Saltine Toffee

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Chocolate, butter, and brown sugar is an irresistible dessert combination, and here’s a way to enjoy it with a crispy layer underneath and a touch of salt. Just like it does when paired with caramel, the salt brings out the sweetness and makes each bite finish with a “wow!”

This was printed a few days ago in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution list of the best recipes of 2018. I was almost turned off by the idea of using saltine crackers. It seemed too easy, too much of a shortcut, and I didn’t think it would look as elegant as the picture made it out to be. But it was being recommended by Wendell Brock, who writes about food for the AJC and whose recipes and articles I really enjoy. So I gave it a shot and was so glad I did.

Brock called the combination of flavors and textures “heaven,” and I’d agree. 100% delicious.

Oh, and it was a fun recipe to make with my children. They laid out the crackers, sprinkled the chocolate morsels, and sprinkled the nuts and watched me do the pouring and spreading.

48 saltine crackers
16 Tbsp. (2 sticks, 225g) unsalted butter
1 cup dark brown sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract
12 oz. (340g) semi-sweet chocolate morsels
1 cup finely chopped pecans
Flaky or big-granule salt, such as sea salt

Preheat the oven to 400F/200C degrees. Line a 12-by-18-inch rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Lay the crackers out in one layer, as close together as possible, filling the sheet.

Melt butter and brown sugar in a medium saucepan over medium heat, stirring frequently. When the butter has melted, raise the heat and bring to a boil. Keep it at a boil for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.

After 3 minutes, add the vanilla, give it a good stir, and pour evenly over the crackers. Spread the mixture around with a spatula if needed. Don’t worry if the surface isn’t completely covered. You just don’t want it pooling in one place.

Bake the crackers for 5 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle the chocolate morsels over evenly over the top. Let sit for 5 minutes, then spread the chocolate evenly over the crackers. Sprinkle pecans and salt over the top. Leave to cool, then place in refrigerator about an hour to set the chocolate.

Break into pieces and store in an airtight container for up to five days.

Printed in the AJC and adapted from “The Southern Synpathy Cookbook: Funeral Food With a Twist” by Perre Coleman Magness.

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Chocolate-Dipped Marshmallows

Here’s a little treat that doesn’t take long to make. You can adapt it to any holiday with sprinkles, keep it plain, or try drizzling with icing or white chocolate. It’s a fun snack that would be great to set out at parties or nice to box up and give as a gift.

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All you need are large marshmallows and chocolate morsels — I used peppermint chocolate morsels — then sprinkles, icing, or white chocolate morsels.

Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper (the baking sheet must be rimmed so sprinkles don’t roll away and make a mess when you decorate).

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In a bowl, melt a large handful of chocolate morsels in the microwave. Do it in 20- or 30-second intervals, stirring in between, to make sure all the chocolate is melted and none of it burns.

When chocolate is completely melted, you must work quickly. Take a large marshmallow and dip it into the chocolate, then set it on the parchment paper with the chocolate side up. Sprinkle it right away, then do the next one. Refrigerate once they’re all decorated so the chocolate hardens, then serve.

If drizzling with icing or white chocolate, let the first layer harden in the fridge before decorating. Melt the white chocolate as above.

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Halloween Eyeball Cupcakes

20181030_1539161. Bake some chocolate cupcakes with cupcake liners.
2. Prepare a thick buttercream frosting and tint it with Halloween colors like purple, orange, green, and brown.
3. Pipe spikes all over the top of the cupcake. (Squirt a small blob and bring the tip of the frosting bag straight back up.)
4. Put candy eyes randomly between the spikes.

As you can see, we didn’t just do spikes — we had fun making crazy monster faces. This is one Halloween treat that doesn’t require a specific shape or design, so just use your imagination!

Peach Cobbler

cobbler
The best way to enjoy peach cobbler is scooped in a bowl and topped with some vanilla ice cream. It ought to be golden brown on top, liberal with the fruit, and just mushy enough on the bottom to remind you this is comfort food best eaten with a spoon.

This recipe started with a version found on many websites that all credit The Salt Lick barbecue restaurant near Austin, Texas. I tried to do my own searching and couldn’t find the original, so I asked the restaurant — and it seems it’s not theirs, after all.

Now I don’t feel so bad about the tweaks I made. I slightly reduced the amount of butter and got specific about the peaches. The recipe calls for canned, but if you have a bounty of fresh peaches, by all means, use them instead.

One last thing — this is one baked dessert that doesn’t have to cool off before you serve it. Although you can make it ahead of time, this dish, even in the heat of summer, is best served warm.

FILLING
28 oz. peeled, sliced peaches (if using canned, weigh the peaches after draining — three 15-oz. cans should give the right amount)
1 cup sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg

BATTER
6 1/2 Tbsp. butter
1 cup flour
1 cup sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
2/3 cup room-temperature milk
1 room-temperature egg

Heat oven to 350F degrees. Meanwhile, prepare the peaches. Cut slices into halves or thirds, depending on size. In a bowl, combine peaches with sugar and spices.

Once oven is hot, put butter in a 9×13-inch pan and melt in the oven. Remove once melted.

In a bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Stir in milk and egg. Pour evenly over melted butter.

Spread peach mixture, including any liquid, evenly over batter. Do not stir.

Bake 35-45 minutes until batter is golden brown.

Note: I have updated this post to include the restaurant’s reply to my question about the recipe’s origin.

Blueberry Buckle

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Buckle, coffeecake, or cobbler. No matter what you call it, this is a great showcase for fresh blueberries and a wonderful, easy cake to make for friends.

I clipped this from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution sometime in the 1990s. It was called “Blueberry Thing” which, if I remember, was because the person profiled in the accompanying article had always called it that and because it tasted good no matter the name. I wrote “coffeecake” next to the recipe.

I found a similar Blueberry Thing online recently, so the Thing must be a thing.

Officially, this is not a cobbler. I learned that from a helpful if not tiny bit snobbish article that explained the differences between cobblers, pandowdies, crisps, buckles, and slumps. (I know words mean things, Slate, but home bakers deserve a little more sweetness.)

So it’s officially a buckle, because the fruit is laid on top of the batter and allowed to sink during baking, making it appear that the batter has buckled.

You’ll need plump, fresh blueberries and a pan that’s either 9×9 or 11×7 inches.

And whatever you end up calling it, I hope you enjoy.

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 1/3 cups sugar, divided
2 eggs
1 cup plus 1 Tbsp. all-purpose (plain) flour
1 tsp. baking powder
Dash of salt
1 heaping pint of blueberries
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
2 tsp. ground cinnamon

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Preheat oven to 350F/175C degrees. Grease a 9×9-inch or 11×7-inch baking pan and set aside.

In bowl, cream together butter and 1 cup sugar; blend in eggs. Stir in 1 cup flour, baking powder, and salt. Put mixture into prepared pan.

In a separate bowl, mix together blueberries, remaining 1/3 cup sugar, lemon juice, remaining 1 Tbsp. flour, and cinnamon. Spoon evenly over cake mixture. Bake 35 minutes, then let cool in pan and cut into squares.

Optional: Turn cooled cake upside down and dust with confectioner’s (icing) sugar.

Carrot Cake with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting

20180415_155748It’s hard to go wrong with carrot cake. Cream cheese frosting on top of a moist, cinnamon spice cake can be hard to resist. This version adds maple syrup to the frosting and uses pecans instead of walnuts. It’s easy to make, though grating the carrots and chopping the nuts takes a little extra time. Try doing those a day or two beforehand so you can have all the ingredients in place when you’re ready to bake.

You can also make these into cupcakes. The recipe will yield a little more than two dozen in standard-size muffin tins.

Cake:
2 cups all-purpose (plain) flour
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
2 cups sugar
1 1/4 cups vegetable oil (canola or sunflower oil if possible)
4 large eggs
3 cups peeled grated carrots (1 lb.)
1 1/4 cups coarsely chopped pecans
2-inch piece of ginger root, peeled and minced

Frosting:
10 oz. cream cheese, room temperature
5 Tbsp. unsalted butter, room temperature
2 1/2 cups powdered (icing) sugar
1/4 cup pure maple syrup

For the cake:
Preheat oven to 350F/175C. Butter two 9-inch round cake pans. Cut two circles of parchment paper to fit the bottom of the pans. Butter and flour the paper, then place in the pans.

In a medium bowl, whisk flour, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon to blend. In a large bowl, whisk sugar and oil until well blended. Whisk in eggs one at a time. Add flour mixture and stir until blended. Stir in carrots, pecans, and ginger. Divide batter between prepared pans.

Bake cakes until tester inserted in center comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Cool cakes in pans 15 minutes. Turn out onto racks. Peel off paper and cool completely.

(For cupcakes, line muffin tins with paper cups. Fill each about 2/3 full with batter and bake about 18 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Leave in pan for about 5 minutes, then let cool completely on wire racks.)

For the frosting:
Using electric mixer, beat cream cheese and butter in large bowl until light and fluffy. Add powdered sugar and beat at low speed until well blended. Beat in maple syrup. Chill until just firm enough to spread, about 30 minutes.

Place one cake layer on platter. Spread with about 3/4 cup frosting. Top with second layer, then spread remaining frosting on top and sides.

20180414_113042As you can see in the picture, I decorated the top with finely chopped pecans sprinkled carefully in a ring along the edge. Another idea is to leave the sides unfrosted and simply use more of the frosting on top. Placing pecan halves on top is another easy way to decorate.

I have a picture in my binder of a carrot cake with orange fondant carrots on top. I’ve always wanted to try that. Seems easy enough — just roll the fondant into little carrot shapes, place on the cake, and squirt some thin green frosting at the top of each one for the leaves. If I ever get around to making those, I’ll post the picture here!
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M&M Cookies

thumbnail_20180203_130745It’s hard not to love M&M cookies — easy, fun, and just plain yummy.

Years ago in a magazine was a recipe for “cookies by the stack” — a single cookie dough recipe that could be used with any number of mix-ins, from coconut flakes and chopped nuts to dried fruit or chocolate pieces. I glued the entire magazine page into my cookbook because it was so useful. I’ve made some of the variations on the page, but I use the recipe most often for chocolate chip cookies (see below).

These are going to taste good no matter what. It’s hard to mess them up! But if you want them to look good, too, there’s a trick: Mix only half of the M&Ms into the dough, and put the rest on by hand before they go in the oven. If you don’t, they won’t show up very well, as you can see here:

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The cookies on the right had all the M&Ms mixed into the dough. The cookies on the left had only half mixed in, with the rest put on by hand.

The food scientist and cookbook author Shirley Corriher, in her terrific book “Cookwise: The Secrets of Cooking Revealed,” explains how shortening and butter can affect the spread of the dough and give you either a flat, crisp cookie or one that holds its shape. Butter melts over a narrow temperature range, so if you use all butter in the recipe, the cookies will spread soon after they go in the oven.

Shortening, on the other hand, stays the same texture over a wide temperature range, she says — so cookies made with part butter and part shortening will hold their shape better than if you use all butter. This recipe uses both in an equivalent ratio. Knowing the difference in fats, you can tweak the recipe how you like — if you want a crisper cookie, use more butter, for instance.

I mentioned chocolate chip cookies earlier. If you’d rather make those, just replace the 2 cups of M&Ms in this recipe with 2 cups of chocolate morsels (semi-sweet). Three other variations are below.

1/2 cup shortening
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 tsp. baking soda
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
2 1/2 cups all-purpose (plain) flour

Set oven to 375F (190C) degrees.

In a large mixing bowl, beat the shortening and butter with an electric mixer on medium to high speed for 30 seconds. Add the two sugars and baking soda and beat until fluffy.

Add eggs and vanilla and beat until combined. Stir in flour by hand, then add half the M&Ms.

Drop dough by slightly rounded tablespoons 2 inches apart on an ungreased cookie sheet, then place reserved M&Ms on top (crowd them together for best results). Bake 10-12 minutes or until the edges are light brown. Let cool on a wire rack.

*The dough can be kept for up to 24 hours in the refrigerator, or frozen for up to 6 months (thaw overnight before baking).

Variations:

PEANUT BUTTER-CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES
Replace the M&Ms with 1 cup peanut butter morsels and 1 cup semi-sweet chocolate morsels. Mix it all in the dough.

COCONUT-WALNUT COOKIES
Replace the M&Ms with 1 cup coconut flakes and 1 cup chopped walnuts.

FRUIT AND OATMEAL COOKIES
Substitute 1 cup rolled oats for 1 cup of the flour. Stir in 1 tsp. ground cinnamon into the flour mixture. Stir 6 oz. of dried fruit bits into the dough.