Thursday, December 27, 2012

Behind The Blog: Christmas Day

Well, it has only been two days since the day that I anticipate all year long has passed.

Christmas has always held a mushy soft spot in my heart.

The Christmas trees in every front window.
The twinkle lights.
The carols.
The manger scenes.
The presents.

It's like I'm a big kid on...well...Christmas.

So instead of baking this week (I've been eating WAY too much sugar, and I'm certain you have too), I thought we could both use a break, and I could introduce my family to you.

I talk about them enough ("sister said this...," "mom did that...").
I think it's time to show them off.

So without further ado - I present "Behind The Blog: Christmas Day"
So you've seen this cat more than once.  
But the fact that the tree is still standing is an amazing feat of endurance...on the part of the tree.  Whoever manufactures this brand, I am not above endorsements -will work for rocky road fudge (we're running dangerously low). 

This is Archie.
I adopted him in March, after losing my sweet-angel of a cat last Christmas.
I intended to get another Persian.  And not only was it was going to be a girl, but she was going to live for cuddling. 

But this is what I ended up with.
A boy.  Who thinks he's a dog.  And regards cuddle-time as cruel and unusual punishment.
He's my little terror.
But he has a pure heart, and works the camera better than Ridiculously Photogenic Guy.
Here I am sans make up, reading my portion of the Christmas Story on Tuesday morning.

Next up, is me!

I'm the oldest child in my family, followed by my sister, then brother.
Yes, that is my naturally curly hair.  No that is not my natural color.

An office worker by day, and baker by night.
I also live for musicals (somebody make Wicked into a movie already!), singing (duets, please), and road trips (best. way. to. travel).
I told them I wanted a "Christmas Bakers" shot.  I did no baking at all!  It was a wonderful break.
This is Sister and Mom.

Both were responsible for that delicacy at the beginning of this post (which I will talk about later).

Sister is the president of The Grace Notes a-cappella group, when she's not paralegal-ing at the law office or watching intense crime dramas with her hubby.  We get mistaken for twins all the time, but that's alright with me.

Mom is amazing.  She's the mommiest, mom you'll ever know.  Always happy to see you and offer a comforting word, she also baked all of the traditional treats I'll introduce below.
Homemade Gingerbread Man (Brother did this).  I wasn't lying. I didn't bake a thing this past week.

This is Dad.

We're a lot alike.  Super analytical and matter of fact.  No need get worked up over something, just think it through...and through and through again. :)

For Christmas all he ever asks for is fancy baked goods.
Gingerbread, Torrone, Panforte, Panettone, Stollen, Marzipan.
He's the easiest person to buy for bar none.
This is Brother.

I adore this boy.
We can totally get into it one minute and the next second it's all sunshine and rainbows.

He's the drummer of Watchers and Hunters.  Sure it's not music to bake to, but he's still the best drummer around.
Brother-in-law and Sister "Skyping" with his family in Sweden
This is Brother-in-law.
He has been so for the past 2 1/2 years.

His parents are missionaries so he speaks many different languages, but I usually forget that because we're too busy dishing about The Walking Dead, or how great the new Spiderman movie was.

He's definitely the most energetic of our bunch, bringing much needed new dimension and "spice" to our house.  
1) My yearly calendar.  Every Christmas my mom gets me a new one to "theme" my year.  2013?  Well, it's Marilyn 
2) My brother is the king of customized gifts.  Last year it was a song announcing a free car wash and wax and this year 
     was intense looking coupons for free dinner.  Who can resist that face?
3) Oh my gosh!  This year my parents surprised us all with bikes!  I haven't had a bike that fit me since the 7th grade.
4) Brother-in-law made us all picture frames with individualized photos from his and Sister's wedding.  

All in all, it was a great Christmas.  But honestly, what would Christmas be without the baked goods?  

So even though I haven't lifted a finger in over a week, here are just some of the things we experience each holiday season over at my house...
And it begins with "Christmas Tree"

It's actually a Danish pastry, but we have no idea what it is actually called (Grandma? A little help maybe?), because of this we affectionately deemed it "Christmas Tree" long ago - named after the shape it is fashioned in. 
Words can not adequately describe this glorious masterpiece.

So flaky.   So buttery.   The perfect amount of sweet, crunch, and soft gooey inside.
Like the best cinnamon roll, donut, bear claw combo you could ever imagine.

The filling consists of finely chopped walnuts, butter, and sugar.

To help convey this a little better, let me paint you a picture.

I would rather have this than any present.  Even more than the twinkle light infested artificial redwood that I put up every Black Friday...on. the. nose.

My mom makes an entire cookie sheet's worth of this stuff every Christmas morning and every Post-Christmas day, guess what we have for breakfast?
Eggs.  Bacon.  Cereal.  Cheese.  It doesn't really matter anymore, because the Christmas Tree is gone.
If anything says something about our family, it's these - Cucidati.

150% Italian.  Labor of love.  Glorified fig newtons (family, don't shoot me!)

These were probably one of my first introductions to baking.  My grandma, mom, and all her sisters would get together shortly after Christmas and spend all day making these babies.

It wasn't until a few years ago, when it was just three of us hashing these out that I realized what a monumentous task we had at hand.

A days worth of hours and 300+ cookies later, I thought to myself, "Gosh, we're impressive, I should start a baking blog!"

Just kidding.
Filled with chopped figs, almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, brandy, and sherry, each bite is packed to the brim with Christmas deja vu.

And finally, the Cannoli.

Probably the easiest of the three to replicate.

Crunchy fried shell, filled with whipped cream, ricotta cheese, chopped chocolate, and almonds.  Dipped in walnuts and dusted with powdered sugar.


I hope you had a loving and refreshing Christmas, and I wish you a blessed New Year!

See you all on the other side.


Changes for 2013. 

Coming soon:
Do not fret, for the amount of posting will remain the same.
Right here, every Thursday.

But next year, I'm going to shift my content focus a bit.

The more time I spend baking, the more I find myself needing good substitutes for things, needing to master different techniques, and frankly, needing to have more questions answered.

I learn by seeing and doing, and I haven't yet found one place where I can go to get all my questions answered in a visual format (be it video or photographs, etc).

So that's what I'm going to attempt.
There will still be baking.
And I know there will still be gaps...I'm only one person.  

But I have questions, and you deserve answers.

And if you have questions, send them over because I'm open for business.

Let's do this!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Coconut Macaroons (★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆)

Today you are witnessing a seasonal miracle.  

Not only because this post happened at all (anyone else feel like they've relocated to the mall this month?  Hey, at least it's rent free!), but because these cookies fixed themselves...overnight. 

You were about to read, yet another "fail" post.

You were going to hear less about cookies an more about my adorable sister.  (It's her bday!  And you are still going to hear about her...because she's awesome!)

You were about to suffer through my spiel on how I made the wrong decision in the whole "egg whites vs. sweetened condensed milk" debate.

But not anymore.

Because after many...MANY...last minute additions and "tweaks" to salvage a poorly composed recipe, these turned out pretty dang good.  
You may not even like coconut.

That's okay.  Because I don't either.

So don't think of these as "coconut."

I agree, coconut is yucky.

It's slightly foamy and has the texture of hair. 

But that's before it is toasted to crispy perfection and smothered in chocolate.

Trust me.  If I can be won over.

So can you.
My sister made these several years back because she is a Co. Co. Nut. Fa. Na. Tic.

And I tentatively tasted one out of sisterly duty.  
But man, oh man.  

Flavor-wise.  Texture-wise.  These were A++ in this coconut haters book. 

And this week, was my amazing sister's birthday.

She's the type of sister everyone should have.

She gets giddy over the same things.  Disneyland at Christmas?  25th Anniversary of Phantom of the Opera?
She shares the same curly hair.  Swapping war stories. 
And anytime there's an awesome song that begs to be sung in harmony, I know who to call.  Ah, back before Glee turned to crap, she took all the Lea Micheles and I tackled the Idina Menzels.

So maybe these things don't seem all that exciting to you, but just imagine having someone get you in all the weird ways nobody else does.  

Clearly, macaroons were in order. 

Only problem.  
We couldn't track down that original recipe anywhere. 
So began the long journey through research and trial and error.

In the end it came down to one pivotal question:

To use sweetened condensed milk or to use egg yolks?

After much deliberation, meditation, and constructing pro/con lists, I decided the promise of chewy cookies was too enticing and went the milk route. 

But then I found Paula Deen.
And she used both.

Like a boss.
But I don't know what the heck she was smokin' at the time of this recipe's inception, but something here was off...way off.

My first batch was basically cooked sweetened condensed milk.

Not what I was going for at all.

I want a mouthful of coconut, not gooey sticky sweetness.

To each batch, I added progressively more and more coconut...until I was completely out.

But by that time I had tasted so many of these that the last thing I ever wanted to taste again was one of my coconut macaroons.

I wrapped them up, went to bed, and hoped my sister's love for coconut was deep.

But then something amazing happened.

I am convinced I was visited by some Christmas Elves.  The same ones that came to help that old shoemaker.  Remember them?  Ya, we're like totally buds now.

Anywho.  The next day, I was prepping them for pictures when I decided to absentmindedly pop one in my mouth.  

Glory, Hallelujah!  
These were yummy!

The chocolate, the coconutty crunch, it was all there.

It don't know if it was elves,
Or time needed for the flavors to meld,
Or air needed to dry them out a little bit,
Or, you know, elves...

But it was a Christmas, Seasonal, Birthday, Extravaganza miracle.


Below is my "adjusted" recipe.
Coconut Macaroons
adapted from Paula Deen: The Food Network

1 - 14 oz Bag (6 Cups) Flaked Coconut
1 - 14 oz Can (1 Cup) of Sweetened Condensed Milk
1 tsp Vanilla Extract
1/4 tsp Salt
2 Egg Whites
1 1/2 tsp Cream of Tartar
2 Cups of Chocolate Chips
1 Cup of White Chocolate Chips
Sprinkles (optional)
Parchment Paper

Preheat Oven to 325F
Bake 12-16 Minutes
Makes Approx. 30 cookies
How to Tint Coconut:
1) In a ziploc bag, add about 7 drops of desired food coloring.
2) Seal bag and give a good shake.
3) Add coconut.  Seal.  Shake.
4) Add more color as needed.  If you are just doing one color, then you can do this right beforehand.
    However, if you want to do two colors then you need to do this leaving plenty of time for the
    coconut to dry thoroughly.  I'm thinking overnight.  Or else you'll get purple coconut me. :)
1) Preheat oven to 325F degrees
2) To speed up the egg white process (you will beat them still stiff), stick a medium sized bowl in the
    freezer.  The egg whites need to be cold when whipped so to start off with a cold bowl helps.
3) In the meantime, you can mix coconut, sweetened condensed milk, vanilla, and salt in another bowl.
    Stir until well coated.
4) Take bowl out of freezer and add egg whites.  Beat until they form stiff peaks.  It'll be a few minutes.
    Be patient. To test, press beaters into eggs and pull up.  They should be firm and not runny.
5) Fold egg whites into the coconut mixture, until just combined.
6) Drop teaspoon fulls of coconut batter onto a greased baking sheet about an inch apart. You may 
    need to form them a little with your hand after dropping on cooking sheet as they tend to spread.
7) Bake for 12-16 minutes, until the coconut on the outside starts to turn golden-brown.
8) Take cookies out of the oven, and let them sit for 1 minute before placing them on a cooking rack.

Chocolate Dip:
1) Start with cookies that are thoroughly cooled.
2) In a microwave safe bowl, heat chocolate chips in 30 second increments until melted.  Stir well 
    between each heating.
3) Dip the bottom of each cookie into the bowl, scrape off any excess with a spoon and place on 
    parchment paper to cool.
4) Melt white chocolate in a similar fashion.  Transfer to a ziploc bag and cut a small piece out of one of 
    the corners.  Drizzle the tops as desired.
5) These will cool and harden on their own, but to speed up the process you can place in the 
6) If you are going to use sprinkles, use before chocolate dries.  You can sprinkle them over the top, or 
    dip the bottoms into them. 
And the biggest miracle is that I only ate three, before remembering these were someone's present.
Happy Birthday Sister!


And A Very Merry Christmas to you all!!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Persimmon Fritters (★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆)

Making donuts shouldn't be this easy. 

And I'm not talking about "healthy," pour some cake batter into a cute donut mold, bake it in the oven at 350F, and call it a "donut" easy. 

I'm talking artery clogging, golden deep fried goodness.

Nope, it isn't right.

Not at all. 
See I decided I wanted to incorporate Persimmons into my holiday baking.

I can't think of a fruit that better exudes the very essence of autumn than the Persimmon.

The leaves-turning-rusty-orange color,
The bite that tastes of Thanksgiving itself,
The pulp "seasoned" with little brown flecks.

Yes, persimmons are worthy of a holiday post.

Plus, they're my BFF's fav.  And since she was so devastated last week, these were all hers.

At least, that's what I told her.  
See, once I started making these, and began eating the gobs and gobs of fried dough pieces smothered in cinnamon-sugar that had "accidentally" fallen off the persimmon slices, I realized something.

These were for me.  

Actually, if I really get down to it - everything I bake is for me. 

I won't bake something I wouldn't like to eat.  
I have to taste as I go.  

That's like the number one rule to good baking skills.  And if something doesn't sound good to me, then I'm not going to make it. 

I've never heard anyone around here beg for donuts, or lament on the fritter shortage in my house.

Nope, I filled in those pieces completely on my own.  

Remember that episode of Friends where Joey challenges Phoebe to find a selfless good deed?

Ya, she couldn't do it.  

How was she supposed to know that letting a bee sting her so he could look tough in front of all his bee friends would put an end to his little life?  She grew up on the streets, mugging the Ross Gellar's of the world, not on some country ranch.   

But I'm not even really sure why having no "truly" selfless good deeds is such a problem.

I mean, if I helped my elderly neighbor rake his leaves, and he rewarded me with cookies...tell me what's so terrible about that? 

He has a clean yard.  I have a belly full of cookies. The world is at peace. 
Persimmon Fritters
adapted from Martha Stewart

1/2 Cup Sugar + 2 Tbsp
3/4 tsp Cinnamon
2 Eggs
2 Cups Buttermilk
4 tsp Vegetable Oil + 2 Cups
2 Cups Flour
2 tsp Baking Powder
1/2 tsp Salt
5 Fuyu Persimmons (not too ripe)

Candy Thermometer
Large Deep Skillet
Cooking Prongs
Makes approx. 20 pieces
*Not great for storing.  Best served immediately or same day.
 1) Start by double checking the accuracy of your candy thermometer.  Place it in a pot of boiling water.
     Water boils at 212F.  So add or subtract the appropriate degrees to adjust for the difference.  You'll
     need to remember this later.
2) Wash and hull the persimmons.  Slice each into four pieces lengthwise.  Remove any seeds as you
3) In a small bowl, preferably one with a flatter bottom, mix together 1/2 cup sugar and cinnamon. 
    You're going to be coating the persimmon fritters in this, so the less curved the bowl, the easier it will  
    be to coat the pieces. 
4) In a medium sized bowl, add eggs and beat lightly with a fork/whisk.  
5) Add buttermilk and 4 tsp oil.  Whisk together.
6) Add in flour, 2 Tbsp sugar, baking powder, and salt. Mix well until smooth.
7) Set up shop.  You want everything in an assembly line to help with the process.  
     Persimmons - Batter - Frying Oil - Cooling Rack w/Paper Towels - Cinnamon/Sugar Mixture
 8) Add 2 cups of oil to the skillet and heat over medium-high heat.  Hold the candy thermometer in the
     pan, being careful not to touch the tip of it to the bottom.  You will get a reading that is too high if it
     touches the actual pan. Once it reaches 375F, test a little batter in the pan.  If it sizzles, and tiny
     bubbles form all around, you are ready to start.
9)  Using a fork, dip each slice of fruit into the bowl of batter.  Make sure it is thoroughly covered in
     batter and place in pan.  *Tip: Try not to pierce the piece too deep with the fork.  The easier it is to
     take off the less oil splashing there will be.
10) Fry each side till golden brown and crispy.  If it gets dark too quickly turn down the heat.  Adjust as
      needed.  Each side should take between 1 - 2 minutes.  Flip with cooking prongs.
11) You can cook multiple fritters at a time depending on the size of your pan.  Make sure there is room  
       around each fritter so the oil can continue cooking the sides. 
12) After you've flipped the fritters and they are golden brown on both sides remove from the pan, 
       letting the excess drip back, then place on a cooling rack.  Make sure you have a couple layers of 
       paper towels underneath to catch the excess.  
13) Remove the fallen pieces and remnants as they will continue to cook and burn.  (You can toss 
      these in cinnamon-sugar and eat...I won't tell).
14) After the pieces have cooled slightly, toss in cinnamon sugar.  
15) Serve immediately.  You can reheat these in an oven on some foil at 350F for a few minutes to "re-
      crisp" if needed.  Eat within 2 days.  
 Persimmons for her.  
Sweet, crispy, deep fried batter for me.  
Friendship at its finest. 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Gingersnap Magic Cookie Bars (★ ★ ★ ★ ☆)

Why don't you go ahead and settle in, grab your morning coffee,  because I want to tell you a little story.

A little story called "Why My House Isn't Safe For Magic Cookie Bars: Or Anything With Copious Amounts of Sugar."

So the title's a little excessive.
But it's my story.
And I think it's perfect.

I honestly contemplated changing the names in this because my family might kill me, but where's the fun in that?

Plus, after reading about Person 1, Person 2, Person 1 again, then Person're just going to get all confusl'd.

So since I'm going there, let's just lay it all out right now.


Prepare to be famous.

Brother - You are safe.  You don't like coconut.
So I'm baking Monday night, pretty much the usj.

Nothing too interesting there.  Except that everyone was home.  [Dun, dun, dun, duuuuuuuuun].
I'm used to having the house to myself on baking nights.  Just me, an iPod, and an electric mixer.

See when you are alone there are baking pros and cons.

The Cons.

  • You are lonely

That's it.

The Pros.

  • You are lonely so you can focus and do your best baking.
  • You are lonely so you get to listen to your music as loud as you want (and dance around while belting out Mariah Carey Christmas songs into a wooden spoon.  Not that I do that...just the "option" is there).
  • You are alone so you can tweak any recipe to your heart's content.
  • You are alone so you can taste test something fresh from the oven without swarms of "sugar deprived" eyes glaring back at you.  

Three hungry people, one blogger.
There's bound to be conflicts of interest.

Bloggers have a different mindset.
We don't bake to eat.
Well, ultimately we do, but not before our desserts have paid their dues.
Prepping, styling, photo shoots, etc.

Much to the chagrin of my family members.


So back to the story.  I take the bars from the oven.  Not two minutes after I settle down to watch a Christmas movie, do I hear the terrifying sound of a knife slicing into melted chocolate and toasted coconut shreds.

Bakers can totally hear that kind of stuff. 

Now, I'm not against sharing.  I understand I have infused the house with an irresistable aroma. But I worked hard on those cookie bars.  The idea.  The shopping.  The baking.  The documenting.  After all is said and done every post costs me about 8 hours of free I'm none too thrilled by the sound of my hard work about to be mutilated at the hand of someone other than me.

Me: "Nope." 
Dad: "You serious?"
Me: "Yep."
Dad: [Insert crazy pout.  Like I just told him I think going to college is a waste of time.]

Sure he's my dad.  He's only sacrificed everything for me.  But I still like to have the final say in what happens to my baked goods...and when.  Call it my controlling "vice," but I'm not ready to give it up. 

Twenty minutes later, after the cookie bars had cooled the "proper" amount of time, it was time to slice and share.  But only a taste, because these babies still had work to do.

Mom and Bestie were beside themselves and promptly consumed their share.
But Dad, nope.  He was good.  The moment had past.  
On his terms, or no terms.  Like Father, Like Daughter.  

Suddenly, an even bigger dilemma than I could have ever predicted arose - There was one piece and two willing participants.  

I mean the obvious, reasonable thing to do would be to share, right?
And that's what happened.

Until my Mom convinced Bestie to refrigerate the "precious" morsel because it would "taste better."  I walked into this:

Mom: "I'm so sorry.  I ate the whole piece.  I couldn't stop myself."
Bestie: [Insert Stunned Silence.  Cue welling of tears.]
Mom: "When Natalie goes to bed, I'll cut you another one."
Bestie: "Wait.  You really ate the whole thing?"
ME: "Excuuuse me?"
Mom: "No, I'm just kidding. I only moved it to the door."
Bestie: [Insert pent up chuckle].
ME: "...Uh, what was that about me going to sleep?"  

No joke, totally had a nightmare that I woke up to find 4 measly pieces.
Me: "What the heck happened?!"
Mom: "I'm so sorry.  They were just so good!"
Me: "I still had to take pictures!!"

I breathed a sigh of relief when I found the pan safe and sound, pristinely wrapped on the counter in the morning.  But did that stop me from hiding that dish in the tupperware cupboard?  

No, it did not.  
Gingersnap Magic Cookie Bars
adapted from Love from the Oven

1 Stick of Butter (1/2 Cup)
1 1/2 Cup Gingersnap Crumbs
1 - 14 oz. Can Sweetened Condensed Milk
2 Cups Nestle Holiday Chips (or 1 Cup Semi-Sweet and 1 Cup White)
1 Cup Chopped Walnuts (Pecans work well too)
1 1/3 Cup Flaked Coconut

Needed: 9 x 13in Pan
Preheat Oven to 325F Degrees
Cook for 25-35 Min
Makes Approx. 24 Bars

1) Crush gingersnaps into fine crumbs.  I used a meat tenderizer and a coffee grinder to finish up the 
2) Preheat oven to 325F Degrees.  Place cube of butter in 9 x 13in pan and place in oven to melt while 
    preheating.  Check every few minutes to make sure it is melting and not getting burned.
3) In the meantime, chop up a cup of nuts.
*Suggestion: I LOVE crust.  And I found this recipe to be a little on the thinner side.  What I would 
                      do next time is increase the butter to 1 1/2 cubes and double the cookie crumbs.  Or do 
                      1 Cup Gingersnaps, 1 Cup Graham Crackers.  Grahams are a lot sweeter and less spicy.  
4) Once butter is melted, remove from oven and place on heat safe surface.  Sprinkle cookie crumbs 
    evenly over the butter and gently pat down with the back of a spoon.  Make sure the entire bottom 
    surface is covered.
5) Pour can of condensed milk over the crust layer.
6) Next add 3/4 Cup Nuts, and 1 1/2 Cup Chocolate Chips (saving some for the very top layer).
7) Sprinkle the coconut evenly over the nuts and chocolate.  Pat down gently.
8) Top with remaining nuts and chocolate chips.
*Suggestion: I've made these before and "pre" toasted the coconut.  I wish I had done that this time.  I 
                       love the toasty smell and taste of the coconut after it's been baked for awhile. If you want 
                       to pre-toast the coconut, line a baking sheet with foil and spread the coconut thinly 
                       across.  At 350F, bake for no more than 5 mins.  Watch carefully that these do not burn.  
                       You want to see the edges of the flakes just beginning to darken. 
9) Bake for 25-35 minutes.  Top should be slightly browned.  Remove from oven and place on cooling 
    rack.  Allow to cool completely before cutting and serving. 
Do not think me cruel. After these pictures, my family had their fill.  
All Tuesday night, they ate to their hearts content.
Then came Wednesday. And I brought the rest to work.
So Bestie cried.  

Oh geeze.