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!

Cashew, Date, & Coconut Balls

A friend of mine recently turned me on to Lärabars; a bar I had glanced at numerous times while waiting in the cashier’s line, but never bothered to try. For those of you who haven’t had the opportunity to try these gluten-free, vegan, non-GMO bars with minimal pure ingredients, then by all means, please do! (Most of my local supermarkets carry this brand, but I know for a fact that both Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s carry these simple bars of goodness throughout the U.S., and hopefully, somewhere close to you.) I was blown away when I inquired of my friend regarding the ingredients in the bar, and found, to my utter amazement, only two ingredients listed. I kept re-reading the contents, searching for added salt, sugar, or that ever-present, soy lecithin. I kept thinking to myself, “How could this be?” But there it was, clearly written, “dates, cashews.” And nothing else. I opened the package, took a quick glance, and chewed off a small bite. Delicious!

I immediately began scheming a plan to recreate this bar at home. Luckily, I had some fresh dates in the refrigerator, as well as a bag of raw cashews (a favorite snack of both my kids). I got out my food processor and started to grind away. In my haste, I forgot to use my logical brain, which I have a tendency to do when I’m excited about making something, and I placed the dates into the processor first. Big mistake! Dates are extremely sticky and don’t allow the blades of the food processor to move correctly, which could lead to motor damage if left going for too long. So, my advice to you, readers, is to chop the cashews first and then add the dates.

I kept adding cashews until I got a good ratio of nuts to dates.  I peered down into the processor, assessing the glop I had just created, all the while thinking how much I didn’t want to try and scrape out all this lovely stickiness onto a pan and then have to cut into bars. Thus, I thought of forming my concoction into small balls and rolling them in some dried coconut. Behold….a ball of goodness, which is easy to make, healthy for you and your family, and most importantly, delicious!

Your palate may be different than mine, so experiment. You may want more or less of either ingredient. And you may just want to experiment with other ingredients, such as peanuts. I store these little delicacies in the refrigerator, since they do have raw cashews, but since they seem to be consumed entirely in a couple of days, refrigeration is most likely not necessary. This recipe is perfect for dinner guests, who may be vegan, as a light dessert, or even to give as homemade gifts. But for whatever reason you decide to make this recipe, I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!

Yield: 50 balls

30 fresh dates (about 1 lb), pitted
2 c. raw cashews
1/2 c. dried, shredded coconut

Process the nuts; remove half of the nuts and set aside in a bowl. With the other half of the nuts remaining in the processor, add half (appx 15) of the dates; process together until the dates have fully incorporated. Remove this batch and set aside in another bowl. Add the rest of the nuts and dates; repeat. Combine the two halves together in a large bowl. Remove small chunks of the dough and roll into small balls with your hands. Roll the balls in a plate of coconut. And that’s it! No baking required!

Coconut Cupcakes

It’s that time of year again…..blossoms are blooming, the tendrils of green leaves have sprouted on all the trees, and the grass (whatever small patches I have the opportunity to experience in New York City) seems to have shot up six inches suddenly. People begin to reemerge from winter hibernation, and you seem to get an invite to a party or BBQ every week. So what to bring the host/hostess on such occasions?? I have a couple of dessert recipes in my “arsenal,” which I can whip up quickly, simply because I’ve made them so many times, and honestly, they’re not complicated to make at all. Of course, deliciousness is a major factor. Your arsenal needs at least three recipes which are easy, quick, and deliciously crowd pleasing. (I mean, who doesn’t want to be congratulated a few times when the other guests sample your party contribution?!?!)

I give you: the coconut cupcake.  Simple, yet scrumdiddlyumptious! Ok, unless you detest coconut. These baby cakes have been a favorite of my son since he was about two-years-old. Plus, there’s just something about that sprinkling of coconut atop each cupcake, which brings you back to your childhood. At least for me. I usually add significantly less sugar to the cream cheese frosting, but feel free to add as much as you like. If you prefer, you could always substitute with a butter cream frosting. You may also substitute some coconut oil for a percentage of the butter called for in the recipe, which intensifies the coconut flavor.

Yield: 12 cupcakes

1 1/4 sticks unsalted butter, softened (or 1 stick butter; 1/4 c. coconut oil)
1 c. sugar
3 lg. eggs
3/4 tsp. vanilla extract
3/4 tsp. almond extract
1 1/2 c. flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/8 tsp. salt
1/2 c. buttermilk
3 oz. shredded coconut, plus more for topping

12 cupcake liners

Preheat the oven to 325°F. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. (If you’re using the dry powder form of buttermilk, include it in with your dry ingredients and then add the water at the end.) In a large bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer, add the butter (and possibly oil) and sugar. Begin incorporating the two ingredients, then add the eggs one at a time. Add the vanilla and almond extracts. Alternating between the buttermilk and dry ingredients, add the rest of the ingredients. Mix until everything is incorporated together. Add the 3 oz. of dried coconut. Place the cupcake liners into the baking tray, and spoon the batter about 3/4 to the top of each cupcake mold. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until the cupcakes have a lovely golden hue around their edges.

Allow the cupcakes to cool in the pan for about 8-10 minutes. Then place the cupcakes on a cooling rack. Ice the cupcakes with the cream cheese frosting, and sprinkle each cupcake with a bit of dried coconut. Health food, or organic food stores most likely will carry a brand of dried, unsweetened coconut, such as, Let’s Do….Organic, a brand which I have used numerous times and recommend.

Cream Cheese Icing: 

1 pkg. cream cheese (don’t bother with the low-fat stuff.; it won’t have the proper consistency), room temperature
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/8 tsp. almond extract
1 3/4 c. confectioners’ sugar (I tend to only use about 1 cup; add it in slowly, and keep tasting)

In a large mixing bowl, combine the cream cheese and butter. Add the extracts and some of the sugar. Begin to beat the ingredients with a hand mixer. Continue to add more sugar until you’ve attained the sweetness you prefer.