Shortbread is one of those cookies that (if you’re anything like me) you grow up thinking of as a basic, boring cookie– one that will do in a pinch, but which can be abandoned at will in favor of something more exciting. Something with chocolate, or nuts, or really anything other than plain old shortbread.
I was so wrong.
A good shortbread is a masterpiece of simplicity, showcasing butter and sugar and (if you have it) really good vanilla extract. It can be easily made in a 1-2-3 ratio of sugar-butter-flour (by weight), and it keeps nicely for what seems like forever.
But you know me, I can never help but gild the lily. I do appreciate a plain shortbread now, I promise, but can you blame me for wanting to give people a little surprise when they bite into it? Enter the pink peppercorn. You may remember my using it in a raspberry-rose-peppercorn layer cake (which was excellent), but the first time I ever used it was in pink peppercorn shortbread, and that was when I fell in love. The floral spiciness is just unbeatable, and the simplicity of shortbread is ideal for showing it off.
A few Christmases ago, my family and I spent an amazing week in Germany to take advantage of the outdoor Christmas markets– we had a fantastic time, indulging in innumerable sausages and mugs of mulled wine, and of course the traditional lebkuchen (gingerbread cookies). That being said, the traditional recipe wasn’t my favorite– the cookies were somewhat dry, and the flavor profile seemed to be missing something, at least to my American palate. I much preferred the less traditional confection that was being billed by one seller as “lebkuchen,” but which had a lot more “oomph” to it, being sandwiched with jam and marzipan, and coated in chocolate. I found out later that these were not technically lebkuchen, but were actually “Dominosteine,” which were popularized in the 1930s and which are basically gingerbread petits fours.
In any event, whatever they’re called they’re delicious– this recipe keeps the slightly dry lebkuchen layer (it moistens over time), but instead of sandwiching the jam and marzipan between two cookie layers, they’re both layered on top. I also simplified the process by dispensing with the whole “dipping in chocolate” step and simply using the chocolate as a thin top layer. The finished product is spicy, sweet, and Christmas-y– just tasting it takes me back to that lovely Christmas in Germany!
The recipe makes an entire 13×17″ half-sheet pan worth of cookies, which is a LOT when you’re cutting them into small squares, but which makes these perfect for gift-giving!
Now that I’ve got that admonition out of the way, here’s the rest of the post…
It’s the holiday season, and we’re really excited to be able to throw a holiday party for friends this year– had to skip 2020, of course. Traditionally we go all out when it comes to food, and this time I was looking for a vegetarian dish– something warm and filling, with a flavor profile that went along with the rest of our (admittedly meat-heavy) spread. I focused my search on caramelized onions (a favorite) and came across a recipe for jumbo pasta shells stuffed with a cheese and onion mixture that sounded right up my alley. The original recipe called for chicken or beef stock, but I replaced it with vegetable stock with no ill effects.
I’ll admit that this is a bit time-consuming– slicing the onions, even with a mandoline, took long enough that my eyes were tearing up a decent bit, and caramelizing them took a full 30 minutes. Once the onions were done, however, the rest of the recipe was pretty simple– just stir up a filling, stuff the cooked pasta shells (boiled while the onions cooked), and whisk together a sauce before putting it all in the oven. I will say that the finished dish– while delicious– is just a tiny bit lacking when it comes to being a main dish. I think it needs a touch more heft to really hold its own, but since I can’t think of anything I’d add, I’ll just plan on using this as a side dish for future dinner parties.
So if you remember my last post, you’ll recall that my daughter and I made peanut brittle just for kicks, and it was delicious. That being said, while the batch seemed reasonably-sized at the time, and we even gave away half of it to friends, there was still a rather generous amount of brittle left over after a day or two of snacking. My daughter– being mine and therefore prone to ideas like this– decided that we needed to use it up by making a cake. Of course.
While I’m usually happy to make a standard layer cake, I’m currently planning the menu for our upcoming holiday party, which will hopefully be fabulous since we had to skip last year’s due to COVID. As a dessert centerpiece, I’m going to make a Buche de Noel– I made one about six years ago but didn’t get photos of the process, and sadly have completely misplaced the recipe I used, so it’s time to try out another one! I wanted to make it a chocolate cake, and have been vacillating between a few different recipes, so this was the perfect opportunity to try one out.
This one is from Martha Stewart, and while I haven’t used her recipes very often I thought it looked reasonably good. Also it included flour, which I preferred over a flourless roulade just because it’s sturdier, and did not call for separating eggs, which i find to be a pain.
The cake itself went together easily, though I found a scary number of flour pockets in my batter despite folding it pretty thoroughly in the bowl (or so I thought). Next time I’ll sift the flour over the egg mixture instead of just spooning it in, just to keep things more evenly distributed. I will note that while the recipes called for letting the cake cool for a while before rolling it up in the sugared tea towel (a crucial step to help the rolling process), I did mine hot from the pan. It did make the towel slightly damp, but it worked out just fine.
Peanut brittle is one of those old-fashioned candies that no one really thinks about these days– but it’s actually very tasty, and easy to make. It sticks to your molars like crazy and probably causes cavities if you’re not careful, but it’s still good!
My daughter asked me what it was the other day, and rather than just tell her I decided to make some! The basic recipe is the same everywhere– sugar, corn syrup, and peanuts, then add baking soda and butter at the end. It’s a good idea to have your mise en place all set up, since you don’t want your sugar to burn while you’re measuring everything out. The finished candy is crunchy, sticky, and nicely salted, and the batch is just big enough to share without feeling like you’re missing out.
I think boxes of peanut brittle might make nice holiday hostess gifts– or maybe I’ll try it with almonds and a drizzle of dark chocolate, or macadamia nuts, or pecans… so many options!
As you may recall, I try out new mooncake recipes every year for Mid-Autumn Festival– it’s always fun to try new twists on classic recipes! This year I was trying to brainstorm ideas and was thinking about peanut butter cookies, when I came across a recipe for a peanut-and-honey based mooncake— kind of a riff on a traditional “nuts and seeds” filling. It seemed pretty simple– only a few ingredients and steps– so I decided to give it a try!
I enjoyed these– the food processor brought together the filling in a snap, and the resulting filling had a nice texture without being hard to press into a ball or likely to tear through the delicate mooncake skin while assembling. I doubled the original filling recipe to use up exactly one bag of Trader Joe’s roasted unsalted peanuts, and ended up making exactly 24 mooncakes (39g of filling, 19g of skin). I used my standard mooncake skin recipe, with the exception of using half peanut oil, rather than all vegetable oil– I think it added extra peanut flavor to the finished mooncakes, which were excellent. The insides are nice and chewy, without sticking in your teeth too much, and the salt cuts through the sweetness perfectly.
If you’re interested in making non-traditional mooncakes, I’d say these are a great start. Next time I may try adding some toasted sesame seeds to mimic the flavor profile of a classic Vietnamese peanut-sesame candy!
Bakewell Tart is one of those quintessentially British-sounding desserts that I’d never tried to make for myself– I know I definitely saw it on an episode of The Great British Baking Show (albeit with a sickly-sweet-looking icing on top… ugh), but it didn’t appeal to me at the time. That being said, when I found myself with some extra homemade plum jam and a refrigerated pie crust, I figured I’d give it a shot.
In case you didn’t know, Bakewell Tart is traditionally made with a shortcrust pastry, raspberry jam base, and a baked frangipane filling. That being said, a good-quality refrigerated pie crust worked just fine for me, and I think any reasonably tart jam would be delicious here. Tartness really is key, because the frangipane is pretty sweet– a nice apricot would be excellent, or sour cherry, and I can definitely see this working well with some infused herbs like rosemary if you wanted to be a bit adventurous.
This recipe couldn’t have been easier– the only slightly tricky step was the blind-baking process, which does require pie weights (I use dried beans). Aside from that, it whips up with a minimum of fuss and the finished tart is delicious. The crust is crisp, the interior is nicely plushy with a warm almond flavor, and it goes perfectly with a cup of tea. I highly recommend this one, and will be adding it to my go-to recipe box!
With my skirts basically finished, it was time to start work on the bodice. I specifically planned to make it before pleating up my trim for the skirts, since trim can be pieced together and fudged a bit, whereas the bodice needed to be perfect (and stripe-matched). Anyway, I used Truly Victorian 466, the Alexandra Bodice, and I admit that at first glance it looked pretty daunting. So many pieces! Obviously, I started with a mockup.
My first try wasn’t awful, but it needed some work:
The sleeves were too far off the shoulder and I think the back of the bodice was just a touch too long, which made the whole back wrinkle oddly. I took some width out of the shoulders, and shortened the bodice at the shoulder seam because it was loose in the upper chest and back. Plus, once I had all of my skirts on the added bulk at the front required some extra room over the tummy, which I achieved by adding a little extra flare to the bottom of the side pieces. Oh, and the sleeves were far too loose for my arms, so I took out a whole inch of width all the way down the back seam, and shaved off some of the curve at the elbow because it pooched weirdly when my arms were straight. So basically I changed everything. 😉
I was pretty excited to get started on the overskirt for this dress– the draped front and puffiness of the back was what really made the “Bustle Era” look for me. I used Truly Victorian 265, the August Overskirt, and while I did have to fiddle with it before it looked right to me, it turned out great.
I cut out my fabric and stitched up the front panel, then pleated the sides according to the directions and pinned it to my dress form over the underskirt. Immediately I knew I was going to have an issue– the swags just weren’t holding their shape, instead looking rather droopy and making the whole front a lot longer than I’d expected. Before cutting anything off, though, I decided to try a few fixes.
I know it’s been ages since I finished this dress, but then I had to make a hat to go with it, and then I had to find a time to put on the whole outfit and get decent photos, which always takes forever. In any event, I finally got around to it one lovely September afternoon, pinning my hair into a makeshift Edwardian updo and grabbing an old edition of Pride and Prejudice for a prop. I wore my adapted Edwardian strappy shoes, though they weren’t particularly visible in most of the shots due to my poses.
I admit that I probably relied a bit too much on the book to pose with (I have soooo many pictures with me “reading”)– for some reason I just can’t come up with interesting poses that don’t look forced, and for this particular outfit I wanted to show off the columnar lines and button details, which constrained my angles a bit. But I had fun, and managed to get pictures taken before the last of our summer flowers wilted, so I’m counting it as a win!
Overall, I love this outfit– it’s so cool and comfortable, and perfect for a casual picnic or afternoon event. Now I just need to find one to attend!
Also, look how well the picture converts to black and white! Love this one…