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

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)

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 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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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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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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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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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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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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Chocolate and Beet Fudge Cake

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 Courtesy of Janet Sawyer, Little Pod, UK

Chocolate and Beet Fudge Cake may sound off-putting but, in fact, the beets provide moisture, sweetness and some heft to the cake but the cake doesn’t taste at all like beets. Chocolate wins the honors here, so you want to use good quality chocolate when making this rich cake. It’s truly a delicious recipe that Janet served for the first anniversary party for Little Pod, our “sister” vanilla company, which was held at the Chelsea Physic Gardens in London.

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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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Apple Fritters

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It’s apple season again. Makes me think of returning to school with the ubiquitous apple in my lunch box. How about you?
 
While the supermarkets carry the standards like Red Delicious, you can usually find the tastier heritage varieties filling the farmers markets and countryside fruit stands. Yesterday when I drove the back roads of Watsonville to visit a friend, there were rows of trees loaded with Yellow Delicious, Newtown Pippins, Jonagolds and other heritage varieties. I picked up some Jonagolds and Yellow Delicious at my local farmers market; the old fashioned apples are worth seeking out.
 

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Chocolate Whoppers — An Irresistible Cookie!

Does anyone ever really get tired of homemade cookies? Whether it’s a broken heart, a badly stubbed toe, a big disappointment or a bad day at school or work, a couple of cookies with milk, coffee or tea, can make things right again, or at least, a lot better. And, let’s face it: chocolate is a near miracle ingredient for almost everyone. So, when I saw this recipe for Chocolate Whoppers, I knew I had to bake  and share it. Thank you, Donna Maurillo for posting this very chocolatey deliciousness in our local paper!

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Fresh Berry Shortcakes

Several years ago I had a terrific recipe for shortcake biscuits. Naturally, I lost it. I didn’t know this, of course, when I decided that it would be the perfect dessert to bring to a party I was attending. Even though it was late in the season, the warm, sunny days we’ve had has meant a never-ending abundance of strawberries and, even as I write this, it appears it’s far from finished.

If you’re reading this post in May, read on. You are at the welcoming end of the new season and the recipe I located is great. If you’re reading this in late September, this is the recipe to use with the last of the season’s berries.

Can you imagine warm shortcakes filled with juicy berries and whipped cream (or Greek yogurt if you must) for breakfast? This is what got me through a lot of cookbooks and ultimately led me online where I scored. The winning shortcake? Made by James Beard’s mother!

Here’s the surprise: James Beard wrote over twenty cookbooks but never included his mother’s recipe. However, he did confide in his friend, Larry Forgione that, “There can never be a better dessert, only fancier.” Forgione ended up with the recipe, included it in his book, An American Place (Morrow, 1996), and it was a hit.

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Headlands Inn Peach Baked French Toast

 

If you’re looking for a perfect brunch recipe to serve for Mother’s Day, a special birthday, or are hosting guests, this recipe from the Headlands Inn in Mendocino, CA will surpass everyone’s expectations. Even the presentation creates a “Wow” response. First, a few words about the Headlands Inn and how we were served this beautiful breakfast.

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Tahini Cookies

It’s fun to watch trends come and go and when a particular trend reappears, the recipes using the current ingredient are often uniquely different. For the past eight months I’ve noticed tahini in a large assortment of recipes. However this cookie comes by it honestly as it comes to us from Mamaleh’s, a new incarnation of the classic Jewish Deli, in Cambridge MA. Rachel Sundet, pastry chef at Mamaleh’s claims the honey keeps these shortbread cookies really soft.

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For an update on the 2016 vanilla shortage, please see "Why is Vanilla so Expensive?"

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