candied pecans and pumpkin swirl cheesecake bars

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I’m sick.

Well, sort of.  It’s the kind of creeping, dulled, background sick that makes me sniffle and cough and generally gross out my friends and coworkers, but it’s not flaring up into a fever or anything identifiable that would result in a more definite beginning and ending of sick.  It’s just here, and it’s getting in the way.

Enough of that.  Let’s talk about these pecans, which you will immediately regret making, because you will eat them all within 15 minutes of taking them out of the oven and then be sorry for not making a larger batch.  Because your friends might like to try the half of that second pan that you don’t also eat.  There is danger here.

I made these for a P-themed party (the letter, not the word) and decided on pumpkin swirl cheesecake bars to go with them.  Also dangerous.  They turned out a little less swirly than I would have liked, but I don’t think anyone was looking.  I was more focused on the nice thick crust…and also on not eating the entire pan.

I’m off to be lethargic and nurse my neckache.  Hopefully, while I’m feeling sorry for myself, you’ll go try at least one of these recipes out and possibly make yourself wish you were passed out on the couch for a much more pleasant reason.

 

Sugar-and-Spice Candied Nuts
Adapted from Deb, but you can find them just about anywhere

I didn’t go for the “spice” part – maybe another time, but I wanted to make these as universally likable as I could.  I upped the salt (perhaps a tiny bit too much – my recommendation is below) and they were irresistible.

1/3 cup dark-brown sugar
2/3 cup white granulated sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt [*Alli’s note: I’d go with 1 1/2 tsp]
Generous pinch of cayenne pepper [*Alli’s note: I omitted this, because I am boring]
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 pound walnut or pecan halves or whole peeled hazelnuts [*Alli’s note: I went with pecans]
1 egg white, room temperature
1 tablespoon water

Preheat oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Mix sugars, salt, cayenne (if using), and cinnamon, making sure there are no lumps; set aside.

Beat egg white and water until frothy but not stiff. Add nuts; stir to coat evenly. Sprinkle nuts with sugar mixture, and toss until evenly coated.

Spread sugared nuts in a single layer on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from oven, and separate nuts as they cool. When completely cool [*Alli’s note: Ha!  Good luck making it that long], pour the nuts into a bowl, breaking up any that stick together.

 

Pumpkin Swirl Cheesecake Bars

Adapted from Peabody

I made quite a few changes to this recipe to convert it to bars as opposed to a cake; I’ve written in here as I made it.

1 1/2 packages graham crackers, ground into crumbs
1/4 to 1/2 cup melted butter

2 8-pz. packages cream cheese [*Alli’s note: I swapped one out for reduced-fat; these were being taken to the home of a friend who’s getting married next year and will often scream “FAT BRIDE!  FAT BRIDE!” when desserts are put in front of her]
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 tbsp flour
2 large eggs
2 egg yolks
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup pumpkin
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

For the crust, combine the graham cracker crumbs and butter.  Start with the smaller amount of butter, and increase until the crumbs stick together nicely when pinched. Press onto the bottom of 9×9 baking pan, bake for 10 minutes. Set aside.

Beat the cheese until soft. Add in the sugar; mix well. Add the flour and mix to blend.

Add eggs, one at a time, scraping the bowl after each addition. Mix in yolks and vanilla.

Remove a little less than half of the batter and to a separate bowl bowl.  Stir in the pumpkin, cinnamon, and nutmeg.

Starting with the plain batter, layer the two batters on top of the crust (aim for three layers of plain and two of pumpkin). Swirl gently with a knife for a marblized look.

Place the pan with the bars in a larger pan (I used a 13×9). Place in the oven; pour in hot water to create a water bath.  Bake approximately 2 hours. A thin knife inserted in the center should come out almost clean.

Cool the cake, then chill. Let sit overnight before cutting.

 

sausage and bell pepper pizza

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As much as I talk about the many things I want to try to bake, it’s amazing how often I stick to the same few genres: cookies, brownies, cakes, etc.  I suppose I just have an affection for licking butter and sugar off the beaters creaming butter and sugar together.

 

prep the peppers (pep the preppers?)

 

When I have good people around me, I cook for them.  When they mention that they like a certain food, I’ll try to throw it together.  If someone makes me happy, I want to return the favor; this is the best way I know how.

 

cook the sausage

 

It also gets me to try making new things – nothing inspires me like someone staring off into the distance and mumbling hungrily that they could really go for a pizza, or a croissant, or a soft pretzel, or a madeline.  Drool is so poetic, I know.

 

sprinkled...okay, heavily sprinkled

 

I don’t know that that was the specific turn of events here, but I do know pizza was mentioned.  And, since the recipient was a carnivore, this project ended up marking an even bigger departure from the norm for me: I actually cooked with meat!  Even though I don’t eat too much of it, I really want to be competent; although I definitely didn’t have to go with sausage on this pizza, I thought it was a good opportunity to give it a shot.

 

melty

 

Although I didn’t end up tasting this one, the recipient proclaimed the crust “chewy and perfect,” and he hasn’t keeled over as of now, so I’m fairly certain that I did a decent job on the meat.  It smelled like heaven, though, and it’s endlessly adaptable, so give it a shot.  Now for rosemary focaccia…

Really Simple Pizza Dough

Bet you can’t guess where this came from (barely adapted)

Makes enough for one small, thin crust pizza. Double it if you like your pizza thick and bready.

1 1/2 cups flour (can replace up to half of this with whole wheat flour)
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
1/2 cup lukewarm water (may need up to 1 or 2 tablespoons more)
1 tablespoon olive oil

Toppings (I used thinly sliced yellow and orange bell peppers, Italian sausage, mozzarella, and Parmesan)

Stir dry ingredients, including yeast, in a large bowl. Add water and olive oil, stirring mixture into as close to a ball as you can. Dump all clumps and floury bits onto a lightly floured surface and knead everything into a homogeneous ball.

Knead it for just a minute or two. Lightly oil the bowl where you had mixed it, dump the dough in, turn it over so all sides are coated, cover it in plastic wrap and leave it undisturbed in a warm-ish (slightly above room temp) for an hour or two, until it has doubled in size.

Dump it back on the floured counter  and gently press the air out of the dough with the palm of your hands. Fold the piece into an approximate ball shape, and let it sit under that plastic wrap for 20 more minutes.

Sprinkle a pizza stone or baking sheet with cornmeal and preheat your oven to its top temperature. Roll out the dough and sprinkle on toppings.  Bake for about 10 minutes until lightly blistered.

russian tea cakes

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I’m very impulsive when it comes to baking.  I saw these on Smitten Kitchen (as usual.  When will I branch out?) and got really excited, went out and bought a bag of pecans…and let them sit in the cupboard for two weeks.

Honestly, what kept me from making these at first was that a coworker told me that he wasn’t a big fan of shortbread-type cookies, so I went for something else.  Poor choice – these were delicious.  Buttery, crumbly, dotted with specks of toasted pecan, and rolled in powdered sugar that gives it an almost creamy finish.

Luckily, I was able to pass these off on someone else’s family, because just the dough is so good that I don’t think I would have been able to keep my hands off of them.  Especially after I rolled half of them in granulated sugar and dipped them in chocolate.

These are better than I anticipated.  They taste like Christmas.  You’ve been warned.

Russian Tea Cakes [a.k.a. Mexican Wedding Cakes or Polvorones]
Adapted from Epicurious and Deb

Makes about 4 dozen

1 cup (2 sticks or 8 ounces) butter, room temperature
2 cups powdered sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup pecans, hazelnuts or other nuts, toasted and finely ground (if using hazelnuts, wrap in a dishtowel while still warm and roll about until most of the brown skins come off)
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)

Granulated sugar, for rolling
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter

Using electric mixer, beat butter in large bowl until light and fluffy. Add 1/2 cup powdered sugar and vanilla; beat until well blended. Beat in flour, then nuts. Divide dough in half; form each half into ball. Wrap separately in plastic; chill until cold, about 30 minutes.  [*Alli’s note: I skipped the chilling step and was fine.]

Preheat oven to 350°F. Whisk remaining 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar and cinnamon, if using, in pie dish to blend. Set cinnamon sugar aside.

Working with half of chilled dough, roll dough by 2 teaspoonfuls between palms into balls. Arrange balls on heavy large baking sheet, spacing 1/2 inch apart. Bake cookies until golden brown on bottom and just pale golden on top, about 18 minutes. Cool cookies 5 minutes on baking sheet. Gently toss warm cookies in cinnamon sugar to coat completely [*Alli’s note: I used plain powdered sugar.]. Transfer coated cookies to rack and cool completely. Repeat procedure with remaining half of dough. (Cookies can be prepared 2 days ahead. Store airtight at room temperature; reserve remaining cinnamon sugar.)

Alternately, before baking, roll half (or all) cookies in granulated sugar.  Gently melt butter and chocolate chips (in microwave, melt for 1 minute and stir, then continue at 30-second intervals until chips barely hold their shape).  When cookies come out of oven, let cool 10 minutes, then dip half of each cookie in melted chocolate.  Cool on parchment or wax paper.

Sift remaining [cinnamon] sugar over cookies and serve.

fairy dust

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Sometimes, when a friend of mine is having a bad day, I’ll draw her a silly little sketch of a Disney character, take a picture, and post it on her Facebook wall.  I’m not going to lie, they kind of suck, but it’s fun and it makes us both smile.  I didn’t think it was a big deal until one of my bosses walked in and saw one of the sketches sitting on my desk.

enough for a smile, at least

He happens to have little twin girls (for whom I have a soft spot), and he told me how much they would love  it if he just brought home pictures of my sketches.  But there was no way I was leaving it at a couple of iPhone photos of characters scribbled on notebook paper.

who doesn't like swirly dresses...

...and fairy dust?

I had so much fun with these.  If his girls get half as much enjoyment out of them as I did out of the painting process, I think my job here  is done.

And now, I’m sick, and I need to get back to bed.  Check back, though – there’s a ton of delicious, chocolatey, buttery, bacon-y goodness coming your way.

Images © Allison Wachtel 2010

s’mores brownies

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Have I mentioned that I’m a perfectionist?

This was pan #1 of the s’mores brownies I made last week, and quite honestly, there didn’t need to be a pan #2.  But I improvised, and the graham cracker crust wound up, well…not exactly crustlike.  And no one at House/HIMYM night would have cared (would you have a problem with a pile of chocolatey, marshmallowy, graham crackery semi-mess on your plate?), but I just…couldn’t do it.  And so I made another pan.

graham cracker...well...not-crust.

When you’re friends with me, you get a lot of baked goods.  When you’ve made public your intense love of marshmallows, you get a pan of s’mores brownies with a structurally-challenged crust.  What I’m saying is that you should be friends with me.  Have some brownies.

keep it toasty

S’mores Brownies

For the graham cracker crust:

1 package graham crackers, crushed or processed into crumbs

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted

3/4 cup flour

Pinch salt

For the brownie layer:

One recipe of these, minus the salt and caramel

1/2 bag mini-marshmallows

Preheat oven to 35o˚ F.  Lightly grease a 9×9-inch pan.

In a mixing bowl, combine graham cracker crumbs, flour, and salt.  Pour in butter; combine until mixture is crumbly but holds together if pressed or pinched.  Pour into prepared pan; pack evenly with a spatula.  Bake 12 minutes.

While crust bakes, make brownies per instructions here.  Mix in 1 cup mini-marshmallows; pour onto baked crust.  Bake 35-40 minutes.

Remove from oven.  Sprinkle remaining marshmallows over the top [*Alli’s note: Feel free to be more generous with the marshmallows!  It’s all you here, baby.].  If you have a kitchen torch, this is a great place to use it, as I burned the marshmallows (I can’t believe I’m admitting that) even under the lowest broiler setting.  If you do have a torch, toast the marshmallows until lightly browned; if not, pop the pan under the broiler and watch like a hawk.  It should take less than a minute.

A final note:  These are difficult to cut.  My recommendation is to chill the brownies pre-marshmallow, toss them in the oven for a quick broil, then cut with a sharp, oiled knife.  Also, ignore the sinister overtones of that last sentence.

chocolate chunk cookies

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hello, old friends.

There’s a part of me that can’t believe that I’m posting about chocolate chip cookies (chocolate chunk, actually,  but I’ll get to that later), because why would you read a blog for that?  Everyone knows how to make chocolate chip cookies, and these aren’t even the NYT version, the one with three different flours that requires something like 48 hours of resting time.  But chocolate chip cookies made my reputation as a baker in high school.  I brought a freshly baked plate to a drama club party (I know, I know) as a freshman, and one of the cool upperclassmen tasted one and spread the word to everyone at the party that “OHMIGOD Alli’s cookies.  Have you tasted Alli’s cookies?  Alli’s cookies Alli’s cookies cookies cookies.” and damned if that didn’t send me on a baking tear that still continues today.

pour in chocolate...

These, ironically, are not those cookies.  I grew up baking the Toll House version, and while they did attract a good-sized legion of fans, I prefer these.  My problem with the Toll House recipe was that I like my cookies soft and chewy – not crisp, not cakey – and the old standby spread a little too much, even flouting impatient hours of chilling.  This recipe has less egg, more flour, and doesn’t need to be made with shortening to keep spreading in check.  See?  Healthy.

you may want to give these a taste at this stage. for quality control.

…Okay, so maybe not, but you’re going to need every excuse you can come up with as to why it’s okay to eat four of these in a sitting, or six, or twelve (it’s been done).  If you put nuts in there, you can argue for healthy fats, and doesn’t dark chocolate have antioxidants?  You’re welcome.

Chocolate Chunk Cookies

Adapted generously from David Liebovitz via Deb (of course)

These cookies are tremendously versatile; I’ve even omitted the chocolate and rolled them in cinnamon sugar for a snickerdoodle-style incarnation.  The recipe below includes all of my changes (some of them fairly significant); you can find the original linked above.

1/4 cup granulated sugar

3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar

8 tablespoons (1 stick) salted butter, softened

1 large egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract [*Allison’s note: I always go a little overboard here]

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt [*Allison’s note: I tend to be a bit heavy-handed with the salt because I love that salty-sweet combination and I think it enhances the other flavors; feel free to use as little or as much as you’d like.]

2 full-sized bars milk chocolate, chopped

2 full-sized bars dark chocolate, chopped

Chocolate chips, if that’s not enough chocolate for you already

 

Preheat oven to 310˚ F.  Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Beat butter and sugars until smooth.  Stir in egg, vanilla, and baking soda.

Stir together flour and salt.  Mix into batter until just combined (cookies will be tough if overmixed).  Stir in chocolate chunks (and chips, if using).

Scoop dough by the tablespoon onto prepared sheets, spaced 4 inches apart (I got 8 per sheet).  Bake 15-18 minutes, or until golden brown.  Remove to cooling racks.  Eat.

dancing barefoot

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I have Mila Kunis to thank for this painting.

 

I wish I had a better camera.

 

If anyone doesn’t know by now, I have a major bit of a girl crush on Mila Kunis (also Natalie Portman, but that’s another story).  The reference photo for this painting was so elegant and fresh, and the light was beautiful, and I suck at drapery, and oh look, drapery!

Like pretty much all of my paintings, I don’t know how I feel about it, though.  I should have started with some kind of background, but I was so excited about the figure that I completely threw that aside.  I think the drapery actually came out okay – much looser than I usually end up with (I’m scared of drapery), and it still reads decently as fabric.

It feels unfinished, but I don’t want to risk really messing it up by adding a background.  I’m not totally sure if the stark white thing works, but it’ll have to for now.  The bummer about watercolor is that it’s hard to unify these major elements (background and foreground or figure, for example) if you paint them at separate times.  On the plus side, though, my brushwork has gotten a lot looser and more relaxed – not only have I kind of come to terms with the whole relinquishing control bit, but I feel like I’m able to work with the water now instead of just letting it do its thing.  I’m done analyzing, though.  Now I need more inspiration…

Images © Allison Wachtel, 2010.