Thursday, December 29, 2011

Banana Gingerbread Muffins (with vegan option)

I remember the last time I made a New Year's Resolution. The grown-ups were deep into their second or third glasses of table wine on New Year's Eve, when they started to make resolutions.  I wanted to feel included, so I read my resolutions, which I had written down in a book called Amazing Days, a holiday craft and activity book for kids. One of my resolutions was to eat my tomatoes, a vegetable that I loathed, except on pizza or in ketchup. It was the 80s, and even President Reagan said ketchup was a vegetable, after all. My resolution lasted all of a half an hour, until my mother served the salad course.

"What happened to your resolution to eat your tomatoes?" she asked.

"I resolved to eat my long as they were not MUSHY," I protested.  I ate the croutons and the green olives from my salad, and left the rest.

An observer would be inclined to think I had a faulty and irresponsible character--and they could be right--however, in retrospect, given angry food writers' fulminations against store-bought tomatoes, I would prefer to just see myself as a budding foodie with good, discerning tastes. I rejected the pink ping-pong balls doused in Wishbone Italian because I was a seasonal eater.  Except for pimento-stuffed olives.

Despite my allergy to resolutions, I have to say that I have accomplished some things this year.  Other than Fage yogurt (which doesn't 'count' in my eyes), I've pretty much eliminated all processed foods from my diet.  I've gone back to eating dairy on a regular basis, along with some fish and chicken, and feel better for doing so. (No more soy mystery meat).  I can sort of prop myself up doing a headstand in yoga, which is better than when I started practicing.  I'm more confident in my horseback riding, even though I still feel I should be farther along, based on how much I love horses and riding horses.  I'm not a famous published author but I've been reasonably consistent about updating this blog. I run. I floss. I try to do stuff, even if I'm not good at stuff. I eat broccoli and I recycle.

I do have goals but I don't make New Year's resolutions. My resolutions tend not to come at crisis points though, but tend to evolve over time.  Almost as a shock or surprise, I realize: "hey,  I've kinda made progress to getting to X."  I keep wanting to have an accomplishment that is gold-star, blue-ribbon good, though.  I have no trophies to put on my mantlepiece, except dusty second and tenth-place debate trophies from college.

I actually don't even have a mantlepiece, so when I get a trophy, I guess I'll have to fix that as well.

These are pretty healthy muffins.  I've made them both with milk and also almond milk, the latter for a vegan friend of mine.  The original recipe is a quick bread, but I'd suggest muffins instead because this batter is so sticky and dense it's difficult to check if the bread is cooked thoroughly inside at all points of the bread. With muffins, it's much simpler to be sure.

Banana Gingerbread Muffins

--yields 1 dozen muffins--

Adapted from Baking Bites


2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
 2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 cup banana (2-3 large, brown, mashed)
1/2 cup molasses
1/2 cup almond milk (vegan) OR buttermilk (non-vegan)
4 tbsp vegetable oil


1. Preheat oven to 350F. Line or grease 12 muffin cups

2. Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, spices, and sugar together

3. Combine mashed banana, molasses, egg, almond OR buttermilk, and oil together.  Spoon in dry mixture until well-combined.

4. Pour in muffin tins.  Bake 25-30 minutes, until a toothpick can be extracted 'clean.'  Can be eaten after cooled, or, for best flavor, wait a day, giving the flavors time to 'set.'  Of course, this takes discipline, which I have very little of, regarding food.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Anna's Old-Fashioned Oatmeal Cookies (small batch)

The first baking blog I ever read was Anna Ginsburg's Cookie Madness.  Anna has a wonderfully scientific approach to cooking which is combined with an unpretentious and eclectic attitude.  In my own baking, I've gone through various phases ('healthy,' vegan, small batch, and so forth) and now I'm pretty much focused on just making stuff really well that people like to eat, and not eating too much of it.  Throughout these 'periods' I have been able to find recipes on Anna's blog that suit virtually every specification imaginable--and all of them work.

Cookie Madness has such a wide variety of recipes that just about everyone can benefit from reading it, from serious from-scratch cooks to busy moms who want something to throw together before the kids get home.

It's often said that the best cookbooks are the ones that are the most disgusting and food-stained.  If Anna's blog was a cookbook, it would be smeared in cookie dough and the corners would have that odd, transparent quality that paper gets when it's stained with melted butter.  Fortunately for Anna, her blog can't get covered with food every time people use one of her recipes! 

Anna is coming out with a book...soon...though, so I'll have to find some way of preserving it.  Until then, I'll have to content myself with geeking out on her comparisons of different Italian rainbow cookie recipes

Just as a side note, from a purely unscientific poll of one, Anna's blog has inspired more of her commentators to blog (based upon what I've read over the years) and more of her commentators to try her recipes than just about any blog I am aware of--you know what I mean, if you read lots of food blogs.  There are blogs with pretty pictures that get lots of random comments like "yummy!" and "I love chocolate!"  But Anna's readers tend to ask questions about substitutions, or unusual aspects of techniques and ingredients. In other words, they really make and test her recipes.

(Oh, and did I forget to mention that Anna is a former Pillsbury Bake-Off Grand Prize winner)?

Anna has a wonderful recipe for old-fashioned oatmeal cookies, but it had a rather high yield, so I scaled it down a bit and made a few minor substitutions. I also increased the proportion of raisins and nuts based upon personal preferences and availability of ingredients.  The original is here.

Anna's Old-Fashioned Oatmeal Cookies

(scaled-down batch)

 -yields 36 large cookies-


2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup raisins (1/2 cup golden raisins (sultanas), 1/2 cup brown raisins)

1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
11/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup rolled oats

1 cup toasted walnuts, coarsely chopped


1. Don't preheat your oven.  Instead 'marinate' the raisins in the eggs and vanilla for approximately one hour.

2. NOW you can preheat your oven to 350F and line two baking sheets with parchment.

3.  Cream butter and sugars.  Sift flour, salt, baking soda, and spices.  Gradually spoon flour into butter mixture. Add vanilla/egg/raisin mixture. Add oats, then nuts.

4. Scoop onto parchment, bake for 12-15 minutes.

Flourless peanut butter cookies

December 26th is Boxing Day, which means that you should really give the servants a day off, and present them with their Christmas boxes of leftover food from your feast, and some alms as well.

I personally have never had a maid, or lived in a house serviced by a maid.  My mother kept house, and also cleaned and maintained my grandmother's home for her entire life, including when I was very small. I know people who have maids now, but when I was growing up I only knew two families who had maids: The Brady Bunch and the nice rich lady I took art lessons from in my neighborhood.

The live-in maid at the rich lady's house wore a starched blue uniform (just like Alice) and would answer the door when I came with my mother after school.  I'd go to the lady's basement, which was set up as an enormous studio.  There was (and the memory is so clear I know that my mind isn't creating a retrospective fantasy) a ceiling-to-floor reproduction of  Georges Seurat's masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte on an entire wall.
There was every art supply imaginable, spanning from canvases of every size, to poster paints, to tissue paper, acrylics, oil paints, smocks, brushes, and clay.

Art was this woman's passion, and although she certainly didn't need the spare change she got from giving lessons, she wanted to share that passion with others.  Despite the fact she was giving art lessons to kids she took her work very seriously--the beginning of the sessions she would show us examples of techniques in famous paintings that she liked, and then we could create works of our own, using whatever medium we chose, as she guided us.  I remember painting lots of unicorns, hearts and rainbows (it was the 80s, and I was a little girl) and making lots of clay horses.  She never censored me, but instead showed me how to use different media, brush strokes and techniques so I learned from painting what was then my favorite subjects.  Then I'd wash my hands before I went home.  I remember first realizing that she must be rich because she had perfumed liquid soap (we only had bars of Ivory at home) and the bathroom sink had hand-carved, rose-shaped soaps she had made herself, which I knew instinctively not to use.

Since I have a rather asocial disposition, I've never wanted a maid, but the idea of an in-house art studio has its attractions. Although, after a certain point, unless you're very, very talented and dedicated indeed, attempts at art are no longer seen as cute crafts but instead as another 'c' word, with 'p' substituting for the 'ft.' 

I am very grateful for those art lessons--particularly since it was not something this woman 'needed' to do in a material sense, but rather was her way of taking advantage of the opportunities she had been given and using them well.

Baking for me, I suppose, absorbs some of my crafty energy. I made these cookies as a Christmas present for a gluten-intolerant friend. One of the nice things about flourless desserts is that they are so 'safe'--although there are gluten-free baking mixes and flours out there, not everyone can tolerate them equally well.

I made a version of this recipe when I started baking several years ago (called 'one-two-three-peanut butter-sugar-egg cookies'). It wasn't that impressed, but these came out much better. The addition of baking soda, cinnamon, and vanilla seemed to help give the cookies a bit more structure and body.

There are many variations you can try with these cookies, so long as the add-ins don't contain gluten. Chocolate chips, peanuts, even jam 'thumbprint' cookies would work, as would topping it with a Hershey's Kiss for a classic peanut butter blossom.

Because this is such a fast, one-bowl recipe, it's also very easy to clean up, which is nice even if you do have a maid and don't observe Boxing Day. On some nights Alice needs to have her date with Sam the Butcher.

Flourless Peanut Butter Cookies

-yields 12-15 large cookies-


1 cup of peanut butter (smooth, not a natural, separated variety)
1 cup granulated sugar
1 beaten, large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon


1. Preheat oven to 350F.  Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

2. Incorporate peanut butter, sugar, egg, and vanilla in a bowl, slowly stir in vanilla, baking soda, and cinnamon.

3. Scoop out dough onto the parchment sheets, make a 'criss-cross' shape with the tines of a fork.

4. Bake 12-15 minutes, until slightly golden at the edges.  Cool before removing from baking sheets.

Warning: these cookies are more fragile and delicate than 'normal' peanut butter cookies.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

In praise of stuff: Chocolate- stuffed Chocolate Snowballs

If I was suddenly given $200 and relieved of any and all obligations to spend that money in a practical fashion, I'd sink that money into leasing a horse or to buy more riding lessons.  More practically, I'd buy some new shoes (although knowing me, I'd mysteriously find a way to buy riding boots, rather than professional shoes).

But even though I liked Sex in the City when it was popular, my immediate instinct upon seeing Carrie Bradshaw's stable full of Manolos was not 'how cute,' but 'thank goodness I don't need to wear such overpriced and expensive shoes.'

So you might be expecting a rant about stuff this Christmas Eve. I admit that I am the type of person who shops at T.J. Maxx rather than Saks and doesn't see the point of buying name-brand items full price. But I will also say that having certain types of stuff has made me a better, more open-minded person, a person more willing to take risks. 

Like having a reliable car, finally, for an entire year,  encouraged me to take more road trips and explore different areas of my state.  Having a home rather than a tiny flat with neighbors who routinely set off the smoke alarm cooking sausages at 11am like I did in my 20s has made me significantly more productive as a writer because of the privacy this engenders.

 Being able to pay for lessons to learn to do stuff, entertainment about stuff, and the clothes to wear while doing stuff is all important. I don't agree with the great George Carlin that the purpose of life is finding a place for stuff, but I do think that deciding what is the RIGHT stuff to buy, rather than doing away with buying stuff at all--taking a kind of quasi-Buddhist Middle Path approach to stuff--is the wisest one.

I wouldn't say that more money is the only key to happiness. After a certain point and a certain salary level, the marginal utility one derives from every extra dollar probably does decline (I can't speak from personal experience about that experience, though).

But it is important to acknowledge, without platitudes, that those of us who have some stuff are lucky and not to over-romanticize a lack of stuff.  Because a life without any stuff but the basic necessities at all--without the opportunity to seek out new things, to stretch out of your comfort zone--is very bleak indeed.

So don't be judgmental of your friends who get their kids stuff for Christmas--you never know what kind of creative and new interest just the right present might spark in a child's mind. The best gift I ever got was the Sindy Dream House. My parents didn't really like me to play with Barbies:

Despite the fact that Sindy didn't have the anatomically incorrect proportions of Barbie, Sindy didn't save me from body issues--running shoes did, when I started exercising in my mid-20s. Still, she and My Friend Jenny inspired me to write stories at a very young age, even though I find dolls way creepy now. (Although not, oddly enough, stuffed animals, when I buy chew toys for my dog).

Possibly the most 70s photograph of two dolls, ever

In honor of a holiday about stuff,  I made a chocolate-stuffed cookie,inspired by the Hershey's website.  I have to admit that I'm not much of a fan of most Hershey's chocolates, but again, much to my surprise, the website actually has quite a few really good 'from scratch' recipes.  When I made it for my yoga studio, the tasters gave it a 'best ever' rating.  And it's almost embarrassingly easy.  No, there is no eggs in the recipe--that's not a typo. I halved the yield but kept the level of chocolate the same in my version.

Chocolate-stuffed Chocolate Snowballs

Adapted from the Magical Kisses Recipe by Hershey's

--Makes 24 cookies--


1 stick of melted butter
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup unsweetened dark cocoa
24 (more or less) unwrapped Hershey's dark chocolate kisses
Powdered sugar


1. Preheat oven to 350F.  Unwrap Hershey's kisses.  Line two sheets with parchment paper.
2. Mix the butter, sugar, vanilla, flour, and cocoa together in a bowl.  A dough will quickly form.  Scoop out 24 lumps of dough (approximate) and make a depression in each ball, inserting the 'kiss' into the center.  Shape so kiss is completely covered in dough.
3. Bake for 8-10 minutes.  Cookies will not spread very much.  Cool and roll in powdered sugar.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Dark Chocolate Creamy Peanut Butter Blossoms

When most people write that they were 'born to bake' or 'born to cook,' they usually mean that there was a serious cook in the household that guided them on their way from a young age.  I love reading anecdotes about people who learned how to make Christmas cookies by their mother's or grandmother's side.  However, the main sugary treats I recall baking at home were:

1. Chocolate chip or chocolate chocolate chip cookies made from a mix or from a sliced log
2. Golden cake with chocolate frosting (NEVER chocolate cake with white frosting) from a box and from a spreadable tub, respectively
2. Blueberry muffins from a mix
3. Pouring chocolate pudding into a graham cracker pre-made crust to make pie

That was pretty much the rotation, and even then, using these items was quite rare.  I remember watching The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (the cartoon version) when it was aired for the first time around Christmas and seeing incessant advertisements for Pillsbury sugar dough 'slice' mix, which you could cut into shapes to make angels, and there was great reluctance in my household to reify sugar in such a manner. I guess that's why I ended up taking a class called 'Animals: Realms of Power' in graduate school and ate a lot of snack cakes while doing so.

I also remember once begging to make some really decadent cookies when my Brownie troop had a 'bake-off' contest, and my mother insisting on making a low-sugar variety, much to my displeasure.  Shockingly, I lost to a girl who made something studded with M&Ms and laced with chocolate.

Needless to say, when I was growing up, I never made these classic Christmas treats--peanut butter blossoms.

I used the recipe from the Hershey's website but I modified several things, and other than the kisses, I didn't use Hershey's products.

Dark Chocolate Creamy Peanut Butter Blossoms

--makes 24 large cookies--

1/2 cup butter (I used salted, but I am a salt-o-holic when it comes to nuts)
3/4 cup creamy peanut butter
1/3 cup granulated white sugar
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
1 beaten, large egg
2 tablespoons milk (I used skim, because that's what I had on hand)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt

24 unwrapped dark chocolate Hershey's kisses (or more or less, depending on how you size your cookies)

1. Preheat the oven to 375F, line two baking sheets with parchment paper
2. Cream the butter, peanut butter, and two sugars together.  Gradually incorporate the egg, milk, and vanilla.
3. Sift the flour, baking soda and salt together.  Incorporate the dry and the wet mixture until dough is formed.
4. Scoop out dough into approximately 1-inch balls.  Do not flatten.  Bake for 8-12 minutes until dough is slightly browning and 'crackling.'  Press kisses immediately into the center of the cookie upon extracting from the oven.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Chocolate White Chocolate Chunk Cookes: Because chocolate goes with everything

They say that all a woman needs is a little black dress.  I beg to differ.  I wore a black and white dress to my prom in the early 90s.  I don't have a photograph online, but a quick glance at a 'little black dress' from that era will clearly illustrate that black and white gowns can go out of style.

Party dresses date quickly, as do party foods. Although many people wax profound about tradition, and how certain foods ALWAYS appear around the holidays, I have to say that despite seeing these at parties during my youth, during the 1980s, I have not seen them served recently for quite some time.

Of course, people still EAT these foods.  But serving them to guests would take a bit of retro 'gall.'

1. Jell-O Molds
Flickr: bdunette

For the love of all that is holy--no Jell-O.  The sight of artificially sweetened and colored collagen rendered from boiled animal bones, tissues, intestines and other offal makes me shudder.  People who don't cook are allured by the ease of assembling 'creations' and seeming 'creative' with Jell-O.  Much like people who feel compelled to write their own free verse poetry on greeting cards, this trendy type of creative non-cookery has fortunately been quashed.

2. Ritz Crackers
Flickr: Palmetto Cheese

Growing up, any 'fancy' party boasted a tray of Ritz crackers. Ritz crackers offered a variety of topping possibilities, spanning from cheese hunks, to pepperoni, to peanut butter, to butter, to cream cheese, jam, to honey.  They were the universal bestower of goodness--anything tasted better on a Ritz. Now, they seem hopelessly dated, and a true foodie makes her own crackers.  But oh, they were so good! Like freebasing crunchy butter!

Chicken-in-a-Biskit was also popular, with cream cheese. I recall liking them, even though they were confusingly crackers, and neither chicken nor biscuits. And misspelled.

3. Sliced Pepperoni (with or without cheese)

As a kid, I wasn't a big meat eater. This was one of the few meats I would consume willingly.  No appetizer tray at my grandmother's was complete without sliced pepperoni and salami, perhaps in deference to the fact that she was briefly married to an Italian. I mean, it's good for you because it's protein, right?

4. Liverwurst

Flickr: cheeseslave

Going with the processed meat theme, Liverwurst was another staple.  My aunt's very deaf white cat had a particular fondness for it, and I liked to share slices with it.

5. Cocktail franks wrapped in Pillsbury dough or Pillsbury crescent rolls or biscuits

Yet again, another processed food item that gave you the impression of cooking, but not really. Of course, people still serve Pillsbury, but I seldom see that trademark puffy dough when the bread basket comes out.  Come to think of it, the bread basket is being threatened by the passage of time, much like the relish tray (I remember those, too).

6. Highly processed cheese products.

 I can recall when the first Cool Ranch Doritos came out--and the first incarnation of Combos.  Cheetos were never a favorite of mine. Although they were frequently served at wholesome Christmas parties, despite their disturbingly phallic appearance.

7. Dried fruits

Some older folk still remembered when dried fruits were a big deal when I was a kid, so dates and figs were often served on trays. I liked dates because they were sweet, so it was kind of like being allowed to eat as much candy as I wanted only because it had fiber it was supposed to be good for me.

8.  Need I say more?

Chocolate never goes out of style.  These chocolate white chocolate chunk cookies are as elegant and timeless serving martinis to your guests to ensure they don't remember any awkward conversations the day after.

Chocolate White Chocolate Chunk Cookies

With some adaptations, from Ina Garten

-yields 48 small cookies, 24 large-


1 cup (2 sticks) of room temperature butter
1 cup of dark brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 large, beaten eggs

2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda 
1 teaspoon salt

2 cups of white chocolate chips


1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Line two baking trays with parchment paper.
2. Cream butter, sugars, and vanilla.  Add eggs.
3. Sift cocoa, flour, baking soda, salt together.  Slowly spoon into wet mixture.  Fold in white chocolate chips.
4. Bake 15-17 minutes, depending on size of the cookies.  Cookies will be soft at the end of the bake time. Remove from baking tree when the cookies have solidified.