Archive for the 'holiday desserts' Category


Sweet Streets of NY, Day 4: Tricked-out cookies & panettones to cap things off

On the last day of our NYC trip, we had a half day to hit a few more food places before heading back to DC. Here’s what we picked up for the bus ride home:

The chocolate chip-walnut behemoth from Levain.

Levain Bakery, Upper West Side

After JDang mentioned that Levain’s cookies were so good that her friend in LA asked her to schlep $100 worth back (that works out to 25 cookies), we realized we needed to try them on the last day of our visit.

For those of you who balk at a $4 cookies, know this: these are as heavy as rocks, so pound for-pound, I doubt they’re that much more expensive than Mrs. Fields’ cookies from your mall food court.


We decided to walk from our hotel on East 29th all the way up to West 74th. We took Fifth Avenue most of the way, which gave us to the opportunity to check out some of the stunning holiday windows. After a quick detour through Central Park, 40-odd blocks later, we came upon a tiny basement shop. The compact space (with no table to sit at, be warned) was inversely proportional to the heft and hype behind these supersized cookies.

So, were they worth the long-distance trek? I like a good cookies, but these weren’t spectacular enough to merit the hype. Here’s why: (1) Levain doesn’t offer a plain chocolate chip—you can only get chocolate-chip walnut. Walnuts in cookies, blech. (2) The soft texture of the cookies makes them eat more like brownies than cookies. (3) The double chocolate chocolate chip may send you into sugar shock.

If you do try them, get them to share.  Much like the Cheesecake Factory cheesecake slices, you’ll be hard-pressed to finish one on your own in a single sitting.

Welcome to Eataly, panettone heaven.Eataly, Chelsea

I don’t meet many people under the age of 50 who are as into panettones as me and Mr. X-sXe. I think it may have to do with the stigma of fruitbread, even those these are nothing of the sort.

Panettones are oversized, buttery brioches (don’t tell the Italians I said that) studded with dried fruits like orange peels and raisins. Don’t worry, they don’t usually include nuts or any of that day-glow dried fruit weighing down your typical doorstop fruitcake. If you want to test drive a panettone, you can get a small one at Whole Foods (or large one at Trader Joe’s) for around $5. And if you don’t like it, you can always turn it into bread pudding or French toast.

At Eataly, we came upon a huge display of panettones ranging from $15-$50+. We took home two kinds, a peach one and a chocolate-hazelnut one. The peach one was the moistest panettone we’ve tried to date, but a bit stingy with the dried peaches. The chocolate-hazelnut one has yet to be broken into—I’ll update this post after we try it.

Related Posts:

Day 1 Spoils

Day 2: The Sugar Binge Continues

Day 3: More Donut Gluttony, and a Gourmet Take on Hostess


A sweet-tart fix for the holidays, Barefoot Contessa’s apple-cranberry cake

Barefoot Contessa's easy apple-cranberry cake

I rarely buy cookbooks, because there are usually only a few recipes from each that I want to try, much less make over and over again. Instead, I print recipes from the web and organize them in binders with clear sheet protectors (= easy to wipe when schmutz gets on them during cooking). Only a select few kitchen-tested recipes make it into the binder—the ones I know I’ll come back to.

This apple-cranberry cake (Is it a cake? Is it a crumble? The user comments are abuzz debating this point.) is one I plan on revisiting. It’s got lots of fruit like a pie but the vanilla cake is a nice foil, soaking in some of the juices. Also, this cake is mouth-puckeringly tart, fragrant with the orange and cinnamon flavors of the holidays. The simplicity of the recipe, coupled with the delicious result, is why so many of us wish we were one of the Contessa’s frequent dinner guests.

I doubled the recipe to make 2 (didn't want to waste the rest of my container of sour cream).

After sifting through the comments section, I decided to go with 2 Granny Smiths* and ½ bag cranberries, rather than the recommended 1 apple/1 bag cranberries. The cake was plenty tart using this alternative fruit combo. I also took a lighter hand with the orange, using the zest from just 1 orange (didn’t want it to overpower the other fruit flavors). There was just one instruction the Contessa overlooked: place a cookie sheet under your cake as it bakes. As the fruits begin to bubble, my cake pan runneth’ed over, causing a right mess on the bottom of the oven.

BTW, fresh cranberries are seasonal so if you plan on making this after the holidays, stock up while they’re on sale. They freeze beautifully.

*Great apple pie that tip the Contessa mentioned during this episode: if you want your filling to be less runny, use Granny Smiths. They have lots of pectin that prevents that watery consistency.


Pimping out a panettone is a surprisingly bad idea

Over the holidays, you could get a 26.5 oz panettone from Trader Joe’s for a mere $5 (brioche-y, buttery cake with raisins and other dried fruit). For a couple bucks more, you could get this chocolate-coated, pastry-cream-injected version in the freezer section for $6.99. Sounds good, right? Only in theory.

First of all, the chocolate coating is way too thick to get through it easily. Magic Shell would’ve been more suitable—at least you don’t need a hammer and chisel to break into it. It’s so much chocolate that you find yourself getting sick of chocolate, which usually only happens in Switzerland.

The cream-filled panettone inside was tasty, but I’m just not sure that panettone needs these bells and whistles. Why mess with perfection? Stick with the $5 version: toast a slice in the oven with a bit of butter, and you’re good to go.



Emporio Rulli’s $53, 2.5 lb chocolate panettone

Emporio Rulli’s panettone makes Giada di Laurentiis foam at the mouth, so you figure it’s got to be good (Italian + trained pastry chef = knows delicious when she tastes it). I’ve never tried Rulli’s version because the shipping ($31) costs more than the actual panettone ($18.50). Also, I can get an awesome one from Trader Joe’s for $4.99—somehow I doubt the Rulli one tastes 10x better.
But but but—I’ve been really curious to try this chocolate version Rulli makes for Gilt Taste (a site that carries a lot of fancy foodstuffs you’d be happy to gift, but feel guilty buying for yourself). I’ve never seen a chocolate panettone in the stores. And maybe I’m just a sucker for good storytelling, but how can you not want to try it after reading this description? Anyway, the $53 price tag has always held me back from hitting the “buy” button. However, Gilt recently offered a 50% off voucher for everything on Gilt Taste. So I finally caved and ordered the 2.5 chocolate-butter behemoth on Cyber Monday—the 5-cent shipping special was the clincher.
If you haven’t tried panettone, you’ve probably at least seen it on grocery store shelves this time of year. It usually comes in a square box or foil/cellophane wrapping. From the images, it resembles a cousin of fruitbread. Don’t start hating yet, though. Panettone is closer to a buttery bread, like brioche, with small pieces of preserved fruit. I’m not a fruitbread eater (and personally don’t know any under the age of 50 who is), but I could eat light, fluffy panettone year-round. Preferred serving style: toasted with a bit of butter.
Anyway, the Rulli panettone came in the mail beautifully packaged (that’s why these things make good gifts—no additional wrapping needed). It almost made me sad to ruin the wonderful presentation by opening it.
The panettone is “iced” with almond paste, white sprinkles atop. Chocolate and orange peel bits stud the fluffy, bready innards.
Given the way I’d hyped this up in my head, it couldn’t nearly taste as good as I’d hoped. Its main failing is that it’s just not chocolate-y enough. That could easily be solved with bigger chocolate chips. Also, just because you bake something with a buttload of butter doesn’t guarantee moistness (vegetable oil does a much better job). Panettones are actually somewhat dry, as was this one. Orange-chocolate fans will like this, but again, I’d brainwashed myself into thinking that it’d be a much more sublime experience.
In sum: when I think about how many Trader Joe’s panettones I can get for the same price, I can’t justify getting Rulli’s again, even at half price.

Starbucks whoopie pies: low expectations, surpassed

Starbucks is currently selling these red velvet whoopie pies by the box. They come out to around $1 each for a box of 4 (or $1.50 each in the pastry case).

I’ve seen people complaining that some of their petite treats suck, so maybe getting an entire box wasn’t the smartest move. (Starbucks gift card = caution to the wind.)

Luckily, these aren’t bad, barring the angry red drizzle on top. Like the lame-ass whoopie pies you find in a lot of places, I was expecting a marshmallow fluff center. This one actually tastes like cream cheese. Plus the pie (or more accurately, cake) part is really moist. I guess the Starbucks food scientists know what they’re doing.

If I hadn’t seen this ingredient list, I would’ve enjoyed these a lot more. Propylene glycol? That’s one of those ingredients you see in everything from cleaning solutions to cosmetics. What’s it doing in my whoopie pie? Probably helping to keep it moist, shelf stable, etc. That isn’t the only dodgy ingredient. Oh well. Just eat it without flipping the box over, to maximize your enjoyment.


Making a pie from scratch: a virgin’s tale

A few weeks before Thanksgiving, I came across this fascinating pie crust recipe in The Washington Post. The secret ingredient to a perfect crust, according to the pastry-chef author, is a high-fat butter (82-83% “European style” butter; most butters are around 80%), enough salt, and vodka.

Why vodka? Because the high alcohol content (typically 40%/80 proof) helps the dough get the moisture it needs—yet the alcohol evaporates off leaving no flavor, just tender crust. This intel was corroborated by this Smitten Kitchen post. I was sold on the vodka crust idea. And on making an apple pie for the first time the night before Thanksgiving.

No Lucky Charms were baked into this pie.

Foolish, foolish me. Below, a debrief of what I learned, how I did it, and whether I would do it again.

FYI, I only made 1 pie and ingredient-wise, followed the Cooks Illustrated crust recipe from Smitten Kitchen to a T. I did, however, follow the Post recipe for the filling, pie decorations, and time/temp guidelines on baking the bottom crust.

Epiphany #1: The butter you need might be in the “gourmet” cheese case, not the dairy section where you usually find butter and milk.

There’s a liquor-lottery store across from my office, which had plenty of cheap vodka options. Easy enough. Onto securing the high-fat butter. The Post recipe recommended the Plugra brand, a Euro-style butter that’s made in the U.S.

After having no luck scouring/calling a number of Whole Foods, Giants, and Harris Teeters, I made a  last-ditch attempt by going to Whole Foods again, where an employee enlightened me: European-style butters are in the gourmet cheese case where they sell the olives, not with the “domestic” butters over by the milk. Ohhhhhhh. (Other Whole Foods employees I’d talked to over the phone didn’t realize this, either.)

I cut the butter into finer chunks than this, but got exhausted before it became the "grains of sand" texture most recipes call for. The crust still came out fine.

Well, it was Thanksgiving Eve, so of course they were sold out of the unsalted Plugra. Overhearing my conversation with the helpful Whole Foods guy, a customer at the cheese case told me to get the President butter instead. “Trust me, it’s the same,” she said. I protested: “Let me just check and make sure it’s the—” She cut me off. “Trust me, I know what I’m talking about.” As I obediently put the President into my cart, I was hoping that she’d follow that up with “I’m a pastry chef,” but apparently she just makes a lot of pies. According to her, the secret is vinegar and lard. Seems like everyone’s got their own formula.

Epiphany #2: A blender isn’t a substitute for a food processor.

So I trotted home with my overpriced Eurobutter, intent on making a pie Agent Dale Cooper (and in-laws) would approve of. The first step was cutting the butter into tiny pieces. Maybe my butter wasn’t cold enough, but it wouldn’t cleanly cut into pea-sized bits. I did the best I could, then stuck the pieces back in the fridge to cool down again. (You need very cold butter for a flaky crust.)

The next step is incorporating the butter into the dry ingredients for your dough. I don’t own a food processor, but I figured the blender has a “pulse” button on it—same thing right?

Sometimes we have to learn our lessons the hard way. My Jack LaLanne blender did little else but turn the butter back into an amorphous wad, which was stubbornly unwilling to mix with the flour. I end up taking the whole mess out, then incorporating the butter into the flour mixture with 2 butter knives. If you don’t have a pastry cutter, you know why this activity counts as cardio.

Thanks, Alton, for the Ziploc idea.

Epiphany #3: Alton Brown knows things.

Food Network was showing nothing but Thanksgiving specials the week prior. I happened to catch the episode where Alton Brown makes a pie. One tip stuck with me: when you refrigerate the dough disks, put them in large Ziploc bags. Once they’re done resting in the fridge, cut the Ziploc open so it doubles in size and provides a decently sized surface to roll out your dough on. This mitigates the post-pie cleanup. What Alton didn’t say is that you’ll need someone to hold down the Ziploc so it doesn’t move while you roll out the dough.

Epiphany #4: Glass doesn’t conduct heat as well as metal.

I used a deep-dish pie pan made of Pyrex. I’m pretty sure that’s why my baking times were a lot longer than the Post recipe specified. If you’re watching your crust bake, don’t panic when you see pools of butter. Somehow those fatty pools get incorporated into the crust once it’s done baking. You want to get the crusts light brown.

Who cares if it looks perfect--no one's gonna see this part, anyway.

Epiphany #5: Your bottom crust can be as ugly as this.

The edges don’t have to be perfectly fluted or anything, because all that is gonna get covered up once you put the filling in and attach the top crust. However, if the crust cracked while baking that might not be good, since your filling is going to seep in. So be sure to weigh it down as it bakes. Note: I patched that hole at 12 o’clock with some top crust dough.

5 hours later (that includes all prep, refrigeration, baking, and cooling time), I had a passable, if slightly wonky looking pie. My relatives thought it tasted pretty good, though you can never tell if they’re just saying that out of politeness. Mr. X-sXe, who usually levels with me when it comes to my cooking, said the crust tasted like a croissant. I took that as a compliment.

The final spread of Thanksgiving pies. Clockwise from top: my homemade pie, Whole Foods pumpkin pie, and a peach-blueberry pie from the Amish market.

 Pros of baking your own pie

  • It’ll likely taste better than store-bought.
  • You can customize it with cookie-cutter shapes on top.
  • Everyone who eats it will know how much  frustration love is baked right in.


  • If this is your first time out, say goodbye to 5 hours of your life (of course, a lot of that is downtime where you’re a slave to the timer).
  • It’ll probably look somewhat lopsided.
  • You’re not saving any money if you go with the Eurobutter. (Last I checked, Plugra was $4.99 at Giant for 8 oz. You’ll need about 1.5 of those for a typical top-and-bottom crust pie, unless you combine it with lard or shortening.
  • If you’re me, your kitchen will look like an explosion at the flour factory.

So the big question: would I do it again? Maybe when this experience becomes a distant memory. In the meantime, I’ll leave the pie-making to Ms. Pie.


Reality TV meets holiday treats

As a kid, getting a gingerbread house for the holidays was a real score. They offered more than one kind of candy, big portions, and everlasting freshness (so I thought).

These days I like looking at the things more than eating them. This custom job was made by Heidi Montag’s mom. I came across it on her blog the same week that Heidi’s on the cover of Life & Style lamenting her plastic surgery scars. Apparently, mother and daughter aren’t on speaking terms because Heidi feels used. C’mon, Heidi. If my mom custom made and hand-delivered a gingerbread house to me, she could do all the famewhoring she wanted.


Hot chocolate avec Trader Joe’s Minty Mallows

This kind of weather calls for nursing a mug of hot chocolate in front of a fire. If you happen to have a couple Minty Mallows from Trader Joe’s to top it off with (they seem to be sold out everywhere except the Foggy Bottom store–I saw a few boxes left today), all the better. These well-traveled marshmallows are made in France, so they’re a bit beaten up in the boxes. But tasty, all the same.

I made the mistake of making my hot chocolate with cocoa powder, the baking kind, earlier this week. It turned out a bit bland. After consulting some online recipes, I learned the secret: use chocolate chips. Get the milk or soy milk simmering but not boiling, take it off of the stove, then whisk the chips in quickly. A dash of vanilla, maybe a cinnamon stick, and you’re done. I used semisweet Ghiradelli chips. Didn’t even have to chop them up or add sugar.


A cupcake that’s wronger than turducken

The turkey gravy and cranberry cupcake from LA’s Yummy Cupcakes looks innocent enough.

But then there’s this description:

A turkey gravy cupcake seasoned with savory Thanksgiving gravy, topped with a fresh cranberry relish cream cheese frosting.

(Which sounds like the opposite of appetizing.)

For those of you who love making the most of those turkey day leftovers, I pray that turkey cupcakes aren’t on the list.


Ring in sweater weather with Anna’s Norma’s caramel apple cake

Does that throw you off a bit, the way that Ruth’s Chris Steak House does? Lemme ‘splain. My coworker Anna (she of mustache cupcake fame) made a family recipe called Norma’s caramel apple cake earlier this week. Oh my, it was heavenly. The pairing of moist apple cake with caramel icing reminded me that apple season is upon us, and it’s time to bake!

With that, I’ll turn it over to Anna:

When the first falling, russet leaves brush against my collar each autumn, I immediately flip through my recipe box with one 4 x 6 card in mind: Norma’s Caramel Apple Cake. This recipe comes from my Grandmother Gunnells, who lives in a small mountain town in Alabama and makes this cake every Thanksgiving. I’m not sure who Norma is, but I’m grateful she shared this 13 x 9 inch pan of melt-in-your mouth, apple-y bliss with my grandmother. My favorite part is cooking the butter and brown sugar on the stove for the caramel icing because the smell is heavenly!

Norma’s Caramel Apple Cake

1 cup canola oil

1½ cups sugar

3 eggs

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. salt

2 tsp. vanilla

3 cups peeled, diced Granny Smith apples (3 large)

1 cup pecans or walnuts, optional

Combine oil, sugar and eggs. Beat. Gradually add flour, soda and salt. Beat until smooth. Add vanilla. (Batter will be thick). Fold in apples and nuts. Pour in 13” X 9” greased. Bake 350° about 45 – 60 minutes. Cool before icing.

Caramel Icing:

1 stick of butter

1 cup of packed brown sugar

¼ cup milk

2 cups confectioner’s sugar

Melt butter in saucepan. Add brown sugar and cook until slightly thick, stirring constantly. Add milk and confectioner’s sugar and beat until smooth..