Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year!

Yeah, it's technically not the "new year" yet.  But I will probably be hungover and asleep most of tomorrow so I wanted to write this today.  Warning: this might be a little sappy, so don't read if you don't want.  Just my own little personal reflection of 2011.

This has definitely been a transition year for me.  2010 sucked.  Bad.  Probably one of the worst years ever for me.  Some good things did happen, but overall, not such a good year.  I'm actually looking back in my journal that I started on Dec 26, 2010 as a sort of New Year's resolution.  I always start a few days early for some reason.  Anyway, it lists all the reasons 2010 sucked and what I was going to do to make 2011 the BEST YEAR EVER. 

First of all, I don't believe in resolutions.  They're always broken by February.  I called these "goals."  Anyway, my goals last year were pretty much resolutions:  lose weight, go on more trips, move to Tampa by February, budget better and save money, make more time for family and friends, and do the absolute best job that I can do every day at work.  Then I told myself I would write about what I was doing every day to meet my goals.  Well that lasted until.....late February.  I did an update in July.  And that's it.  See?  Resolutions don't last.  But I've kind of kept these goals in the back of my head throughout the year and have definitely made some progress. 

Anyway, here are some highlights of my year:
-Moved to Tampa (and have made it through almost a whole year without cable!)
-Met Khloe Kardashian!!! (you laugh, but she's the most normal one of the bunch and I love her.)
-My BFF Michael came to visit and we celebrated his bday at the Columbia (one of my favorite restaurants!) and by spending the day at Clearwater Beach.

-Celebrated my BFF Megan's birthday in Orlando with some Moroccan food, belly dancing lessons (in the middle of the restaurant- hah!), and chocolate cupcakes with peanut butter icing.

- Had some fun with this crazy, amazing, hilarious lady.

- Was asked to be a bridesmaid in a dear friend's wedding

- Caught a couple of Rays games

- And ogled some hottie football players at the Bucs training camp

- Spent some time with my amazing family (and yes, we had a few beers...)

- Went to a super-crazy Jason Aldean concert with friends and had a blast!!!

- Took a trip to St. Louis for work and met some great friends.  Plus I got my certification as a Medicolegal Death Investigator.  Holla!

- Spent time and reconnected with my mom's side of the family in Southern Illinois.  Huge reunion!  Got a bunch of the first cousins together for the first time in a LONG LONG time.
- Got really lucky with a job I love and some amazing coworkers who have turned into truly great friends.

-Got my little sister in October and have had so much fun hanging out with her! (Wish I had some pictures!!!!)

- Spent the weekend in Savannah for my birthday with my BFF Michael.  SO MUCH FUN!

- into just a little bit of trouble ;)

It's definitely been a fun year.  There have been some downs, but not near as many as in 2010.  I think 2012 is going to be full of changes and it's kind of scary and exciting that for me, it's a blank canvas and I have no idea what's going to happen.  With a few exceptions:
- Starting off the year with a trip to Providence, RI and NYC for my above-mentioned dear friend's bridal shower and bridesmaids/wedding dress shopping.
-Moving into a new place in a few weeks (the rent is MUCH cheaper and the place is quite a bit bigger!)
-Hoping to plan a trip to San Francisco in the spring to visit another dear friend who recently moved there.
-Also hoping to plan a cruise? (This has been on the list for the past few years and hasn't happened yet).
-Do a LOT more baking and blogging.  I have a bazillion recipes I want to try. 

In the meantime I will be celebrating with some friends tonight.  I hope everyone has a SAFE and Happy New Year.  :)

December Daring Bakers Challenge

Again, I know this is a couple of days late.  Hope they don't kick me out.  Whoops.

I think I'm the Daring Bakers rebel this month.  I post late, I utterly FAILED at this recipe and I'm going to talk about how disgusting my recipe turned out.  And I didn't try again.  Because this particular baked good took A WEEK to make.  So, um, sorry.  Although I did follow through and do the whole challenge (it included using the baked good in another, original, recipe).  I hope next month is something better.

Our Daring Bakers Host for December 2011 was Jessica of My Recipe Project and she showed us how fun it is to create Sour Dough bread in our own kitchens! She provided us with Sour Dough recipes from Bread Matters by AndrewWhitley as well as delicious recipes to use our Sour Dough bread in from Tonia George’s Things on Toast and Canteen’s Great British Food!

Sourdough.  Yum.  I was totally excited.  Although my last couple of attempts at anything involving yeast have been humongous thumbs-downs.  So Sourdough doesn't involve yeast- at least the kind you buy at the store.  You make your own by letting flour and water sit on your counter and ferment for 5 days.  Appetizing...not.

There were 3 different options to choose from: French Country Bread, Russian Rye Bread, or Rice, Brazil Nut and Flaxseed Bread.

They all had strange flours that I thought I would never find anywhere except online, and I didn't think I had the time to find them, order them, have them shipped, and have the flour ferment on my counter for a week.  So I chose the French Country Bread.  It had the least-weird ingredients of them all and I figured I'd be able to find whole wheat bread flour.  Um, no.  I even went to the organic stores.  No dice.  So I just bought whole wheat flour.  I know bread flour has a higher protein content, but I figured if it's fermenting, it shouldn't make a difference. 


So the flour and water did ferment.  Sort of.  I almost don't want to show you a picture because it looks so gross.
I said almost.  Bahahah.  It looks like a lump of puke.  That was after day 1.  Days 2-5 didn't look much different so I didn't take pictures.  Each day, you add a little more flour and water.  It did start to grow and take up about half of that bowl, and it smelled yeasty, but it just wouldn't bubble up like the recipe said it should.  It had a few bubbles in it, but I knew it was wrong.  Oh well.  I kept keepin-on.  So on day 5, you add some more junk to the yeasty rotten stuff.  More flour, salt, water.  Let it rest for awhile. 

Still looks nasty.  Whatever.  Then you make a loose dough without the yeasty junk.  Form it into a ball, and then add the yeasty junk (it's really called "starter" btw, but I can't bring myself to call it that) on top.  Like so:

It just looks hard and lumpy.  Ugh.  Then you fold it all together for like 20 minutes or something (good arm workout at the least!).  Then you put it in a basket with a blown-up grocery bag around it.  Huh?  I don't think I read this part before I started the recipe.  It said a "proofing basket."  I'm sorry.  I'm not a stay-at-home bread maker.  I don't bake fresh bread every morning.  I have a job.  So I have no clue what a proofing basket even is.  There was a handy youtube video, so I watched that.  It looked like the basket I have in my room that holds magazines.  So I removed the magazines and of course cleaned the basket.  Then you line it with a kitchen towel, dump flour on it, and plop the loaf in.  Then you're apparently supposed to put a grocery bag around it, blow it up full of air, and tie it.  So the bread is in a balloon, sort of.  Well, my basket was too big for the Target bag I had ready, so I used a garbage bag.  Which was way too big, but whatever.  I blew it up and felt like a total weirdo.  I let my bread sit for 4 hours and guess what?  It didn't rise one bit.  It looked like this:
Whatever.  So I baked it anyway.  I'd come this far.  When it came out of the oven, I got a little excited.  It was still flat and looked like a big rock and weighed about 10 lbs (not kidding), but it had a nice crust.  And it smelled pretty good. 

 This was the toughest, chewiest bread I have ever had in my entire life.  It didn't TASTE bad, but I got a jaw-ache from trying to eat it.  My loaf of bread was so sad and flat. 

Well, I still had to make a recipe out of this crap.  So I made an open-faced buffalo chicken sandwich.
Here's the recipe, if you can call it that.
Open-Faced Buffalo Chicken Sandwich
makes 1 sandwich

2 slices sourdough bread (preferably not MY sourdough bread)
1/2 cup chopped cooked chicken breast
a few Tbsp buffalo sauce
2 Laughing Cow Blue Cheese Wedges
2 Tbsp shredded cheddar cheese

1.  Spread each piece of bread with 1 wedge of cheese.  Toast.
2.  In microwave safe bowl, combine chicken and buffalo sauce.  Microwave 1-2 minutes, until heated through.
3.  Top toast with buffalo chicken mixture, then sprinkle with cheddar cheese.  Pop in the toaster oven or under broiler for a few seconds until cheese is melted.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Christmas Cookie EXTRAVAGANZA!!!!!!!!!

I love Christmas!  It means family, friends, and lots and lots of baking.  Which we all know makes me a very happy girl. 

I baked a cake the other day for a coworker to take to church for a Christmas party and it was so much fun.  It had been awhile since I've actually decorated a cake for real and it felt really good to get back into it. 

I've got a few parties/get-togethers coming up too, so I'll of course be baking for those.  (Is it kind of sad that all of my "holiday" parties this year are on or after Christmas?  I think so.  But I digress.) 

And of course, we have the Christmas Cookies.  I've sort of made it my tradition to bake a bunch of cookies and give them to friends as gifts.  I started doing this in college and have been doing it (almost) every year since.  I try to mix it up every year, make a different assortment of cookies and candies.  I think this year may be the best, due to all of the blogs I've been reading and recipes I've been bookmarking.  It took me almost a full day to narrow down the recipes, but I think I found some winners! 

I don't think I took a picture of the actual cookie boxes (shame on me), but I used small shirt boxes that you can buy at Target ($2 for a pack of 4).  They have cute little Christmas designs on them, and you don't have to wrap them or anything.  I used stick-on gift tags to label who they go to, and to separate the treats inside, I used Christmas treat bags (also from Target, $1.99 for a pack of 20).  I made labels out of brown cardstock.  I cut them out with pinking shears, then wrote the name of the cookie with a red Sharpie, punched a hole in it, and attached them to each bag with the twistie tie.  I kind of randomly thought of it yesterday and I think it looks SO freaking adorable. we go!  12 hours of baking (yes, 12) condensed into one post.  I didn't take a TON of pictures, but you'll get the idea. :) Enjoy, and Merry Christmas!!

Striped Peppermint Meringues with Chocolate Ganache

These cookies are so cute!  I saw them on 17 and Baking awhile back and knew they would be perfect for Christmas.  I've never made meringue cookies before (although I've made meringue cake- see Sans Rival- and it turned out great!) and I was a little apprehensive.  Elisa did warn in her post that if you use peppermint extract that includes peppermint oil in the actual cookies, they will deflate (the whole rule about egg whites deflating with any little smidgen of fat).  Hers didn't get as puffy, although if you look at her post, they're TOTALLY cute.  She suggested that if you can't find peppermint extract without the oil, put the extract in the chocolate ganache, instead of in the cookies.  Which is what I did, and the cookies still have a great peppermint flavor.  You can't even tell if it's in the cookies or the chocolate.  I've adapted the recipe to reflect all that.

I also think I made my cookies a bit on the small side.  That's okay- they're bite-sized.  Next time I make them I'm going to use a larger piping tip, but they still turned out pretty cute. :)

I love fluffy meringue.

Striped Peppermint Meringues with Chocolate Ganache
Makes about 5 dozen

3 large egg whites
3/4 cup sugar
Red Gel food coloring (I used Wilton no-taste Red)

Chocolate Ganache
3/4 cup heavy cream
4 1/2 oz semisweet chocolate, finely chopped (I used chocolate chips and found I had to add more to get the consistency I needed.  Just eyeball it)
1/2 tsp pure peppermint extract

Preheat oven to 175 F.  Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. 

Whisk the egg whites and sugar in the heatproof bowl of an electric mixer over a pan of simmering water.  Stir until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is warm and smooth between your fingertips, about 3-5 minutes.  Transfer the bowl to the mixer and whisk on high speed until stiff peaks form. 

With a small, clean paintbrush, paint 3 stripes of food coloring inside a pastry bag fitted with an open star tip.  Then fill with 1-2 cups of meringue and pipe small, 3/4" high stars onto the sheets.  If you need to refill the pastry bag (or use a new one), repaint the food coloring. 

Bake the cookies until crisp, but not brown, about 1 hour 40 minutes.  Cool completely on wire racks before sandwiching with ganache.

To make the ganache: bring cream to a simmer in a small saucepan over medium-low heat.  Pour over the chocolate in a small bowl and let sit for 5 minutes.  Add in peppermint extract.  Stir until smooth and let cool to room temp, stirring occasionally.  The ganache should be thick enough to hold its shape (I had to refrigerate mine for a few minutes).  Fill ganache into a pastry bag fitted with a plain round tip and pipe a small mound of ganache onto one meringue, then top with another. 

Store cookies in a single layer in an airtight container at room temp for up to 2 days.
Glazed Sprinkle Cookies

I was going to make cut-out, iced, decorated sugar cookies.  Then I decided I'm making way too many other things and that would just take even more time to do.  I saw this recipe and they were cute and looked delicious.  Still festive, and were pretty easy.  The cookies aren't too sweet, which is a good thing, since the glaze is.  That's about all I have to say about these.  Except I may have gone a little overboard with some of the sprinkles.  Is that a bad thing?

Glazed Sprinkle Cookies
Makes 2 1/2-3 dozen

3 eggs
2 1/2 cups flour
1 cup powdered sugar
1 1/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup shortening
2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp lemon extract

For the glaze:
2 cups powdered sugar
1/4 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 F and line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.  In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat eggs on high 3-4 minutes until pale.  In another large bowl, whisk together flour, powdered sugar, and baking powder.  Work in shortening with a pastry cutter.  Stir in extracts until crumbly.  With the mixer on low, add flour mixture into eggs.

Roll the dough into 1" balls and place 2" apart on cookie sheets.  Bake 12-14 minutes or until very lightly browned.

In the meantime, make the glaze.  In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together powdered sugar, milk, and vanilla.

Once the cookies are cool, dip each one into the glaze.  Pour the sprinkles on top and let dry.  Store in an airtight container. 
 Chocolate Sandwich Cookies (Homemade Oreos)

Aaaah!!!!  I saw this recipe on a blog and I feel like such a dinkus that I can't remember for the life of me which blog it was.  :/  Although I do remember that person got the recipe from ANOTHER blog,  so let me just say: I AM NOT PLAGIARIZING THIS RECIPE.  IT IS NOT MY OWN.  Just in case. 

These cookies definitely take some forethought and planning, and I wish I had read the entire recipe beforehand to know that I had to refrigerate the dough for 2-3 hours.  I would've made these first had I known that.  Whoops.  The dough is a little tricky to work with.  Straight out of the freezer, it's too hard and cracks.  If it gets too soft, it sticks to your cookie cutter and gets all gloppy.  It has to be just right.  But let me say, these are SO worth the trouble.  They're even BETTER than Oreos.  And I'm an Oreo expert.  So if you have the patience, make these.  I'm definitely making them again.  Oh: and the filling?  Ohmigod.  I'll just leave it at that.

Chocolate Sandwich Cookies (Homemade Oreos)
stolen from a blog I can't remember the name of
Makes about 2 1/2 dozen sandwich cookies

For the dough:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cocoa powder
 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 sticks butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
1 large egg yolk
1 tsp vanilla extract

For the filling:
1/2 stick butter, at room temp
1/4 cup shortening
2 cups sifted powdered sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract

Whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and salt.

Beat butter and sugar with an electric mixer until pale and fluffy, then beat in egg yolk and vanilla.  At low speed, mix in flour mixture in 3 batches just until a dough forms.  Divide dough in half and form each piece into a 6-inch square, then chill, wrapped in plastic wrap, until firm, 2-3 hours.

Preheat oven to 350 F.  Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. 

Roll out 1 piece of dough between sheets of parchment paper into a 14x10 inch rectangle (1/8 inch thick).  Freeze dough until firm, about 10 minutes.  Repeat with remaining dough.

Cut out as many rounds as possible with a 2 inch cutter, reserving and chilling scraps, then quickly transfer cookies to baking sheet. 

Bake cookies until baked through and slightly puffed, 10-12 minutes.  Cook on sheet on rack for 5 minutes, then transfer cookies to rack to cool completely (cookies will crisp as they cool).

Make more cookies with remaining dough and scraps.

To make the filling: beat the butter and shortening together at medium speed until combined and smooth.  Reduce speed to low and gradually beat in sugar and vanilla.  Increase speed to high and beat for 2-3 minutes until the filling is light and fluffy.

To assemble the cookies, pipe a heaping teaspoon of filling onto the flat side of a cookie.  Top with another cookie to make a sandwich.  Store in airtight container at room temp.
Red Velvet Cheesecake Cookies
I made little tags and baggies for these too, but by the time I was done with these, I was DONE.  I wasn't taking any more pictures.  You can see how half-assed my white chocolate glaze is.  These cookies were the biggest pain in my ass.  The dough is so sticky and turns EVERYTHING, including your hands and kitchen counter, red.  The dough looks like bloody meatballs.  I had eaten so many cookies and samples of dough and icing that I was about to be sick, so these cookies disgusted me sort of.  Until this morning when I had one for breakfast and it was awesome.  :) 

These cookies are a total pain in the ass.  I doubled the recipe because it said it made 10 giant cookies.  I was going for a few dozen smaller cookies.  So if you make these, maybe you should go for the giant cookies.  They'll probably be a lot easier to make.  They are delicious, though.  Especially for breakfast.

Red Velvet Cheesecake Cookies
makes 10 giant cookies

1 box red velvet cake mix
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
2 eggs
1/2 cup canola oil
1 tsp vanilla extract

For cheesecake filling:
4 oz cream cheese, room temp
2 cups powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract

For white chocolate drizzle
1 1/2 cups white chocolate chips, melted

To make filling: Using a mixer, combine cream cheese, powdered sugar, and vanilla.  Mix until smooth.  Using a teaspoon, scoop out cheesecake filling and place on a plate.  Continue scooping out cheesecake filling into balls until you have 10.  Place plate in freezer and freeze for at least 2 hours.

Preheat oven to 350 F.  Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.  To assemble the cookies, take 1/4 cup cookie dough and flatten in your hands.  Place a cheesecake filling ball in the center and wrap dough around filling.  Gently roll into a ball and place on baking sheet.  Bake only 3 cookies at a time, as they will spread.  Bake 11-13 minutes or until cookies begin to crackle.  Let cool on baking sheet for 5 minutes, then transfer to a rack and cool completely. 

Melt white chocolate chips in the microwave. Drizzle over cooled cookies (I used a ziploc back with the corner snipped off).  Let cookies set until chocolate hardens.
So there you have it.  I also included a family candy recipe in my cookie boxes, which I will share later.  Now I have to go clean my kitchen and bleach all the red off my counters.  Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Toffee Caramel Chocolate Chip Bars

I'm back after having a FABULOUS 4 day weekend in Savannah with my BFF Michael.  We had an amazing time and I have to say it was one of the best birthdays ever.  I ate a lot of food, drank a lot, and got to spend time in one of my favorite places with one of my favorite people.  But that is another whole post in itself (coming soon).  

This post is about someone else's birthday.  My high school friend Robin's birthday is a few days before mine and we went out for drinks last week to celebrate.  I love baking for people on their birthdays.  It's kind of a new thing, but it's so much fun to search through recipes and find something that you know that person will love.  And when I saw these, I knew Robin would love them.  She loves the Caramel Brulee Latte at Starbucks (who am I kidding? We both love those things).  And these bars have similar components.  Caramel (lots of it), toffee bits (almost like the crunchies they put on top of the latte?)...I thought they would be perfect.  Along with a Starbucks gift card so she could enjoy a latte with these treats. 

Let me tell you.  It took just about all I had not to eat half the pan of these before it was time to leave.  I did cut myself a thin strip off the edge (the "ugly" pieces...riiight) and savored them.  And now I'm wishing I kept a couple bars for myself because they were that good.  And SO easy.  So I'm going to stop talking and tell you how to make them. 

Another blog I've really come to love is Confessions of a Cookbook Queen.  Kristan is HILARIOUS and the things she comes up with....they're rich and chocolatey and gooey and every recipe on there looks like the best thing you could imagine.  Gahhhh...I can't wait to make everything on there! 

Yes.  These bars have ALL OF THESE THINGS IN THEM.  A whole bag of chocolate chips.  And white chocolate chips.  And toffee bits.  I didn't think it would all fit.  But it totally did.

All of your ingredients.  Minus the Caramel Brulee Latte.  Not sure how that got there.  :/

Mix together cake mix, oil, and eggs.  Stir in chocolate chips and toffee bits, and press half into the bottom of a super-duper greased, foiled baking dish.  Bake for 10 minutes to get a crust.

I want to eat it already.

Mix caramel bits (the best invention ever), butter, and condensed milk and microwave until it looks like....

...this.  I may or may not have burned my fingers (and tongue) pretty badly while trying to eat this. Multiple times.

Pour caramel over crust and top with crumbled cake mixture.  Bake it and you get....

...edges that look like this.  They're so ugly, you'd hate to give them to anyone.  So you have to try them to make sure that this whole pan of stuff is even suitable to give to anyone.  Right?  Unfortunately, they were delicious so I had to give them away.  Plus it would be really mean to eat all of someone else's birthday treats. 

Toffee Caramel Chocolate Chip Bars

1 (18.25 oz) box of yellow cake mix
1/3 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs
1 (12 oz) bag chocolate chips (I used Ghirardelli)
1 cup white chocolate chips (again, Ghirardelli)
1 cup crushed Heath Bars or Heath Bar toffee bits
1/2 cup butter, room temp
32 Kraft Caramels, unwrapped (duh) or 1 bag of Kraft Caramel Bits (These are the best invention ever!  Use them!)
1 (14 oz) can of sweetened condensed milk

1.  Preheat oven to 350.  Line a 9x13 pan with foil and spray thoroughly with cooking spray.

2.  Pour cake mix, oil, and eggs into the large bowl of a mixer (or you can use your hand mixer).  Beat on medium until well mixed.  Fold in chocolate chips, white chocolate chips, and toffee bits.  Press half the mixture into the bottom of the baking dish and bake for 10 minutes.

3.  While the crust is baking, put the caramels, butter, and condensed milk in a microwave safe bowl.  Heat on high 2 minutes.  Stir and repeat every 30 seconds until caramel is melted and mixture is smooth.  Pour mixture over baked crust and top with remaining cake mixture (Just crumble it on and spread it as evenly as possible.  It will spread when it bakes). 

4.  Bake 25-30 minutes, until the top is set and golden brown.  Remove from the oven and let cool at room temp for about an hour.  Refrigerate until set (another hour), then peel foil from the bottom and cut into bars. 

5.  Share them with your friends.  If you can bring yourself to part with them.