pine nuts, toasted
shaved parmesan, for garnish

The Method
Whisk together the garlic, lemon, vinegar, and pepper in a small mixing bowl and set aside for at least 15 minutes, preferably overnight.3 Slowly stream in the olive oil, whisking all the while, and then stir in the shaved parmesan.

Meanwhile, coarsely chop the kale and add it to a (very) large bowl. Toss with the dressing4 and garnish with the toasted pine nuts and shaved parmesan.

1The second time I made this I used pre-minced garlic, a fraction of a tablespoon. I’m sure it’s not exactly the same, but the garlic wasn’t overpowering in either instance so I didn’t notice much of a difference. Use what you have.
2The original calls for white wine; I used red wine the first time and tarragon the second. I also added freshly parsley the second time around, which was nice.
3I let mine sit for 25 minutes the first time and several hours the second.
4It says to toss the full recipe with just a few tablespoons of the dressing, but I have a confession: I used the whole thing and had a very well dressed salad. Look, I will dip the tines of my fork in salad dressing and just get a scant amount per bite all day long, and I’ll even enjoy it – but deep down, there’s a part of me that just goes to town over a salad really really well coated in a homemade or vinaigrette. These are good fats, and if you stick to the 2/3 cup of oil for the full batch it works out to just under 2 tablespoons of oil per person. It’s really not too obscene, I promise, and it’s so good if you “indulge” in this way.


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Tradition, Memories, and Black & White Rice Krispy Treats

This time of year is always a bitter-sweet one for me. I love the atmosphere that settles in the closer we get to Christmas – it can be frigid and icey or temperate but rainy, and yet there’s still a warmth almost everywhere you go. The decorative lights are inviting, the gift buying and wrapping is exciting, and houses start to smell like pine needles, pot roast, and gingerbread. I even forget that I don’t love Winter right about now. But then, I can’t help but feel a small void inside of me, a little twinge of…regret? Sadness? Introspection. This is the time of year where I remember my grandmother most. If you knew her, you couldn’t not remember her around Christmas. Our house was decked in wreaths, garlands, candles, ornaments, and the biggest tree our old Victorian home could house. She lived with us until she passed away, which was over ten years ago now. The first few Christmases were hard. Then, the decorations slowly changed. The traditions changed. We no longer got a tree. Mezzuzahs and menorahs replaced the holly and mistletoe, now that everyone else in the house was Jewish. Everything about how we celebrated the holidays changed. More than anything, I miss the perpetual smell of cookies that would waft out of the kitchen as she baked dozens and dozens of cookies to give out to neighbors, friends, family – even my bus driver got a package each year.

I don’t know why, but as much as I bake, I have yet to take on those cookie recipes. I was hit with this wave of nostalgia too late this year, just last night feeling a strong desire to keep her cookie baking tradition alive, but know that next year I will be picking up where my grandmother left off, even if it is ten years delayed. I love trying new recipes and shaking things up, but I think you need a little reminder of tradition now and then, too.

I want to pause in all of the crazy baking schemes I’ve been in the midst of this week, and talk to you about a recipe that I think holds a lot of memories to a lot of people. Ironically, it doesn’t really for me. I feel like it’s almost this rite of passage to grow up on homemade rice krispy treats, and yet the first time I made them myself was just last month. I may not have my grandmother’s famous chocolate covered peanut butter ball recipe to share with you today (I’m pretty sure I ate at least a dozen of those every day leading up to Christmas when I was a kid!), I can share with you a recipe that I hope will bring back childhood memories for others. Because even if it’s painful, a little sad and bitter-sweet, it’s important to take a minute at this time of year and just remember.

These rice krispy treats are subtly sweet and very simple. They’re softer than a store bought square, but I haven’t yet figured out if that’s the recipe or the fact that I was maybe, possibly, I hope you can keep a secret, using stale crispy rice cereal. Please don’t judge me. They still tasted really good. I actually put the leftovers in the freezer which was a completely spontaneous move – I have no idea if they’ll be anything close to edible when I take them out to thaw – but I thought it would be an interesting experiment. I’ll let you know how they are when they’re not fresh. If mine ever were fresh to begin with…sigh. I’m doing a mighty fine job of selling these, huh? They’re extremely enjoyable, though, I promise.

One Year Ago: Special Delivery Cake

Black & White Rice Krispy Treats, courtesy of Annie’s Eats
Yield: 18-22 servings

The Ingredients
4 tablespoons butter, divided
1 ½ ounces dark chocolate, finely chopped
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
4 cups mini (40 individual regular) marshmallows, divided
6 ½ cups crispy rice cereal, divided
½ cup mini chocolate chips
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

The Method
Line 18-22 muffin tins with paper liners and set aside.

Melt half of the butter and all of the dark chocolate and cocoa powder together in a microwave safe mixing bowl, stirring frequently to prevent the cocoa powder from scorching. Add half of the marshmallows and return to the microwave for 1-2 minutes, until fluffy and melted. Stir in half of the crispy rice cereal, making sure the chocolate coats all of the cereal. Stir in the mini chocolate chips and set aside for 15-30 seconds. Divide the mixture evenly among the prepared muffin tins and press down to create level tops.

In a second (or washed) microwave safe bowl, melt the remaining butter and marshmallows in the microwave for 2-3 minutes until the marshmallows have fluffed up and the butter has melted completely. Stir in the vanilla and remaining cereal until the mixture is fully incorporated. Set aside for 15-30 seconds. Divide evenly among the muffin tins already filled with the chocolate treats.

Chill the treats in the refrigerator for 15 minutes, or let sit at room temperature until set before serving. Store in an airtight container at room temperature.


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Thirty Minute Thursdays: Healthy Chickpea & Rosemary Dip

This week, I’ve been more or less glued to the kitchen. Hannukkah started on Tuesday, L’s brother’s birthday was yesterday, my sister’s birthday is tomorrow, and then, of course, there’s Christmas Eve and Christmas day. The food part of my brain has been kicked into holiday high gear, and I am appeasing it by focusing this week’s updates on quick and easy ideas for entertaining food. As it turns out, I even have a Thirty Minute Thursday post for you that would be perfect for a holiday gathering!

Dips are popular appetizers, probably because they tend to be no-fuss crowd pleasers. However, some of the best (I’m talking to you, Spinach & Artichoke!) are worse for you than the dessert course. That’s not to say that if you love those dips and one of the holiday parties you’re at is serving them you should avoid them like the plague (in fact, check out this post for a slimmed down version of an artichoke dip), but balancing them with a lighter option is definitely a strategy for keeping things in check.

This chickpea and rosemary dip can do just that. It’s just as easy and fast to make as any other dip, but it’s something you can feel good about eating. It’s flavorful but not enormously filling on its own, which I think is actually a good quality in an appetizer – a dip especially. If you use crunchy vegetables as dippers (I chose broccoli), the fiber from those will help you feel a little bit more satiated. You could also serve it with whole wheat pita. Once the holidays are over, turn it into a meal by spreading it on a whole grain wrap and topping it with some spinach, tomatoes, and pepper strips.

The only warning about this dip is that it was a little bit tough to puree. To be fair, I was using my mini food chopper, not a full-sized food processor, and I found myself needing to be patient. It still came together quickly, though, and I really did love it in the end.

Chickpea and Rosemary Dip, adapted from Rachael Ray’s Classic Thirty Minute Meals
Yield: 4-6 servings

The Ingredients
2 (heaping) cups chickpeas1
¼ cup chopped roasted red peppers
2 tablespoons chopped artichoke hearts
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 sprigs rosemary
1-2 tablespoons lemon juice
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
3 tablespoons (nonfat) plain greek yogurt

The Method
Combine the chickpeas, roasted red peppers, garlic, rosemary, pepper, and lemon juice in a food processor until mostly incorporated. Add in the greek yogurt and pulse again until completely combine. Transfer to a serving bowl, cover, and refrigerate until serving.

1I made mine from dried beans, but the original recipe calls for 2 cans, drained. I’m all about dried beans for the most part (just cook up a huge batch and freeze them until you need them) since they have no sodium and are dirt cheap (yes, even compared to the cans), but if you use cans just rinse them thoroughly to rid them to excess salt.

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Brunch Made Easy with Egg Muffins

 I’ve always wanted to host a brunch. I see sunshine, a brightly lit room, a buffet table bursting with trays and platters of everyone’s favorite breakfast dishes. In my head, it’s always Spring or Summer, but for people whose family members come in from out of town for the holidays, you probably link the idea of brunch to this time of year. After all, when you have a whole slew of relatives in town, you have a lot of hungry people when the sun comes up!

My family prefers restaurants to home-based festivities. Most of them view family gatherings as a whole lot of work, which I won’t deny – it really can be a big endeavor, particularly if one person or a small group within the family winds up doing most of the preparation. So, all of my baked French toast and strata recipes lie dormant on a shelf, while I go to the local diner or upscale brunch buffet instead. Certain brunch-friendly recipes, though, I can make for myself. It certainly isn’t enough to nip my brunch hosting day dreams in the bud, but it does give me the opportunity to taste some really wonderful breakfast-y treats.

Recently, I made a scaled-down recipe for egg muffins for dinner, paired with a vibrant tomatillo guacamole (how many times have I mentioned that stuff at this point – three? Four? A thousand?) and fresh red pepper strips. The muffins were exactly what I was expecting them to be – hot, spongy, savory, and full of potential. They were also stupid easy, and I use that adverb because they took maybe two minutes to prep. Granted, it would take a little bit longer to make enough for a larger group, and if you need to slice and dice too many filling ingredients that could tack on a few more minutes, but ultimately you can have these in the oven in minutes flat. Imagine that – a recipe that only requires you to be disengaged from your guests for a handful of minutes.

Now, I messed around with the recipe just a little bit. I couldn’t help it. First, I blanked and completely forgot to add in the egg whites, so I just had 1 whole egg in mine – still, I thought the volume was fine so you might even be able to stretch the recipe further based on that. I used chopped onion instead of scallions, 1 ½ tablespoons of strong cheese instead of 2 ½ tablespoons, and half of a sausage link instead of bacon. I also pooled my two muffins into one ramekin and baked in the toaster oven. After about 22 minutes I was able to just pop it right out of the dish and dig in! Below is the recipe exactly how I made it, but don’t let that box you in. I chose not to add vegetables because I knew I was going to be eating red pepper strips and guacamole on the side, but use whatever meat, vegetables, herbs, and flavorings you want!

Egg Muffins, adapted from Brown Eyed Baker
Yield: 12 muffins

The Ingredients
3 links lean chicken sausage, diced
6 eggs1
splash of (low-fat) milk
2 tablespoons chopped onion
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons blue cheese
3 tablespoons parmesan

The Method
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease a muffin pan with non-stick cooking spray.

Lightly brown the chicken sausage in a lightly greased cooking pan, 3-5 minutes over medium heat. Meanwhile, beat the eggs, milk, and onions together; set aside.

Divide the sausage and blue cheese evenly amongst the muffin tins and top with the egg mixture, being careful not to overfill. Use a fork to mix each muffin up for better distribution, and top each cup with the parmesan.

Bake for 20-30 minutes, removing when they are puffy and just slightly brown on top. Take care not to overcook them, as that will produce a rubbery muffin.

1The original recipe calls for 12 eggs or egg equivalents; this is where my forgetting about the egg whites comes in. Because I made it with just 1 egg per serving, I can’t tell you exactly how many egg whites would be perfect. The original recommends 9 eggs and 6 egg whites, since 1 egg white only counts for half an egg. If you use 6 whole eggs, that means you should have 12 egg whites, which would be over 1 cup.


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Crustless Pizza Bites: proof that appetizers don't have to be unhealthy!

One of my favorite things to do when I’m cooking for myself is to make a dinner out of one or two appetizers. It’s almost like my own little version of tapas. In this way, I’m able to sample a bunch of different foods without having too much of any one thing leftover,  I can keep things a little lighter, and I get to try out all of those appetizers that I’ve been dying to make but never have a reason to make them.

Over the next week or two, though, I know many people will have a reason to make various appetizers, and if you’re still trying to figure out what to make, please make these “crustless pizza bites.” They are insanely good, and a really healthy way to start off any party. Appetizers can be a health-conscious person’s downfall, but if you make careful choices, they really don’t have to be all that bad. Take these, for example – you basically roast some tomatoes to within an inch of their lives and top them with a tiny amount of part-skim (or not!) ricotta cheese. Aside from the nutrients you inevitably lose from the roasting, this recipe is practically saintly. And, it really does taste exactly like a crustless pizza – and I love a good pizza, so I wouldn’t joke around about that.

Seriously, make these as soon as you can, even if you aren’t looking for an appetizer; I paired them with a batch of roasted cauliflower (reminded me of tater tots – talk about a healthified childhood throwback meal!) and was a very happy camper.

Crust-Free Pizza Bites, courtesy of Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen
Yield: 8 appetizer, 4 larger portions

The Ingredients
4 tomatoes
½ cup (part-skim) ricotta
dried oregano & coarse salt, to taste
dried basil, red pepper flakes, and garlic powder, to taste
grated parmesan cheese, for garnish

Preheat the oven to 350°. Line a casserole dish with aluminum foil and grease with a non-stick cooking spray. Halve or third each tomato and arrange them in the dish. Spray the exposed sides of each tomato with cooking spray (lightly).

Sprinkle the tomatoes with all of the herbs and seasonings, and place in the oven to bake for at least 1 hour. The key is to err on the side of overroasting; you want them to carmelize and bring out that cooked, saucey flavor. When done, remove from the oven, dollop each half with 1T of ricotta, and sprinkle with parmesan before serving.

And lastly, to everyone celebrating Hannukkah - I hope you have a happy, happy first night! We're having a small family dinner tonight, and I could not be more excited for the food: mom's brisket and homemade applesauce, latkes (of course!), a simple garden salad with a TBD vinaigrette, and - last but not least - I'll be making baked cinnamon oatmeal stuffed apples served alongside a scoop of homemade cinnamon ice cream! Gotta love the holidays.



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Mr. Good Cookies, less-affectionately known as Use-Up-That-Leftover-Halloween-Candy Cookies

To help wash the bitter taste from your mouths after yesterday’s post about broccoli rabe, I have a very sweet cookie recipe for you. It’s about time, after all – I’m just about the only food blogger who hasn’t devoted every day from Thanksgiving to New Year’s to dessert, which is shocking based on my relentless sweet tooth.

I’m calling these my Mr. Good Cookies, because I used a combination of Mr. Goodbars and Hershey’s Special Dark bars (both leftover from Halloween) in them. The recipe calls for you to use chopped up whatever-you-have-on-hand, so much like the blondie-brownie-candy-pie from a little while back, this is a good base recipe to know about, altered according to what’s in your pantry or what leftovers you may have lying around from the last party or what-have-you that you had.

I slightly reduced the amount of butter by 2 1/3T. Considering there’s still close to 2 ½ sticks in it, I wouldn’t call this a health modification. I realized too late that I was out of butter, my roommate agreed to take me to WaWa (think: glammed up 7Eleven) but not an actual supermarket, and when I got there I was faced with a $3.00 price sticker for half a pound. Now, I’m not a price guru; I really don’t know how much a lot of staple foods cost, though I know I should, but I do know that a pack of butter should not be that much. I just couldn’t justify spending $6.00 for 4 sticks of butter, and I knew that if I got 2 sticks I’d be pretty close to what I needed, so I went with it.

I also used this Stevia product that I recently won on a giveaway instead of the granulated sugar. Again, there’s still a hefty amount of regular brown sugar in the recipe so this isn’t a sugar free product, but it did cut the calories significantly and lowered the glycemic index. The product that I used was called More Fiber by NuNaturals, and it’s the first of many products of theirs that I have tried. I’ll have to test out their plain stevia, extracts, vanilla, etc. at some point, but the nice thing about the More Fiber is that you can use it in a 1:1 ratio to sugar because it’s been bulked up with fiber. I’m still not 100% sure how I feel about NuNaturals or stevia in general. I just have my doubts that it’s really as natural and unprocessed as they say it is, plus it’s wildly expensive (about 7 times the price of regular sugar by weight after taking into account the fact that it weighs less so an equal amount should last longer; just strictly speaking numbers, it’s actually 10 times the price). I’ll have to do more experiments and research before I come to any definite conclusions about which sweetener I’ll wind up using for baking. One of my professors recommended barley malt and rice honey as natural sweeteners, so I definitely want to look more into those, too. In the end there has to be something better than highly processed white sugar!

But ok, you’re not necessarily here to talk sugar or convenience store mark ups. You’re here because I promised you cookies – no, not just cookies, cookies with crushed up candy bars in them. These cookies were big hits in my apartment! They were easy to make, though I definitely recommend digging in with your hands to mix them most efficiently and quickly. They didn’t spread during baking, but as I’ve never made them with granulated sugar, I can’t tell if this is just a side effect of the stevia swap, since sugar is one of the main culprits when it comes to baked goods that spread. Judging by the pictures in the original post, this is definitely what happened. The fact that they retained most of their shape, though, meant that they were soft in the middle, kind of pillowy. They had a comforting, familiar sweetness to them, too.

The only downside that I could discern was that because I chose to use two different candy bars and wasn’t super anal about even distribution, some cookies had more of a dark chocolate edge, while others featured the milk chocolate and peanut combination more prominently, and still others didn’t have much in the way of candy bars at all. Still, I really liked them, my roommates really liked them, and my mom really liked them (though she detected a mildly bitter aftertaste, which can only be a result of the stevia, though the product claims it won’t do that; I didn’t notice the aftertaste even when looking for it, but I might just not be sensitive enough to it).

Mr. Good Cookies (aka Candy Bar Cookies), adapted from Cooking During Stolen Moments
Yield: Approximately 4 – 4 ½ dozen

The Ingredients
1 cup + 3 tablespoons butter
1 ½ cups sugar1
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla
4 cups (white whole wheat) flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
4 full or 20 fun size candy bars2,  chopped
1 cup oats

The Method
Preheat the oven to 350° and lightly grease baking sheets.

Cream the butter and both sugars until light and fluffy, at least five minutes. Add in the eggs one at a time, followed by the vanilla, and mix an additional 2 minutes, until creamy and well incorporated.

Meanwhile, whisk the flour, baking powder, and baking soda together in a different bowl. Slowly add it into the sugar mixture by hand, stirring until just combined. Using your hands, mix in the candy bar pieces and oats quickly, taking care not to over-mix.

Roll the dough into golf ball sized rounds, placing them at least one inch apart on the prepared baking sheets. Place in the oven and bake 11-13 minutes, until light golden brown. Cool for 1 minute on the sheets, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container once cool.

1This is where I substituted in equal volumes of the More Fiber Stevia Blend; if you’re using an alternative sweetener that is not cup-for-cup the same as sugar (most are not), you’ll need to cut back on the amount you use.
2For mine, I used 10 Hershey’s Special Dark and 10 Mr. Goodbar fun size bars.


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