The Best Sweets of 2011 From My Tiny Red Kitchen

Like a lot of people, I find myself doing three things during the last week of December: reflecting on the past 12 months, committing to the changes I hope to make in the New Year, and eating. Although this condition is temporary, and I'll start living in the present on January 1st, right now I am looking back at all the treats I've made in the last year. 'Tis the season for "Best Of" lists and I don't want to be left out. So in thinking about the stories attached to each recipe, taking into consideration the reactions from family and friends and, most of all, my own opinion, I give you The Best Sweets of 2011 From My Tiny Red Kitchen.

These cookies were a huge hit with me and those I love. Although I made them as a way to enjoy something indulgent without refined sugar or white flour after over doing it during the holidays, they quickly became a favorite regardless of their health properties. Super dark chocolate adds some oomph to mellow, creamy almond butter. I think I need to make a batch right now.
Clean Start Almond Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies
I'm always on the lookout for a jam that isn't too sweet and in general I love the slightly bitter zing of a good citrus marmalade. Days after I spotted Meyer lemons and Blood oranges at Fairway, this recipe appeared in the Times. An omen of sorts. So easy, so good and so pretty. Perfect against the slight saltiness of an Irish soda bread or Rye toast.
Pretty as a Picture Meyer Lemon Blood Orange Marmalade
My sister and I agree on most everything. Except for these muffins. She hated them. I loved them. Decide for yourself.
Oscar Recovery Strawberry Thumbprint Corn Muffins
I love it when I'm giving the charge to tackle a dessert dilemma. In this case, I solved the Flourless Chocolate Cake for Passover question that stumps so many of us every spring. Finding a cake that doesn't feel like it's the poor Kosher cousin or imitation of something that tastes much better with flour than when made with potato starch and matzo meal, is always a challenge. This cake would be great any time of year and in no way does it feel like you're settling. Problem solved.
Not my Nana Jose Chocolate Pecan Cake
I've been making these cookies for years and they always cheer me up. That's why they're included. Crabbiness be gone.
Crabby Mother's Day Toffee Dried Cherry Chocolate Chunk Cookies
How could I not include a recipe that brought me back to meeting Morgan Fairchild in 1976? Plus my friend Marsha's daughter loved this bread and if a six year old remembers me because of a baked good, I have done my job.
Bicentennial Memories Strawberry Bread
Another super easy recipe that looks much harder and fancier than it is. Doesn't everyone need one in his or her arsenal? Plus I've made them over and over again and they never fail to impress.
Be Prepared Palmiers
One of the first really decadent bar cookie recipes I ever made (about 20 years ago) that I finally felt ready to revisit. The blog that accompanied it got a bigger reaction than I'd anticipated and the spell that kept me from baking them has been broken. If you love coffee and chocolate, this is for you.
Who Asked You Coffee Blond Brownies
Back to school meant learning to make something I'd never made myself. Nothing was more satisfying than confronting and conquering the fear that had kept me from trying it. Plus, I love baklava and can never find it. It's very important to be self-sufficient.
Braving Baklava
If it's Halloween it's candy time and these caramels were a big hit with my neighbor, my friend Margot's daughter Annie and my sister. Why it took us all so long to realize the intense deliciousness of adding salt to confections is beyond me. I wasted so much time eating inferior caramels. Time I will never get back. As they say, Never Again. Now, go buy a candy thermometer and get cracking.
Most Wonderful Time Sea Salt Caramels
This recipe is worth making for the smell alone. A ginger scented kitchen is soothing and cozy as are these muffins. For the ginger lover in your life bake as instructed. For the ginger liker, leave out the candied ginger topping.
Late Bloomer Pear-Ginger Muffins
Because out of everything I've ever made, my mother deemed these her favorite treat. Enough said. Here's to an even sweeter 2012. Happy New Year!
Miranda Wants a Cookie Mocha Toffee Bars


Enjoy Your Holidays Pine Nut Brittle

I don’t know about you but I’m finding this holiday season to be very strange. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the weather? Aside from one frigid day, temps have been pretty moderate and we have yet to see any real snow. I have to say, thank goodness for that because over the last year we’ve endured blizzards, an earthquake and a hurricane so I think it is only fair that the man upstairs cuts us a break. Oh no, now I’ve jinxed us. If your flights get cancelled due to inclement weather, feel free to blame me. Also, I have been shocked by how few holiday cards I’ve received this year. Where is the stack of grinning gap toothed children? I have gotten a total of five cards, one from my sister, one via email, two from friends I knew in my past career and the best? A photo of my doorman’s three grandchildren. So maybe everyone else is feeling strange too? (Or maybe they found out I was making fun of their kids.) But regardless of why, despite trimming the tree, decorating cookies and lighting the menorah (by the way, there’s nothing like having your ½ gentile niece teach you to play dreidel to make you feel like a bad Jew), I’m completely disengaged from the holiday spirit.
My lack of investment in Christmas/Chanukah/New Year’s isn’t coming from a Scrooge-y or Grinch-y place. It’s almost as if I’ve been unburdened from anticipation. I feel kind of relieved that I’m not holding on to any expectations and am just living my life. I tend to make a big fuss over birthdays and Christmas, probably based on some false notion of childhood emotional deprivation or feeling like our dinner table tableau never quite matched Norman Rockwell’s. But this year I’ve actually forgotten what date it is a few times and have had to do the math to figure out on which day Christmas falls.
All of this is reminding me of the one other time in my life when I have felt as I do now, the semester I spent in London during my junior year of college. Being abroad was disorienting in many ways but in others it was almost like an escape. For the first time I was truly unavailable for family obligations or holidays. Six hours by plane and a different time zone freed me from the train ride into the city to celebrate a birthday, go to Yom Kippur services, eat some turkey. And I never got wistful. The high holidays came and went and I realized, “oops, forgot to do anything about that.” But I didn’t feel guilty. For a long weekend in November my roommate and I went to Paris and, over croque messieurs in a cafĂ©, I realized it was actually Thanksgiving and I was basically having a grilled cheese sandwich for dinner. It was delicious and we had a great trip. By Christmas time I had met my friend Michelle and we were in Rome. You’d think being in the home of the Vatican on December 25th would have made me feel left out in some way but it didn’t. I was more focused on soaking up all the things I was seeing for the first time to really care. When you have The Colosseum and the Piazza di Spagna are you really going to waste your time longing for the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree? Not me. By December 31st we were on an overnight train to Salzburg passing a bottle of wine across our sleeping compartment and laughing ourselves to sleep. Did I even think about Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve? Blessedly, no.
And so here I am over 20 years later feeling light as a feather and looking forward to 2012. And for some reason I don’t think I’m alone. In addition to my lack of cards I’ve been surprised by the lack of festivities. Not that I ever believe the exhausting holiday whirl pitched to us on the Today Show as being a source of exhaustion, wardrobe dilemmas and calorie consumption. But other than a few small dinner gatherings there seems to have fallen a social hush. And when I talk to friends they report the same thing. Have we all taken ourselves off the holiday hook?

I’m sure the answer to that is ‘no.’ There must be some of you still rushing to parties, struggling to find the perfect house gift or playing host and needing just the right thing to serve with drinks or after dinner coffee. This is where I come in. In fact I have been invited to ring in the New Year at two very convenient locations (one flight up and nine blocks away, respectively) and had been looking for an excuse to make this brittle. Pine nut prices have been insane so when I saw a bag at Trader Joe’s for under $10, I jumped. This confection is super easy to make and doesn’t even involve a candy thermometer. It is not your Ye Olde General Store’s peanut brittle. The woody rosemary and slight touch of lemon add wonderful flavor and sophistication. Set out a bowl to have with a great wine or champagne, fill a pretty bag to give to your hostess or keep it all to yourself. And do enjoy your holidays, whether you care or not.

Enjoy Your Holidays Pine Nut Brittle
from Molto Gusto, Mario Batali 2010LinkPrinter Friendly Version
1 1/2 cups, (7 oz) pine nuts
1 1/2 T fresh rosemary leaves, rough chopped
2 T canola, grapeseed or mild olive oil
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup corn syrup
3 T butter
3/8 t baking soda
1 t salt
One 1-inch thick lemon slice

Preheat to 350
Spread pine nuts on baking sheet and toast for 8-10 minutes, until lightly colored.
Transfer to a plate and let cool, then toss with rosemary.Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and grease paper generously with the oil. Brush or rub an offset spatula or wooden spoon with oil. Set aside.
Combine sugar, water, corn syrup & butter in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Cook, without stirring, swirling pan occasionally, until caramel is golden brown, 8-15 minutes. (FYI--It took mine 15 minutes to turn golden brown. Start watching after 8 and keep an eye on it.)
Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the baking soda and salt.

Using offset spatula or spoon, quickly stir in nuts and rosemary until the nuts are thoroughly coated.
Pour mixture onto parchment lined baking sheet then use lemon slice to spread and flatten the brittle. Let cool completely.
Break or cut brittle into small pieces. Lasts one week in air tight container.
Yield: 4 cups or so


Accessorizing Gingerbread Cookies

After a recent conversation with a friend I started to think about self-perception. We were chatting about a project she’d taken on at work when she said, “You know me. I’m a workaholic.” I almost spit out my tall skim latte with an extra shot. I can’t tell you how close I came to saying, “Yes, I know you, but do you know you?” This woman leaves work every day at 5pm, takes all of her vacation and personal days and doesn’t check her emails after quitting time. There is nothing wrong with her attempt at keeping her work/personal life in balance but let’s not get carried away; putting in an honest day’s work does not a workaholic make. Clearly along her life’s path someone must have told her what a hard worker she is, how she goes above and beyond and has an overdeveloped sense of responsibility. And she believed it.
What about all of the things we are told about ourselves throughout our own lives? Are they always right? I suppose the voices we hear the loudest are our parents first, then teachers and employers. I wonder what assessments stick with us, becoming part of our sense of self, and what fall away as our experiences prove them wrong.

There are so many things I was told about myself when I was young. I’ll stick to the more superficial since it’s the holidays and who wants to get heavy, especially if you’re about to spend a week in close quarters with extended family where a bomb is sure to go off at some point? And in fact, it’s when you’re spending time with people who knew you when that you are most likely to fall back into the role you played back in the day. Like so many little girls I was enthralled by things that were “fancy.” I remember specifically begging for ankle socks with lace trim to wear with my mary janes when the occasion called for a party dress.
“No, sweetie, it’s too much. You look better in tailored things.”

It was explained to me that because I had lots of curly locks and a small face there was already enough going on so I should be styled simply. My abundant hair was controlled by two braids or low fastened pigtails (never high up at my temple) held in place only by Goody covered rubber band and never by the looped elastics with the interlocking colored plastic balls. I did win one battle though. Insisting I looked like a boy whenever my mother pulled my hair back into a single ponytail, I got her to tie a velvet ribbon around it for birthday parties. Dresses could have rickrack but not ruffles and dark blue, red and dark green was the palette thought to suit my complexion the best. On the occasion I would lobby for a ruffled, pink dress and the verboten lace anklets I was told,
“No sweetie, it’s too much. You’ll look like someone named Ronni Sue.”

I had no idea what that meant, knew no one named Ronni Sue, and ultimately gave up and surrendered to the tailored, where I have stayed for 40 years.

I just confronted my inner Plain Jane when I was getting ready for a party. I’ve been so brainwashed with Fear of the Overdone that the only accessories I wear are a simple pair of stud earrings and a watch. It’s no wonder my jewelry box stays closed most of the time. All of them gifts, rings are tangled with necklaces, earrings poke through the links of bracelets and a fancy watch that has needed a new battery for four years rests on top of the shiny mess. But deciding to be festive, I fished out a pair of gold hoop earrings (probably the circumference of a quarter) and wound up feeling like I was in a gypsy costume all night. They are back in their little bag, which is where they will stay. So as you can see, what I was told to be the truth about myself has stuck. I do look and feel better when I keep it simple.
And yet that statement does not apply to Niece One, the girl who reminds me of myself more often than not. We both like things the way we like them, get really quiet and focused when immersed in something, boss our respective younger sisters around, and, as she likes to say, both have “hair that gets golden in the summer.” (The hair thing was a nice bond until my sister decided to share with her daughter that it wasn’t the sun making her aunt’s hair golden. Leave it to a little sister.) But where we diverge is on the subject of accessorizing. Coco Chanel would not approve of the way Niece One leaves the house; heaven protect the person who suggests she remove one of the many accessories draped from her tiny frame. She likes her bling. If it is sparkles she is all over it and if it’s pink and sparkles? Get out of her way. But what is really nice is that for the most part my sister lets her be her. Even when she skirts just a little too close to the Ronni Sue edge.
It should come as no surprise then that when I brought The Nieces gingerbread cookies to decorate for their Christmas tree the sweet and spicy boys and girls went from plain to bedazzled in minutes. Colored sugars added shimmer to a “skirt,” silver dragees became a necklace, pink jelly beans were transformed into coat buttons. These cookies were showing little skin.
When I suggested that maybe some could stay naked Niece One shot me a look I can only describe as one I have given others who suggest I go a day without straightening my previously mentioned curly locks. And I backed off, knowing two plain and tailored ginger people were sitting in my cookie jar waiting for me to come home. Just the way I like them.
NOTE: If you’ve ever been scared to roll and cut cookies, this recipe will convert you. It is so easy to work with and a pleasure to roll out. They have just the right spice for less experienced palates and held up beautifully while a four year old and a six year old gussied them up like drag queens.
Accessorizing Gingerbread Cookies
from The Good Housekeeping Cookbook, 2001 Hearst Communications, Inc.
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1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup light molasses
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 stick unsalted butter
1 large egg, beaten
3 1/2 cups all purpose flour


In 3 quart saucepan, combine sugar, molasses, ginger, allspice, cinnamon, and cloves; heat to boiling over medium heat, stirring occasionally with wooden spoon.

Remove from heat; stir in baking soda (mixture will foam up). Stir in butter until melted. Stir in egg, then flour.

On floured surface, knead dough until thoroughly blended. Divide dough in half; wrap one piece in plastic wrap and set aside.
Preheat oven to 325.
With floured rolling pin, roll remaining piece of dough slightly less than 1/4 inch thick. With floured 3- to 4-inch assorted cookie cutters, cut dough into as many cookies as possible; reserve trimmings for re-rolling. Place cookies, 1 inch apart on two ungreased large cookie sheets. If you'd like to use cookies as ornaments, use a chopstick, straw or skewer and make 1/4" hole at the top of each cookie.
Bake until brown around edges, about 12 minutes, rotating cookie sheets between upper and lower oven racks halfway through baking. With wide spatula, transfer cookies to wire racks to cool completely. Repeat with remaining dough and trimmings.
When cookies are thoroughly cool, bedazzle as desired. We used golden syrup as "glue" for candy, raisins and colored sugars. Or enjoy them plain, as I do.
Yield: about 3 dozen cookies