Ridiculously Easy Peanut Butter Cookies (gf)

A few weeks ago, I found myself with 20 minutes to kill before my workout. What does a baker do with 20 extra minutes? Waltz right into Sur la Table to see what's new, get some pre-cut parchment and, apparently, buy cookie presses. Whoever had the brilliant idea to put my Pilates studio in a mall is clearly a genius in consumerism because although I had never previously wanted cookie presses, all of a sudden, there I was, feeling the pressure of getting to class on time and should I or shouldn't I buy these babies? "Okay, fine, ring me up. I'll blog about them" said I to myself, forking over the cash.

Now, what cookie wants to be pressed? Any robust, semi-solid, shape-holding cookie dough will work - sugar cookies are especially nice - but, I always want the most decadent treat available, so, I opted to try peanut butter. Not certain peanut butter cookies wouldn't spread out and lose their shape during the baking, I knew I needed to use a non-butter recipe. My all-time favorite peanut butter cookie recipe happens to be butter-free and gluten-free all at once. So very simple, these can be rolled in sugar and pressed with anything from your fingers to a fork to a cookie press. Yay! They also happen to impart the very best peanut butter flavor, totally uncut by flour and butter. These are pure peanut butter bliss and incredibly easy to make so I hope you whip these up very soon. And, when you do, please come back and tell me how they worked out for you in the comments. 



Peanut Butter Cookies
1 C Jif or Skippy peanut butter (don't use natural. You need the oils and extra sugar, et al, to make sure these turn out)
1 C sugar, plus 1/4 C for rolling the dough
1 large egg
1 t vanilla (optional)
1 t baking powder

Place all ingredients in your mixer and blend. Using a tablespoon, form the dough into balls, one at a time and set aside.

Place the 1/4 C sugar on a small plate (a saucer is great for this) and roll each cookie in the sugar and place on a cookie sheet. Using a fork, make a criss-cross shape in each cookie. Or, if using your fingers, take your first 3 fingers and gently flatten the cookie. These keep their shape nicely, so, they will not spread all that much. If you're using the cookie press, you'll need to repeatedly dip it into more sugar to keep it from sticking to the cookies as you move along pressing them. 

Bake at 350 for 10 minutes. These are soft to the touch and continue to cook after baking. Let them sit up to 10 minutes on the cookie sheet before transferring them to a plate to finish cooling. These keep beautifully in the fridge (2 weeks) and/or freezer (3 months), but this batch never lasts long in my house. Enjoy!
Sugar for dipping cookie balls and/or cookie presses.

I just thought this was pretty.

Ready to bake!

Going into the oven.

Et, voila! Finis!

Heavenly Pavlova

For those of you who celebrated Easter last Sunday, here's hoping it was a joyous day. In our family, we celebrated "The Feast of the Birth of Christine", aka my sister-in-law's birthday. Christine is a snarky little thing who likes to remind us all she's the youngest of our bunch (sadly, this makes the rest of us quite old grown up) and seems to love her two golden retriever puppies more than she loves us (they are pretty freaking cute, though). She is also a generous, caring, sharp, beautiful and wise person who deserves all the deliciousness she can get.

Her favorite dessert has become Pavlova, a light-but-creamy meringue-based tart covered in whipped cream and, in this case, sweet spring berries, named after prima ballerina Anna Pavlova because it floats in your mouth before melting there. The sensation is remarkable. Now, this dessert is normally made for Christine by her good friend Tom O'Connell, an incredible home chef, but as our family was spending her birthday together, I thought I'd have a go at it. My hat's off to Chef Tom because this treat is not for the faint of heart but the result is truly heavenly.

This recipe is pretty much stolen from based largely on the recipe for Mixed Berry Pavlova in Culinary Goddess Ina' Garten's Barefoot Contessa at Home Cook Book although I adjusted the baking time and temperature and a few other tiny details. Mrs. Garten calls this recipe "easy" although I might use the term "labor-intensive leap of faith". There is lots of whipping, baking, cooling, sauce-making, washing, chopping and waiting involved and one cannot control the outcome by toothpick-testing, temperature-taking nor touching. You just have to have faith that once you've followed the directions it'll come out correctly. Then you serve it, lump in throat, hoping the center is not overcooked, or worse, frothy. Amazingly, it is crunchy, chewy, light, sweet, tender and serenely unique - just like a certain someone we were celebrating!

Let me assure you the result is worth every second of effort. Pavlova is unlike anything else and will wow your crowd.

Happy Birthday, Christine!



Based on Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa at Home Cook Book
4 egg whites
pinch of sea salt
1 C sugar
2 t cornstarch
1 t white vinegar
1/2 vanilla

Whipped Cream
1/2 pint heavy whipping cream
2 T sugar
1 t vanilla

Mixed Berries
1/2 pint strawberries,  washed and sliced
1/2 pint raspberries, washed and dried on paper towels
1/2 pint blueberries, washed and dried on paper towels
2 T sugar

Raspberry Sauce
1/2 pint raspberries, washed
2 T sugar
1 C seedless raspberry jam

Yield, 6-8 servings

Make the Pavlova.

Preheat the oven to 200. Place a sheet of parchment paper (not waxed paper) on a baking sheet, draw a 9" circle and flip the paper over so that you can see the circle but it won't stain your meringue.

Whip the egg whites and pinch of salt until frothy and firm, about one minute. With the mixer running on high, slowly pour the sugar in and beat until it makes shiny peaks, about 2 minutes more.

Sift the cornstarch onto the beaten egg whites, add the vinegar and vanilla and fold lightly with a rubber spatula until incorporated. Pour the meringue onto your parchment and gently spread it into the circle print.

Bake for 90 minutes at 200 and then turn off the oven. Do not open the oven door. Leave the meringue in the oven another hour, then take it out and let it sit on the counter until you're ready to serve.

Meanwhile, make the cream. Whip the cream, sugar and vanilla on high until soft peaks form, 3-5 minutes. Do not overwhip. If you do, add a bit more cream and whip lightly until you see those soft peaks.

Prep your berries. Place the washed, dried and cut up berries into a bowl and sprinkle the sugar on top. Stir gently, cover and place into the fridge until you're ready to serve.

Make the raspberry sauce. Place the raspberries, sugar and 2-3 T water into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 4 minutes. Place the jam in the hot liquid and whisk until smooth. Set aside but do not refrigerate until the cake is served.

Once cooled peel the parchment from the meringue and place the meringue onto your serving dish. Spread the whipped cream over top, then the berries and, lastly, drizzle about 1/2 cup of your raspberry sauce onto the cake. Serve immediately.

Firm, frothy egg whites.

Shiny peaks. These have the sugar in them.

Freshly baked.

The whole enchilada.

Side view so you can see all the elements together. It's truly unique and scrumptious.


Good Friday to you! And, I do mean Good Friday! (wink, wink.)

In honor of the holy-days this week, I thought I'd bake up one of my favorite labors of love, cheesecake. My favorite is a New York classic: the kind that can be topped with anything from caramel sauce to fresh berries but is really most delicious when eaten slowly, bite by bite, savoring the rich tang of cream cheese, sour cream, sweet sugar with a waft of lemony vanilla and the delicious crumb of a fabulous buttery graham cracker crust.

My favorite recipe comes from Cook's Illustrated's American Classics Cook Book as it not only tastes heavenly, it is also fairly simple to prepare. Well, maybe not simple, but straightforward. Put it this way, there will be no whipping of egg whites and folding them in. The only alterations I made to the recipe were doubling the graham crackers (I prefer more cookie to each bite) and adding more sugar to the crust. The cake itself is, as I wrote in the book, "Perfect. Literally."

The way I see it, if you're willing and able to put in the time and you have or can borrow a 9-inch springform pan, anyone can make this gem. And, as it is a holiday weekend, perhaps there is no time like the present?

Cheesecake a la Cook's Illustrated's American Classics Cook Book
For the cake:
(5) 8oz. packages cream cheese, cubed and brought to room temp (I recommend full fat, but I have made this with 2 and 3 packs of low fat with good results. Be warned, though, that all low fat will not yield good results)
1/4 t kosher salt
1-1/2 C sugar
1/3 C sour cream
2 T lemon juice
2 t vanilla
2 large egg yolks
6 large eggs

For the crust:
2 C graham cracker crumbs
1/3 C sugar
1 t sea salt
10 T melted butter

Yield: 12-16 servings

Oven to 325.

Butter the bottom of a 9" springform pan. 

Make the crust. Mix graham cracker crumbs with sugar and salt until well blended. Slowly pour in melted butter, stirring to incorporate. Pour crumbs into the prepared pan and tamp down on the bottom and up the sides about 2 inches. Bake in preheated oven about 15 minutes or until your kitchen is filled with the scent of freshly-baked cookies.

Take the crust out and set on the counter to cool.

Turn the oven up to 500.

Make the cheesecake. Blend the cheese until fully incorporated and creamy. Add in the sugar, a little at a time, beating until incorporated and scraping down the sides. This should take about 3 rounds of pouring in sugar, beating until mixed in, scraping down the sides and repeating.

Add the salt, sour cream, lemon juice and vanilla and beat until combined. Scrape the bowl and add the yolks. Scrape the bowl and add the eggs one at a time incorporating each and scraping the bowl before adding the next one. This will make sense as you do it because the batter is so large, you'll notice certain bits don't get mixed in unless you scrape over and over.

Pour the batter into the cooled crust and bake at 500 degrees for 10 minutes. Without opening the oven door, turn the heat down to 225 and bake until the center of your cake registers 150 degrees, about 90 minutes. Mine took 2 hours this time, so, you may need to bake it longer and keep checking it.

Cool the cake for 3 hours on the counter and then overnight in the fridge.

When serving, run a knife around the edges before opening the spring and removing the cake. If you're a little gun shy, leave the cake on the bottom of the springform pan, but if you're feeling saucy, run a spatula underneath the cake and slide it onto your presentation plate or stand. As you cut the cake into slices, make sure to wipe your knife down after each cut so that you get good-looking slices for your guests. If you're using sauces, drizzle them over and eat up.
My little helper blending graham cracker crumbs and sugar and salt.

Pouring in the butter as Lulu stirs.

Tamping. You can do this with your fingers or the back of a spoon, too.

I included this photo so you could see how liquid the batter is before baking.

Un-sprung and plated.

Cross-section. See how much cookie is there? Mmm.

I ate 2 of these in about 3 minutes.
Again, because of the time it takes to make this right, it can feel like a labor of love. But once the soft, sweet, creamy cake is in your mouth, it's all worth it.



Jam Thumbprints

These babies based on the Better Homes & Gardens Cook Book recipe always elicit memories of baking with my mother in my childhood kitchen. My mom taught me everything I know about cooking and baking. In fact, all of my siblings love being in the kitchen, a fact I believe we can attribute to our mother's gentle encouragement, patience and trust in our own culinary skills from very young ages. (Has anyone tried to bake with their toddler? It's messy. It's slow. It's terribly imperfect. I don't know how my mother did it!)

These also remind me of my mom because, as a true anglophile, she loves to take tea and these are a perfect tea cookie. Rich with butter, slightly crunchy with toasted nuts and sweet with jam, these are a mouthful of pleasure. And I don't say that lightly!

Any jam will do, but I prefer those with bits of fruit in them and I like to jazz up the plate by using a few different types. In this case, there is apricot, boysenberry and strawberry. Or fill them with ganache, cold caramel sauce or fruit curd. Also, these are just as mouth-happy without nuts, especially if you, like my husband, don't really enjoy nuts in your baked goods.

Whatever you choose, these are crowd pleasers and I hope you love them as much as my mom and I do!

Jam Thumbprints
2/3 C sweet cream butter, softened
1-1/2 C flour
1/2 C sugar
2 eggs, separated
1 t vanilla
3/4 t kosher salt
1 C finely chopped or ground walnuts
1/2 C best-quality preserves

Yield 2 dozen good-sized cookies

Preheat the oven to 375.

Beat the butter until smooth and light in color, about one minute. Add the sugar and blend. Add the egg yolks (reserve the whites) and vanilla and blend. Add the flour and salt and beat until combined.

Roll the dough into a ball and place on waxed paper. Flatten into a disc and cover with waxed paper. Chill the dough for one hour (or more) until it's firm.

Pull off about one tablespoon of dough and roll into a ball. Continue with the rest of the dough until you have about 24 balls.

Gently beat the reserved egg whites. Dip each dough ball into the egg white mixture and then into the walnuts and place on the cookie sheet. Gently indent each cookie either with your thumb or the back of a spoon (or the heel of a piece of flatware if yours has a nice round handle) so that each cookie looks like a nest.

Bake each sheet about 12 minutes, or until the walnuts are lightly browned. Let the cookies cool completely, at least one hour. Spoon about one teaspoon of jam into each thumbprint and let the cookies set about 15 minutes.
Make sure the walnuts are finely ground for the best bite.

Light, pillowy balls of dough. 
The thumbprint process.
The finished product. With walnuts.

A few without walnuts.



We're on Etsy!

Last week was so busy with the business of baking, there was hardly any baking in it! (Although, I did make up for it over the weekend.) From investigating which certifications I need to sell my baked goods to finding a commercial kitchen, it was a crash course in what needs to happen behind the scenes. On Friday, we went big and opened an Etsy Shop.
Baking: A Love Story's Etsy Shop
Baking: A Love Story's Etsy Shop

Because everything ordered in the Etsy Shop will be shipped, the focus is on bars, some of which you've seen here. Date Bars, Brownies of all kinds, Peanut Butter Jelly Bars, Peanut Butter Chocolate Bars, etc. Plus, I'm working on a set of three sauces. Naturally, one will be hot fudge, another is a Hot Buttered Rum Sauce that I worked on over the weekend and the third will be a berry sauce, a true labor of love. Requests are welcome!

While there is still a load of work to do, from developing recipes to baking and photographing them - not to mention the finalizing of our packaging and logo, et al, it feels like a giant leap forward into making this dream of mine a reality.

Come visit the Etsy Shop and please make requests in the comments of this post.



Straight A Devil's Food Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Vanilla Bean Frosting

 Well, hello! What did you do this weekend? We celebrated my nephew's report card my favorite way - with cake.

Our fabulously handsome and talented nephew Spencer was left in our care last week as him mum, my husband's sister, is traveling. Last Friday report cards were issued and Spencer, for the 3rd semester in a row, got straight A's. Now, I'm what you might refer to as progressive when it comes to education and I'm not even sure I believe in grades (seriously, I'm that liberal on education. I was raised by hippies!), but it gave us an excuse to celebrate this incredible, talented, athletic young man whom we adore. When I asked 12 year-old Spencer how he'd like to celebrate his report card, he answered without hesitation: chocolate cupcakes - not too sweet and not too chocolatey - and cream cheese frosting. Seriously, a boy after my own heart!

After a failed attempt at chocolate mayonnaise cake (yes, culinary failure even happens to me. Quite frequently, in fact. But don't let that deter you from trying a mayonnaise cake. It's so brilliant when done right), I tossed a dozen cupcakes into the trash and began again.

What to do after all that work when you've promised an almost-teenager chocolate cupcakes? Go to the pro. Lori Longbotham is pretty amazing with all kinds of ingredients, but let me tell you her book Luscious Chocolate Desserts presents bake-able recipes that - when followed - turn out beautifully, every time. The Divine Devil's Food Cake on page 37 is, indeed, divine. The cream cheese frosting came a bit easier as we have a no-fuss family recipe that calls for 3 ingredients - so easy!!! - to which I add vanilla bean paste for taste and presentation.

In any case, Spencer was happy and, we hope, felt celebrated. Go, Spencer!

Divine Devil's Food Cake
2 C cake flour
2/3 C best-quality cocoa (I used Ghirardelli but love Valrhona, too)
1-1/4 t baking soda
1/2 C buttermilk
1/3 C water
3/4 C butter, at room temperature
1-3/4 C sugar
2 large eggs
1-1/2 t vanilla

Makes 24 cupcakes or one 8" layer cake

Cream Cheese Vanilla Bean Frosting
1 8oz. block cream cheese, softened
1 stick butter, at room temperature
5 C powdered sugar
1 T vanilla bean paste

Pre-heat the oven to 350.

Sift dry ingredients in one bowl.

Blend buttermilk and water in a liquid measuring cup.

Beat the butter on medium speed until light and fluffy - about 3 minutes. Add the sugar and beat until that is light and fluffy, as well - also 3 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla.

Add the cocoa mixture to the bowl and combine at low speed, alternating with the buttermilk mixture. I did this in 3 parts each.

Using an ice cream scoop with the automatic release lever, drop batter into paper-lined muffin cups. Bake at 350 for 20-25 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Cool the cupcakes completely - one hour on the counter or 15 minutes in the freezer.
Pure chocolate goodness.
Make the frosting. Blend the cream cheese with the butter. Add the sugar and mix until all the lumps from the sugar are gone. Add in the vanilla bean paste.

Spoon about 3 tablespoons of frosting onto each cupcake and spread with either a frosting spatula or butter knife.

I always like to let any cake set for at least 30 minutes, but if you can't wait or are in a time crunch, these will taste equally good (even if the frosting slips off a bit!).

Plate and offer to your favorite 12 year old and watch his face light up. I hope ours knows how proud we are of him every day - not just on report card day!



Ice Box Cookies, Two Ways

Because I am spoiled and will only eat freshly baked cookies, and because I have to have a treat every day, I try to keep cookie dough in my freezer at all times. Also, it's pretty amazing to be the auntie who can always whip up some freshly baked cookies at a moment's notice. I often search the interwebs for recipes and last holiday season Martha Stewart's Holiday Shortbread Cookies especially caught my eye for their versatility and freeza-ability. You like nuts but your husband doesn't? No problem! Split the dough and stir in separate ingredients. Want chocolate and vanilla, but not together? Sub 1/4 C cocoa powder for 1/4C of the flour in half the batter. With such a delicious, not-to-sweet-but-very-soft-and-buttery dough, practically any additions are going to work. Chopped nuts, dried fruit and chocolate work equally well in the dough, plus once formed, you can roll the logs in any additional ingredients you might like, such as turbinado or colored sugar, sprinkles or more chopped nuts - really almost anything. 

The dough will keep up to six months wrapped in plastic wrap, dropped into a ziploc bag and placed in the freezer. Just pull them out when you're ready to bake, slice and pop them into the oven. What could be easier?

Ice Box Cookies, Two Ways 
1 C unsalted butter, at room temp
3/4 C powdered sugar
1-1/2 t kosher or sea salt, crushed
2-1/3 C flour
1/2 C mini chocolate chips
1/2 C dried cranberries, chopped
1/3 C finely chopped toasted walnuts

Yield 2 dozen cookies

In a food processor or stand mixer, blend the butter, sugar and salt. Add the flour and pulse or mix until combined. 

Divide the dough and place half into a second bowl. Fold the mini chips into half the dough and the cranberries into the other half. 

Form the dough into logs and wrap the chocolate chip log in plastic wrap and set into the fridge.

Roll the cranberry dough into the walnuts and follow suit.

Let the logs firm up in the fridge at least 45 minutes, or overnight. 

When you're ready to bake, pre-heat the oven to 350. Slice the logs into 1/4" slices (mine are a little thicker and yield a few less cookies, but I like them that way) and place onto cookie sheets. 
Ready to go into the oven.
Bake 15 to 18 minutes or until lightly browned and let cool. Don't be surprised if your Fedex man knocks on the door to hand deliver your package as these cool on your counter. The scent does seem to waft down the road a bit.
Amazing how the scent of warm cookies will garner an actual hand delivery!
Cranberry Walnut Ice Box Cookies.

Chocolate Chip Ice Box Cookies
Brew your tea and sit down. Take a moment to savor these delicacies on your own. They're worth it. 
These are excellent for a holiday cookie exchange as they are truly versatile. They also make excellent gifts as they keep nicely for several days covered at room temperature and don't break when you drop them into gift bags. As I mentioned, you can also keep the dough wrapped tightly in the fridge for up to 6 months and have warm, freshly baked cookies any time you want - especially if you're single (which I am not) and may want to impress a certain delivery person (I did nothing of the kind. At least, not intentionally!). 



Moroccan Meatballs with Couscous and Yogurt Sauce

How about something a little savory? These meatballs are, after all, baked in the oven.

Most days I struggle to provide a healthy, interesting, delicious dinner to my family. In the savory world, I'm more of an assembler than a cook. But, I do want my husband and daughter (not to mention, myself!) to eat well. Last fall, I bought a beautiful book called Family Table by Michael Romano & Karen Stabiner from a mostly-children's bookshop in Richmond, VA called bbgb that happens to be right down Kensington Ave. from our old house in The Fan. I bought the book because it looked warm and fuzzy and contains recipes from chefs who work in Danny Meyer's restaurants such as the famous and delicious seasonal frontrunner Gramercy Tavern and the equally reliable Union Square Cafe. If you are ever in New York, please try these eateries. You will not be disappointed.

Back to the book. The recipes are all chef favorites originated for the pre-dinner rush "family meal" that a good restaurant staff takes together and are sourced from grandmothers, culinary schools, travel, and anything else that influences a chef in his or her craft. The recipe I made (on page 204, if you're in a rush) was supposed to contain lamb, but my normally-trusty Whole Foods was out of ground lamb the day I needed it, so, I opted for ground beef instead and added raisins (my mom always did this and it complements the meat nicely). It was still delicious. Especially the yogurt sauce which could go well over any protein or grilled vegetable(s). In all, the meal took about 40 minutes from counter top to table, making me a very happy assembler.

(Lamb) Meatballs with Yogurt Sauce (adapted from Family Table)
1 T pine nuts, toasted and chopped
1 lb. ground lamb shoulder (as mentioned above, any ground meat can be substituted. I used organic 80/20 beef)
1/2 C raisins
1 T ras el hanout
1 T sea salt
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

Yogurt Sauce
2 C Greek yogurt
1/2 C olive oil
1/4 C fresh Italian parsley, chopped
salt and pepper

Oh So Simple Couscous
2 C vegetable stock, boiling
1 C whole wheat couscous
1/2 C golden raisins (optional)
1/2 C chopped, toasted almonds (optional)

Serves 4.

Preheat the oven to 425.

Make the meatballs. Place the meat into a bowl and sprinkle all ingredients over top. Mix together with your hands or fold it all in with a spoon, just until assembled. Form into 2" balls and place on a baking sheet or into a baking pan. This should make about 8-10 meatballs. Bake for 15 minutes, until nicely browned and let sit an additional 5 minutes to finish cooking on the counter.

While the meatballs are baking, boil the broth and stir the couscous into it. Remove from heat, cover and let sit 10 minutes. Stir the nuts and raisins in and replace the cover until you're ready to serve.

Make the yogurt sauce. Put the yogurt into a bowl and add about 1/2 t salt and pepper, to taste. Gently stir in the olive oil and add up to 1/2 C water until the mixture reaches your preferred consistency. I used about 1/4 C water because I like a thicker sauce. Stir in the parsley.

Spoon some couscous onto a plate and top with meatballs. Add a little yogurt sauce on top and you're ready to eat. 
Thanks, Michael Romano and Karen Stabiner for a delicious and easy dinner!