Category Archives: Sweets and Treats

Salted Caramel Sugar Cookies

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It’s that time of year again – the baking season, wherein I make loads of cookies and force my loved ones to eat them. (I am such a weird dichotomy of “let’s run all the miles” and “let’s eat all the dessert.” Life is about balance though, right?)

If you know me, you know I am obsessed with salted caramel. I make several batches of caramels every year, usually to give alongside treats like my peppermint sugar cookies.  Out of pure curiosity last night, I decided to tweak the base for my basic sugar cookie recipe and use the caramel in it instead of peppermint.

After they baked & cooled I made a caramel icing glaze, drizzled them with melted caramel & topped them with sea salt. The result was gooey, chewy & bursting with layers of rich vanilla-caramel flavor topped off with a well-balanced salty-sweet crunch. I am in looooooove.

Here’s how I did it. Let me know if you try the recipe – I welcome feedback!

Salted Caramel Sugar Cookies 

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) of butter, softened (not melted – that will change the texture)
  • 1 cup of brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tablespoons vanilla extract
  • Generous pinch of salt
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 batch of homemade salted caramels (or use Kraft caramels if you don’t want to add another recipe to the mix here – but trust me, this recipe is worth the effort)

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350F & line cookie sheets with parchment paper. Set out cooling racks if you have them (the air circulation makes a difference in the texture of the finished product).

Cream together butter and sugar for a few minutes until light and fluffy. Add egg, extract and salt and mix until combined. A cup at a time, add the flour until just combined – do not overmix.

Roll the dough into ½” balls and divide each caramel square into 4 pieces – you are going to stuff each dough ball with one of these caramel bits. To assemble, lightly flatten 2 dough balls, place a caramel bit between the two and press edges together around the caramel. You may need to roll the newly formed ball a bit more between your hands to completely seal the caramel inside the cookie. Place each ball on the lined cookie sheets, a couple of inches apart.

Bake cookies for 10 minutes (I tend to put the pans in for 5 minutes, rotate/turn them and cook for another 5 to ensure even cooking). They’ll still be light – browned edges mean they’re overcooked. You may have a little caramel leakage, but that’s okay.

Cool on cookie sheets for a few minutes, then move cookies to your cooling racks until completely cool.

Caramel Royal Icing Glaze and Caramel Drizzle(optional):

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup confectioners sugar
  • 2 tablespoons warm water
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 4-5 caramels, melted (in a double boiler or in the microwave at 5 sec. intervals)
  • Coarse sea salt for sprinkling

Directions:

In a small bowl, whisk sugar, water & extract together. Once royal icing reaches a thick but spreadable consistency, add a tablespoon or two of the melted caramel and stir until well combined.

Dip tops of cookies in icing or brush on tops of cookies with a pastry or basting brush, then drizzle remaining caramel over cookies and sprinkle with a bit of sea salt. Let the topping harden completely before serving or packaging.

 

 

 

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Tie-Dyed White Cake with Chocolate Buttercream Frosting

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For my daughter’s 10th birthday, she asked for “a white cake with colorful swirls and chocolate icing with green and pink decorations.” Very specific, and I aim to deliver what people ask for. Not only do I deliver, I like to over-deliver by taking the idea a bit further.

I have a basic white cake recipe that I love to make – it is so simple but so delicious. Super-moist but light, dense enough to stand up to a thick buttercream but airy enough to layer without getting too heavy. I’ve tweaked it over the years ’til I’m happy with the results every time I make it.

I took my basic recipe below and doubled it, creating four layers (two 10 inch and two 9 inch) with a different colored swirl inside each. Then I assembled and frosted it with my chocolate buttercream frosting. My daughter and I tinted a bit of the Caramel Buttercream I had left over from the chocolate cupcakes I made for the party (I like for people to have options, and I also like to stuff my guests uncomfortably full – that’s my love language) and used it to add decorations, along with roughly 2 pounds of sprinkles (I exaggerate, but that kid is seriously pretty heavy-handed with the edible glitter).

The reactions when I cut into the cake were great – nobody knew what the inside looked like until the first piece was served. The kids all went “WHOA” and one usually-hard-to-impress girl exclaimed, “that is friggin’ COOL!” Validation achieved. 😉

Let me know how yours turns out. The color combinations are endless and you can swirl together as many as you like.

TIE-DYED WHITE CAKE:

** This recipe makes one two-layer round cake (9 and/or 10 inch pan). You can double the recipe like I did if you’d like to build more layers! **

Ingredients:

12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) softened (NOT melted – it makes a big textural difference, trust me) unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 cups cake/pastry flour (lends a much lighter texture than all-purpose)
2 teaspoons baking powder (make sure it’s fresh – old baking powder yields less rise)
6 (3/4 cup) egg whites
3/4 cup milk (I use 2%)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Gel food coloring and a few small bowls to divide and tint cake batter

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter the bottom of two round pans (I used one 9 inch and one 10 inch and made two batches for the layers). Line bottoms of pans with parchment or waxed paper. (I cut circles of parchment paper to fit in the bottoms of my pans. This step will really help you avoid the stuck-to-the-pan blues that often result in torn cake.)

Using your stand mixer or an electric hand beater, cream butter and sugar together on medium-high until light and fluffy (about 5 minutes).

In a separate bowl, whisk together flour and baking powder. In another bowl (sorry, I’m really making a mess of your kitchen) whisk together the egg whites, milk and vanilla extract.

Add 1/4 of the flour mixture to the butter mixture in the mixing bowl and beat for a couple of minutes, then add 1/4 of the milk mixture and beat ’til incorporated. Repeat this process until all dry and wet ingredients are incorporated into the butter/sugar mixture. You’ll probably need to stop the mixer a few times to scrape down the sides of the bowl so that everything gets combined thoroughly.

We’re gonna dirty up more of your dishes now. Depending on how many colors you want to make, evenly divide the prepared batter into separate bowls. Using a toothpick or the tines of a fork, dip a tiny amount of the gel food coloring into each bowl and mix thoroughly into batter. Repeat as needed to reach the desired intensity for each hue.

To make the swirls: You’ll need small scoops, measuring cups or spoons for each color (more dishes to wash, hooray!). I use 1/4 cup scoops for mine. Using your scoop/cup/spoon, place a dollop of one of the colors of batter in the center of each pan. Give it a minute to spread out a bit, then scoop a different color and pour it directly on top of the dollop already in the pan. Don’t mix them together! Let the batter spread a bit before adding the next dollop, again to the center. Keep repeating this process until you have concentric rings in each pan, like a bulls-eye dartboard. Don’t mix them together, although you can use a spoon to lightly push the edge of each new dollop out so the mixture continues to spread to the edges of the pan. It’ll look like this when the pans are full:

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Bake cakes about 22 to 25 minutes on the middle rack of your oven (or until a toothpick inserted in the center emerges clean). I turn/rotate them halfway through to ensure even baking.

Cool in pans on a cooling rack for 5 minutes, then carefully turn out onto rack (I like to put the rack upside down across the top of the pan and hold them together as I quickly flip the pan so that it drops easily onto the rack), remove the parchment/waxed paper and let the cakes cool completely on the rack before frosting.

CHOCOLATE BUTTERCREAM FROSTING:

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Ingredients:

1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) butter, softened (NOT melted – you need the structural integrity of soft butter to make this frosting set up right)
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 pound confectioners sugar
1/2 cup milk (I use Horizon 2% chocolate milk just to pump up the cocoa flavor a bit more)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Method:

Add cocoa powder to bowl of stand mixer or large bowl that you can use your electric hand mixer in. Whisk powder thoroughly to remove any lumps.

Using your stand mixer or electric hand mixer, beat softened butter into the cocoa powder at medium-high speed for about 5 minutes – you want the mixture to be really creamy and fluffy. (I use the paddle attachment in my Kitchenaid stand mixer for the best results.)

Reduce speed to medium and add 1 cup of the sugar and 1 tablespoon of the milk, then crank the speed back up to high for a minute or two until well-combined. Repeat this process, slowly incorporating the sugar and milk until it’s all combined with the butter (you’ll need to frequently stop the mixer to scrape down the sides and beater with a spatula). Add the vanilla extract and beat on high for another two minutes.

** If frosting is too dry/hard, add a little more more milk – a tablespoon at a time – until it reaches the right consistency. If it’s too wet/soupy, add a bit more confectioner’s sugar – again, a tablespoon at a time – until the texture is right.

To assemble cake: using a spatula, spread a thin layer on the underside of the bottom layer of cake to “glue” it to the cake board or plate, then lay a nice thick layer of frosting over the entire bottom layer. Frost the underside of the next layer so it’ll stick to the bottom layer better, then set it in place and frost it entirely too. You can then smooth out the frosting, add a thicker coat to hide the “seams” of the separate layers and/or put additional frosting into a decorating bag with a piping tip to embellish your cake. (My daughter chose the large star tip to outline the layers and to write her first initial on top of the cake before dousing it liberally with sprinkles and colored sugar.)

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Let me know how yours turns out! I’d love to see pictures. (I really need to start taking more “process” pictures of my own recipes! I always forget or take sloppy ones.)

Caramel Buttercream Frosting

Let me just state from the very beginning that this is not a clean-eating, healthy-living recipe.

I have plenty of those and I love to share them – roasted veggies, salads, lean proteins, etc. But when your 10 year old asks you for cake with “that really good frosting you made last year,” you deliver, calories/fat/sugar be damned.

So yeah, this definitely qualifies as a “sometimes” food. But sometimes you just need a really great buttercream frosting – the thick, rich stuff that spreads and pipes beautifully and sets up nicely in the fridge and holds its shape.

Per my daughter’s request, I made a white cake with chocolate buttercream frosting for the main cake – it was 4 layers tall and each layer was swirled with a different color to resemble tie-dye. I’ll post the recipe and method for that soon too, because it was majestic and I am absurdly proud of the reactions it garnered from everyone who saw and tasted it. I wanted to provide a little variety though, so I also made chocolate cupcakes and frosted them with caramel buttercream frosting.

It’s a very basic buttercream recipe, but it requires the addition of my salted caramel, made with an extra two tablespoons of cream so that it was more saucy than I make it when I’m molding it for individual candies. (If you don’t want to take this extra step, then you can use store-bought caramel sauce and it will still taste great! I was just dead-set on it being 100% from scratch.)

I usually make this frosting a day or two in advance and store it in a plastic bag (with as much air squeezed out as possible) for a day or two in advance. When it’s time to use it, I plop the mass of chilled frosting back into the bowl of my stand mixer and whip it back up with paddle attachment until it’s fluffy and smooth enough to spread or to spoon into a decorating bag.

Let me know what you think! As always, I welcome feedback. BTW, if you’d like to make this a basic buttercream without the caramel, omit that ingredient and just add a couple of teaspoons of vanilla extract instead.

CARAMEL BUTTERCREAM FROSTING

Ingredients:

12 ounces (3 sticks) softened (NOT MELTED) butter (I let mine sit at room temp for about an hour before I start)
1 pound confectioners sugar
2-3 tablespoons caramel sauce (store bought is fine, but this caramel recipe made with an extra two tablespoons of cream added to the 1/4 cup it calls for will really elevate the flavor and texture)

Method:

Using your stand mixer or an electric hand mixer, beat butter at medium-high speed for about 5 minutes – you want it to be really creamy and fluffy. (I use the paddle attachment in my Kitchenaid stand mixer for the best results.)

Reduce speed to medium and add 1/2 cup of sugar, then crank the speed back up to high for a minute or two until well-combined. Repeat this process, 1/2 cup at a time, slowly incorporating the sugar until it’s all combined with the butter (you’ll need to frequently stop the mixer to scrape down the sides and beater with a spatula).

Turn mixer off and drizzle 2-3 tablespoons of caramel sauce into frosting (you can add a bit more cream by the teaspoon if it’s not thin enough to drizzle in – you want it to be liquidy enough to blend into the frosting completely). Turn the mixer back on and beat until caramel is fully incorporated and frosting is light and fluffy.

From here, you can tint the frosting if you like (I use gel food coloring when I tint mine, adding a teensy bit at a time to the mixer). Spread on cake with an offset spatula or spoon into a decorating bag with a piping tip attached and squeeze to your heart’s content.

BTW, a light sprinkling of sea salt on top of the frosted product is pretty spectacular, especially if you’re frosting something chocolate – I love how the sweet and salty complement each other.

Peppermint Sugar Cookies 


Every Christmas, my domestic side kicks into high gear and I make a ton of treats for friends, family & neighbors. I have a few old standards that I turn out each year (like my salted caramels), but this time I added a new treat to the mix: peppermint sugar cookies.

Like most of the things I make, it’s an easy recipe that tastes fancier than it really is. I used the basic sugar cookie recipe that I’ve been baking for years & just tweaked it a bit. The result: soft, melt-in-your-mouth cookies with flecks of peppermint in every bite.

I’m including a recipe for a minty royal icing if you want to add a glaze to dress them up a bit. It’s not necessary and I skip it if I’m baking multiple batches (I’ve baked 30 dozen so far this year), but it does add some eye appeal and you can even sprinkle on a little more crushed peppermint before the icing hardens if you want to make them extra-fancy.

This recipe makes 5 dozen small cookies; if you keep them bite-sized then each cookie contains about 85 calories, 3.5 grams of fat, 12.5 grams of carbs & 1 gram of protein.

Peppermint Sugar Cookies 

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) of butter, softened (not melted – that will change the texture)
  • 1 cup of white sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon peppermint extract
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup crushed peppermint candies (or 4-5 crushed candy canes) – I use a food processor or put them in a plastic bag & beat ’em up with a rolling pin
  • 1/4 cup Andes peppermint crunch baking chips  (if you can’t find them, just double the amount of crushed peppermint)

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350F & line cookie sheets with parchment paper. Set out cooling racks if you have them (the air circulation makes a difference in the texture of the finished product).

Cream together butter and sugar for a few minutes until light and fluffy. Add egg and extracts and mix until combined. A cup at a time, add the flour until just combined, then gently fold in crushed peppermints and baking chips until they’re incorporated into the dough. Don’t over mix!

Roll dough into 1 inch balls and evenly space apart on cookie sheets lined with parchment paper (I can fit 15 – 5 rows, 3 columns – on each sheet).


Bake cookies for 10 minutes. They’ll still be light – browned edges mean they’re overcooked.

Cool on cookie sheets for a few minutes, then move cookies to your cooling racks until completely cool.


Minty Royal Icing & Crunch Topping (optional):

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup confectioners sugar
  • 2 tablespoons warm water
  • 1 teaspoon peppermint extract
  • 3-4 tablespoons crushed peppermint candies (or red sugar sprinkles  if you’re tired of crushing mints at this point)

Directions:

In a small bowl, whisk sugar, water & extract together. Dip tops of cookies in icing or brush on tops of cookies with a pastry or basting brush, then sprinkle each cookie with a bit of crushed peppermint or sugar sprinkles & let the topping harden.

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That’s it! These cookies taste great with my peppermint cocoa, by the way. But that’s a post for another day!

Homemade salted caramels

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I’ve never grown out of the “I made something for you” phase of childhood – it’s still my favorite way to give gifts. Whether it’s layered soap bars or layered dessert bars, I derive so much pleasure from putting effort & love into handmade presents.

This Christmas, I spent a lot of time making treats to give to neighbors, church friends & family. The biggest hit was probably the salted caramels. They are super easy to make – it’s like culinary alchemy – and they store well in the fridge. They can be used in other recipes, melted into coffee or just devoured on their own.

I do recommend measuring your ingredients before you begin – the process relies on quickness. You won’t need a candy thermometer, but a candy mold makes it easy to portion them out.

ingredients:
1 cup of sugar
6 tablespoons of butter
1/4 cup heavy cream
Sea salt to taste

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method:

Measure your ingredients & keep close by. I also recommend greasing your molds now by spraying lightly with cooking spray or brushing with oil (I use coconut oil & a pastry brush).

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Place sugar in a dry saucepan over medium-high heat and continuously whisk or stir with a spatula as it melts (this helps prevent burning).

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As soon as your sugar is liquid, light brown & just about to bubble, stop stirring.

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Add the butter & whisk until melted. It’ll foam up a bit, so watch your fingers!

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Remove saucepan from heat and whisk in the cream ’til smooth.

Now it’s time to pour the liquid into molds – I transfer my liquid into a measuring cup first for easier pouring.

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I use a silicone Wilton brownie bites mold & I fill each cavity about half full. (The liquid can also be transferred to a jar if you prefer to use it as a caramel sauce.)

Lightly dust the top of each caramel with sea salt.

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Place mold in fridge or freezer until caramels are firm enough to unmold. After unmolding, they can be individually wrapped in wax paper squares or pieces of Saran Wrap Press’n’Seal.

That’s it! Minimal effort for rich, soft, buttery caramels that kick the pants off of those pale processed Kraft cubes.

Please try them and let me know what you think! And if I ever bring you a bag of them, know that they are basically little chewy squares of my love for you. 😀

Paleo-Friendly Banana-Pumpkin Muffins

It doesn’t really feel like fall yet here in Texas, but I’m already craving pumpkin EVERYTHING. Pumpkin spice lattes, pumpkin bisque, pumpkin ravioli…and of course my favorite, pumpkin bread.

Ah, but I don’t eat much wheat flour anymore, and I’m cutting way back on sugar and butter these days. So my grandmother’s old recipes don’t stand the test of time in my kitchen (sorry, Mam-Maw).  I’m keeping her recipe cards for sentimental reasons, but for a lighter alternative, I turned to Ye Olde Internet.

I wanted a recipe that called for almond meal (I’ve been experimenting a lot with it lately – it makes a beautiful coating for tilapia, FYI) so I started with this beautifully photographed blog. As with all recipes and IKEA instructions, I skimmed for the main gist and then whipped up a reasonable facsimile that worked for me.

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Mix together in a large bowl:

3 mashed bananas (this is a great way to use up those overripe ones on your counter)

1 ½ cups pure pumpkin puree (not pumpkin pie filling)

2 eggs

Then add:

2 cups almond meal

1 tsp sea salt

1 ½ tsp baking soda

½ cup hulled pumpkin seeds

1 tbsp chia seeds (because I put them in EVERYTHING)

1 tsp cinnamon

Mix again, then spoon batter into 12 muffin cups greased with coconut oil and bake at 350° for 30-35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. They will look dark, but they will be juuuust right. Slide a butterknife around the edges to loosen them, then remove from muffin cups and let cool on a wire rack or plate.

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The verdict? AMAZING.  Delicately crisp exterior, super-moist but not too dense interior.  The crunch of the pumpkin seeds and chia seeds added just the right amount of texture to keep it from tasting too much like cake (side note: I would MUCH rather have these than cake for my birthday this year). They’d probably taste sublime split in half and spread with a smidgen of coconut oil if you’re feeling indulgent, but they don’t need it.

These muffins are grain-free, dairy-free and contain no sweeteners beyond those delicious bananas. You can add more cinnamon, nutmeg, pumpkin spice mix or ground cloves if they’re not sweet enough for you, but I guarantee you will not miss the sugar or flour. Try them and tell me what you think!