I'm amazed at how superior your vanilla is!
- Des, The Grommet
I opened the bottle of your vanilla extract last weekend to bake some cookies and the difference in taste is extraordinary." – Judy

Pumpkin Muffins

Every autumn, as the temperatures drop, we are drawn to all things pumpkin and butternut squash. But is it really all about the squash or about the warming spices that bring these quintessential American foods to life? After all, winter squashes have a delicate flavor. The spices, on the other hand, were once worth a royal ransom and for good reason; they ignited our taste buds, warmed our bodies and provided an exotic pallet of flavors heretofore unknown in Europe. And who can dismiss the power of Pumpkin Muffins baking in the kitchen on a chilly late autumn or winter morning?

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Pumpkin Chiffon Cake

Pumpkin and vanilla were meant for each other. Ditto with all the spices in this incredibly light, moist, delicious cake. Really, what could say autumn better than a freshly baked Pumpkin Chiffon Cake, a Pumpkin Pie or Pumpkin Spice Latte? Over the years I’ve really come to appreciate really fresh spices. I grate my nutmeg and grind allspice and cinnamon in a coffee grinder dedicated just for spices. The flavors really pop when they’re fresh. And our dear vanilla is the backup chorus once again, making sure all the flavors work synergistically.

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Savory Herbed Cheddar Shortbread

These are the appetizer of your dreams, the kind you’d most want with a beverage of choice at the end of a work-week, or sitting outside with friends on a late summer afternoon while dinner cooks on a grill. Or just about anytime you want something both savory and soothing. My only caveat is that these Herbed Cheddar Shortbread cookies are very addictive, so be prepared!

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Flo Braker’s Flourless Chocolate Torte

 

Flo Braker flourless chocolate torte

This rich, creamy, dense flourless chocolate cake serves as a perfect dish for Passover Seder. A little goes a long way, so it can easily serve eight, but it also keeps well for left overs. A delightful dessert for those on a gluten free diet, this cake is versatile and delicious. However, don’t expect leftovers unless you are four or less enjoying this cake. It’s exceptionally good! Another thing I love about this cake is how the honey makes the glaze glisten. A wonderful way to celebrate the ancient land of milk and honey!

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Carrot Cake Cupcakes with Vanilla Cream Cheese Frosting

These moist, nutty, carrot cake cupcakes are a family favorite, both for birthdays or for an everyday treat. This recipe makes 1 1/2 dozen cupcakes, for easy individual servings, but can also be made into a 2 layer cake. Made with coconut sugar, if you choose to eat them as muffins, without the cream cheese frosting, they make a tasty, low-glycemic addition to brunch.

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Almond Rum Cake

This delicate Rum Almond Cake was conceived as a coffee cake  but it deserves to be elevated to a much higher status if for no other reason than it’s too boozy for a 10:00 am coffee break! As you can see from the photo, it was the ideal New Year’s Eve cake — moist, flavorful and rich enough that a small slice was sufficient.

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Buche de Noel

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Although the French name for this beautiful dessert means Christmas Log, the origins of the custom of bringing in a Yule log, building a blazing fire, then lighting candles from it are pagan in origin as is the Christmas tree and decorating with holly and other greens.  I like to think of these ancient traditions as a way to bring light and joy into the dark nights of winter for everyone, regardless of our ancestry or religion. And what could be prettier than a chocolate sponge cake filled with cream, frosted with chocolate ganache and dusted with snowy powdered sugar? Add some meringue mushrooms or sprigs of holly, and you have a lovely and meaningful completion of a holiday meal. 

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Russian Tea Cakes

Whenever I think about holiday baking, Russian Tea Cakes (aka Mexican Wedding Cookies) are at the forefront of my mind. What’s not to love about the buttery, crumbly deliciousness of these cookies. with their fragrant toasted nuts and powdered sugar spilling everywhere? Okay, the powdered sugar part can be annoying. What I do love about these cookies is that they’re pretty much popular worldwide with essentially the same ingredients though some come with a few special touches.

I recently found a unique version of these cookies in Sunset Magazine. Created by Yigit Pura of “Tout Sweet Patisserie,” they are noted for their extreme crispness and toasty-brown butter flavor. I also like that they’re made with vanilla bean paste. The recipe calls for 1 tablespoon cognac or brandy. Prefer a different alcohol or want to substitute a liqueur? Why not? And, if you don’t want alcohol, you can substitute milk.

Yigit suggests creating cookies 1-1/2 tablespoons each. I personally prefer these cookies smaller because the powdered sugar can be overwhelming with big cookies. Just like the alcohol used, you get to decide on the size you’d like to make the cookies. Just remember to adjust the bake time accordingly.

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The Vanilla Queen’s Apple Crisp

Nothing says autumn like the crunch of a fresh apple, flavorful juices flooding your mouth, triggering thoughts of autumn and hardwoods blazing with color.  While I hate to let go of summer stone fruits, by September I’m ready for apple season to officially begin. Apple Crisp or a blended fruit crisp are a pleasurable way to celebrate. I found and adapted the following recipe years ago; the consensus of at least 100 people is that it’s the best Apple Crisp, bar none, that they’ve ever had. Obviously, I concur.

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Bakewell Pudding Tart

This recipe comes from, A Baker’s Passport, written by Susie Norris. Susie says, “Before the ‘British Bake-Off’ television show, a competition smoldered in Bakewell, Derbyshire in the United Kingdom. Much like Sacher Torte in Vienna, rivalries about the origins of the Bakewell Tart (also known as Bakewell Pudding or Bakewell Pudding Tart, depending on which shop in town you visit) are part of its allure.

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European Plum Cake

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This delicate, delicious, absolutely-must-make cake recipe comes from Maria Reiz Springer. Now living in Maryland, Maria is from Austria and has an infinite number of amazing European dessert recipes, and usually a wonderful story that goes with the recipe. Maria has a home cooking school and is truly a master baker. The plum cake can be made with other stone fruits as well, but if you are lucky enough to have French plums, they are both the traditional plum used as well as divine in this cake.

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Jam Cakes

Jam Cakes are a quick, cheerful, dessert with ingredients that you’re bound to have, unless you  haven’t been to the store in weeks. The recipe makes six or more cupcake size “cakelets,” depending on the size of your tins.  Perfect when you can’t stop thinking of something sweet but you don’t want an entire cake. That said, the recipe is a snap to double. 

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Sicilian Lemon Tart (Torta al Limone)

Updated lemon torte

 This is an amazingly smooth, creamy, over-the-top delicious tart. I had been traveling through Italy and Greece for three weeks then spent two days in London before heading home. Along the way I had eaten more than my share of amazing cakes, tarts, and cookies, as well as the exquisite lemon desserts in Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast. The irony of this is that the last morning in London, we went to a coffee shop before heading to the airport and there, in the dessert case, was a Sicilian Lemon Tart that cried out to be enjoyed. Of course I obliged. It was hands down one of the best desserts of the trip. In London, for crying out loud!

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Double Pecan Thumbprint Cookies

 

When it’s cold or stormy outside, it’s so nice to have a warm beverage and a few freshly baked cookies to enjoy while hunkering down and binging on Netflix or reading a book. Frankly, both Gina (our Contessa) and I enjoy having freshly baked cookies on hand whenever we’re in for a long stretch of work on the computer. It’s a nice incentive to keep going. So when I found this recipe for Double Pecan Thumbprint Cookies in the holiday issue of Bon Appetit, I knew it would be our new favorite.  I made a batch for Gina’s birthday in November, sending her over-the-moon.

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