One of my enduring memories of childhood is sitting with my brother in our living room, watching old Donald Duck cartoons and eating Jello pudding pops. Only the chocolate ones, because the vanilla ones weren’t nearly as good. And when Jello stopped making them (sad!), I moved on to my next favorite frozen pudding-based treat, which involved freezing chocolate (never vanilla) pudding cups solid, then letting them thaw slightly on the counter for that signature slightly-chewy mouthfeel that you can only get from frozen pudding. It was always iffy, though, whether you’d end up with icy crystals or overly-thawed pudding, so that method was never fully satisfactory.
Well, I may not be able to get Jello-brand pudding pops anymore, but I’ve at last found the perfect replacement– homemade pudding pops. I got the recipe for the butterscotch pops from Smitten Kitchen (I swear, I should just rename this blog “Stuff from Smitten Kitchen”), and I’m going to start making these on a regular basis.
So I know that “Bourbon vanilla extract” doesn’t refer to using actual bourbon– it’s referring to vanilla beans from the Bourbon island of Madagascar– but I like bourbon and I like vanilla, so why not combine the two to make an amped-up version of vanilla extract?
The problem is that vanilla beans have skyrocketed in price over the last few years– six or seven years ago I bought a half-pound of beautiful, plump beans for a reasonably low price, and it lasted me ages, but now that I’m in the market for more it was a lot harder to find any reasonably-priced beans. I finally found a source on eBay, but they did give fair warning that the beans are pretty dry and not good for much besides making extract. They turned out exactly as described– thin, shriveled, and dry– and I certainly wouldn’t use these in baking since there’s not much “vanilla caviar” inside at all, but they’re fine for my purposes now.
Vanilla extract really couldn’t be easier to make– you just split your beans in half and plunk them into a bottle of your favorite spirit. Like I said, I like bourbon, and for a 750 ml bottle I used about twenty of these extremely dry, tiny beans. I think with better-quality beans you could use about 10-15 instead.
Anyway, I’ll let these soak for about 3 months before I start using the extract. In my experience you can just leave the beans in there, though some people like to remove them and strain out any bits at the bottom of the bottle. I read that you can pour off the extract into a new bottle and just re-use the beans, maybe adding in some new ones and taking out any particularly soggy ones, for a whole new batch– I may try it eventually.
To go with the Chocolate Mayonnaise Cupcakes, I wanted to make a tasty dairy-free frosting for the birthday girl. I first thought about doing a standard marshmallow frosting, made of egg whites and sugar and cooked over simmering water. But marshmallow frosting just doesn’t say “frosting” to me– it’s too sticky and sweet, and not creamy enough. Besides, I had horrific visions of a roomful of children, all getting salmonella from not-quite-cooked egg whites, and quickly nixed that idea.
I thought about using canned frosting, but that seemed like cheating, and besides it’s pretty expensive when you’re using it to frost several dozen cupcakes (at least the way I frost cupcakes). So I decided to improvise.
I’m not sure I’d ever made traditional sugar cookies before this week. It’s mostly because I prefer chocolate in my cookies, but also because there are so many more exciting types of cookie to make– cookies with chunks, cookies with fillings, cookies with neat decorations– it’s hard enough to choose from those, so how could I settle for plain old sugar cookies?
I also admit that my mental picture of “sugar cookies” is probably skewed by memories of dry, overly-sweet supermarket sugar cookies, inevitably the last things to remain on dessert tables at parties and usually tossed at the end of the day. But sometimes you just have to go with the classics. And when I came across a recipe that promised I could make perfect sugar cookies without softening butter OR using a mixer, I knew I had to try it. Instead of butter these cookies use vegetable oil, which is easier to mix and also keeps the cookies nice and chewy. Additionally, it occurrs to me that these would work perfectly for ice cream sandwiches– without any butter in them to firm up in the freezer, they should stay chewy and bite-able even when cold!
One thing to know about my daughter is that she loves cats. LOVES them. Anything that can have a cat on it, or be shaped like a cat, is bound to come out that way at some point. So when I suggested that we make cookies for a party she was invited to, she immediately declared that they would be “kitty cookies, with chocolate chips for eyes.” Fair enough, I could do that!
Since the only cat-shaped cookie cutter I have is a Halloween-style arched-back cat, I decided to make a slice-and-bake roll of dough and go a little more cartoony and do kitty faces instead. I colored the main dough pink, leaving part of it plain to use for the muzzle and the insides of the ears, and formed the two doughs into a log I could slice cookies off of. A little more work to begin with, but easier than rolling out thin and definitely quick at the end for decorating.
I was inspired to make these by a video one of my friends posted on my Facebook page, showing adorable teddy bear cookies that you can hang off the side of a mug.
Knowing my daughter’s love for both hot cocoa and animal-shaped food, I knew that these would be appearing in my kitchen at some point. I also couldn’t help but notice that the teddy bears would be perfect for making these bear-shaped cookies hugging almonds, which I’ve also seen around and coveted, so it would be like killing two birds with one stone, right?
I went on Amazon and bought the Rilakkuma cutter set (which would also come in handy for cute bento lunches), and I was off!
I didn’t really grow up eating bread pudding on a regular basis. I think my dad made it a few times– cubed bread, soaked in a cinnamon-laced egg-and-milk mixture, with some raisins thrown in. It was reasonably good whether hot or cold, but it was admittedly somewhat lacking in… something. There was no pop of flavor or texture to make it stand out. Later, once I tried pumpkin bread pudding, chocolate bread pudding, and even savory spinach-and-gouda bread pudding, I grew to love it and to try seeking out new variations on the theme. Because really, what could be easier than cutting up some stale bread, tossing in some extras, soaking it in custard, and sticking it in the oven?
The other day I realized that I’d inadvertently let a half-baguette go stale (usually I slice it up and freeze it before it gets to that point), and decided to make some use out of it. Going through my refrigerator for add-in options, I came across a small jar of clementine marmalade that I hadn’t used in a while and decided to give it a try as a flavor booster for “bread and butter pudding.”