Sunday, July 26, 2009

Peanut Butter Swirl Brownies

After muffins, brownies are probably my favorite treat. I can find a million different things to do with them. Rocky Road brownies with marshmallows, peanuts, and chocolate drizzle; S'More brownies with graham cracker crumbles; Caramel brownies; Chocolate Cherry brownies; Mochaccino brownies; even the classic Cocoa brownies. My mother would certainly add brownies with pecans to this list as well. Or brownies with almonds, maybe even some coconut. A few years ago, Taste of Home did a whole recipe contest devoted to brownies; just thinking about those 16 recipe cards makes me smile. But I digress.

These brownies are the result of a Sunday afternoon in need of filling, while also remembering my impending trip to the beach. Of course I searched out One Smart Cookie, a book of absolutely amazing low fat cookie recipes. My favorite brownies (that taste just like a Duncan Hines mix) are from a recipe in this book, so I figured I couldn't go wrong. I've been craving peanut butter lately and knew, just knew, that if there was a good peanut butter brownie recipe to be found, it would be here. (I will say, Ina Garten also has a great one on, but I only had a few sticks of butter in the fridge--not even close to enough to complete this recipe). These brownies, while not health food per se, are lower in fat than typical brownies and the peanut butter has protein, right? I'll just keep telling myself that. One thing I do love about this recipe is that instead of simply swirling peanut butter through the top, which can work well but creates sticky, sometimes soggy brownies, this recipe combines the peanut butter with some flour and egg white so that it actually puffs up and creates a crust, making the brownies look even richer and they are still stackable, for that "platter of plenty" look. If you love Reese's as much as I do, give these a try!

Peanut Butter Swirl Brownies
(adapted from One Smart Cookie)

Brownie Batter:
1/4 cup butter, melted
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 large egg
1 large egg white
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. instant coffee granules, dissolved in 1 tsp. water
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cocoa
1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt

1/2 cup creamy peanut butter (light peanut butter if you like)
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
1 large egg white
2 T milk
1/4 tsp. vanilla
1 T flour

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Spray a 9x9 inch square baking pan with cooking spray. Set aside.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together melted butter and sugar until well-combined. Add egg, egg white, coffee, and vanilla. Whisk well.
3. In a medium bowl, combine flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt. Add to the egg mixture, and stir with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon until just combined. (The mixture will be very thick.) Spread the batter into the prepared pan. You may need to spray the spatula with cooking spray to spread the thick batter.
4. In the same medium bowl you used for the flour (to avoid more dirty dishes), combine peanut butter, brown sugar, egg white, milk, vanilla, and flour. Stir well with a whisk. Dollop in large spoonfuls over the top of the batter, then swirl or drag through both batters with the tip of a knife to create a marbled effect.
5. Bake at 350 for 35 minutes, or until the brownies begin to pull away from the sides of the pan. Do not overbake. (If you are using an 8x8 inch pan, it will probably take 40-45 minutes.)
6. Cool completely on pan in wire rack.

Makes 16 brownies. GREAT with a tall glass of milk.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Small-Batch Lemon Squares

Dan loves lemon squares. I'll just throw that out there. After a few baking episodes that resulted in, "But you know I don't like fluffy cookies," I decided to go with a sure thing. And it worked: I realized that, as much as I love to experiment in the kitchen, to challenge myself with new recipes, sometimes it says even more to make an old favorite for a favorite person.

What I love about this recipe is that it is a small batch recipe, from a great cookbook called Small-Batch Baking, by Debby Maugans Nakos. I highly recommend picking up a copy. The premise of the book is that we don't always need 4 dozen chocolate chip cookies; sometimes we just need one good one. Nakos has worked many baking favorites to bare minimum yields: 2-3 cookies, 3-4 brownies, 2 muffins, etc. She even explains how to make small layer cakes by reusing old cans! My friend Katie told me about this book a few years ago and when I ran across it in a bookstore recently, I snapped it up. I discovered something else--it's a great diet book! No, the recipes are not in any way low-fat, but think about it: when you bake, most of the calories come from grabbing a cookie from the plate as you walk by, whether or not you actually want one. You wouldn't want those sweets to go to waste, right? Well, this way, you get the goods when you want them, but you're not saddled with leftovers that add to your waistline, and you're not tempted to eat when you aren't hungry. If you have a friend with a sweet tooth who is also trying to eat healthier, give this as a gift. She'll look at you like you've lost your mind at first, but explain. She'll thank you a million times over (and you'll probably get some cookies out of the deal!).

The baking times will vary depending on the type of baking dish you are using, as this will affect the thickness of the layers. My dish, a small Le Creuset baking dish measuring 6.5 x 4.5, was wider and shallower than the mini loaf pan (5 x 3) that this recipe recommends. If you don't have a small loaf pan, you can pick up a disposable aluminum one at the grocery store--they have plenty of minis, especially around the holidays when people bake small amounts of favorite treats as gifts. Just remember: the larger the pan, the shorter the baking times.

Small-Batch Lemon Squares

(adapted from Small-Batch Baking, "Lemon Shortbread Squares")

Cooking spray or butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 T confectioners' sugar
1 tsp. grated lemon zest
Pinch of salt
2 T chilled unsalted butter, diced

1 lg. egg, at room temperature (set it out when you begin)
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 T all-purpose flour
1 T fresh lemon juice
1 tsp. grated lemon zest
Pinch of salt

1 tsp.-1 T of confectioners' sugar to sift over top of the cooled bars

1 small loaf pan (5 x 3=3 squares, 6 x 4=6 squares)

1. Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350 F.
2. Line a small loaf pan with foil: press tight to sides of pan and leave 1-inch flaps hanging over the sides to lift the cooled bars out later for ease of cutting. Spray with cooking spray.
3. Place flour, confectioners' sugar, salt, lemon zest, and butter in a medium bowl; cut butter in with a fork or pastry blender until the mixture resembles small peas. Press the mixture in an even layer in the pan (use the flat bottom of a measuring cup to help) and bake for 15 minutes, or until crust begins to brown. When done, set aside to cool to room temperature.
4. While crust is cooling, make the filling: place all filling ingredients in the same bowl you made the crust in--no need to wipe it out--and whisk until smooth. Pour over cooled crust, and bake at 350 until set, about 15-17 minutes.
5. Cool completely--about 1 1/2 hours. If you are not serving them immediately, chill in fridge.
6. Before serving, sift powdered sugar over the top. Lift out of the pan and cut using a sharp knife.

Note: If you do not cool the crust and instead, pour the filling into a hot crust (as the actual recipe directs you to) the crust will not remain flaky and keep its shortbread texture; instead, it becomes dense. I prefer the shortbread texture, but Dan liked the denser, compact texture. It works either way, but if you want a more traditional bar, cool the crust.


Sunday, July 19, 2009

Banana-Oatmeal-Chocolate Cookies

As if we all need another chocolate chip cookie recipe... Wait, what am I saying? What is a variation on a classic but another classic waiting to happen?

I've realized something about myself recently: Not only must I always be doing several activities at once (watching a favorite TV show, planning the week's meals and making my shopping list, painting my toenails, and baking a loaf of bread), but I become severely annoyed with those who cannot multitask. Perhaps this is Dan's influence, but I am a huge fan of what Rachael Ray refers to as "pockets of time." Most chores or activities have a bit of wait time--why not knock out a few emails, fold some laundry, load the dishwasher, etc.? People ask me how I find the time to bake bread or make homemade pizza dough; this is how I do it.

While I am not typically a fan of banana and chocolate, for some reason I was drawn to this recipe. This morning (while making my shopping list and watching television, nonetheless) I realized why: It is the ultimate multitasking cookie recipe. It is at once an oatmeal cookie, a chocolate chip cookie, and a slice of banana bread. They wind up looking like fat little oatmeal muffin tops, and due to their resemblance to the breakfast classic, oatmeal with sliced bananas and brown sugar, they are just as appropriate to grab when you are rushing out the door in the morning as a granola bar. Talk about multitasking--I think these may be able to do my taxes as well, who knows? These are from the most recent issue of Cooking Light, and are low in calories and fat and even have some protein and fiber--as much as many granola bars. They're not overly sweet and have a pillowy softness--perfect for a moment of calm in an otherwise busy day.

Give them a try, with your coffee in the morning, alone or with ice cream as dessert, or just as a snack in the middle of the day when you need a break from your multitasking life. Let me know what you think!

Banana-Oatmeal-Chocolate Cookies
(adapted from Cooking Light, July 2009)

1 medium ripe banana, mashed (if frozen, thaw)
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup butter, softened to room temperature
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 lg. egg
5.6-5.8 oz. all-purpose flour, depending on size of banana and amount of juice it gave off, if frozen and thawed (about 1 1/4 cups)
2 cups old-fashioned oats
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips (I prefer 1/4 cup--or slightly more--of the mini-chips)
Cooking spray or parchment paper

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or spray with cooking spray. Set aside.
2. Combine banana, sugars, butter, and vanilla in a large bowl; beat with a mixer (at medium speed) until smooth. Add egg; beat until well-incorporated.
3. In a medium bowl, whisk flour, oats, baking soda, and salt. Add to the wet ingredients gradually; beat each addition until just incorporated. Fold in chocolate chips with a spatula. (If the dough seems too loose to hold its shape, place it in the fridge for 30 minutes.)
4. Place heaping tablespoonfuls of dough 1 1/2-2 inches apart on the baking sheet; bake for 16-18 minutes or until golden brown. Cool for a few minutes on the baking sheet, then transfer to a cooling rack to cool completely (although they are great warm, too).

Yield: 2 dozen.


Sunday, July 12, 2009

Cinnamon-Nutmeg Breakfast Cakes

While these are essentially muffins, there is something much richer and eggier, almost custard-like, about their texture that causes me to label them "cakes" instead. If you are one of those people who is scared of making a cake from anything other than a box, I understand, and believe me, these couldn't be simpler to make. You make them via the muffin method--folding wet ingredients into dry ingredients--so there no need for an electric or stand mixer, no softening butter, just plain and simple stirring and folding. The whole thing can be done by hand, and if it's early in the morning and there are still sleeping people in your household, no fear--it's so quiet it won't wake anyone up. They'll just be left to contend with the coffee grinder!

I've been attracted to this recipe since I found it in a Cottage Living magazine years ago. I subscribed to it because my friend, Sarah, was an intern there, and soon discovered that it had great recipes! And no wonder--Sarah Foster (of Foster's Market in Chapel Hill, North Carolina) is the food editor. These muffins looked so ethereal, with their fairy-dust of cinnamon-sugar on top, and I could practically smell the warm, nutty nutmeg. I've been holding on to this recipe for awhile now, and it seemed like time to give it a try.

It smells lovely, and the cinnamon-sugar is everything I'd hoped it would be--sweet, crunchy, practically dreamy. The next time I make these muffins, I might add a teaspoon of orange zest to the batter. These had the flavor of a lightly spiced brioche, but if you want something a bit brighter in the morning, I think orange would be absolutely perfect. Especially if you make them during the holidays!

Cinnamon-Nutmeg Breakfast Cakes
(adapted from a recipe for Cinnamon Puffs in Cottage Living, November 2005)

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg (or ground, if you don't have whole nutmegs, but add a pinch more)
3/4 tsp. salt
2 large eggs, room temperature (sit them out when you begin the recipe)
1 1/4 cups milk
5 T butter, melted and cooled
1/2-1 tsp. of vanilla extract
1 tsp. orange zest

3 T butter, melted
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

For the muffins:
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line a muffin tin with paper liners. These muffins are very sticky--be sure to use liners, and you may even want to spray these with cooking spray.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, nutmeg, and salt. Add orange zest, if using.
3. In a small bowl, whisk milk, eggs, and melted butter (drizzle is gradually, while whisking; this way, it will not clump up when it hits cool ingredients if it is too warm). Add vanilla, if using.
4. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry, and fold it gently using a spatula. Fold only until no clumps of flour remain.
5. Fill muffin cups almost full, a little more than 3/4 full. Bake for 20 minutes or until edges are golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Transfer to cooling rack while you prepare the topping ingredients.

My little muffin army :-)

To top the muffins:
1. Melt the butter in a microwave-safe bowl.
2. Mix the sugar and cinnamon together in a shallow dish.
3. When the muffins are cool enough to handle (cool for 5-10 minutes), grab one by the base and dip it in the butter, allowing the excess to drip off. Next, hold it over the bowl of cinnamon-sugar and sprinkle the sugar mixture on, allowing excess to drop back into the bowl. Some butter will drip off as well--just break up clumps with your fingers. When you have a good coating on the muffin, place it back on the cooling rack and proceed with the rest of the muffins.
4. Serve warm.

Note: You may be tempted to dip the buttered muffins into the cinnamon-sugar. This is actually what the recipe says to do. Trust me--resist the urge. Yes, it's faster, but the sugar mixture gets all clumpy and the muffin tops look wet and pasty, not dusted with a topping. It's not pretty.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Chocolate-Caramel Candy Things

I began writing this post over a month ago, and somehow never got around to finishing it. Here's the initial intro.; I'll let you know how that May trip went in a bit:

In the two weeks following my resolution (made in March rather than January, but better late than never) to bake only on the weekends, leaving the weekdays to write, I have actually done quite well in keeping it. During the week I've baked only when dinner required it--a supper strata or potato and greens tart--no desserts or sweet treats for breakfast. Incidentally, this resolution also coincides with my new amped-up workout plan for May's trip to Mexico; I am thus learning to pace myself on the sweets, to let brownies be a pleasant thought rather than an ever-present reality. I am convinced future generations of bikinis will thank me.

Well, the Cancun trip has come and gone and while I did fit into my bikini--I even allowed myself to be photographed in it!--but I am trying to take this physical fitness thing to another level. I've begun running--not long distances, but I'm getting there. I'm working on my Michelle Obama-arms for the months of sleeveless we have here in Mississippi, and I've actually begun to miss the gym or the park on days when I can't make it. Most mornings, though, now that I've begun reading for my comprehensive exams, I need that break, and it's the perfect way to avoid all the sitting that comes with a summer dedicated to reading. I tried downloading the audio version of some of my books so that I could "read" while exercising, but after hearing one too many readers who sounded like they attended the Keanu Reeves Voice Coaching Institute, I decided to let myself have that hour off.

What does all of this have to do with this recipe? Nothing much--except that I just feel like I can eat more now :-) And I still rarely bake during the week--thankfully, this resolution has stuck. I made these bars again a few weekends ago for a picnic in the park--the third Grove concert of the summer, which also happened to be on Father's Day. My parents came and we enjoyed a lovely, breezy evening, listening to blues and gospel music, fanning ourselves in good southern style, and enjoying this excellent mix of chocolate and caramel. My Chocolate-Caramel Candy Things are the crowning glory of my weekend sugar-fests, and the only dessert Dan specifically asks me not to make--because it's the only one that can overcome even his iron-willpower. So I pace myself, but it's a great treat to have in my arsenal. This recipe doubles easily; just use a 9x13 pan or two 8x8 pans.

Chocolate-Caramel Candy Things

(adapted from a recipe for Millionaire's Shortbread on

Shortbread Crust:
8 T (1 stick) of cold butter (7 for the crust, reserve the other 1 T for later)
1/3 cup sugar
1 cup flour
1/4 tsp. salt

1 14-oz. cans sweetened condensed milk (fat-free works fine)
1 T butter

Chocolate Layer:
6-oz. milk chocolate chips

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line an 8x8-inch baking pan with parchment paper or foil so that there are 2-inch flaps on each side. (This is a necessary step in order to lift the bars out of the pan and cut them later.) Spray the parchment or foil with cooking spray; set aside.
2. Place the sugar, flour, and salt in food processor; pulse a few times to mix. Add the butter, cold and cut into small cubes; pulse until the mixture resembles small peas.
3. Dump the flour mixture into the pan and press down to form a dense, even layer. Use the bottom of a measuring cup sprayed with cooking spray to help flatten the crust. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until the crust gets slightly golden brown around the edges--not too brown. Cool on a rack.
4. To make the filling, add the condensed milk and butter to a shallow saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring pretty much constantly (don't walk away, at least), and continue to boil and stir the mixture until it turns a medium caramel color, about 12-15 minutes. Pour onto the cooled crust and spread quickly with a spatula. It will harden fast. Allow to cool to room temperature.
5. For the chocolate layer, melt the chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl in 30 second intervals, stirring between each, until the chocolate is just melted. Pour over the cooled caramel layer and spread quickly. Allow to cool and set in the refrigerator for several hours before cutting and serving.
6. To cut, lift bars from pan using the flaps of parchment or foil and place on a cutting board. (If the bars are really cold, allow them to sit for 10-15 minutes at room temperature before cutting so they don't crack.) Using a sharp knife, cut into 25 bars--5 rows by 5 columns.

I prefer to keep the leftovers in an airtight container in the fridge to get that frozen candy bar-type snack.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Quick Blueberry Jam

This recipe is, as Paula Deen would say, almost "stupid easy." Three ingredients, boil, stir, cool, serve. You can make a homemade berry jam in less than half an hour. When I needed a quick break from Moby-Dick this morning, and I remembered the two pints of fresh blueberries sitting in my fridge, this seemed like the obvious solution. And since the actual canning process terrifies me, a quick refrigerator jam is really my speed. Plus, I can't go to Big Bad Breakfast every time I crave blueberry jam, right?

Quick Blueberry Jam
(adapted from Local Flavors by Deborah Madison--simply the best farmer's market cookbook ever)

So the process is really quite simple. Rinse two pints of blueberries, regular or wild, fresh or frozen (thawed), and place in a big wide pot. Toss in 3/4 to 1 cup of sugar (taste your blueberries before adding sugar--the sweeter they are, the less sugar you'll need). Add the zest and juice of 1 lemon (or 1 lime). Stir, and bring to a boil. Once it hits a rapid boil, set a timer for 5 minutes and stir occasionally so that the sugar doesn't burn.

After 5 minutes, turn off the heat and spoon a little of the juice onto a plate and put that plate in the fridge for 7-8 minutes or until cool. Run a finger through it to see if it holds together. As long as its not still runny, your jam is done. (If it is runny, then return the pot to a boil for two more minutes and try this process again). Allow the jam to cool in the pot then ladle into Mason jars and place in the fridge. This jam will keep up to one month (if it lasts that long!).

Here are some ways to use this jam:
  • on toast or a fresh, warm biscuit
  • on cream cheese with whole wheat bread
  • on a block of cream cheese with crackers for a quick southern appetizer
  • as a salsa for fruit quesadillas (spread quesadillas with a mixture of softened cream cheese and grated parmesan; add some berries or peaches; toast on a griddle; spoon this jam--warmed--over top)
  • warm and use as a topping for ice cream or frozen yogurt
  • thin with a little maple syrup and warm up to use as a pancake topping
Let me know if you come up with any others, or if you adapt this method for other berries. I'm going blackberry-picking this afternoon, so I'll let you know how the jam turns out with blackberries, or a combination of blackberries and blueberries.