Saturday, December 31, 2011

To sweet endings & new beginnings

Happy New Year's Eve everyone! On the West Coast here folks are just winding down their days and getting ready to gear up for the evenings festivities - though I imagine many of you in other areas are well in the swing of things already! Whatever your plans - be safe & enjoy!

Here at Casa de ValleyWriter, we're planning a pretty low-key evening in - a little wine, some good food & good conversation - everybody safe & sound. And because it's no celebration without something sweet (at least in our house!), I did whip up a little something to bid adieu to 2011 and welcome the new year:

Triple Chocolate Cookies
(Makes 1 dozen large, bakery-size cookies)

1/4 cup salted butter, softened
1/2 c. brown sugar
1/4 c. white sugar
1 egg
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
3/4 c. flour
2 Tbsp. cocoa powder
3/4 tsp. baking powder
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cup white chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350° F.
Cream butter and sugars togethers until light and fluffy. Mix in egg and vanilla.
In a separate bowl, mix flour, cocoa powder and baking powder.
Place chocolate chips in a yet another separate dish - this one should be microwave-safe. Heat chocolate on high for 30 seconds. Stir and continue microwaving in 10 second increments for up to 1 minute until chocolate is fully melted. (Don't over do it or the chocolate will seize up - trust me on this one!!)
Add melted chocolate to butter and sugar mixture. Beat until smooth. Then beat in flour mixture just until combined. Stir in white chocolate chips.
Place heaping balls of dough (about 2" wide) onto baking pan, spaced 2-3 inches apart. Bake at 350°F for 15-16 minutes until crinkly on top with white chocolate lightly browned.

Happy New Year!

Linking this up to Sweets for a Saturday!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Homemade Gift Idea - Cranberry Apple Quick Bread

With the economy still struggling, homemade gifts are on the rise. That's a boon for bakers. After all, who doesn't love fresh baked goods? So, when I was asked to come up with a homemade gift idea using dairy products for teachers as part of the California Milk Advisory Board and Smart & Final "Help Our Teachers, Help Our Kids" campaign to help southern CA schools, I was excited to come up with a new recipe.

Just to recap the program, now through December 31st, students and families can collect Real California milk seals from select Smart & Final First Street products (everything from milk to butter to ice cream) and bring them to school.
That little yellow & black logo is what you're looking for!

Teachers can then collect and submit the seals to be entered in a sweepstakes to win up to $2 million in cash, books and other prizes for their classrooms. Teachers who submit 100 seals get 25 Scholastic books or a $25 school supply gift card. And every teacher gets a Scholastic book just for entering. You can visit to learn more.

I usually bake lots of cookies as homemade gifts around the holidays, but this time I decided to go for something a little different. After happening upon a display of fresh cranberries at Smart & Final (you can check out my shopping trip here), I came up with a Cranberry Apple Quick Bread, which is a little less sweet and more of a breakfast item - giving those busy teachers a well deserved break one holiday morning.

What makes this quick bread extra special is the addition of sour cream, which keeps it very moist and gives it a subtle richness. I also baked the bread in a stoneware loaf pan, which then becomes part of the gift. Wrap it all up in red plastic wrap with a pretty ribbon or bow - and you've got a great gift for a deserving teacher (or neighbor or anyone else for that matter!).

Cranberry Apple Quick Bread
Makes 1 9" x 5" loaf

1 stick (1/2 c.) First Street salted butter
3/4 c. granulated sugar
2 eggs
3/4 c. First Street sour cream
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 c. all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 large apple, peeled and chopped
1 1/2 c. fresh cranberries

Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease 9" x 5" loaf pan well with vegetable oil or butter.
Cream butter and sugar. Beat in eggs, sour cream and vanilla.
In a separate bowl, mix flour, baking powder and baking soda. Stir into wet ingredients just until combined.
Fold chopped apple and cranberries into batter until evenly distributed (don't over mix).
Bake at 350°F for 50-55 minutes or until top is browned and toothpick inserted comes out clean.

This #SmartFinalSupportsSoCalSchools project has been compensated as part of a social shopper insights study for  #collectivebias #CBias.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Christmas Cookie Testing: Italian Bakery Cookies

It's time to start prepping for this year's cookie blitz! Though I don't have my family and coworkers to give treats to this year, I have lots of new neighbors and friends to introduce to my tradition to. To keep things fresh for myself, I always like to try 1 or 2 new recipes. This year, I wanted to try to recreate one of my favorite cookies from a great little Italian bakery Massachusetts. They're a crispy, airy cookie that's created by piping dough through a star shaped decorating tip before baking. They're often covered with sprinkles or dipped in chocolate. Oh how I miss them. They are simply delicious! 

Now, I did have one little problem. I don't know what these cookies are actually called. I've always just referred to them literally as "Italian bakery cookies." And when you're not exactly sure the true name of a dish - it's hard to find the right recipe. But, with some descriptive terms like "crispy and light" and "sprinkles" matched with "Italian cookie," I managed to find a few that seemed promising.

Tonight I tried out 2 recipes. The first recipe, which was called an Italian butter cookie, called for all butter and granulated sugar. The dough ended up being pretty tough to pipe out, though the cookie did hold its shape fairly well when baking.
Italian Butter Cookie

When all was said and done, I thought these tasted pretty much like a regular sugar cookie. They were pretty flat and just didn't have that airy-ness I was going for. I didn't even bother trying to dress them up with sprinkles; I knew they weren't the "one."

Recipe # 2, which was oddly enough called a "Sand cookie," called for 1/2 shortening and 1/2 butter, plus a couple of unexpected ingredients - including confectioner's sugar and cornstarch. I think the original oven temperature was a little too hot, though, because they lost their shape a big in the oven. However - the taste and texture was SPOT ON! Dressed up with a little white chocolate and red & green sprinkles and I think we have a serious contender for a new Cookie Blitz star:

Personally, I prefer the name "Italian bakery cookie" over "Sand cookie," so that's what I'm going with. This tweaked recipe below also reflects the adjusted oven temperature, which helps the cookies keep the ridges from the star piping tip better.

Italian Bakery Cookies
(Makes 3-4 dozen)

1/2 c. butter-flavored shortening
1/2 c. unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/4 c. confectioner's sugar
2 eggs
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 c. cornstarch
chocolate & sprinkles for decoration, if desired

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper.
Cream shortening, butter and confectioner's sugar together on medium speed for 3-5 minutes until light and fluffy. Add eggs and vanilla. Mix on low-speed until smooth. Stir in flour and cornstarch by hand just until combined.
Add dough to piping bag with a star tip on the end. Pipe dough onto parchment paper in circles or large S-shapes.
Bake at 350°F for 11-14 minutes until golden brown around the edges.
Cool completely.
Dip in melted chocolate and decorate with sprinkles, if desired.