Baklava makes the world a better place

I love baklava. Though really, it’s much more fun it you pronounce it ‘baaaaklaaavaaaa.’ Go ahead, try it. Feels good doesn’t it? For me it is one of those foods that while available all year, speaks inexorably of the holiday season.

This year I finally got up the courage to make it from scratch. And, now that I’ve done it, I have to tell you, making baklava some scratch needs no courage at all. If you buy the phyllo dough it is very easy and very fun.

Before we get to the baking, let’s talk a little bit about baklava’s origins. A brief review of its history reveals that this sweet sticky treat may very well be one of history’s first party foods. After all, much of the evidence points toward the confection as Greek in origin. Though, Mesopotamia was inevitably involved as well. While the word baklava is Turkish in derivation, many culturally specific varieties exist from Greek to Turkish to Middle Eastern. In this sense, baklava truly is a celebratory food of the world.

While I prefer it made with pistachios, I actually used walnuts because I was hoping to limit my own consumption. Sadly, or happily, it didn’t work and I managed to consume more than my fair share of the pans I made.

Phyllo dough can be found in freezer section of any grocery store. The kind I bought fit perfectly into a 9X13” pan. So, I adapted the original recipe to fit.

I went ahead and defrosted the dough in the fridge over night. This yielded perfect results as the dough did not stick and was very easy to work with.

The spice base is a combination of cinnamon, cloves and cardamom. Remember the Strawberry Shortcake dolls that smelled like fruits and spices? If I were one, I’d be Carly Cardamom.

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For the first batch, I chopped the nuts myself. For the second, I busted out Bertha, my trusty food processor. There is no shame in technological progress. The chopped nuts, sugar and spices all get mixed together in a sort of exotic orgy of awesome smells and textures.

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Each layer of phyllo dough is separated by a brushed-on layer of melted butter.

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The sugar and nut mixture gets added in at regular intervals.

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This goes on for about 20 or so layers until all the butter, nuts and dough have been utilized. Then, you cut the pieces into your desired shape and into the over goes the whole lot until everything is a nice golden brown.

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While things are already looking really tasty, the best is yet to come. Right out of the oven, you pour a fantastic syrup of honey and spices right into the pan. By the time everything cools down, the syrup gets absorbed and the result is nothing short of a pastry worthy of whatever deity you happen to worship.

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Baklava

Adapted from Epicurious, epicurious.com

Makes one pan 9X13″ pan

3 1/2 C chopped walnuts

1/2 C sugar

1 TSP ground cinnamon

1/2 TSP ground cardamom

1/4 TSP ground cloves

1/2 LB phyllo dough sheets

1.5 C melted butter

Syrup*

1 C sugar

1 C water

1/3 C honey

1/4 lemon, peel only

1 clove

* I substituted 1/4 C orange blossom water for 1/4 C of the water and did not use the lemon peel and clove.

To Make

1. Mix the walnuts, sugar and spices.

2. Remove phyllo dough from packaging, lay out flat and cover with plastic wrap and a damp towel (keep covered as dough will dry out quickly).

3. Melt the butter.

4. Starting with a single layer of phyllo, lay-out in pan and lightly brush butter over entire surface. Repeat this step until you have 8 layers in the pan.

5. Spread 1/3 of the nut mixture evenly across the 8th buttered layer of dough.

6. Add 4 more layers of phyllo, brushing each layer with butter.

7. Repeat steps 5 and 6 until all of the nut mixture has been layered.

8. Top the last layer of the nut mixture with the remaining phyllo dough (should be about 8 layers).

9. Cut the pan into desired number and shape of pieces–but try not to cut through the bottom layer of phyllo.

10. Bake at 375 degrees for 25-30 minutes, until the pastry is a deep golden brown.

11. While pastry is baking, make syrup. Combine all ingredients and bring to a boil. Remove from heat.

12. Once the pastry is done, immediately pour hot syrup over the entire pan.

13. Allow to stand at room temp. until completely cooled and the syrup has been absorbed into the pastry.

14. Re-run knife through dough, this time cutting through to the bottom of the pan.

15. Serve, enjoy and try not to eat the entire pan!

THE Sugar Cookies

I’ll admit, as much as I love baking, I’ve always had a bias against the cut-out sugar cookie. As a child I would carefully study the pictures of beautifully decorated sugar cookies in my mom’s illustrated Betty Crocker Cookbook. However, my batches of never looked anything close to the pictures. They’d puff. They’d bake unevenly. They’d stick to the rolling pin. Cats looked like panda bears, flowers like clouds. So, I dropped them off my list.

Until a few years ago that is.

My mom, ever the friendly consumer, somehow talked the proprieter of a cooking supply shop in Bozeman Montana into giving her their commercial recipe. Let me tell you, this recipe changed my life. Whether it has changed for better or worse has yet to be determined. You see, this recipe creates such beautiful cookies that people will beg you to make them. So you will. Then, they’ll get bitter when it’s been a couple of months and you haven’t produced any more. These may well be as close to crack as you can get with legal ingredients combined in a legal manner.

The recipe is simple if not a little labor intensive. Lots of butter. Lots of flour. Fragile, flaky, crumbly cookies these are not. The recipe is designed to get the little buggers to hold their shape when cooked. And they will—if you are careful about your technique. As good as the recipe itself is, the way in which you prepare the cookies is what makes them truly successful. That’s right, sugar cookie methodology. For this reason, I’ve listed the simple recipe below and then annotated the crap out of it with my own tips.

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Once you have the dough mixed up, abandon all you were ever taught about forming it into a ball and refrigerating. First you are going to roll it out. And THEN refrigerate it. So, grab a handful of dough and place in on a flat surface between two sheets of parchment.

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Now, roll it out. I like a thicker cookie (less chance of breakage), so I roll to somewhere between 1/4 and 1/8 inch. Do whatever works for you.

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Now, go ahead and clear some space in the fridge and stack the rolled -out dough one on top of the next. Let the dough chill for at least an hour. I usually let it cool over night. Once the dough is chilled, cut out your desired shapes and you are ready to bake. Note-you’ll have lots of scraps. Just ball then together, re-roll them out between parchment and store in fridge until ready to cut out next batch.

If you are anal retentive like I am, you add in one more step before baking.

I cut all of the dough out at once, and stack the un-baked cookies on to a cookie sheet (with layers separated by parchment) and put them back in to the fridge. Then I begin baking.

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Bake in the over for 12-15 minutes until the edges are just barely starting to brown.

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What’s that you say? You want some to have sugar sprinkles? Okay, here is the super secret method to getting a ton of sugar sprinkles or sanding sugar on to the cookie. First, pour a generous amount of your selected decoration into a shallow dish.

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Next, take a very cold un-baked cookie and place it front side down into the sprinkles.

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Now, push the cookie into the sprinkles. Don’t be shy, the cookie should be cold enough that it doesn’t lose its shape. Flip cookie back over and then bake as directed. The results are usually pretty cool.

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While we are sharing secrets, I might as well reveal what was until this very moment, my proprietary icing recipe.

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Ready? You Sure? Okay. To a bowl of sifted confectioner’s sugar, add fresh squeezed lemon juice. Then mix until you get the desired thickness. Pretty mind blowing right? Of course you could also use water or any other flavoring.

I like to use a two-step decorating process (really, it’s because I’m lazy and don’t have the patience to make a border and then foundation frost each cookie). First, I ice the cookie. Then I decorate it.

To ice, I get the icing very then. Then I quickly dip the tops of the cookies.

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I set the cookies on cooling racks and let the icing completely set up.

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Once the first coat of icing is set up, the cookies are ready to be fancified. Decorate as desired (same icing recipe, just thicker).

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And now you know all of my secrets.

THE Roll-out Cut-out Sugar Cookies

Makes about 6 dozen 3 inch cookies of 1/4 inch thickness

Ingredients:

  • 6 C flour, sifted
  • 1 TBS baking powder
  • 1 TSP salt (I use kosher)
  • 2 C sugar (I use ultrafine)
  • 2 C unsalted butter (same as 4 sticks), softened
  • 2 large eggs, room temp
  • 2 TSP vanilla
  • Parchment paper
  • Rolling pin
  • Cookie cutters

In standing mixer, cream butter and sugar. While mixing, sift together flour, baking powder and salt in a separate bowl. Once butter and sugar are creamed, mix in eggs one at a time. Add in vanilla. Decrease mixer setting to low and add in flour in 2-3 shifts. Mix until dough forms.

Roll out dough between parchment paper in three batches. Refrigerate for at least an hour.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut dough into desired shapes and place on parchment-lined cookie sheets. Bake for 12-15 minutes until just turning gold on the edges.

I’ve added some pictures of sugar cookies past just to show they work with any shape.

bees, butterflies and flowers

B is also for baby

And break a leg.  Ironically, the only year I made these since my employment for the enemy has been the only year the blue and gold have won.  I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to realize this but next year, my work colleagues are getting more gold and cough…cough…cardinal sugar cookies around the first week of December than they’ll know what to do with.

The many aliased Chocolate Peanut Butter Bonbon

AKA: White Trash Bon Bons

AKA (if you are my husband): Pete’s Schweedy Balls

When I was a kid, my mom only made these babies during the holidays. Once made, she would horde them in a very miserly and un-holiday-like fashion, dispensing them one at a time and only to those she deemed deserving. This may sound strange at first because a quick look at the ingredient list doesn’t hint at anything special. If anything, it suggests (at least to me) one of those strange recipes only found in Reader’s Digest and only ever made by grandmothers (you know, like chocolate covered chow mein noodles or green salad in a jello mold). This is where the first AKA name comes from. The second AKA is a reference to a very funny, very perverse Saturday Night Live skit with Alec Baldwin and those naughty, naughty NPR ladies on the Delicious Dish.

Something cool happens when the melted peanut butter and butter (that’s right-BOTH) melds with the rice crispies and diabtes inducing amounts of confectioners sugar. I’ll be honest, these are a little labor intensive and are best made with some patience over a couple of days. But, they aren’t hard and, if you like chocolate and peanut butter together, they’re worth the effort. Another bonus: they don’t really go stale. After the chocolate has completely and totally tempered (seriously, like, entirely, trust me), store them in an air-tight container or freezer bag and they’ll be good through New Years. If they last that long. Ha!

First, get the biggest bowl you have. The recipe below is doubled but take my advice, bigger is better here.

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Once the peanut butter and butter are melted and molten hot, carefully add to the dry mix.

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Make a marginal effort to mix this up with a spatula and then abandon ship and just do it with your (clean) hands. Remember, this stuff is hot at first. Mix until everything starts to clump together. If, even after thorough mixing the “dough” is very dry, feel free to melt some more butter and add. I won’t tell anyone.

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Now you are ready for balls. I like mine to fit into cute little wrappers so I weigh out each ball at 1/2 ounce. For this phase, the work is made easier if you have two people: one to measure out portions and the other to form the balls. In the photo below, my husband is playing the role of hand model. Luckily, he works for peanuts (or, in this case, peanut butter).

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Once you’ve formed all of the “dough” into balls, line them up in a single layer on a cookie sheet or two, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate over night.

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Now for the dipping. You’ll need a double boiler. I know that they actually sell pots called “double boilers” but the truth is, a stock pot and large glass bowl work just as well. If you’ve never used a double boiler, just add a couple of inches of water to the bottom of the stock pot and fit the bowl over. You want the water to simmer but not boil.

A note here on chocolate. I like to use chocolate chips for a  chocolate coating. They come with a stabilizer in them that helps them keep their cute little chip shape when baked. This also comes in handy when using them as a candy coating because the stabilizers will help keep the candy form once it has hardened. You could also use dipping or molding chocolate  here as well.

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As the chocolate melts, gently stir. When melted, the chocolate will be too thick to properly dip your balls into. So, you are going to want to thin-out the melted chocolate with vegetable oil. This isn’t as weird as it sounds. In fact, if you’ve ever been to an event with a chocolate fountain (or if you have one at home like my friend Amber), they use the same process to get and keep their chocolate flowing.

I don’t have use a standard amount of oil. I just add it a tablespoon at a time (incorporating in between) until the chocolate is smooth and runs off the spatula in a thick by steady (ie, not gloppy) stream when lifted out of the chocolate.

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Now, take a deep breath. The next part isn’t as scary as it seems. To dip the balls, I like to use wooden bamboo skewers (the kind you use for BBQ kabobs). I spear a ball with the sharp end and insert it just far enough that the ball feels stable (maybe 1/8 “).

Next, I quickly dip the ball and cover it in one swoop. I then let it drip over the bowl and use an additional bamboo skewer to help set it on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. My mom uses spoons with successful results. Try a few methods and find one that works for you. This phase takes some patience. It takes me about an hour to dip a batch (70 or so) balls.

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Now, set the dipped balls in a cool, safe place and let them set-up and temper over night. As they harden, their appearance will change from shiny-wet to a nice soft sheen.

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And now, you’ve got peanut butter bonbons and the world at your feet.

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Chocolate Peanut Butter Bonbons

Makes about 70 ½ ounce balls (before they are dipped in chocolate)

2 C peanut butter (smooth or creamy)

.5 C Butter

4.5 C sifted powdered sugar

3 C rice crispies

12-24 ounces semi sweet chocolate chips

Wooden kabob skewers (available at the grocery store)

To make balls

Melt together peanut butter and butter. Meanwhile, in a large bowl (largest you have), sift in powdered sugar. Add in rice cripsies and combine. Once peanut butter and butter mixture is melted and combined, pour over sugar and rice cereal. Using an oiled spatula, fold mixture until combined (it will be hot, but this is sometimes easier to do with clean hands). The mixture will be crumbly and if it is too dry, melt additional peanut butter and add until dough comes together.

Using a 1 ounce scoop or spoon, form into balls. Place balls onto a cookie sheet or large plate and refrigerate at least two hours (I just do it over night).

To dip in chocolate

Melt chocolate chips in a double boiler. Add oil as needed until chocolate is melted but consistency of hot fudge (not too runny, not too gloppy). To dip balls, spear one about ¼ way through with a wooden skewer. Quickly dip it in the chocolate to the entire ball is covered. Hold over chocolate and let extra chocolate drip back into the pot.

Set aside on parchment lined cookie sheets or plates to harden.

Notes:

For a firmer chocolate shell, you can add a stabilizing ingredient to the melted chocolate (such as paraffin or uncolored unscented candle wax). The chocolate will already have some stabilizers in it if you are using chocolate chops but adding the additional wax will help them harden.

The venerable rum butter nut

This is my absolute favorite holiday cookie. It’s a rich shortbread bite with pecans, butterscotch bits and a light rum-laced icing. Come December, radio stations can ring out holiday music and stores can deck the halls all they want, but for me, it isn’t Christmas until my first flaky bite of a rum butter nut cookie. Those who know me will probably chalk it up to the rum. Those who know me even better will know that on their own, I’m not a particular fan of any of the cookie’s main ingredients—even the rum. But, combine them and something miraculous happens.

I have absolutely no idea where the original recipe came from. My mom’s version is written on a pink card stock note card.  It’s so old that it calls for a margarine-like substance called Oleo. I have no idea if the stuff exists anymore which doesn’t matter because I’ve always just used butter.

I will warn you that this tends to be a polarizing cookie. People either really love it. Or don’t. To those who don’t, I say “more for me,”

The dough, once mixed, will be crumbly. Back in the dark ages, I used to form my own balls. Now I use a one-ounce scooper. The result is that mine come out as domes–not balls. I happen to be okay with this geometric configuration. If you are not, form the dough into balls of your desired size.

Go ahead and line them up on the cookie sheet in close proximity. Like any shortbread, they won’t expand during the baking process. You’ll know they are done when the bottoms are a light golden brown.

But wait, there’s more. Once completely cooled, these little nuggets get a nice bath in icing made of rum and confectioner’s sugar (you can always replace the rum with water).

The result? Pure cookie perfection.

Rum Butter Nut Cookies

Preheat over to 325 degrees

Makes about 5 dozen 1.5” balls

Cookies

  • 1.5 C butter, softened
  • 1 C confectioner’s sugar, sifted
  • ½ t. salt
  • 3.5 C flour, sifted
  • 12 oz butterscotch chips
  • 2 C pecans

Glaze

  • 2 C confectioner’s sugar, sifted
  • ¼ C light rum (or water)

With a standing or hand mixer, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Sift salt and flour together. With mixer on low, add in flour mixture until dough just comes together. By hand, mix in chips and pecans. Shape into 1-1.5” balls (I use a 1 ounce scooper). Space evenly on parchment covered cookie sheets. Bake for 15 minutes or until the bottoms are just starting to brown.

Let cool completely.

Mix up glaze to desired consistency. Glaze cookies. Tip: Once glaze, I set them on a cooling rack to let the excess glaze drip off.

Turducken? Baduckey? It’s all meat to me.

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I threatened to provide follow-up on our Thanksgiving turducken breast—and who am I to not follow through on my threats (or as my mom would say to us kids when she was mad, ‘this is not a threat, it is a fact.’)?

Let’s start out by saying it was my husband’s idea. Around July he began opining on how tasty it would be if we had turducken for Thanksgiving. Now, if you haven’t been previously informed—or don’t pay any attention to the “Popular Searches” box on Yahoo’s homepage, I’m happy to enlighten you. Traditionally, a turducken is a turkey wrapped around a duck wrapped around a chicken—with the appropriate stuffings filled in between each layer of meat. According to the always reliable Wikipedia, its origins are of some dispute (as is generally true of all excessive meat products worth their weight in fat), but it seems to have appeared on the scene earlier this decade. Of course if you have any idea who John Madden is, you’ll also know that the dude loves him some turducken.

For the purposes of our small Thanksgiving assemblage, an entire turducken would be, well, just too much meat. So, a little research yielded a recipe for a turduken breast. This is effectively the same thing but only the breasts and stuffing—a veritable meat roll.

While I knew I could be up to the challenge of paillarding multiple layers of raw foul and then wrapping it all in bacon, I almost wept with joy when the butcher at Whole Foods told me I could order one from their special holiday list.

Well, the idea was good in theory. There seemed to be some sort of confusion when I showed up at the appointed time to procure my pre-ordered turducken breast. After much shuffling and running around, the butcher on duty presented me with what looked like it could be a turducken. He also mentioned that he’d knocked off three dollars a pound for my trouble. Hmmm.

All was explained the next day when I went to prepare the meat for grilling. I opened the neatly packaged birds to find duck. And chicken. But not turkey. Ahha! That explains the apologetic look in the butcher’s eyes. I could have taken it back, but in the spirit of culinary adventure I figured we already had enough birds to feed four. So, I wrapped it in bacon and a baducken was born.

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We then covered it in aluminum foil, threw it on the grill for a couple of hours and voila!

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I’ll admit, it was pretty tasty, though turducken it was not. Will there be a rematch next year in which I do what I should have done the first time and make the thing myself? Perhaps. Until then, happy Thanksgiving. And, to those of you frying your turkeys this year? I hope you have homeowners insurance.

Red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting, the nectar of a sound relationship

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I was a bad food blogger and did not take process pictures of the red velvet cupcakes featured in the previous post. Bad, bad blogger.

My husband is from the midwest. I’m from Southern California. What this means is that while our native tongues may be the same, our cultural icons aren’t always. In our relationship, nowhere is this more present than at the dinner table. When we first started dating, he’d never had a churro and I’d never even heard of a strange concoction he called red velvet cake.

Back at the start of the century, when our courting commenced, red velvet cake hadn’t yet burst onto the trendy LA baking scene. In fact, I doubted its very existence. For months we had to take a stroll down the baking aisle of every grocery store we visited looking for evidence of this mysterious cake variety. Not once did we find any. So set was my husband on proving himself right however that around the holidays he had his dad send a box from Tennessee.

So, it did exist!

Well, one box of red velvet cake is all fine and good until it is gone. So, I womaned up and found a few recipes for red velvet cake. After much experimentation and too much money spent on Schilling red food coloring, I found a winner. Of course, this was just about the time that red velvet cake became the next big thing in Los Angeles. While our local grocery stores now carry the boxed stuff, and every bakery seems to offer it in cake and cupcake form, this recipe is pretty darn easy to make and much better if you ask me.

Red Velvet Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

Makes 2 round cakes or about 16 regular size cupcakes.

For cake

2.5 C all purpose flour

1.5 C sugar

1 t. baking soda

1 t. salt

1 t. cocoa powder

1.5 C vegetable oil

1 C buttermilk at room temp.

2 large eggs at room temp.

1 ounce red food coloring (see note)

1 t. white vinegar

For frosting

1 lb light cream cheese, softened (full fat works well too through I like the lightness of the reduced fat)

4 C sifted powdered sugar

1 C unsalted butter, softened

1 t. vanilla extract

Preheat over to 350 degrees. Lightly oil and flour 2 round cake pans (8” or 9”)

Sift together flour, sugar, baking soda, salt and cocoa powder.

In a standing mixer fitted with a paddle (or large bowl) mix together buttermilk, eggs, oil, food coloring, vinegar and vanilla.

With the setting on low, slowly add in dry ingredients until just combined. Batter will be very wet and oily looking.

Divide cake evenly in prepared pans. Bake for about 30 minutes rotating halfway through until the cake pulls away from the side of the pan and a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean.

Removed cakes from oven, let sit for 5 minutes. Run the edge of a butter knife around the rim of the cakes, loosening them. Invert pans on to cooling racks, let cakes cool completely.

Frosting

In standing mixer fitted with a paddle or a large bowl with a hand mixer, combine all ingredients on low. Once combined, increase speed to high and whip mixture until light and fluffy. Use immediately.

Notes:

Red food coloring: an ounce is a small bottle of the stuff. In our neighborhood, this runs around $4. However, gel food colors such as the ones made by Ateco are less expensive and will get you more bang for the buck. You can find them in restaurant supply stores, suburban cooking shops like Sur La Table or can order them all over the place online (just enter in “Ateco food gel” as the search term).

The cakes don’t rise a whole lot. When I’m making a layer cake, I usually bake two batches and use three of the layers (you can freeze the fourth for later assuming it doesn’t get eaten on the spot like it seems to in our household).

For cupcakes, fill to a generous ¾.

It’s (almost) the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Hi there.

It’s been a while.

I take full responsibility. Gingerbread Royce really took it out of me. But, I seem to have found the human growth hormone equivalent for baking (really great vanilla perhaps) and am planned, organized and ready to embrace this holiday baking season. As someone who has always equated new beginnings with new outfits it seemed fitting that The Misanthropic Hostess blog found a new home and new look as well. So, here we are. Welcome!

In the coming weeks I’ll be posting my 2009 holiday recipes along with mediocre process pictures. By my count, there are about a dozen. At no extra charge (save shipping and handling), I also plan to document the full blow by blow of the preparation, grilling and final product that is to be our Thanksgiving Turducken Breast. Yeah, I know, ‘gee thanks.’

Just to get us started, I’ve posted a teaser photo. Stay tuned for details.

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Gingerbread Royce’s 15 Minutes

Gingerbread Royce has taking on a life of its own. In fact, I think Royce’s dance card is significantly more full than my own this holiday season.

GR, that charming devil, was featured in both the online UCLA staff and faculty newsletter and the online version of the alumni publication; UCLA Magazine:

Extreme Makeover

I also just got an email that GR made an appearance at the UCLA Athletic Department Holiday Party yesterday. It warms my heart that something I made took its place next to pie. I like pie.

Since I’ve now finished my holiday baking (of course I have photographic evidence…pictures to come) and the holiday cards are all in the mail, I’ve had a few moments to turn my thoughts toward what I could do to top Royce next year. I can think of only one thing: Yule Log. Stay tuned.

Royce In Situ

If you’ve ever watched the food pornography that is the Food Network, you’ll know that the most exciting part of those wild edible structure competitions is when the competitors have to move their creation from work space to display table. My adrenaline gets pumping more while watching “the transfer” than when they announce the brackets for March Madness. And, if you’re anything like me, you’ll admit (even if it’s just to yourself) that just like there is joy in seeing the underdog upset a top ranked team in round one (as long as it isn’t UCLA), there is some pay-off when the structure doesn’t quite make-it.

Well, I’m happy for me (and sad for the adrenaline junkies) that Gingerbread Royce’s trip to its final destination was very uneventful. Indeed, it made it to UCLA all in one piece. More or less. I can’t vouch for how it looks now, a week later, but when I left it, Gingerbread Royce was whole.

Here she is, finally at home.

And now my friends, we’ve reached the end of the second half and fourth quarter. The clock has run out and it’s all over save part where the band takes the field–or court–and plays the Alma Mater. While the trip has been entertaining, it’s time for me to switch aprons—but not Crocs—and start my holiday baking. Today: green coconut and royal icing. Tomorrow: Sparkly sugar stars and rum butternuts. Hail to the hills of Westwood…