Category Archives: holiday

Pumpkin Cheesecake Sopapilla Bars

Merry Christmas everyone! Wouldn’t you know it, it’s Christmas Day and here I am trying to make a post about a pumpkin-themed dessert bar from before Thanksgiving :) Better late than never though, right? I have been traveling a lot for residency interviews these past couple of months, so it has been impossible to sit down and make a post with all my pictures. At some point, I was told that we (the interviewees) were flying around like lost planets in space, and I thought that phrase captured the circumstances quite well! Indeed, at some point, having been in three different time zones and 2 different coasts in the span of 3 days, my internal clock was completely out of whack and I only ever knew to do whatever the time on my watch dictated I should probably do. It’s been an experience! But one that I have thoroughly enjoyed for the number of new friends I have made and future colleagues I have met during these trips. Like the excitement of starting college and medical school, there comes an excitement of starting residency where I will have yet another opportunity to meet new people and bond over our unique experiences together. Most folks only get to do this once for college; I feel extremely privileged to be able to do it three times :)

Pumpkin cheesecake sopapilla bars

So back to the pumpkin bar! One of my favorite flavors of the fall season is pumpkin. I look forward to it as the leaves start to turn color in early October, and when the cans of pumpkin start to go on sale in the grocery stores, I know it is time to break out the pumpkin themed desserts. Sure there is always pumpkin pie and pumpkin bread, but I am perpetually looking for different and unique ideas that incorporate pumpkin. This year I saw a post on Willow Bird Baking about pumpkin cheesecake sopapilla bars, and it piqued my interested because of how it combined two things I love (pumpkin cheesecake and sopapillas [a Mexican crispy fried dough topped with cinnamon sugar and honey]), and how it was sinfully easy to make (you cheat by using cans of crescent roll dough). You layer the dough on the bottom of the cheesecake to serve as a crust, and then you layer it on top of the cheesecake to bake into a “sopapilla” topped with cinnamon sugar for a crunch. Sure, it is neither cheesecake nor sopapilla in their true forms, but as my friend put it… the bars tasted like a cross between pumpkin pie and churros. Now that’s a lot of fun in a simple bar!

Pumpkin cheesecake sopapilla bars



Pumpkin Cheesecake Sopapilla Bars (makes half a 9×13″ pan, or approx 9 bars)

Recipe slightly adapted from Willow Bird Baking

Ingredients:

For the bars:

  • 1 can crescent roll dough (I used reduced fat)
  • 1 package (8 oz.) of cream cheese (I used light/Neufchatel), at room temperature
  • 1 cup of canned pumpkin
  • 3/8 cup granulated sugar (measure out 1/4 cup and then add another half of a 1/4 cup to it)
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp pumpkin pie spice
  • Pinch of salt

For the topping:

  • 3 tbsp butter, melted
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp pumpkin pie spice
  • Honey (for drizzling on top when serving)

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease your 9×13″ pan (or you may use 8×8″).

2. Open and unroll crescent roll dough, divide into two halves. Press half the dough into the bottom of your pan to cover half of the 9×13″ pan – you may have to press to thin out the dough a bit. Don’t worry about sealing the edges of the triangles together.

3. Take the rest of the crescent roll dough and press it out over a piece of plastic saran wrap, until it is approximately the same size as the piece in the pan. (You may find it useful to lift your second piece of dough with the saran wrap and gently lay it over the first piece in the pan to compare the size). Try to pinch the edges of the triangles together on this piece so that the top layer of dough will be evenly sealed. Set the second dough aside.

4. Make a small divider from aluminum foil, doubled over, and set it along the edge of the dough to help contain the bars to one side of the pan. Tuck the bottom of the foil just underneath the dough to keep it secure.

Bottom layer of dough with foil divider

5. In a bowl, beat cream cheese and sugar together until fluffy. Add pumpkin, cinnamon, pumpkin pie spice, and salt. Stir well to combine.

Pumpkin cream cheese filling

5. Carefully spread pumpkin cream cheese mixture over the layer of dough in the pan.

6. Using the saran wrap, flip the second piece of dough over and lay it gently across the top of the pumpkin layer. Don’t worry if it doesn’t lie perfectly flat, just try to keep the seams closed. Peel off the saran wrap.

Top layer of dough is placed

7. Pour the melted butter gently over the top of the second dough layer. Stir together the sugar, cinnamon, and pumpkin pie spice for the topping. Sprinkle evenly over the tops of the bars.

Cinnamon sugar topping

8. Bake for 30 minutes or until tops are golden brown. The cinnamon sugar on top will be liquid. Remove from oven and cool completely in pan. The cinnamon sugar topping will set up nicely as a crust.

Sopapilla bars finished baking

To serve: You may refrigerate the bars and serve them cold or warmed slightly in the microwave. I like to give a light drizzle of honey over the tops of the bars and add a dallop of whipped cream sprinkled with pumpkin pie spice to garnish. I think the bars would be fantastic with some vanilla ice cream as well :) Enjoy!

Pumpkin cheesecake sopapilla bars

Bonus fun facts: While I was on the interviewing trail, many interviewers asked me about my food blog, as it was something that I put on my application under “hobbies”. They often asked me how time-consuming it is to make the food, do the food photography, and then write the post. I would say that making the food and writing the post is the least time-consuming part. The food photography is what takes time to set up and do. For those of you that are curious, for this recipe, I took a total of 112 pictures from which I selected the above photos to post. I’ve had upwards of 200+ pictures for a particular recipe, and as few as 10-20 pictures if I don’t photograph the process.  Many people like to spend time editing their photos with software afterwards, but that takes even more time and you can edit photos endlessly to suit your tastes, so I don’t go down that route very often unless my pictures were taken in poor lighting. Anyway, just to help you put it in perspective if you’ve ever wondered :) Happy holidays!

Pumpkin cheesecake sopapilla bars

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Ultimate Carrot Cake With Cream Cheese Frosting (Lightened)

Crisp fall weather has set in for good, and Halloween has passed, which means a fast-paced few weeks until that amazing celebration of all things delicious, Thanksgiving. This year, I am extra excited for Thanksgiving, because not only will I get the chance to see my family for the first time since June, but I will also get to see my boyfriend at the same time because he’s flying out to Massachusetts to spend the holiday weekend us! The past two Thanksgivings that I’ve had since starting medical school have been away from home, so I really miss being home with my family and being able to help make Thanksgiving dinner. Just three more weeks, I can’t wait!

A slice of heaven

Whenever I think of fall, Thanksgiving, winter and Christmas all rolled into one nook of the year that I simply consider “the holidays”, the warm spicy aroma of cinnamon is the scent that defines it best for me. It is no surprise then, that the end of the year always feels like the right time to make a big bountiful carrot cake from scratch to share with family and friends. I still remember the first time I was introduced to carrot cake, baked by a beloved woman whose name is also Lucy. We fondly call her “old Lucy”, which is “老Lucy” in Chinese, (versus myself as little Lucy/小Lucy) to differentiate the two of us. Although she is my friend’s grandmother, she is just like another grandmother to me, she watched me grow up and always supported me in my endeavors. She was the first Asian woman that I had ever met in my young life who could bake Western style cakes, since she worked as a housekeeper for a Jewish family at the time. Looking back on it, I really was very impressed by her ability to bake, and unconsciously her skill was probably one that I aspired to. I remember being incredulous as a kid, resisting the suggestion to try this carrot cake, and ultimately realizing that it tasted nothing like carrots at all. In fact, I always remembered it being one of the most moist cakes I had ever tried, no doubt owing to the insane amount of oil used in making carrot cake ;)

In any case, last year I was home visiting the family when I decided that it was finally time for me to tackle my own decadent carrot cake. I’ve made some simple recipes that turned out so-so carrot cake. Especially those “light” carrot cakes that end up tasting more like cardboard than anything else. But this time, I really wanted it to be the irresistible kind you see in a big glass cake stand in the cozy neighborhood bakery, the kind of carrot cake where you just have to get a slice because it practically literally has your name on it. You know who I turn to when I want the best, most indulgent recipes? America’s Test Kitchen. Maybe it’s my Massachusetts hometown bias, since they are based in Newton, MA after all, but I just love how meticulous and well-tested their recipes are. The recipes are shared in their Cooks Illustrated magazine on a regular basis. I found the Cook’s Illustrated recipe for carrot cake with cream cheese frosting, as well as one for a lightened version also done by them, and I proceeded to tinker a little with them to find a happy medium between the two, which I call the Ultimate Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting (Lightened). You see, it tastes exactly like an indulgent slice of full-fat carrot cake, but it actually is lightened to some degree, and that’s why “lightened” is only carried in parentheses :P Needless to say, carrot cake isn’t diet food, no matter how many carrots you stick in there. But if you want to make a beautiful, moist cake that will be perfect for the holidays and is sure to please, you just can’t go wrong. Don’t let the long ingredient list scare you, this is the ultimate carrot cake we’re talking about, remember? All this good stuff in it is what makes the cake so darned amazing. And pretty please, make it as a two-layer round cake, because it looks that much more incredible (especially if your decorating skills are good, unlike mine heh). Also, the picture below was taken using my dad’s DSLR… I asked him to focus on the tip of the pirouette, and realized later that the front of the cake was out of focus, oops. Still learning!

Ultimate carrot cake with cream cheese frosting


Ultimate Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting (Lightened) (makes one 2-layered 9″ cake, serves 8-12)

Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated original and light recipes, shared on Sunday Nite Dinner.

Ingredients:

For the cake:

  • 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg (optional, as I didn’t have any on hand)
  • 1 cup granulated white sugar
  • 1 cup light brown sugar, packed
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 cups carrots (approx 5 medium carrots), peeled and shredded
  • 8 oz. crushed pineapple, drained
  • 2 handfuls of sweetened flaked coconut
  • 1/3 cup golden raisins
  • 1/4 cup chopped walnuts

For the frosting: (you may want to make more frosting, as this amt is not enough to cover the entire cake, only top and middle)

  • 8 oz. light cream cheese, softened
  • 3 tbsp butter, softened
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1 1/3 cup (6 oz.) confectioner’s sugar

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease two 9-inch round baking pans (or a single 9×13 pan) with vegetable oil. Line bottom of pan with parchment and brush oil on top.

2. In a bowl, stir together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg; set aside.

3. In a separate large bowl, beat eggs, vanilla, granulated and brown sugars on medium-high with an electric beater until thoroughly combined, about 45 seconds. Reduce speed to low; with mixer running, add oil in a slow, steady stream. Increase speed to high and mix until mixture is light in color and well emulsified, about 45 to 60 seconds longer.

4. Turn off beaters, and using a spatula, fold in the flour mixture into the wet batter until just combined (do not over-stir). Towards the end, stir in the carrots, pineapple, coconut, raisins, and walnuts until mixed in.

5. Pour into cake pan and bake until toothpick or skewer inserted into center of cake comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. On a wire rack, cool cake to room temperature in pan, about 1  hour.

6. For the frosting, mix cream cheese, butter, and vanilla in a large bowl at medium high speed with electric beater until well combined, about 30 seconds, scraping down bowl with rubber spatula as needed. Add confectioners’ sugar and mix until very fluffy, about 1 minute.

7. Run paring knife around edge of cakes to loosen from pan. Invert cakes onto wire rack, peel off parchment, then invert again onto serving platter. Frost cake layers as desired (note the amount of frosting called for above is enough to frost just the top and middle of a 2-layer cake; I would double the frosting recipe if you intend to cover the entire cake).

Ultimate carrot cake with cream cheese frosting

Enjoy this ultimate carrot cake with a warm mug of spicy tea (or with a tall glass of milk at midnight if that is your style). The cake layers are moist and fluffy, with an abundance of flavor in each bite being contributed by the carrots, coconut, pineapple, raisins, and walnuts (you can see the ingredients right in the cake in the above picture!) And the cream cheese frosting is amazing… lightened up by quite a bit so that it is not cloying, and instead maintains the wonderful tang of cream cheese with a sweetness that complements the cake such that you’ll want some in each forkful. Dust on some cocoa or cinnamon on top and decorate with some whole walnuts for a nice fall look, and you can even throw on a chocolate pirouette for contrast like I did, or a cinnamon stick would work too. Some flaked coconut would be nice too for winter especially if you decide to frost the sides. Yummm…


Hidden surprise heart cake!

Have I got your attention yet? :P I hope you all had a nice Valentine’s Day weekend! It also happened to be Chinese New Year on the same day as Vday, which is pretty rare. My mom called me and informed me that the next time Chinese New Year falls exactly on Vday will be in another 38 years, at which point I thought about how hugely different life will be 38 years later… Anyway, I visited my boyfriend in California this past week to celebrate Vday with him and to take a little breather after finishing a rough block of med school classes just now. We had a lovely time extending Valentine’s Day into a 3-day weekend of fun, which included lots of yummy food, of course! Since no Vday is ever complete without some baking, yours truly of course had plans to spoil her beloved. Turns out, he surprised me first, with a Baker’s Edge brownie edge pan for a present! He knows how much I absolutely adore brownie edge pieces, so I am a very happy girl indeed :)

Well, not to be outdone, I had my own ambitious project up my sleeve. Just the week before, I saw the most awesome heart cake tutorial on I Am Baker, and just knew that I had to try something that epic. It’s a cake with a hidden red heart on the inside! All the way through the cake! I was just so smitten with the idea of this cake, and my Valentine’s Day visit to see my boyfriend was going to be the perfect time to try it. My gears turned and I started planning to make a much smaller version of the cake since it was just going to be the two of us eating it. I decided that a 4″ diameter cake would be just the right size for two, and secretly purchased a 4″ diameter tall souffle ramekin to bake the cake layers (I think it was a 10 oz. ramekin). I wanted this to be a complete surprise, so I divided the task into two separate days. The first day I baked the cake layers while he was at work and then froze them overnight. I made the frosting and assembled everything the next afternoon while I kept him out of the kitchen. And finally after about 6 hours of total time baking and tinkering, it was done!!! And I rushed to bring him out so I could show him. Boy was he in for a surprise ;) At first… it just looked like a small and unsuspecting cake… which he really enjoyed the decoration of. It was my very first time decorating a cake with buttercream, and also my first time with a 4-layer cake. Daunting! I didn’t do a very good job with it, but I still had a lot of fun!

I eagerly encouraged him to cut into the cake so that he could see what surprise was in store for him inside. Not only did I want to show him, I really wanted to see for myself! This is one of those cakes where you spent all this time putting it together but have no idea how it’s going to look at the end until it’s cut open, so I was definitely pretty anxious. I was keeping my fingers crossed that it would at least look presentable, and I figured I could blame it on being my first attempt if it really bombed :P And so he cut out a first slice and saw the curious looking red center on his slice, but was not sure what it was supposed to be…

And then he cut out another slice for me and peeked into the center of the cake, and there it was! A pretty red heart going all the way through the center of the cake! I was so happy to see that it came out so nicely, and he was totally floored, though he had no idea how I did it. Whew, huge breath of relief! In hindsight, although I was worried when I made the cake, it was not actually that difficult to put together. I think the frosting was the part I had the most trouble with actually, and that’s only because I’ve never frosted with buttercream before and my recipe was a bit more runny than ideal for frosting because I didn’t want to make it too sweet. The cake itself was really very delicious, just the right amount of sweet to cure a sweet tooth and the aroma of vanilla was so lovely, it actually tasted kind of like a sugar cookie in cake form, sooo good. I used Magnolia Bakery’s famous recipe for their vanilla birthday cake/cupcakes and vanilla buttercream frosting, halving both recipes so that it was just the right amount for my 4″ cake. I did not have the ingredients on hand for the red velvet cake that the original cake tutorial called for, so I just set aside some of my vanilla cake batter and dyed it red to bake separately as a few cupcakes, which worked out perfectly as a shortcut. I made some alterations to the recipe itself which is specified below in my recipe. I really hope you’ll give this gem of a cake a try! It was so much fun for me and I felt really very accomplished when it came together in the end. And really, what a nice Valentine’s Day treat :)

Hidden Surprise Heart Cake (4″ cake – serves 2-4) Recipe adapted from Recipezaar.com
Assembly tutorial adapted from I Am Baker

Ingredients:

Cake:
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar (I eyeballed for slightly under 1 cup because I didn’t want my cake too sweet)
2 eggs, at room temp
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour (recipe calls for mix of AP and self-rising flour, but I did a substitution)
1 tsp baking powder (just a tiny smidge under 1 tsp is ideal)
pinch of salt
1/2 cup milk
1/2 tsp vanilla
approx 1/2 tsp red gel food coloring, adjust as needed

Buttercream Frosting:
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
3 cups confectioner’s sugar, adjust as needed
1/4 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla


Directions:

Baking the cake:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and lightly flour two 4″ souffle ramekins (10 oz. size). Cut out a circle of wax paper to line the bottoms of the ramekins for easy removal later. Also, line 3 cupcake tins with paper liners. I know, this already sounds complicated, don’t get discouraged!

2. In a mixing bowl, cream butter until smooth with an electric mixer on medium. Then gradually add in sugar and beat until fluffy, about 3 minutes.

3. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.

4. In a separate bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. Add the flour mixture to the egg mixture in 3 separate additions, alternating with the milk and vanilla. Beat until blended after each addition, but do not overbeat.

5. Separate out 1/3 of the batter and set aside. Using the remaining 2/3 of the batter, fill the two ramekins 2/3 – 3/4 of the way to the top, and begin baking in the oven. They will need at least 35 minutes to bake, start checking after 35 minutes using a toothpick inserted in the middle, they are done when the toothpicks come out clean (tops will probably be somewhat domed and cracked, but that’s fine).

6. Meanwhile, add the red gel food coloring to the 1/3 of the cake batter that you set aside. Add a little bit at a time and whisk the color in evenly until you get a nice bright pink/red color that you are satisfied with. If you choose to use liquid food coloring, I don’t know the exact proportions, but I believe 1/2 tsp of gel is equivalent to about 1 oz. of liquid, although it will interfere with the liquid proportions of the batter, so use at your own discretion.

7. Fill the 3 lined cupcake tins with the red batter (about 3/4 full) and bake in the same oven at 350 degrees F for about 20-22 minutes, until the tops spring back lightly when touched.

8. When cakes/cupcakes are done, remove from oven and let cool for 10 minutes in the pans before removing to cool on a rack.

9. When cakes are cool enough to handle, take a knife and trim off the domed/cracked tops of the cakes to flatten them (enjoy the incredibly delicious tops that you just cut off, it’s really very heavenly to munch on these scraps!). Then, split each cake horizontally in half to get 2 layers per cake. Allow layers to cool completely, then wrap each layer in saran wrap and put in the freezer overnight. For the cupcakes, peel off the paper liners and trim off the harder domed tops (but do not throw them away). Using your hands or a fork, break the cupcakes into crumbs. Seal the crumbs and the tops you cut off together in tupperware and leave on the counter overnight. The tops will soften and you’ll be able to break them into crumbs as well the next day.

Whew! Take a break! Enjoy your evening and come back for the fun stuff on day 2! :)

Making the Buttercream Frosting:
1. In a mixing bowl, place the softened butter and 2 cups of the confectioner’s sugar. Add the milk and vanilla, and beat until smooth and creamy.

2. Gradually add more confectioner’s sugar as needed to achieve a desired spreading consistency. I probably used about 3 cups of sugar total.

3. This frosting can be left at room temperature for up to 3 days, but do not refrigerate it before you use it or else it will set (although I found it sometimes useful to set it in the fridge for a little bit to firm it up before frosting, though that may be because my frosting was a little on the runny side due to my hesitation to add more sugar. The original recipe calls for up to 4 cups of sugar!)



Assembling the Cake:
now’s the interesting part, with more pictures too!

1. Take out your frozen cake layers and give them a trim to get them as flat as possible. I also stacked them on top of each other and trimmed around the edges to make sure they were more or less all the same size up and down.

2. Next, separate the 4 layers into 2 groups of 2 layers. Spread a layer of the white frosting between each of the 2 layers, to form two separate 2-layered cakes. The cold from the frozen cake should set the frosting very quickly and they will hold together well.

3. Now’s the trickiest part of the assembly. Take the first 2-layered cake, and make sure you have a way to identify it from the other one (I peeled off the outer browned cake layer from one of them so I could tell the difference). Make a little measuring tool using 2 toothpicks and a piece of string tied between them so that you can trace a circle around the inside of the cake (see I Am Baker’s example here). Now trace a circle on the surface of your cake, depending on how big you want your heart inside to be. This will be the widest part of your heart. After you trace the circle, use a knife and a slanted cutting motion, carve an upside-down cone shape out of your cake (this will be the bottom half of your heart), like thus:

4. Next, you’ll want to carve the top of the heart into the other 2-layer cake. To do so, again trace a circle with the toothpicks, trying to get as similar of a location as possible with the other 2 layers you just did. Taking your knife, now carve a small cylinder into the very center of the cake, but do not cut it out. Just carve a circle downwards into the cake. Next, using a similar slanted cutting motion, cut around the outer ring that you marked with your toothpick, trying to stop just at the cylinder that you carved in the center. Your goal is to make a channel around the cylinder.

5. After you’ve got the channel carved out, you can go back with a smaller knife and trim the center cylinder that is still standing so that it looks like a right-side up small cone. Make it as pointy as you can, as this will be the top dip of your heart shape, so a sharp point looks best. Then, using a small spoon, round out your channel around this central cone (imagine the rounded shape of the top half of a heart). This part takes some spatial imagination and I can’t tell you specifically how to do it perfectly, but I can show you my finished carving of the top half of the heart:

6. Whew! Flip the cakes over and dust out the crumbs for the best-looking appearance later. We’re not far from the finish line!

7. Now, add a few spoonfuls of your frosting to the red cake crumbs until they are nice and dense. If you’ve ever made cake balls before, the texture will be like that. I eyeballed about 1/2 cup of frosting for the red cake crumbs probably.

8. Now using a small spoon, carefully spoon your red cake into the carved out portions of your two cake halves. Press down gently to get it packed in, and only till each half so that it is level. Don’t forget to identify which half is which! When you assemble your cake together you don’t want an upside down heart… I did not use up all of my cake crumbs, which is okay. You can eat the rest :)

9. The original tutorial has you spreading a rim of frosting around the edge of the heart before putting together the two halves, but I omitted that because I was worried I might get it into the middle of the heart and look like my heart was being cut in half. I think it came out better without the center frosting in this layer, but perhaps the cake is more in danger of toppling over… haha. I didn’t have that problem though, it’s a small cake! Now just put the 2 cake halves together! Easy peasy! You can see my cake layers aren’t perfectly even and are missing a few bits here and there, but that’s okay, you won’t be able to tell later :)

10. Now all that’s left to do is to frost the cake! I added some blue gel food coloring to my frosting to get a light blue, since my boyfriend’s favorite color is blue. I set aside a few spoonfuls of the white frosting for piping on top later, and put that in the fridge to set a little. Then I applied a light coating of the blue frosting to the entire cake to seal off any crumbs (this is the crumb coat). I set the cake into the freezer for a few minutes just to let that set.

11. And then I just put on the rest of the frosting, playing around with it as I went since it was my first time working with buttercream. I put my cake back into the freezer multiple times just for a few minutes so that my frosting could set better and it was easier to layer on more frosting. While that was going on I also piped some melted chocolate onto wax paper in various shapes and put those in the freezer too for decorations. I cut up a fresh strawberry to fan out on the top of the cake as well (if you do this, do let the cut strawberry sit on a paper towel for a few minutes to make sure it does not leak juice onto the frosting). Finally, I crushed up some of my cake scraps into yellow crumbs and used that as sprinkled decorations around the bottom rim of the cake and a little on top! The chocolate decorations came out a little goofy because they melted when I touched them to adjust them. But here is the final product!!

This cake was so much fun to make and eat! I hope you enjoyed reading about the process, and get inspired to make something similar yourself :)

Christmas-themed mini black and white cookies

During winter break when I was thinking about what Christmas-y things I wanted to bake, a lot of things that came to mind had really nothing to do with the holiday. (Have I mentioned yet that I'm really slow to update btw?) But something that I really really wanted to make again were the black and white cookies that NYC is known for, because I just really adore them. Their soft cakey cookie topped with a sweet and mildly tart combination of vanilla lemon and chocolate icing that has a perfect little crunch when you bite into it. It's divine really, especially when fresh. I've made black and white cookies once before, in the traditional giant cookie size. But for Christmas, I thought I would switch it up a little with mini cookies, sprinkled with Christmas colored sugars on the white side to jazz it up with some holiday spirit! I also decided to give a different frosting recipe a go, which turned out much better than the first recipe, in my opinion. These disappeared fast… I think their small size makes them really tempting to reach for whenever someone passes by the platter in the kitchen :P Anyway, with these cookies you can substitute any type of colored sugar for various holidays (pastels for Easter anyone??), or leave them naked for any occasion.

Mini Black & White Cookies  (makes about 50)                                recipe from Epicurious

Ingredients:

Cookie base
1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 cup buttermilk (substitute with 1/3 cup milk + 1/3 tbsp white vinegar or lemon juice, mixed and left alone for 5 min.)
1/2 tsp vanilla
7 tbsp unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 egg

Icings
2 3/4 cups confectioners sugar
2 tbsp light corn syrup
2 tsp fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp vanilla
4-6 tbsp water
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
colored sugar for decorating as desired

Directions:
1. Preheat oven to 350deg F. Grease baking sheet or line with foil.

2. Combine dry ingredients (flour, baking soda, and salt) in a bowl. Separately, mix together buttermilk and vanilla.

3. Beat butter and sugar in a bowl with an electric mixer on med-high until pale and fluffy (~3 mins). Add egg and beat until smooth. Reduce speed to low and add flour mixture and buttermilk mixture in alternating batches, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Mix just until smooth.

4. Drop batter by rounded teaspoonfuls, 1 inch apart onto baking sheets. Bake until tops are puffy and edges are a pale golden (cookies should spring back when touched, see picture below, in the back). About 6-8 minutes total. Transfer to cooling rack with the flat sides up, the bottoms will be a golden brown.

5. Meanwhile, make the icings. Start with the vanilla icing: stir together confectioners sugar, corn syrup, lemon juice, vanilla, and 2 tbsp of water in a small bowl until smooth. Add more water (1/2 tsp at a time) as needed until icing becomes a spreadable consistency.

6. (This departs from the original recipe, but trust me from experience, it makes sense). Transfer 1/3 of the vanilla icing to a second bowl, and stir in cocoa powder. Add more water, 1/2 tsp at a time, to reach the same consistency as the vanilla icing. Cover surfaces of icing with saran wrap if not using right away.

7. When cookies are cool, use a butter knife or small spatula to spread vanilla frosting on one half of all the cookies, on the flat side (that's right, the rounded dome side is the bottom of the cookie!). If you frost the rounded side by accident the frosting will just slide off. Sprinkle on colored sugar as desired. Set on wire rack to harden a bit.

8. Finally, frost the other halves of each cookie with chocolate icing and let set completely. Happy munching!


Apricot and pistachio rugelach

Yes, it's been half a year since my last update… medical school has been eating up all my time and not having my own kitchen nor my cooking and baking supplies is seriously hindering my ability to make things. I am loving it here in medical school though, so it's good that it's keeping me busy. I've learned so much in just the first semester of my first year… and even though I don't feel even remotely close to being competent enough to take care of anyone yet, I can definitely see myself getting better and better as I learn more things each day. It's an amazing and exciting feeling.

Unfortunately, living in a dorm again and sharing a kitchen between 2 floors is not very convenient, so I've been more or less cooking my meals in the comfort of my own room by using my rice cooker, steamer tray, and microwave, as well as raw foods to get in all the necessary food groups. It's pretty healthy, but I sure miss the creativity of cooking on my own. Luckily I had a chance over the last semester to form a "cooking club" with some of my classmates in the dorm, and we cooked a bunch of meals for each other about once or twice a week depending on our schedules, so it was good to have some homecooked food and mess around with new recipes together from time to time. I put up a blog to showcase some of our meals at http://www.olincookingclub.blogspot.com if you want to see them :)

I finally got a break over Christmas vacation to go home and enjoy the pleasures of having a kitchen and all the baking supplies I could want. I certainly didn't waste a minute! So the next few entries will be catching up on a few things I made for the holidays.

One pastry that I was introduced to in college was rugelach, a Jewish pastry that is similar to a cross between shortbread and croissant, with a filling that's usually fruit preserves and crushed nuts. Its cream cheese dough is buttery and has a hint of cream cheese flavor that gives it just the right amount of tartness. The textures and flavors all come together in a pastry that is neither too sweet nor too rich, which is really nice. I have had the Costco variety that is often spiraled with raspberry jam, apricot jam, or chocolate paste. For my first try at rugelach, I made it with apricots, pistachios, and a cinnamon sugar mixture, and it was absolutely delicious. The texture of the pastry is like that of a soft (but not chewy) cookie, and it's conveniently bite-sized so it's great for impressing at parties. I made some over Christmas break to give to a friend recovering from open hip surgery, and he loved them! The dough can easily be frozen and stored for later (I baked some from a frozen batch to bring to my boyfriend in California the following week and he also loved them :) The hardest part is rolling out the dough and making the crescent shaped cookies ready to bake, but it is well worth the effort!

Rugelach with Apricot and Pistachio Filling   (makes 4 dozen)      
adapted from Barefoot Contessa and Diana's Desserts

Ingredients:

Dough:
8 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 lb. butter (2 sticks), at room temperature
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups flour

Filling:
6 tbsp granulated sugar
1/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 cup shelled unsalted pistachios, finely chopped
1 1/2 cup dried apricots, cut into halves
1 cup water
1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon milk, for egg wash

Directions:
1. In a large bowl, cream together softened cream cheese and butter with electric beater until light and fluffy. Beat in the 1/4 cup sugar, salt, and vanilla.

2. Mix in flour on low speed until just combined. Take out dough onto a floured surface and roll into a ball. Cut into quarters and shape each quarter into a disc before wrapping in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

3. Meanwhile, prepare the apricot for the filling. In a small saucepan, combine dried apricots and water, on low heat. Stir ocassionally until all the liquid is absorbed, about 15 minutes. Cool briefly, then puree in a food processor until smooth.

4. In a separate bowl, combine the 6 tbsp of white sugar, the brown sugar, cinnamon, and chopped pistachios. Set aside 3 tsp of this mixture for later.

5. When the dough is chilled, remove one disc at a time and roll out into a circle on a well-floured surface or between 2 sheets of wax paper, until about 1/8" thick (approximately a 9-inch circle). Spread 1/4 of the apricot puree in a thin layer over the circle, leaving a 1/2" border on the edges. Sprinkle evenly with 1/4 of the sugar and nuts mixture. Gently press the nuts into the dough to help it stay. Your dough should look much like a pizza now :)

6. Using a pizza cutter or a knife, divide circle into 12 equal wedges. To help make them even, divide circle into quarters first, then divide each quarter into 3 wedges.

7. Gently remove one wedge at a time, using a spatula as necessary, and roll from the wide end towards the pointy end to make a pastry crescent. Set onto a baking sheet lined with a piece of parchment or wax paper, with the seam side down, 1 inch apart from one another. You can curve the points on either side to get a more cresent shape if you would like. Chill for 30 minutes on the baking sheet in a refrigerator.

 

8. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Brush each rugelach piece with the prepared eggwash, and sprinkle some additional sugar and nut mixture on top from the reserved portion.

9. Bake rugelach for about 15-20 minutes, until lightly golden brown. Let cool for 2 minutes on baking sheet, then carefully transfer over to a cooling rack, using a spatula to help as needed (the filling tends to bubble out and stick to the baking sheet, so do this before it cools and hardens).

10. Dust with confectioner's sugar if desired, or serve as is. Yum!

Making rugelach takes a little bit of effort, and seems confusing the first time around. But once you get the hang of it on the first disc of dough, the rest will fly by easier, I promise. I had a little cycling system going where I would prep the second disc of dough while the first batch of cookies were chilling in the refrigerator before baking. It works out better if you can have 2 or more baking sheets ready to use at a time, but I didn't, so I had to rotate using just 1 sheet, making it a bit more time-consuming (took me the better half of an afternoon). Definitely plan ahead, you can't rush making rugelach! You'll be glad you spent that time when you take your first bite… they are simply heavenly :)


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