Polenta Cake with Olive Oil and Lemon by Amy Cantu

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I had this lemony, moist, squidgy, lightly gritty polenta cake stuck in my head. I knew just how I wanted it to look, taste, and feel in my mouth, but I was having trouble actually baking it. This one took three tries, but the results were totally worth it. I tried it as a loaf cake first, but the middle kept sinking, and the top was unattractively mottled dark brown. The Polenta Cake might seem plain Jane and suspiciously like cornbread, but I promise that its humble looks are deceiving. The olive oil and yogurt keep this Polenta Cake moist and just a bit dense, the lemon lends a bright citrusy flavor, and the polenta adds texture and earthiness. I love it on its own as a snack cake, (I'm determined to make "snack cake" a cake genre,) drizzled with a lemon glaze, in a trifle, or as it is here - topped with billows of lightly sweetened whipped cream and ripe summer fruit. The genius of Polenta Cake with Olive Oil and Lemon is in its simplicity.

Notes: Polenta Cake with Olive Oil and Lemon is perfect for making a Berry Trifle because it's sturdy and textured enough to hold together under the many layers, but also moist and delicious all on its own. If you're not feeding a crowd, the cake can just as easily be sliced into squares and topped with whipped cream (or ice cream!) and any in-season fruit. In the winter, it would be lovely with poached pears or an apple-cinnamon compote - YUM!

Active time: 5 minutes, Inactive time: 35 minutes
Yield: One 9 x 9" cake

1 cup flour
1/2 cup polenta
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt
1 cup granulated sugar
3 eggs
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup olive oil, plus extra to grease the cake pa

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 9 x 9" metal cake pan with cooking spray or olive oil. Line the bottom and two sides with parchment paper, and grease the parchment paper again. Set aside.

Whisk together flour, polenta, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl.

In a separate large bowl, whisk together yogurt, sugar, eggs, lemon zest, vanilla, and olive oil. Slowly whisk the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients, until just mixed together with no dry spots.

Pour cake batter into the prepared pan and bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a toothpick poked into the center of the cake comes out clean. Let cool completely before slicing. Cut into squares and serve with whipped cream and berries or use to make Berry Trifle.

Recipe inspired by Ina Garten's Lemon Yogurt Cake.

Lemon Poppy Seed Cookies by Cynthia Raub

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I love lemon poppy seed anything: cookies, muffins, scones, you name it! These cookies are addictively crisp, with a tender crumb and are a perfect addition to any cookie assortment. The lemon zest lends a fragrant floral note in addition to its citrusy sweetness. These cookies are especially delicious with tea because of they are delicate and subtly sweet. This recipe is simple, adaptable, and perfect for preparing in advance for your special occasions. 

Notes: I have adapted this recipe from Smitten Kitchen, who has adapted a simple slice and bake recipe from cookie queen Dorie Greenspan. Deb of Smitten Kitchen recommends different add-ins such as cranberries and orange, or lime and cornmeal - the possibilities of substitutions are endless with this recipe. To get a beautifully round cookie, roll the log tightly in the plastic wrap as described in the instructions. If you have an empty paper towel roll handy, cut through it lengthwise and nestle the dough roll inside of it to protect the roll's round edges.


Time: 30 minutes active,  2.5 hours inactive
Yield: About 30 cookies

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted
2 large egg yolks, at room temperature
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon lemon extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
Zest of 2 lemons (about 2 heaping tablespoons)
1/3 cup poppy seeds

Beat room temperature butter on medium speed in a stand mixer with the paddle attachment until smooth. Add sifted confectioners sugar and continue to beat on medium until smooth. Once smooth, add egg yolks, one at a time until incorporated. Add salt, vanilla extract, lemon extract, lemon zest and poppy seeds- beat until combined and smooth. Lower the mixing speed and add the flour, a 1/2 cup at a time. Continue to mix until wet mixture binds to the flour but do not over mix. 

Turn the dough out onto a clean work surface and gently gather it into a ball. Divide the ball into two and wrap each half in plastic wrap- refrigerate for 30 minutes.

After 30 minutes of resting and firming in the refrigerator, remove one dough ball from its plastic wrap and roll gently into a log (about 1.5 inches thick) on a clean and flat surface. Place the rough log onto a clean sheet of plastic wrap, wrapping the plastic wrap around the length of the log to secure the shape. Take the ends of the plastic wrap and roll the log of dough against the table away from your body until the plastic wrap is taught and the ends are secure. Repeat with the second roll, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. *Optional: Cut a toilet paper roll or paper towel roll through its length and place the log(s) into the roll- this will protect the log from developing a flat side.

Preheat oven to 350°F and line baking pans with parchment paper. Remove the dough logs from the refrigerator, unwrap it from its plastic and place on a cutting board. With a sharp knife, slice log into 1/4" thick cookies. Gently pat the rough cut edges of the cookies with your fingers, rounding out any flat or uneven spots and place on baking pan with 1 inch space between cookies.

Bake the cookies for 12-15 minutes until crisp and barely golden. Rotate the baking sheet halfway through baking to ensure even cooking. Transfer to a wire rack to cool to room temperature.

Salted Tahini Chocolate Chip Cookies by Amy Cantu

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Everyone has a favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe, and everyone says theirs is the best. They are all wrong. These Salted Tahini Chocolate Chip Cookies are the best chocolate chip cookies I have ever put in my mouth, and I have for sure eaten more chocolate chip cookies than any one person should ever eat in their whole lifetime. This fact obviously makes me an expert on the matter. (This obviously does NOT make me an expert on anything, except eating too much and too frequently. I digress.) What I can say with complete accuracy is that the cookie dough and baked cookies were so delicious, that I had to make a second double batch because I (and Cynthia, and my friend Christine, and my husband AJ, and my kids) couldn't stop eating them. The smell of them baking in the oven was so intoxicating that Cynthia and I couldn't wait for them to cool, so we burnt our fingers prying them off the cookie sheet and our tongues from the hot, oozing chocolate: It was absolutely worth it. The edges of the Salted Tahini Chocolate Chip Cookie were crisp and crunchy, while the centers were soft, yielding, and chewy. The tahini flavor was subtle, but added a deep, nutty base that stood up to the velvety, rich dark chocolate. AJ (who doesn't crave sweets) couldn't stop at one cookie, while my kids speedily cleaned up their toys to share one more. I'm not saying these cookies are magical (O.K. that IS what I'm saying), but I think they might be the answer to world peace, happiness, and well-being . . . maybe.

Notes: The tahini flavor is pronounced in the cookie dough, but is much more subtle in the baked cookie. I added a tablespoon of sesame oil to play up the flavor a bit, but it does result in a more crisp cookie. 

The cookie dough really does need to rest in the fridge for 12 hours, so the flavors can mingle and the cookies don't spread too much when baked. I have doubled the quantities in the recipe included here because 25 cookies is the minimum to prevent a fist fight (or at the very least, Ro Sham Bo,) to determine who gets the last cookie. Save the angst and make enough for everyone to enjoy!

Also, the cookie dough freezes beautifully. Freeze the cookie dough balls in a single layer on a cookie sheet until hard, then transfer them to a sealed container or bag. Bake the dough balls straight from the freezer, adding a couple extra minutes to the baking time.

Time: 20 minutes (active), 12 ½ hours (inactive)
Yield: About 25 cookies

1 cup (1/2 lb) unsalted butter at room temperature
1 cup tahini, well stirred
1 tablespoon roasted sesame oil (optional)
2 cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs
2 egg yolks
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 ½ cups chocolate chunks or chips, bittersweet or semisweet
Flaky salt, like fleur de sel or Maldon

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter, tahini, sesame oil (if using), and sugar at medium speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add eggs, egg yolks and vanilla and continue mixing at medium speed for another 5 minutes.

Combine flour, baking soda, baking powder and kosher salt into a large bowl and mix with a fork or whisk. Add flour mixture to butter mixture at low speed until just combined. Use a rubber spatula to fold in chocolate chunks. Dough will be soft, not stiff. Refrigerate at least 12 hours; this ensures tender cookies.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 325 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper or nonstick baking mat.  For each cookie, roll a heaping tablespoon of dough into a ball, and drop onto ungreased baking sheets, spacing 3 inches apart. (Cookies will spread while baking.)

Bake 13 to 16 minutes until just golden brown around the edges but still pale in the middle to make thick, soft cookies.  Or for crisp cookies, bake until evenly golden brown (about 1-2 minutes further). As cookies come out of the oven, sprinkle sparsely with salt. Let cool for 5 minutes on cookie sheet before transferring to a rack to cool completely.

Lime Bars with Pistachio Crust by Amy Cantu

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One of my best friends often craves anything tart and citrusy, and has an especially deep love for key lime anything, as well as lemon bars. This recipe is undoubtedly for her. Not quite key lime pie and not quite lemon bars, these Lime Bars with Pistachio Crust are intensely creamy, cooling, tangy, and perfectly complemented by the nutty, sweet crust. This recipe is somewhat adapted from a Martha Stewart recipe for Key Lime Bars and also one I found for Lemon-Pistachio Bars on NYT Cooking. I found the Martha Stewart one, while delicious, always fell apart due to an overly delicate crust. So I loosely adapted a crust from the latter recipe to come up with this one. It holds together a bit better, but is still a creamy (even a bit gooey) bar.

Notes: Don't skip any of the cooling steps, or the bar will not hold together. The limey tanginess is fairly intense, so you can cut the bars into 16 small squares, rather than the 9 large squares I have pictured here - a little can go a long way! Make sure to store any leftovers (what??!) in the fridge.

Time: 20 minutes (active), 2 hours (inactive)
Yield: 9 large squares or 16 small squares

For the crust:
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1/4 cup wheat bran, toasted
1/4 cup confectioners' sugar
1/2 cup cold, unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1/3 cup shelled salted pistachios, finely ground

For the filling:
2 large egg yolks
1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon finely grated lime zest

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Grease a n 8-inch square baking dish with non-stick cooking spray or  melted butter. Line bottom with parchment paper, leaving a 2-inch overhang on two sides.

In a small food processor or a clean coffee bean/spice grinder, finely grind pistachios.  In a large bowl, combine ground pistachios with flour, wheat bran, and sugar. Dump in the butter pieces and use your fingers to squish the butter pieces into the flour mixture, until everything looks like lumpy wet sand. You should still see streaks of butter.  (This can also be done completely in the food processor. Add all the dry ingredients and pulse until finely ground. Add butter and pulse a few times, until only pea-sized pieces of butter remain.) 

Press mixture into bottom and 1 inch up sides of prepared pan. Bake until lightly browned,  about 20 minutes. Cool crust, 30 minutes.

In a large bowl, whisk together egg yolks and condensed milk. Add lime juice; whisk until smooth. Pour filling into cooled crust; carefully spread to edges.

Bake until set, about 15 minutes. Cool in pan on rack; then chill at least 1 hour before serving. Using parchment paper overhang, lift out of pan, and transfer to a cutting board. With a serrated knife, cut into  9 large squares or 16  small squares, wiping knife with a damp kitchen towel between each cut. Eat with delight (or store in refrigerator until ready to serve).

Adapted from here and here.

Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp Bars by Cynthia Raub

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These Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp bars are the whole package: delicious, uncomplicated and healthy! (Or at least healthy enough to pass for breakfast, which we were all too happy to eat!) The crisp oat layer on the bottom comes together in the baking dish without dirtying another bowl. The bright rhubarb and sweet strawberry are diced finely and scattered over the crust, which is then finished with some reserved oats as a golden crumble topping. The result is a thick, chewy bar oozing with lightly sweet and tangy fruit, that promises to be an all-occasion go-to recipe.

Notes: These Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp Bars can be dressed up with a scoop of vanilla ice cream or a dollop of whipped cream to create a dessert no one in their right mind would ever turn down. They can be drizzled with a bit of yogurt and masquerade as breakfast (so good!) or brunch. As-is, these bars are delicious and sturdy enough to cart to a summer BBQ, picnic, or bake sale. It's the go-anywhere, anytime, for anyone bar! I have made several iterations of this recipe, swapping out the fruit, and it’s always a tasty treat. 

Yield: 9 large bars
Time: 55 minutes

1 cup rolled oats
3/4 cup plus up to 2 tablespoons extra all-purpose flour
1/2 cup light brown sugar
Heaping 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon cornstarch (optional, but helps firm up the filling)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon granulated sugar, divided
1 cup small-diced rhubarb (from about 1 1/2 medium stalks)
1 cup small-diced strawberries

Heat oven to 375 degrees F. (For easy removal, line bottom and two sides of 8-by-8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper.)

Place oats, 3/4 cup flour, brown sugar and salt in bottom of baking pan and mix. Pour melted butter over, and stir until clumps form. If the clumps feel soft or look overly damp, add the remaining 2 tablespoons flour. Set aside 1/2 cup of the crumble mixture. Press the rest of the crumb mixture evenly in the bottom of the pan.

Spread half the fruit over the crust. Sprinkle it evenly with cornstarch, then lemon juice, and 1/2 tablespoon of granulated sugar. Spread remaining fruit over this, and top with second 1/2 tablespoon sugar. Scatter reserved crumbs over fruit and bake bars for 30 to 40 minutes (firmer fruits will take longer), until fruit is bubbly and crisp portion is golden.

Let cool in pan. For a crisper crust, serve cold straight from the fridge.

Recipe adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Coconut Bars by Amy Cantu

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My obsession with all things coconut continues: I present to you these Coconut Bars, perfect for all of your afternoon tea and picnic treats! Even better - these coconut babies are nut-free, gluten-free, and vegan, so you can share these without displaying any warning signs. You can thank me later. These Coconut Bars are sweet, chewy, very coconut-y (obviously), and rich. The coconut flavor comes three-fold from coconut oil, coconut extract, and coconut flour - they are like eating macaroons in bar form, or like eating white chocolate covered coconut. Yes, please.

Notes: The original recipe uses all white sugar, but I swapped some out for brown sugar, which gives it a bit of caramel flavor. These Coconut Bars are good at room temperature, but I found that I loved them even more chilled. They became chewy and dense, rather than soft and crumbly. You can choose how you like to eat them, but alongside tea or coffee, they have found their match made in heaven.

Time: 1 hour
Yield: 12 large squares or 24 small triangles

8 oz. high quality white chocolate
1 cup coconut oil
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar, packed
1 teaspoon coconut extract
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
6 egg whites, lightly beaten
1 /2 cups coconut flour

Heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a 9-inch by 13-inch baking pan and line the bottom and two sides with parchment paper. (Leaving a bit of overhang makes it easy to lift the cooled bars from the pan).

Break white chocolate into small pieces and dump into a large mixing bowl. Heat the coconut oil in a small saucepan over low heat or in the microwave for 1 minute, until oil is hot when touched. Pour oil over the white chocolate, and whisk until smooth. Add coconut and vanilla extracts, salt, and egg whites, stirring well to combine.

n a separate bowl, hisk together both sugars. (If brown sugar is very lumpy, microwave for a few seconds to soften the brow sugar and press lumps with the back of a spoon or sif.) Stir sugars into the white chocolate mixture - a few small lumps are just fine.  Stir in the coconut flour, until just combined.

Pour batter evenly into the prepared baking pan, and smooth out the top with a spatula. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until the top is set and golden. Cool completely in the baking dish set on top of a rack. Once cool, remove the Coconut Bars from the pan and cut into desired pieces. Devour at room temperature or chilled.

Adapted from Saveur Magazine.

Coconut Tres Leches Cake by Amy Cantu

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I have a long affair going with coconut, and I doubt it will ever end. I love the sweet, earthy, tropical flavor, and I especially love it in the form of cake. This Coconut Tres Leches Cake is not fussy - it's homey and comforting, swathed in whipped cream and swimming in a pool of sweetened milk. The addition of coconut milk as one of the "tres leches" (three milks) and toasted coconut adorning the top make me swoon. My confession is this: I love this cake straight out of the fridge the next morning for breakfast. Preferably still in my PJs and in bed. The cake stays moist from all the milk, but the chilled cake is a little more dense. It's magical. 

Notes: This is a wet, dense cake. Do not be frightened when you pour the milks over the cake, and the cake looks like it's drowning. As the cake sits, it will absorb most of the milk. There will be a small amount of milk left that has not soaked into the cake, and that is exactly what you want. As I've mentioned, I love this cake cold, but it is also delicious (and proper) to eat it at room temperature. I made zero changes to the original recipe, because in my mind, it's perfect. The bit of lime zest brightens the cake up a bit, and really, it's just the perfect Coconut Tres Leches Cake.

Recipe from Food52.

Time: 1 hour, plus time for cake to cool
Yield: 1 9-inch by 13-inch cake

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup coconut flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick), plus more for the pan
1 tablespoon honey
5 large eggs
3/4 cup sugar, plus 2 tablespoons
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 13.5-ounce can coconut milk
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 pint heavy whipping cream
Zest from 1 lime, finely grated
1 cup sweetened shredded coconut

Heat the oven to 350. Butter a 9x13 baking dish. Melt the butter and honey together and set aside.

Whisk the flours, salt, and baking powder together in a medium bowl.
Beat the eggs, sugar, and vanilla in a larger bowl until everything lightens in color and is nice and smooth. Now on lower speed or with a gentler arm, beat in the flour in 2 additions until the batter is just smooth. Fold in the butter and mix until it is just fully incorporated. 

Pour the batter into the pan and bake 25-30 minutes, rotating cake once halfway through, until it is golden and a toothpick comes out clean. This is going to look like a sort of shallow cake. Don't worry.

While the cake bakes, mix the three milks (tres leches) together and also spread the coconut out on a baking sheet. When the cake comes out, pop the coconut into the oven to toast. Check and stir every 3-4 minutes. It should only take 8-9 minutes to get golden brown.
Use a toothpick to poke little holes all over the warm cake. Now pour the milk over it -- slowly. It is going to look like a LOT of milk and you are going to want to panic. Don't. My cake actually floated up like a raft briefly! But pour it all on and wait -- 95% of that milk is going to adsorb into the cake and the rest is that lake you are looking for. Allow the cake to cool completely, and the toasted coconut as well.

Now whip the cream, 2 tablespoons of sugar, and lime zest together until stiff peaks form. Spread the cream over the cake, then sprinkle the coconut over top. You can dig in right now, our keep it in the fridge for 3-4 days, though I doubt it'll last that long.

Cookies and Cream Ice Cream Cake by Amy Cantu

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Cookies and Cream Ice Cream Cake

Ice cream cake is sooo much easier to make than a tiered cake baked in the oven. It looks impressive and tastes divine, because much like cheese, who doesn’t like ice cream? My family declared this “the best birthday cake ever”, which is almost an insult because of how little effort it took. The hardest part about this “cake” is starting at least a day in advance, so that the layers have ample time to freeze. I love the layered look of the cake, once it’s sliced. Depending on the flavor of ice cream you choose, this ice cream cake is just as comfortable at an elegant dinner party, as it is at a kid’s (or husband’s) birthday party!

Developed from Bon Appetit.

Notes: Variations of this ice cream cake are endless. You can change the ice cream flavor to just about anything that would go with chocolate. (Peanut butter ice cream topped with peanut butter cups?! A berry flavored ice cream and then top with fresh berries?! Or how about Dulce de Leche ice cream and then drizzle with caramel sauce? YUM!). You could also change the chocolate cookies to shortbread or vanilla wafer cookies and do a citrus flavored ice cream. Modify the whipped cream topping by substituting a teaspoon of lemon or orange zest for the cocoa powder. Now you have a summery dessert!

Time: 30 minutes (not including freezing time)
Servings: 12

52 chocolate wafer cookies, such as Famous Chocolate Wafers (about 12 ounces), broken into pieces, or chocolate cookie crumbs
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 quarts Cookies and Cream ice cream, slightly softened
2 cups chilled whipping cream
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup powdered sugar
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
Chocolate sandwich cookies, crushed, for garnish

Blend cookies in food processor until finely ground. Add melted butter; process until crumbs are moistened. (Or if using chocolate cookie crumbs - use a fork to combine crumbs with butter until moistened.) Press crumb mixture onto bottom of 9-inch-diameter springform pan with 2 3/4-inch-high sides. Freeze until firm, about 10 minutes.

Spoon the softened ice cream into the crust-lined pan. Smooth top. Cover with plastic wrap. Freeze overnight.

Combine whipping cream and vanilla in another large bowl. Sift powdered sugar and cocoa over. Using electric mixer, beat until soft peaks form. Spread mixture over top of cake. Freeze until cream is set, at least 1 hour. (Can be made 2 days ahead. Cover; keep frozen.) Sprinkle crushed chocolate sandwich cookies over top of cake. Run knife between pan sides and cake to loosen. Remove pan sides. Using small metal spatula or knife, smooth cake sides. Let cake stand at cool room temperature 10 minutes before serving.

Red Velvet Cheesecake Brownies by Amy Cantu

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red velvet cheesecake brownies

Cynthia and I knew we wanted to make something “red velvet” for Valentine’s Day, but we weren’t sure what exactly. We brainstormed a long list of “red velvet” baked goods - cakes, cupcakes, mini bundt cakes, cookies, and moon pies - to name a few. The thought of these Red Velvet Cheesecake Brownies made us both simultaneously release a deep sigh and a moan. We knew immediately we had to eat these. I think there is already a cult-following for these Red Velvet Cheesecake Brownies, and I can certainly see why. They are moist, decadent, and ridiculously good. Seriously. They are addictive. You can halve this recipe, but honestly, you will end up making another batch anyway. Just make a full batch and share the love with your friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, or school staff. They will love you forever. And also help yourself to a second serving because you deserve it.

Adapted from Sally’s Baking Addiction.

Notes: What makes “red velvet” red is food coloring. The original recipe called for twice as much food coloring, but I found that 1 tablespoon of red gel food coloring was more than enough for a large batch. If you don’t like the idea of using food coloring, you can leave it out, and you will still have amazing cheesecake brownies instead. I use almond extract in this recipe, because I love the nutty, sweet flavor. You could use all vanilla extract instead, and you would have a more classic red velvet flavor.

Time: 1 hour (includes bake time)
Servings: 16

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted, plus extra to grease pan
2 cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 teaspoons almond extract
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon gel or liquid red food coloring
1 ½ teaspoons white vinegar
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
16 ounces cream cheese, softened
½ cup granulated sugar
2 egg yolks
1 teaspoon almond extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 9x13 baking pan with butter or nonstick spray.

To make the brownie layer, whisk together melted butter, 2 cups sugar, 2 teaspoons vanilla extract, and 2 teaspoons almond extract in a medium mixing bowl, until well combined. Next add cocoa powder, salt, food coloring, and vinegar, mixing well after each addition. Whisk in the eggs, then fold in the flour until just mixed, with no dry spots - do not over beat. Pour the brownie batter into prepared baking pan, reserving ½ cup for the top.

To make the cheesecake swirl, combine softened cream cheese, ½ cup sugar, egg yolks, and 1 teaspoon almond extract in a medium bowl. Use a hand-held mixer on medium speed to beat mixture until completely smooth - about 1 minute. Dollop large spoonfuls of the cream cheese mixture on top of the prepared brownie batter. Cover the cream cheese mixture with the remaining ½ cup brownie batter. Drag a knife through the layers, creating a swirl pattern.

Bake the brownies for about 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Allow the brownies to cool completely before cutting into squares. Cover brownies and store at room temperature for 3 days or in the refrigerator for up to 6 days. Brownies will freeze well, up to 2 months. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator.

Chocolate-Covered Strawberries by Amy Cantu

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chocolate dipped strawberries

Chocolate-Covered Strawberries are a romantic classic. Also, my 4-year-old loves holding the strawberry by its tiny leaves, and dangling it in front of his mouth before attempting to shove in the entire thing. Dainty, I know. Dressing them up in white chocolate drizzles, nuts, or sprinkles are fun, but there’s something appealing about the simplicity of a perfect, red strawberry coated lovingly with nothing but glossy, crisp chocolate. Cynthia and I enjoyed them, just as much as the kids did - they’re a classic for a reason.

Adapted from The Kitchn.

Notes: Chocolate strawberries are easy to make, but it helps to be precise in each step. The strawberries need to be really dry, or the chocolate coating won’t adhere properly. If you don’t have a double boiler to melt the chocolate, just use a heat safe bowl (like a metal or Pyrex mixing bowl) set over a saucepan of water. Don’t try to melt the chocolate with direct heat because the chocolate will scorch. The directions in this recipe encourages the chocolate to temper, and the addition of coconut oil gives it a glossier sheen and a crisp bite. (The Kitchn has additional information on tempering chocolate without a thermometer.) Don’t let the tempering process intimidate you. Even if the chocolate isn’t tempered correctly, the chocolate dipped strawberries will still be delicious, and I promise no one will complain!

Time: 20 minutes (plus 30 minutes to cool)
Yield: 1 pound chocolate-covered strawberries

1 pint-basket (1 pound) fresh strawberries
1 ⅓ cups (8 ounces) plus ⅔ cup (4 ounces) good quality dark chocolate, chopped
1 teaspoon coconut oil (optional)

Double-boiler or heatproof bowl and saucepan
Heatproof spatula
Parchment, wax paper, or Silpat
Baking sheet

Rinse the strawberries under cool running water and gently pat dry. The strawberries need to be completely dry before dipping, so spread them out and let them air-dry if necessary.

Fill the bottom of the double-boiler or saucepan with an inch or two of water and bring the water to a simmer over medium-high heat. Transfer 1 ⅓ cup chocolate into the top of the double-boiler or the heatproof bowl and set this over the simmering water. Let the chocolate melt, stirring occasionally, until no more lumps remain. Remove the bowl with the chocolate from heat. Stir in the remaining ⅔ cup chocolate, until all the chocolate has melted. Let slightly cool for 2 minutes. Stir in the coconut oil, if using.

Set the bowl of melted chocolate in front of you on a towel. Line a baking sheet with parchment.

Grasp the strawberry by the top leaves and dip it into the chocolate. Turn or swirl the strawberry as needed to completely coat it in chocolate. Lift the strawberry out and shake gently to remove excess chocolate. Carefully lay the dipped strawberry on its side on the baking sheet. Repeat with dipping the remaining strawberries.

Let the strawberries sit until the chocolate coating is set and dry to the touch. You can put the baking sheet in the fridge to speed this along. Dipped strawberries can be kept for a few hours at room temperature. They can also be refrigerated for a few days, though they don't look as pretty.

Apple Pie by Cynthia Raub

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I craved caramel with the tart Granny Smith apples -- so I chose a classic apple pie recipe from The Joy of Baking, that included two additional and simple steps to develop a caramel sauce. Macerating the apples in sugar and salt in the first few steps produced a juice, that when combined with butter over low heat, turned into a light caramel syrup. The sauce added richness and depth to the apples, it also helped bind the filling to make for a neat slice.

Recipe from:

Notes: I was ambitious with the first pie, creating a lattice top and braided edge -- unfortunately, I had too large of a gap between my lattice pieces which lead to the top layers of apples and caramel sauce drying out. My second attempt, with a fully covered top with vents, turned out markedly better. It was moist, so the tender apples clung to the buttery pie crust and it sliced perfectly.


2 1/2 pounds apples (about 6 large), peeled, cored, and sliced 1/4 inch thick (I used half HoneyCrisp and half Granny Smith)
1/4 cup granulated white sugar
1/4 cup light brown sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg (optional)
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch or flour
Pastry for double-crust pie, 9-inches (This is my go-to recipe:

In a large bowl combine the sliced apples with the sugars, lemon juice, ground cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt. Let sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes or up to three hours. Then, place the apples and their juices in a strainer that is placed over a large bowl (to capture the juices). Let the apples drain for about 15-30 minutes or until you have about 1/2 cup of juice. Put reserved juice into small pot with butter, reduce for 6-9 minutes at a medium temperature until syrupy and caramelized.

Meanwhile, remove the top pastry crust from the refrigerator and let it sit at room temperature for about 10 minutes so it has time to soften. Transfer the drained apples slices to a large bowl and mix them with the cornstarch. Then pour the reduced syrup over the apples and toss to combine. Pour the apples and their syrup into the chilled pie crust. Moisten the edges of the pie shell with a little water and then place the top crust over the apples. Tuck any excess pastry under the bottom crust and then crimp the edges using your fingers or a fork. Using a sharp knife, make five- 2-inch slits from the center of the pie out towards the edge of the pie to allow the steam to escape. Cover the pie with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator to chill the pastry while you preheat the oven.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Place the oven rack at the lowest level and place a baking stone or baking sheet on the rack before preheating the oven. Place a piece of aluminum foil on the stone (or pan) to catch any apple juices. Set the pie on the stone or pan and bake for about 45 to 55 minutes or until the juices start to bubble through the slits and the apples feel tender (not mushy) when a toothpick or sharp knife is inserted through one of the slits. Make sure to cover the edges of the pie with a foil ring to prevent over browning after about 30 minutes. Remove the pie from the oven and place on a wire rack to cool for about 3-4 hours before cutting. Serve warm or at room temperature with vanilla ice cream or softly whipped cream. Store at room temperature for 2 to 3 days.

Makes one 9 inch pie. Recipe doubled to yield two pies.

Extra Smooth Pumpkin Pie by Amy Cantu

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I must have read at least 10 different recipes for pumpkin pie, before I settled on this one from Serious Eats. I like that it’s a little bit different with the addition of cream cheese, but still very much a classic pumpkin pie. The cream cheese is not enough to make it cheesecake, but just enough to lend a smooth, silky texture to the pumpkin pie and just a hint of tang. The pie tasted a little less sweet than I would have liked, but it turns out anything smothered in maple-cinnamon whipped cream (see recipe below) is amazing. It wasn’t perfect, but Cynthia still declared it delicious (always the optimist) - especially with the whipped cream.

I made my own pie crust using this straight-forward, all butter recipe, but you can always use store-bought, if you don’t have the time.

Notes: This pie really did have a great, super smooth texture. I got super excited about sharing pies with Cynthia, so I decided to go all out and make my own pumpkin puree for this recipe. Was it hard? Actually, no. Did you know that in the Fall, most grocery stores (even Trader Joe’s) carry Sugar Pie Pumpkins, perfect for making your own pumpkin puree? Once I googled it, I realized it wasn’t actually that big of a deal. This recipe is super easy to follow.

Some variations - if you want to make your own puree but don’t want to fuss with whole pumpkins, you could roast cubed butternut squash, and it would still be delicious. I bet no one will be able to put their finger on how it’s different from pumpkin pie! I didn’t press the pumpkin pie mixture through a fine mesh strainer as the recipe suggests, but I did pass the homemade pumpkin puree through the strainer. I still found the texture to be extra smooth. Lastly, taste your pie filling and adjust the seasonings to your liking. Maybe you like more spices. Maybe you like it sweeter. You aren’t bound to the recipe. Make the changes that make the pie yours.


6 ounces granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1 (15-ounce) can pumpkin puree, or 15 ounces homemade pumpkin puree
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
3 large eggs
One half recipe Easy Pie Dough

Adjust oven rack to lower middle position. Place a heavy duty rimmed baking sheet on the rack and preheat oven to 425°F.

Roll pie dough into a circle roughly 12-inches in diameter. Transfer to a 9-inch pie plate. Using a pair of kitchen shears, trim the edges of the pie dough until it overhangs the edge of the pie plate by 1/2 an inch all the way around. Fold edges of pie dough down, tucking it under itself, working your way all the way around the pie plate until everything is well tucked. Use the forefinger on your left hand and the thumb and forefinger on your right hand to crimp the edges. When oven is ready, line chilled pie shell with foil or parchment paper and fill with weights (I reuse dried beans for this), transfer to the preheated baking sheet, and bake for 15 minutes. Remove weights and liner, turn pie, and bake until the bottom crust is a golden brown, about 10 minutes. Remove pie shell from oven and allow to cool completely.

Reduce heat to 350°F. In the bowl of a food processor, combine sugar, salt, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg, and pulse 3 times to mix. Add the cream cheese and pulse until a homogeneous paste forms. Add the pumpkin and butter and process for 30 seconds. Stop to scrape down the sides of the bowl, then process until the mixture is completely smooth, about 30 seconds longer. Add the eggs and process until completely smooth, scraping down sides as necessary. For extra-smooth pie, press the mixture through a fine mesh strainer or a chinois using the back of a ladle.

Pour the mixture into prepared pie shell and smooth over the top with a rubber spatula. Rap the shell firmly against the counter a few times in order to release any air bubbles. Transfer to the baking sheet in the oven and bake for until the filling puffs slightly and the center only moves slightly when jiggled, 30 to 35 minutes, rotating the pie half way through baking. Allow the pie to cool for at least one hour before serving. It may be chilled for up to two days.

Makes one 9” pie. Recipe doubled to yield two pies.

Maple - Cinnamon Whipped Cream

2 cups heavy whipping cream
½ cup maple syrup, preferably Grade B (or more to taste)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
⅛ teaspoon kosher salt

Combine heavy cream, maple syrup, cinnamon, and salt in a chilled mixing bowl. Using an electric mixer, whip on the highest setting until soft peaks form. Do not over beat (you’ll get maple butter)! Dollop liberally onto your pie and enjoy!