Archive for the ‘Desserts’ 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.

Sweets for Your Sweet

February 14, 2011

Right around this time of year back in 2007 I taught a class called “Romantic Dinner for Two”.  The special menu included Prosciutto, Fig and Parmesan Rolls with Truffle Oil for the appetizer, a simple salad featuring a Strawberry Balsamic Vinaigrette, Pasta with Porcini Cream Sauce for the entrée, and for dessert, rich chocolate truffles.  I’m not sure why I never offered it again (maybe in 2012!), but I have taught the recipe for the chocolate truffles in a “No-Bake Desserts” class.   It’s always a hit because everyone thinks chocolate truffles are only something you can buy at a nice chocolate shop.  They are surprisingly easy to make…and create a very impressive gift for your sweetheart.   I wrote in my notes for this recipe that I adapted it from a Mark Bittman recipe, but cannot remember which parts I adapted.  So, with a shout-out to Mark, give this a try this Valentine’s Day… I promise you’ll be glad you did!

Chocolate Truffles

Makes about a dozen

1/2 cup semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips

1 T water

1 T unsalted butter

1/4 c  heavy cream

1 T powdered sugar (optional)

unsweetened cocoa powder

In a small saucepan, melt the chocolate together with the water over low heat.  Stir! 

When smooth, then add the butter a little at a time.  Stir again.

Gradually add the cream, stir continually until mixture is smooth.

Add sugar for a sweeter truffle, or leave it out for one that is less sweet.

Refrigerate about an hour, or until mixture is stiff.

Sift some cocoa powder onto a plate.  Line another plate with waxed paper.

Use 2 spoons or your hands to make small balls out of the mixture and roll them in the powder.

Place on waxed paper and serve, or refrigerate for up to 2 days.

 NOTE:  Using good quality chocolate will make these even more delicious!


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

Recipe adapted from Mark Bittman and above image from Flickr. 

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 !

Ho-Ho-HoRRAY for Candy Cane Truffles

December 20, 2010

As a person who would prefer to go to a bakery than bake, I’m always game for super-simple, no-bake dessert recipes.  In fact, I just taught an entire class on No-Bake Holiday Treats, where we made sweets like Peppermint Bark and my family’s recipe for Struffoli (Italian Honey Balls).  Well during class, one of the participants shared a no-bake recipe for Oreo Truffles that sounded so great I just had to pass it along (and bring it to my friend’s Christmas party!). 

I’m not sure of the origin of the recipe, but one appears on the Kraft website (makers of Nabisco Oreos).  The woman in my class suggested making this recipe instead with Trader Joe’s Candy Cane Joe-Joe’s Os, which sent neurons firing in my chocolate-mint-obsessed brain.  She also said she uses a stand mixer to mix the main ingredients instead of doing it by hand (the method is unspecified in the Oreo recipe, but there’s no mention of anything electronic), which again, appeals to my keep-it-simple-kitchen sensibilities. 

After mixing and forming the truffles, then dipping them in melted chocolate, I took it one step further and sprinkled crushed candy canes on top for a pretty, holiday touch.  Besides, I’m a big fan of knowing what’s inside of something I’m about to eat, so hopefully the candy cane pieces will tip off the eater that a peppermint explosion is about to occur in their mouth.

Now what’s better than a peppermint explosion on Christmas?  Merry, merry everyone!  And thanks, Leslie for the great tip!

Hint:  I found that some chocolate chips achieved better results than others.  My favorite was Ghiradelli’s 60% Cacao Bittersweet Chips.  The Nestle Toll House chips didn’t melt as nicely and was too thick for dipping.

“O Candy Cane” Truffles

Makes about 4 dozen

1 -8 oz package cream cheese, softened
1 package Trader Joe’s Candy Cane Joe-Joe’s Os (or Oreos), broken into pieces 
1 – 11 oz package semi-sweet chocolate chips
2-3 candy canes, crushed into small pieces (but not too fine)
Place the cream cheese and broken sandwich cookies into the workbowl of a stand mixer (or food processor) and mix on medium high speed for a few minutes, or until completely combined.  You could also achieve this with an electric hand mixer.
Use spoons and your fingers to form about 48 round truffles.  Place on a wax paper lined baking sheet and pop into the refrigerator until hardened a little (this will make it easier to dip them).
In a medium microwave-proof bowl, heat the chocolate chips in the microwave for 2 minutes, stirring after each 30 second interval. 
Dip the truffles in the melted chocolate and place on a wax-paper lined baking sheet. While the chocolate is still wet, sprinkle tops with crushed candy canes.
Refrigerate for about an hour, or until truffles are firm and chocolate has hardened.  Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

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.

    Baking Disasters

    November 27, 2009

    i-phone-284Have YOUR cookies ever turned out like this?  Yes, folks. those are cookies.  Well, they were SUPPOSED to be cookies.

    As I’ve written before, they can’t all be winners.  For me, these disasters seem to occur when baking, where there is little room for error.  One incorrect measurement and it could be curtains.  That is exactly what happened here.

    Rainy day.  Kids had a half day of school.  What to do?  Bake cookies!  They unanimously agreed on chocolate chip, which was a good thing since I had all the ingredients in my pantry (my favorite recipe is from The Joy of Cooking or the Toll House recipe).  As I went to grab a stick of butter, I remembered that I had a box of Earth Balance sticks I really wanted to use up.  Earth Balance is a great vegan “buttery spread” that really does taste very good without all the saturated fat of real butter.  It comes in tubs and sticks.  I really like this product, except for one thing:  the sticks are not normal “stick shape”.  They are shorter and fatter than regular sticks of butter.  I know, I know, this should not matter.   A stick is a stick.  Four ounces is four ounces.  But I was distracted, and in my head those stubby little sticks were HALF a stick each, not a whole stick.  That “little” mistake ended up being a BIG one.i-phone-288

    As I whirred everything together, I thought the dough seemed soft.  I scooped them onto my parchment lined baking sheets and still was stymied.  Too soft.  But why?  As soon as the oven door closed and I began cleaning up, I realized my mistake.  Those TWO Earth Balance wrappers sitting there on the counter should have been ONE.  Well, it was too late, and I knew my cookies were going to spread like California wild fire.  I had to double the baking time to even have any prayer of saving them. 

    In the end, they were very flat. very crispy, and very buttery.  Not exactly what I’d intended, but the good news was my kids could care less.  They actually weren’t bad, so it wasn’t a complete disaster.  However, I learned my lesson (PAY ATTENTION!  STUBBY BUTTER IS THE SAME AS REGULAR BUTTER!). 

    i-phone-286NOTE:  cookies can also get flat if you MELT the butter instead of simply softening it before mixing.

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

    In Season: Peaches

    September 22, 2009

    august-food-012Peaches are one of my favorite summertime fruits.  In season from July through September, a freshly picked, ripe peach is nothing short of pure bliss!  By adding a touch of heat you enter a whole new realm of fruit heaven.

    I first started experimenting with grilled fruit a few years back when developing a “no bake summer dessert” class for my cooking school.  I had the requisite chocolate desserts (Pots du Creme and tiramisu), and also a frozen granita dessert.  What was lacking was a fruit dessert—but I had to find one that didn’t have to be baked into a pie, crisp or crumble.  Grilled peaches fit the bill perfectly, and were the surprise hit of the class.

    Grilling fruit enhances its natural sugars, rendering it sweet and slightly softened.  By finishing the peaches with a touch of whipped cream and some crumbled amaretti cookies, you have the makings of a dessert nice enough for company, but simple enough for a weeknight snack.

    Now about amaretti cookies:  they are little, round, crunchy almond-flavored cookies that can usually be found in specialty groceries or Italian bakeries.  They are very sweet and can be easily crumbled.  If you have trouble finding amaretti, it is no problem to use traditional almond biscotti to create a similar effect. 

    Grilled Peaches with Amaretti Crumbles
    Serves 4
    2 large, ripe peaches, halved
    olive oil
    4-6 amaretti cookies (I like “Bellino” brand, but use almond biscotti if you cannot find amaretti)
    whipped cream
    Preheat your grill to medium heat (around 300-325 degrees)
    To halve each peach, run a sharp knife starting at  the stem, down along the side through the bottom, and back up to meet the stem on the other side.  Gently twist the halves to separate.  Use your knife to carefully pop out the pit. 
    Brush each half with a little olive oil and place cut-side-down on the hot grill.
    Grill for approximately 3-4 minutes, until grill marks appear and the peaches begin to soften.  Flip over, and continue to grill for another 2-3 minutes.
    Place grilled peaches on a plate (cut-side up), and top with a dollop of whipped cream and a crumbled amaretti cookie.  Serve warm.

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

    Discoveries of the Season

    September 8, 2009

    rose-wineEveryone has their favorite this, or favorite that.  I love discovering something new, or at least something new to me.  Below are some of my favorites that have been keeping me happy this season.

    Rosé wine:  No, I’m not talking White Zinfandel here!   Once you can get that out of your head and open up to rosés, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.  Rosés are crisp and perfect for summer and early fall, and are made from a wide variety of grapes.  I tend to favor the Spanish rosés, which my favorite wine connoisseur describe as “really fun to drink”, but the French rosés are also really good( and a tad drier).  Stick to a 2008 vintage for best quality.

    Kalamata Olive Hummus and Pita Chips:  I’m ordinarily not a huge hummus fan unless it’s super creamy and light.  However, there is something about the addition of Greek kalamata olives that make ordinary hummus sing “opa!”  Add some salted pita chips and you’re in business for a healthy snack or as an accompaniment to some wine or beer.

    Dark Chocolate Covered Pretzel Thins:  Okay, chocolate covered pretzels aren’t exactly breaking news, but the super thin pretzels I found covered in DARK chocolate are incredibly addictive and worth mentioning (I found this particular variety at Trader Joe’s).

    Flavored Vodkas:  Regular vodka has no flavor (or at least it isn’t supposed to)…but flavored vodka gives a whole new twist to your cocktails.  Try vanilla vodka in a martini, citron vodka in a Cape Cod, or pomegranate vodka with just a splash of soda.  If you haven’t been in a liquor store lately, you’ll be amazed at the wide variety of flavored vodkas on the market!

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

    Photo by ocadotony.

    In Season: Blueberry Crisp

    July 24, 2009

    blueberry-bushThis time of year I’m in blueberries up to my eyeballs…which isn’t a bad thing!  I knew a blueberry dessert of some sort was in my future, but I just wasn’t feeling a blueberry pie vibe.  As much as I love pie, for some reason a flaky but super-fattening crust wasn’t calling my name (it is beach season, after all!).   After wondering aloud to my mother about what I should do with my bounty, she suggested a blueberry crisp.   She makes a wonderful apple crisp with an oatmeal topping and thought substituting blueberries for the apples should work nicely.  I did a little digging around online and found a recipe which was just what I wanted.  It combined blueberries with an oatmeal topping similar to my mom’s, but added slivered almonds to the mix for a little extra flavor and crunch.

    This recipe couldn’t be easier—even for those of us who are not born-bakers.   Simply toss the berries with some cinnamon and brown sugar in a pie plate, and sprinkle  with the oatmeal-almond topping which you mix with your fingers.  Bake, add a scoop of vanilla frozen yogurt (or cinnamon ice cream would be even better!), and enjoy.  The entire recipe takes only about 10 minutes to put together, plus baking time!   Not to mention, it is relatively low in calories!

    Now that is what I call “easy as pie”!

    Blueberry Crisp with Oatmeal and Almond Topping  

    From Epicurious.comphoto1

    Yield: Makes 6 servings
    3 1/2-pint baskets fresh blueberries
    2 tablespoons plus 1/4 cup (packed) golden brown sugar
    1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

    1/2 cup quick-cooking oats
    2 tablespoons all purpose flour
    1/4 teaspoon salt
    2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
    1/4 cup sliced almonds

    Non-fat vanilla frozen yogurt

    Preheat oven to 350°F. Rinse blueberries. Drain, allowing some water to cling to berries. Place berries in 9-inch-diameter glass pie dish. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons brown sugar and cinnamon; stir to blend. Let stand until sugar dissolves and coats berries. Stir oats, flour, salt, and remaining 1/4 cup brown sugar to blend in medium bowl. Add butter and rub in with fingertips or fork until moist clumps form. Stir in almonds. Sprinkle oat mixture evenly over blueberries. Bake crisp until berries are bubbling and topping is golden, about 35 minutes. Serve warm, each serving topped with a spoonful of frozen yogurt.

    Per serving (including yogurt): calories, 200; total fat, 7 g; saturated fat, 3 g; cholesterol, 10 mg
    Nutritional analysis provided by Bon Appétit


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

    In Season: Freezing Berries

    July 21, 2009

    june-25-023After our trips to the strawberry fields and blueberry patch, we found ourselves with a giant boxes of juicy, delicious berries.  Even after using the berries in numerous ways, we still had lots left over.  I wasn’t in a jam-making mood, so I decided it was best to freeze what was left while they were still at their peak of freshness.  We have become big fruit smoothie fans, so the frozen berries would be put to excellent use in the coming months. 

    When freezing berries, be sure to first wash them (and hull if they are strawberries), then place them on a kitchen towel to dry.  Once dry, I spread the berries  in one layer on a baking sheet and put in the freezer until solid.  Use a plastic spatula to loosen them from the bottom of the pan if necessary, and then transfer the frozen berries to ziplock freezer bags or air-tight storage containers.  Yes, this method requires an extra step, but it allows the berries to freeze individually instead of in one big clump.  This way they are still beautiful when they exit the freezer. 

    The berries can later be used frozen in smoothies and other frosty drinks (daquiris, anyone?), thawed in muffins, pancakes, or other baked goods, or made into a wonderful berry sauce perfect for ice cream. 

    So if jamming isn’t your thing, you can still make excellent use of the bumper crop of berries this season! 


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