Pink Peppercorn Shortbread

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.

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Lebkuchen/Dominosteine

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!

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Chocolate Peanut Brittle Swiss Roll

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.

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Honey-Salted Peanut Mooncakes

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!

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Bakewell Tart

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!

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Cherry Clafoutis (meh)

Cherries are in season! They’re one of my favorite fruits, but sadly we have discovered that my daughter has an allergy to raw stone fruit– pretty common, apparently– so I feel bad eating them in front of her. I decided to try using them in a baked recipe, and since no one else in my family seems to like pie, I tried my hand at clafoutis.

Cherry clafoutis is a classic french dessert– basically an eggy pancake batter poured over cherries and baked. Traditionally the cherries are unpitted, supposedly because the pits will infuse an almond flavor into the dessert. While I’m doubtful about this rationale, I gave it a shot (and added almond extract in case it didn’t work).

The finished dessert was tasty, with a nice almond flavor that worked well with the cherries, but I couldn’t really get behind the texture– it was kind of a cross between creamy and rubbery, and not my favorite. I do wonder if it would have been better when fresh out of the oven– I let it cool completely to make it easier to slice, but that may have been an error. It’s definitely better warm than at room temperature, and like I said the flavor was good, but I think in the future I’ll just eat the cherries plain and hide them from the kid.

That being said, I’m glad I tried it, if only to say that I did! Maybe you’ll have better luck!

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Texas Sheet Cake

I’ve got to say, this recipe is perfect for parties. Not fancy dinner parties, but the kind of party where everyone brings a dish and plops it on a big table, and people wander around and occasionally dig in. The kind where kids will sneak extra desserts when they think their parents aren’t watching, then run off to eat them, sans utensils, and come back with their faces covered in tell-tale chocolate smears. And believe me, this Texas Sheet Cake will prompt even the most well-behaved child to do just that.

Texas Sheet Cake is a thin, tender cake, and the boiled frosting– poured over the hot cake and left to set– forms a fudgy layer on top that’s simultaneously firm and gooey, and incredibly addictive. In fact, I only make this for parties, because otherwise it’ll sit in my fridge for days, slowly dwindling as I cut off sliver after sliver… I will actually note that while the cake is a little delicate to eat out of hand when it’s warm or room-temperature, it firms up nicely when refrigerated, and I actually like it best frozen– the chewy texture of the frosting is to die for, and the airiness of the cake makes it easier to bite into than most frozen cakes, so feel free to serve it chilled!

As an added bonus, it can be made with pantry staples and without specialty equipment of any kind. You’ll need a saucepan, a bowl, a whisk, and an 18×13″ half-sheet pan– that’s it. Talk about easy!

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Pumpkin White Chocolate Snickerdoodles

It’s no secret that my favorite muffin recipe is this pumpkin white chocolate muffin— I make them regularly for my daughter to take to school for afternoon snacks, and given that she’s been taking snacks daily for almost six years now, I think it’s safe to say that I’ve made many, many batches of those muffins. That being said, unless I want to make a double batch (which I don’t always have room for in my freezer), I end up with half a can of pumpkin leftover. What to do with the extra?

Enter the Pumpkin White Chocolate Snickerdoodle. All the delicious fall flavors of the muffin, but with just a bit more decadence and flair. They may not be as pretty as some cookies– mine refused to puff and thus also refused to crack nicely on top as they cooled– but they’re moist and chewy (unlike some cakey pumpkin cookies), full of flavor, and with a nice crackly outside that contrasts with the creamy white chocolate. As an added bonus, there’s no softening or creaming of butter necessary, though you do have to chill the dough for half an hour.

Definitely adding these to my list of cookies to make on a regular basis, especially if I’ve got leftover pumpkin!

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Blueberry Breakfast Buns

Breakfast at our house is usually pretty simple– cereal or toast, or on occasion a poached egg– but sometimes on weekends we like to splurge a little and have waffles or pancakes. Sadly, both of those require someone to stand at a hot waffle iron or stove and make them, while the rest of the family eats– it hardly seems fair. Breakfast casseroles are a great way to deal with this issue, especially where (as in this recipe) all the prep is done the night before, so all you have to do in the morning is pop it into the oven and wait!

I created this recipe on a whim because I saw a bag of dinner rolls on sale at the grocery store– day-old bread is probably the best because it’ll soak up moisture more easily, but you can use pretty much any kind of roll or bready item. The end result is basically French toast, stuffed with a cheesecake-y filling with nice pops of flavor from the berries. You could use raspberries, blackberries, or strawberries if you like, but I like the blueberry-cream cheese combination the best. And since we’re right in the middle of blueberry season, I recommend you take advantage of it!

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Garden Focaccia

Okay, I admit it, I got suckered in to the trend of vegetable-decorated focaccia– it’s just so pretty that I had to try it! I dipped my toe into the technique with my parsley-topped cheese biscuits, and they were adorable, so since I was already planning on making focaccia for a barbecue, it was the perfect time to give it a shot.

This particular attempt at the focaccia from Smitten Kitchen (which she got from Alexandra Stafford) is actually my second attempt– the first one failed miserably, refusing to rise at all and forcing me to make a last-minute trip to the grocery store for ciabatta to make the sandwiches I’d planned– so I had my fingers crossed that it would work this time. Happily, it rose beautifully and tasted fantastic– this will definitely be my standard focaccia recipe from now on.

I will note that the vegetables definitely look prettier before baking than after– especially the shallots, which lost pretty much all their color in the oven. Perhaps next time I’ll slice them thicker or use a really small red onion to see if the color shows up better that way. Halved cherry tomatoes still look great, though, as do the bell peppers. Next time I’ll really pile on the herbs– they shrank down a lot in the oven, so I could definitely use more. But overall I’m very pleased with the effect– so pretty and really delicious!

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