Archive for the ‘Baking’ Category

Product Profile: Easy Brownies and Sweet Sprinkles

August 22, 2011

I love trying new products, especially when it comes to new foods!  On a recent trip to Trader Joe’s, it was so nice to see so many new products on the shelves.  One that caught my eye was the  “Ready to Bake Brownies“, which is basically pre-mixed brownie batter that you just pour into a pan and bake.  I’m a huge fan of their Truffle Brownie Mix (which I think is the closest to homemade that you’ll get without it actually being from scratch), so I figured this was worth a try.  Not that it is particularly difficult to mix up a batch of brownies, but particularly since I was just in a beach rental house for two weeks, I was thinking how convenient this would be to bring along to a place where you may not have eggs or vegetable oil readily available (this winter, think ski house apres-ski brownies!)

The verdict?  Well, the brownies couldn’t have been easier.  Just pour into a greased 8×8 pan and bake for 20-22 minutes.  As for taste, well, I don’t like them as much as I like the TJ’s Truffle Brownies, but they weren’t bad at all, especially considering they took all of 30 seconds to prepare for the oven.  I found them a little more cake-like than I prefer (I’m a chewy brownie fan), but based on how quickly my daughter’s group of girlfriends gobbled them up, they passed the taste-test.

The other new item I picked up was the “Sugar, Chocolate and Coffee Bean Grinder“.  I had to look at it for a minute or two to even figure out what it was, but I liked the name!  Basically, it’s a little pepper grinder filled with, no surprise, sugar, chocolate and coffee beans.  The label suggests grinding it over “cupcakes, coffee, tea, buttered toast, or ice cream…”.  Since I’d just picked up the brownie mix, I thought, “or brownies!”.   I spread some white vanilla frosting on a few of the brownies and ground away, and not only did it make a pretty topping, but gave the brownies a tiny bit of crunch and extra sweetness I loved.  I think it would also be great ground over a cappuccino or latte as an alternative to cinnamon.  Okay, it’s a bit of an indulgence item, but what the heck.  Live a little.

Testing these items certainly didn’t fit in with my post-vacation diet plan, but hey, it was ‘for work’!  Enjoy!

Click here for more information about Tracy’s Connecticut cooking classes, or to read her The Secret Ingredient Blog.

A Scone Too Good Not to Pass Along

June 6, 2011

I love creating recipes based on something I ate in a restaurant, something I heard about, or whatever is in my refrigerator.  However, sometimes I come across a recipe in a magazine, cooking show, or in this case, from a friend via another food blog, that is just too good not to share.  When my foodie friend Sarah updated her Facebook status with “Feta and roasted tomato scones. Ah mah gah” how could I not be curious?  Well, turns out the recipe is from “Sweet and Savory Life” , a photo-centric food blog written by Alice, a wonderful photographer, home-cook, and mom of three.  Her recipe for Roasted Tomato Feta Scones is wonderful. 

We usually think of scones as sweet, but this savory scone is delicious and would be perfect with brunch, lunch or dinner.  The roasted tomatoes are slightly sweet ( I roasted my own, but you can purchase them already roasted at the grocery store, as Alice suggests), the feta is tangy, and the scallions give a oniony bite.  They are also really pretty–the colors are fantastic.  Okay, so mine weren’t as perfectly triangular as hers, but I’m sure they tasted just as good.  I made a double batch and put half in the freezer for another day.  If you have a food processor (my very favorite small kitchen appliance), they mix up in a flash and are really very simple.  Give them a try–you will be saying “ah mah gah” too.

Roasted Tomato Feta Scones from Sweet and Savory Life

Click here for more information about Tracy’s Connecticut cooking classes, or to read her The Secret Ingredient Blog.

A New Italian Easter Tradition

April 18, 2011

Every family has their traditions.  Some are religious in nature.  Some are activities shared by the family at certain times of the year.  Others are food related.  In my family we have traditions in each category, but most tend to be centered around the table.  Special dishes which are made for certain holidays, events, or days.  One of my favorites is Pizza Rustica, or what my family called “pizzachina” (pronoucned pizza-KEENa), which is made at Eastertime.  After forty days of Lenten fasting, the pizzachina is a savory delicacy in every sense.  The slightly sweet crust (sometimes referred to as ‘pasta frolla’), and the rich filling made from egg, ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan cheese, densely studded with prociutto (and in some cases, sweet sausage, but not in my family) is a feast for the mouth.  It’s labor-intensive, but well worth the effort.

Many years ago my parents gave me a wonderful book called Festa, which detailed many Italian food-traditions.  It listed a baked sausage bread among the Eastertime foods.  We never made this exact dish in our family, but made something similar for New Year’s called “minulati”.  Both are pretty simple concepts—pizza dough wrapped around crumbled, sweet Italian sausage and baked.  The book described making more of a loaf which would then be sliced, where as the minulati were smaller-sized sausage ‘rolls’.   I received  this book back in 1997, and started making sausage bread at Eastertime, and at Christmastime, and New Year’s, and pretty much anytime I had people over…because it was just so good.  Sometimes if I’m pressed for time I swap the sausage for pepperoni (which doesn’t require any pre-cooking), but the sausage is still my favorite. 

I would never replace the pizzachina on our Easter table, but giving it a little company is never a bad thing!

Easter Sausage Bread

Serves 6+

1 lb of pizza dough (prepared or homemade)

1 lb sweet Italian sausage, casings removed

1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

1/2 -3/4 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

In a large skillet, saute the crumbled sausage until no longer pink, breaking it up with your spatula as it cooks.  (In Festa they also add a garlic clove to the mix, which you could easily do too).

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

On a large, oiled baking sheet, stretch the dough out into a rectangle.  Scatter the cooked sausage on top of the dough, leaving a border of about one inch all the way around.  Top with both cheeses, being sure to distribute it evenly around the dough.  Starting at one end, roll the dough up, jelly roll style, and pinch the seam and ends to seal.

Make sure the seam side is on the bottom, and brush with an eggwash if desired (just lightly beat an egg with a tiny bit of water and brush over the top–it will give the loaf a golden brown color and make it glisten). 

Bake for one hour.  Slice and serve hot or at room temperature.

Click here for more information about Tracy’s Connecticut cooking classes, or to read her The Secret Ingredient Blog.

Above photo from Steven Valenti

Carrot Applesauce Muffin Bread

March 21, 2011

I had a bunch of baby carrots left over from an untouched crudite platter, and they were looking a little dry.  In my daughter’s world, this means they are completely inedible and ‘yuck’.   Never one to waste food, I threw them into the food processor and whirred them around until I had a nice bowl of shredded and decidedly not-dry looking carrots.

Now, what to do with them?  I considered a carrot-ginger soup, but also anticipated a “yuck” response to it, so I went in search of baked goods recipes.  When I came across a few for Carrot-Apple muffins, I figured I’d hit the jackpot.  When the “apple” turned out to be applesauce, I was even happier since it meant no peeling and chopping required. 

Although the recipe I found from WholeFoods was pretty healthy, I decided to take it a step further and reduce the sugar and eliminate the oil entirely.  Applesauce can often be substituted for oil in baked items, and since this recipe already had applesauce, I simply added a bit more to replace the oil.  I also split the recipe so instead of a dozen muffins, I made six muffins and one mini loaf of quick bread. 

The results were met with mixed reviews.  They definitely were not sweet, which for an adult is fine, but the kids didn’t care for them as much.  My kids also didn’t love the not-so-sweet cream cheese frosting I used to top the muffins.  I also think it’s best to process the carrots a bit more finely so there are no “chunks” in the batter (grating them on a box grater is probably the best idea).  The recipe below takes all this into consideration, and yields a tastier, more kid-friendly muffin bread.

Maybe I should have stuck to the soup…

Carrot Applesauce Muffin Bread

Makes 2 mini-loaves

(adapted from WholeFoods)

1 1/4 cups whole wheat flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon non-aluminum baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup finely grated carrots 
3/4 cup unsweetened applesauce
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup milk
1 teaspoon real vanilla extract

1/4 cup chopped walnuts

1 tablespoon turbinado sugar

canola oil or other non-stick spray

Preheat oven to 350°.

Spray two mini -loaf pans with non-stick cooking spray.

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

In another bowl, combine carrots, applesauce, eggs, milk,  and vanilla.

Add half the carrot mixture to the flour mixture, stir until blended then add the rest pf the carrot mixture.

Pour batter into prepared pans and top with chopped walnuts and a sprinkle of turbinado sugar.

Bake about 30 minutes or until a toothpick in the center of bread comes out clean. Serve warm.

Click here for more information about Tracy’s Connecticut cooking classes, or to read her The Secret Ingredient Blog.

The Oven Blame-Game

February 21, 2011

“Why are the cookies taking sooooooooooo long???” asked my daughters, practically in unison.  I’d told them they’d be ready in 8-10 minutes, but here it was 16 minutes later and still they were not done.   Of course I immediately blamed the oven.   “The oven temperature must be off,” I explained, as I envisioned the $75 service call to have it re-calibrated.

Before I made that expensive phone call, I went out and  bought a simple oven thermometer, which can be purchased at any hardware store, kitchen store, or discount store (I got mine at Target).  Target had two styles available, one for around $4 and another for $10 (I sprung for the ‘deluxe’ $10 model).  If you want to part with about $50, you can get an ‘oven-probe’ style thermometer where a probe gets affixed to the inside wall of your oven, and a wire connects it to the display which sits on your countertop.  This way you don’t have to open the oven door to see the temperature. 

That's the convection fan you see on the oven's back wall...

After placing the thermometer smack in the center of the oven, I tested it at 250 degrees, 350 degrees, and 450 degrees.  The thermometer indicated that the oven was in fact heating to the temperature at which it was set.  Next, I tried the same test using the convection feature.  “Convection” ovens are those that have a fan built-in, which circulates the air around the oven, presumably so food cooks more evenly.  Usually, if you opt to use the convection feature on your oven, you should decrease the temperature by 25 degrees to accommodate for the difference (in fact, my oven automatically re-sets the temperature to reflect a 25 degree decrease when I select “convection” on the keypad).   However, that being said, except for when I’m baking (baking is a science, don’t mess with it!), I almost always manually increase the temperature because I WANT to speed the cooking time.  My tests for the convection feature also revealed that my oven was correctly calibrated.

So, then what was up with my cookies???  Well, remember I said “don’t mess with baking”?  I had, in fact, messed with my cookies.  I happen to prefer using canola oil in place of butter in my chocolate chip cookies.  I think the flavor and texture are much better with the oil.   However, when you change even one thing in a recipe, there are other things that sometimes need to be changed, including the cooking time.   Or, it could just be the recipe was not sufficiently tested in a non-commercial oven.  Or, it could be that the pans I use are different from the pans used during testing (lighter colored pans brown cookies more slowly).  Or, it could be that by trying to bake two sheets of cookies at once that the air wasn’t properly flowing, therefore slowing down the cooking time.  The message here?  There is a lot of trial-and-error that goes on in the kitchen, no matter what your level of experience.  But now that I know that the temperature in my oven is as it should be, I’ll stop blaming the oven!

For some chocolate chip cookie recipes I like, check out my other blog, The Secret Ingredient Online.

Click here for more information about Tracy’s Connecticut cooking classes.

Up next time, selecting and using meat thermometers!

Chocolate Mint Brownies-Worth the Re-Post

January 24, 2011

It was more than two years ago that I originally posted this recipe over on my other blog, The Secret Ingredient Online.  Well, while watching football last night, hoping for an all-green Jets/Packers Superbowl, I made some of my favorite “green” brownies.  Although I’m originally from New York and was rooting for the Jets, I really could not care less about football in general, but I definitely care about the snacks. 

To make life easier, I used a brownie mix (my favorites are Ghiradelli and the Trader Joe’s Truffle Brownie mixes), then topped them with green-tinted mint icing and more chocolate.  If you really want to cheat even more, just add a little mint extract and green food coloring to a prepared white frosting and skip the chocolate on top.  Still very yummy.

So whomever you’re rooting for in a couple of weeks, I promise people will be cheering for YOU if you bring these to the Superbowl party!

Check out my recipe for Chocolate Mint Brownies at The Secret Ingredient Online.

Click here for more information about Tracy’s Connecticut cooking classes !

Easy Bake That’s Easier on Your Wallet

January 10, 2011

It was the year of the retro-gifts this year at Christmastime.  Other than the Wii my kids both wanted, the rest of their lists looked very similar to mine back in the 70s.  Legos.  Monopoly.  A Barbie head you do hairstyles on.  An Easy-Bake Oven.  Way back when, Santa brought me the Legos and the Monopoly, but my feminist mother had no interest in perpetuating gender roles and stereotypes, so I never got the Barbie head or the Easy-Bake Oven.   Instead I learned how to French braid my own hair and learned to cook in a real oven, so maybe it was for the best.  However, knowing that I ended up cooking for a living anyway even without the Easy-Bake, I figured maybe if I bought my daughter one she’d end up a brain surgeon or Wall Street power-broker. 

Well, what I’d forgotten about the Easy-Bake Oven is that once you make the two teeny-tiny cakes using the mixes that come with the oven, you have to go buy more, which cost a fortune.  Twelve mixes (which are less than the equivalent of 12 cupcakes) are about $30.  I may have given in to the oven, but I still have my mother’s practicality so I set off to find how to make my own Easy-Bake mixes.

Turns out there is tons online about this (I clearly am not the only one unwilling to shell out $30 for a dozen mini-mixes).  You can make them from scratch, or just use store-bought “regular sized” cake mixes and scale them down to make LOTS of mini-mixes.  Here are a couple of the better sites I found:

For store-bought mixes–scaled down:

For homemade mixes:

So let your little baker bake away—without emptying your wallet in the meantime!

Click here for more information about Tracy’s Connecticut cooking classes, or to read her The Secret Ingredient Blog.

Sweet Gifts from Your Kitchen

December 6, 2010

Q: What’s better at Christmastime than a homemade gift? 

A:  A homemade gift that doubles as a fun family activity and a sweet treat for the person who receives it! 

I love the idea of giving cookies as gifts around the holidays, but REALLY love the idea of giving a homemade cookie mix.  By putting together the dry ingredients for cookies and layering them in a jar, typing up instructions on a cute card, and attaching a cookie cutter, you create a pretty, fun gift anyone would love  (plus you save TONS of time by not having to bake everything!).

All you need to do is buy all the dry ingredients (listed below for gingerbread cookies), get some wide-mouthed mason jars (like those used for canning–available at any hardware store or discount store like Target), buy cookie cutters (I love these handcrafted ones with little handles from Vermont,, and cut some squares of a pretty fabric and some ribbon to tie around the lid and you’re ready to create your fun gift.

In keeping with the season, I love gingerbread cookie mix and a gingerbread man cookie cutter.  Simply follow the instructions below and you have a great gift for teachers, friends, hostess gifts, or your mail carrier!   Note:  This and lots of other recipes for jar cookies can be found at







Gingerbread Cookies in a Jar

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
    1. Mix 2 cups of the flour with the baking soda and baking powder. Mix the remaining 1 1/2 cups flour with the ginger, cloves, cinnamon, and allspice. In a 1 quart, wide mouth canning jar, layer the ingredients starting with the flour and baking powder mixture, then the brown sugar, and finally the flour and spice mixture. Pack firmly between layers.
    2. Attach a card to the jar with the following directions: Gingerbread Cookies 1. Empty contents of jar into a large mixing bowl. Stir to blend together. Mix in 1/2 cup softened butter or margarine, 3/4 cup molasses, and 1 slightly beaten egg. Dough will be very stiff, so you may need to use your hands. Cover, and refrigerate for 1 hour. 2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. 3. Roll dough to 1/4 inch thick on a lightly floured surface. Cut into shapes with a cookie cutter. Place cookies on a lightly greased cookie sheet about 2 inches apart. 4. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes in preheated oven. Decorate as desired.

    Click here for more information about Tracy’s Connecticut cooking classes, or to read her The Secret Ingredient Blog.

    A Taste of Tuscany with a Crunch

    October 4, 2010

    When I studied in Siena, Italy during my senior year of college I fell in love with their cookies.  Well, I fell in love with a very specific cookie–a super-sweet, crunchy almond variety called “Brutti ma Buoni”.   If you know any Italian, you will recognize this name to be a slightly less than flattering choice of name for such a delicious confection.  Only the Italians could get away with calling a cookie “Brutti ma Buoni”–literally translated as “ugly but good”.   My own family has a cookie I’ve always known as “Cosi cacati” (my grandmother was quite a ham) —but I’ll let you imagine what that means, as it is not appropriate language for a food blog!  I guess Italian-American cooks are equally as colorful as our overseas sisters.

    The Brutti ma Buoni cookies really aren’t ugly, but they are definitely good, and they are the perfect accompaniment to a good cup of caffe.   I once found an almost-as-good almond cookie at a bakery in New Canaan, Connecticut, but I rarely find myself out in that direction (although I admit to making a few nonsense trips just for the cookies).  You can imagine my delight when I went into Trader Joe’s today and saw they are now carrying Brutti ma Buoni cookies!  Not only convenient, but I’m happy to report that they capture the exact flavor and texture I remember from Italy.  I’m having one with my glass of wine right now, and can’t wait to have another with my morning coffee tomorrow.  Crunchy, sweet, small, perfect. 

    I’m still perfecting my own Brutti ma Buoni recipe, but as I’m more of a cook than a baker, haven’t quite hit on a winner yet.  Until I do, I’m sticking to the ones at Trader Joe’s!

    Click here for more information about Tracy’s Connecticut cooking classes, or to read her The Secret Ingredient Blog.

    Homemade Cookies in a Flash

    September 27, 2010

    One afternoon we were having a mega-playdate at our house, so I decided to make cookies.  The kids love measuring, mixing, and scooping, with a little taste-testing in between.  I figured this activity was good to occupy the kids for at least half an hour.  We scooped two dozen cookies to bake, but I still had dough to spare.  While the girls intently watched the cookies transform from mounds of dough into golden brown cookies, I scooped the remaining dough (which amounted to about another dozen cookies) onto a third cookie sheet and popped it  not  into the oven, but the freezer. Once frozen, I layered them with waxed paper in an airtight container (this way the dough is already hard and won’t stick when layered) and put them right back into the freezer again.  I’d been inspired by the way one of my favorite local markets sells their raw cookie dough:  not in a log or a tub, but as frozen, pre-scooped cookies.  This way, when you’re in the mood for some spur-of-the-moment home-baked goodness, all you need to do is pop the cookies onto a sheet—no thawing or cutting required.  The baking time almost doubles to account for the frozen dough (which for my chocolate chip cookies went from about 10 minutes of baking time to 20 at 375 degrees).   Those extra minutes are still far fewer than you would have spent whipping up an entirely fresh batch from scratch. 

    So, the next time you’re making your favorite cookie recipe,  scoop a  batch for the freezer too!  One  day when you’re craving home-baked cookies but don’t have any time, you’ll be glad you did!  (Warning:  I find cookies in their raw-dough frozen form extremely addictive, so if you actually want these to hang around long enough to bake, hide them at the back of your freezer!)

    Click here for more information about Tracy’s Connecticut cooking classes, or to read her The Secret Ingredient Blog.