Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Chocolate Peppermint Cake


The countdown is on...We're only a few days away from Christmas! In anticipation of the festivities, I've made this delicious chocolate peppermint cake. Maybe it's the sheer abundance of candy canes, but I can't seem to get enough peppermint this holiday season. Lucky for me (and all you peppermint lovers out there), a decent peppermint extract is all you need to transform a chocolate cake into a decadent mint cake. Originally, I intended to have this cake resemble a candy cane as closely as possible. As it turns out, it's pretty difficult to translate that linear candy cane pattern onto a cake. Especially post morning coffee, as you attempt to pipe frosting with the jitters and an extremely shaky hand. 



So, after I realized piping candy cane"esque" lines wasn't going to happen, I decided to call it a day and just eat the cake. I knew it wasn't working when my husband took one glance and said, "Nice '80's rocker cake!" Not what I was going for, but the cake tasted great! 

I decided that my second attempt at a peppermint cake would be covered in fluffy icing and kept as simple as possible. A few streaks of diagonal red frosting and this version mimics a candy cane without the need for a piping bag or steady hands.



Chocolate Peppermint Cake
Makes 2-9" Cakes

INGREDIENTS
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
1 teaspoon peppermint extract
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
2 eggs, at room temperature
3/4 cup strong coffee, at room temperature

DIRECTIONS

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease two 9-inch cake pans, line with parchment paper, then grease the paper.

2. In a large bowl, whisk or sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside. In a liquid measuring cup, combine the buttermilk and 
peppermint extract. Set aside.

3. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, until fully incorporated. Add the flour mix in two batches alternating with the buttermilk mix. Slowly add in the coffee and beat until incorporated. Pour into the cake pans and bake for 40 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. 


Peppermint Swiss Meringue Buttercream
INGREDIENTS
1 cup sugar
4 egg whites
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, cubed and softened

1 teaspoon peppermint extract
Red gel food coloring

Crushed candy canes

DIRECTIONS
1. In the bowl of a stand mixer set over a saucepan of simmering water, whisk sugar and egg whites until combined. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is very warm, about three minutes.

2. Move the bowl to the standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, and whip on high for 5 minutes, or until cooled and stiff peaks form.

3. Switch from the whisk to the paddle attachment. With the mixer on medium, add in the butter, one cube at a time. Once incorporated, continue to beat until the frosting thickens. Add in the peppermint extract and continue to beat the frosting. After a few minutes it will thicken to a perfectly creamy consistency. Transfer all but about one cup of the frosting to a bowl and set aside. To the remaining frosting in the bowl, add a few drops of red food coloring and mix until you reach the desired shade of red. note: If the color looks too pink, you may need a small drop of black food coloring to done it down.

FROST THE CAKE

1. Invert the cake layers out of the pans. Use a serrated knife to horizontally slice each cake into 2 even layers. Place one layer on a cake stand, then use an offset spatula to spread red frosting onto the cake. Top with another cake layer and spread white frosting on top. Repeat with the remaining layers. Use the white frosting to create a thin “crumb coat” around the cake. This will seal in all the crumbs and make a smooth base for the remaining frosting. Chill in the refrigerator for about 20 minutes.

2. Liberally spread on the remaining white frosting with the offset spatula. The trick to icing a cake is to remove frosting from the cake and not to add it. So start by applying a large amount of frosting on the top of the cake and spread the excess towards the edges and over the sides. Use the spatula to create diagonal stripes with the remaining red frosting, then top the cake with crushed candy canes.


A note about swiss meringue buttercream: DO NOT be discouraged when your frosting appears to be curdled or runny. It takes a few minutes of patience, but this frosting will magically whip into a velvety smooth buttercream. Science is awesome. Stay in school, kids.
The stages of a swiss meringue buttercream: Too lumpy, too runny…then perfect!
Sprinkle a few crushed candy canes on top




Saturday, December 6, 2014

Cheers to…Marsala?

Last week, Pantone announced that the 2015 color of the year would be an earthy red color named "Marsala." Over the past few years, this annual color announcement has created quite a buzz among the design community. Last year's radiant orchard was really well-recieved, as was the gorgeous emerald color from the year before. But this year, color enthusiasts feel a little let down by the choice of marsala. The overall consensus seems to be that the color feels "mucky" and "depressing." I mean, it's named after a great Italian cooking wine, so it's got that going for it. But is the color really that bad? I scoured the internet looking for items that really work in marsala. While I agree that it's no emerald, there's some good to be found in this color. It's really versatile, perfect to mix and match with other muted colors. Plus, it's reminiscent of plums and wine–a win if you ask me! What's your take? Did the color gods make a mistake in selecting Marsala to take us through 2015?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

A Thrifty Dining Room

Coming off the heels of a successful first Thanksgiving in our new home, and the fact that I can now lose the sweatpants and fit into my jeans again, I wanted to share another peek into our ongoing home improvement. At the top of our wish-list of DIY upgrades for our new house was giving our dining room a face lift. Now, our dining room is not a "proper" dining room in which we reserve use for special events or Sunday dinners. Ours is an all-purpose, every-meal-of-the-day kinda room. It's the room that links our kitchen and living room and it's the most highly trafficked area in our home. So even though it's small, our dining room really takes center stage in our house. That said, we didn't have the budget to renovate it or even the luxury of buying new furniture. But, as it turns out, this shabby dining room cleans up nice. All she needed was a little love. Well, that, a fresh coat of paint and some serious styling.

The first thing I did was paint an accent wall. For every apartment I've ever resided in, I've painted an accent wall in the same blue color. Call me predictable, but for some reason this rich blue never fails to brighten up a room. The wall I chose is visible from the moment you walk into our home, so it truly helps in dividing the house into separate living spaces. 



With the blue wall complete, I needed to decorate the rest of the room. Throughout the years, I have accumulated my furniture piece-by-piece. Pretty much like a frat house furnishes itself, minus the dirty couch on the front porch. Whether it's the navy blue painted hutch handed down from my husbands grandmother, the olive green console table from HomeGoods, a walnut colored dining room table for $50 from Housing Works thrift shop, or my giant gold ornate mirror snagged from a liquidated restaurant, nothing really matches in this room. So to keep things simple, I stuck with a black and white color scheme. The green console table was sprayed matte black and I swapped the generic drawer pulls for these adorable forest critter knobs from Anthropologie. (Note: if you plan on spray painting furniture, make sure the paint has a matte finish. It's forgiving and dries without any splotches.)

I left the hutch navy, mostly because I was too lazy to paint it black. Also, I still like the navy color. I hung the mirror on the accent wall because I love the gold/blue combination. The rest of the room is painted a light grey color and on the one remaining wall, I hung a series of black frames in an asymmetrical pattern. 


Although the we didn't have cash to replace the existing chandelier, I swapped out the boring traditional light-bulbs for these smoky filament bulbs. In keeping with the monochromatic theme, I opted for simple black and white curtains. The chairs–a carry-over from my old apartment–aren't ideal, but they're perfectly functional and a great Ikea find. Yay, Ikea! 

Last, but not least, is the stairway in our dining room. These are the stairs that lead to my toddler's room, and although I'm typically not a fan of carpeted stairs, these are the world's squeakiest. Seriously, there's not a single quiet step, so installing a runner was a must. As it turned out, however, our stairwell is so narrow that a runner covers the entire step. So, with an electric staple gun in hand and this grey runner from Overstock.com, we were able to silence those squeaky steps and sneak out of my son's room undetected. Success! 


With a fresh coat of paint and without purchasing any new furniture, this room really came together. It will always be a work in progress, but for now it works just fine as our spiffy little dining room. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Cheese Cookies


A few years back, before my grandmother passed away, she gave me one of my most prized possessions–a 1946 copy of the Toll House Tried and True Recipes (signed by the author Ruth Wakefield herself!) And just in case anyone needs a history lesson, Ruth Wakefield invented the chocolate chip cookie! She's practically my hero (and probably yours now, too.) I'd set the book aside until we moved a few months ago. Now it sits prominently on my bookshelf, just waiting to be used. Recently I decided to flip through the pages and, to my surprise, an assortment of newspaper clippings, photographs and several folded up recipes jotted down on note paper fell to the floor.


A few recipes made me laugh with curiosity. Meatball pancakes or sour cream pie, anyone? I did, however, stumble across one recipe that I couldn't wait to try…cheese cookies. Now, a savory cookie may sound like a strange concept, but these are delicious and unlike anything I've ever had. It was more than just the cheese that drew me in, the recipe was handwritten on a piece of stationary from the super luxe Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach. So at some point between a fabulous lunch and lounging by the crystal blue waters of the Atlantic, my grandmother decided to jot down this recipe.  

One bite of these and I instantly felt like I was at a dinner party hosted by my grandmother. Is it possible for a cookie to taste retro? (and I don't mean stale) There are so many great things about this little cookie, but my favorite is that the crunch comes from Rice Krispies. I had to make a few tweaks here-and-there, but overall I'd say this recipe is a keeper. You could even experiment with cheeses. The recipe calls for sharp cheddar, but next time I plan to add a little Monterey Jack to the mix.


Nana's Cheese Cookies
Makes 30
INGREDIENTS
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne red pepper
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
2 cups flour
2 cups Rice Krispies
Coarse sea salt, like Maldon

DIRECTIONS
1. Cream the butter until pale, then add in the cheese, salt, cayenne and onion powder, mixing until light and fluffy. Work in the flour, then gently stir in the Rice Krispies until dough is fully mixed. Create a log with the dough, wrap in plastic wrap and chill for 10 minutes. 

2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line two baking sheets with liners or parchment paper. Remove the log from the fridge and slice into 1/4" thick rounds. Place rounds 2 inches apart on the baking sheets, then sprinkle with a little coarse sea salt. Bake for 20 minutes, or until the cookies turn golden. 





Monday, October 13, 2014

Spider Bite Brownies


People, it's finally here...Halloween season! My definition of a Halloween themed dessert is quite simple–Take an otherwise delicious treat and make it spooky in some way. Because, after all, Halloween desserts can be creepy as all hell, but they should still taste good! Enter the brownie spider bite...my solution to the Halloween themed dessert. I find it hard to believe that this blog is without a post that showcases the brownie. It truly is the best dessert food out there. Show me someone who doesn't like brownies and...well, actually don't show me because I don't want to be acquaintances with anyone who doesn't appreciate a brownie as one of the great things in life. I've actually been working out my brownie recipe for some time now, which may seem silly seeing that a brownie is not a complex dessert. Yes, the ingredients and steps are minimal, but that just means they should be done right. There are a few elements to a brownie that are up for debate, but in the end it boils down to a matter of preference. Do you use cocoa powder or unsweetened chocolate? I prefer both! One thing's for sure, the chocolate needs to be high-quality, dark and delicious. Do you like a cake-like or fudge-like texture? I err on the side of fudgy, and for that reason, I give you a recipe with less flour and more butter. I also contemplated adding in candy to keep things Halloween festive, but in the end I kept the brownies pure and simple. A hint of espresso lets the chocolate shine and I now intend on making these for every holiday. Flag day brownie bites, anyone?

So, how do we make these brownies spooky. While perusing the aisles at my grocery store, I happened upon a $2 bag of plastic spiders. Jackpot. I never intended on actually serving something plastic on my brownie bite, I simply used the spider and a dusting of powdered sugar to create a spider silhouette. Any plastic spider will work, as long as its no bigger than the size of the brownie bite. In the end I think these look slightly more like beetles than spiders. But hey, a bug's-a-bug, right? 







Spider Bite Brownies
makes 24 mini brownies
INGREDIENTS
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

DIRECTIONS
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line a 24-cup mini muffin tin with liners. 
2. Melt the butter in the microwave or on a stove top. While it's hot, pour into a mixing bowl filled with the chopped unsweetened chocolate. Stir until the chocolate is melted and let cool to room temperature. Mix in the sugar and eggs, one egg at a time, until fully incorporated. Stir in the instant espresso and vanilla. 
3. Fold in the flour, baking powder, cocoa powder and salt until just combined. Fill the muffin cups three-quarters full and bake for 15-20 minutes. Set aside to cool.
4. To make the spider silhouette, place a plastic spider on top of the brownie, then gently tap a fine strainer filled with powdered sugar until the brownie is covered. Remove the spider and the silhouette with remain. It's magic, people.



Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Home Improvement: DIY Built-Ins & a Wall of Frames

Warning: This post contains no food, whatsoever. If you're here for dessert porn, just scroll on through and pretend this post never happened. But, if you're an HGTV addict like myself, I think you'll enjoy this brief segue into a little DIY home improvement. 

When we first made the leap from an apartment to a house, I promised to keep you updated on any progress! Well, it's been a few months and although we're not anywhere near being finished, we have made some progress! Begin slow clap now. The desire to have our home completed and combined with the demand of real life is a constant struggle. My time for fixing up the house is now delegated to my son's blissful nap hours. I now realize that I am not capable of moving into a "fixer-upper" as I would drive myself mad. I'll begin one project, get distracted and start another, completely forgetting about the first project altogether. That is, of course, until my 16 month old waddles over with a few screws in his hand, reminding me that 1.) Oh yeah! I forgot about that picture I was hanging, and 2.) I'm terrible at baby-proofing, thank you Nolan for not swallowing those. 

On the top of the everest-like mountain of projects that my husband and I want to tackle is our living room. This is not only our living room, it's our foyer, play room, TV room and my office. Having built-in shelves has always been a dream of mine. It's just what adults do--they have built-ins stocked with beautiful books. (Or, in my case, an abundance of cake stands and cookbooks.) Luckily, we have plenty of wall space and a perfect wall to attempt built-ins. The only hitch is that they cost a fortune and need to be installed by someone who knows what they are doing (i.e. not me.) So, we decided to DIY our own built-ins and my husband Tom transformed two Ikea bookcases into a couple of fancy pants faux built-ins. 

Here's how we completed our own Ikea hack:
1. We purchased two of these white Hemnes bookcases from Ikea for $149 each. 
2. We lived with them for about a month and was unimpressed by how small they looked in the space. While we brainstormed on how to upgrade our bookcases, I bought a simple white parsons desk from Target for $70 to fill in the space under the window. 
3. In one of our bi-weekly Home Depot trips, we stumbled across a set of basic white kitchen cabinets. We reluctantly bought them for $144 each, not really knowing how they would help us solve our built-in predicament. 
4. We decided to elevate the Ikea bookcases on top of the kitchen cabinets, raising them all the way to the ceiling and creating a new storage space below. Because these weren't base-cabinets they aren't designed to hold the weight of an entire bookcase and its contents, so Tom had to reinforce them. Basically, he nailed several strips of wood along the inside frame and created a strong platform for the Ikea bookcases to sit on. The Hemnes bookcases come with feet, so we had to saw those off and screw the bottom of the bookcase directly into the top of the kitchen cabinet. Just to be safe, we also secured the top of the bookcases into the wall. These suckers aren't going anywhere!


It should also be noted that we painted our walls grey which helps the white bookshelves and trim pop!


The photos aren't great, but you get the idea. What a difference elevating a couple bookcases makes! The track lighting was our solution to not having any overhead lighting in our living room. Seriously, we don't have one light! They were the cheapest track lighting options Home Depot had (about $30 each) and they now add a gorgeous glow to our living room. Also, we can now see all the dog hair that had accumulated. Eventually, we plan on adding a strip of wood molding to hide the track lighting a little better as I'm not crazy about how large they are. 

On another wall of our multi-pupose living room, I decided to hang a bunch of frames. Like, dozens, actually. This project was actually really fun for me because I love the chance to add a personal touch to our home and photos are just the trick. Now, if you don't plan accordingly, a wall of frames can quickly turn into a disaster. Uneven frames, too much symmetry, not enough symmetry, or running out of wall space can all lead to lots of holes in your wall. I learned how to map out a wall of frames from the blog Young House Love and although theirs was a much larger project than mine, using paper as a guide was incredibly helpful. A couple rules I tried to adhere to: Try to keep the largest frames in the middle of the cluster and get as varied as you can with sizes. Don't just frame photos, postcards and fabric swatches add lots of color. Think outside of the box frame and try hanging a metal letter or something that is meaningful to you. Here's how my wall came out. I'll probably add another dozen frames, but for now it does the trick. 



Thursday, September 25, 2014

Lemon Hand Pies

When I was a kid on road trips with my family, we'd often stop at a rest stop or gas station along the way. A family of seven makes pretty frequent stops, for obvious reasons. Sadly the food options were always pretty bleak. Throughout the years, I've noticed these rest stops (mainly along I-95) haven't really gotten much better. Why is it that all rest stops are dumpy? Is it too much to ask for a brief respite from our travels and some decent grub? Instead, we're stuck with noxious Cinnabon smells and foil wrapped burgers from Roy Rogers. Not saying I don't crave those burgers now and again, but I digress. 

One of the things my dad used to pick up at the gas station would be a Hostess Lemon Fruit Pie. In my opinion, these hand pies were the one shining star in a galaxy of bad food options. Remember these wax-paper-covered, sweet pastries?



Although my dad was the biggest fan, I also loved these little pies. Anytime I see them in the store, I contemplate buying a few. Sadly, Hostess doesn't make these pies the same way anymore. And even if I did buy a few, they wouldn't be as tasty as they were when I was a kid. So, recently I decided it was time to make a variation of them at home. And unlike the questionable "Real Fruit Filling" stated on that wax paper packaging, my pie filling is, in fact, a delicious lemon curd. I also swapped the generic pie crust for a walnut pie crust. If you're more of a traditionalist, however, feel free to omit the walnuts and stick with a basic crust. They're delicious either way.


Walnut Pie Crust
Makes enough dough for about 14 hand pies
INGREDIENTS
1 cup walnuts
2 1/2 cups flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 sticks cold unsalted butter, cubed into 1/2 inch pieces
1/3 cup ice water

DIRECTIONS

1. Use a small food processor or knife to finely chop walnuts then toss in a large bowl. Add the flour, sugar, salt and butter. Use a pastry blender or a large fork to cut the butter cubes into the dry ingredients, working quickly and incorporating all of the flour mixture until the butter pieces are the size of peas. Make sure you don't over-work the butter. Visible chunks of butter = tasty flakiness!

2. Slowly drizzle the ice water into the flour mixture. Mix until the dough just begins to pull together, drizzling more water if needed. (You might not use all of the water.) Pull dough together, divide into 2 disks and wrap each one tightly with a piece of plastic wrap. Chill in the fridge for at least two hours or overnight. While the dough chills, make the lemon curd.

Lemon Curd
INGREDIENTS
4 large egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
zest of 1 lemon
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice (about 3 lemons)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed

DIRECTIONS
In a saucepan set over medium-low heat, combine the egg yolks and sugar and whisk until incorporated. Add in the lemon zest and juice, stirring constantly until thickened, or about 8 minutes. Strain into a clean bowl and stir in the cubes of butter until completely melted. Let cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally to prevent a skin from forming on the top, then cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled. 


Assemble the Pies
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside. Remove one of the pie dough disks from the fridge and roll out to about 1/8" thickness on a floured work surface. Use a large circle cutter (Or an upside down mug) to create circles about 4" wide. Transfer to the baking sheet and repeat until you've used up all the dough.

2. Place a giant spoonful of the lemon curd into the center of half of the circles, then top with another dough circle. Crimp the edges with a fork and cut slits in the top to let them vent. 

3. Create an egg wash by mixing an egg in a small bowl with a teaspoon of water. Use a pastry brush to cover each pie with the egg wash, then sprinkle with a pinch of turbinado sugar.

4. Bake pies for 20-25 minutes, or until the crust is golden. Let them cool for a few minutes so you don't burn your mouth!



Make sure you strain the curd. It removes any little cooked egg bits and ensures you have a smooth filling.