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Easy Energy: Granola Bars

12 Oct

Granola bars are pretty great grab-and-go calorie-dense snacks. But if you’ve bought them, you know they’re also kind of expensive per portion. Fortunately, making your own is very simple, cost-effective, and also makes it easy to customize the bars to your tastes.

Granola Bars

  • 5 cups rolled oats
  • 1 cup pecans
  • 2/3 cup brown sugar
  • ½ cup honey
  • 4 oz. unsalted butter
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 1 ½ cups add-ins (seeds, dried fruit, nuts, chips etc.) I went with ½ cup pumpkin seeds, ½ cup chopped pitted dates, and ½ cup dried tart cherries

Line a 9×13 in. pan with parchment paper and set aside.

Preheat an oven to 350 degrees F, and then spread the oats and pecans out on baking sheets and toast for 10 minutes or until fragrant.

Chop the pecans and transfer the oats and pecans to a large bowl.

Combine the butter, brown sugar, honey, vanilla, and salt in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring the mixture to a boil and boil while stirring for one minute.

Pour the butter mixture over the oats and pecans and stir thoroughly, until there are no dry spots.

Add the dried cherries, pumpkin seeds, and dates and mix thoroughly. Note: If you are using chocolate or other chips, wait 15 minutes before stirring them into the mixture so that they don’t melt.

Pour the mixture into the prepared 9×13 in. pan and press down firmly with greased hands into an even layer. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours, or until very firm.

Cut into 32 squares.

A little crisp, a little chewy, and just sweet enough. Store at room temperature in a sealed container or individually wrapped in plastic wrap for easy on-the-go snacks. Super simple, right? And the possibilities are endless! I especially like coconut, pineapple, and macadamia nuts, or chocolate, dried cranberries, and walnuts. Pistachios, candied ginger, and dates as a combination was also a big hit. Sometimes I divide the batch in half and press into two 8×8 in. pans so I can make two different flavors.

No matter how you dress them up, these snacks are a welcome surprise in any suitcase, lunchbox, purse, or backpack. Hope you find your favorite flavor!

Ciao for now,

Neen

Chairs and Fairs: Nut and Coconut Pie Bars

26 Aug

My yoga practice has changed a lot this year. One of the places I have found comfort, support, and joy is my weekly chair yoga class at Mind the Mat in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria.  The teacher and all of the students could not have been more welcoming when I joined, and I was so grateful to find a practice that allowed me to appreciate my body and mind for the first time in months.

So of course, when I had a kitchen table full of baked goods the week before the Arlington County Fair, I opted to share them with the group. After all, the judges only needed six pieces of each submission (aside from the pies, which had to be presented whole). One of the categories I entered was for bar cookies, and the ones I made were honestly the result of having some leftover odds and ends to use up after candy and pie making. Well, I must have stumbled upon something great, because not only did they win a blue ribbon(!) for the bar cookie category, my chair yoga classmates loved them and gently requested that I share the recipe here. So without further ado…

Nut and Coconut Pie Bars

Crust:

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup powdered sugar
  • 8 tbsp. unsalted butter, cold

Filling:

  • 6 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 2/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 6 tbsp. all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup toasted chopped nuts (I used ½ pecans and ½ walnuts)
  • ½ cup toasted shredded coconut

Preheat the oven to 350°F and line an 8×8 in. baking pan with parchment paper.

Begin by making the crust. Combine the flour, salt and sugar in the bowl of a food processor. Cut the butter into chunks and add it to the bowl, then run the machine until the mixture forms large clumps.

Press into the prepared baking pan evenly across the bottom and 1/2 inch up the sides.

Bake for 15 minutes. I usually melt the butter for the filling as soon as the crust goes in the oven so that it is cool enough to use by the time the crust is done baking.

To make the filling, whisk the brown sugar into butter until smooth.

Add the whole egg, egg yolk, salt, and vanilla and blend well.

Stir in flour until just combined, and then fold in the coconut and nuts.

Pour the filling over the par-baked crust, spreading evenly using a spatula or small offset palette knife.

Bake 20-25 minutes or until puffed and golden on top.

Cool completely before cutting into squares or triangles. I like to refrigerate the pan because it is much easier to cut neat squares when they have been chilled for a few hours or even overnight.

The texture of the filling resembles pecan pie, but the coconut adds a sweet chewiness that reminds me of the topping on Samoas cookies.  The crust is buttery and crisp, like a rich, thick shortbread. All in all, these accidental delights have a lot more to offer than I initially gave them credit for, and my chair yoga classmates and the county fair judges agreed.

Change happens in a blink and life can really surprise you with strange twists. Sometimes they give you something really special, like a whole new way to practice yoga. It’s good to know that recipes can surprise too in the most unexpected and wonderful ways.

Ciao for now,

Neen

My Best Friend’s Favorite: Tea Cakes

25 Aug

If you ask people in different countries what a tea cake is, you are likely to receive surprisingly different answers. In England, it is a yeast-risen bun typically studded with dried fruit and generally served split and toasted. But if you ask for one in Scotland, you might receive a chocolate coated Italian meringue set on top of a biscuit. The Swedes’ tea cakes are lightly sweetened yeast breads often served with butter and jam or cheese, and Australia’s version is a heavy sponge cake served warm as an accompaniment to a cup of tea.

And then there are the tea cakes of the American southeast. Though the history is somewhat muddled, they are said to have originated in the rural south by slaves who used meager rations of simple ingredients to make the unpretentious pastry. These were a sort of rustic version of the delicate pastries served by affluent white women entertaining visitors. They are something of a cross between a scone and a cookie, and are thick, tender, and lightly sweet.

They are also beloved by my dear Joe. He doesn’t have the same insatiable sweet tooth that I do, so when he comes back for seconds of a baked good, I know it must be special. He especially enjoys them as a breakfast treat and has remarked on several occasions that they are his new favorite thing I make.

While the traditional tea cake is served plain, I like to finish mine with just a little bit of vanilla-almond buttercream for extra sweetness and flavor. These soft, wonderful treats are easy to make, take very few ingredients, and can be done quite quickly. That’s especially nice when you want to whip up something special for your sweetheart. So let’s get to sharing…

Tea Cakes

  • 4 oz. (8 tbsp.) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • 3 eggs, room temperature
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp. baking powder (aluminum-free if possible)
  • ½ tsp. kosher salt

Vanilla-Almond Buttercream

  • 1 ½ cups powdered sugar
  • 3 oz. (6 tbsp.) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • ½ tsp. vanilla extract
  • ¼ tsp. almond extract
  • Food coloring (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl and set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter on medium speed until it is smooth and creamy. Add the granulated sugar and vanilla extract and beat until light and fluffy.

Add the eggs, beating well between each addition and scraping down the bowl as necessary.

Add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients and mix until everything is combined.

Turn the soft dough out onto a lightly floured surface and pat or roll it out to ½ in. thickness. Cut out the tea cakes in whatever shape you desire. I have used a 2 in. round cutter several times for this recipe, but I also love this 2 in. heart shaped cutter. Depending on the size cutter you use, you’ll get anywhere from 12-18 tea cakes.

Place the tea cakes on a parchment-lined baking sheet. You don’t need to leave much space between them. They will rise up, but will not spread very much. Bake for 12-14 minutes or until lightly golden on the bottom.


Move the tea cakes to a wire rack to cool while you prepare the buttercream.

Place the soft butter in the bowl of a stand mixer and beat until creamy. Add the powdered sugar and extracts and beat until smooth and fluffy.

If you desire, you can tint the frosting with food coloring at this point and beat it until well distributed. I really like the Americolor gel food coloring for frosting.

You can spread the frosting on the completely cooled tea cakes with a knife or pipe it on if you enjoy decorating. Of course I had to get a little fancy, these were for my very best buddy.

And that’s it! The tea cakes cool quickly, so you can have these done and ready to enjoy in about an hour. They are best enjoyed fresh, but kept in a well-sealed container at room temperature, they’ll keep for several days. Here are some other variations:

Food doesn’t have to be grand and complicated to be delightful. These treats were born out of a desire to make something special at a time when ingredients were slim. All that really matters is how much they’re enjoyed by the recipient, and the smile on Joe’s face told me everything I needed to know.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Downtown Dreams: Thumbprints

8 Aug

My mom worked in downtown Pittsburgh when I was growing up. It was always a treat when I got to go visit her. We would often make our way to Kaufmann’s department store (eventually Macy’s, who took over in 2006) and the Tic Toc Restaurant for lunch. I can still remember the way their tuna melt tasted 20 years later, not because it was anything particularly ground-breaking, but because I was with my mom downtown and how cool was that??

The iconic Kaufmann’s clock

The other place we’d frequent at Kaufmann’s was the Arcade Bakery. Now, this blog has made evident my love for cookies, but there are few cookies I remember more vividly and pine for more regularly than the thumbprints from the Arcade Bakery. Thick, sandy, and decadent butter cookies rolled in sprinkles or walnuts and topped with a big piped dollop of vanilla or chocolate buttercream. If there is a thumbprint divot in the middle, you’d never know under buttercream mountain.

Thumbprint, what thumbprint??

I’ve made thumbprints lots of ways, but have never quite achieved the texture and flavor of the ones from the Arcade Bakery. Apparently the recipe was never written down and some of the bakers claim not to even have one, which honestly doesn’t surprise me. I’m completely guilty of “I don’t know how much I put in, I just did it until the dough looked right.” So that’s what I had to do through many test batches. Tweak, alter, and poke at the proportions, ingredients, and most crucially the method, until I had what I wanted. It’s not a perfect copy-cat, but it is very special indeed. And transports me back to dates downtown with my mom, so I’m more than happy.

Thumbprints, inspired by Arcade Bakery and happy memories

Thumbprint Cookies

  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • ½ cup shortening, room temperature
  • 6 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 egg
  • ½ tsp. vanilla extract
  • ¼ tsp. almond extract
  • 2 cups cake flour
  • Sprinkles or finely chopped walnuts
  • Chocolate buttercream
  • Vanilla buttercream

Chocolate Buttercream

  • 6 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 1/3 cups powdered sugar
  • 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/3 cup whole milk
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

Vanilla Buttercream

  • 4 oz. unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 ½ cups powdered sugar
  • ½ tbsp. vanilla extract
  • ¼ tsp. almond extract
  • Pinch salt

For the cookies, preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Beat the sugar, salt, shortening, and butter until fluffy.

Add the egg and extracts and beat until thick.

Stir in the flour just until a dough forms (it may still be in chunks).

Form the dough into ¾ oz. balls. This is about 1 tbsp. of dough. I use a rounded 2 tsp. cookie scoop.

Roll in the sprinkles or nuts. Then press down with your thumb (or something with a round edge, like a rolling pin) to form a thumbprint in the middle.

Chill them on baking sheets in the refrigerator for 10 minutes.

Bake the cookies for 15 minutes or until lightly golden on the bottoms. Move to a wire rack to cool completely.

To make the vanilla buttercream, beat the butter until smooth and then slowly add the powdered sugar. Once it is all combined, add the salt and extracts and beat until thick. If this sounds familiar, it is! You can find a photo tutorial for this buttercream in the Ribbon Cake recipe.

Transfer to a piping bag with an open star tip. Or just use a plastic storage bag with the corner cut off.

To make the chocolate buttercream, beat the butter until smooth and then slowly add the powdered sugar and cocoa powder, and beat until combined.

On low speed, slowly stream in the milk and vanilla extract, then add the salt and continue beating until well combined, scraping down the bowl as needed.

Then beat on high speed until thick, about 2 minutes. Depending on the weather and temperature, you may need to add extra powdered sugar to stiffen up the frosting. On a rainy, humid day I have added as much as 1/3 cup extra.

Transfer to a piping bag with an open star tip. Or just use a plastic storage bag with the corner cut off.

To assemble, pipe a large dollop of buttercream into the thumbprint you created, swirling out over the edges and covering about 2/3 of the cookie surface.

So while the sprinkle shape might be different (I thought these coated the cookies better, but for a true replica, use long straight sprinkles), one bite and I was instantly taken back to those afternoons downtown that always felt so special.

Still and always having fun with mom!

While Kaufmann’s, The Tic Toc Restaurant, and the Arcade Bakery might be lost to time, their memories are strong in my heart. This recipe might not be the original, but it is just what I remember, and is now down on paper to share with you.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Double Dessert: Strawberry Cheesecake Brownies with a Graham Cracker Crust

23 Jul

Let’s face it, you have enough difficult decisions to make on a day to day basis, yes? So when it comes to having your dessert at the end of a long day, why add one more challenging choice into the equation? This is precisely the thought that came into my head Sunday afternoon. I wanted these super fudgy brownies I made earlier in the week (that seriously satisfied my illicit obsession with “testing” brownie/cake batter), but also had a craving for creamy cheesecake. And yes, the classic marbled chocolate and cheesecake brownie seemed like the obvious answer, but there were a few sticking points I needed to address.

First of all, if you are going to call something a cheesecake, it needs a delicious crust. And second of all, fudgy brownie and cheesecake together cry out for something fruity or acidic to cut all of that richness. So what I started to imagine was a crunchy, sweet crust, gooey, rich brownie, and smooth decadent cheesecake with a little strawberry swirl. I wandered into the kitchen without a recipe and only my cravings to guide me. And a few hours later, I definitely had no difficult choices to make.

Strawberry Cheesecake Brownies with Graham Cracker Crust

Crust

  • 1 ½ cups graham cracker crumbs
  • 6 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
  • 2 tbsp. sugar
  • 2 pinches of salt

Brownie Layer

  • 8 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 tbsp. cacao or cocoa butter,* melted
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • ½ cup all purpose flour
  • ½ cup cacao or cocoa powder*
  • ½ tsp. salt

*Cacao butter/powder are the raw versions of cocoa butter/powder. This just means that these products have not been processed at temperatures higher than 115 degrees F. Either will produce great results, I just like the flavor of the raw product. Can’t find cocoa butter? Any neutral cooking oil will do in a pinch.

Cheesecake Layer

  • 8 oz. cream cheese, softened
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 2 tbsp. strawberry preserves

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Line an 8×8 pan with aluminum foil and butter the foil.

Combine the graham crackers, sugar, salt and melted butter and mix well.

Press into the prepared pan in an even layer and bake for 12 minutes, or until just set. Move to a wire rack to cool slightly while you prepare the filling.

To make the brownie batter, combine the butter, cacao butter, and sugar and mix well.

Add the eggs and vanilla extract and beat until thick.

Stir in the dry ingredients, but do not overmix. Some lumps are fine.

Pour the brownie batter on top of the crust and set aside.

To make the cheesecake layer, blend the cream cheese, egg yolk, and sugar until smooth. I like to use a food processor for this.

Drop the strawberry preserves onto the cheesecake filling and swirl just slightly. Do not blend well.

Drop the cheesecake batter on top of the brownie layer in dollops and then use a butter knife to swirl the fillings together.

Bake for 35 minutes or until puffy and just set.

Allow the brownies to cool at room temperature for an hour, and then chill for 2 hours before cutting into 24 pieces. If you care about keeping it pretty, wipe down your knife with a warm, damp cloth between cuts.

This really is an awesome contrast of textures and flavors. You get that rich, fudgy brownie against smooth, creamy cheesecake with little swirls of strawberry to brighten it all up a little. Dessert need not be a difficult choice ever again. You’re welcome!

Ciao for now,

Neen

My Favorite Oatmeal Cookies

20 Jul

I love oatmeal cookies. They pair well with lots of different additions, but are also delicious left perfectly plain with a hint of spice. You can do fun things with the texture too. Make them thin and lacy, thick and cake-y, crunchy, or chewy and soft. But my favorite oatmeal cookies, combine lots of textures and have deep dark spice and caramel flavors. The recipe has gone through many iterations as I tried to find the combination of ingredients that gave me the nutty, chewy, crunchy, spicy-sweet cookie I was seeking. I really like where it’s at now, but you know I’d never promise not to play around with the recipe in the future. My imagination is already running off…

I digress. Back to the treats at hand. These are a really special little bite despite their innocent appearance. Let’s fill up the cookie jar!

Toasted Oatmeal, Pecan, and Coconut Cookies

  • ¾ cups rolled oats, toasted until fragrant*
  • ¾ cups quick cooking oats, toasted until fragrant
  • ¾ cup flour
  • ½ cup pecans, toasted and chopped
  • ½ cup (sweetened or unsweetened) shredded coconut, toasted until golden
  • ½ tsp. baking powder**
  • 2 oz. unsalted butter, softened
  • ¼ cup vegetable shortening
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp.  cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • Pinch fresh ground nutmeg
  • 1 large egg

*To toast the dry ingredients, just turn the oven to 350 degrees F and spread them out on separate baking sheets. The oats and nuts usually take 7-10 minutes and the coconut takes about 2-4 minutes.

** This weird thing happened when I started taking my medication for rheumatoid arthritis. I was finding that some of my baked goods tasted…off. There was this funny aftertaste that I could not get rid of and I had no idea what it was. I realized one day when I accidentally left some baking soda out of a recipe that OH, that’s that funny taste. This particular recipe can absolutely be made with ½ tsp. of baking soda or baking powder. Use what you have on hand.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. and line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone mats.

Combine the butter, shortening, brown sugar, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, and salt, and beat until smooth and creamy.

Add the egg and beat until well combined, scraping down the bowl as needed.

Add the flour and baking powder and beat until incorporated.

Finally, stir in the oats, pecans, and coconut and beat until well distributed.

Use a small cookie scoop (mine is 2 tsp.) or spoon to drop the dough onto the sheets. I got three dozen this way and placed 18 per sheet. Gently press the cookies down with fingertips to flatten.


Bake for 11-12 minutes or until golden at the edges and lightly brown on the bottoms. Cool on a wire rack or eat them warm because YES.

So yes, I’ll admit there are some extra steps to this recipe, but they really are worth it to achieve all the crispy, chewy, crunchy goodness here. The warm spices make them a super comforting accompaniment to any cup of coffee, cocoa, or tea. Definitely a good evening porch-sitting cookie for summer.

Ciao for now,

Neen