Holiday Cookies – Pecan Sandies

Well, my intention was to start a new series featuring different holiday cookie recipes. But seeing as that it’s already less than two weeks until Christmas, that idea is pretty much shot. At least for this year.

019Unfortunately, my ambition got ahead of my common sense, so my cupboard is stuffed with cookie ingredients such as butterscotch chips, different kinds of nuts and sprinkles.

My enthusiasm also was dampened after one of my experiments failed: I thought I would make those peanut butter cookies that have the Hershey kiss stuck in the middle, but all I had were those red and white swirled candy cane flavored kisses.

Take my advice: Don’t ever try this. Peanut butter and candy canes don’t go together! Plus, the candy cane kisses have much lower melting temperature than the chocolate kisses, so it ended up being kind of a red and white striped blob.

Every year, I forget how busy December gets. There are so many things going: Holiday shopping, parties, other obligations. Plus, work always seems to pick up just when you the other parts of your life require more attention.

That’s why many people set aside one day or a weekend to cook all of their holiday cookies, rather than making a batch here and a batch there. I should try that next year.

At least this recipe for pecan sandies has the benefit of  being fast and easy. It’s basically a butter cookie recipe with chopped pecans added in. And I stuck an uncut pecan peice in the middle for decoration.

Unlike the peppermint kisses disaster, they were delicious.

Pecan Sandies

1 stick unsalted butter

1/3 cup Powdered Sugar

2 TBS Light Brown Sugar

1 tsp Vanilla

3/8 tsp Sea Salt

1 cup plus 2 TBS All-Purpose Flour

1/2 cup Toasted Pecans, chopped medium fine

Plus a few Pecan peices for garnish

1. Preheat oven to 325F. Using a Kitchen Aid or hand blender, cream the butter and sugars together until smooth. Mix in the vanilla and salt. Then slowly add the flour and pecans and mix on low until a stiff dough is formed.

2. Using a melon baller or just two teaspoons, scoop the dough into a ball and place on an greased baking pan.

3. Dip the bottom of a glass in flour then use it to flatten out the cookies. Stick the pecan garnish in the middle of each cookie and bake about 15 minutes or until the cookies are set and just starting to brown on the sides.

Cool the cookies completely on wire racks. Store in an airtight container. This recipe makes about 24 cookies.

Mini Chocolate Chip Cookies

I have a love/hate relationship with chocolate chip cookies.

I love to eat them but I hate how fat they make me. Chocolate chip cookies are probably the reason I stayed away from being a pastry chef. That much access to sweets would put me in the diabetic ward.

When I was the executive chef at Donald Trump’s casino in Gary, Indiana, we made hundreds of giant chocolate chip cookies for hungry gamblers from scratch daily. It’s a good thing chef’s pants have elastic waistlines.

So here’s a way to enjoy chocolate chip cookies without feeling guilty about it: Mini Chocolate Chip Cookies! They are half the calories of regular chocolate chip cookies because they are half the size!

The only difference between the formula for regular chocolate chip cookies and minis are that you use mini chocolate chips. Normal sized chocolate chips would not work because they would take up too much room inside the cookie and they wouldn’t hold together very well.

Did you know chocolate chip cookies were invented by accident in 1940 by Ruth Wakefield, a baker at the Toll House Restaurant in Whitman, Massachusetts? She happened to have a bar of chocolate lying around and decided to throw it into her butter cookie batter. The rest is history.

This miniature version of Ruth’s recipe may be lower calories, but if you eat twice as many there’s no real caloric savings. What I usually do when I bake sweets is to make sure I give them away as quickly as possible. If they are lying around the house, I am powerless to not eat them.

Needless to say, my family and neighbors love when I bake. I’m like a one-man Cub Scout bake sale except for free!

Mini Chocolate Chip Cookies

3/4 cup granulated sugar

3/4 cup packed brown sugar

1/2 cup butter, softened

1/2 cup vegetable shortening

1 egg

2-1/4 cups all purpose flour

1 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

12 oz bag mini chocolate chips

1 cup walnuts, chopped fine (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 375F. Cream butter, shortening and sugars in Kitchen Aid, or use hand mixer. Meanwhile, combine flour, salt and baking soda in mixing bowl.

2. Add the flour mixture to the Kitchen Aid and mix just until dough is combined and moist but don’t over mix because it will make the cookies tough. Nobody likes a tough cookie. Add the mini chocolate chips and nuts and mix a few more seconds so they are evenly distributed throughout the dough.

3. Use your hands to form small cookie drops, about 1 TBS each, and spread out evenly on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake for 10 minutes or until just browned. Remove and cool on baking racks. When completely cool, store in airtight containers. Make sure to give them away as quickly as possible, otherwise you may eat them all.

This recipe also can be used to make chocolate cookie bars. Just press all the dough into an ungreased baking pan, 15-1/2″x10″x2″, and bake at the same temperature for 15 to 20 minutes or until brown. When cool, cut into 2″ bars. Serve with milk. Yum!

Are there any foods that you hate because you love them so much? Share your tragic love story in the comments section below. And, as always, thanks for looking at my blog!

Oatmeal Cookies

Did you know that in the United Kingdom, what we in the US call cookies are known as biscuits? And that in Scotland a cookie actually refers to a plain bun? Or that in South Africa, if you ask for a cookie you will be given a cupcake?

Let’s all agree on one thing, at least: These oatmeal cookies are delicious!

Growing up, oatmeal cookies were my favorite, especially those iced oatmeal cookies that came from the grocery store. My mother knew a handful of those would stop me in my tracks for at least a couple of minutes, so she always made sure she had a supply on hand.

I have always preferred homemade oatmeal cookies to chocolate chip cookies, which are often so sweet I get a headache after eating only one or two.

As if that would stop me! As if I could eat only one or two!

While these oatmeal cookies are certainly sweet, the sugars don’t overpower them and the fructose in the raisins balance out the sucrose in the granulated and brown sugars. Even better, try them with the lactose from a glass of milk. That will boost the glucose in your bloodstream. That’s a lot of -ose’s!

So whether you are eating biscuits in the UK, cookies in the US, or whatever South Africans call them, these oatmeal cookies are the bomb!

Oatmeal Cookies

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup packed brown sugar

1/2 cup butter, softened to room temperature

1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp vanilla extract

1/4 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

1 egg

3 TBS milk

1-1/2 cups quick-cooking oats

1 cup all purpose flour

1 cup raisins (or chopped walnuts)

1. Preheat oven to 375F. Cream the butter and sugars together in a Kitchen Aid (or use a mixer). Add the vanilla, milk and the egg and mix until absorbed. In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix until just combined. Add the oats and raisins (or walnuts) and mix until just combined.

2. Use two tablespoons to drop cookie batter onto ungreased cookie sheets, leaving at least 2″ of space in between for the cookies to spread. Bake 13 minutes or until cookies start to brown on the bottom. Remove from oven and immediately use a spatula to transfer cookies to a cooling rack. Cool completely before storing unrefrigerated in an airtight container.

This recipe also can be used to make oatmeal squares. Instead of forming cookies, press the dough into the bottom of an ungreased 8″x8″ baking pan. Bake about 25 minutes or until it turns light brown. Cut into 2″ squares while still warm.

Okay, it’s the time of year to share your favorite cookie recipes. Please share the wealth in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

My, Oh, My! Sweet Potato Pie!

For your next holiday party, I want you to try an experiment.

Instead of pumpkin pie, bring a sweet potato pie. I think you will be pleasantly surprised by the reaction you get.

Here in the Midwest, sweet potato pie is not nearly as popular as its pumpkin cousin. Sweet potato pie is more of a Southern thing. When I tried this experiment recently, I found that most people had heard of sweet potato pie, but had never tried one.

I’m here to tell you: They are a revelation. And they are just as good if not better than pumpkin pie because they are just the slightest bit sweeter.

Plus, they are inexpensive and easy to make. It’s a win/win!

I like to introduce people to new foods, especially when it’s something I know they will love. Try this experiment and you will see how rewarding sweet potato pie can be.

Now, before we get into the recipe, I want to address the Crust Question: Make or Buy?

This time of year, I do a lot of baking. So I prefer the convenience of keeping a couple of frozen pie shells in the freezer.

Sure, they are super easy to make — just flour, fat, salt and water. But unless you are going for a particular flavor component in the crust itself — almond, pecan, or something else — standard pie crusts are pretty flavor neutral and don’t add a lot to pie except structure. So why not just skip that time-consuming step and buy some inexpensive pie shells at the Aldi’s? That’s my attitude.

So here’s a recipe for traditional sweet potato pie. Like the old TV commercial says: Try it, you’ll like it!

Sweet Potato Pie

4 oz butter, room temperature

2 cups sweet potato, cooked and mashed

2 cups granulated sugar

5 oz can evaporated milk (or 1/2 cup plus 2 TBS)

1 tsp vanilla extract

3 eggs, beaten

1-1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

2 prepared pie shells, unbaked

1. Cook sweet potatos in 375F oven until done, about 1 hour. Cool, peel and mash. This can be done a day or two ahead of time.

2. Mix butter, potatoes, sugar and evaporated milk until well blended. Add vanilla, eggs and cinnamon and mix well.

3. About 20 minutes before baking, remove pie shells from freezer and allow to soften slightly. Preheat oven to 350F. Pour batter into shells and cook until set, about 1 hour. Jiggle it just a little bit to see if it is ready.

I served this with just a dollop of dessert topping and it was heaven. Give it a try, you’ll see!

What are some of the recipes you love to make for holiday get togethers? Why not share them in the comments section below? And thanks for looking at my blog!

Red Velvet Cupcakes

A couple of years ago, cupcakes become the trendy food in Chicago.

In upscale neighborhoods like Lincoln Park or Bucktown, just about every block has a bakery that specializes in cupcakes, complete with downtown prices. And people are willing to stand in line to buy them.

I can remember a time not so long ago when the most popular cupcake anywhere was chocolate and had white curliques running across the the top of it.

Well, times change, and if bakers are able to get $7 for a cupcake, more power to them.

Cupcakes are easy and inexpensive to make. That’s why they have been the staple of school bake sales for years.

I recently made red velvet cupcakes, which are made from the same batter as red velvet cake, one of those old-school cakes that has recently come back in popularity. It is the same as the cocoa-based devil’s food cake, but red instead of brown.

In the old days, bakers used beet juice to die the batter red. I’m not sure how that would work out, flavor-wise. Nowadays, we just use flavorless red food color.

The recipe also includes vinegar and buttermilk because their acidity brings out the natural redness of the anthocyanin in the cocoa.

Red velvet cake has been around since at least the beginning of the 20th Century, but its heydey came during the 1940s and ’50s. Its popularity ran its course and and it fell out of favor until 1989, when it became popular again after was featured in the movie “Steel Magnolias” as a groom’s cake shaped like an armadillo.

I used cream cheese icing, but you could use buttercream if you prefer. A word of warning: Be careful with the red food color because it gets everywhere! Maybe I should have used beet juice after all!

Red Velvet Cupcakes

2-1/2 cups all purpose flour

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp cocoa

1-1/2 cups granulated sugar

2 eggs

1-1/2 cups vegetable oil

1 tsp vinegar

1 oz red food color (1 small bottle)

1 tsp vanilla

1 cup buttermilk

For the Cream Cheese Icing

1/2 cup butter, room temperature

1 8-oz package of Neufchatel cheese (or cream cheese)

2 cups confectioner’s sugar (also known as 10x sugar because it is 10 times as sweet as granulated sugar, fun fact!)

1/2 tsp vanilla extract

1. Preheat oven to 350F. Line two muffin pans with paper cupcake inserts. Cream eggs and sugar in Kitchen Aid mixing bowl (or use a hand mixer). In another mixing bowl, combine flour, baking soda and cocoa. In a third bowl, combine vinegar, oil, food color and vanilla.

2. Add vinegar and oil mixture to egg and sugar mixture and mix well. Then, alternately add the flour mixture and the buttermilk, starting and ending with the flour mixture. Fill muffin cups 3/4 full, rap pan once on counter to release any trapped air bubbles, then bake for 20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of one of the cupcakes comes out clean.

3. Cool completely in the muffin pan, then frost with cream cheese icing.

To make the icing, cream the butter and cheese in mixing bowl, add vanilla, then slowly add the sugar and mix until proper consistency, about 2 minutes, scraping down the sides about midway through so there are no lumps.

I wanted to frost these using a piping bag with a star tip, but I couldn’t find the one I had when I was in culinary school. Does anyone know where I can get one on the South Side without paying Bed, Bath and Beyond prices? If so, leave a note in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

Oh, Boy! Mini Chocolate Chip Banana Nut Muffins!

I was at the dollar store the other day buying dog food with coupons (thanks, economy!) when I came across a cute little mini muffin pan for $4.

It has 24 little holes. How could I resist? I couldn’t, so I bought it.

Mini Chocolate Banana Nut Muffins

Mini Chocolate Chip Banana Nut Muffins

I couldn’t wait to use it when I got it home. When my wife told me she needed to bring something for a meeting at work, I almost leapt out of my seat.

“How about mini-chocolate-chip-banana-nut-muffins!” I shouted. She agreed, so I immediately set about making them.

The only difference between regular muffins and mini muffins is that they are smaller. That should seem obvious, but I’ve had some people tell me a different batter is required. Not true.

What is different is that the some of the ingredients may have to be a little smaller. In this case, the pecans are chopped a little finer and mini chocolate chips are used instead of normal-sized ones.

The best part about mini-muffins is that you don’t have to feel as guilty because they are so tiny and cute. Never mind if you eat three or four, instead of one normal size muffin. That’s not the point! These are smaller, so they are better for you, right? Right?!

I find it hard to commit to a full-sized muffin these days. It’s just too indulgent. I’ll eat the muffin top. Or I’ll split a whole muffin with somebody. But eat a whole muffin by myself? What are we, the Rockerfellers?

Anyway, if you happen to be at the dollar store and you happen to find a $4 mini muffin pan, take my advice: Buy it!

It will make you happy.

Mini Chocolate Chip Banana Nut Muffins

2 cups all purpose flour

1-1/2 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

4 overripe bananas

1 cup brown sugar

3/4 cup (1-1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

2 eggs

1 tsp pure vanilla extract

1/2 cup pecans (or walnuts), chopped

3/4 cup mini chocolate chips

1/4 cup sugar

Preheat oven to 375F. Spray muffin pan generously with pan spray (Even though it says it says non stick, it’s definitely “stick”).

In a small bowl, mash up two of the bananas with a fork so they are still chunky. Meanwhile, combine the flour, baking soda and salt in a mixing bowl.

In the Kitchen Aid bowl, mix together the remaining two bananas and the brown sugar until well mixed, about 5 minutes on medium (You can also use a hand mixer for this). Add the vanilla, the butter, then the eggs one at a time and mix well. Slowly add the dry flour mixture and mix until just combined (you don’t want gluten to form, which would make the muffin tough). Finally, fold in the nuts, chunky banana and mini chocolate chips.

Using a teaspoon, fill each hole in the muffin pan so the batter is about even with the top. Spinkle each muffin with a little sugar.

Bake 18 to 20 minutes or until a toothick comes out clean. Cool on a rack.

What kitchen gadget finds have inspired you to make something new? Share your story in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

Budget Cooking – The Bread Line

For our parents’ (or at least our grandparents’) generation, home baking was a part of everyday life. Homemade bread, dinner rolls or fresh biscuits were on the table at most family meals.

But in recent decades, we’ve gotten away from that due to people being much too busy for the time-consuming mixing, proofing and baking required for this family meal staple.

As a result, food producers have realized they can steadily increase the price of bread because it’s not something most people are willing to make at home anymore. A recent research trip to the local grocery store showed a basic loaf of plain white bread now costs anywhere from $1.78/loaf for Wonder Bread to $2.95/loaf for Sara Lee. Specialty artisan loaves can cost up to $5.00/each!

What we’ve forgotten, however, is that making our own bread is one of the most primal pleasures in life, dating back to our caveman days. When the aroma of fresh-baked bread wafts through your kitchen, I defy you to not feel a sense of serenity. And when you place the loaf you kneaded and baked with your own hands on your family’s table, there are few things more rewarding.

For a lot of people, myself included, once you start baking your own bread, it becomes
an obsession. How can I make it better, what can I add to it? What about sourdough starters? Quick breads? Brioche? Holiday breads? There’s no bottom to the bread maker’s obsession.

It also can be a fun activity for your whole family. Cut off a chunk of your dough and give it to your kids and they can play for hours kneading and shaping it into whatever they want. Where do you think the idea for Play-Do came from?

Here’s a simple white bread recipe that’s easy and foolproof. The quality is every bit as good, if not better, than any loaf on your grocery store’s shelf, plus there are no preservatives or artificial additives.

Also, this bread cost only $.98/loaf to make, less than half the cost of the average
store-bought loaf. Then there’s the satisfaction of having made it yourself.

This recipe makes two approximately 1 lb. loaves – one to serve right away and one to freeze for later or give away to a neighbor or friends. Save the bags and ties from store-bought bread and use them to keep your homemade loaves fresh longer.

Basic White Bread

1 pkg Active Dry Yeast

2-1/2 cups warm water (110-115F)

½ cup nonfat dry milk powder

½ cup vegetable oil

2 TBS sugar

1 TBS salt

8-1/2 to 9 cups AP Flour

1 TBS butter, melted

Mixed Bread Dough

Mixed Bread Dough

1. In a large mixing bowl, dissolve the yeast in ½ cup of lukewarm water (baby bath temperature). Once the mixture begins to bubble (about 5 minutes), add the remaining water, dry milk powder, oil, sugar, salt and 3 cups of flour. Use Kitchen Aid with dough hook  attachment or hand mixer (or just a wooden spoon) and mix at medium speed for three minutes or until smooth. Slowly add the remaining flour until a soft dough forms.

2. Lightly dust a counter with flour, then turn out dough and knead until completely smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes.  Place in a greased bowl, turning once to completely cover the dough with a thin sheen of oil. This prevents a skin from forming. Cover with a clean dishtowel and let rise in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in size, approximately 1 hour.

Let rise until double in size

Let rise until double in size

3. Punch down dough and knead for another minute. Let rest for a few minutes, then use a sharp knife to cut dough into two equal halves. Place the two pieces  in two 9”x5”x3” greased bread pans. Or for an Italian loaf, roll into torpedo shape, place on greased sheet pan, and cut 2-3 slits in top with sharp knife. Cover again and let rise until doubled, about another hour.

Form dough into loaves

Form dough into loaves

4. Pre-heat oven to 375F. Place pans in oven and cook until golden brown, about 35 minutes. Remove from pans to cool on wire racks. When completely cool, brush with melted butter.

Warning: Baking your own bread is highly addictive. Once you start, you’ll want to try all kinds of different variations. For example, try replacing 3 cups of the AP flour in the above recipe with whole wheat flour for a heartier, more dense whole wheat bread.

Once you get hooked, you’ll want to learn more about bread baking. There’s a ton of great books out there, but I highly recommend “Bread Alone,” by Daniel Leader, a master artisan baker who studied in France ($21.45 hardcover from Amazon, but try your local library first). The pictures alone are worth the cost.

Bread baking is one of the most fun culinary experiences you can have. I hope you take the time to try it out. If you enjoy it half as much as I do, it will be well worth the effort.

Have fun!