A Perfect Cheescake….Finally!

There are those recipes you dare to try, going in with great gusto and leaving all inhibitions aside. Cheesecake may safely be said to be one of those such recipes. (At least for me.) I’ve lived in New York City long enough to consider myself a New Yorker and, thus, a fan of cheesecake. Those of you inhabiting the East Coast of the U.S. may likely be familiar with Junior’s cheesecake, originating in Brooklyn; decadently rich and smooth. But, honestly, I don’t know too many people, regardless where they originate or currently find themselves geographically, who don’t enjoy a thick slice of gateaux du fromage.

I’ve attempted my hand at creating a cheesecake worthy of praise a few times in my life. I’ve had some near successes, but certainly nothing I could sell at a corner bakery. Until now…

I recently began reading a book titled, “CookWise,” by Shirley O. Corriher. I haven’t completed reading it cover to cover, so I can’t give a final review at this time, but I can tell you how exciting it is to read sections and chapters at random and get new insights about various recipes I’ve tried without a lot of success, simply due to my lack of food science knowledge. I find this book to be most like a hand guide for those of us home cooks who have always had an inkling to — but never found the time — to attend cooking school.

I tweaked the following recipe — it originally called for sour cream, and I replaced it with Greek thick yogurt, with much success. I added pure almond extract, but you could instead add an almond-flavored  liquor, such as amaretto, or simply omit the almond flavoring and opt for lemon juice and zest. The original recipe calls for chocolate wafers in the graham crust, however I used some tea biscuits and loved the outcome. It’s totally up to you and your preference.

Because this recipe doesn’t contain any starch in the batter, it must be baked in a water bath. The cake pan should be placed in a casserole dish large enough to leave a good inch of space around the entire cake pan. I was a little apprehensive the first time I attempted this recipe, but placing a thick, terry cloth towel underneath the cake pan provides extra protection from heat on the bottom of the pan, and allows the cheesecake to bake nicely without overcooking. The towel will certainly not burn, so not to worry!

Cheesecake will appear to be undercooked when you need to stop the baking process. So if the cake looks a bit jiggly in the center, don’t fret. It will set nicely in the fridge overnight. Most cheesecakes I have made in the past came out cracked in the center, which I later found meant I had overcooked the cake. I made a simple preserve syrup out of frozen strawberries, blueberry/cranberry juice, almond extract, and sugar, but it’s certainly not necessary. This cheesecake is divine on its own, topping or no.

Crust:
14 wafers, or tea biscuits (chocolate or plain)
3 Tbsp. sugar
3 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted

Filling:
2 packages (8 oz. each) cream cheese, room temperature
1 c. sugar
3 large eggs
2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. salt
4 tsp. pure almond extract, or 1/4 c. amaretto
3 c. thick Greek yogurt, such as FAGE brand

Crush the wafers or biscuits in a plastic zipper bag or in a food processor. In a small bowl, stir together the crushed wafers, sugar, and melted butter until a coarse crumb is achieved. Line the bottom of an 8 x 3″ round, straight-edged cake pan with parchment paper, cut to fit. (Despite what you see in the photo below, I do not recommend using a spring form pan, as a little bit of water will leak through the pan during the baking process, making the crumb crust soggy.) Grease the sides of the pan, then press the crumb crust into the bottom of the pan.

Preheat the oven to 350º F. Meanwhile, in a food processor or standing mixer, blend the cream cheese and sugar well, removing all lumps. Add the eggs, one at a time, blending well after each addition. Add the vanilla, salt, and almond extract (or amaretto). Blend well. Add the yogurt. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.

Prepare a water bath by folding a thick, terry cloth towel into the bottom of a roasting pan. Place the cake pan on top of the towel. Pull out the oven shelf you intend to use to bake the cake, and place the roasting pan onto the oven shelf. Carefully fill the roasting pan with nearly boiling water until the water reaches about an inch up the sides of the cake pan. Carefully slide the oven shelf back into place. Close the oven door and do not open it for 45 minutes, despite any temptation to do so. After 45 minutes, shut off the oven heat and allow the cake to sit inside the oven for another hour. The cheesecake batter may look undercooked to you, but trust me, it’s going to be fine! Remove the cake from the oven and place it in the refrigerator overnight.

The next day, you will need to remove the cake from the pan. It will need to be inverted twice, so cover a baking sheet with plastic wrap and set aside. Turn a burner on low and place the cheesecake pan on the burner for a few seconds. This will allow you to remove the cake from the pan easily. Place the plastic-coated baking baking sheet over the cake pan and invert the cake onto the sheet. Peel the parchment paper from the bottom of the cake and then re-invert the cake onto a pedestal cake dish, or cake plate. Refrigerate until you are ready to serve. Believe me, you (and all your guests) will be blown away by this cheesecake. In fact, I think I am going to have another slice from the fridge as soon as I finish writing this post!

Orange Poppy Seed Bread

There are always a few recipes that stay with us as fond memories from our childhood. This recipe is most certainly one I carried with me after I left home. It was a favorite of my mother’s, who would bake it for family gatherings, or simply because one of her children requested it. I loved to cut a slice from the middle, which was richly laden with the orange glaze drizzled atop the loaf. I so enjoyed the tiny bites of poppy seeds, exploding under my teeth while I savored every bite. I am a huge fan of marzipan, and really anything flavored with almond, so perhaps that’s why this bread has appealed so greatly to me throughout my life. You could substitute lemon in place of the orange juice and zest called for in the recipe, if you prefer. This bread is fantastic served at brunch, afternoon coffee, or as a light dessert post dinner. It also makes a lovely gift. Perhaps this recipe will become a favorite of your family, just as it did in mine.

3 eggs, room temperature, slightly beaten
1 1/2 c. oil (canola, safflower, or vegetable, preferably organic)
1 1/2 c. whole milk, room temperature
2 c. sugar
3 c. flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 1/2 Tbsp. poppy seeds
zest of one orange
3-4 tsp. pure almond extract

For the Glaze:
1 orange, juiced
1/4 c. granulated or powdered sugar
1/2 tsp. almond extract
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract (optional)

Grease and flour two 8.5 x 4.5 x 2.5″ loaf pans. Set aside and preheat the oven to 325°F. Combine the flour, baking powder, salt, and poppy seeds in a large bowl; whisk to remove any clumps. Combine the eggs, and with the mixer running on medium-low, add the oil, sugar, almond extract, and orange zest in the bowl of a stand mixer. Starting and ending with the dry ingredients, alternate between adding the dry ingredients and milk to the egg mixture. Pour the prepared batter into the loaf pans and bake in the oven on the middle rack of the oven for about 1- 1 1/4 hours, or until a toothpick, inserted into the middle of the loaf removes cleanly.

Allow the loaves to cool for about 10 minutes on a wire cooling rack before attempting to remove them from the pan. If they do not remove easily, run a sharp knife around the edges of the loaves. Meanwhile, prepare the orange glaze in a small butter warming pan. Add all the ingredients and allow the sugar to completely dissolve into the juice. Place the wire cooling rack over a baking tray, and pour the glaze over both loaves. You may want to poke a few holes into the tops of the loaves so more glaze penetrates into the center. Some glaze will accumulate in the baking tray. Simply remove the wire rack and pour the remaining glaze back into the butter warmer and re-pour the contents over both loaves again. Once the loaves have cooled slightly, you can eat a slice (or two!) immediately, or once the loaves are completely cool, you can wrap them in plastic or aluminum foil. This bread freezes nicely, but I have not yet ever had a loaf left over to store in the freezer!

Cherry Almond Mini Muffins

I’ve noticed a recent rise in the availability of virgin coconut oil in my local supermarkets. Even Trader Joe’s offers a jar of this sweet tasting stuff for an equally sweet price of $5.99. I started experimenting with the addition of coconut oil in numerous sweets I enjoy baking. It adds a lovely, gentle coconut taste and moisture to whatever it’s incorporated into. It also has numerous health benefits, some of which you can read here. Plus it tastes amazing on homemade popcorn!

I came across a lovely recipe for muffins with dried cherries and almond paste. It was Saturday morning, and I really wanted to churn out something for breakfast. Since I didn’t have any almond paste on hand, I decided to substitute some of the required butter with coconut oil and a small portion of the required amount of flour with some almond flour. I added a splash of almond extract, and I was left with an irresistible almond paste substitute. (Well, at least I thought so!) I was in the mood for something mini, so I decided to opt for downsizing the muffin. My children love mini muffins for their cute size, and I love them because they are the perfect portion size, allowing you to indulge in some sweetness without going overboard.

Yield: 24 mini muffins (12 regular size)

juice from one orange (about 6 Tbl.)
3/4 c. dried cherries, roughly chopped
1/2 tsp. almond extract
3/4 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 c. plus 2 Tbl. almond flour
1/2 c. sugar
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 c. coconut oil
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
3 large eggs, room temperature
1 1/2 tsp. grated orange peel

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line two mini muffin tins with muffin liners. (If you prefer, you can exclude the muffin liners and just oil the tin, but I tend to have better luck removing the muffins once they are baked with liners.) In a small sauce pan, or butter warmer, add the orange juice, cherries, and almond extract. Slowly bring the liquid mixture to a simmer. Remove from the heat and allow the cherries to seep in the liquid until softened, about 10 minutes.

Whisk the flours, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt together in the bowl of a stand mixer. With the stand mixer running on low, add the eggs one at a time. Add the coconut oil and orange zest. Add the cherry liquid mixture. Continue to keep mixing until all ingredients are incorporated. Spoon the batter evenly between all the muffin cups. The batter should be even with the top of the liners. Place the muffin tins onto the middle oven rack and bake for about 15 minutes, or until the muffin tops are nicely golden. Allow the muffins to cool on a wire rack. The muffins can be kept in a cake dome for 2-3 days, but it’s highly unlikely that will happen. Usually, in my home, all 24 are consumed by evening!

Valentine’s Day Banana-Beet Muffins

I have a delicious recipe from my grandmother for banana bars that I have adapted many times into cakes, cupcakes, and muffins with varying flavors and toppings.  So when I was deciding what to make for Valentine’s Day for my son’s pre-school class, I saw a couple aging bananas and decided to experiment.  This is what I came up with:

Banana-Beet Muffins

1/2 c. butter, room temperature
1 c. sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
1 c. (8 oz.) plain or vanilla-flavored yogurt (The original recipe calls for sour cream, but yogurt works just as well.)
1 tsp. vanilla
2 c. flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
3/4 c. mashed ripe bananas
1/4 c. pureed beets

Note:
Beets are what I like to call all-natural food coloring. Red beet juice or puree adds a lot of color, but little flavor to baked goods and other sweets. For instructions on how to make this, see below, or read our previous post about pureeing vegetables. Alternatively, you can use one full cup of mashed bananas, which is how this recipe is made with my grandmother’s original recipe.

Directions:

In a mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Add the eggs, sour cream, and vanilla. Combine the flour, baking soda and salt; gradually add to the creamed mixture. Stir in the bananas and beets. Spoon the batter into lined muffin tins, filling about 2/3 full. To make the muffins heart-shaped, add a glass marble between the liner and the tin to make an indentation in the liner and how the muffins bake. (The marbles won’t make the muffins look like “perfect” hearts, but the frosting and sliced strawberries can help further define the shape.)

Bake at 350° for 18-20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool. Yields about 2 dozen.

Decorating the muffins:

My grandmother’s recipe recommends a basic cream cheese frosting on the banana bars, which is decadent (recipe below). But for this batch, I decided to make a pink-tinted yogurt glaze that is just as delicious, but a tad bit healthier for the small bodies that would be consuming the muffins.

Pink Yogurt Glaze

4 Tbsp. butter, room temperature
1/4 to 1/3 c. powdered sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
4 oz. plain or flavored yogurt (vanilla and strawberry flavors work nicely)
1-2 tsp. pureed beets (optional, for color)

8-10 strawberries

Cream together the butter and sugar, then add the vanilla, yogurt, and beet puree. Stir until blended. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Cut the stem off the strawberries with two inward cuts to make them look like a heart, then slice lengthwise, making sure to preserve the heart shape. You should get 3-4 slices per strawberry. Frost the muffins and top with a strawberry slice. Store in the refrigerator. Use any extra yogurt glaze as a fruit dip.

Cream Cheese Frosting

4 oz. cream cheese, room temperature
4 Tbsp. butter, room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla
1 1/2 to 2 c. powdered sugar

In a mixing bowl, beat the cream cheese, butter, and vanilla. Gradually add enough powdered sugar to reach your desired consistency.

Pureed Beets — There are several ways to cook the beets, but I like to wrap them in foil (like a baked potato) and set them in the oven for about 1-1.5 hours while something else is cooking. Anywhere from 350-400° works well. After they cool, unwrap them carefully (beet juice stains!) and peel them. Avoid touching them directly too much so that your hands don’t get stained red. Mash them with a potato masher or ricer or puree them in a food processor.  Add a little water (one tablespoon at a time), if needed.  Use right away or store in an air-tight container in pre-measured amounts (ice cube trays are great for this).

Tangy Strawberry Oatmeal Bars

My neighbor brought over a pint of strawberries the other day that were way on sale at our local grocer, presumably because they had less than a day left in their natural life before going mushy. Since I happened to have picked up a pint of my own from the same grocer that same morning, I decided to use them for a little treat for our two households to share, and I came up with these bars.

Typically, oatmeal bars are made with jams instead of fresh fruit. They are also often very sweet, but I cut about half the sugar that is recommended in other recipes and topped the bars with a drizzle of yogurt glaze. The result is a mildly sweet and tangy oatmeal bar that won the hearts in our homes that night.

2 cups rolled oats
1  c. flour
1/3 c. brown sugar
1 t. cinnamon
1/4 t. baking powder
1/4 t. salt
1 c. cold butter, cut into small chunks
1 pint strawberries, cleaned and thinly sliced
1/4 c. jam (I used a homemade cranberry jam with a very nice tang, but raspberry or strawberry would be fine)
sprinkling of sugar (optional)
1/2 c. plain Greek yogurt
1/8 to 1/4 c. powder sugar, to taste
1 t. vanilla

Pre-heat your oven to 375° F. Using the butter wrappers, grease the bottom and sides of a 9×13 glass baking dish. In a large bowl, combine the oats, flour, brown sugar, baking powder, and salt. With a knife, your fingers, or the pastry blade on a food processor, cut or rub the butter into the oat mixture until a coarse mix is formed that will stick together, but is not over-blended. Press two-thirds of the oat mixture evenly into the bottom of your greased dish and bake for about 15 minutes, just until the edges begin to brown. Meanwhile, in a medium-sized bowl, sprinkle the sliced strawberries with about a teaspoon of sugar, just to get the juices flowing. Then add the jam and stir to combine. In a small bowl, stir together the yogurt, powdered sugar, and vanilla until smooth, then store in the refrigerator until ready to use. Spread the strawberries evenly over the half-baked crust, then sprinkle the rest of the oat mixture over the top. Return the dish to the oven and bake for about 25 minutes more, until the filling is bubbly and the top is browned. While hot, drizzle the yogurt mixture over the top of the bars with a spoon or small piping bag – you may not use it all, so reserve the rest to eat over granola or fresh fruit.  Allow to cool completely before cutting and store in the refrigerator or freezer.

Weekend Breakfast: Dutch Pancake

One of my fondest  childhood memories is my father’s Saturday morning pancake ritual. Throughout a majority of my youth, my father worked third shift, which meant I didn’t get a chance to see him too frequently during the week. Weekends were cherished moments, accented by raucous backyard trampoline jumping, visits to the cinema, and baking chocolate chip cookies. How I loved to watch my father mix the pancake batter to the right consistency, then add a small dollop of butter to a cast iron skillet, before he spooned out the batter in some shape we children had requested. I always wanted the first pancake off the griddle, as that was the one which had the slighty fried and crispy bottom ring from the batter hitting the sizzling butter.

Now that I am a mother, I try to continue this Saturday morning tradition with my children. I usually give my father a phone call to invite him over, at which point he laughs and says he’ll be right there! [My father lives about 470 miles away from me, thus the chuckle.] Whether I make pancakes and eggs, or scones, or muffins, I try to recreate that magic feeling surrounding weekend breakfasts for my children, just as my father made for me.

 The other day I came across a recipe for a Dutch pancake. The accompanying magazine picture, showcasing this lovely ballooned pancake, made me immediately want to try it. And so, we did. I must say it was extremely uncomplicated to make and a ton of fun for my children (and myself!) to watch while baking in the oven. It is quite a crowd pleaser, and would be a welcome addition to any sort of brunch you may be planning for company. Feel free to add a nice dusting of powdered sugar to the top of the pancake, and, or homemade whipped cream. I omitted both of these ingredients, opting for a simple sprinkling of cinnamon instead, as my children certainly didn’t need the extra “energy” from yet even more sugar in the morning. If you do decide to omit the sugar or the whipped cream on top, I do recommend adding about a 1/4 c. of sugar into the batter prior to baking, or a drizzle of maple syrup upon serving.

Here’s to weekend breakfasts and making lasting memories with your loved ones!

Dutch Pancake Recipe:

3 large eggs, room temperature
3/4 c. all-purpose flour
3/4 c. whole milk, room temperature
3/4 tsp. vanilla extract
4 Tbs. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1/4 c. sugar (optional)
1/2 c. maple syrup
confectioners’ sugar, cinnamon for dusting

Put an 11″ ovenproof sauté pan in a cold oven and preheat oven to 475° F. While the oven and pan heats, place the eggs, flour, sugar (optional), milk, and vanilla in a blender. Blend on high until frothy, about 30 seconds. Scrape down the sides and blend again if necessary. Once the oven reaches the required temperature, remove the sauté pan. (Be sure not to touch the handle of the pan by accident without an oven mitt. The pan will be VERY hot!) Add the butter and return the pan to the oven. After the butter melts, about 2 minutes, remove the pan once again and carefully pour the batter inside. Return the pan back into the oven and allow the batter to bake for about 17-19 minutes, or until the  pancake is lightly brown on top and the sides have risen.

When the pancake is fully cooked, remove from the oven and sprinkle with a dusting of powdered sugar and cinnamon. Allow the pancake to cool for about 3 minutes before cutting it into wedges. If you choose, serve with whipped cream and sliced orange rounds or fresh berries.

*My children love to watch the pancake balloon while baking, so I recommend turning the oven light on and taking a peek now and then. Just be sure no one leans up against the oven glass in the thick of excitement, particularly if your oven is situated low to the floor!

Whipped Cream Recipe:

1 c. heavy cream, chilled
1/4 c. confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1/2 tsp. vanilla

In a large bowl, add the cream, sugar, and vanilla. Beat on high speed until the mixture has a thick consistency. Taste and add more sugar if you like. Keep chilled until ready to use.

A Cloud of Meringue: Pavlova Dessert

This dessert is one of my favorite go-to recipes for holidays, dinner parties, and the like.  Not only is it delicious, but it’s a relatively easy dessert to put together, and it looks impressive.  But the best thing about this dessert is that it is so light and airy that it can top off any 20-course holiday smorgasbord and still leave room for a cocktail or coffee.

There are many recipes and variations of this dessert available, but the basic combination is simple:  meringue + whipped cream + fruit.  Winter is a great time for making this, at least in the northern regions in the U.S., because meringue is much easier to cook and store when there is not much ambient heat or humidity.  Of course, the storing problem usually isn’t an issue because I never seem to have leftovers!

The name Pavlova was apparently given in honor of Anna Pavlova, a famous Russian ballerina from the early 20th century.  The meringue takes 2-3 hours in the oven, so it’s best to prepare that part the night before you plan to serve it.  The rest of the assembly can be done relatively quickly and at the last minute.

Meringue

6 egg whites, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 Tbl. cornstarch
1 1/2 tsp. white vinegar
1 tsp. vanilla

Whipped Cream

1 pt. heavy or whipping cream, chilled
1 tsp. vanilla
2-3 Tbl. sugar, to taste

Fruit – fresh or frozen, choose one option from below

1 1/2 c. berries (blueberries, raspberries, or strawberries) + 2 Tbl. berry jam
or
1 mango and 1 kiwi, both peeled + 2 Tbl. apricot jam
or
1 1/2 c.  peeled and sliced peaches, nectarines, or apricots + 2 Tbl. apricot jam

Garnish (optional)
1/4 c. fresh fruit, sliced or cut decoratively
1/4 c. chopped unsalted pistachios

Preheat your oven to 250º and line a baking sheet with either parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. Using a whisk attachment, beat the eggs in an electric mixer on slow to medium speed until soft peaks begin to form.  Increase the speed and slowly add the sugar. Continue beating for several minutes more until the egg whites are stiff and glossy. Fold in the vanilla, cornstarch, and vinegar until combined.

Spoon out the egg whites onto the baking sheet in the shape of a circle no larger than the dish you plan to use for serving (about 8-9 inches in diameter). Then hollow out a wide, shallow crater in the center that will later serve as a “bowl” for the fruit. The egg whites should look like a shiny, white, fluffy cumulus cloud, with a slight volcano center. Avoid sharp peaks because they will just break off after the meringue is cooked.

Bake the meringue at 250º for 30 minutes, then turn the oven down to 175º and bake for another 1 1/2 hours more. Turn off the heat and let the meringue rest in the oven for an additional hour or so (or overnight), until the oven and meringue are completely cooled. The outside of the meringue should seem hard and crispy to the touch. Store the meringue in a cool, dry place until ready to serve.

Place the meringue “cake” in one piece on the serving plate. When removing the meringue from the parchment paper or baking mat, it’s best to use a large off-set spatula. Don’t worry if a few small pieces crumble off. They can be placed in the “crater” with the fruit before covering it all with the whipped cream. And if it cracks a bit, no big deal — it will be undetectable under the cream.

Take half of the fruit (whichever kind you choose) and either mash it or lightly puree it with the jam. Chop the rest into small chunks and add it to the mashed fruit. Spoon the fruit mixture into the crater of the meringue. Depending on the size of the crater, you might not use all the fruit.

In a chilled bowl, whip the cream with the sugar and vanilla until stiff peaks form. Cover the entire meringue with the whipped cream, making it look like a very white, fluffy cloud. Garnish with the reserved fruit pieces, if you like. I like it just smooth and creamy, but if you want to add a little crunch, you can also sprinkle chopped unsalted pistachios on top. Serve immediately and enjoy!

TDB Chocolate Chip Cookies

There’s nothing quite like taking a careful bite of a chocolate chip cookie straight from the oven, trying to avoid the hot, oozing chocolate morsels. It’s nothing short of heaven, in my opinion. I love to make cookies at home as they are fairly easy, don’t take too much time to bake, and my children always enjoy rolling up their sleeves and getting involved in the process. Needless to say, we bake a lot when the weather turns cold and we’ve exhausted all of our museum options!

Of course, you have your unadulterated basic chocolate chip cookie recipe, however, I add a couple of ingredients that I believe put this cookie over the top- in a good way! Drum roll please……. oats and instant espresso powder. Trust me, the espresso powder is barely noticeable in the cookie’s taste, but boy does it add a dimension of flavor that is irresistible! If you’re really feeling adventurous, add 1/2 tsp. of ground ginger, too. Cookies are a wonderful food medium to experiment with, as once you have the important ingredients in a good ratio, you can tweak subtle taste variations nicely.

Yield:  16 cookies (more if you make the cookies smaller)

1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
1 large egg, room temperature
1 c. brown sugar
3 Tbl. granulated sugar
1 1/4 c. flour
1/2 c. whole oats
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. instant espresso powder
1 1/2 c. semi-sweet chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 300°F. Mix the butter and sugars together in a large bowl, or in the bowl of a stand mixer. Beat 30 seconds, or until fluffy. Beat in egg and vanilla for 30 seconds longer. In a small mixing bowl, sift together the flour, oats, baking soda, baking powder, espresso powder, and salt with a whisk, making sure there are no clumps. Slowly add the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients until you have formed the dough. Mix in the chocolate chips.

On a greased cookie sheet (you can simply use the butter’s wrapping to apply the left-over butter to the sheet), scoop about 1 oz. balls of dough, placed about 3″ apart. I tend to place a finger into the center of each dough, which produces a little dent, resulting in a cookie with a better overall appearance after baking is complete. Bake about 6-8 cookies at a time for 15-20 minutes.

When the cookies have baked through, remove them from the sheet with a spatula, and allow them to cool completely on a cooling rack. However, I usually can’t wait until they have completely cooled, and I certainly don’t expect you to, either!

Don’t throw out the pumpkins…or the seeds!

One of my favorite things about Halloween is seeing all the pumpkins, carved and whole, adorning porches, windows, and doorsteps.  And one of my other favorite things is spending an entire season consuming the delicious foods derived from pumpkins and other squashes — seeds, breads, soups, pies, casseroles, and more.  Despite the fact that a shortage of pumpkins — caused by unusual weather circumstances — has pervaded many communities in the U.S. this year, many shoppers heading out on November 1st will find stores offering great deals on the leftovers of these orange orbs.  Below are a few ideas on how to take advantage of this autumn favorite.

Toasted pumpkin seeds

Pre-heat the oven to 300ºF. Scoop out the seeds from your carved pumpkins or squash into a large bowl. Fill the bowl with water and separate the seeds from the pulp by hand, discarding the stringy orange part. Don’t worry about getting them perfectly clean. Rinse and drain the seeds and shake off any excess water. Place the seeds on a rimmed baking sheet. Season them with your choice of flavoring. My favorite is simply adding a sprinkling of sea salt, but you could add garlic or onion powder, chili powder, cinnamon and sugar, or even a little maple syrup. Let your taste buds guide you! Sprinkle (or drizzle) your flavoring over the wet seeds and toss to evenly coat them. Spread the seeds out on the pan in one even layer and bake in the oven for about 30 minutes, until they are dry and crisp, but not brown and burnt. Toss the seeds every 10 minutes or so while toasting so that they dry out evenly. The cooled seeds can be kept fresh in an airtight container for several days. Enjoy!

Use the pumpkin as a baking dish!

A hollowed-out pumpkin makes a wonderful and festive container for baking anything from pasta and bread casseroles to potatoes, soup, and meat dishes. Small pumpkins can be used for individual servings, and large ones can contain a centerpiece dish for your next dinner party. Your imagination is the limit!

Pureed Pumpkin

Sugar pumpkins (or pie pumpkins) can be found at rock-bottom prices, and the puree made from this variety can be used in a ton of recipes. Cooking it is quite simple.

Cut the pumpkin in half and remove the seeds. Place the cut side down on a rimmed baking sheet with about 1/4 inch of water, and bake at 350º for about an hour, until a fork can be inserted easily. Add more water while cooking, if needed. Scoop the meat away from the skin and puree it in a food processor until smooth.

This method can be used for used for other types of squash, such as acorn, butternut, and (my favorite) delicata.  The pumpkin or squash puree can be used right away or frozen.  During the fall, while this produce is abundant, I like to make a lot of it and freeze it in 1-cup portions that can be pulled out at a moment’s notice for a quick soup or casserole dinner.

Pumpkin bread

This is a delicious recipe that came from my sister, and it can be made into loaves, cupcakes, or mini-muffins.  For my last batch, I made all three!  Spread some soft cream cheese or top it with cream cheese frosting to make it extra special.

Ingredients:

  • 3 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 2 tsp. baking soda
  • 2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. allspice (or 1/4 tsp. nutmeg)
  • 2 1/2 cup sugar
  • 4 eggs (room temperature)
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 cups puréed pumpkin (or one 15-oz. can)
  • 2/3 cup water
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

Pre-heat the oven to 350º. Sift together all the dry ingredients (except the sugar) into a large bowl. Cream together the sugar, eggs, and oil in a separate mixing bowl. Add the puréed pumpkin. Add the dry ingredients alternately with the water to the egg mixture, one-third at a time.  Stir in the nuts.

Bake as follows:

  • Bread: pour batter into 3 greased and floured loaf pans and bake for about one hour, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.  If baking with dark pans, reduce the oven temperature to 325º.
  • Cupcake / mini-muffins: makes three dozen standard cupcakes or nine dozen mini-muffins.  Fill cups or liners 3/4 full.  Bake standard size for 20-25 minutes and the mini size for 12-15, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Hint: to satisfy both those who do and don’t like walnuts, instead of mixing the nuts into the batter, sprinkle them along the top before baking so that they can be easily removed later on. Just watch them to be sure that they don’t burn.

Halloween Cut-Out Cookies

Halloween: a holiday filled with fun costumes and way too much candy. Halloween has been my favorite holiday since I was a child. I loved to be able to dress up each year and wander around my neighborhood, ringing door bells, and filling my bag with more candy than I could possibly consume in a month, let alone one evening. My brothers and I would empty our bags when we returned home, comparing our booty and trading each other for more of our favorite candy bars and treats. Of course, at the end of the day I would always end up with a belly ache!

Each year I am always faced with a Halloween dilemma of sorts. How do you allow your child to participate in a holiday where the main goal is to score as much candy as possible, while limiting their intake of sweets? As a general rule, I don’t buy candy or junk food for my home, except on rare occasions. And when at all possible, I try to buy sweets that are made naturally, with no artificial coloring or flavoring. However, on Halloween, I certainly don’t want to be the mother who bans her children from eating any of the candy they received while trick-or-treating. I tend to allow them a certain amount, and make them save the rest for later, hoping that as the days go by they will lose interest and eventually forget their stash. Hey, at least I am trying!

Last year, I began a tradition of baking sugar cut-out cookies for trick-or-treaters who came to our door on Halloween. Ok, I admit it’s more work than going to the store and buying bags of candy and chocolate. But it makes me feel good to know that at least something in those trick-or-treater’s bags is not filled with all sorts of artificial ingredients. Fortunately, sugar cookies are not too difficult to make, and you can get your children involved with the process, as well. I buy clear or colored cellophane bags with twist ties to distribute the cookies in on Halloween. Depending on the size of the cookies you make, you could even use the small goody bags most stores sell for Halloween candy. Topping decorations are limitless.  If you have loads of time on your hands, you could always ice the cookies, but the cookies are simply delicious on their own. I usually sprinkle a bit of orange dusting sugar, but if you prefer to forgo any coloring, simply add some grated orange zest.

This recipe works well for Christmas cookies, as well, which are always a welcome small gift you can give to neighbors and friends around the holidays. What I love about this cookie recipe, which was passed down from an old family friend, is that it is not your typical sugar cookie recipe. It puffs up quite a bit more and has a lighter consistency than the standard, dense sugar cookie. Enjoy….. and Happy Halloween!!!!

Yield: 80 small cookies

2 c. sugar
3/4 c. whole milk, preferably organic
2 tsp.baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 c. vegetable shortening, preferably organic
3 1/2-4 c. flour, plus more for rolling out dough
1 tsp. vanilla
2 large eggs, room temperature, preferably organic

Mix all the dry ingredients into a medium size bowl; whisk together. In a large bowl, or in the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the shortening and sugar together. Add the eggs one at a time. Add the vanilla. Add the dry ingredients and the milk, starting and ending with the flour. If the dough seems too wet after you have added 3 1/2 cups of flour, add another 1/2 cup, or until it holds together nicely. It’s ok if it seems a bit loose, as you will need to refrigerate the dough for about 2 hours, or even overnight, which will firm the dough. Divide the dough in half. Flatten each portion of dough into a disk and wrap with plastic wrap. Place in refrigerator.

Preheat the oven to 350°. On a floured surface, roll out the dough until it’s about 1/4″ thick. Cut the dough with various shaped cookie cutters. Place the cookies onto a greased, or parchment lined baking tray. Mare sure to leave about 2″ between each cookie, as they tend to rise quite a bit. If you are going to use sprinkles, sprinkle them on top of each cookie. Place in the oven, and bake for 12-15 minutes, or until lightly golden brown. Place onto a cooking rack.