Baking Epiphanies

Category: B.E. Sweet

Uncharacteristically Pink

Seriously folks, I have buttermilk fatigue.

But! I present to you Buttermilk Case Files No.2 (what was No.1?): Berry Glazed Buttermilk Cookies . Isn’t she pretty?

First though….I got totally distracted by a peanut butter chocolate filling that I made accidentally on purpose.

I thought I would sandwich these cookies with the filling. It didn’t work out. I know it looks like it might work out, but it won’t. Trust me. Don’t worry though, I have better plans for that filling.

But back to the beginning – first you make the dough. And then you take a picture of the scraped-out batter bowl because you can obviously never have enough pictures of scraped-out batter bowls. (I think I’m obsessed, but aren’t they beautiful in a forlorn sort of way?)

Then you gloat over the perfect even-sized rounds of dough you finally, finally, finally learned how to make. It’s taken….let’s just say it’s taken many bowls of dough and futzing around with tablespoon measures and spatulas.

Then, cookies! A tumble of them! Baking is magic!

Have to take that warm bite. You can also never have enough photos of half-bitten cookies.

Then – a pause. The chocolate filling didn’t work with these. So what next? The original recipe called for a buttermilk glaze. But since I just did a white icing on white cake a few days ago, I had to go for something different.

Then I had a brain-burp (slightly, but not much more elegant than a brain-fart), and thought Berry Glaze. Thawed frozen berry juice can be a real life saver. Don’t underestimate it.

I had much fun with my little piggy whisk because the glaze matched him so perfectly.

And he looks like maybe he wants to dive into that bowl of pink glaze (as would I)….

…..but is kind of petrified by it at the same time (I would be too).

Finally I let him off the hook and got busy glazing.

Totally imperfect glazing, but that’s alright.

The girly-girl in me was squee-ing  over the pretty pink. No food coloring in this, people. None.

Speaking of pretty in pink (and squeeing), this whole experience made me feel much girlier than I really am. These had me dreaming of matching pink tea sets and a feeling I should be wearing a tutu and ballerina slippers. And maybe inviting the whole cast of Glee over while I’m at it.

But luckily I got back to my senses by watching back-to-back episodes of Entourage instead and made a plan for the peanut butter chocolate filling I abandoned earlier.

This plan may or may not involve Pop Tarts. Stay tuned.

But for now….

Berry Glazed Buttermilk Cookies

Adapted from Gourmet

Because I originally wanted to pair these with chocolate, I left out the lemon zest that is in the original recipe. Internet research (my favorite kind) led me to Orangette’s post on these cookies, where she recommends halving the recipe and upping the lemon zest to a teaspoon. I would do the same. The lemon zest would compliment the berry glaze swimmingly. (Swimmingly is my new favorite word for pretending I’m British).

I happened to have thawed frozen berries in my fridge, but you can easily use a good berry juice, or thin out about a teaspoon of your favorite jam with a little water, vanilla extract or lemon juice. You basically need two teaspoons of berry juice/jam/liquid for a half cup of icing sugar.

Ingredients

Cookies

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon lemon zest

6 tablespoons butter, softened

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1 large egg, room temperature

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

1/3 cup buttermilk

Berry Glaze

2 teaspoons liquid from thawed frozen mixed berries

1/2 cup icing sugar

Method

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

Whisk the flour, baking soda, lemon zest and salt together in a medium bowl and set aside.

Using the paddle attachment on a stand mixer (or a handheld electric mixer), beat the butter and sugar on medium-low speed until pale and fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla and beat until well-incorporated.

With the mixer on low, add 1/3 of the flour and then1/2 of the buttermilk, beating just until the dough comes together each time. Repeat until all the flour is used up. You should have a smooth dough, but do not overmix.

Drop tablespoon-sized balls of dough onto the baking sheet about 1.5 inches apart. Bake for 12-15 minutes or until the edges are golden brown. Transfer to a wire rack. Cool completely before glazing.

To make the glaze, whisk the icing sugar together with the berry liquid until you have a smooth paste. Using a small spoon or spatula, glaze the cookies with about 1/2 a teaspoon of glaze per cookie.

Makes 24 squee-worthy cookies.

Buttermilk Case Files No. 1

Is buttermilk the most inconvenient ingredient on the planet or what? Every time I buy it, I use half a cup for the recipe I bought it for and then I’m stuck with the entire carton agonizing over what I should make to use up the rest of it before it goes bad.

I’ve perused buttermilk based salad dressings, buttermilk cornbread recipes, sometimes I’ll just marinate some chicken in it and call it a day. There is even a dish called buttermilk pie which would surely use up most of the container, but in a very “she’s obviously trying to use up her buttermilk” sort of way. So I’ve never actually tried the buttermilk pie out of shame.

Overall, buttermilk is a big nuisance in my baking life. The carton is too big and the expiration window is too short. They need to start selling this stuff in pints instead of quarts. I say we start a petition for the Re-packaging Of Buttermilk For The Sanity Of All Bakers.

Because otherwise, I’m just going to end up making biscuits. Again. This is not what I would call inspired baking. It’s just “using up the buttermilk” baking.

The buttermilk crisis does however provide a good opportunity to indulge my obsession with trying out many different recipes for the same basic dish. Like chocolate chip cookies,  fried chicken or mac n’ cheese – one recipe is never enough when it comes to biscuits. The addition of an egg in my last batch made light and airy biscuits, but they also had gobs of butter. This batch has no egg, only 4 tablespoons of butter and – here’s the real kicker, ready?

It uses a whole cup of buttermilk!

A whole cup! Is that a miracle or what? 4 tablespoons butter. 1 cup buttermilk. 8 large biscuits. That’s a dream recipe,  returning some much-needed buttermilk sanity to these parts.

That leaves me with about a cup of buttermilk leftover in that carton, and 3 days till it expires. I can deal with that.

Stay tuned for Buttermilk Case Files No. 2.

In the meantime….

Buttermilk Cheddar Paprika Drop Biscuits

Adapted from Martha Stewart

This recipe is a marriage of this and this. Both originally come from Martha Stewart. I liked the first recipe because of the buttermilk use-up, and I really like the flavorings of the second recipe – it has that sweet savory smoky thing going on with the balance of cheese, a slight touch of sugar and the smokiness from the paprika.

I can’t say I’m super happy with the ratios of the sweet to the savory – I would still play around with the sugar-to-salt ratio in this to achieve that perfect balance. But these were pretty darn close. Drop biscuits are also easier to deal with than the cut-out ones. Delicious with a stew, chili, scrambled eggs – or just plain if you’re a carbo-freak like me.

Ingredients

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

3/4 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons sugar

3/4 teaspoon smoked paprika (plus extra for dusting)

4 tablespoons (1/2 a stick) cold butter, cut into chunks

6 oz grated cheddar

1 cup buttermilk (!)

Method

Preheat the oven to 425. Prepare a baking sheet with parchment, or use non-stick.

Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, sugar and smoked paprika in a large bowl. Whisk and make sure everything is evenly incorporated. Rub in the butter with your fingertips until the flour resembles coarse meal. Stir in the cheese with a fork.

Pour the buttermilk into the flour and knead the dough (hands work best) until it comes together. You will have a sticky dough. If it feels dry, add a touch more buttermilk.

Drop the dough in mounds (I used a 1/3 cup measure) onto the baking sheet. Dust the tops with smoked paprika.

Bake for 15-20 minutes or until golden brown and gorgeously cheesy.

Makes 8 large buttermilk-laden biscuits.

Plain Vanilla

Once in a while you come across a cupcake that is so ordinary, so simple and yet so good that it just blows you away.

I can’t explain to you what this tastes like. But seeing as this is a food blog and I am trying to find my food writing voice it obviously behooves me to try.

Well here – it’s like how you imagine the first cake that was ever invented would taste, and how that baker – whoever he or she was – must have felt when they took that first bite. It tastes like the invention of cake, the cake of humble origins – and I’m talking metaphorically here, not factually. I’m sure there’s a Wikipedia article or something on the history of cake but what I’m trying to invoke is more the feeling than the fact.

It tastes like the cake you loved when your palate knew more innocent, unadulterated times. It has an old-fashioned, pleasingly eggy-vanilla scent that somehow reminds me of childhood. Simple, humble – it sits quietly and patiently on the kitchen table while you ooh and aah over all the fancy gourmet stuff you bought at the expensive patisserie. It knows, it knows – that you will ultimately return to its sweet, warm embrace.

What it won’t do is have your eyes rolling in the back of your head. It’s much too naive for that. I mean, you might ogle the hot models with their tanned six-packs but it’s the sweet pudgy-bellied soul mate who takes care of you when you’re sick that you’ll always look for. Like him, this cake is somehow made special by the very fact of its un-specialness, to put it in a rather circular, muddle-headed and possibly schizophrenic way.

I’m a big fan of unpretentious food that somehow feels special which is also why I’m a big fan of Nigella Lawson, to whom this recipe belongs. The world is a mad rush of complexity these days and I find a sort of refuge in the plain, the uncomplicated, the unadorned, the un-messed around with. This cupcake is like a sigh of relief. That’s what it is – a sigh of relief. Like coming home – plain, ordinary home after a long, glamorous holiday at a fancy vacation resort.

Right. Now that I’ve exhausted my metaphors, from a baking standpoint, the strange thing is that I can’t pinpoint why this particular cupcake tastes so good to me – not too sweet, not too rich – just right, just hits the spot, positively addictive. Is it the vanilla? Have no clue.

Interestingly there’s no salt in this recipe, which I think is by design rather than oversight. We all know salt is supposed to balance the sweetness in baked goods and while I haven’t experimented with the addition of salt here, I feel that it somehow misses the point. This isn’t the kind of cake where you worry about things like that. It’s just golden and good.

There are no extraneous ingredients, nothing but the absolute basics. But maybe that’s just it – it’s what’s not there that makes it great. A lesson to be heeded (mostly by me) – sometimes it’s what you don’t say that speaks the loudest.

Plain Vanilla Cupcakes With Royal Icing (adapted from Nigella Lawson)

This cake just has my heart. I would marry it if I could. I worry that it could just be me that is so crazy about this – love is blind after all.  I might have oversold this to the point where the poor thing won’t be able to live up to all the hype.

But anyway, I don’t think this would pass any professional baker standards or sophisticated palate tests anyway. I mean blitzing cake batter in a food processor would probably be considered downright criminal to a pro baker. No creaming of the butter and sugar, no adding the flour in thirds alternating with the liquid. Just dump and blitz.

This appears to be Nigella’s patented method for cake-making in that irresistible couldn’t-be-bothered-and-anyway-it-works way of hers. And for the kind of thing Nigella specializes in – which is food that you want to eat pretty soon and make without too much fuss – this is solid gold.

The ratios here are so perfect. I still get a shock every time I bake something because of how much butter and sugar goes into the stuff but these amounts are modest and sensible – 125 gm each of butter, sugar and flour if you’re weighing, 2 eggs – the whole thing can be easily doubled, but if not – you get just 12 out of this recipe. Easy to remember, easy to make, easy to eat.

If you’re squeamish about raw egg whites (and you should err on the side of squeamishness if you are pregnant, elderly or have a weak immune system), this Royal Icing isn’t for you (you could go for a basic buttercream or just forget the icing, the cakes are delicious without it too), but after my first round with it, I knew there was no going back. What a glossy miracle of chemistry this is – Nigella describes it as “white patent leather”, and it is, when it’s wet. When it hardens and sets – it forms a fairy tale shell-like layer on top. And when you bite into it….sigh.

Ingredients (see here for cup conversions)

Cupcakes

125 gm butter, room temperature

125 gm sugar

2 eggs, room temperature

125 gm all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 to 3 tablespoons milk

Royal Icing* (see note below)

1 large egg white

125 gm icing sugar

2 teaspoons lemon juice (a couple squirts)

Method

For the Cupcakes

Line a 12-cup muffin pan with cupcake liners. Pre-heat oven to 400. (I love that it’s 400 and not 350 – hotter, faster).

Add all of the cupcake ingredients except for the milk into the bowl of a food processor. Turn the processor on and watch the mix carefully, stopping just when the batter has come together. Get the milk ready and turn the processor back on. Pour the milk down the feed tube. You’re looking for a smooth, dropping consistency. (My batter in the photo above is slightly too thick, I would add a little more milk).

Remove the processor blade. Give the batter a quick mix with a spatula just to make sure there are no stray bits of flour. Drop the mixture as evenly as possible into the muffin cups – a couple spoonfuls each is sufficient. Bake for about 20 minutes (per the original recipe, but mine baked up in 12 minutes so check early). They will look gorgeous and golden on top and you can tell when they’re done when they spring back to your touch.

Cool completely before icing.

For the Icing

Put the confectioner’s sugar and the egg white in a large bowl. With an electric mixer (or use a stand mixer), whisk on low speed until the egg whites get incorporated into the sugar. Raise the speed to medium high and whisk until you have a glossy, thick white mixture (about 3 minutes). Try not to play with the mixture.

Dollop about a tablespoon of icing onto each cupcake and smooth the top, allowing the icing to drip down the sides in slow motion. This is fairly easy as far as cupcake decorating goes. It helps to place the iced cupcakes on a wire rack placed on top of a sheet of parchment for easy clean up.

Make sure to allow the icing to set and harden completely before serving. It tastes best that way.

Makes 12 perfectly sweet little cupcakes.

*Note: You can double the amount for this as in the original recipe, but I find this amount is sufficient for icing 12 cupcakes modestly if not generously. And as mentioned, raw egg whites should not be consumed by the pregnant, the elderly, small children and anyone with a weak immune system.

Exotic

Show me a durian, a mangosteen, biryani or fish curry and I’ll probably shrug and say “so what?”

But show me a chocolate chip cookie – any chocolate chip cookie – and you’ll have me at hello.

Exotic is like anything else a matter of perspective. Since I come from a background where the every day  was steeped in nam pla and cardamom but sorely deprived of butter, sugar, and (HELLO!) chocolate chips, you’ll begin to appreciate why for me, a chocolate chip cookie can never be an ordinary thing.

In my head, a chocolate chip cookie is baking and represents everything baking should be – warm, cozy, comforting, buttery-sweet…..and exotic. Plus, there’s something about the scent of these in the oven that virtually announces “America Red White And Blue Apple Pie On A Window Sill Land Of Freedom And Gingham And Blue Jeans”. Many of us love to travel to exotic places via the food we cook. If I didn’t already live here then the number one recipe in my book for kitchen-traveling to the United States would be this cookie.

In the 4th grade, during my years in Bangkok, a friend gave me a gift wrapped bag of Striped Chips Ahoy cookies (80s kids do you remember these?) for my birthday. This may sound cheap-o to you, but let me tell you, it’s the only gift I remember from that year and I received many. I treasured that package, guarded it with my life, didn’t share with anyone and went through it slowly for a whole month, allowing myself one cookie a day so to make the experience last. That gives you an idea what the American supermarket staple meant to a curry-fatigued kid on the other side of the world.

What a long and tragic way we’ve come.

A) They no longer make Striped Chips Ahoy. The entire backside of each cookie was dipped in chocolate! Plus, were the cookies bigger back then or was I just smaller? And why do these companies always stop making the most delicious product in their line-up?

B) I wouldn’t be caught dead buying a bag of Chips Ahoy now. I’m not even sure they should be allowed to call them chocolate chip cookies (more like spongy-sawdust studded with questionable brown pebbles).  At any rate, homemade and/or artisan is what the cool kids do these days.

When I developed an interest in baking I tried out several different recipes, beginning where everyone begins, at Nestle Toll House. I was planning to embark on the Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie Quest by baking my way through other recipes that have evolved from the original and taking detailed notes (baker-geek satisfaction). But then, the America’s Test Kitchen / Cook’s Illustrated team (Baker Geek Headquarters) developed a recipe that you just know has got to be foolproof.

I think they might have invented the word foolproof.

I don’t know what exactly their hyper-thorough recipe testing process is but it’s clear that those mad scientists know what the heck they’re doing. I can only dream of having that kind of fine-tooth-combed attention to detail.

So alas, my cookie expedition was over before it even began.

This recipe is genius. What I love is that there are no strange ingredients like bread flour, shortening or gourmet chocolate “discs”. It uses all the basics that we’re familiar with, but the unique permutation-combination of the methodology elevates each step to a whole new level. That’s the kind of stuff I adore with recipe tweaking – nothing fancy, just smart.

An added bonus is that you don’t have to wait for butter to soften which is the step that always annoys me the most. Usually the mood strikes me to bake cookies and then it’s like crap, I have to wait for the butter to soften. Not with this gem.

This is recipe testing at its best. And it makes a super-delicious cookie that tastes the way you want “homemade” to taste, unpretentious but So Good.

Cook’s Illustrated’s Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie (click for link to original recipe)

Ingredients

1 ¾ cups unbleached all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon baking soda

14 tablespoons unsalted butter

½ cup granulated sugar

¾ cups packed dark brown sugar

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 large egg

1 large egg yolk

1 ¼ cups semi-sweet chocolate chips

¾ cups chopped nuts (optional)

Method

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment.

Whisk flour and baking soda together in a medium bowl. Set aside.

Now here’s the Baker Geek part – heat 10 tablespoons butter (cut into chunks, melts faster) in a heavy-bottomed pan over medium high heat. You want the butter to get brown and nutty. This is the crucial step that brings the butterscotch-toffee depth to the cookie dough.

Remove the pan from the heat and pour the browned butter into a heat-proof bowl. Chuck the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter into the bowl and whisk until all the butter has melted. (The addition of remaining butter into the nutty butter cools down the whole brown butter situation).

Dump in both the sugars, salt and vanilla. Whisk the whole lot together until everything is fully incorporated. Add in the egg and the egg yolk (less moisture from loss of one egg white = more chewiness). Whisk all.

And now, the really interesting bit – you let it sit. Let the mixture sit for 3 minutes (it’s okay if it’s like 3 minutes and 10 seconds but don’t tell the Cook’s team). Then whisk everything again for 30 seconds. Repeat 2 more times. It sounds insane but the evidence is in the pictures below. You’ll go from a thinner darker looking mixture….

……to a thick, glossy, melted toffee-like mixture. GE-NI-US.

Stir in the flour mixture with a wooden spoon or sturdy spatula until combined and toss in the chocolate chips. Mix. That’s my favorite part because now it finally looks like chocolate chip cookie dough.

Erm, at this point you’re supposed to divide the dough into 16 portions using a #24 cookie dough scoop, or about 3 tablespoons per cookie. Clearly I need to buy the cookie scoop that’s been on my Amazon wishlist forever or a re-education on what constitutes a tablespoon because my cookies ended up GiNORmous. Not a tragedy, but still.

Undaunted, plow forward and place each scoop of dough (whatever the size) 2 inches apart. Bake cookies one tray at a time for 10 to 14 minutes (or a little longer if you have no-sense-of-proportion-ginormous-cookies), until golden brown and well, cookie-like. Transfer baking sheets to a wire rack.

Cool cookies before serving. (Yeah, good luck with that.)

Uncertainty

The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty; not knowing what comes next. – Ursula K. LeGuin

Are we ever really certain of anything ? We want to be certain of so many things – our longevity, health, financial security, lasting relationships, fulfilling careers, the meaning of life. The paradox of humanity is that nothing is for certain, except for the fact that we are, we exist. (That, and someday, we’ll all be dead!) We hardly pay any attention to how much energy is zapped out of us in this futile, exhausting and fear-ridden search for safety and security. Life is an adventure in uncertainty – any or all of it might get taken away, or end up not really being what we thought it would be. Embracing uncertainty, I think, is our only chance at sanity.

We don’t know if what we’re entering into is going to end in success or failure, if the act we’re engaging in is worth it. Anyone who wants to break the mold is running blind by definition – he doesn’t know if it’s going to work. What if it turns out that the conventional way is “right” after all? Is it worth it to take a risk, indeed, to be different?

Any time you bring in the dual parameters of success and failure, you’ve limited yourself. The only criteria for making any kind of decision is the joy and exhilaration you feel in the act itself. Uncertainty is part of that thrill – it is the courage to leap, without knowing where, or if, you’ll land. Any creative adventure involves uncertainty at every step and if you look closely, each step automatically takes care of the next. Safety was never a criteria of the Universe – it’s a criteria born of fear, not love. And love, of course, is what fuels this whole project called life.

Thank God for risk-takers like Ina Garten who leave behind their safe, secure and prestigious careers (White House nuclear policy analyst which sounds totally scary) to enter into something utterly new and unexpected, like a specialty foods store. A total gamble. Something goads them on (that would be passion), and they have the courage to listen. What you end up with is something like the Barefoot Contessa empire. If it’s fueled by love, then success or failure doesn’t even enter into the equation. Uncertainty is part of the adventure – no one’s life is a straight and narrow path.

Here’s to gambles, adventures in uncertainty and the results that come in their wake.

Buttermilk Cheddar Biscuits

Recipe Courtesy Barefoot Contessa

Ina’s love for cooking is apparent in her approach to recipes – so meticulous and precise, tested and re-tested over and over. These biscuits are so light right out of the oven, it’s hard to believe that they’re made out of so much butter and flour! The addition of the egg is interesting – don’t see that much in biscuit recipes. By far the lightest biscuits I’ve ever made. Make sure your ingredients are as cold as possible and handle the dough as little as possible to avoid the hockey puck conundrum.

Ingredients

2 cups all purpose flour, plus a little extra

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, diced

1/2 cup cold buttermilk, shaken

1 cold extra large egg

1 cup grated extra sharp Cheddar

1 egg beaten, with 1 tablespoon water or milk

Directions

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F,

Place 2 cups of flour, the baking powder, and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. With the mixer on low, add the butter and mix until the butter is the size of peas.

Combine the buttermilk and egg in a small measuring cup and beat lightly with a fork. With the mixer still on low, quickly add the buttermilk mixture to the flour mixture and mix only until moistened. In a small bowl, mix the Cheddar with small handful of flour and, with the mixer still on low, add the cheese to the dough. Mix only until roughly combined.

Dump out onto a well-floured board and knead lightly about 6 times. Roll the dough out to a rectangle 10 by 5 inches. With a sharp, floured knife, cut the dough lengthwise in half and then across in quarters, making 8 rough rectangles. Transfer to a sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Brush the tops with the egg wash, sprinkle with salt, if using, and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the tops are browned and the biscuits are cooked through. Serve hot or warm.

Transparency

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Transparency is an awesome gift that the internet has allowed us to give each other. It’s me saying, hey – this is me, being totally weird. You know? And it’s okay. I’m weird, and so are you probably, a little bit – and if we’re all a little weird together then it turns out we all have more in common than we thought.

Whether it’s through blogging, tweeting or facebooking one of the truly great things about”social networking” is the elevated degree of transparency it has garnered for humanity. Our flaws are there for others to see. Remember when we’d rather die than show anyone our high school yearbook pictures? And years later we could smugly assume, all re-done and made-over, that the ugly high-school phase (or how about ugly junior high phase? anyone?) was securely in the past? Yeah, chances are, there’s someone over on facebook who posted pictures of you from back then.

(Note to facebookers – please take mercy on your friends and leave junior high where it belongs – in the past!)

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Oh, we might have started out thinking there would be a degree of anonymity on the net at first but with google interacting with facebook and facebook interacting with twitter, we’ve created a monster that really leaves no more secrets.  The entire journey is there for anyone who cares to look. The shifting tides of me. This is who I was then, this is who I am now, and who knows what I may be tomorrow?

It may be a little unsettling at first. But then it becomes apparent that everyone actually feels the same way. We are all elevated to a new level of openness where we can claim our “mistakes” and accept them as part of who we are, or were. We can claim our journeys, our imperfections as well as our triumphs and achievements. The things we’re proud of and also what we’re not so proud of.

Ultimately, if you’re not hiding from yourself, you no longer feel the need to hide from anyone else. It always comes back to You, every time. Total visibility can be totally scary. But it is also Total Freedom.

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Pumpkin Seed Lace Cookies – makes 60 cookies

(Gourmet Magazine, June 1998)

Okay, so out of an entire batch of 60 cookies, I got approximately 2 that came out in a perfect round. The rest were really, you know, free-form. It’s cool though, it’s all about embracing our imperfections, right? I have yet to master the art of making perfectly round lace cookies, but this pumpkinseed version had a really interesting flavor with the lemon juice and chili powder. I think next time I might even try a pinch of cayenne to kick up the heat level.

1/2 cup sugar

5 tablespoons unsalted butter

3 tablespoons light corn syrup

3 tablespoons flour

2 tablespoons cornmeal

1 1/2 teaspoons chili powder

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1/2 cup hulled pumpkin seeds

Bring sugar, butter and corn syrup to a boil in a heavy sauce pan over moderate heat. Boil, stirring, for one minute. Off the heat, add the rest of the ingredients to the mixture and stir until smooth. Cool to room temperature.

Preheat oven to 350. Line two large baking sheets with parchment.

Roll level 1/2 teaspoons of the dough and place 4 inches apart on baking sheets. Bake in upper and lower thirds of oven, switching pans half way through baking, until cookies are flat and golden, about 10 minutes.

Transfer parchment with cookies to wire racks to cool. Allow baking sheets to cool completely between batches, using fresh parchment for each batch. (I re-used my parchment paper between batches and it was fine).

Note: Cookies come out quite greasy once they are cool, so I’d recommend giving them a pat between paper towels before serving.

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Mundane Magic

Do you believe in magic?

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What would it take? Something extraordinary? Or is it about finding magic in what is everyday, ordinary, mundane? If you think about it, even the fact that we are alive can become a meditation on magic. Perception makes the difference between what we consider mundane, and what we consider magical. And our own individual perception informs our whole life.

Breath Have you ever paid attention to your breathing? Really paid attention? Have you noticed that the inhale and exhale happens by itself? In other words, you don’t have to tell your brain “okay, inhale now”, or “okay, time to exhale”. It is happening, every moment of every day, even when you are asleep. How is it happening? Who is in charge? How is it that your body knows to breathe, consistently from the time you take your first breath, to the moment you’ll take your last?

Lilies Well, it’s true – they neither toil nor strain, and yet there they are, perfect, fragrant, beautiful. Growing all by themselves. Without anyone’s help. With their own intricate flower design. Without a worry in the world. Fulfilling their flower destiny in peace.

Thought Have you ever wondered where your thoughts come from? This thought that you had just now – where did it come from? What was its source? What existed before the thought came? And now that you’ve had it and moved on to the next, where did it go? How did you formulate this thought? How come some thoughts feel good, and others feel bad? It’s a complex magical realm, this process of thought, isn’t it?

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Loved Ones The people who are near and dear to you – your family, your friends – in a world of billions, how did it happen that these particular individuals crossed paths with you? This lover, that friend, this boss or that kind stranger? Think of all the permutations and combinations that had to occur in order for you to meet the ones who color your world today. How is it that in a network of billions, these particular individuals with their quirks and habits and issues and insecurities became yours?

Taste Buds Well, what would life be if we couldn’t taste anything? The famous saying goes – no matter how well you describe an orange, a person just isn’t going to get it until he has his first taste. An orange, a mango, a cheeseburger, chocolate – each thing creates an explosion of flavor in our mouths. And the really amazing thing is that no two people will taste any one thing the same way. You know those people who don’t like chocolate (yeah, apparently they exist) – it’s a totally different experience from someone who swoons at the sight of a Mars bar. Taste buds. They rock. Magic!

What’s on your Magic List?

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My Magic Cookie Bars – makes 9 bars

The magic cookie bar may be an ordinary thing. I mean, the recipe is from the back of a condensed milk can. But in some random act of weirdness, I’ve never ever tasted one. So for me, the simplicity of the recipe was pure magic. Chocolate plus coconut plus nuts brought together by sweetened condensed milk – I mean, that’s my definition of taste bud heaven. I’m not the biggest fan of graham cracker crust however (which is what the original recipe calls for), so I decided to put my recently acquired pastry skills to use and switched it up with sweet pastry dough.

Sweet pastry dough is very easy to make, and very forgiving. You can roll it, re-roll it, patch it together and roll it again. Just make sure it’s very cold when you’re working with it and you should be fine. The quantity here makes about double what you’ll need, but it freezes really well so I’d go ahead and make the whole batch. Or you can use a 9×13 pan instead of the 8×8 that I used, and double up on the filling.

Sweet Pastry Dough

(recipe from Nick Malgieri)

1 cup flour

3 tablespoons sugar

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/8 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter

1 large egg

Whisk together first four ingredients in a large bowl. Cut the butter into tablespoon size pieces and using your fingers work the butter into the flour. You want to keep going until the flour looks like coarse ground cornmeal, or grated parmesan cheese. Like this:

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At this stage, beat the egg in a separate bowl and add to the flour mixture. Using a fork, stir until the dough starts to hold together. It will still look a little dry. Scatter some extra flour onto work surface and knead the dough quickly a few times until it is smooth:

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Chill in the refrigerator at least one hour, but the longer, the colder, the better.

For Magic Filling:

1/2 cup walnuts, chopped

1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips (or more, if you want)

1/2 cup sweetened, shredded coconut

1/2 of 14 oz can sweetened condensed milk

To Assemble:

Preheat oven to 350.

Roll out your sweet pastry dough on a floured surface. It’s okay if it cracks, you can patch it together with your fingers. If it’s still being difficult, you can gather it together into a ball again and re-roll it. It’s easier the second time. Roll to about 1/4 inch thick. Place an 8×8 square baking pan on the dough and using a sharp paring knife, cut an outline using the pan as a guide. You can cut about 1/2 an inch larger than the pan. Press the dough into the pan. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

Scatter the chopped walnuts, chocolate chips and shredded coconut over the dough in an even layer. Pour the condensed milk over the top. Using a spatula, evenly distribute the condensed milk.

Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until golden brown at the edges. Allow to cool before cutting into bars.

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Inside Outside

“When we allow ourselves to be still, things happen internally that allow our lives to move.” – Ravi Singh

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There is a whole world of energy that exists inside each of us. Much of the time our focus is on what’s going on in the world around us, in the controlled chaos of our external lives. We’re caught up in our daily routine which has a forceful momentum of its own. Energy feeds on energy, so once we get the ball rolling, it can be a tough call to hit pause and start over, start fresh.

If we get stuck in a rut, or life feels uninspired, it’s probably a good time to put the breaks on. The thing about our inner world is that it can remain stagnant while our external lives are busy. Similarly, our external lives can seem to be at a standstill when there is actually great transformation happening within us.

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To bring the inner self and outer self into alignment is not an easy task. But what’s inside is eventually what life becomes, and what life is really about. So if your life doesn’t look like what you want it to be yet, the best thing to do is turn your focus to your inner world. To hear our inner hearts, we have to allow ourselves some stillness apart from the distractions of our daily lives. There are a million hidden surprises waiting to be revealed where the true treasures are if we’ll only pause long enough to listen.

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Easy Morning Muffins With Raspberries – makes 12

(adapted from The Art & Soul of Baking)

Do not be fooled by the plain exterior of these easy morning muffins. The hidden burst of tart raspberry flavor will take you by surprise on your first bite!

For the Muffins:

2 cups flour

2/3 cup sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

pinch of salt

6 tablespoons butter

grated zest of 1 lime

2/3 cup buttermilk

2 large eggs @ room temp

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 half-pint basket fresh raspberries, or 1 1/4 cup frozen (do not defrost)

For Crumb Topping:

3 tablespoons dark brown sugar

2/3 cup flour

4 tablespoons butter, melted

Preheat oven to 400. Spray 12 cup muffin tin with non-stick cooking spray.

To make the crumb topping, combine sugar and flour in a small bowl. Add the melted butter and stir in until evenly distributed. Let sit for 5 minutes, then using fingertips, break into clumps. Set aside.

For the muffins, whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large bowl. In a small saucepan, melt the 6 tablespoons of butter with the lime zest. Off the heat, add buttermilk to the melted butter and let cool slightly. Pour butter mixture into a bowl, add eggs and vanilla, and whisk until well blended.

Make a well in the center of dry ingredients. Pour butter mixture into the well and stir gently. Mix until batter looks smooth and there are no more streaks of flour. A few lumps is no biggie. Fold in the raspberries.

Divide batter evenly among muffin cups. Top with crumb topping. Bake for 18-20 minutes or until skewer inserted in center of muffin comes out clean. Transfer muffin tin to a wire rack and let cool slightly. Run a small sharp knife around each muffin and transfer them to the wire rack to finish cooling. Serve warm or at room temp.

Splurge

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They say we’re in the middle of a recession. I say it’s a good time to splurge.

What’s that, you say? That makes no sense?

Well, hear me out. Sometimes, when we’re feeling the pinch of an economic crisis, we start living our lives in limitation. We’re clipping the coupons and saving the pennies, putting back the filet mignon and grabbing the can of beans. But start living in too much limitation, and that becomes your reality.

So I think it’s a good idea to give your little life project a jolt now and then. Yes, we need to hold on to some of our dwindling cash right now. But wouldn’t it be a bold, audacious, daring little adventure in the midst of all this limitation-doom-is-upon-us thinking that is swirling through the ethers, to splurge a little? To look limitation in the eye and say, no way dude, not today. This is my life and as long as there are options, I will take my chances.

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So I splurged a little even though perhaps maybe I couldn’t really afford to. I took my first pastry class at ICE. And let me say, it was one of the best experiences of my life. Whatever doubts I may have had as to the wisdom of spending a couple hundred dollars on a baking class right now, the experience paid for itself a thousand times over.

In my pastry class, over the course of three days, we tackled three different doughs – pate sucree (sweet pastry dough), pate brisee (flaky pastry dough) and pate a choux (that stuff you make eclairs with). It was quite a sensation to be around unlimited quantities of butter and chocolate, to work with high quality stovetops and ovens and of course the beloved Kitchenaid standmixers which I still do not own. And to be around a group of people as excited about flour and butter as myself.

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We made Chocolate Hazelnut Tarts, Banana Walnut Tarts, 2 types of Apple Pie as well as Tarte Tatin, Blueberry Pie, Frangipane Fruit Tarts, Pastry Cream with various flavors, Coconut Custard Pie, Lemon Cheese Tarts, Eclairs, Cream Puffs and Paris Brest. I also learned how to really get flaky pastry dough to be flaky (repeat the mantra: DO NOT OVERWORK THE DOUGH). And I can actually make those cute mini-tarts at home now – they are so much easier to make than I thought. It was totally glorious.

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So I say, go ahead, splurge a little. Give your system a jolt and follow your heart. Because as they say, you can’t put a price on happiness. And happiness is energy that permeates your life, and the lives of others. There are more things that make the world go round than how much cash is in the bank. It’s true.

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Apologies

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My 7th grade French teacher hated the word “sorry”.

If any of us came in late to class or forgot our textbook or mispronounced a word and had the gall to apologize for it, we were guaranteed the following reaction:

Sorreee?!” she’d screech. “What do you mean by sorreee? You are not sorreee. What should I do with this sorreeee?”

At which point we would kind of stand there not sure whether to sit down or leave or offer an explanation as to what “sorry” meant.

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It seemed that every day, we would have to repeat some version of the same exchange.

“Where is your notebook Phileep?”

“I forgot it Mme Ianelli, I’m sorry.”

Sorree, what am I to do with this sorreee?”

“Where is your homework Amee?”

“I’m sorry, I left it at home.”

Sorreee? What am I to do with this sorree?”

You’d think we all would have learned to come up with a different response as the semester wore on but the only thing available to a 7th grade brain when it was put on the spot in front of classmates was “sorry”. In other classes, teachers would either tell us to “sit down and don’t let it happen again”, or they’d send us to the principal’s office, or send a note home to our parents.

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But Mme Ianelli demanded answers. We would spend at least 15 minutes of class discussing the worthlessness of “Sorry” since it was clear to her that the person uttering the word didn’t give a rat’s ass about whatever they were apologizing for. She never let us off the hook. (That, and if any one us forgot our notebooks and needed to go back to our locker to get it, she’d make the entire class recite together “Puis j’allez chercher mon cahier a mon casier.” I don’t know why so many of us kept forgetting to bring our notebooks to class. I may not remember how to say anything else in French, but I will always know how to ask permission to go find my notebook in my locker.)

Sorry is an overused word. And most of the time, we don’t really mean it. I think what Mme Ianelli was trying to instill in us is that it made no difference if we apologized to her. We had to take responsibility for ourselves, to be accountable. After all, any time we do say sorry and mean it, the forgiveness we truly seek is our own.

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Mousse au Chocolat – serves 4

(Recipe from Ghirardelli)

Okay, I have to apologize because I think I did something wrong with this here recipe. I followed it to a T but it came out much lighter colored than I expected. My first experience with Chocolate Mousse was in Mme Ianelli’s French class – we all had to chip in and help make it. The end product had streaks of raw egg yolk in it which was not a good thing. We didn’t dare complain to Mme Ianelli, and nor would I apologize to you lovely readers for this extra-light mousse (albeit with an intensely creamy, chocolatey flavor) if I didn’t mean it. Any ideas what I did wrong?

4 large egg yolks

1/2 cup sugar

2 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream

6 oz unsweetened chocolate, chopped

Beat egg yolks on high speed until thick and lemon colored. Gradually add sugar then beat.

Heat one cup whipping cream in a saucepan over medium heat just until hot. Do not boil Gradually stir half of the hot cream into the egg yolk mixture to temper the yolks, then pour back into the hot cream in the saucepan. Cook over low heat, about 5 minutes, stirring constantly until mixture is blended and thickens. (Possibly I didn’t let the mixture thicken enough at this point?)

Let cool for 10 minutes, then add the chocolate to the mixture and stir until thick, about 5 minutes. Cover and refrigerate for about 2 hours, stirring occasionally just until chilled.

Beat remaining 1 1/2 cups whipping cream until stiff. Mix 3/4 cups of the cream into chocolate mixture until blended. Fold remaining whipped cream into chocolate mixture until well blended. Spoon mixture into cups or bowls to serve.

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