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

Guinness Gingerbread Cupcakes with Lime-Vanilla Frosting

 Adapted from David Lebovitz’ Ready for Dessert

In honor of Irish heritage (mine and a lot of other Americans who also have Irish ancestors), I wanted to make something special for those who celebrate St. Paddy’s Day. Unfortunately, the Irish are not known for their desserts. However, Guinness Stout is in every Irish pub and is the beverage of choice on March 17th.

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Sticky Toffee Pudding

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During my time in Devon, England, one of my goals was to try Sticky Toffee

Pudding. For those of you unaware of English vernacular, “pudding” is used interchangeably with “dessert” and includes cakes, and other baked goods. To add to the confusion, puddings can also be savory, such as Yorkshire Pudding, which is served with roast beef. So Sticky Toffee Pudding is actually a cake that can be baked or steamed and is smothered in a caramel-like sauce.

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Great Homemade Food Gifts for the Holidays!

The holidays are happening this minute! If you’re in deer-to-the-headlights mode, there’s still time to pull it together and make gifts for family and friends without needing to trek to the malls and deal with traffic jams and long lines. And, the good news is that homemade food gifts are far more appreciated than “stuff.” So roll up your sleeves and let’s get started.

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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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