Carrot Cake Macarons

So, having made (and loved) my carrot cake jam, it was time to make macarons! They turned out absolutely delicious– the macaron shell was just “cakey” enough to really evoke carrot cake, with the almonds lending a nutty background. The filling combination– carrot jam and cream cheese frosting– was perfectly sweet and tangy at the same time. I know I say this a lot, but these may be a new favorite macaron recipe!

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Hong Kong Style Egg Tarts

Going out for dim sum as a kid, we would always get egg tarts for dessert. They were my dad’s favorite, and since they came three to a plate I would sometimes split one just for the sake of having something sweet to finish off the meal. Back then I leaned more towards chocolate desserts, but as I’ve grown up my tastes have gotten more diverse, and I’ve learned to appreciate a flaky crust filled with smooth, silken custard– and I’m betting that if my dad ever gets to taste these, he’ll like them even better than the ones in the restaurant.

I admit that making a fully-laminated dough for the crust is a bit labor-intensive– certainly more so than simply making a flaky pie crust or a melted-butter tart crust– but the crust is one of the distinctive elements that makes these tarts a classic.

I actually made two different crust recipes, just to see which one I liked better, and while I’m only 95% sure that I noted the correct recipe to use here (oops!) they were both pretty tasty, so I’m comfortable giving you this one. It was a little tough to roll out but the flaky layers were perfectly crispy.

I used foil tart pans (these were perfectly sized), but you could probably use a regular muffin pan if you were so inclined. There’s enough butter in the dough that I wouldn’t worry too much about sticking.

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Crispy Almond Cookies

For Lunar New Year this year, I decided to try my hand at making some childhood favorite recipes– in this case, almond cookies. Honestly, store-bought almond cookies were never my favorite– I remember them mostly being vaguely sandy and shortbread-y and only slightly almond flavored– but nostalgia compelled me to try making my own. And I’m so glad I did!

These almond cookies are crisp and buttery, melting away in your mouth and leaving behind a distinctive almond flavor (okay, that’s almond extract). I think I might try an egg-yolk-only wash on top next time for an extra-golden color, but aside from that they’re perfect. Also in their favor is the fact that you don’t need to soften your butter ahead of time, though chilling the dough is still necessary. And the shaping and decorating process is something the whole family can get involved in!

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Hogwarts Spellbook Cake

When my daughter decided that she wanted a Harry Potter-themed party, perhaps unwisely, I promised to make her whatever kind of cake she wanted… and she chose a three-tiered cake that looked like stacked spellbooks. Made of three different flavors of cake (lemon, chocolate, and marble). Iced in buttercream, not fondant. Oh, boy…

The toughest part was definitely going to be getting nice, smooth, flat book covers without using fondant. Not that I blame her– frosting is definitely tastier– but it was going to be difficult. I thought back to her Kitty House Cake, though, and decided that I would make the book covers out of graham crackers, which were naturally flat and smooth, and had some structure to them.

In order to keep the frosting as smooth and leather-like as possible, I decided to spread it onto a sheet of parchment paper– once spread, I pressed the graham crackers directly into it (for a 9×9″ square cake I ended up with eight crackers per side, plus two more for the spine), then pushed the frosting up over the edges so they would be colored on all visible sides.

Then I spread a bit more frosting on top to keep things sticky, placed my cake up against one edge of the “bottom” cover, and frosted it with white frosting to resemble pages.

Once that was smoothed out, I used the parchment to wrap the rest of the cover over and around it. Luckily for me, the width of the spine was just about the same as the height of the cake, so it worked out nicely. Since it was pretty chilly outside I then put the whole thing under a cover in my garage to chill down and firm up– necessary to be able to unwrap the parchment later without smearing. I will admit that the cakes, once frosted and crackered, ended up being a LOT larger and heavier than I’d anticipated…

I peeled off the parchment paper from each book and carefully transferred each cake to a sheet of cardboard– the bottom one was on a big cardboard presentation board, while the top two were on 8×8″ squares that wouldn’t show once stacked. I pushed drinking straws into the bottom two layers to support the weight of the cakes on top.

Then I stacked the cakes, slightly askew, on top of each other– and they held! They looked great! It was time to decorate. I used a grass tip to make brown fur on the Monster Book of Monsters, but the other two books were left smooth. To add some extra detail I made a batch of candy clay (more on that later) and rolled it out to make book spines, plus one frontispiece for the top book, which I painted with gold highlighter dust and vodka so the books would have legible titles.

And here’s the cake! I love it. Also, it was huge, so I was giving away cake left and right to the party guests, which I’m sure they didn’t mind one bit!

All in all, I think this experiment went well. True, I went through massive amounts of butter to make all the frosting (and the red was inedible due to the sheer amount of red food coloring I had to stir in to get it bright enough– note to self: use the “no taste” coloring next time), but the structure held, and the frosting-covered graham crackers were actually a nice extra treat to nibble on between bites of cake.

I’ll have to try this technique again, perhaps with a smaller cake next time!

Reader’s Digest(ibles): Pumpkin Pasties

To continue the Harry Potter theme, I baked up a quick batch of pumpkin pasties– basically mini hand-pies filled with spiced pumpkin purée. Previously when I’ve made pumpkin-filled desserts I have gone to the trouble of baking a pumpkin custard, basically a pumpkin pie filling, and then scooping it into whatever I’m filling (phyllo triangles, for example), but I was in a bit of a hurry with this one and it ended up tasting just fine, so I’ll give you the recipe as-is.

Not too sweet, these two-bite desserts have a nicely spiced filling and sparkle with coarse sugar on top. I actually like them better cold than hot– the pumpkin flavor seems to come through better that way– but they’re tasty either way!

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Reader’s Digest(ibles): Mini Treacle Tarts

In yet another dessert for my daughter’s Hogwarts birthday party, I decided to make miniature treacle tarts– treacle tarts are not only quintessentially British, but the first dessert that Harry eats at Hogwarts!

A moment later the desserts appeared. Blocks of ice cream in every flavor you could think of, apple pies, treacle tarts, chocolate éclairs and jam doughnuts, trifle, strawberries, Jell-O, rice pudding…
As Harry helped himself to a treacle tart, the talk turned to their families.

-Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

These are made with a pate sucrée crust and a slightly non-standard filling– the recipe I used had a bit more cream in it than most other recipes I saw later (oops!), which I expect made it less gooey and more custardy in texture than is usual. Also I did have extra filling, which I baked in two small ramekins and enjoyed later with berries on top. Enjoy!

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Candy Melt “Wax” Seals

I’ve always loved the old-timey look of envelopes sealed with wax and stamped with a crest– they just look so important and mysterious at the same time. And while I’ve never had a reason to send a letter in such an envelope, an opportunity arose when my daughter decided to have a Harry Potter-themed birthday party.

As you may remember, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry receives a letter (many letters) from Hogwarts regarding his acceptance, and in the movie those letters are sealed with red wax.

Harry Potter, Star Wars and Jurassic Park - rare film and TV memorabilia  going up for auction in the UK next month - Radio Times

While our party invitations weren’t paper invitations, we did have a Hogwarts seal (included in a fancy quill pen set she got for Christmas), and I was determined to use it. The solution: Cookies!

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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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