Friday, October 10, 2014

Book Review: The New American Herbal by Stephen Orr

This newest gift from Blogging for Books is a gem. It's a rare find in so many ways. Beyond our world of fiction books, romance paperbacks, YA literature, and non-fiction biographies, there's still a desire for good old-fashioned reference books, kind of like the dictionary (which I more than secretly love). Which is only partially why I adore this book so much. 

The other reason it's a great find is that packed between pages of beautifully photographed images of herbs and flowering plants lies a plethora of information. Everything from the safety of a plant to how it's harvested and why, this tome reduces the internet equivalent to dust. It really sheds just the right amount of light on each plant and the reason, including historically, why we use the plant and how to get the most benefit out of it. 

This is not a light book, but the presentation of the information makes it appear that way. There are scads of tidbits on understanding herbs and how to propagate and harvest them; extraction processes for essential oils made from herbs and the best way to use them; creating your own garden; and a whole section on kitchen essentials that showcase recipes for adding herbs to spice blends, beverages, oils, and vinegar. Follow this up by a little sprinkling of different herb usage from around the world, as well as other cultures including Native American and older traditional herbs. I'm in heaven! 

The book is laid out with information preceding the glossary of alphabetical herbs followed by a substantial resource section. Tucked between those herby pages are recipes using the said herbs in sweet and savory dishes. I love this. It's not a full-on recipe book, but it adds a little panache to your dinner by potentially trying something new. How about a little lavender in your cake? Yum! 

I did find that I would have liked more information crammed into this already over-filled book. I would have liked more details, but that's the point. It's a reference book to get you started. Reference it, then dig deeper using the many tools we have all around us. 

Nonetheless, what a splendid find! It will sit happily next to my beloved dictionary, ready for reference at a whim's notice. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Book Review: Martha Stewart Living's One Pot: 120+ easy meals from your skillet, slow cooker, stockpot, and more

Martha Stewart. Who doesn't know who she is? Culinary goddess, home-trending leader, magazine and television mogul. A leading expert in all things home-oriented, she's truly one of the first go-to's in the world of cooking, baking, or any kind of DIY thing.

I am a fan of her work. She bakes, she makes, she cakes, she's a lifestyle genius. And so is her team of experts that creates Martha Stewart Living (the magazine, just in case you're new to the world of Martha Stewart). Probably the smartest thing Martha has ever done is surround herself with people who know what they are doing, just as well as she does. I've been a fan of Martha Stewart Living for awhile; it's a pleasure to read and I do not question for one moment how all that awesomeness gets into less than a hundred glossy pages. She's got people who know what they are doing right by her side.

So, as a reviewer for Blogging for Books, as soon as I saw a copy of Martha Stewart Living's One Pot up for review, I snagged it. I pounced. I leaped with glee. I think we all know by now that I love to cook. I love to make and create and be a creative maker. An opportunity to review (which means try out, eat, and love!) a new Martha and Martha's team cookbook, I was all over it.

I pushed the order and send button. Done.

And then I waited.

      And waited.

           And waited.

A few more days of waiting and the book arrived from the publisher. Finally!

What was I so excited about, really? A new cookbook? Oh, yeah, definitely. Or was it that it's a cookbook that's all about tasty simplicity? Just as much the latter.

Now, I am a kid in a candy store when it comes to new books. For sure. I love a good book, I love getting books, I love writing books, I love reading books, and I love reviewing books. Love books. Did I say that enough? Well, I do!

And this golden opportunity to review and try out some new Martha recipes was nearly too much joy for me to handle. Okay, not really. I can handle some Martha joy. And some delicious something - all made in one pot.

First, I have to say that this book is really, really well-written. As would be expected, the team of experts at Martha's magazine have kept the meals simple, easy to read, easy to make and filled with beautiful pictures that make your mouth water.

Secondly, I love the extreme simplicity of this book. Most of the recipes require only a handful of ingredients, things you would typically find in an American kitchen. And they really are one pot only. A few require you to brown things first, but they suggest you brown and remove, then add the next ingredients all using the same pot. There might be an extra bowl here or there, or even the occasional plate, but when does cooking not require you use dishes? The recipe I chose to make happened to be the Fruit Skillet Cake which I adapted to be gluten-free and dairy-free and had it tossed together and baked up in less than an hour. Super easy, super fast, and incredibly delicious. (The cake was really outstanding and came right out of the skillet.)

A finished Skillet Fruit Cake made with local plums

And my final reason to love this book was the helpful advice. That's kinda Martha's specialty. Most of us know that. And of course, a major focus of Martha Stewart Living. The One Pot book includes recipes that are cooked in stockpots, skillets, slow cookers, roasting pans, pressure cookers, and more. Each section has a how-to guide on buying/choosing a pan or skillet, why some work better than others, the difference between a saute pan and a skillet, how to use a pressure cooker (and not be afraid), what makes for a good slow cooker or stockpot, and on and on. Tips, advice and simple guides on the first two or so pages of each section prior to the recipes is just as helpful as a full-length guide. It's simple and yet, perfect.

I just fell in love with this book. The simplicity, the delicious recipes, the convenience of one pot (and truly one pot). Everything from it is a genius idea that requires so little effort, the greatest achievement will be getting to the bookstore to buy it before they are all gone.

Happily enjoy!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Book Review: Let Us All Eat Cake: Gluten-Free Recipes for Everyone's Favorite Cakes by Catherine Ruehle with Sarah Scheffel

Sitting down to eat my second to last piece of Boston Cream cake that I made inspired to me to get around to writing this review. The slightly bitter contrast of the dark chocolate ganache to the buttery, creamy, and just-the-right-amount-of-sweet pastry cream that sits layered and filling every crevice of the moist yellow cake.

So good.

It took me a few days to find the right words.

This cake is moderately time-consuming to make, as many layered cakes can be, if they are filled with more than just the buttercream you will use to decorate the edges and top. Not particularly complex, but just a lot of steps and layers that require time and energy to complete. But worth every last minute of energy it requires. 

But, first, let's talk about the book. I received this book as part of the book world of reviews and freebies called Blogging for Books and I chose it because, well, who doesn't love cake? Yes, there are a few people out there. And sometimes, even that person is me. But a gluten-free book by a trained pastry chef (and originally a self-taught baker) with a beautiful caramel cake on the front? Who could resist? I had to know what was inside and if I could replicate with Catherine Ruehle's expert instructions.

When I got the book, I admired it. It's a beauty. The hardback book contains beautiful images and easy to read recipes, some expertise in certain places and a bit of shared knowledge by someone who understands the letting go of gluten and dairy products (and learning to replace them with equal deliciousness). I paged through the tome with ease and grace and found some of my favorite cakes in the book: Boston Cream, Triple Lemon, Texas Sheet, Caramel Cream, and even coffeecakes. There are sections on breakfast cakes and snack cakes, layer cakes, filled cupcakes, little cakes, special cakes (with a few advanced techniques), frostings/fillings/glazes, and a few pages on tips and techniques. Love this book!

And I was excited to get into it. A beautiful book is one thing, but can it deliver? Well, I was about to see. I chose the Boston Cream Cake for several reasons. I love Boston Cream (Bavarian Cream is specifically my favorite, but finding and creating whipped cream that truly compares and holds up to dairy whipping cream is a challenge. I once used Mimicreme, but have found it incredibly hard to hunt down now. And you gotta have whipping cream to make true Bavarian cream-style anything). Boston Cream is probably one of my absolute favorites of all time. My whole family loves Boston Cream cake, donuts, pie (which is really the cake, but for some inexplicable reason, we all call it pie). And I happened to have nearly everything on-hand. Two short store trips later (and only because I insisted on going to Trader Joe's for their chocolate and coconut milk merely out of preference - plus it was an excuse to buy some Inner Peas) and I was ready to bake.

This recipe also intrigued me because it's mayonnaise-based. I've seen the recipes for mayo-based cakes before and I've made my share of oil or butter-based cakes, but I hadn't had the opportunity to try a mayo-based one. This was as good a time as any. How different could it really be when most mayos are oil-based with some eggs and a few other ingredients? I'm told the eggs add richness, the oils adds moisture and the cake will be delightful. And  I found this to be true. Very true.

The cake turned out moist and delicious and had one very noticeable effect: the moisture stayed for a few days. As any gluten-free baker knows, this can be a bit of an issue. No gluten, no lengthy spongyness. This is true for whole grain baked goods of any kind. The moistness was most likely a combination of the mayo, the four eggs in the recipe for the cake, and the fact that nearly three cups of pastry cream ends up sandwiched between four beautiful cake layers. Delicious multi-layered effect.

Making the cake was easy. Recipe was easy to follow, ingredients pretty standard except for the mayo, and they baked up beautifully. I really wanted to snack. But I didn't. I held out. Somehow.

Next, time to make the dairy-free pastry cream, which is basically a glorified pudding because we're not adding whipping cream. And it seems like everyone's idea of pastry cream is slightly different. Some swear it is more like a Bavarian cream where you make the pudding base, then whip up the cream and combine the two. Others say pastry cream is just a nice rich pudding with plenty of eggs, cream/milk/half-and-half as the base (not whipped, then added), and finished with butter. I say, to each their own. Without the whipping cream, dairy-free pastry cream is a breeze. And the flavor of this recipe was outstanding. I could barely contain myself. I just wanted to lick the whole bowl, spoon, pan, book. Really. It was that good.

Now, this book is not all the cake roses I have promised so far. I have found a few trifling issues. And here's where the first one came in. The recipe said you could make the pastry cream while you bake the cakes. Great. Keeping it all flowing. However, it never states that you will need to let the pastry cream set in the fridge. There's a lot of eggs in this pastry cream with a bit of cornstarch and if I hadn't let the eggs set up, there is no way the cream would have stayed in the layers. It would have run out, just like pretty much any pudding does before it sets. It is thick, but not thickened. The setting process can take 1-4 hours. There is no mention of this in the cake recipe, nor the pastry cream recipe. The author makes it sound as though you can just set it on the counter and wait until the cakes are cooled, then spread away. I did not find this to be the case and after years of making puddings and pastry creams, I would have been surprised had this one set right away. I think this would be basic info to add to any recipe book. We're not pastry chefs (although, I probably have cooked enough pastries over the years, so maybe) and a book like this will gain the attention of new gluten-free, dairy-free bakers. This may not be a gluten-free issue, but different types of alternatives milks will behave differently. Catherine Ruehle calls almost exclusively for coconut milk, so there is consistency in most of those regardless of the brand, but if you can't use coconut milk, almond, hemp, or cashew will work just as well. But they require slightly different amounts of time to set. Rice is tough to get to thicken properly without adding more thickening agents. Aside from the different kinds of milk and how they behave, it would have been a good idea to add some guidelines for letting the pastry cream set, unless the author doesn't let her pastry cream set up. This would have been useful information too, either way.

Once the pastry cream was nestled into the fridge, onto the chocolate ganache. I love that this cake has a very simple and elegant chocolate ganache on top rather than a sweeter chocolate glaze. The contrast is decadent and yet, just right for the entire cake. So perfect.

Ruehle's chocolate ganache recipe is towards the back of the book in the section on frostings, fillings, and glazes and seems equally simple to most ganache recipes, except she suggests using coconut milk instead of cream. I've made ganache before, but I don't make it all the time. It's a great, simple easy addition to just about any dessert recipe from ice cream to cake to truffles. There's only two ingredients: chocolate and cream or coconut milk. However, here's where the second issue came about. The ratio was off or something was. Two ingredients in the wrong ratio make for a lovely, yet unsweet hot chocolate. I had chocolate soup. Two cups of chocolate chips to two cups of milk product is what the recipe called for. I had a feeling it was too much when using coconut milk, but I did it anyway and the result was a soupy mess that required me to run to my neighbor's house to borrow more chocolate chips in order to salvage it at 10 o'clock at night. I'd come this far. I didn't want to leave my cake without its happy ending, or topping, as it may be.

Once I did a quick internet search and checked out Ina Garten's ganache recipe along with a few others - just to make sure - I found out the ratio should be 2 cups chocolate to 1 cup milk product in Ina's case, but other recipes suggested an even 1:1 ration. Once I had this knowledge (and had inked it into the book), the ganache came out great. However, again, some ganaches require a little bit of time to set, particularly if you are using coconut milk versus something denser like heavy cream. Once the ganache set, which took a little bit of time, I was pleased with the texture. Ruehle states that if you refrigerate the ganache before using it (you can make the pastry cream and ganache up to two days in advance), then just make sure to bring it to room temperature before using. These instructions turned the ganache out great. I just wish that the author had specified that maybe using coconut milk instead of heavy cream might make it a big soupier unless you have a very dense coconut milk, which I have yet to come across. I even used some coconut cream which is the closest substitute for heavy cream I've found and it still came out soupy until I added the extra chips.

The author is a well-respect pastry chef having worked under some heavy hitters in the restaurant world and has been on Food Network as a challenger in the cake competitions, but she is most likely not a writer-specific. The book is written in conjunction with Sarah Scheffel, an extensive editor and writer of many, many cookbooks, as well as being a chef herself. So, I'm just going to chalk the second error up to simplistic oversight, as oversights do occur. However, there seemed to be some basic culinary knowledge missing, such as the setting time for the pastry cream. Yes, you could use the cream right away, if you wanted it to be on the thin side. And even the ganache, same thing. If you were in a competition, I suppose you'd have to use it that way. But this is for home cooking and it seems some things are just better fully explained. Had I not the many years of pudding-making or ganache-making experience (less on this, for sure), then I would have thought they were supposed to be used that way. I might have even thought the ganache should be soupy. A new cook might not know and I do see cookbooks as the resource (among many) that we go to learn about techniques.

Overall, I loved this cookbook. I am eager to try out a few more of the recipes and see how the cakes turn out. And, well, eat them because some of the pictures made the cakes look so amazing, I just wanted to lick the pages.

I suppose this is my last issue with this book: the images. The ones that are included are arty, thoughtful, beautiful, and scrumptious. However, it seemed that many of the places where a picture should be added, there was none. It's more commonplace now to buy a cookbook that doesn't have a picture for every single recipe. Photography costs a lot, makes the book much bigger, and sometimes, they aren't always needed. However, in this case, I think some of the recipes would be better off with an included picture simply because this a cake book and most of the cakes (not all) are layered cakes with some advanced technique. Now, you can slather on buttercream any way you like, but most of us would like the cake to resemble the original or something close to it. Not required, but presentation is part of the package.

The places where a picture made sense, such as the Texas Sheet cake, was aptly placed. Not everyone knows what a Texas Sheet cake is. And the photo made me want to make one right away. I could smell the chocolate wafting from the page. But the Two-Tiered Whimsy Cake, which includes making and cutting out white chocolate modeling paste, had no picture at all. I could see this if you were running out of space. However, in the previous recipe for the Camo cake, there are four pictures included. I'm not sure why the Camo cake rated high enough to get a four-picture deal and the Whimsy cake none (particularly when the recipe is nearly four pages long). It would be helpful to me, the presumed baker, to see what I am going to make so I know what I'm getting myself into. Many will probably not even attempt the Whimsy cake because it seems rather complex and advanced and there's no picture to assure the baker that this cake is totally doable. Well, maybe the Whimsy cake just didn't want to sit still long enough to get her picture taken. I'm sure that's what happened.

I would recommend this book for the moderately experienced baker. I'm not sure I would suggest it to a new gluten-free baker unless a second edition comes out that alleviates some of the basic technique flaws and potential oversights. But if you have some experience with gluten-free/dairy-free baking, by all means, delve right in. I can assure you, which is really what it all comes down to, the end product is truly delicious and worth every potential oversight, ounce of knowledge and moist, little crumb. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Book Review: Little Book of Book Making by Charlotte Rivers

This fun little find came to me via Blogging for Books and it was a little surprise. I picked it because I love books, I love writing, and I love the idea of making books. Always been sort of fascinated by the concept of creating a book from start to finish, including the pages, the binding, the actual book. Clearly, I am not the only one.

Charlotte Rivers' tome creates a world of bookmaking artists, designers, and hobbyists who desire the same thing: to create a book from start to finish. It's a fascinating journey between many pages where one artist creates a book with simple accordion pages and another creates a complex book with creative covers, experimental page dyes, and specialized stitching to bind them all together. Either way, it is artistry encapsulated on every page.

As I mentioned earlier, I was a bit surprised when I flipped open this book. I expected a book on how to make books, which this one does include. However, the first four chapters showcase different artists around the globe and their conceptual creations. The final chapter has all the how-to info about how to create your very own creation.

I was a bit perplexed as I thumbed through the pages. Wasn't this book supposed to show you how to make your own book? It is a book about making books, after all. Each book creation is beautiful, but they seem incredibly complex for a beginner to even attempt. These designers have spent years mastering their craft and I'm just looking to possibly create a simple book with some pages in it. I love the idea, but I haven't put in my 10,000 hours of skill mastery yet.

And then I hit page 121 and nearly fell in love. It was then I realized that this book is all about inspiration with a bit of extra guidance at the end. It's meant to share the love of this work (and the journey you must go on to create them) with those who may not understand the depth of creative wells that each bookmaker must go to in order to create such lovely and extraordinary bound pages. Now, I understand. Bookmaking can be about holding a bunch of pages together or it can be about holding together the possibility of what might be contained inside. The inspiration is all up to the creator. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Product Review: Vegan, Gluten-free Ice Cream Sandwiches by The Cookie Counter

It was an happy accident. I was stumbling along the trail of the Hopscotch Festival in Central District on a Saturday afternoon and came across the cutest little VW van I've seen in awhile. Converted and adorable, the owners Chris and Chelsea were seated inside the blue van behind, yes, you guessed it! A cookie counter! With Chris' smiling face and Chelsea's deft hands, this team is so well suited for a mobile culinary adventure.

Chris and Chelsea in Ice Cream the Van

The brains behind the cookie scheme, this Seattle duo made a culinary confection come to life. With flavors like Snickerdoodle with Chai "ice cream" (all the "ice cream" is a coconut milk-based frozen treat), Cookies n' Cream, Chocolate with Coffee Ice Cream, PB&J, Earl Grey with Lemon Zest, S'mores, Chocolate with Mint Chip, and more, these little frozen goodies are something you want to stand in line for. Go hunt down that blue van. 

Ice Cream Options

Chris and Chelsea came up with the concept for The Cookie Counter three years ago and through rigorous creation and product testing (how bad can taste-testing be?), they have completed the circle with help from a whole lot of friends on Kickstarter by converting their blue van into a mobile gourmet ice cream truck unlike anything else in Seattle. With all vegan ingredients, most of them organic and natural (read: no artificial or animal anything), and a mix of traditional wheat cookies and gluten-free options too (read more about their kitchen here), Chris and Chelsea have turned the ordinary ice cream sandwich into a culinary delight. Traveling to fairs, street festivals, one-day events, and even to someone's very own home, these guys are worth the find. 

Now, what about the tasting? How good are these? Well, I certainly wanted to find out. Chris tipped me off to a little deal they had going with the store they were parked next to, Two Big Blondes - a plus-size consignment shop and one of their Kickstarter supporters. Buy something inside and get a free sammie! Now, that's a deal! Kind of like a two for one! 

After finding a really great deal inside the store (they had discounts of up to 95% off!), I got my coupon for my free sammie and proceeded to Chris and Chelsea's van. They had four gluten-free options to choose from and four or five wheat cookie options. I chose their GF special of the day: Cookies n' Cream. Chris handed me (with his signature smile) a cute little wax paper package sealed with their logo sticker. I unwrapped the treat and headed to my car, ice cream happiness in hand. The Oreo-ish cookie was crunchy and cold with a nice chocolate flavor, very much like an Oreo. The cookies n' cream vegan ice cream was creamy, smooth, with a nice mouth feel and little chunks of cookie embedded all through. It was yummyness. 

A little package, a little van

Wiping my face and hands as I walked, I enjoyed each very cold bite (they store the goodies on dry ice), letting it melt just a bit so I could feel the textures and enjoy my sammie. I got to my car and kept thinking about the GF Snickerdoodle with Chai Ice Cream. How can you make a proper review only trying one thing? More product testing would make for better accuracy, wouldn't you say? 

So, I headed back to the blue cookie van, this time in my car, found a nice shady spot (it was a remarkably warm day in Seattle) and handed Chris my crisp $5 bill. He handed me a GF Snickerdoodle ice cream sandwich and a couple of wet wipes they keep in a jar on the cookie counter. I meandered slowly back to the car, not really wanting to waste time or potential cookie eating moments, and tore open the second bag. I hadn't had lunch, so this counted, right? 

The GF snickerdoodle was soft, yet crunchy with a slight sandy texture from the sugar-cinnamon it had been rolled in. The flavor was outstanding. Oftentimes, when you eat a frozen cookie, the flavor gets a little lost either in the ice cream or just from being frozen. But here, it stood out bold and proud. The vegan chai ice cream was soft and creamy with a beautiful chai-cinnamony-cardamomy flavor. It was perfection. 

Happily filled with yummy vegan treats, I headed back towards home in my warm car with a ice cream-cool tummy and a smile as big as Chris' on my face. 

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Nutter Butters - the gluten-free, dairy-free version

For those of you who read my review of Treat Yourself: 70 Classic Snacks You Loved as a Kid (and Still Love Today) by Jennifer Steinhauer, we are going to keep this recipe short and sweet...peanutty sweet. If you haven't, you can read my review here.

This delectable book is where this peanutty-good recipe comes from. I reviewed the book and as with all cookbooks, the only proper way to truly review them is to start cooking - or baking, as it may be. I love Jennifer's book - the concept is awesome (who doesn't love a little sweetness in their life?), the treats are beautifully photographed (we all know that makes it better, no matter if they are real or not), and to make it that perfect book, the cookies - even made gluten- and dairy-free - were amazing!

A few notes on the baking of these beauties:

~ I used two pans lined with silicone baking mats and I used them a lot. My oven isn't convection, so I baked with one pan and filled the other. When the first was done, I took it out, placed the next one in and waited a few minutes to let the cookies cool. I then placed those on a baking rack and refilled the still-warm baking sheet. Normally, this is a major no-no in baking, but there was a lot of dough and a lot of cookies to bake. I had to keep the line moving. Somehow, it didn't seem to mess with the cookies much this time. Probably because they are a crunchy bunch.

One ready for baking, one just out of the oven. 

~ You can also put these guys closer together than two inches - they don't spread much at all, which is great. They hold their shape well and as we all know, making gluten-free cookies that require being cut out can be a challenge if the dough doesn't have the elasticity of gluten in it. They tend to break, fall apart, crumble, etc. These did great! They are rolled quite thin, so I used a fish spatula (very, very thin spatula) to transfer them to the baking sheets. I also prefer the scoop and drop method (scoop with the spatula, flip over the baking sheets and gently persuade them to drop onto the baking sheet by pushing through the slots in the spatula) for cookies like this so they don't get all bent out of shape. My first few, I tried to slide off the spatula. It worked okay, but I would recommend the less moving, the better. I wanted them to look like hearts, Picasso-versions of hearts.

~ I didn't find that I needed to flour the fork to prevent sticking when making the crosshatch. Use your best judgment. Maybe flouring the spatula would have been a good idea. Either way! Also, I was surprised at how far I could push the fork down, which seemed like they would go nearly through to the mat, and still have a cookie come out intact after baking. These guys are champs!

Just rolled, ready to rock. 

~ The recipes calls for a cooking time of 11-13 minutes. For my hearts, which I chose based on what I remember the size of a Nutter Butter to be, that would have been too long. Eleven minutes was a border-line deep brown and a minute longer, they would have burned. After the first batch baked for eleven minutes, I cut down the bake time to 10 - that was perfect. Use your judgment. If your medium-size cookies is the same size as my medium-size, aim for 9-11 minutes. If you have slightly bigger, aim for 11-13. If you are at high altitude, adjust accordingly, which is usually less, but that's a whole other can of worms.

~ See my note below about peanut butter choices, but whatever you choose, make sure it's at room temperature. All ingredients for this, and most baked goods, are best at room temperature.

~ About the filling: you may consider doubling the filling recipe. I've included the recipe in the book, but based on how many cookies I made, twice as much filling would have been better. Still good, but a thicker stuffing would have been more accurate to the memory of the Nutter Butter.

~ And lastly, I used a pastry knife to spread the filling onto the cookies. It was a very thick filling (which I thought was perfect and spot-on), but I wasn't sure how it would actually go through a pastry bag. This is what can happen with different peanut butters. Not a big deal. Still tasted awesome.

All teamed up, ready to spread. 

So, without much more ado, here is the recipe that makes my mouth water just thinking about it. Yum!

Happy baking!

Nutter Butters - the gluten-free, dairy-free version

A little nibble...

Adapted from Treat Yourself: 70 Classic Snacks You Loved as a Kid (and Still Love Today) by Jennifer Steinhauer

Hands-on time: 50 minutes
Total time: 5 hours, 15 minutes

Makes 22 sandwich cookies (according to the recipe - I got 44 sandwiches!)

*Note: I used a natural no-sugar peanut butter that I buy, then add some Spectrum shortening or Earth Balance to, along with a little bit of sugar, if I'm feeling like making it sweet. If it's not fine sugar, powdered, or liquid (ie. honey, etc.), the sugar crystals won't dissolve. I'm okay with this. You can also buy natural peanut butter that has everything in it, just like the classic Skippy or Jif without the hydrogenated fats. In fact, Skippy and Jif now make their own natural peanut butters in chunky or smooth. Use smooth for this recipe. 

For the cookie: 

1/2 cup (1 stick) salted butter or Earth Balance, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup (packed) light brown sugar
1/2 cup smooth peanut butter* at room temperature
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
2-1/2 cups gluten-free flour with 2 tsp xanthan gum (the recipe calls for bread flour, so I used 3/4 cup millet flour, 3/4 cup cornstarch, and 1 cup fine brown rice flour)
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt

For the filling: 

1/2 cup smooth peanut butter, room temperature
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) salted butter or Earth Balance, softened
1 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 cup powdered sugar
1/4 tsp salt
Pastry knife, butter knife, or pastry bag

1. Make the cookie dough: In the bowl of a heavy-duty stand mixer, mix the butter, sugars, and peanut butter together on medium speed until just combined, about 30 seconds. Add eggs, one at a time, then add the vanilla, mixing just until incorporated.

2. In a separate bowl, whisk together the gluten-free flour(s), the xanthan gum, the baking soda, the baking powder, and the salt. With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the flour to the butter mixture in two or three batches, scraping down the sides and bottom of the bowl occasionally, mixing until the dry ingredients are incorporated well. (Mix any remaining pockets of dry ingredients in by hand, but let your mixer do it's job. This is gluten-free after all. You won't be messing with the potential gluten toughness here. You don't want to overdo it or underdo it). Shape the dough into a round and slide it out onto a piece of plastic wrap (I used a small glass bowl with a lid). Wrap the dough tightly, shaping it into a 1-inch disk, and refrigerate for 2 hours.

3.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.

4. Unwrap the dough and place it between two pieces of waxed paper or parchment paper. (I used natural parchment and it worked very well.) Roll the dough out to a thickness of slightly less than 1/4 inch.

5. Using a bikini-shaped cookie cutter (the top of the bikini to make a peanut shape) or any medium-sized cutter, cut out the cookies and place them 2 inches apart on the prepared baking sheets. Use the tines of a fork to gently score the top of each cookie in a crosshatch pattern. You should flour the fork first, or else the dough will stick to the fork and the cookies may well break. Bake for 11-13 minutes, or until the edges of the cookies just begin to brown. Let cool completely on wire racks. Repeat, if you have more dough.

6. Make the filling: Turn half the cookies upside down. In the bowl of a heavy-duty stand mixer, beat the 1/2 cup peanut butter and the 1/4 cup butter together on medium speed. With the mixer on low speed, add the vanilla, powdered sugar, and the salt, and mix until smooth. It will be thick. Scoop the filling into a disposable piping bag/pastry bag or use a butter/pastry knife for spreading.

7. Pipe the peanut butter mixture around the perimeter of the upturned cookies first, then fill in the outlined area, using about 1 tsp per cookie; you don't want the filling squishing out the sides. (You can use a butter knife or offset spatula instead to carefully spread it.) Top each frosted cookie with one of the plain cookies to make a sandwich. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days.

Book Review: Treat Yourself: 70 Classic Snacks You Loved as a Kid (and Still Love Today) by Jennifer Steinhauer

As part of Blogging for Books, my second book selection came in the mail about a week ago. Treat Yourself: 70 Classic Snacks You Loved as a Kid (and Still Love Today) by Jennifer Steinhauer is a fantastic collection of vintage desserts, snacks, and confectionables that most people have only been able to find in the grocery store in a little cardboard box. Think back to childhood in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, or 80s – what was more prized in your Care Bear lunchbox? A Ding Dong? Maybe a Ho-Ho. Or maybe some Nutter Butters, Raisinets, or a MoonPie? Or crunchy, cheesy, Cheez-Its? Any of the above were delicious, coveted, and easily traded, if you were truly willing to depart with it for somebody else’s lunchbox treasure.

As time has gone on and we have become adults, these confections are still coveted, by us and the children around us, but with the rising concern about health and the food we consume, many of us want to find a better alternative to the saturated, trans-fats, excess sugar and salt, and oftentimes, lower quality ingredients that most of these desserts and snacks are laden with. Enter Jennifer Steinhauer.  Her unique book filled with fun facts, baking tips that parallel America’s Test Kitchen-quality knowledge, and beautiful pictures is not only filled with 70 mouth-watering recipes, but the actual writing is quite delectable, as well.

Jennifer has been writing for twenty years at The New York Times (where else can you truly earn your chops?), as well as a weekly food column for called Weeknights with Jenny (where she actually writes about chops). But this is only part of what makes her book so special. The food, the pictures, the writing, the ever-so-desired treats and snacks that we all love, but no one wants to eat without feeling guilty. Not anymore.

Now, I’m not a fan of eating with or without guilt. I say, eat what you want. Everything has its place, unless you are literally living on Twinkies. Your shelf-life may end up being as long as the Twinkie’s itself, as long as you’re preserved and full of cream. But there is an alternative…and Jennifer Steinhauer is releasing it to the world. Cupcake lunches, here we come!

Okay, enough sweet treat soapboxery. We all know that sweets in moderation might prove to be okay, as long as you balance them out with a long list of healthy other-things. And Jennifer is the first to point out in her introduction in Treat Yourself that some of the recipes have less calories/sugar, some have more. This isn’t about making these treats healthy by hiding fruits and veggies in them (unless the original did), but the book is all about deconstructing and reinventing the beloved classic snacks from Pinwheels to Ritz Crackers to the ever-loved-by-nearly-all-children popsicle. Now you can rest assured that life is good and so is your food when you bake a little sweet something right in your own kitchen. And in my kitchen, that means gluten-free and probably dairy-free.

So, here is where the true test begins – how are the recipes?

Jennifer’s recipes aren’t gluten-free, nor dairy-free. But over the years, I have mastered the art of gluten-free baking, for the most part. Yeast doughnuts are tricky. So are cinnamon rolls. But as I pawed through her new cookbook, I could tell most of these would easily translate to gluten-free (the trickiest part), and dairy-free has become pretty much a piece of cake. I had so many that I wanted to try (can you say, Chicken in a Biskit?!), but I chose something where I already had everything on-hand – Nutter Butters.

Oh, I used to love a Nutter Butter every now and again. The peanut-shaped cookies sandwiched with a soft, yet firm peanutty filling. Just like an Oreo, I’d peel the two cookies apart, lick or roll the peanut filling off the inside, then eat the two cookies separately or with milk. They were as much fun to eat as they were to taste. I haven’t had a Nutter Butter in years.

Until yesterday.

Now, here is how I can tell a cookbook is truly legit. If the gluten-free version is as good as the Nutter Butters were, the glutened version will be equally outstanding. The texture, the taste, the quality was just like eating a Nutter Butter right out of the package, gluten and all. I was truly amazed. I never really know how a recipe is going to turn out (although usually I can tell by the ingredient list ratio); most of the time, you just have to give it a try. The recipe will tell you what it’s worth. And this one is worth about a million bucks. Okay, maybe more like $19.99, or probably less on Amazon.

The cookies were crisp and peanutty, but not like a peanut butter cookie exactly. And I used a combination of gluten-free flours, xanthan gum, and natural peanut butter to boot. They reminded me exactly of a Nutter Butter. Even if I haven’t had one in a long time, the memories came flooding back. And who cares, anyway? These cookies were outstanding! I’d eat the cookie by itself.

But then, there’s the filling. A soft, peanutty, slightly salty flavor with just the right amount of rollability. Because that’s important. The one downside to this whole baking experiment: the recipe says it makes about 22 medium sandwich cookies (to which she used the top part of a bikini cookie cutter – I used a heart cutter) with enough filling to fill them. I made 44 medium-heart-shaped sandwich cookies. And no, it wasn’t 44 individual cookies, hence the 22 sandwiches – I had 44 sandwiches when I was done. Great! Some to share. This made not quite enough filling and it would have been an easy double, but I ran out of peanut butter. Not complaining. They were still freakin’ awesome! But double-filling is so good too. Just look at the Double-Stuf Oreo. Twice the trans-fatty goodness. Unless you make Jennifer Steinhauer’s.

Back to the Nutter Butter. These cookies were spot-on. The texture was great, the flavor was incredible, and I adore them. So far, no complaints from friends either – gluten-free or not. That’s how I can tell this is a great book. Gluten or no gluten, the cookies rock. I am excited to try a few more recipes. Maybe every single one.

Happy eating! 

Finished product with a little heart-y bite. 

Check out the Nutter Butter recipe here

Monday, July 28, 2014

Product Review: Happy Dance Baking Company Blondie Brownies

Happy Dance Baking Company Blondie Brownie

While I was out and about today, I drove past the Lynnwood Farmer's Market (north of Seattle, folks) and made a quick turn to find myself a parking spot. Even though it was raining small kittens and puppies, I thought, What the hey! You just never know what you'll find at a farmer's market. Treasures lie around every corner.

And specifically at the corner of yum and delicious. I found this amazing little treasure. After perusing the standard farmer's market stands of kettle corn, beautiful flowers, and tantalizing produce, I came upon a couple of cool finds: Lynnwood Farmer's Market has a Harley stand (awesome!) and an allergen-free baker...Happy Dance Baking Company.

Happy Dance Baking Company was started by Jen Fosnot just a few years ago, but her journey into allergen-free eating started nearly a decade earlier. Jen's daughter was diagnosed with severe allergies to gluten, yeast, eggs, soy and dairy. She looked around for assistance, but back then, there weren't many products lining the shelves, certainly not like there is now, and she lived in the Midwest where they are just starting to catch up to understanding about allergy-free eating. A large portion of the country is gaining in this knowledge, but as all allergen-free eaters know, not a day, week, or month goes by when someone asks you what gluten is or why you don't eat dairy when they have lactose-free milk

Partially devoured...
Jen turned to her trusty kitchen and turned her whole family into allergy-free eaters, whether they liked it or not. It was a matter of safety for her daughter who had to carry an epi-pen in the event of exposure and often dealt with issues such as hives, as many food-allergic/sensitive people do. She refused to give in to stale, dry fare and eventually came up with some pretty incredible recipes.

Now, I have tried a lot of gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free, egg-free, allergen-free foods in my lifetime. I've been eating allergen-free for nearly two decades. I, too, turned to my kitchen to get good food in the early years, although now, the shelves do stack better quality products when I need or want something in a pinch. Thank goodness that technology and the sheer number of bakers have more than quadrupled since my early allergy-free eating years. Not all of it's good, but Jen and the Happy Dance Baking Company knows what they are doing!

At her farmer's market stand, she had a plethora of baked goods including peanut butter-chocolate chip cookies (about the size of a softball), drizzled chocolate chip cookies (yum!), two kinds of brownies, a mini-muffin loaf, and several other varieties of cookie softballs. I say that lovingly. They were huge! Most of the price point ran from $3 to $7 - not bad considering she favors organic, all-natural ingredients, including coconut oil, several different gluten-free flours, organic chocolate, and organic sugar. It seems most of the ingredients are on the organic list, except those that would be hard to find (if at all) such as organic arrowroot.

I wanted to buy them all, but I settled for the nearly-all-organic blondie brownie bars - a four-pack for $7. If her other stuff is comparable to these blondies, I am in love. I've made blondies and I've bought them, but these were really outstanding. A nice crisp bite to the chocolate drizzle with a nice soft, moist and tender blondie underneath. Studded with chocolate chips and a nice soft texture, what more could you ask for? Not too sweet, not too gooey, just a nice soft, moist bite with a little chocolate snap. These were divine. I would highly recommend you tap dance your way to Happy Dance Baking Company today.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Book Review: Roadfood by Jane and Michael Stern (9th edition)

I was recently asked to join Random House's Blogging for Books program and much to my surprise, this was the first book I chose! A great read about the joys of eating all across our great country in everything from dives to diners to truckstops and more. is the lovechild of Jane and Michael Stern (assisted by a whole lot of eaters, support writers, and forum chatters) who created the concept of eating great local/regional cuisine that you find out on the open road. Most everything is going to be cheap ($), relatively cheap ($$), or basically inexpensive ($$$), but good food and a great experience. Each quintessential place on the blog is featured with details about what was eaten and the great thing about it. There's price point offerings, ratings, and pictures to make your mouth water (and sometimes, not). Roadfood the book, now in it's ninth edition, features the same great diatribe with a Top 100 list, a cross-section of the United States breakdown by region, a cross-reference section in the back for easy dining, and a little bit about how to use the book (which ends up being pretty self-explanatory - Where am I? What's great to eat around here?). All around, a pretty great book concept with some interesting detailed observations and eating experiences. One slight miff (and I might be biased here), nothing in Colorado made their Top 100 list, but two in Seattle did. Apparently, they haven't spent enough time in either place. Happy reading and then, eating! 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

GoodReads Review: Under the Wide and Starry Sky

Under the Wide and Starry SkyUnder the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Robert Louis Stevenson has made a dramatic impact on our global history - in literature, as well as poetry, essays, and so many other versions of the written word. To hear an historical fictional account of his life, his love and his work was truly inspiring.

The story of Robert Louis Stevenson - Louis - and Fannie Osbourne's lives, as they collided and then collaborated, is a monumental tale about two people, their predispositions (a little pride, a little prejudice), and how love truly can be a force that changes lives, if only you are willing to follow your heart and take the risk to love fully. Not only did this theme play out within their relationship, but within themselves, as well. Each had a dire situation to overcome which was somewhat self-imposed (Louis' desire to write against the wishes of his father and his diminishing pocketbook and Fannie's desire to be free to be an artist and create a life of happiness amidst the persecution of divorce, adultery, and long before women's suffrage or rights), based upon the love they felt within themselves for what they truly were and who they wanted to be. The inspiration of this intimate love story follows the life and adventures of a sickly Louis and a fiery Fannie each not wanting to stop until their life is truly their own, something they achieve together.

A beautifully written character-driven book with little to no angst or external hardship beyond the contrary of their lives, it's masterfully told, beautifully set forward with interspersed prose and poetry written by RLS himself (and a little Fannie too), and achieves the ultimate goal: captivate you into living life alongside a set of dreamers who dreamed their lives into reality. Sometimes, it is about love, and sometimes, it is about passion.

Beautiful story. Highly recommended.

Rated PG-13 for theme, sexual situations, and some language.

View all my reviews

GoodReads Review: The Tale of Despereaux

The Tale of DespereauxThe Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sweet and charming, The Tale of Despereaux weaves a lovely tale about a mouse who loves another and to what lengths he will go to preserve that love. With metaphoric meanings of love, light and dark in this book primarily written for children from a narrator's point of view (who speaks directly to the reader), Despereaux finds his way into the heart of the readers as well as his one true love.

Rated PG for mildly dark thematic material.

Audiobook side note: This book is captivating to listen to. It's really well read, nice tone, with little drag. Great way to listen with kids.

View all my reviews

Sunday, November 3, 2013


Lovingly adapted from to make gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan. But all kinds of yummy.

Makes 1 loaf

2 cups all-purpose gluten-free flour with added gum (I used 2/3 cup EACH millet flour, brown rice flour, and cornstarch PLUS 2 tsp xanthan gum)
¾ cup warm milk of choice (I used coconut milk)
2 tbsp unsalted butter, vegan butter spread (like Earth Balance), or palm shortening, melted
2 tbsp sugar
1 ½ tsp instant yeast
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
2 apples, peeled, cored and sliced

¼ cup unsalted butter or vegan butter spread, melted (I used olive oil spray)
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ cup sugar

2 tbsp unsalted butter or vegan butter spread
¼ cup packed brown sugar
1 tbsp apple cider
½ cup powdered sugar, sifted

Place flour, sugar, salt, cinnamon and yeast in a stand mixer with the paddle attachment. Stir to combine ingredients.

In a small bowl, add melted butter/shortening into the warm milk. Then with mixer on low, add this mixture to the flour mixture until combined.

Mix on medium for about 4 minutes, then transfer dough into a lightly oiled bowl. Cover loosely with plastic wrap or a tea towel and let rise in a warm area for 45 minutes or until doubled in size-ish.

Lightly grease an 8- or  9-inch round pan. Starting at the center of the pan, place a dollop of dough, as big or as little as you want. Then put a few apple slices around the dollop. You can overlap them – I did. Take another apple slice and spread some dough on one side with a knife or spatula and place against one of the other apple slices already in the pan. You can make them a little offset from each other or perfectly symmetrical – your choice! Do this in whatever pattern you like. It’s fun! Keep doing this until you are close to the edge of the pan, making sure to leave about ½ cup of dough for the edge of the bread. Using the last of the dough, spread small amounts around the outer side of the apples that are closest to the edge of the pan and smooth with a spatula or knife or leave rustic, if you like that.

This is after the second rise and baking. Yum. The dough will fill in any gaps as it rises. 

Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise for 20 minutes. I like to warm my oven using the warm setting and then turn it off and place my dough in there for a final rise. If I do this, I just use a tea towel to cover it – no plastic in the oven. Both options work well, depending on where the dough is being proofed.

Toward the end of the rising time, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F, if the dough isn’t already in it. If the dough is proofing in there, then remove the pan at the end of the rising time, leaving the towel on top of it, and then preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, until golden brown-ish. (Gluten-free stuff doesn’t brown all that well, depending on what flours you are using. To get a more golden crust on your bread, you can try several things: egg wash, spray with olive oil or a bit of butter/vegan butter, or a vegan cream wash will all help the crust brown. But seriously, how brown do you need something to be? It will still taste delicious either way!)

For the topping: Mix cinnamon and sugar together in a small bowl or use a premade cinnamon-sugar mix. Once the bread is removed from the oven, brush loaf with melted butter or spray with olive oil and then sprinkle with the cinnamon-sugar mixture.
Let cool in the pan for about 10 minutes, then remove from pan and place on a cooling rack to finish.

While the bread cools, melt butter in a 1-quart saucepan over medium heat. Stir in ¼ cup brown sugar. Heat to boiling, stirring constantly; reduce heat to low. Boil and stir 2 minutes. Stir in cider. Heat to boiling; remove from heat. Cool to lukewarm, about 30 minutes.

Gradually stir powdered sugar into glaze mixture. If the glaze becomes too stiff, stir in additional cider, ½ tsp at a time. If the glaze is too thin, add more powdered sugar. Once the bread is completely cooled, drizzle glaze all over it, then eat. Yum.

The bread will last for about two minutes – it’s that good. But if you do have leftovers (really?!), then place those sad little bits in an airtight container until someone finishes them off, which will be in about two more minutes. If they last longer than that, you might be able to hold onto the leftovers for about 3 days, but as with all gluten-free yummies, the texture may change. Just reheat them for a little bit in a microwave or oven and they should be delicious once again. Or just eat it all that night. You choose. J