Lemon Bars






A new year is a time when most people are looking forward, but looking forward inherently means a bit of reflection on the past, too.  In between the chaos of our home renovations and the cycle from complete disarray to organized calm in between projects (we've been walking on splintery sub-floors for weeks while prepping to finish the floors on the main level), and the relentless demands of my job over the past year, I've had to force myself to pause, take a few deep breaths, and just think it all over.

Why do we do the same thing from year to year?  Is it because we're afraid of change, even if there's a possibility of being happier, or more fulfilled, or more challenged with something different?  Change is hard for me; it's easy to do what I know, day after day, with the people who are familiar to me and the work I'm so accustomed to, even though I always imagined something other than this.

It's not easy for me to take chances.  I tend to hold back, until I'm sure I know how it will end.

This year, though... this one will be different.  I look forward to a new chapter in this wonderful life my husband and I share together.

This isn't the first time I've posted this recipe for lemon bars on my blog, but after three years, they deserve some pretty new photos and a chance in the spotlight again.  Lemon bars are one of my favorite things, with their tart, creamy filling sandwiched between buttery layers of shortbread.  They are something we all ate when we were kids, probably made from a box and usually sprinkled generously with powdered sugar.  Bright and sunshiny yellow, they promise of spring and everything this year holds.








Lemon Bars
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Crust and Topping:

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon coarse Kosher salt
  • 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter,cut into pieces
Filling:
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • zest of 2-3 large lemons
  • 1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

Preheat the oven to 350.  Spray a square 8x8 baking dish with non-stick spray.

In your food processor, combine the crust/topping ingredients until pea-sized pieces of butter remain.  Reserve one cup of the crumbs for the topping, and press the remainder of the crumbs firmly against the bottom of the baking dish.  Bake crust for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a bowl whisk together the eggs, sugar, lemon zest and lemon juice for the filling.  Sift in the flour to avoid lumps and whisk to combine.

After the crust has baked for 15 minutes, remove from the oven.  Whisk the filling again and pour over the hot crust.  Bake for 15 minutes.  Sprinkle the reserved one cup crumbs over the filling and bake for an additional 20 minutes until topping is a pale golden.

Let cool on the counter for at least two hours to set before slicing into squares.  These can be served slightly warm or chilled.

Yields 16 two-inch squares.

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen

Apple Rose Tarts








At Thanksgiving and Christmas, there were always two apple pies.  One for dessert, of course, and one that my mom let us cut into for breakfast.  It was a family tradition, that apple pie for breakfast, and there's still a part of me that thinks of apple pie as a perfectly acceptable breakfast.  In a bowl with milk poured over it, it's like apple pie cereal.

As I've recently discovered, there's more than a few ways to make an apple pie, and these little apple rose tarts might be the cutest things ever.  Very thinly sliced apples are laid in a row, each slice overlapping the next, then rolled up to resemble a rose, and nestled into a mini pie shell.

The bottom of each tart is filled with a spoonful of custard, which holds the spiral of apple slices in place as they bake.  The pastry bakes up golden brown and flaky, and the apples are warm and soft in the creamy custard.  A sprinkling of coarse sugar adds glamorous sparkle to each tart.

Each little tart is just a few bites of apple pie goodness, and I wouldn't judge one bit if you made them for breakfast.














Apple Rose Tarts
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Crust.
  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for rolling
  • 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup cold unsalted butter
  • 3 tablespoons whole milk
Filling.
  • 3/4 cup prepared custard, chilled (I used this champagne custard)
  • 4 apples
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • coarse turbinado sugar, for garnish
You'll need 8 individual tart pans (mine are fluted, with a base diameter of 2 inches and a top diameter of 3 1/2 inches), or you can use a standard-sized muffin pan.

Note that because of the custard in the bottom of the tarts, the crust will soften by the second day, and start to get soggy, so these are best eaten the same day they're made while the crust is nice and crisp.

Crust.
In a bowl, combine the flour, sugar and salt.  Cut the butter in with a pastry cutter until the butter is the size of peas.  Add the milk and toss to combine, then turn out onto the counter and use your hands to pull the dough together into a ball.  Use a little more flour and roll the dough out to 1/4 inch thick.  Cut into 8 circles with a 4-inch cutter, gathering up the scraps to roll those out as well.

Grease the tart pans and gently fit the circles of dough into the pans.  Freeze for 30 minutes.

Filling.
Preheat the oven to 375 and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.  Set the tart pans on the baking sheet.

If you don't want to make custard, you could also use a spoonful of store bought jam instead - apricot jam, or even apple butter would be nice.  Spoon about 1 1/2 tablespoons of custard or jam into each tart shell.

Cut the apples into fourths and remove the cores.  Use a mandolin to slice the apples into very thin translucent slices.  Lay the slices on a baking sheet, drizzle with the lemon juice and sprinkle with the granulated sugar and the cinnamon.

Lay 12 or so apple slices down in a row so that they overlap, and roll up from one end to the other into a rose and place in the custard.  Add a few more apple slices around the edges if needed to fill out the rose.

Bake the tarts for 35 minutes.  Let cool for several hours before trying to remove the tarts from the pans.  Sprinkle with the turbinado sugar, and enjoy warm or at room temperature.

Yields 8 individual tarts

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen

Lemon Marmalade





Lemon marmalade is not something you're likely to find in grocery stores.  Sweet orange marmalade, of course, and that's always been one of my favorite jams.  And then there is lemon curd, sweet and tart and creamy and delicious on just about everything.  But why is there no lemon marmalade?

So, before Christmas, I set out to make some.  My parents were going to be visiting for the holidays, and my dad loves homemade jam, more than anyone I know.  I had a batch of his favorite cranberry orange compote already made, as well as apple butter, slowly simmered in the crockpot and richly spiced.  But I was pretty sure he would adore this lemon marmalade, too, and it would be something none of my family had ever tasted before.

It's simple to make, just requiring a bit of time to simmer.  But it's nothing more than lemon slices, water, sugar and a little pectin.  Essentially, you're just candying the lemons by slowly simmering them in simple syrup.  Poured into jars, it thickens when cooled into a perfectly delightful jam that's as good as you could imagine.

We sampled the marmalade on everything, but I really liked it on the chocolate espresso loaf bread.  I baked a ham for Christmas dinner, and we ate ham for days, including leftover for breakfast, with hot baking powder biscuits and spoonfuls of lemon marmalade.  And my dad loved it so much, he took an extra jar with him when he left.










Lemon Marmalade
  • 4 large lemons
  • 5 cups water
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 2 tablespoons pectin
Cut 1/2 inch off the ends of the lemons and discard.  Cut the lemons in half lengthwise, then very thinly slice the lemons.  Pick out and discard the seeds, then scrape the lemon slices and juice into a saucepan.  Add the water to the lemons.  Bring to a boil and simmer for 30 minutes.

Add the sugar and simmer for about an hour, stirring occasionally; taste the lemons and continue to simmer, adding a little more sugar if needed, if the peels taste too bitter.  Stir in the pectin and cook for several more minutes.

Pour the marmalade into glass jars and refrigerate if not sealing the jars.

Yields about 5 half pint jars

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen

Peanut Butter and Jelly Cake






I read that in 1901, the first recipe for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich was published in a Boston cooking school magazine, and its fame has spread ever since.  And it's been a popular combination for over a hundred years for good reason; salty creamy peanut butter and sweet fruit preserves are perfect together.  My favorite way to eat it is on hearty, grainy bread, toasted, so that the peanut butter melts against the warm bread and mixes with the jam into a gooey filling.

And while the sandwiches are classic, this cake, though, is something else entirely.  It's the most decadent dessert version of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that you could imagine.  Soft vanilla cake is filled with strawberry jam, and frosted with fluffy peanut butter buttercream that's lightly salted and flavored with vanilla.

I thought of using peach or apricot or cherry jam, but ended up going with strawberry, since it tends to be a favorite of most everyone.  Next time, though, just to please myself, maybe the apricot.

To top off this cake, I made a small batch of cookie dough and rolled it into balls for a pretty, tempting garnish.  And really, I don't know what's not to love about a peanut butter and jelly cake topped with cookie dough.










Peanut Butter and Jelly Cake
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Cake.
  • 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 whole eggs
  • 2 egg whites
  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 1 tablespoon white distilled vinegar
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
Filling.
  • 1 cup jam or preserves
Buttercream.
  • 3/4 cup creamy peanut butter
  • 3/4 cup unsalted butter
  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 tablespoon meringue powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3-4 tablespoons milk or cream
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
Cake.
Preheat the oven to 350.  Grease three 8-inch pans with non-stick spray.

In the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine the dry ingredients.  Add the wet ingredients and mix on low until combined, then beat on medium speed for two minutes.  Divide the batter between the pans.

Bake until a toothpick comes out clean, about 21 minutes.  Cool the cakes in the pans completely before filling and frosting.

Buttercream.
In the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, beat the peanut butter and butter until smooth.  Add the powdered sugar, meringue powder and salt on low speed to combine.  Add the milk and vanilla, then whip on medium high for about 4-5 minutes, until light and fluffy.

Fill each layer with the jam, and frost with the buttercream.

For the piping, I used a small/medium star tip.

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen

White Almond Cake with Chocolate Buttercream









This was our Christmas cake.  What's funny, is that my family thought it was fake.  It was sitting under a glass dome in our dining room, all fancy with buttercream piping and Ferrero Rocher candy, and apparently, it gave the appearance of a prop cake, or something.  As though I would have anything but real cake sitting around to tempt guests.

After informing them that it was, in fact, meant to be eaten, they finally dug in.  And although the chocolate cream pie was everyone's clear favorite out of the five or six desserts I made, seconded by the apple rhubarb pie with crumb topping, layer cakes with buttercream always have a special place in my heart.

For some reason, I'm writing this post at 2 am and wondering why I am still awake. So, I'll say goodnight, and I hope my dreams tonight are filled with cake.



White Almond Cake with Chocolate Buttercream

Cake.
  • 2 3/4 cups cake flour
  • 1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 4 egg whites
  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1 tablespoon white distilled vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon almond extract
Buttercream.
  • 2 cups unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon meringue powder
  • 2 teaspoons almond extract
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 3-4 tablespoons milk or cream

Cake.
Preheat the oven to 350.  Spray three 8-inch pans with non-stick spray.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder and salt.

In a separate bowl (clean and grease-free), whip the egg whites with an electric mixer until soft peaks form.  Whip for another minute or two until the whites are not quite stiff, but stay on the beaters when you lift them up.  The whites should still be quite wet, not dry.

Add the milk, sour cream, vinegar and almond extract to the dry ingredients and whisk vigorously for about two minutes until well combined.  Gently fold in the whipped egg whites in three additions for a light and airy batter.

Divide the batter between the pans.  Bake for about 18-22 minutes, until risen and a toothpick comes out clean.  Set the pans on wire racks, cover loosely with a clean kitchen towel and cool completely before frosting.

Buttercream.
In the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the butter until smooth.  In a separate bowl, combine the powdered sugar, cocoa powder, salt and meringue powder.  With the mixer on low, add by spoonfuls until combined.  Add the extracts and the milk, then whip on medium high for about 5 minutes, until light and fluffy.

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen

Champagne Custard Doughnuts










We toasted in the New Year with these champagne custard doughnuts.  Aren't they beautiful?

After staying in this year - no crowded party or loud conversations or driving home in the cold, but just the two of us - we slept in late on New Year's Day and then mixed up a soft dough for doughnuts.  I love peeking under the towel at a bowl of warm dough, to see it rising steadfastly towards the top.  The night before, after popping the cork off a bottle of champagne, I had reduced a cup of the champagne to reserve for the custard.  Have you ever had champagne custard?

The custard was lovely, silky and smooth, flavored unexpectedly by the champagne reduction.  The doughnuts were pillowy soft, and while they were warm, I coated them in sugar and filled them with the chilled custard.  The crisp crust of sugar clung to our lips; the soft custard inside melted on our tongues.

We opened another bottle of champagne, for cranberry mimosas, and relaxed all day long, eating doughnuts, sipping champagne, and enjoying our last few days of vacation before it was time to go back to work.












Champagne Custard Doughnuts
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Doughnuts.
  • 1 package active dry yeast
  • 2/3 cup whole milk, between 110-115 degrees F
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 3 eggs, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
  • oil, for frying
  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar, for coating the doughnuts
Custard.
  • 1 cup champagne
  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 2 tablespoons corn starch
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
Dough.
In the bowl of your stand mixer, combine the yeast, milk and 1 tablespoon granulated sugar; let stand for 5 minutes until foamy.  Add the remainder of the 1/4 cup sugar, 3 cups flour, salt, nutmeg, eggs and butter.  Use the dough hook to mix until combined, then knead for about 5 minutes, gradually adding the remaining 1/2 cup flour.  The dough should be soft and pull away from the sides of the bowl.  Place the dough in a greased bowl and set in a warm place to rise until doubled in size, about an hour.

On a floured surface, gently roll the risen dough out to 1/2 inch thick.  Cut into doughnuts with a 2 1/2 inch round cutter.  Place the doughnuts two inches apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet, cover loosely and set in a warm place to rise a second time until puffed like little pillows.

Custard.
Meanwhile, make the custard.  Pour the champagne into a saucepan.  Over medium high heat, reduce the champagne to 1/4 cup.  Whisk in the milk, sugar, and salt.  Whisk in the egg yolks, then the corn starch.  Cook over medium low heat, whisking constantly, until thickened.  Remove from the heat and whisk in the butter and vanilla until smooth.  Cover with plastic and refrigerate until well chilled.  The custard can be made a day in advance.

Frying.
Fill a large, flat-bottomed saucepan with 3 inches of oil.  Heat the oil to 365.  Working with a few at a time to maintain steady oil temperature, fry the doughnuts for 1 minute on each side, until golden brown.  Transfer to a wire rack to drain.  Let cool for 5 minutes, then generously coat in sugar.  Poke a hole in the side of each doughnut, fill a piping bag with the chilled custard and fill each doughnut with custard.

Yields one dozen doughnuts.  Doughnuts are best the same day they're made.

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen

Vanilla Bean Salted Caramels






Christmas is over, and 20 minutes ago it was officially the New Year in Colorado.  My husband and I stayed home tonight, watched Breaking Bad on Netflix, ate lamb and potato stew for dinner, and drank champagne, of course.  And even though we didn't go out, I dressed up in a cute little sequin dress for our party for two, although I kept my fuzzy slippers on.

I get a little sad after Christmas - sad that it's time to take down the ornaments and pack away the stockings and garlands and gingerbread house.  Time to get back to the regular routine and continue the renovations on our house, after our month-long break from all of that work.  Our family has all gone home, and there are sheets and towels to wash and extra pillows to put away.  I cooked so much delicious food for the holidays that my husband and I are still eating leftovers for dinner.

Besides Christmas dinner and so many breakfasts of oatmeal and muffins, eggs and bacon, and ham and biscuits with homemade lemon marmalade and apple butter, there were lots and lots of desserts.  I made an apple rhubarb crumb pie, and a chocolate cream pie with a salted graham cracker crust, which was everyone's undeniable favorite and the first thing to disappear.  And white layer cake flavored with almond extract and frosted with fluffy chocolate buttercream.  Toasted coconut orange pound cake with orange custard sauce served on the side.  Chocolate espresso loaf bread.









And then there were these buttery-soft vanilla bean salted caramels.  These are without a doubt, the easiest caramel recipe I've ever tried.  Far easier than English toffee, although it's not really fair to compare the buttery crunch of a perfect bite of toffee to the smooth creamy texture of these soft caramels.  But that said, they might be my new favorite holiday candy to make, simply because of their ease.

What's amazing is that they are actually cooked in the microwave - a half cup each of 5 or 6 ingredients, whisked together and cooked for just a few minutes until the mixture becomes soft caramel.  After cooking, I stirred in vanilla bean paste so the caramels are beautifully speckled throughout with black vanilla bean seeds.  A sprinkling of salt on top elevates these caramels to something so much more sophisticated than what you would find in any box of chocolates.  These are nearly impossible to resist...











Vanilla Bean Salted Caramels
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup light corn syrup
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup sweetened condensed milk
  • 1/8 teaspoon coarse salt, plus extra for garnish
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste
Notes:
  1. The corn syrup is a necessary component as the combination of the different structure of the sugars in corn syrup and the other sugars prevent crystallization in caramel.  Don't leave it out. 
  2. This recipe can be doubled, and I have done it, but be sure your bowl is large enough as this bubbles up quite a bit in the microwave.  It will also take longer to reach the correct temperature.
  3. Instead of cutting the cooled caramel into squares, it also looks so pretty cut into long pieces, like tootsie rolls.
  4. If you don't have a candy thermometer, any thermometer works fine, as long as it reads high enough.  I just use a digital instant read meat thermometer.
 Line an 8x8 square baking dish with parchment paper so that the paper hangs over the edges.  In a large, microwaveable bowl (such as a glass Pyrex bowl), melt the butter.  Whisk in the corn syrup, sugars, sweetened condensed milk and salt until smooth.

Microwave on high for 6 minutes.  Check the temperature - it should reach between 238-242 degrees to reach the soft caramel stage.  If it needs more time, continue to microwave on high in 20-second increments, checking after each increment.  Depending on the power of your microwave, it may take more or less time, but mine was done at 6 minutes and 20 seconds.

Stir in the vanilla bean paste with a spatula.  Immediately pour the caramel into the baking dish and sprinkle the caramel generously with coarse salt.  Refrigerate until firm, about an hour or two, then lift the caramel out by the paper, set on a cutting board, cut with a sharp knife and wrap each piece in wax paper.

Recipe adapted from Cooking Classy