Recipes so good it oughta' be a sin!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Pink Himalayan Caramels

I'm back a little earlier than expected. I really didn't think I would get anything new done or a post ready before we headed up to Prescott Valley to visit Michael's dad this weekend. But, as luck would have it, insomnia and recovery from the nasty Christmas cold left me feeling like doing a little something in the kitchen this morning.

I'd considered a couple projects I want to try out in the next few weeks including a mint and chocolate cookie. But, what I finally settled on was an adaptation of Ina Garten's Fleur de Sel Caramels.

These delicious buttery caramels are fairly easy to do as candy goes. If you have a little patience, these won't give you much trouble at all. I do have to admit to being a little tickled at some of the comments on the Food Network site where the original of this recipe was hosted. I'm never ceased to be amazed by people who scream bloody murder that the recipe is "COMPLETELY WRONG!!!!" (Seriously, that's the level of their rage.) And go on to explain they reached this insight because their sugar burned to a crisp. Folks, here's a hint - that's not the recipe's fault. That is all you. It is imperative that when baking or candy making that you not only measure exactly but that you also watch when you're cooking. If something says 12 minutes but your dish looks done at 10 minutes - take it out for pity's sake! If a recipe says that a sugar mixture should be heated to 200° and that should take about 10 minutes. Don't set a timer and start catching up on Facebook. Watch the pot and the thermometer and when it hits 200° take it off the heat - whether it's been 10 minutes or 5 minutes!

Anyway, this is not a difficult candy recipe and it was cool enough today that I didn't even have to refrigerate the candy before finishing it up. I left it on the counter on a cooling rack and it was ready to go in a couple hours.

The recipe calls for this to be rolled up into two logs then sliced into 8 pieces each for a total of 16 pieces. I found those pieces were a bit large for the small boxes I was going to use for these so sliced them smaller. I even found the not rolling would work just as well if you'd like small squares. It's really up to you if you want big ol' caramels or something a little daintier.

I was thrilled with the taste the butter shines through in the caramel flavor and the addition of the salt gives them a little extra boost. I used my Himalayan Pink Salt both in the recipe as sprinkled over the tops.

Happy New Year and thanks for sticking with us here at Sugar Pies through 2010!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Pretzel Butter Cookies

The holidays are always such a busy time of year. Michael and I decided to upgrade the TV we've had for almost three years that was the size of many people's computer monitor (19"). We opted for a 32" TV which comparatively looks huge in our small living room. Still, I love it! No more squinting to see the scores on the football games and I've discovered that I can actually spot the pineapple on Psych since they've been hiding it better the past couple seasons.

We've also received some lovely gifts from family. My sister sent us a beautiful silver candleholder and candles (she knows what a sucker I am for great scented candles). My nephew and niece, Andy and Cameron sent us a great bottle of Hatteras Red wine from a local winery near their home in coastal North Carolina. Cameron also included some fabulous homemade gingerbread. My nephew Darron and his girlfriend sent us a lovely framed photo they had done recently.

So, as I've been trying to make some special treats for various events lately, I happened upon a great recipe in an old Betty Crocker cookbook. I've been looking for a nice butter cookie recipe that resembles the tinned cookies so often exchanged during the holiday season. This one comes very close. With a dash of almond flavor and lots of butter, this dough is delicate and crisp without being tough. The addition of coarse sugar on the outside really gives this a flavor and texture boost. I'd have to say this is fast becoming one of my favorite cookie doughs. It's not the easiest in the world to work because of the high butter content, but thoroughly chilled it won't give you too many problems. Just remember to take your time with it and don't leave it out as you're working in sections.

The traditional recipe calls for this to be rolled into ropes then formed into pretzel shapes. That works well but is pretty time consuming because you have to keep the dough very chilled or it tends to spread too much and become sticky when rolling with the hands. I found this also works well rolled out in sheets and then cut with round cookie cutters. Just make sure you roll this thicker than you would most doughs, though, or you lose its beautiful texture and it becomes too wafer-like. You could even use a small cookie scoop and use this as a small drop cookie. In short, it's a very versatile dough and you can adapt it to whatever your needs are.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Cocoa Fudge Cupcakes

I've been trying to get things ready for the holidays. These great chocolaty cupcakes with an identity crisis seemed the perfect thing! They're a cross between a brownie and chocolate cake. These turn out very moist and with a great fudge brownie flavor.

Recipe: Cocoa Fudge Cupcakes


  • 1 2/3 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 2/3 cup cocoa
  • 1/2 cup shortening, room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups buttermilk
  • 2 tbs. instant coffee
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs
Butter Rum Glaze
  • 1/3 cup butter, melted
  • 2 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 1/2 tsp. rum flavoring (or 2 tbs. light rum)
  • 2-4 tbs. hot water


  1. Preheat oven to 350°. Place paper liners in 24 small muffin cups. In bowl of electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment, cream together shortening and sugar until just fluffy. Add eggs, vanilla, and instant coffee and beat just until combined. Whisk together flour, baking soda, salt, and cocoa. Add buttermilk to sugar mixture and combine. Add flour mixture and beat at medium high speed for about 3-5 minutes, until batter is smooth and uniform with no lumps.
  2. Spoon batter into prepared cups and bake for 15-20 minutes or until a cake tester or toothpick inserted into center of cupcake comes out clean. Allow to cool completely and glaze.
Butter Rum Glaze
  1. Place melted butter in medium bowl. Add powdered sugar and flavoring and stir until combined. Add enough hot water to achieve a smooth and glossy consistency.


For a vanilla glaze substitute vanilla extract for the rum extract. This can also be used with orange or lemon juice as well.

Total time: 30 min
Number of servings (yield): 12
Meal type: dessert
Culinary tradition: USA (General)
Copyright © Buck Bannister and Sugar Pies.
Recipe by Buck Bannister.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

German Pretzels

German Pretzels
 When a recipe asks me to don protective gear like goggles, long sleeve shirts, and rubber gloves, I get a little leery. I'm not one to turn my kitchen into a possible chemical hazard zone for the sake of a recipe. So, when I saw those caveats in a recipe for German Pretzels, it gave me pause.

The original of this recipe calls for a lye bath for the dough. That's not the safest cooking procedure in the world. Luckily, there are alternatives. I, for one, will sacrifice the minute taste difference for something that won't send me to the hospital should I mess up!

Of course, lye reminds me of story about a local Lutheran church back in South Carolina. I grew up in what is known as the "Dutch Fork" of South Carolina. Almost everyone I knew was of German descent and Lutheran. Their families had immigrated to the colonies in the 18th Century at the invitation of King George II to help fill up the back country of South Carolina and provide a buffer to the Indian settlements and the Spanish and French to the South and West. Thus, Lutheran was the predominant religious denomination in my part of the South. My brother even became a Lutheran when he married into the Summer family - a very old German family.

Each Easter the Lutheran churches would celebrate Ash Wednesday by burning the palms used in the previous year's Palm Sunday service. These ashes would then be used to make the sign of the cross on the forehead of participants in Communion. As it turned out, that year happened to be quite rainy. The folks in charge of getting together the ashes for the service got the palm fronds burned nicely but then left them sitting out in the open for several days until the service. In the meantime, it rained.

Undoubtedly, the old craft of soap-making had been lost in the community because no one seemed to notice that ashes and water equal a fairly potent chemical when mixed together and allowed to sit. Yep, sure enough, the water as it sat with the ashes and percolated down created lye.

Unbeknown to the minister, as he scooped the ashes into a vessel for the service they were coated with lye. The service went forward and everyone filed to the front for communion and their cross on the forehead. Then, by the end of service people were noticing their their foreheads were itching and burning. Sure enough, when they washed off the ashes the lye in them had left red burns in the sign of the cross! Luckily, no one was seriously injured and the marks faded after a day or two.

Obviously, lye wasn't something I was particularly fond of trying in this recipe! So, I utilized a baking soda bath for the dough instead.

This turned out very nicely and I liked the result much more than an Amish recipe I've used in the past. The dough is soft and chewy and using both a coarse Kosher salt and a coarse Pink Himalayan salt not only gave a nice flavor to the pretzels but a great presentation as well.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Maple Brown Sugar Pecan Cookies

Maple Brown Sugar Pecan Cookie frosted with Maple Glaze.
What a week! Since last weekend I've been dealing with Plantar Fasciitis which makes it difficult for me to get around on a very sore left foot. Unfortunately, there's not a whole lot to do about it since I'm limited in what types of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication I can take. So, we're trying an orthotic and stretching exercises. It's a bit better, but that first step is still a killer!

On Thursday we went to the Fourth Avenue Street Fair for a bit. It was interesting and there were lots of people looking at the various items for sale. We decided to take advantage of the food vendors there and eat lunch. Needless to say I was floored when two orders of curly fries, a philly cheese steak and two lemonades topped out at almost $30. Maybe it would have been worth it if the food had been incredible, but it wasn't anything extraordinary. Still, we purchased a few things at the fair including a Christmas gift for a family member.

Normally, I don't discuss politics here but the end of the week really left me depressed. Recently, Jan Brewer, our governor, decided that transplant patients who are on AHCCCS (the Arizona version of Medicaid) would not be allowed to get transplants. In one pen stroke she sentenced 98 people to death. It is so bad that Keith Olbermann of MSNBC has begun a fund to try to raise money to get these people back on the transplant lists. Just amazing!

Then, earlier today I found out that Pima County is attempting to shut down all the programs that feed homeless people. Citing various restaurant codes, Sharon Browning their "Food Sanitarian" has decided that giving away food now qualifies as a restaurant and those doing it must be licensed and own a "Food Service Truck" (about a $50,000 investment). In addition they must work in a commercial kitchen with annual fees to her agency of over $300. Honestly, I wonder where common sense is these days. She continues to protest both to the press and in her letters telling people to cease feeding the homeless that she has their best interests at heart. Somehow, I really doubt it. Perhaps, I'm just a cynic when it comes to bureaucrats, after all the Federal Government passed a specific law to allow restaurants to give away expired food in order to feed the hungry. Now, Browning and Arizona say that healthy and fresh food made by people who care can't be given to people. Expired food... OK. Fresh food.... tough luck.

Shortly after finding out about Ms. Browning's efforts I learned that Jan Brewer and her Brewercare death panel had decided to stop funding medications for HIV patients. I have a friend here in town who relies on the program (funded by the Federal Government, by the way) for his medication. He now is out of medication and has no prospects of getting more. In essence, another death sentence by Mrs. Brewer and friends in Phoenix. Folks, this is what Republican healthcare reform looks like.

Needless to say, I'm quite depressed by the lack of compassion, caring, and charity in Arizona. I don't think I've ever been in a place less caring than this one and  it truly saps the spirit.

So, while Michael was teaching and no good football games were on TV (I can't possibly bring myself to cheer for the Cardinals today) - I decided to take my mind off things with some baking.

I had some Fisher's Brown Sugar Pecans that I found in the seasonal section of the grocery store last week. They're made by Fisher's. I wanted to do something with them and finally hit upon a Maple drop cookie with pecan pieces.

This turned out very nicely. Similar to a sugar cookie made with brown sugar, these are soft and chewy with a crackled surface. I used two approaches to decorating them. In one batch I used a maple glaze made with powdered sugar, maple extract and water and topped with pecan pieces and in the other I simply rolled the dough in Turbinado sugar before baking.

I love the taste of these. The maple extract gives them a nice maple flavor and the brown sugar pecans finish off with a great praline taste. I used a bit more salt in the dough than usual because I love the little hit of salt against nuts in a sweet cookie. It also helps cut the sweetness of the double hit of sugar and maple.

These are lovely and a great pick me up on a day when it seems the world has stopped caring.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Greatest Generation Spice Cake

Maybe that name is a bit long. In actuality this is a marble spice cake that comes from a 1941 recipe published in Mrs. S.R. Dull's Southern Cooking book. I found it interesting that this recipe predates World War II but utilizes a basic cake structure familiar to most Southern cooks - the 1,2,3,4 Cake. Of course, the utilization of whipped egg whites lends the texture of this one something akin to a chiffon cake.

Regardless, this is a very tasty and simple cake to make. It has a light texture but remains moist with a very fine crumb. The spices add a lovely note to the lemon and vanilla in the base batter and the marbling makes a nice presentation.

I really enjoyed this cake and it would make a great gift for a friend or neighbor at Christmas. I opted not to glaze or ice it, but if you wanted to a very lightly flavored lemon glaze would work nicely or even the glaze used for my Apple Cider Spice Cake would work.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Red Velvet Cookies

If you've ever wanted the chocolaty goodness and festive appearance of Red Velvet Cake without all the hassle, then Red Velvet Cookies might be an option for you! These little cookies are based on a soft sugar cookie recipe that is then combined with sour cream and leavening to give them a more cake like texture and cocoa to impart that classic Red Velvet Cake taste. Topped with a cream cheese frosting and sprinkles they are perfect for a holiday gift tray or your next holiday party.

I wasn't sure how much baking I would get done this week. On Tuesday I was called for jury duty and, amazingly, got picked for a trial. It was expected to run through Friday but we finished up late on Thursday afternoon and handing in our verdict. It was a very interesting experience, especially considering in Arizona we, as jurors, are also allowed to question witnesses at the end of their testimony. We made good use of that rule and asked many questions, some I thought more on point and pertinent than the actual lawyers.

Thankfully, we finished up on Thursday which gave me late Friday to get in a little baking. I'd hoped to be finished in time to drop the excess off to Karin and Feeding the Homeless, but as I just finished icing a few minutes ago and my back is yelling, I think I'll drop them by on Sunday since she has backup sweets for today.

These are great little cookies and I hope you'll give them a try during the holidays!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Maple Creme Sandwich Cookies

Maple is probably my second favorite flavor after lemon. I love maple in just about anything - including my favorite honey and maple cured bacon. Those little maple sugar candies that are so abundant during the holidays can send me into ecstasy. Every once in awhile I also spot maple sandwich cookies at the grocery store. It's one of those hit or miss things in the "gourmet cookie" section. But, I figured I could do my own version at home.

So, I began to work on a sandwich cookie. My first thought was to use a basic sugar cookie dough and cut the cookies out in the shape of maple leaves. But, I thought the sugar cookie might overwhelm the maple filling and also be too crunchy. So, I decided to adapt my Shrewsbury Cakes recipe for a softer cookie and flavor it with some maple to compliment the filling.

These turned out exceptionally well, and I could almost sit and eat the filling by itself! You can make these as big or small as you like. I used a large scoop for the cookies so my finished cookies were about 3-4 inches across.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Cranberry Pecan Bread

Cranberry-Pecan Bread 
Nothing seems to remind us of the holidays quite so much as cranberry and pecan. Since I had a lot of cranberries left over after making my Cranberry and Fig Stuffing for Thanksgiving, I decided to put them to use in a dessert/breakfast bread.

This is loosely based on an old recipe I have for Praline-Apple Bread but I tweaked it somewhat to create a new moist and flavorful combination indicative of the holidays. The secret ingredients in this are some finely diced figs which add some moisture and a nice flavor as well as some Calvados in which the cranberries are soaked. These add some extra special flavor punch to this delightful and filling bread. The glaze is a simple sugar and butter mixture flavored with a little Calvados.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Chicken Roulade with Cranberry-Fig Stuffing

As promised in the Gingerbread Cupcakes post, here is the rest of our Thanksgiving Dinner. I had originally decided to do a Turkey Roulade, but the dearth of turkey breasts in the store forced me to change my mind. Instead I used chicken breast and was very pleased with the result.

The stuffing features dried cranberries and figs soaked in Calvados, an apple flavored brandy. Hot and sweet Italian sausage along with Herbs de Provence and red and white onion and celery add even more flavor. The stuffing is wrapped in the chicken breast then lightly browned in the skillet before being transferred to the oven to finish baking. Excess stuffing can be placed in a pan to cook alongside the roulade.

I found that the stuffing was even better on the second day, so you might want to make this a day ahead and stick it in the refrigerator overnight for an even richer taste.

This was served with steamed asparagus and garlic mashed potatoes.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Gingerbread Cupcakes

I really didn't think I was going to do anything special for Thanksgiving. For the past several days my back has been acting up again, meaning I haven't felt like doing much at all. But, I decided I should probably make some attempt.

Yesterday, while Michael was working, I hit the stores and did some shopping for a Thanksgiving meal. I decided to make a Cranberry-Fig stuffing and had originally planned to do a Turkey Roulade. Unfortunately, the only Turkey breasts I could find were huge. I really didn't want to waste so much so decided to go with chicken breast instead. That was paired with Garlic Mashed Potatoes and Michael's favorite vegetable, asparagus.

Those recipes will be coming up later, but for dessert I chose a Gingerbread Cupcake featuring a butter cream-cream cheese frosting. These are a little different from my usual gingerbread since they contain diced crystallized ginger and sour cream.

They're an excellent upscale gingerbread treat. If you like you can add rum soaked raisins for an even more decadent flavor. I opted out of the raisins since I'm not a huge raisin fan. However, to use them in this recipe you'll just need to take a 1/2 cup of golden raisins and soak them in 1/4 cup dark rum in a small sauce pan. Heat covered until rum boils then set aside and allow to cool. You'll add them to the batter when you do the crystallized ginger.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Cinnamon Pecan Cookies

Pecans are such a great holiday treat. I love sugared pecans and when I worked for an antique store back in South Carolina we carried wonderful sugared pecans for the tourists. Of course, I think those of us working at the store bought nearly as much as the tourists! I adored the rum soaked sugared pecans.

These delightful cookies are chock full of pecan flavor and topped off with sugar and spice. It's really the best of both worlds - a cookie and sugared pecans all in one! This is a very easy cookie to do and you can really kick it up a notch by using brown butter instead of butter right out of the package. Brown butter is very easy to do, just put the butter in a sautee pan or small pot and allow it to melt over medium-low heat until it just begins to brown and turn a golden color. This gives the butter a lovely nutty flavor. Then allow it to cool slightly before adding it to the dish.

I also found that using my coffee grinder to grind half of the pecans into a meal gave a nice texture and boosted the pecan taste in the cookies. The remaining 1/2 cup I chopped very fine so that the nuts would be visible within the cookies.

These Cinnamon Pecan Cookies are a combination of a brown butter pecan shortbread that is an old Southern favorite and an updated quasi-healthy recipe I ran across in a magazine recently. The flavor is delicious and I found these great with a glass of milk or cup of coffee (or cocoa). Thankfully, our mornings here in the desert are getting rather chilly so it really feels like Fall - even if there are no leaves to turn colors. The Cinnamon Pecan Cookies are perfect with a warm drink on the patio to wake up in the morning!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Danish Kringle

There probably are few sweets more appropriately named for the holidays than Kringle. After all, Kris Kringle is supposedly the name of Santa Claus. This Kringle, however, comes to us via Denmark and Scandinavia where it has been an important sweet for centuries.

Usually made into either a horseshoe, ring, or pretzel like shape, Kringle can either be made of puff pastry or a sweet yeast dough. It is then filled with all sorts of good ingredients from marzipan and raisins, to almonds, to this slightly "southernfied" version that features pecans.

In reality a Kringle is a type of coffee cake and makes a great treat for holiday breakfasts. Glazed with a vanilla glaze and sprinkled with more pecans, this ranks right up there with great breakfast holiday fare.

These really aren't that hard to make and I found that by my second one my technique for rolling and shaping the Kringle had improved dramatically. A couple more and I should be ready to present these as nice gifts for the holidays!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Perfect French Fries

French Fries in cold oil that are crisp outside and fluffy inside? How can this be?
A couple months ago when I saw Cook's Illustrated on PBS demonstrating a slow cooked French Fry recipe I was dubious. They claimed that putting fresh potatoes into cold oil then bringing it up to frying temperature would turn out fries that were crisp on the outside while remaining fluffy on the inside as well as full of potato taste and not greasy.

Really? It went against everything I knew about frying potatoes (which is ALOT). It was common knowledge that frying potatoes at the wrong temperature created fries that were greasy and limp. How could taking them from cold to hot create any other result? After all, the queen of home cooking, Julia Child, had taught us nearly 50 years ago that the keys to French Fries were soaking, icing, frying low, then frying high. It was a multi-step process. How could such an elaborate procedure (which was often hit or miss) be simplified so drastically?

The folks at Cook's Illustrated were kind enough to point out the science behind the idea. It seems that dropping potatoes into hot oil actually increases the amount of grease soaked up because it forces out the potato's natural moisture. So, frying at a slightly low temperature seemed to redouble that effect - thus the limp greasy fries. Taking them from cold to frying temperature slowly trapped the moisture in the potatoes and kept them from getting soggy.

Well, as luck would have it, I had some Yukon Gold potatoes last evening that I wanted to fry. Yukon Gold potatoes work best for this recipe because of their smooth and velvety texture. So, I set about slicing up some potatoes and dropping them in cold oil.

The result was fantastic. These were some of the best fries I have ever done in my kitchen. They were crisp on the outside with a satisfying "crunch", while the interior was light and fluffy and tasted like the best fresh fries. I'm sold on the technique. Sprinkled with some Kosher salt these easily stacked up against some of my favorite fries of all time including Fiske, In N' Out Burger, and Five Guys.

If you're a French Fry fan, this recipe is a must try. You'll be shocked at how stupidly simple it is to turn out incredible fries every single time right at home!

Note: I use a very inexpensive chopper to create my fries. It cuts perfect 1/4" square planks in seconds. However, if you don't have a chopper see the video following the recipe for instructions.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Garlic Mashed Potatoes

Mashed potatoes with a pad of butterphoto © 2009 Quinn Dombrowski | more info (via: Wylio)

I was looking for something to do for dinner last evening when I spied my big bag of Yukon Gold Potatoes in the pantry. At first I thought of just rough chopping some and baking them alongside the Oven Barbecue Chicken I was planning. Then I thought, "Why not do some mashed potatoes?"

Michael loves mashed potatoes and honestly despite all the boxed "flakes" in the grocery store, they're not hard to do. So I pulled down a few and went to work.

Mashed potatoes basically consist of boiled potatoes that are then mashed along with other ingredients for a velvety smooth and creamy texture. In this case I used some garlic along with cream and sour cream to get a rich and smooth mashed potato. The results were great and Michael scraped the bottom of the pot on his second return for more! I'll post the basic recipe here, but in mine I also threw in about 1/4 cup of shredded Parmesan for a little cheesy-garlic taste. But that's optional. This recipe is based on one by Paula Deen.

For dessert we had some more of the Cream Cheese Pound Cake which has become a hit. I can always tell when a dessert really passes muster because no matter how many helpings Michael has had of the main dish, when I suggest dessert he'll have some. So far the Cream Cheese Pound Cake hasn't been turned down.

Note: The photo above is a stock item because I forgot to get a photo before the mashed potatoes were devoured.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Cream Cheese Pound Cake

Cream Cheese Pound Cake served with Raspberry Sauce 
What a couple weeks it has been! Last weekend we attended the Tucson All Souls Procession which coincides with the traditional Dias de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration throughout Mexico. The event was wonderful with lots of interesting costumes and people! Certainly, this is something in Tucson that is not to be missed!

Following the procession, I got to work on Dennenkoeken for Karin and the homeless project. She's now feeding 100+ people every weekend in the parks! Luckily, some of her newer helpers have been able to hook her up with a local high end bakery who is providing leftover cupcakes twice weekly! That certainly cuts down on the amount I have to make each week to keep up! (About 5 or 6 dozen cookies at a shot is about my limit in my small kitchen!) Of course, who would have thought the homeless folks would be eating gourmet cupcakes sprinkled with gold powder! I taste tested one of the Red Velvet cupcakes that were donated and it was very good. The icing was incredible and I'm going to set about trying to replicate it over the next several weeks. I think it's a combination of butter-cream and cream cheese frosting that is whipped. If I'm successful I'll post my "knock off" here.

Karin also was honored with a "Ben's Bell" this past week. Ben's Bells are local honors that are highly prized. They are presented to people who do extraordinarily good works in the community. Karin certainly deserved hers! It's hard to imagine the work that goes into her meals each week. When I dropped off the Dennenkoeken yesterday she was running behind in her preparations. She and Jen were frantically trying to finish the Tortilla Soup before 5pm and still had nearly 30 pounds of zucchini to chop! Since I had some free time, I stayed to help with the chopping. She was preparing four huge (and I do mean huge) pots of the soup - 2 for each day. Her love and dedication just can't be measured and I'm happy I was able to help her meet her deadline.

Yesterday also happened to be our friend Nora's birthday. She had requested a "spice cake" for her birthday and they were having a little party at the Animal Inn for her. So, Friday night when we got home from a fun evening at Flandrau Planetarium's Pink Floyd laser show, I set about making an Apple Cider Spice Cake for her. The cake was a hit at the party so I'm glad I was able to make her birthday special with a cake.

With all the goodies out of the house, I decided to use up some cream cheese I had in the fridge by doing a Cream Cheese Pound Cake. This recipe comes from Southern Living's Classic Southern Desserts cookbook.

Of course, sour cream pound cakes are very common and my favorite "Gert's Mama's Pound Cake" features sour cream for a smooth and moist interior. But I'd never seen cream cheese used in place of sour cream. I wondered how it would turn out.

The result was wonderful. This cake is very tasty with a hint of tang from the cream cheese and a nice buttery vanilla flavor. This is excellent served barely warm with no icing. I opted to use a warmed slice with some chilled Raspberry Sauce for a lovely dessert. The texture of this cake is very soft and velvety. My only caveat is to remember to place your oven rack so that the top of the cake pan is just above the center of the oven. I forgot to do that and had my rack set too high so the top (bottom when removed from pan) got done too quickly and cracked. It didn't affect the taste but I was glad this was going to be enjoyed at home as it wasn't as pretty as I'd have liked.

This is certainly a cake to add to your repertoire and a wonderful classic to serve with any meal.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


Crispy, crunchy, and oh so delicious, this Danish cookie is perfect
for cool Autumn days!
I love those "Danish" butter cookies in the tins that populate store shelves during the Christmas season. The crunchy sugar on top, the buttery taste - it all just screams "Holidays!" to me. So, recently when I was browsing websites, I was intrigued to find one from Denmark that listed a number of traditional Danish cookies.

Looking through them, I discovered one from the north of Denmark called Dennenkoeken. It features butter, brown sugar, and a variety of spices topped with that nice coarse and crunchy sugar. It sounded yummy so I thought I'd give it a go.

The first thing I realized was that whomever had translated the recipe from metric to English measurement had some math problems. So, after adjusting the measurements I set out to create this little Danish cookie.

The original recipe called for the cookies to be brushed with beer before being sprinkled with sugar. Of course, not being a beer drinker there was none in the house. So, I finally hit upon a rather unusual but tasty (and attractive) way to stick those sugar crystals to my cookies. I took about 3 tablespoons of maple syrup and one egg and created an "Maple Egg Wash" that I brushed over the cookies. Then I sprinkled on my sugar. The sugar stuck, the cookies had a nice crisp, shiny surface and the maple syrup gave them just a hint of maple flavor. It was the perfect Autumn combination!

Monday, November 1, 2010

English Coconut Biscuits

When is a biscuit not a biscuit? When it's an English Cookie!
We Americans hear "biscuits" and immediately think of a type of quick bread served with a meal. However, the British translation of that would be what we call a "cookie" or perhaps "cracker" depending on whether it is sweet or not. In this case we're talking cookie.

When our friends Nora and Larry were over recently for the Project Food Blog dinner party, Nora brought along an old cookbook for me. She knows how much I enjoy perusing old and out of print works for interesting things that might not be in vogue today. The book she brought was the "Good Housekeeping Picture Cookery Book" which was published just after World War II in Great Britain. At first, I didn't realize it was British and thought there just was no section for cookies. Then as I flipped through its worn pages I noticed the spellings and the reliance on weights instead of the usual volume measurements used in the USA. Then I happened upon the "biscuits"!

There were many interesting variations including one for my favorite Shrewsbury Cookies. However, in glancing at the recipe, I feel my adapted 18th Century version would be far superior to the one given in this book. I did happen upon a recipe in there for a coconut cookie. That looked interesting and I had all the ingredients including Castor sugar.

So, while I waited for Halloween Trick or Treating to get underway this afternoon, I decided to whip up a batch and see what this old recipe wrought.

Looking at it, I knew I'd need to add a couple things to it for more current tastes. The original didn't use any flavorings beyond coconut. I felt that might be a little much without something to balance it a bit, so I chose to add a bit of vanilla. The original also didn't utilize any salt to help brighten the flavors so I felt I'd need just a touch to wake up what could otherwise have been a rather one note cookie.

I began working on the recipe but quickly found that the dough was much too loose to work with or roll out. I'm not sure if there was a mistype in the old book, but a scant 4 ounces of flour and 4 ounces of coconut just wasn't giving the body necessary to roll out this dough! So, I decided to up the flour content slightly so the dough would come together a bit better, then instead of rolling it out, I went with my cookie scoop.

The results were great! I got a very delicate cookie with a nice light coconut flavor balanced with the vanilla. These almost melt in your mouth! I thought about dusting them with powdered sugar but decided in the end that it would be almost too sweet. I liked the less sweetened "biscuit" more.

You could also use a bit of lime juice in place of the vanilla for a lime-coconut cookie. Either way, these are marvelous little discoveries from the period when Britain was still recovering from the effects of the Blitz!

The good news too, was that they kept me out of the Halloween candy between Trick or Treaters! As it was we had candy left over (never a problem back east!) Luckily, it's mostly bubble gum and a few lollipops so it won't hit my waist too hard when I eventually get into it!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Cheesy Potatoes Gratin

Not the best picture, but the dish was a hit!
Sometimes you have to get a little creative. I wanted to use up some potatoes we had in the kitchen but didn't want to roast, fry or saute them. I thought Gratin would be a nice change of pace but I really don't have a good gratin dish for small portions.

I was going to do breaded and baked chicken too, so decided to "engineer" a solution to my dilemma. What I ended up doing was taking my Pyrex baking dish and lining it with foil. I then created two sections using heavy foil. On one side I would create my gratin and on the other I would bake the chicken.

Amazingly, it worked out perfectly. I came out with a very interesting and flavorful gratin featuring mozzarella and sauteed onion with a bit of garlic and my chicken baked beautifully. I couldn't have been more pleased. I only wish I'd managed to get a better photo of the dish before Michael dug into it.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Chai Spice Sugar Cookies

These are not your Grandma's Sugar Cookies! This sugar cookie makeover features some interesting additions. First of all, who would think of putting cream cheese in sugar cookies? Well, the folks at Cook's Illustrated seemed to think it was a good idea.

Honestly, I had my doubts. After all, I've been using an 18th Century sugar cookie recipe for years and was perfectly happy with it. It wasn't overly sweet and the addition of some extra spices really gave it some interesting flavor notes. Still, the cream cheese thing intrigued me so I decided to give it a go.

I used their Chai Spice version that features warming spices like ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, and a little pepper. The result was fantastic. I really love this cookie because it delivers something a little extra.

The cookie itself is nicely cracked with a lovely sugar coating but the spices really add the oomph! They're not overwhelming but just enough to make your taste-buds perk up and go "what is that flavor?" The cream cheese also adds an interesting depth of flavor but not something you can actually pin down and say "Oh, there's cream cheese in this."

The spices linger ever so nicely on the tongue and really fool you. Biting into this cookie you get a nice crunch followed by a middle that is slightly soft and chewy. Initially, it seems a common sugar cookie although with wonderful texture. However, as you chew you discover this lovely blend of slightly warm spices. It's like getting an extra treat and I love sweets that surprise with a pleasant but unexpected flavor.

You really will have to try these. While I still love my Shrewsbury Cakes and think they are fabulous for most any occasion, I have to give props to the folks at Cook's Illustrated for this makeover of the humble sugar cookie.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Rosemary Focaccia Bread

Focaccia - it seems to be all the rage among "Artisinal" breads at the supermarket lately. You can find loaves in nearly every supermarket bakery. But what is it?

Simply put, Focaccia is an Italian country style bread. Originally, it was any bread that was used to test the temperature of a brick oven (the name comes from the Italian for "fireplace"). Today it's a particular type of bread that comes from Genoa and features a dimpled surface, olive oil and herbs. It's a great bread to use for bruschetta or simply to warm and dip in a good olive oil with a meal.

This version was presented in Cook's Illustrated and features a "no-knead" approach to the bread. I decided to give it a try and was pleasantly surprised at the result because at a few points in the process my confidence lagged that this would actually produce an edible loaf. Lo and behold, it did!

The key with this is not to be intimidated by the rather watery dough. I'm still a chicken when it comes to really messy bread dough - although I'm getting better. This dough is not the easiest to handle but with a little bit of patience and courage you can turn out a nice loaf of Focaccia!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Candy Corn Cookies

Candy Corn - what would Halloween and Autumn be without this overly sweet little concoction of sugar? When I was a kid I loved this stuff. I couldn't wait for Halloween to get a bag of Candy Corn and dive in. Now, I find it a bit too sweet for my middle aged palate.

But, have no fear; there are alternatives. I recently ran across a spate of recipes for Candy Corn Cookies. The idea is fairly simple - you take a sugar cookie or sable dough and divide it into three parts, color it, put it back together in layers, slice it, bake and voila! Candy Corn Cookies.

I decided to give it a try recently and found it a snap to do. You can also turn out huge quantities of these bite-sized cookies that make a great display in a bowl.

Chocolate Cupcakes

Moist chocolate cupcakes that lurk somewhere between cake and brownie seem to be perfect for Halloween. Topped with an orange cream cheese frosting and nestled in retro Halloween design cupcake papers, they seem to scream Halloween.

These great chocolate cupcakes feature sour cream to give them a moist interior and a touch of tang. Using high quality cocoa takes these from ordinary to extraordinary. Topping them with a cream cheese frosting gives them yet another flavor boost.

I used some sugar crystal sprinkles on these but the various Halloween sprinkles available in most supermarkets would be great as well.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Coconut Toffee Bars

These delights are a breeze to make! Just mix up the ingredients put it in the ever handy 9x13 pan, bake, drop on some chocolate chips and sprinkle with toasted coconut. Nothing could be simpler and the result is a fantastic sweet treat with a classic toffee flavor.

I decided to make these this morning since I had a sweet craving. For the past couple days I've been finishing off my Yeast Corn Muffins since I'm the only person in the house who likes corn muffins. Obviously, I was getting a little tired of them and wanted something sweeter.

The original version of this recipe calls for chopped and toasted nuts sprinkled over the chocolate like traditional English Toffee candy. However, I decided to use toasted coconut for a different flavor and color combination. Either works fine.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Corn Muffins Revisited

It seems sometimes that different events come together all at once. I've been having something of a craving for cornbread lately - no doubt more of my Autumn wishful thinking. So, as I was browsing through the cookbook from Mary Mac's Tea Room, the recipe for cornbread caught my eye. Of course, it's a bit "Yankeefied" for my taste (meaning it has sugar and is sweet) but I filed it away as a possible trial for the future. Then I got a call from Karin at "Feeding the Homeless" asking if I could make some cornbread to go with her meal this week. So, I pulled out the recipe from Mary Mac's and gave it a try.

Then my issue of Cook's Country came with a recipe for cornbread muffins made with yeast. That looked pretty interesting although it also struck me as Yankeefied (they're from Massachusetts) with its copious amount of brown sugar. Still, the texture was intriguing. It was described as something like an English muffin on the inside.

Now, I'm assuming the folks up at Cook's Country are unaware of real Southern Cornbread made without sugar and also without a "cakey" texture that seems to be their main complaint with corn muffins. (See my original recipe here.) Maybe they've only had cornbread at those chain restaurants that claim "home cooking" - I can't say. But real Southern Cornbread is not sweet and neither is it cakey.

Anyway, I decided to try the recipe to see what it produced. It is a great recipe. The cornbread is nicely textured with just a little sweetness that will keep the Yankees in the crowd happy. Honestly, though, you can get similar result by using Mary Mac's "Yankeefied" recipe or dropping a couple tablespoons of sugar into a classic Southern Cornbread recipe. Plus you don't have to wait on the bread to rise. So, while it's a great recipe, as Mama would say "Six of one, half a dozen of the other." Meaning of course, that there is no real discernible advantage of using the yeast when stacked up against the real deal from the South.

Try them both and be the judge!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Creamy Macaroni Salad

Cool and creamy, this Macaroni Salad lends itself to holiday
cooking and experimentation!
Although Summer is done, the holidays are just around the corner and with them various family dinners and potluck suppers. A great standby for such events is Macaroni Salad. It works well with nearly any entree (especially holiday favorites like poultry and ham) and is easy to make and carry.

I adapted a Macaroni Salad recipe from Cook's Country recently using what I had available in the kitchen. Michael was bringing home fried chicken for supper and I needed something as a side. I had most of the ingredients called for in the original recipe but found I'd need to substitute a few things to put my own "spin" on this one. The results were very good. Michael really enjoyed this dish. It has a great creamy texture as a base for whatever other add-ins you want to try. So, get creative! Pick flavors you and your family enjoy and experiment.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Pumpkin Free in 2010

Let's face it... the pumpkin thing every year gets a little old. Pumpkin pie gets done to death and when people run out of the old standbys they start making stuff that just shouldn't exist... pumpkin ice-cream, pumpkin candy, chocolate pumpkin cupcakes... well, you name it and someone out there is putting pumpkin in it from September to November.

Personally, I'm not a big fan of pumpkin except as a Jack O'Lantern. My Autumn favorites tend to be crisp mountain apples and their progeny such as apple cider. In fact, when I was a kid we'd drive up into the Blue Ridge Mountains to see the leaves changing colors. While up there we'd always stop at a roadside stand where mountain folks were selling their home pressed cider. They'd keep it cold by floating the jugs in a mountain stream. It was the best stuff imaginable and I'd love to have some fresh cider to incorporate in my recipes this year. As it is, I have to use store bought out here in the desert.

Still, apples and spices signal Fall to me much more than pumpkin. So, I have taken a pledge that in 2010 I will not succumb to the Foodie Blogger virus and throw pumpkin into every last dish I make. In fact, I pledge that I will NOT cook any dish this Autumn that contains pumpkin! Instead, I will focus on other, much less appreciated Autumn fare.

So, if you're sick to death of eating pumpkin in everything you put in your mouth, join us here at Sugar Pies for a Pumpkin Free 2010!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Crybaby Cookies

Crybaby Cookies - interesting name for this recipe that seems to originate in Pennsylvania Dutch country. I'd wondered how they got this name and then I ran across a "recipe request" in Cook's Country. The person was looking for a cookie made with molasses and raisins that were called "Crybaby Cookies" because "they're so good if you give them to a crying child they'll stop crying."

Well, they are pretty good. Cold, strong coffee gives these cookies a little something extra. You notice this nice coffee flavor when first biting into the cookie followed by the sweet molasses flavor and finishing with lovely spices where ginger gives a little bit of heat. It's a very complex flavor in a very simple cookie and a perfect morning cookie treat! It's also a great way to use up the leftover coffee in the carafe after breakfast.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Day Trip: Arizona Vineyards

Southern Arizona's Wine Region
Believe it or not, Arizona does have vineyards. About sixty miles southeast of Tucson lies the little town of Elgin, Arizona. This little area is now home to a number of small wineries and produces some startlingly good wines. We'd never ventured down there so decided to spend our Thursday checking out the wineries along with the beautiful scenery and little towns in the area.

Kief-Joshua Vineyards
Our first stop was at Kief-Joshua winery where we enjoyed a number of their wines. Unfortunately, this years crop was severely damaged by one of our monsoon storms that dropped a large amount of hail on the vineyard. However, their previous vintages were on display in the tasting room where we were particularly taken with their Rousanne which was amazingly smooth with citrusy notes including melon. This was by far my favorite of their offerings although Michael preferred the Tempranillo with its earthier tones and combination of berry and anise flavors.

Of course, while there we fell in love with the winery's dogs as well as their sheep out back! Their shop also stocks a number of local treats including dip and soup mixes, pecans soaked in the Rousanne (which I managed to not buy), and various gourmet items.

Our second stop was at Village of Elgin Winery where we were treated to a private tasting of some of their most interesting wines. Their selections were more up my alley with sweeter offerings that were easy on the palate. I particularly enjoyed their white port named "Andrew" which blew me away with its smooth and fruity taste. Despite a rather high alcohol content (around 16%), this wine has none of the "burn" you often get. Smooth and easy - as Jim, our host said, "this will sneak up on you!"

We also tried their Four Monkeys label which is available locally at Total Wine (Oracle and Wetmore in Tucson). We enjoyed the Naughty Monkey which is a Moscato which rested easily on tongue. Both the Andrew and Naughty Monkey made the trip home with us.

In the tasting room at The Village of Elgin Winery
Leaving the wineries behind, we ventured on to Patagonia and took a brief detour to Patagonia Lake, a lovely area with a secluded lake perfect for camping and rowing a boat. We didn't have time for a long stop today, but I'm sure we'll be back down there soon to enjoy this beautiful lake.

We decided to go home via Nogales and finally arrived at I-19 to begin the drive due north to Tucson. We got to enjoy the beautiful and lush Green Valley area as we drove toward home. All in all a wonderful day with some new bottles of wine for the house and some new favorite destinations!
Green Valley Area of Arizona

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