Streusel-topped Cranberry Orange Muffins

Friends, I just can’t accept the fact that it’s the middle of December.  I just. can. not.  How is it that there are fewer than two weeks until Christmas?  Where has the month gone?  I need for time to just slow down. Take a breather. Relax.


For one thing, it just doesn’t feel like December.  It was 65 degrees outside today.  There I was, out in the garden, picking collards and broccoli and lettuce.  Relishing the warmth. Feeling slightly off kilter because it IS December, after all, and my garden is still offering up all sorts of goodies.

December.  Last year it snowed on Christmas.

I’m kind of torn.  I love the fact that the kids can still play outside in the afternoons, but I miss having a fire every night in the fireplace.  I love the lovely greens still coming out of the garden, but I would also love it if it snowed one day soon.  I want the best of both worlds.  I guess I just need to learn to be thankful for what I’ve got.

I had a meeting the other morning at the school where I used to work.  I was supposed to be there at 8 a.m., but Atlanta traffic had other plans for me.  As I was sitting there, surrounded by every commuter in the metropolitan area, I praised the fact that my new job is three miles from my house.  I used to drive 50 miles round-trip.  Every day.  Now it’s ten at the most – and that’s because I have to drop the little one off at day-care beforehand.  I know I’m thankful for that.

Because it was an 8 o’clock meeting, I wanted to provide some goodies that we could munch while we chatted.  I had recently dried a bunch of cranberries in my dehydrator, and candied some orange zest using honey in place of the granulated sugar.  I love the combination of orange and cranberry, so I decided to bake a variation on this crumb cake I made last year, but making muffins instead.

Streusel-topped Cranberry Orange Muffins
adapted from the Tate’s Bake Shop Cookbook
prep time: 15 minutes
cook time: 35-45 minutes
yields: 1 9-inch square cake
For the topping:
1/2 cup sucanat (or firmly packed dark brown sugar))
1 cup old fashioned oats
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into tablespoons
generous pinch of salt
For the batter:
2 cups freshly ground flour (or whole wheat pastry flour)
1/2 cup plus honey granules (or granulated sugar)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup sour cream
1/3 cup half and half
2 large eggs
1/4 cup coconut oil
4 large pieces candied orange peel, chopped

1 cup unsweetened dried cranberries, reconstituted in 1/2-cup of  apple cider

  1. Preheat the oven to 350F.  Line a 12-cup muffin tin with paper liners.
  2. In the bowl of your food processor, combine the brown sugar, oats, cinnamon, and butter.  Pulse the it until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.  Set the mixture aside in the refrigerator.
  3. Add the reconstituted cranberries, along with the liquid, and the candied zest to the food processor.  Process until the berries and zest are chopped
  4. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, 1/2 cup of sugar, baking powder, cinnamon and salt.
  5. In a large bowl, co tmbinehe sour cream, half and half, eggs,  and oil
  6. Add the flour mixture to the sour cream mixture and stir just to combine.  Fold in the cranberry mixture.
  7. Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin tin.  Sprinkle the topping evenly over the batter.
  8. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until a cake tester or toothpick comes out clean.

What’s nice about these is that the muffins themselves are not too sweet (the tart cranberries take care of that), so the sweet streusel topping really contrasts nicely with them.  The original recipe called for using fresh cranberries that have been chopped in the food processor, but I think the dried ones work equally as well.  I definitely like the addition of the candied zest.  They were a big hit with my kids, and with my fellow meeting attendees.  I think they would also be a delightful addition to your holiday breakfast or brunch table, if you do that sort of thing.

Homemade Holiday Gift Ideas ( A Round-up of Sorts)

Can you believe that tomorrow is December 1? I’m kind of in denial about the whole thing – holding on to November for as long as I possibly can.

Maybe it’s because I’m starting a new job on Monday. Yes, right in the middle of the holiday fray, I’m starting a new job and putting my youngest back into day care. What stress? What added pressure?

It’s definitely for the best, and I’m really excited about the opportunity. It just comes (as most things do) at a particularly busy time.

With that in mind, it might be a while before I post anything on the blog. It’s not that I won’t be baking and cooking, it’s just that I’m not sure how much writing and editing time I’ll have. I’m prepared, though. I’m arming you with some of my favorite holiday posts from last year to get you started. These were all big hits with my friends and family, and I hope you’ll enjoy making and giving them as much as I did.

Homemade Panettone (excellent for French Toast)
Time consuming, but totally worth it!

Cranberry and White Chocolate Oatmeal Cookies
A versatile cookie recipe that adapts to all manner of flavors and add-ins.

Pink Peppercorn Sea Salt Caramels
As delicious as they are beautiful!

Whole Wheat Sugar Cookies with Royal Icing
If you’ve ever been intimidated by royal icing, this should help you overcome your fears!

So, thanks to all of you for continuing to come to this little corner of the internet.  I’m grateful for your support and feedback, and for your patience when things get a little sporadic.  Life continues to happen for all of us outside of cyberspace, and I’m thankful that I still have a creative outlet and a place to share the things I love.

Let me know if you try any of these recipes, and if you give them as gifts or keep them all to yourselves (I know I’m tempted to do that with those caramels, and with that panettone).  Hopefully I’ll find that I have time to continue to post regularly, but if not, maybe you’ll find some inspiration from these in the meantime.


The tart that replaced pecan pie in my Thanksgiving repertoire

As a child, I hated pecan pie.  I think it was because (as I’ve come to understand in my adult years) the filling was often overcooked to the point of being curdled.

There is a delicate balance in pecan pie, a fine line that bakers walk between silky smooth custard filling and curdled eggy mess.  I’ve encountered very few pecan pies in my life that have been perfectly silky smooth, and have only been able to personally achieve it once.

It really relies on the baker taking the pie out of the oven when the center is still almost liquid, and most home cooks (myself sometimes included) are wary of serving undercooked custard to their friends and family.

Luckily, I discovered a tart about six years ago that incorporates nuts without using an egg-based filling to hold them all together.  It was featured in the October 2004 issue of Bon Appetit magazine, and I think it was the photo that really drew me in.  Those lovely green pistachios, suspended in creamy caramel, nestled tightly between chunks of walnut and slivers of almond, just spoke to me.  The combination of honey and rosewater in the caramel, and the orange zest in the crust, makes for a flavor profile reminiscent of baklava, but so much more complex.

Over the years, I’ve adapted the recipe to suit my tastes (I replaced the walnuts with cashews, and sometimes I use store-bought pie crusts that I roll orange zest into to mimic the original. You could also use your favorite short-crust recipe here), and it has become a staple of our Thanksgiving dessert table.  Since we’ve incorporated this tart into our menu, the pecan pie has sadly gone by the wayside.

This year, I almost forewent making it, simply because shelled pistachios were $1 an ounce at the grocery store.  It almost seemed ludicrous to spend that much money on a single ingredient.  I decided instead to buy unshelled pistachios and shell them myself.  It added 15 or 20 minutes to my prep time, and my fingertips are sore, but it was totally worth it.

Caramelized Pistachio, Cashew and Almond Tart
Prep time 15 minutes
Cook time 35 minutes
Serves 8-10

2 store-bought pie crusts
2 teaspoons orange zest
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup honey
3/4 cup toasted pistachios (I use salted)
3/4 cup toasted cashews (I use salted)
3/4 cup toasted slivered almonds (unsalted)
1 1/2 teaspoons rose water

Begin by laying one of the pie-crust rounds on a floured surface.  Sprinkle the orange zest on top, and lay the second pie-crust round on top of the first.  Using a rolling pin, roll the crusts together until you can see the orange zest between showing through.  Place the rolled out crust into a 10-inch tart pan, fitting it against the bottom and sides.  Trim the excess dough, and place the tart shell in the freezer for 20 minutes.

Preheat your oven to 350F.

Place cream, sugar, brown sugar and honey in a heavy-bottomed saucepan.  Bring to a boil, stirring until sugar dissolves.  Continue to boil until mixture darkens and thickens slightly (Bon Appetit originally said for 4 minutes, but it usually takes me closer to 8 or 10 minutes).  Removed from the heat, add the nuts and the rose water.  Pour filling evenly into crust.

Bake tart until filling is caramel brown and bubbling all over.  Transfer to a rack to cool.


Holiday traditions: Panettone

For quite a few years, our family has had a tradition of making french toast on Christmas morning.  For the longest time we made it with Challa because of it’s rich eggy flavor and wonderful texture – perfect for soaking up all that custardy goodness.

One year, though, we discovered the wonders of french toast made with panettone, and we’ve never looked back (at least on Christmas morning).

For about five years, I worked for Williams-Sonoma, and believe you me, I took advantage of the discounts that their associates receive every chance I got.  Oh, how I miss that discount.

Anyway, every year at Christmas, they would sell these huge tins of panettone chock-full of dried fruit and these lovely candied chestnuts.  And every year I would hope and pray that there would be one left after they went on sale toward the end of the season (you see, they cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $25 each, which was more than I was willing to pay for a loaf of bread – I don’t care how good it was).  Luckily, most years I was able to score one, and I would proudly bring it home and make the best french toast you ever did taste.

It’s been quite a few years since I’ve worked at the old W-S, and I’ve managed to make do each year since with other brands of panettone, but the tradition has definitely continued.

A couple of years ago, my mother tried her hand at making panettone at home, and she was sorely disappointed with the results.  It turned out dry and cakey, without the lovely light, moist crumb that you expect from good panettone.  I’m not sure what recipe she used, so I can’t steer you clear of it, unfortunately.

This year, I decided to throw my own hat in the ring and make a go of it.  I searched the internet for recipes, wanting to find a really good authentic version.  Unfortunately, I found that most folks who claimed exceptional results were hesitant to share their secrets.  There was one constant thread, though, that ran through most of the success stories, and that was using a sponge starter, biga or sourdough starter.  Evidently, the most traditional versions are made this way in Italy, and the best results are achieved by doing so.

In my search, I came across this website, which gave a cute little history of the bread, detailing the story of a protective father, a smitten suitor and a resulting famous loaf of bread that has lived on in infamy for centuries.  Additionally, it gave a recipe.  It seemed straightforward enough and it used a sponge starter, which appears to be the key to all good panettone.

A couple of people who’d written up their panettone adventures mentioned using Peter Reinhart’s recipe from the Bread Baker’s Apprentice.  His starter uses buttermilk in place of water, which seemed like an intriguing idea to me.  I’ve recently begun replacing the water in my bread recipes with the whey I have leftover from various cheese-making experiments.  Since whey is similar to what buttermilk used to be before it became the modified food-starch and carageenen-laden cultured skim milk you find in the grocery store these days, I thought it might work here.

And I was right.

prep time: 18-24 hours
bake time: 45 minutes
yields: 1 large loaf
1/2 Tablespoon dry  yeast
1/4 cup warm whey (110 – 115 degrees F)
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup apple cider
1 Tablespoon honey or agave nectar
5 tablespoons butter, room temperature
2 eggs
4 egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup warm whey
   (110 – 115 degrees F)
1 tablespoon vanilla
4-4 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup chopped candied citrus peel
  1. Begin by combining yeast, 1/4 cup of warm whey and 1/2 cup of flour in a container.  Stir to combine thoroughly and let sit for at least 6 hours or overnight (mine sat for about 8 or 9 hours).
  2. Combine raisins, cranberries, apple cider and honey or agave nectar in a bowl and let soak while the starter is resting.
  3. After the 6-hour window has passed, drain the liquid from the fruit and press to remove as much moisture as possible.  Set aside.
  4. In a large bowl, combine the softened buttter, eggs, egg yolks, sugar, 1/4 cup warm whey and vanilla.  Stir to thoroughly combine.
  5. Add the starter to the egg mixture and stir to combine
  6. Gradually add the flour, sifting one cup at the time into the bowl an stirring to combine before adding the next cup.
  7. Once last cup of flour has been added, you may have to mix by hand to incorporate.  
  8. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead vigorously until the dough forms a smooth ball – about 10 minutes.
  9. Butter a large bowl, place the dough in there and turn to coat both sides with butter.  Cover the bowl with plastic wrap.  Set in  a warm place to rise for at least 6 hours (mine rose overnight, and actually over-rose the bowl I put it in – oops!).
  10. To make the panettone mold, I used an 8-inch cake pan with 2 1/2-sides, and made a tall collar out of parchment paper – the whole thing was probably 10-inches tall by the time I got done with it.
  11. Butter/spray your panettone mold thoroughly
  12. Punch down the risen dough and turn it out onto a lightly floured surface.
  13. Shape the dough into a rectangle and sprinkle the raisins, cranberries and candied citrus over the surface.
  14. Fold the dough in thirds, covering the fruit, and knead it to fully and evenly distribute the fruit (this was a messy process, and required me to continually add more flour to keep the dough and fruit from sticking to my board.  In the end it yielded a fairly homogeneous mixture).
  15. Place the dough in your prepared pan and allow it to rise for at least another hour (I let mine go for a couple of hours, while I was running last-minute Christmas errands).
  16. Preheat your oven to 375F.
  17. Cut an X in the top of the dough and place the panettone in the oven to bake at 375F for 15minutes (the top element of my oven gets really hot, and tends to burn things if I’m not careful.  After the first 15 minutes, I had to cover the panettone with foil to keep it from burning to a crisp.  As you can tell by the pictures, it got pretty brown in that first 15 minutes).
  18. Lower the temperature to 350F and bake for another 30-35 minutes, or until a long skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean.
  19. Allow to cool on a rack on the countertop for 30 minutes before removing it from the mold.

What resulted was a lovely, light, moist loaf of panettone.  It isn’t too sweet, and it has just enough fruit in it so that you can taste it, but it’s not overpowering.  I think it will make a wonderful french toast on Christmas morning.

If I don’t eat it all before then.

Try it and let me know what you think!

Enjoy, and Merry Christmas!

Holiday gift ideas: Sugar Cookies with Royal Icing

I’ve long been intimidated by decorating sugar cookies – always wanting mine to look like this, but being so scared of failure that I haven’t even tried….

…until I saw this tutorial over at PW Cooks.  They made it look so fun and easy, I just had to try it.  It took me most of a cold and blustery Sunday and my kitchen was covered in powdered sugar and various shades of royal icing by the end of it all, but I conquered my fear of sugar cookie cutouts decorated with royal icing.

While mine don’t look quite as good as theirs, I think for a first timer I did pretty well.  And after the first dozen or so, it wasn’t even that tedious or painful.  It actually may have even been fun after a while.  Or maybe that was just the delirium talking.  No, I think it was actually enjoyable.  At least that’s what I’m telling myself as I contemplate decorating the other half (I got ambitious and made a double batch).

Also, this is probably not the kind of decorating you want to do with your kindergartner.  It’s messy.  And takes a steady hand and a modicum of patience.  And unless you want your cabinets glued together with royal icing,you might want to save this ’til the kids are a little older.

I’ve also been trying for years to make a successful whole-wheat sugar cookie.  One that wasn’t overpowered by the flavor of the flour, had a tender crumb, and wasn’t too dark.  I think this year I finally succeeded.


Whole-wheat Sugar Cookies
prep time: 15 minutes
rest time: 2 hours
bake time: 7-9 minutes
yields 6 dozen cookies
1 1/3 cup butter, softened
1 cup granulated natural cane sugar
1/2 cup agave nectar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
4 cups white whole-wheat flour, sifted
  1. Beat butter in the bowl of your electric mixer on medium speed for 30 seconds
  2. Add sugar, agave nectar and baking powder; beat until combined, scraping sides of bowl occasionally.
  3. Beat in eggs and vanilla until combined
  4. Reduce speed to low and slowly add in the flour until it is all combined.
  5. Divide the dough into four parts; chill for 2 hours in the fridge, or 45 minutes in the freezer (if you’re impatient like I am).
  6. On a lightly floured surface, roll 1/4 of the dough at a time to 1/8-inch thickness.
  7. Cut out with your favorite holiday-shaped cookie cutters
  8. Place cutouts on cookie sheets lined with silpat liners
  9. Bake at 375F for 7-9 minutes or until edges are firm and bottoms are very light brown.
  10. Transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool.
 Royal Icing
prep time: 5 minutes
yields: enough icing for 4-5 dozen cookies
4 tablespoons meringue powder
1/2 cup water
1 lb. powdered sugar
1 teaspoon clear extract (flavor of your choice)
  1. Combine meringue powder and water in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment
  2. Beat on high until foamy
  3. Sift the powdered sugar and add slowly with the mixer on low speed
  4. Add the extract (I used a combination of vanilla and orange)
  5. Increase the speed to high and beat for 5 minutes, or until stiff peaks form – icing should be glossy
At this point, the icing is the perfect consistency for piping.  It was at this point that I divided the icing into five parts, leaving a little more than 1/5 of it as is for piping purposes. The other four parts I divided equally among four bowls and thinned with just a tiny bit of water to flooding consistency (when you hold your mixing implement – spatula or spoon – above the bowl, the icing should flow back into the bowl and disappear into the mix within 2-3 seconds).


I colored three of the bowls with liquid food coloring – red, green and blue – adding as much as was needed to reach the color desired.  If the food coloring thinned the mix to much, I added a bit of the piping icing to the mix to thicken it back up.  Once the desired color and consistency was reached, I transferred the flooding icing to squeeze bottles to make application extra easy.  The piping icing I put in a zip-top bag (or piping bag) fitted with a fine plain tip.
I then proceeded to pipe and flood to my heart’s content.  For a full tutorial on flooding technique and various answers to frequently asked questions, you can go here or here, since they do a much better job of explaining it than I ever could.
The cookies themselves were tender and slightly chewy, and they held their shape well during baking. They weren’t nearly as sweet as traditional sugar cookies made with refined sugar can be – they had a subtle sweetness with an underlying floral note (I think this comes from the agave nectar).  Given that royal icing is about as sweet as you can get, though, the lack of sweetness in the cookies was good thing.

If you’re like me and have ever been intimidated by the thought of trying to decorate sugar cookies, I recommend you try this technique.  I was much easier than I thought it would be, and once I got the hang of it, it didn’t really take that long.

And, if you’re still just a simple sprinkles and dragees kind of person, this cookie recipe is a good base for that as well.  You could easily change up the extract you use, subbing orange, lemon, coconut, almond, or whatever you prefer for the vanilla I used.