Victoria Sponge Cakes

Classic Victoria Sponge CakesLike a lot of people, Bear and I ditched cable a while back and, for the most part, have no complaints! Not having a huge bill is the greatest perk, of course, but so is discovering new shows. This can go either way and, if we’re being honest, at least 20% of what we queue up is for hate-watching; have you re-watched any early 90s cooking shows lately? Hilarious…and also a study in food trends. Ah, the days when the portobello mushroom was “exotic,” as I recently heard it referred to or how we watched an entire show dedicated to the “wonders” of basil. I die.

Classic Victoria Sponge CakesRecently, our hunt for new shows of the cooking variety brought us to The Great British Bake Off (GBBO) series, which airs on PBS. Oh my god, you guys, we have lost the last three weeks to watching every single episode in all five of its seasons! It is so, so good! GBBO is a baking competition that follows 12 amateur home bakers through 10 weeks of challenges. Sounds familiar enough to U.S. cooking competition shows, yes? Well, that’s about where it stops. GBBO is wonderfully antithetical to anything you’ve  watched on the Food Network or Fox. It is believable, first and foremost, and the most impressive part about it is how genuinely invested the contests and judges are in the skills and in each other. There’s no “Welcome to the Thunderdome!” element to it, no sabotage, no surprise twist ingredient. It’s just an honest competition with lots of talent and two totally delightful co-hosts. I’m so sad we’ve watched, literally, all of it. Good thing Season 6 starts in just a few months! Eee!

Classic Victoria Sponge CakesAfter watching five seasons of GBBO though, you can imagine that there’s a strong impulse to bake alongside the contestants and try out the (new-to-this-American) confections. Season after season, it seemed as if each had a challenge where the bakers had to make classic Victoria sponge cakes (also called Victoria Sandwiches), a double-layer vanilla sponge cake filled with homemade strawberry jam and whipped cream, and named for Queen Victoria herself. While I was tempted by more complex undertakings, such as brandy snaps and mille feuille, it was the simple Victoria sponge cake I most wanted to try.

Classic Victoria Sponge CakesTraditionally, the batter for Victoria sponge cakes is evenly divided into two 8″ round cake pans, but with Valentine’s Day right around the corner, I couldn’t resist using my heart-shaped muffin tin. I think I chose right! In tins such as mine, one batch made 24 mini cakes, which is perfect if dividing into small gifts, favors, or serving them alongside afternoon tea, as intended. Of course, these will taste just as delicious as a large two-layer cake in proper English tradition.

Classic Victoria Sponge CakesAt any rate, I hope you’ll try these. The cake itself is so buttery and airy – just strong enough to cradle layers of sweet preserves and a very lightly sweetened whipped cream between its halves. Everyone always says that simple is better and, in this case particularly, it is absolutely the truth. I would take a perfect, tender Victoria sponge cake over something complex covered in salted caramel and spun something-or-other any day – they are so sublime! Happy Valentine’s Day, lovies! xoxo

Classic Victoria Sponge Cakes
Yields one 8-inch double-layer cake or 24 mini layer cakes; recipe only slightly altered from here.

Ingredients
4 eggs
1 cup of superfine sugar, plus 3 tablespoons for whipped cream
1 cup of self-rising flour
1 cup of butter, softened, plus 2 tablespoons to butter tins
2 teaspoons of baking powder
1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon of salt
1 cup of homemade strawberry or raspberry jam (or store-bought with visible pieces of fruit), approximately
1 cup of heavy cream
Powdered sugar for decorating

Directions
Preheat your oven to 355°F. Prepare your tins. If using two 8-inch round tins, cut a round of parchment for each. Butter the bottom of the tins lightly and then lay down the parchment rounds. use remaining butter to spread all over the top of parchment and all around the interior sides of the tin. You may wish to add a slight dusting of flour to these as well for easier removal. If using muffin tins, liberally butter each hole, as well as the area in between each section in case they bake up over their individual spot.

In a medium mixing bowl, combine the butter, 1 cup of sugar, flour, eggs, baking powder, vanilla extract and salt. Blend with a hand-mixer until just combined. Do not over-mix or your cakes may sink. Fill your tins evenly and gently smooth the tops with a butter knife or a cake spatula. If you are using muffin tins, each hole needs only to be filled about 1/3 of the way. Place cakes in the oven and gently shut the door. Two 8-inch rounds will take approximately 25 minutes, while those in muffin tins will take approximately 15-20 minutes. Cakes are done when they are lightly browned, pulling away from the sides of the tins, and spring back with a gentle touch.

Allow cakes to cool in their tins for 5 minutes once removed from the oven. Next, transfer to a baking rack and allow to sit until they are cold. When ready to prepare your cakes, pour 1 cup of heavy cream and three tablespoons of superfine sugar into a medium bowl and blend with a hand-blender or a whisk until whipped peaks hold their shape. Under-mixing will cause the whipped cream to ooze out of the cakes once sandwiched and over-mixing will turn the cream to butter.

If you are baking the traditional 8-inch, two-layered Victoria sponge cake, place one layer upside down on a cake plate and spread as much, or as little, jam as you’d like on the top. Repeat with a layer of whipped cream. Affix the top cake layer top-side up and dust generously with powdered sugar. If you are using a muffin tin, slice each cake in half horizontally and fill as described above. Dust with powdered sugar. Store cakes in the fridge for up to 5 days.

Bagel and Lox Cheese Ball

Bagel & Lox Cheese Ball
As an only child who lives halfway across the country, it’s safe to say that when I go home to visit my family, it’s a pretty big deal. If you’re an SNL fan, you couldn’t have missed this year’s Thanksgiving sketch by the ladies of the cast about heading home for the holidays – Back Home Ballers – which feels like an only slightly exaggerated version of my reality. What can I say? My mom misses me a whole lot (it’s mutual, Mom! Promise!). While home a few weeks ago, I was greeted two Saturday mornings with the biggest perk of being a long distance daughter – fresh-baked Jersey bagels! Still slightly warm in the center, they were perfectly chewy and heavily covered in a dense “everything” style mix of sesame seeds, poppy seeds, coarse salt, garlic, and onion. Gah, so delicious!Bagel & Lox Cheese BallThese bagels reached true “baller” status, though, when my mom broke out the surprise of lox and cream cheese to go along with them. We bonded over this treat when I was little; when the sight and smell of lox saw my dad scurrying from the kitchen with his nose pinched and me following suit just because it seemed the silly thing to do. Left to enjoy her luxe bagel alone, my curiosity eventually got the better of me and I returned to the table one morning and asked my mom for a bite. I had never tasted anything so savory and so delicious! I was hooked and from then on it became a special, once-in-a-blue-moon treat shared between mother and daughter – my dad stayed firm in his position on the matter.

Bagel & Lox Cheese BallWhen I returned to Minneapolis after Christmas this year, I brought back with me some fresh bagels for Bear and I because that’s the kind of girlfriend I am. One who travels with food in her luggage to bring you a familiar taste of home. We gobbled them up in just three days (what? they go stale fast!) and each time I bit into one, I sighed and spoke about the bagel and lox of weeks ago. Laying in bed on the night of the last bagel, I fantasized about the bagel and lox plate at a cafe I used to get here in Minneapolis that was truly a tasty feast, save for the hard, dense bagels they served with it. The Midwest has many perks, but bagels aren’t one of them. At any rate, this bagel plate came with a mound of garlic and dill cream cheese, capers, thinly sliced purple onion, and tomatoes. Mixing and matching ingredients between bites of lox and everything bagel was an indulgent pleasure, but one I’d foregone in recent years because of those disastrous bagels that accompanied it.

Bagel & Lox Cheese BallBut wait – I had cream cheese and purple onion in the fridge…and capers too! I even had, after examining the specifics, all the spices and seeds I’d need to make an everything bagel. All I was missing was the lox itself and that certainly wouldn’t be hard to find. I was onto a re-creation of sorts as I drifted off to sleep. Thing is, though, I knew even as my dreams found me that night that I didn’t want to be bothered making bagels – and anything store-bought out this way was just going to be a cruel, doughy joke even if it was to be smeared with all the right fixin’s. Enter: the bagel and lox cheese ball that came to mind the next morning. Sleep really is good for the brain!

Bagel & Lox Cheese BallIf you’ve spent any time on Pinterest lately, you’ve seen that the humble cheese ball is having a renaissance right now and truly, thank goodness! Why did cheese balls ever go out of fashion? While they might not necessarily be the most chic thing, I’m willing to bet that there’s never any left at the end of a party, no matter what you add to them or what you roll them in. A bagel & lox cheese ball seemed like a natural next step, adding in all the familiar toppings and flavors within the ball itself and covering the whole thing in the crunch reminiscent of my favorite bagel.

It sounded so good in theory, but the execution was tastier than I could have even imagined! All of the flavors I dreamt about, enjoyed around the table with my mom, are right here in this cheese ball. The perfect bite, but wrapped up into one adorable, party perfect sphere! Served with bagel chips or rye crackers, this is the perfect cheese ball for a brunch spread or an afternoon tea party. Won’t you give it a try?

Bagel and Lox Cheese Ball
Yields one cheese ball, approximately 3 inches across

Ingredients
1 8-ounce block of cream cheese, softened
2 Tablespoons of thinly sliced green onions
2 Tablespoons of finely minced purple onion
1 Tablespoon of nonpariel capers, roughly chopped
3 ounces of lox or smoked salmon
Fresh cracked black pepper
1/4 cup of toasted sesame seeds
3 Tablespoons of poppy seeds
2 Tablespoons of dehydrated onion flakes
1 teaspoon of garlic powder
1-1/2 teaspoons of coarse salt (I go a little light on the salt because of the salt in the ball itself)

Directions
Leave the cream cheese out to soften for a few hours or microwave for 30 seconds or until soft to the touch and set aside. Slice the green onions, the purple onion, the capers, and the lox. Add all aforementioned ingredients to cream cheese and crack in about half a teaspoon of black pepper. Combine thoroughly together. Put bowl directly into the refrigerator, uncovered, and allow to sit for 30-45 minutes. In the meantime, cut a 14″ piece of plastic wrap and lay on a flat work surface. After the time has passed, remove the cream cheese mixture from the refrigerator and spoon into a big mound in the center of the plastic wrap. Draw sides and edges of the wrap up together toward the center, shaping the mixture into a ball and twist the plastic wrap tightly shut. Finish shaping the plastic wrap-covered ball into as round a shape as possible. Return to a clean bowl where it will help hold the shape and place in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours.

While the cheese ball is resting and firming up, prepare the “everything” bagel coating. Preheat oven to 350°F. Combine the sesame seeds, poppy seeds, dehydrated onion flakes, garlic powder, and salt in a bowl and than pour, in a single layer, onto a baking sheet. Bake in oven for 4-5 minutes or until the mixture is toasted. Keep an eye on these, as they go from toasted to burnt in a second. When finished, remove seeds from pan immediately and allow to cool completely.

When the topping is cooled and your cheese ball has had time to firm up, remove the latter from the plastic wrap and roll in the the toasted “everything” mixture, being certain you cover the cheese ball completely in the topping. Serve immediately.

Irish Cream Fudge with Guinness Ganache

Irish Cream Fudge with Guinness Ganache RecipeThough I’ve never marched in a parade for it, nor have I ever drank green beer, I still like to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day every year in some capacity. While there’s no Irish ancestry on either side of my family, my mom always made a corned beef on March 17th along with boiled potatoes and cabbage. We all looked forward to that meal each year, as if corned beef couldn’t be found and made for dinner the other 364 days!

Irish Cream Fudge with Guinness Ganache RecipeWhile I’ll be making this same treat-of-a-supper for Bear and I this St. Patrick’s Day, we’ll end our meal with this totally decadent Irish-inspired fudge. Obviously, this recipe was developed after we recently had a conversation about Irish car bombs, the drinks, and how they’re a curdled nightmare if you don’t chug them quickly enough; hi, my early 20s! Because we’re socially conscious killjoys on occasion, Bear schooled me on how the name “Irish car bomb,” is actually really culturally insensitive, pointing to the violence that erupted in Northern Ireland – including the deadly use of car bombs – in the 1970s-1990s. Rather than perpetuate this kind of wackness, we made a decision right then and there that if I was going to try and make us a fudge that incorporated similar flavors, we’d leave that name in the dust.

Irish Cream Fudge with Guinness Ganache RecipeNow that your history lesson is out of the way, let’s talk about fudge and how there are, generally, two basic approaches to it. The one I’m most familiar with includes chocolate melted alongside a can of sweetened condensed milk , later folded together with marshmallow creme and nuts. It’s easy and often can be done in the microwave. The other contains evaporated milk in place of the sweetened condensed milk and requires some boiling, a candy thermometer, and confectioner’s sugar. It’s a bit more involved and seems to yield a softer, albeit still delicious, fudge.

Irish Cream Fudge with Guinness Ganache RecipeI had planned on making this via the former method, but when I started to organize my mise en place I noticed I had mistakenly picked up evaporated milk instead of sweetened condensed. Zut alors! While this version did require the stove (whoa!) and keeping a close eye on the fudge’s rising temperature, it still came together in about 10 minutes. After a good, long chill in the fridge overnight, followed by a blanket of glossy ganache, and another nap to cool down again, it formed into this smooth, creamy confection. The fudge itself actually tastes like Irish Cream, which I’m very happy about, and while it’s certainly sweet from the confectioner’s sugar the bitterness of the Guinness in the ganache creates a very sophisticated flavor pairing – one that should, like my mother’s corned beef, be enjoyed throughout the year and not just on St. Patrick’s Day.

Irish Cream Fudge with Guinness Ganache RecipeAs a final note about the fudge, I’m storing mine in the freezer because the booze in the fudge makes it especially soft. Coming cold out of the freezer, I can slice it easier and eat it without fear of it getting too messy. It never actually freezes and rather stays a typical fudge consistency housed in the freezer. In the fridge, it is almost the consistency of a cookie dough, so fairly soft.

Irish Cream Fudge with Guinness Ganache
Yields one 8×8 pan; This recipe should be made at least a day in advance of serving so that it has enough time to chill and firm up.

Ingredients:
For the fudge:
1/2 cup of evaporated milk
1 cup of light brown sugar, packed
1 cup of white sugar
1-1/2 sticks of butter
1/4 teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
1/3 cup of Irish Cream liqueur
2-1/2 cup of confectioner’s sugar, sifted
1/2 cup of chopped pecans

For the ganache:
1-1/2 cups of semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup of heavy whipping cream
1/4 cup + 1 Tablespoon of Guinness stout
Pinch of salt

Directions:
First, line an 8″x8″ pan with foil or parchment, allowing several inches to hang over the sides, and grease the lining lightly with butter or a non-flavored cooking spray. In a pot, over medium heat, stir together the evaporated milk, brown sugar, white sugar, butter and salt. Slowly bring to a boil, stirring often, and cook until your candy thermometer reads 236°F; this temperature is called the “soft ball stage.” Remove the mixture from the heat and stir in the vanilla extract and the liqueur. Pour into a mixing bowl and using either a hand mixer or a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, slowly, on low speed, add the confectioner’s sugar in 2-3 increments. When thoroughly combined, stir in pecans until incorporated, and then spoon fudge into the prepared pan evenly. Next, cover the pan with foil and place in the refrigerator until firm. If you’re not adding the ganache, allow to harden for at least 6-8 hours. If you are going ahead with the ganache, check the fudge after 3 hours. It should be firm enough by then to continue.

For the ganache, add chocolate, cream, salt, and 1/4 cup of Guinness to a pot over medium heat. Stir occasionally until the chocolate melts completely and the mixture is smooth. A whisk will help remove any residual lumps. Remove the ganache from the heat and taste it. If you’re happy with it, leave as is; if you prefer more of a Guinness flavor add 1 Tablespoon of Guinness, stir well, and check flavor again. When the ganache has reached the flavor you desire, allow the mixture to cool by either putting the pot into a bowl of ice or by filling your sink with several inches of cold water and allowing the pot to sit there for 20 minutes; stir or whisk occasionally. When the mixture is no longer hot and has cooled, remove your fudge from the refrigerator and pour the ganache over it. Use a rubber spatula to smooth the ganache over the entire top surface of the fudge. Cover the fudge with foil and allow to set up in the refrigerator or freezer for another 6-8 hours.

When the fudge and the ganache have set, remove the fudge from the pan by grasping the overhanging foil or parchment and lifting out the block. Peel off the liner and place the square of fudge onto a cutting board. Using a sharp knife, cut the fudge into squares. Keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator or freezer for up to 2 weeks.

Neapolitan Coconut Sundae Candies

Neapolitan Coconut Sundae CandiesRemember being a kid and going to the grocery store and there were those big bins of loose, wrapped candies? They were 5¢ and on the honor system, so you’d toss your nickel into the tin collection box and then mull over the ten or so different options. Strawberry hard candy wrapped in its metallic strawberry-print wrapper? Yes. Caramel logs flavored with raspberry, vanilla, and maple? My weakness. Root beer barrels? Come on! So nostalgic! Sadly, you don’t see many of these around anymore (I recognize that I totally sound 125 years old right now) and a quick Google search recently led me to a hard and true fact: some of these tiny treats are gone for good.

Neapolitan Coconut Sundae CandiesSo what’s a girl to do when her boo thang waxes poetic about the sweet coconut flavors of a Brach’s Neapolitan Coconut Sundae and your jaunt down Memory Lane ends in the word “discontinued?” Well, you get resourceful and you turn to Aunt Martha, and she (though I imagine really it’s some underpaid sous chef somewhere) figures out a recipe to recreate these candies of yore. Soon, you’re on your way! Thanks, Internet.

Neapolitan Coconut Sundae CandiesWhile mine aren’t quite as pretty as hers – I have a heavy hand when it comes to anything pink – I think these are just the cutest little bites and would bring cheer to anyone that met them. They have such a pleasant coconut taste that, while sweet, is not cloying thanks to their combination of unsweetened and sweetened coconut flakes and not all of the latter. They have a slight chew to them and a buttery richness from the white chocolate, which makes up the pink and white layers; milk chocolate composes the majority of the bottom layer.

Neapolitan Coconut Sundae CandiesThe hardest part of this whole recipe is splitting the candy evenly enough to spread and form three distinct layers and, really, that just requires some measuring and some patience; two things my thick, pink layer could have benefited a little more from. Seriously, though, these are a cinch of a confection and they don’t even require a candy thermometer!  Neapolitan Coconut Sundae Candies are an easy, tasty reproduction of a classic that is undoubtedly missed, but not nearly as badly now that I have the recipe for these in my back pocket. I love when things work out like that!

Neapolitan Coconut Sundae Candies
Yields approximately 160 candies; recipe here.

Ingredients:
12 ounces of white chocolate; I used chips
1 14 ounce can of sweetened condensed milk
3 Tablespoons of unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon of coarse salt
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
1-1/4 cups of shredded, unsweetened coconut flakes
1-1/3 cups of shredded, sweetened coconut flakes
1 ounce of milk chocolate chips, melted
Pink or red gel-paste food coloring, as needed; start with the tiniest bit, it goes a long way!

Directions:
Line an 8-inch square cake pan with plastic wrap, aluminum foil, or parchment paper, leaving a 2-inch overhang on 2 sides. In a medium sized pot, combine the white chocolate, the sweetened condensed milk, butter, salt, and vanilla extract and melt over medium heat. Stir until completely smooth. Remove mixture from heat and incorporate both kinds of coconut. Next, divide the mixture evenly among 3 bowls. Stir milk chocolate into one of the 3 bowls until combined. Add the food coloring gel into another one of the 3 bowls, stir to combine, and set aside. Leave remaining bowl plain. Spread milk chocolate layer into the bottom of the square pan. Next, add the plain coconut layer in large dollops before spreading gently over the milk chocolate coconut layer. Be careful not to blend the middle and bottom layers. Follow this same process for the top pink layer, covering the white layer completely. When finished assembling, place in fridge for 2-4 hours or until firm. If you need to give it more time to firm up, or want to stop there overnight, be sure to cover the top gently with another piece of parchment paper, so that it doesn’t absorb refrigerator smells. When ready to slice, unmold the coconut square using the overhang and discard the plastic wrap, parchment, or foil. Trim all sides about 1/2-inch to create a clean, smooth surface. Cut slices off the block about 1/4″ thick and 1-1/2″ long. Wrap individual pieces in parchment or store in a candy jar in the refrigerator for up to a week.

Oscar Night Soft Pretzels

Oscar Night Soft PretzelsWhile everyone else is prepping their best popcorn butter seasonings (yum!), I decided to go a different route for Oscar night this year and bake off some soft pretzels to graze on. From the red carpet to the closing credits, these O-shaped pretzels will be a perfect treat alongside some spicy mustard, a homemade cheese sauce, and of course something bubbly.

Soft Pretzel DoughYou might think soft pretzels are a bit ambitious for a night that should be spent firmly planted on your couch half-listening to speeches and half-Googling designers from the night’s best and worst dressed lists. Truth is, you can easily do about 50% of the work that these require the morning of (or night before if you’re planning on making them for a brunch) and bake them off right before you’re ready to serve them. These are best hot, of course, right out of the oven, allowing them only enough time to cool so that you can handle them without wincing. They’re good room temperature too, but can easily be re-warmed in a low oven or in the microwave for a few seconds to soften them back up.

Oscar Night Soft PretzelsDepending on the thickness that you roll these, they’re either more crisp or more fluffy and, honestly, if asked to pick which one I lean toward, the jury is still out. I love the deep, yeasty taste that the darker brown, more well-done pretzels take on, but I also swoon at the pillowy interior and soft chewiness of the lighter, thicker rings. Experimenting with shapes will also alter the kinds of doneness and texture you get after their 14 minutes is up; along with the O’s for the Academy Awards, I made a few in traditional pretzel shape, twisted logs, and even tiny pretzel balls. The ability to get creative here is high, if you like.

Oscar Night Soft PretzelsYou can also try out different toppings beyond the traditional coarse salt, which I used for some of these. The rest, I sprinkled liberally with a Montreal-style steak seasoning, which incorporates dried onion, garlic, cracked black pepper, and other spices. It made the pretzels taste almost like an everything bagel. So good! These soft pretzels serve not only as a tasty canvas, but also a festive way to ring in your evening with Oscar…and Lupita Nyong’o who should win every single award up for grabs because – perfection.

Oscar Night Soft Pretzels
Yields 8 pretzels; recipe from here.

Ingredients:
1-1/2 cups of warm water
1 Tablespoon of granulated sugar
2 teaspoons of table salt
1 packet (or 2-1/4 teaspoons) of active dry yeast
4-1/2 cups of all purpose flour
4 Tablespoons of unsalted butter, melted
10 cups of water, for boiling
2/3 cup of baking soda
1 egg yolk beaten with 1 Tablespoon of water to produce an egg wash
Coarse salt, steak seasoning, for topping

Directions:
Combine the warm water, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer and sprinkle the yeast on top. Allow to sit for approximately 5 minutes, or until the mixture begins to bubble. Add the flour and butter into the bowl and, using the dough hook attachment, mix on low speed until all of the ingredients are incorporated. Next, increase the speed to medium and knead the dough until it is smooth and pulls away from the side above the bowl, about 4-5 minutes. Prepare a large bowl by rubbing it lightly with oil. Remove the dough from the hook and place in bowl, covering it with plastic wrap and leaving it in a warm spot until the dough has doubled in size. The rise takes about an hour, but truth be told, the longer the dough sits, the more flavor emerges. For both this reason and the fact that these are a bit time-consuming when having company visit, I allowed my dough to rise for the hour on top of a warm oven (265°F or so), then shut the oven off, let it cool for about an hour and a half, and then popped my bowl in and let the dough hang out in that dark, still slightly warm spot, overnight.

In the morning (or whenever you’re ready for the next step post-hour-long rise), pre-heat your oven to 450°F and bring a large pot of water (about 10 cups) and 2/3 cup of baking soda to a rolling boil. While waiting for it to come up to temperature, divide your dough into 8 evenly sized balls and, on an oiled surface, roll the balls into 24″ logs. Shape the logs into whatever shape you like being sure to press a bit firmly on the places where dough must adhere to dough, like when closing the two ends to form an “O,” for example. When the water is boiling, drop each pretzel (2 maximum, you don’t want them to touch) at a time into the boiling water and allow to cook for 30 seconds. They will initially sink and then float to the top. Gently, with a slotted spatula, remove the pretzels from the water, allowing them to drip off before placing them on a baking sheet that has been lined with either a silicone baking mat or lightly oiled parchment paper. Depending on the sizes and the shapes, you may fill 2-3 baking sheets worth. When you’re ready to bake off the pretzels, brush each one with egg wash and season with your desired toppings. Bake for 12-14 minutes or until they have reached a dark golden brown color. When finished, remove from the pan and allow to cool for 5 minutes on a wire rack before enjoying.

Peanut Butter & Pretzel Cake Bars

Peanut Butter & Pretzel Cake BarsWhile I love a sweet treat, these days I’m baking more in an attempt to warm up the house than I am in order to have dessert for later on. I know the polar vortex has many of us experiencing single and below-zero temperatures, but as I told my dear mother just recently, “-3°F and -37°F are two different animals, at two different zoos, on two different continents!” Just yesterday, my eyelashes froze together. Like, to the point where I actually couldn’t fully open my right eye. What life is this??

The kitchen has been getting some extra steady use lately then in an attempt to feed, warm, and occasionally defrost, us simultaneously. Most recently, I made these totally decadent peanut butter & pretzel cake bars, which were the result of a literal dream I had after perusing Pinterest too close to bedtime. In a dormant state, my brain mixed the memory of a recipe I had seen pinned from Better Homes & Garden with the recent, whimsy food trend to add pretzels to all sweet things.

Peanut Butter & Pretzel Cake BarsA self-identified sweet-and-salty-aholic, I wholeheartedly support this move – even in my subconscious. So that’s how we got here, to Peanut Butter & Pretzel Cake Bars, which doesn’t sound like a terrible place to be, does it? The layers here are what’s important and I think you’ll find them pretty agreeable too. While the BH&G recipe has the base as a chocolate cake, I went with vanilla out of personal preference and layered on top of it this peanut butter cream that is both smooth and airy, almost whipped. Above the peanut butter is a thick, glossy blanket of chocolate ganache topped with the crunch and salt of your favorite pretzels.

Peanut Butter & Pretzel Cake BarsThey’re a perfect little treat for potlucks, lunch boxes, and birthday parties alike. And, honestly, I think you can actually make these look awfully pretty with a little skill in terms of pretzel placement and design – a dirty job that somebody has to do. I was attempting a chevron pattern here, but that went off the rails quickly and yet, I still think whatever this turned into is rather nice to look at. You know, before it got cut into squares and devoured! I can also imagine these looking awfully sweet punched out with a heart-shaped cookie cutter for Valentine’s Day, a sprinkle of crushed pretzels then dusted across the top. Or heart-shaped with white chocolate ganache and red & pink nonpareils! Adorable. Deliciously so, and sure to help snag a valentine or two.

Peanut Butter & Pretzel Cake Bars
Peanut Butter & Pretzel Cake
Bars

Yields 9-12 bars; Adapted from here.

Note: The original recipe calls for making this in a 15″x10″ pan. I wanted to halve the amount, but also have a thicker, denser base, so I adjusted this to accommodate an 8″x8″ square pan, but used the original amount of cake base . Do what makes sense for you and yours.

Ingredients:
1 box of yellow cake mix
1/3 cup of butter, melted
1 egg
1/2 cup + 2 Tablespoons of creamy peanut butter
1-1/2 cups of powdered sugar
1/2 cup salted peanuts, chopped
3 Tablespoons of whipping cream for peanut butter filling, 2 Tablespoons of whipping cream for ganache
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate morsels
Pretzel sticks or about 3/4 cup of crushed pretzel pieces

Preheat your oven to 350°F. Line an 8″x8″ pan with parchment paper and set aside. In a bowl, combine the cake mix and melted butter and stir until combined. Beat egg in a separate bowl, add to cake batter mixture and incorporate. Pour mixture into the cake pan and bake for 20 minutes or until golden brown along edges. Allow to cool completely. In the meantime, use a hand-mixer or stand mixer to blend the peanut butter, 2 Tablespoons of whipping cream and then add the powdered sugar. If mixture is very thick or dry, thin out with the additional tablespoon of whipping cream or milk. Whip until thoroughly combined and a bit fluffy. Pour over cooled cake base and spread out with an angled cake spatula. Place pan in the refrigerator for at least one hour or until peanut butter layer has firmed up a bit. When it has done so, but before removing from the refrigerator, microwave the chocolate chips and 2 Tablespoons of whipping cream for 30 seconds and stir. If the chips are not yet soft enough to stir until smooth, repeat microwaving at 15 second intervals until melted. Remove pan from refrigerator and pour ganache over top, spreading to cover the surface. Be gentle here, so as not to pull the peanut butter up into the ganache. Top with pretzels in the design or scattering of your choice and return to refrigerator for at least 1 additional hour. Slice into bars when firm, but allow the chill to dissipate before eating, about 15 minutes.

Macho Nachos, or You Can Call it a Comeback

Macho NachosWell, it’s true. Femme Fraîche went on an 8 month hiatus, but I’m back and so excited to be! Readers, the past few months have been a total trip and if you heard about all of it, you’d understand why I was gone for so long. I’ll spare you the more involved details, but leave you with these two major culprits: 1) My gorgeous and expensive camera broke and the $250 price tag to fix it didn’t fall under “immediate need” and 2) We had a bit of remodeling work done on the homestead that completely overtook the summer and early fall. It wasn’t a pretty time here. The kitchen was torn out and unusable for weeks. Bear and I spent more time at Sonic and in Ikea than at home where we were often confined to living in one room while the others were under various forms of demolition. At one point, the only accessible water we had for drinking had to come out of the spout for the tub. Bleak.

The good news is that all of this is behind us, though I did totally have a nightmare about our contractor just two nights ago, so the trauma is REAL. That being said, I’m presently writing you from an updated home where the kitchen has a whole 3ft. of new counter space (up from barely 1ft. Yea, city living!), a tiny dishwasher, and cabinetry like it, quite literally, never had before. Just the perfect space to stage a comeback with these Macho Nachos that get their close-up courtesy of Santa and the new camera he brought me for Christmas. These are perfect for a winter movie night or for the upcoming Super Bowl and satisfy so many different cravings. Let’s get to gettin’, shall we?

Macho Nachos, a river of cheese!Is your first question after viewing this photo “what makes these nachos so macho?” or is it “can I please dive into that and hollow out a home?” The answer to the latter is “Yes, of course you can, weirdo,” and in terms of how these nachos get their moxy, well, let’s just consider their composition. That cheese sauce? It’s a BEER CHEESE SAUCE. You know, like the kind you’d dip soft pretzels into? Yes! It’s smooth and creamy and spiked with just the right amount of ale to make it have that slightly bitter taste that offsets all of the cheese. Studded amidst that boozy golden river of cheese are big, crispy pieces of bacon and slices of a spice-rubbed, grilled sirloin steak. I did say “macho,” friends!

Macho Nachos, Salsa VegBut it’s not just salty, delicious meats and cheeses that make these nachos so macho, you know… It’s big flavors! So on top of all this unctuous goodness is a homemade, charred tomato and pepper salsa that cuts through all of that indulgence with some really bright, fresh taste courtesy of an entire fistful of cilantro, green onions, and jalapeños. This salsa on its own is worth a spot on your Pinterest recipe board for when you want something impressive, but that takes only the effort of pressing the pulse button on your food processor a few times.
MachoNachos, SalsaIn fact, many of the elements on this plate of macho nachos can be made individually to just as many rave reviews as the completed dish. And, let’s just be honest, that nacho beer cheese sauce is going to be good on pretty much anything you put in, or near, your mouth.

Macho Nachos
Macho
Nachos

Makes one large platter, about 8-10 servings

Charred Tomato, Garlic, & Pepper Salsa

Ingredients:
3-4 plum tomatoes, quartered with seeds & guts removed and set aside
1 poblano pepper, de-veined, seeded and cut into large chunks
1/2 large red onion, cut into large chunks
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1 jalapeño, de-veined, seeded and cut into large chunks
Olive oil
Salt
1-14.5oz can of diced tomatoes (fire roasted variety is best)
1 cup of cilantro
Juice of half a lime
3 green onions, chopped roughly
1 teaspoon of ground cumin
Hot sauce

Directions:
Preheat oven to 450° F. De-pulp/seed/vein tomatoes, peppers, and onion and add to large bowl. Add peeled and chopped garlic cloves. Drizzle with 2-3Tablespoons of olive oil, toss, and sprinkle with salt before tossing again. Arrange vegetables on a large baking sheet in a single layer. Bake for 25-35 minutes or until edges are very dark brown and lightly charred. Remove from oven and then add to food processor with reserved tomato pulp, canned tomatoes, cilantro, green onions, cumin, lime juice, and a few dashes of your favorite hot sauce. Pulse until desired texture is achieved. Store in an airtight container for 7-10 days.

Beer Cheese Nacho Sauce

Ingredients:
4Tablespoons of butter
4Tablespoons of flour
1/2lb. of sliced yellow, deli-style American Cheese (I am partial to Land o’Lakes)
8oz. shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1-12oz. bottle of beer (I used Fat Tire’s Amber Ale)
Salt
Hot Sauce

Directions:
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. When it is liquified, whisk in the flour, forming a roux. Cook the roux, stirring occasionally, for 2-3 minutes. Slowly add 1 cup of the beer while whisking the mixture and allow to thicken slightly. Add both cheeses and half of the remaining beer. Allow to melt completely and season with salt and hot sauce to taste. Remaining 2oz. (and remainder of 6-pack) of beer go to the chef!

Spice-Rubbed Sirloin Steak

Ingredients:
1 sirloin steak (rib-eye & T-bone would also work here)
Olive oil
Canola oil
1 teaspoon of garlic powder
1 Tablespoon of chili powder
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1/2 teaspoon of sugar
3/4 teaspoon of cumin
1/2 teaspoon of oregano
1/2 teaspoon of onion powder
1/2 teaspoon of smoked paprika

Directions:
Rinse meat, pat dry, and allow to come to room temperature. Meanwhile, combine spices into a rub. Drizzle meet with olive oil on both sides and then rub spice mixture into meat on both sides and all edges. Heat a grill or grill pan on high with 1 Tablespoon of canola oil and allow to get very hot; oil will ripple to indicate it’s ready. Add steak and cook for 5 minutes, allowing char lines to form. Flip steak and reduce heat to medium high and finish cooking for another 5-7 minutes depending on your desired doneness. When finished, removed meat from pan and allow to rest before slicing or cubing for nachos.

Macho Nachos Assembly
You will need, the above elements, tortilla chips, sour cream, and additional chopped green onions, cilantro, jalapeños, & red onion.

1. Prepare a mountain of your favorite tortilla chips.
2. Pour melted beer cheese sauce over the chips. Be generous.
3. Add ribbons of steak and bacon. Be further generous.
4. Add salsa over the chips to your liking.
5. Crown the pile with a hearty scoop of sour cream, if desired.
6. Sprinkle sliced green onions, cilantro, and diced jalapeños and/or red onion for flourish that your tongue and eyes can appreciate.
7. Serve immediately.
8. Devour!

Bacon Dijon Deviled Eggs

Well, readers, here we are: one day past the week where few could escape the notion, or practice, of hard boiling and dyeing eggs, and one week further into spring where, at least in the Northeast, the days have finally been warming up a little bit. On Saturday, I walked around without my coat on for a solid 30 minutes until the sun ducked behind a cloud and I, miserably, trudged back to the car to get it before resuming the mini antiquing jaunt I took with my mom to a neighboring town. Lion, lamb, I know.

This is all to say that ’tis the season for doing something with hard boiled eggs, which, when I’m faced with, always results in deviled eggs. I resisted deviled eggs until I was about 20, even though my own mother was rumored by family and friends alike to make absolutely delicious ones. When I finally gave in, I realized several things: 1) Everyone loves deviled eggs and I was totally missing out and 2) You can mix almost anything into a standard deviled egg recipe and it only makes them more delicious. So many variations can be born, which brings me to my favorite point about deviled eggs: depending on context even more than ingredients, they can be considered fancy fare or not!

Take these bacon dijon deviled eggs (that even Ollie would, apparently, be interested in eating. Cat bomb!). On that plate up there, with their little pickled onion garnish (I have a whole beautiful quart of these to use, y’all), they look pretty enough for a tea party or some sort of shower. But put them on a table next to some ribs and corn and it’s summer in the backyard being sweaty and lazy with your pals.

Deviled eggs never disappoint and this version is no exception. Who doesn’t want a little smoky, crispy bacon stirred into their eggs alongside the gentle bite of dijon mustard? That sounds like the start of a perfect egg sandwich! I know not everyone will be inspired to go so far as making the pickled onions, but let me just argue for the extra step by simply saying that their addition to these deviled eggs is kismet. The little burst of pickling liquid and onion juice, which so nicely cuts through the richness of egg yolk, mayo, and bacon, is a pairing that shouldn’t be missed. If you do forego the pickled onions, these deviled eggs certainly will not disappoint on their own; though you could always add a little slice or mince of dill pickle to the tops, which would do the job, too.


Bacon Dijon Deviled Eggs with Pickled Onions
Yields 24 halves

Ingredients:
1 dozen eggs
1/3 cup of mayonnaise
2 Tablespoons of dijon mustard
4-6 pieces of thick sliced bacon, cooked crispy and crumbled
1 Tablespoon of minced onion or dehydrated onion flakes
1/8 teaspoon of smoked paprika
Salt & pepper to taste
Pickled onions to garnish, optional

Directions:
Several hours before serving, or better yet, the night before, hard boil the eggs. Using eggs purchased at least a week in advance will help with the peeling process later, as older eggs shed their shell much easier.

Put all 12 eggs in a heavy-bottom pot and cover with cold water by at least an inch. Add a pinch of salt to the water and bring to a boil. Once the eggs begin boiling, cover with lid, remove from heat, and allow to stand for 15 minutes. Drain hot water and fill the pot with cold water until the eggs can be handled. After several minutes remove them from the pot (which will eventually turn the water warm again due to residual heat – you don’t want this to happen!) and gently crack the shells a bit all over. Transfer the eggs to a big bowl of cold water and allow to sit until completely cooled. Pre-cracking the shells here will allow them to loosen as they finish cooling in the second bowl of water.

When the eggs are cooled, crack further and peel. I find peeling them under running water in the sink helps remove the shells easily, too. When finished, slice each egg in half lengthwise, putting the yolks in a clean, dry bowl and lay the whites on the plate you plan to serve them on. In the bowl with the yolks, use a fork to crumble all of the egg yolks. Add a small trickle of water, about a teaspoon, to the yolks to help them cream together a bit before adding the remaining ingredients. Add minced onion, salt and pepper, mayonnaise, dijon mustard, and smoked paprika. Blend until fairly smooth. Fold in the chopped bacon and fill the egg white halves. When finished, garnish each with a slice of pickled onion.