Revelation Dried Fruit-Carob Rounds

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Another year has passed, and we are again about to enter Holy Week. Although many of us have our minds and spirits focused on spiritual enlightenment and reflection, I’m sure there are more than a few among us with Lenten palates anticipating the resurrection of chocolate in our culinary repertoires.

Yes, I will be providing plenty of chocolate bunnies and cream-filled Easter eggs, among a multitude of other pretty little confections, in my children’s Easter baskets. And in the interest of full disclosure, I will most likely be nipping at those bags of store-bought treats myself.

Even during this celebratory time of year though, we don’t have to completely abandon our commitment to healthy eating. Here is a delicious revelation befitting the season–a satisfying “chocolaty” goodie that is not only nourishing enough to enjoy throughout the year, but also pretty and sweet enough to share this Easter.

A chewy combination of walnuts, dried fruit, carob powder, almond butter, coconut, and cinnamon, these mahogany-colored rounds are nutrient dense and not too sweet—the perfect little grab and go treat to quell hunger throughout the day or even to enjoy as dessert.

These rounds are delicious just as they are, but to make them even spiffier, coat them in melted dark chocolate or carob and then roll in shredded unsweetened coconut.

¼ cup toasted or raw walnuts

1/3 cup raisins

1/3 cup pitted dates

1/3 cup dried apricots

¼ cup dried cranberries, cherries, or golden raisins

¾ cup almond butter

¼ cup shredded unsweetened coconut

¼ cup carob powder

¼ cup brown rice crisp cereal, coarsely crushed

3 tablespoons maple syrup

1 heaping tablespoon raw sesame seeds

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

Pinch of sea salt

Melted chocolate or carob for coating (optional)

Shredded unsweetened coconut for coating (optional)

Put the walnuts in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade attachment and pulse until chopped to a texture resembling very coarse breadcrumbs. Set aside in a medium bowl.

Return the food processor bowl to the machine, fit with the metal blade attachment, and add the raisins, dates, apricots, and cranberries, pulsing until coarsely chopped. You don’t want the mixture to become a paste; chopped bits are best. Transfer the mixture to the bowl of walnuts.

To the nuts and fruit, add the almond butter, coconut, carob powder, cereal, syrup, sesame seeds, cinnamon, and salt. Using a rubber spatula or your hands, fold the ingredients together until well combined. The mixture will be quite thick.

Using a tablespoon or a good quality, sturdy metal scoop (I like one that holds about 2 teaspoons), shape the mixture into about 32 rounds and then roll into balls. The rounds can be served immediately or stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 10 days.

If you wish to coat the rounds with melted chocolate (or carob) and coconut, chill the rounds until firm. Drop into melted chocolate and then roll in coconut. Set aside at room temperature or in the refrigerator until set. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 10 days.

Chou-Chou Granola Bars

Granola bars are perfect for dessert or snacking any time of day.

Granola bars are perfect for dessert or snacking any time of day.

Here is a nourishing but sweet treat to celebrate the first weekend of spring, as well as the launching of my new confections company, Chou-Chou. Pronounced “shoo-shoo,” the term is not only French for sweet little thing, but it is also my son’s nickname. These granola bars are sure to become a signature item in my line-up of goodies—some purely sweet and decadent, and others based on healthful whole foods, such as my Dried Fruit and Nut Squares (published below).

These bars contain a goodly amount of flavorful and healthy ingredients, but they come together quickly and easily. After a relatively short time in the oven and a cooling rest, they cut nicely into semi-soft bars that satisfy a sweet tooth, as well as an empty tummy rumbling for a “good-for-you” snack.

Makes eighteen 1 ½-by-3-inch bars

2 cups rolled oats

½ cup slivered blanched almonds

½ cup raw pumpkin seeds

½ cup unsweetened shredded coconut

1/3 cup raw sesame seeds

½ teaspoon sea salt

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ cup golden flax seeds

1/3 cup toasted wheat germ (optional)

About 1 ½ cups chopped dried fruit, such as pitted dates, stemmed figs, cranberries, cherries, raisins, golden raisins

2 tablespoons canola oil

1/3 cup maple syrup

1/3 cup molasses

¼ cup packed dark brown sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

Stir together the oats, almonds, pumpkin seeds, coconut, sesame seeds, salt, and cinnamon on the prepared baking sheet. Bake until just fragrant and beginning to color lightly, about 10 minutes.

Remove from the oven and transfer to a large bowl. Stir in the flax seeds, wheat germ, if using, and the dried fruit.

Reduce the oven temperature to 300. Line a 9-by-2-inch square baking pan with 2 sheets of parchment paper, long enough to drape over the edges by about 1 inch. Hold the paper in place over the edges with small binder clips.

Stir together the canola oil, maple syrup, molasses, and brown sugar in a small saucepan and bring just to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla.

Pour the hot syrup over the oats mixture and stir to coat evenly. Pour into the prepared baking pan and, using the back of a damp spoon or damp fingers, press into the pan until flat and firm.

Bake until the granola is golden brown and fragrant, 20 to 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and set on a wire rack to cool completely in the pan, at least 3 hours or overnight.

To cut the granola bars, remove the binder clips from the pan and hold onto the parchment paper to lift out the entire square of granola. Using a large chef’s knife, cut into 18 even rectangles. Store the bars in an airtight container, separated by small sheets of parchment paper, or in re-sealable bags at room temperature for up to 5 days or in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.

Super-Big Chocolate Chip Cookie

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It’s not everyday that you need a recipe for an extra-large celebratory chocolate chip cookie, but when you do, I think this one will suit you quite well. A slight variation of my favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe, this dough is sweetened with both dark brown and granulated sugars, generously perfumed with vanilla extract, given additional structure and body with extra-large (rather than the traditional large) eggs, and packed with the best quality chopped semisweet chocolate or chocolate chips you can find.

Despite the grand size of this confection, this recipe is really quite simple and quick to prepare. The finished 1-inch-high cookie is dense and moist (but not gooey) and keeps well at room temperature wrapped tightly in plastic wrap or in the freezer.

Decorate with royal icing or rolled fondant to make this giant treat even more fun.

Makes one 14-inch cookie

2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature

1 cup packed dark brown sugar

3/4 cup granulated sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 extra-large eggs

3 ½ to 4 cups chopped semisweet chocolate or chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and arrange the rack in middle position in the oven. Butter a 14-by-2-inch cake pan, line the bottom with parchment, butter again, and lightly dust with flour.

Whisk together the flour, baking soda, and sea salt in a medium bowl. Combine the butter, sugars, and vanilla extract in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium-high speed until light and fluffy. Drop in the eggs and beat until incorporated. Reduce the mixing speed to low and gradually add the flour mixture, beating until it is nearly all incorporated. Add the chocolate and mix just until the pieces are evenly distributed.

Spread the dough evenly in the prepared pan (using a the back of a damp spoon or small offset spatula) and bake until the cookie is puffed, golden brown, and fragrant, 40 to 45 minutes. Set on a wire rack to cool in the pan for about 15 minutes.

Run a paring knife around the edges to loosen the cookie from the pan. Set a 14-inch round cardboard cake board on top of the cookie and invert onto the board. Lift off the pan and, using another cake board, invert the cookie once again so it cools completely right side up.

Wrap well in plastic wrap and store at room temperature for up to 4 days or in the freezer for up to 1 month.

“Think Spring!” Sugar Cookies

Sugar cookies for Kate's 6th birthday party

Sugar cookies for Kate’s 6th birthday party

Here is another way to decorate my favorite sugar cookies. With yet another blizzard raging outside at the moment, it only seems fitting to put our minds and rolling pins to pretty colorful spring-like confections. I served these particular little cuties just last weekend as favors at Kate’s 6th birthday party.

This is such a useful cookie recipe to keep in your repertoire. After you have prepared and chilled the dough, you can cut and freeze the cookies for up to 1 month, baking them from frozen, or bake them first and then freeze them, again for about the same amount of time.

Although I regularly decorate my cutout cookies with colorful royal icing, I have become quite a fan of rolled fondant. The varieties on the shelves these days in craft and specialty baking stores are better than ever—smooth, easy to work with, and available in a wide variety of colors. Of course, you can simply tint plain white fondant, too, using food color paste.

To adhere cutout fondant pieces to the cookies, brush lightly with water or a combination of water and light corn syrup and press gently onto the cookies. If you wish to do so, you can also go a bit further as I have done here, and add additional elements such as royal icing letters, dots, and flowers.

These cookies will keep fresh in airtight bags at room temperature for up to two weeks.

About 30 three-inch cookies

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon sea salt

Pinch of baking powder

1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 cup sugar

1 large egg

1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract

Rolled fondant

Royal icing

Royal icing flowers (available in craft stores or prepare your own)

Whisk together the flour, salt, and baking powder in a medium bowl.

Put the butter in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and begin beating on medium speed. Add the sugar and beat until the mixture is very light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.

Drop in the egg and add the vanilla and mix just until incorporated. Gradually spoon in the flour, mixing on medium-low speed, just until the dough comes together.

Transfer the dough to a large sheet of plastic wrap, bring together to form a disc, and wrap well. Set in the refrigerator to chill and rest, at least 2 hours or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line large baking sheets with parchment paper.

Using about half of the dough at a time, roll on a lightly floured work surface to about ¼ inch thick. Cut into desired shapes and arrange about 1 ½ inches apart on the prepared baking sheets. Set in the refrigerator to chill until firm, at least 20 minutes. (The cutouts can also be arranged on a plastic wrap-lined board or baking sheet, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap, and frozen for up to 1 month. When ready to bake, arrange the frozen cutouts on parchment-lined baking sheets and bake as directed below.)

Bake the cookies (depending on the size) until light golden brown and fragrant, about 10 minutes. Transfer the cookies to wire racks to cool on the baking sheets for several minutes before transferring them to the racks to cool completely.

To make the fondant cutouts, line a flat board or baking sheet with parchment paper. Lightly dust a flat work surface with confectioners’ sugar. Using about a palm-size piece of fondant at a time, roll to about 1/16 inch thick. Cut out desired shapes (I use the same size cutter I use for the cookies) and set on the prepared board or baking sheet. You can use them immediately or when they’ve dried a bit. I suggest not waiting too long, though, as it is more challenging to adhere firm fondant to the cookies than when it is pliable.

Decorate further with royal icing and icing flowers, if desired, and set to dry for at least 4 hours or overnight.

Cream Scones

Cream scones with currants and cinnamon sugar at Kate's first Irish dance recital.

Cream scones with currants and cinnamon sugar at Kate’s first Irish dance recital.

March calls for a traditional scone recipe, bedecked as is Irish tradition, with dried currants, or sprinkled with fragrant cinnamon sugar. This recipe celebrates both preparations. Add more currants, if you want all of the dough speckled with the dried fruit, or none at all if that is your penchant. Simply brush with cream and sprinkle with coarse sugar for a plain but delightful treat, or cover all of the wedges with a coating of sweet cinnamon sugar.

The key to successful scones is to use very cold (nearly frozen) unsalted butter, cold cream and buttermilk, and to work quickly when bringing the dough together and cutting it on your work surface. This is a fairly damp dough, so don’t be afraid to use flour liberally to assist you.

These scones are satisfyingly, but not too, sweet and rise beautifully thanks to the generous amount of baking powder. Perfect for breakfast or an afternoon treat, they are sure to bring a little brightness to the cold, gray days of March.

Makes about 24

½ cup currants (optional)

3 cups all-purpose flour

½ cup sugar

1 tablespoon plus 1 heaping teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon sea salt

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled in the freezer until firm and cut into about ½-inch pieces

1 cup heavy whipping cream, chilled, plus more for brushing

½ cup buttermilk, chilled

Coarse sugar for sprinkling

Cinnamon sugar (prepared with raw sugar and ground cinnamon)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Arrange the racks in the middle and upper third of the oven. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper.

If using the currants, put them in a small saucepan, cover with water, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Simmer for several minutes, drain, and set aside to cool completely.

Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade attachment and pulse several times. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. While continuing to pulse, drizzle in the cream and buttermilk, processing just until the dough comes together.

Scrape half of the dough onto a well-floured work surface and, working quickly, incorporate the cooled currants. Shape into a disc, about ¾ inch high, and cut into 12 wedges. Arrange on 1 of the prepared baking sheets about 2 inches apart, brush with cream, and sprinkle with coarse sugar.

Shaping the remaining dough in the same manner, arrange the wedges on the second baking sheet, brush with cream, and sprinkle liberally with cinnamon sugar.

Bake the scones for about 8 minutes. Shift the positions of the baking sheets and bake until the scones have risen, are fragrant, and are golden brown, about 8 minutes more.

Set the scones aside on wire racks to cool on the baking sheets for about 3 minutes before transferring them to the racks cool for several more minutes or completely.

Serve warm or at room temperature. Store in airtight containers at room temperature for up to 3 days.

Dried Fruit and Nut Squares

Dried Fruit-and-Nut Squares

Dried Fruit and Nut Squares

These comfortingly sweet confections certainly seem like special treats, but they are, in fact, satisfying and nourishing as well. Prepared with organic dried fruit and nuts and gently spiced with warming ground cinnamon and ginger, they are the perfect snack, treat, or mini dessert.

I use silicone molds here, as they make removing the squares incredibly easy and foolproof. If you don’t have such molds, though, line a mini muffin pan (one with at least 16 cups) with plastic wrap before pressing the sticky mixture into them. Simply using a nonstick pan could work, as well.

Makes 16

½ cup packed pitted dates

½ cup packed stemmed and roughly chopped dried Calimyrna figs

1 cup packed dried apples

1 cup walnuts

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground ginger

Generous pinch of freshly ground nutmeg

Pinch of sea salt

Combine all of the ingredients in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade attachment. Process until the mixture forms a coarse paste that holds together when you squeeze a bit in your hand.

Press into silicone molds or mini-muffin pans. (Each cup in the mini molds I use holds about a generous tablespoon of the mixture.) Cover with a sheet of plastic wrap and set in the refrigerator to chill for at least 1 hour.

Lift each piece out of the mold and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.

J’s Birthday Croquembouche

Birthday Croquembouche

Birthday Croquembouche

Recently, when I needed to prepare a particularly special birthday dessert, this elaborate confection came to mind and I decided I simply had to master it. It had been at least 20 years since I learned the technique in culinary school, but I figured it was an endeavor worth tackling. And it was.

This French confection, translated as “crisp in the mouth,” is literally a pyramid of profiteroles (custard- or cream-filled cream puffs prepared with traditional choux paste, a.k.a. pate a choux), dipped in and assembled with hot caramel, and then draped in delicate swags of caramel or wispy buntings of spun sugar.

There are many good recipes available on-line and in pastry cookbooks for all of the components: pate a choux, pastry cream, and caramel. I have decided to formally share the recipe I used for the cream puffs, based in part on one of Martha Stewart’s recipes. You can pipe the puffs as large as you desire, although I prefer petite puffs, as they are the proper proportion to prettily cover a 10- or 12-inch Styrofoam cone (available in the flower section of most craft stores).

As for the filling, use your favorite pastry cream or even whipped cream or buttercream. For about 45 puffs (enough to cover a moderate-size cone), you will need about 2 ½ cups of filling. Fill all the puffs (piping into the flat sides) before preparing the caramel.

To make the caramel, simply stir together 2 cups of sugar, ¾ cup of water, and 2 tablespoons of light corn syrup in a medium straight-sided saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium low, refrain from stirring further, and cover, simmering for about 3 minutes. Uncover and, again without stirring, cook until the caramel is light amber in color. Remove from the stove and set the pan briefly in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Place the pan on a kitchen towel or heatproof surface while assembling the pyramid.

To assemble the croquembouche, I covered the cone and a round base with gold cellophane paper (yes, it actually withstands the heat of the caramel). Carefully dip the piped sides of the puffs into the caramel and beginning at the base, arrange them around the cone. Continue until the cone is completely covered.

For a final flourish, dip a fork in the caramel and swirl thin strands around the croquembouche, cloaking it in elegant golden swags. Reheat the caramel as needed if it becomes too thick as it cools.

Cream Puffs

Makes about 65

1 ½ sticks unsalted butter

1 ½ cups water

Generous ¼ teaspoon sea salt

1 tablespoon sugar

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

6 large or extra-large eggs at room temperature

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line 3 large rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.

Melt together the butter, water, salt, and sugar in a medium straight-sided saucepan over medium-low heat. Remove from the heat and stir in the flour. Set over low heat and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until the mixture forms a firm paste and possibly leaves a film on the bottom of the pan, about 2 minutes. Transfer to the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and begin mixing on medium-high speed. Drop in the eggs, one at a time, beating each time until the batter is smooth.

Fit a pastry bag with a round tip about 1/2 inch in diameter (I use the Ateco no. 6 round tip) and fill about half-full with the batter. Pipe rounds about 1 inch in diameter and 1 ½ inches apart onto the prepared baking sheets. Using a wet finger or pastry brush, tap down the points on the tops of the discs.

Bake until the puffs have risen and are light golden brown, about 20 minutes. If baking multiple pans, you might want to reposition them halfway through baking to ensure they bake evenly. (If you don’t have enough racks in your oven, you can set the prepared baking sheet of raw dough rounds aside until the oven is free.) Pierce each puff gently with a skewer and return to the oven to bake for another 7 to 10 minutes (this will help the puffs dry out completely).

Remove from the oven and transfer the puffs to wire racks to cool completely. Use immediately or store in freezer-safe airtight bags for about 2 months. To use, thaw in the refrigerator and crisp briefly on a parchment-lined baking sheet in a 350-degree oven for several minutes.