In case of emergency, open box.

Any time cake mixes are on sale for 99 cents, I grab a box of spice cake mix to have on hand for my "go-to" emergency cookie recipe. I got the recipe from a friend many years ago, so I'm not sure of its origin.

These cookies have a texture of their own. They aren't as "oatmeal-y" as the usual oatmeal cookie recipe, but they are still nice and chewy.

The spice cake mix gives them a wonderful flavor. They taste great plain, but I think everything is better with a glaze or frosting, so I give them a drizzle of a glaze of confectioner's sugar and a little milk.

Oatmeal Spice Cookies

1 18.25-oz box spice cake mix
1 cup rolled oats (quick oats also work fine)
1/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 large egg
1/4 cup milk
1/2 cup soft butter (1 stick)
1 tsp vanilla

Optional glaze: confectioner's sugar and a little milk.

Preheat oven to 350.

Mix together cake mix, oats and brown sugar. Add egg, milk, butter and vanilla and blend until well combined.

Drop onto greased cookie sheet (I use the smallest Pampered Chef scoop). Bake 8-10 minutes.

If you'd like to glaze them, let cool completely. Mix together confectioner's sugar and just enough milk to make a glaze.

Makes 2 1/2 - 3 dozen

The Chocolatey-est Chocolate Crackle Cookies

These cookies, from Martha Stewart Holiday Cookies 2001, are intensely chocolatey and wonderfully chewy, even after they've been in the freezer a few weeks. They have to be the most delicious chocolate crackle cookie on record.

Even so, I think I'm over them -- the dough is a bitch to work with. It's very sticky, even after it's been refrigerated. To keep my hands from being covered in gooey dough, I use my smallest cookie/ice cream scoop and drop the dough directly into a bowl of powdered sugar. Even that isn't easy because the dough doesn't want to come out of the scoop. Once I've dropped a few scoops of dough into the powdered sugar, I jiggle the bowl around until the dough is coated. Then I take them out of the powdered sugar and roll them into neat little balls.

Yummy, if you don't mind the aggravation. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Martha Stewart's Chocolate Crackles

8 oz. bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped (I've used various combinations of semisweet, bittersweet and dark chocolate chips and all work well)
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick (1/4 pound) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/3 cups packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/3 cup milk
1 cup confectioners’ sugar

Melt chocolate (I do this in the microwave, checking and stirring every 30 seconds, but I'm sure Martha does this in a double boiler). Set aside to cool.

In a medium bowl, sift together flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter and brown sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes. Add eggs and vanilla, and beat until well combined. Add melted chocolate. Add flour mixture alternately with milk. Mix on low speed until just combined. Shape dough into a flattened disk and wrap with plastic wrap. Chill in the refrigerator until firm, about 2 hours.

Preheat oven to 350. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper; set aside. Using 1 heaping teaspoon of dough apiece, shape 1-inch balls. Roll each in confectioners’ sugar until completely coated. If any cocoa-colored dough is visible, roll dough in confectioners’ sugar again. (Or, if this is making you nuts, use my method, above.) Place the cookies on prepared baking sheets, 2 inches apart. Bake until flat and the sugar coating splits, 12 to 15 minutes, rotating halfway through.

Transfer to a wire rack, and let cook completely. Store in an airtight container up to 1 week.

"No Snow Day" Chocolate Chip Cookies

My kids SO wanted a snow day yesterday. They did kooky superstitious things, like putting ice cubes in the toilets, wearing their jammies inside out, and putting wooden spoons under their pillows. (I grew up in the Chicago area, which is plenty snowy, but I don't remember any of these superstitions. Am I the only one?) Anyway, there wasn't a snow day. It must be tough being superintendent and having to make the call that dashes the hopes of all those kids.

I thought I'd make an after-school snack that would take their minds off of their disappointment -- great big chocolate chip cookies and hot cocoa. I remembered that my friend Anna, from Cookie Madness, went through a streak of making lots of different big chocolate chip cookies in the hopes of duplicating the cookies from Levain, in New York City, so I turned to her blog for a recipe. Since I've never been to Levain, I didn't care if the recipe was a copycat. I just wanted yummy cookies that didn't require me to leave the house to get an ingredient (the kids may have had to venture out in that cold, but I'm no dummy). I settled on this recipe and were they ever delicious. Once the kids had these, and we agreed that we'd rather have the day off in the summer than in the winter, the disappointment of not having a snow day was a distant memory.

Big Fat Chocolate Chip Cookies

Adapted (with minor changes) from this recipe on Cookie Madness

8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cold – cut into little chunks (if they are too big, they may fly out of the mixer)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 1/2 cups chocolate chips (I used a combo of semisweet and Hershey's Special Dark)
Nuts, if you like -- we don't use

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a mixing bowl, using an electric mixer, beat butter and both sugars until creamy. Add the egg and vanilla and beat until incorporated.

Stir together flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Add to batter and stir just until blended. Stir in chips.

Divide dough into big 4 oz lumps. Bake on ungreased cookies sheets for 18-22 minutes or until cookies appear set -- they will not get very brown but they shouldn't look wet or raw in the middle. Makes about a dozen.

Dried Cherry Almond Scones

I like Ann Burrell's Food Network show, Secrets of a Restaurant Chef, but sometimes I wish she'd do more to live up to the title.

Take these scones, for example, which appeared on her "Secrets of Brunch" episode. She tells us that her pastry chef makes the dough for scones ahead of time, then freezes it. At brunch time at the restaurant, they pop the scone dough in the oven and bake them -- which is a great do-ahead secret. The only problem: she doesn't tell us the time or temperature for baking them from frozen. But I did make her dough, cut out the scones, froze them, and then baked them. They were really delicious, so that was a good secret. I had every intention of noting how long they took to bake, but because I was baking them for company and had other stuff going on, I forgot to make a note of it. Next time, maybe.

I make scones fairly often -- in my experience, they are much more forgiving than muffins -- so I'm going to share with you a couple of my own secrets for these scones:

1. This recipe calls for toasted almonds. You can toast the almonds in the oven while it is preheating. Use your nose -- when you smell them, they probably are close to being done.

2. If you like digging in dough with your hands, do it the way Burrell does. I almost always make scones in the food processor. As a result, I've revised Chef Burrell's recipe to do it in the food processor, and here it is...

Dried Cherry Almond Scones
Adapted from this recipe by Ann Burrell

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup white whole wheat flour (you can use all-purpose flour, if you prefer)
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
The zest of 1 lemon
Pinch salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 1/2 sticks cold butter, cut into small cubes
1 cup dried cherries
1/2 cup toasted sliced almonds
1/2 cup heavy cream
Turbinado sugar, for garnishing (also sold as Sugar in the Raw)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, lemon zest, salt and cinnamon. Pulse a few times to combine. Add in the butter and pulse until a coarse meal forms. Add in the cherries and almonds and pulse a few times (this process will give you smaller pieces of nuts and dried cherries, which I prefer). Add the heavy cream and process until the dough comes together -- do not overmix.

Form the dough into a 1-inch thick disk. Sprinkle the dough generously with the turbinado sugar and press lightly so the sugar adheres. Cut into 8 wedges. Transfer the wedges to a parchment-lined sheet pan. Space them several inches apart -- they will spread! Bake in the preheated oven for 15 to 18 minutes, turning the pan halfway through.

Ann Burrell serves them with honey butter, but I think they are perfect on their own.

A favorite brie appetizer

I made this appetizer for New Year's Eve because it's one of my favorites. I just realized I blogged about it a couple of years ago, but oh well, I like it! Since I've made it many times, I've got a bunch of tips:
- If your dried cranberries seem a little dry or shriveled, put them in a bowl and pour some boiling water on top. Let them sit for three minutes or so and drain. They'll soften right up.
- If you want to make this ahead, put the onion mixture in a bowl and refrigerate until ready to serve. Bake the Brie for 8 minutes, put on the topping, then bake for another 3 minutes or so. I once put the brie and topping in the oven at the same time. The cranberries became hard, black little turds -- which is why I've started soaking them as insurance.
- You can heat it in the microwave. First heat the brie for a couple of minutes, then the topping for about 30 seconds, then put the topping on top of the brie.

Brie with Caramelized Onions, Pistachio and Cranberry

2 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, cut into fourths and thinly sliced
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Vegetable oil or cooking spray
1 round (15 ounces) brie
1/4 cup coarsely chopped pistachio nuts
Crackers and/or sliced Italian bread

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt butter in 10-inch skillet over medium heat. Cook onion in butter for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in cranberries, brown sugar, and vinegar. Cook about 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until mixture is thickened, brown, and caramelized.

Scrape the top rind off of the brie. Lightly brush oven-proof plate with oil (or spray with cooking spray) and place cheese in the center. Bake uncovered 8 to 10 minutes or until cheese is soft and partly melted. Spoon onion topping over cheese. Sprinkle with nuts. Serve with crackers.

2008 Hall of Fame

A couple of days ago I posted my Recipe Hall of Shame from 2008. Now I've picked my Top 10 recipes in my Hall of Fame. They are not necessarily the most delicious recipes I've made, and they certainly aren't the ones that have the best photos. Rather, they are the ones that became go-to recipes during the year.

Here they are, as they say on Dancing with the Stars, in no particular order...

2008 Hall of Shame

Happy New Year!

I decided my first post of 2009 would be a look back at 2008 ... at the dishes that didn't work. I suppose that seems negative, but each recipe was a lesson learned, and hopefully helped me become a better cook. Maybe posting these will help you avoid the mistakes I made!

1. Basic (blah) Brownies -- These weren't inedible, just blah. Luckily they had a texture that was chewy enough that I could use them in mini trifles, which were a hit with friends who came over for dinner. My photo was picked up by Tastespotting, and the post was also featured on YumSugar, so the post was one of the most popular posts of 2008. Go figure.

2. Anne Burrell’s Fregula with Braised Butternut Squash -- I'm sure this is a good recipe. I just killed it by having a heavy hand with red pepper flakes. Lesson learned: go easy on these little flakes, and TASTE before you add more!

3. Butterfinger Bars – I found this recipe on the Cooking Light bulletin board, posted by a friend who is known for being a great source of recipes. It looked like a good use of candy corn, which I don't care for, plus it was really easy -- melt candy corn, stir in peanut butter, refrigerate, then dip in chocolate. Well, my candy corn never fully melted -- maybe it was a tad stale? When I mixed it with the peanut butter, there were little bits of candy corn suspended in the peanut butter. I tried microwaving the two together, to no avail. I ended up dumping the whole mess.

4. Baked Butternut Squash Fries (right) – These sounded like a good idea but I think the picture sums up the problem. They were limp and yucky. You can cut something the shape of a french fry, but that doesn't make it taste good.

5. French Onion Soup, Cooks Illustrated 2008 – I didn't get any photos, but the recipe was an involved process and none of it went as described. First, you cook the onions in the oven. The result was supposed to be onions in a lot of liquid, but mine went completely dry. Then you put the pan on the stove and sautee the onions, deglazing them three times. All it took was for me to turn my back on the pan for a minute and the bottom of the pan became a burnt mess. I remedied the situation by dumping the onions into a separate pot, but all the flavor that would have come from the deglazing process was lost in the burnt crud. The result, of course, was so-so. The disaster was my doing … but in any case, it’s an involved recipe that calls for a lot of attention.

6. Roasted Delicata Squash with Spinach – This was a Wegmans recipe that I tasted at the store. The problem was me (again). The cauliflower was cut bigger than the delicata squash, so the cauliflower barely roasted, while the delicata was mushy. See those little black things in the photo? Those are my burnt onions. Lesson learned: when you are roasting veggies in the oven, cut them about the same size.

7. Rocky Road – This was based on a combination of chocolate and peanut butter, with marshmallows mixed in. I added peanuts, which isn't what caused the problem with the recipe. The chocolate mixture was solid only when it was refrigerated. Even then, when you picked it up, it melted immediately upon contact with your hands. Never again.

8. Stephanie Izard's Banana Bread -- This time, the fault wasn't mine. It was definitely the recipe, from last year's winner of Top Chef. It called for 1 teaspoon of salt, which gave the bread a pronounced salty flavor. I've wondered if the recipe might be the result of sloppy editing on the Bravo site, but I checked, and the recipe is still the same. Either way, it's not my cup of tea. Charlie would have eaten it, though.

9. Roasted Red Pepper Remoulade Sauce from The Southern Living Cookbook – This recipe called for 1/4 cup of chopped fresh parsley, and that amount overwhelmed the whole recipe. I tried adding various things to perk it up but the sauce was just blah. I served it to company with crab cakes, because I didn't have an alternative. The rest (and wouldn't you know, it made tons) went down the drain.

10. French Onion Burgers from Cuisine at Home Magazine -- I saw this recipe in a sample issue the magazine sent me. Our family is a big fan of French Onion Soup, so I thought I'd give the recipe a try. It wasn't a hit with us. It was bland and didn't evoke the flavors of the soup at all. If this is a good example of their recipes, I wouldn't subscribe.

Coming up next: my Top 10 of 2008!