Positively Addictive Popcorn Mix

Need something quick to take to a New Year's Eve party? This festive mix of popcorn, peanuts and M&Ms, lightly coated with white chocolate and peanut butter, takes about five minutes to throw together. You may even have the ingredients in your cupboard from your holiday baking. (I did.) People will beg you for the recipe.

I got the recipe from Beth Royals, whose recipes always are diabolically addictive. (See her recipe for Chocolate-Peanut Butter Eggs as another example.) That's probably the reason she's won a jillion cooking contests.

Happy New Year to my friends, family and faithful readers! Be safe!

White Chocolate & Peanut Butter Popcorn Mix

12 cups popcorn (I used air-popped popcorn. Beth uses "natural" flavor microwave popcorn.)
1 cup cocktail peanuts (salted)
1 1/2 cups M&Ms
14 oz white candy wafers (the discs in the candy making aisle of the store)
2 Tablespoons creamy peanut butter

Put the popcorn, peanuts and M&Ms in a large bowl. In another bowl, melt the wafers/discs and peanut butter together in microwave. (I microwave for 1 minute and stir. Then micro for 30 seconds at a time, stirring after each 30-second interval, until melted.)

Pour the melted stuff over the popcorn mixture. Stir gently to coat. Spread on waxed paper or parchment paper to harden. If you're hurry, put it in the fridge so it hardens faster. Break into pieces.

Eggnog Pancakes Three Ways

Let me just say up front that this isn't a post I'm particularly proud of. It certainly doesn't make my family look like healthy eaters. But I'm doing this for the practical reason of sharing a recipe for using up eggnog that's left over from the holidays.

My 13-year-old had been after me to let him make eggnog pancakes for dinner because he's crazy about eggnog. (I, personally, don't like the stuff). So on a busy night, he made the pancakes and I completed the meal by making bacon and putting bananas and maple syrup on the table.

I topped my pancakes simply with maple syrup. And that's everyone else would have done, until my husband got up from the table, fished around in the fridge, and returned with...

a can of whipped cream. I swear, I didn't even know the stuff was in there. I don't recall buying it or what I used it for. But in any case, my husband ate his pancakes with whipped cream, and my sons ate theirs with maple syrup AND whipped cream. To add a modicum of health to this dessert disguised as a meal, I suggested slicing bananas on top. That fell on deaf ears. And then my 15-year-old son took the decadence to another level.

He put some bacon on his pancake, drizzled it with maple syrup, topped it all with whipped cream and...

... ate it like a taco.

Now, THIS got him scolded by his Dad. Huh? The meal, which was never a model of nutrition, deteriorated precariously toward junk food when Dad entered the canned whipped cream into the equation. I wouldn't want my son to do this if he were visiting a girlfriend's house for dinner, but the recipe developer in me thought it was kind of clever. What do you think?

Eggnog Pancakes
Adapted from Allrecipes.com

2 cups all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg (optional - we didn't use)
2 eggs
1 1/2 - 2 cups eggnog* (The original recipe called for 1 1/2 cups. My son increased to 2 cups for extra eggnog flavor. I thought this made them a little dense but they weren't bad.)
2 tablespoons butter or margarine, melted
Maple syrup, whipped cream, bacon and/or sliced bananas -- all optional, for topping or rolling into a taco of sorts

In a bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt and nutmeg if desired. In another bowl, beat eggs, eggnog and butter; stir into dry ingredients just until moistened.

Pour batter by 1/4 cupfuls onto a lightly greased hot griddle. (If you have an electric griddle, set it to 350 degrees.) Turn when bubbles form on top; cook until second side is golden brown. (Because of the high sugar content, these brown quickly. Keep an eye on them. You may even want to turn your griddle to 325 degrees.)

Nutter Butter Santas

Happy Christmas Eve!

Need a semi-homemade treat for your Christmas celebration? Or something to keep the little ones busy on Christmas eve? These Nutter Butter Santas (no, they are not babies in diapers) are quick, easy and fun.

I got the idea and directions from this blog post. Hers are a bit cuter than mine, I think.

At any rate, here's how to make them:

Nutter Butter Santa Claus cookies.

You'll need:
1 package of Nutter Butter Cookies
About 3 cups of vanilla melting wafers (you could also use vanilla bark, or maybe white chocolate chips, but I can't get those to melt as well)
About 1/4 cup of red sugar
A handful of brown mini M&Ms (or mini chocolate chips)
A small handful of red mini M&Ms (or red hot candies)
Equipment: A plastic Baggie (or squeeze bottle or pastry bag with writing tip)
Parchment paper or silpat, to put the cookies on

Melt your white chocolate in the microwave, 30 seconds at a time, until you have nice, smooth, creamy white chocolate. (Pour some into the tiny squeeze bottle if you have it and set aside, otherwise, leave it all in this measuring cup.)

Dip 1 Nutter Butter and dip it into the melted white chocolate about 1/3 of the way and pull straight back out. Shake off any excess. This is for the hat. If desired, do the same thing on the other side for his beard. (This wasn't on the original directions, but I thought he needed a beard. My younger son thought this looked like a diaper. I think I didn't dip them deep enough. At any rate, it's up to you as to whether you want to dip both ends.)

Dip one dipped end into the red sugar (for the red part Santa's hat), leaving some white showing, and lay it onto your parchment paper.

I put some of the melted stuff into a Baggie and snipped a corner ... but you could use a squeeze bottle or pastry bag with writing tip. Make three dots for his face (two for the eyes and one for the nose) and then one on the edge of the hat (for his tassle). Press the appropriate candies on the nose and mouth.

When you're done, put the tray in the fridge for about 15 minutes to harden and you're done!

Hope you have a Merry Christmas!

Maple Nut Goodie Bars

When I was about 10 years old, I discovered a delicious candy while on vacation in Michigan. The Maple Bun, a melt-in-your-mouth maple cream encased in chocolate and peanuts, was my favorite candy bar from then on.

Fortunately or unfortunately for me, I could never find Maple Buns in my hometown of Waukegan, Illinois. Every now and then I'd spot a Vanilla Bun, but those weren't nearly as tasty as the maple. As a result, whenever I'd find a Maple Bun, I'd buy one.

Imagine my surprise when they started carrying them in Wegmans, in the bulk department where they sell the nostalgia candy. I bought one the first time I noticed them there, but now that I can get one all the time, I rarely buy one. There's probably a marketing lesson here about creating an impression of scarcity, but that's not where I'm going with this story.

An email newsletter from Pillsbury arrived in my inbox with a recipe for Maple Nut Goodie Bars, and the boy did the flavors sound like Maple Buns (I have since learned that there's a candy called a Nut Goodie, made by the same company as the one that makes the Maple Bun). I couldn't resist adding them to my holiday baking list.

The flavors were similar to my childhood treat, but the textures a bit different. Cold, the chocolate bottom layer and chocolate/nut top layer contrast with a softer maple filling. At room temperature, the bars are like a soft fudge. Both are yummy but my preference is to eat them chilled.

The only challenge about this recipe was cutting it into bars. If it was too cold, the bottom chocolate layer tended to separate from the softer maple middle. If it was too warm and soft, the peanuts made a mess of things. The best temperature for slicing is somewhere in the middle.

Maple Nut Goodie Bars
Slight adaptation from this Pillsbury recipe
I think these are best served cold. At room temperature they are a bit softer than fudge.

1 (12-oz.) pkg. (2 cups) semisweet chocolate chips
1 (11.5-oz.) pkg. (2 cups) milk chocolate chips
2 cups butter (yes, that would be 1 pound)
1 cup peanut butter
1 (12-oz.) can (2 1/2 cups) cocktail peanuts
1/2 cup evaporated milk
1 (3-oz.) pkg. vanilla pudding and pie filling mix (not instant)
1 (2-lb.) pkg. (7 1/2 cups) powdered sugar
2 teaspoons maple flavor

1. Line 15x10x1-inch baking pan (jelly roll pan/cookie sheet with
sides) with foil. Butter or spray foil with nonstick cooking spray. In large saucepan, melt chocolate chips and 1 cup of the butter over low heat, stirring frequently. Remove saucepan from heat. Add peanut butter; mix well. Spread half of mixture in buttered foil-lined pan. Freeze 10 minutes or until set. Place pan in refrigerator.

2. Meanwhile, stir peanuts into remaining chocolate mixture. Set aside.

3. Melt remaining 1 cup margarine in large saucepan over low heat. Gradually stir in evaporated milk. Stir in pudding mix. Cook until mixture is slightly thickened, stirring constantly. DO NOT BOIL. Remove saucepan from heat. Add powdered sugar and maple flavor; mix well. Cool about 10 minutes or until slightly cooled.

4. Carefully spread pudding mixture over chilled chocolate layer. Refrigerate 30 minutes.

5. Stir reserved chocolate-peanut mixture. Drop by spoonfuls onto chilled pudding layer; spread to cover. Refrigerate at least 3 hours or until firm. Cut into bars. (If the bottom layer wants to separate from the maple layer as you are cutting, let it sit at room temperature for a few minutes -- but do not try cutting this at room temperature, as it is too soft.) Store in refrigerator.

Makes a big tray of candy! It is sweet and rich, so cut into smallish pieces. Original recipe says 64 servings, which is probably about right.

Three-Layer Creme de Menthe Bars

I found this new-to-me recipe as I was nostalgically flipping through my late Grandma's recipe box. I remember her making this (or something like it) when I was a child, and wishing there wasn't coconut in the crust because I didn't like coconut at the time. Now, I like the texture and flavor of the coconut in the crust, but my husband isn't crazy about it. If you're not a fan of coconut, I'm sure you could leave it out with no trouble.

Give yourself a few hours to make these because there's cooling time between each layer, but the hands-on time is pretty low.

Three-Layer Creme de Menthe Bars
From a clipped newspaper article in my Grandma's recipe box, with some alterations from me.

2 cups graham-cracker crumbs (about 28 squares)
1-1/2 cups finely chopped walnuts (You can use shelled walnuts and chop in the food processor. I put them in the microwave and toast for 30 seconds at a time until they are fragrant)
1 cup shredded coconut
1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter or margarine, melted
1 large egg, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Creme de Menthe Layer
3-4 cups confectioner's sugar*
1 package (3 oz) instant vanilla pudding mix
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
4 tablespoons creme de menthe liqueur
1 Tablespoon milk
Green food coloring, if desired

1 12-ounce package semisweet chocolate chips, melted
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

For crust, stir together graham cracker crumbs, nuts, coconut, the 1/2 cup powdered sugar, the cocoa powder, 3/4 cup melted butter, egg, and 1 teaspoon vanilla in a large bowl until well combined. (You can pulse this all in a food processor, which will help chop the nuts and make the coconut a little smaller. But DO NOT process so much that you pulverize the coconut and walnuts -- the base will become crumbly. Press into ungreased 9" by 13" pan (the dough will seem wet and your hands will be covered with melted butter). Bake at 325 degrees 10 to 12 minutes. (It will look wet on top when you take it out of the oven.) Let cool.

2. For Creme de Menthe Layer, beat together 3 cups confectioner's sugar, pudding mix, 1/2 cup soft butter, creme de menthe and milk in a large mixer bowl on medium speed until smooth. Add food coloring, if desired. Taste and check consistency -- it should be thick but spreadable. If needed, gradually add the fourth cup of confectioner's sugar until the desired taste/consistency is reached. Spread evenly over crust (a large offset spatula helps with this). Chill until firm, at least for 30 minutes.

3. For Chocolate Layer, combine the chocolate and 1/2 cup butter in a small bowl. Microwave at 30-second intervals until softened. Spread evenly over the Creme de Menthe Layer. Refrigerate bars 1 hour or until chocolate sets.

Makes 6 dozen bars, depending on how you cut them.

Make-Ahead Tip: Store cookies in an airtight container in freezer up to 1 month.

* NOTE: The original recipe called for 4 cups of confectioner's sugar but I found the middle layer to be a tad dry.

(Many thanks to Tastespotting for running this. Always a thrill to be included in that beautiful site.)

Peanut Butter Temptations

This is an oldie but goodie recipe from my Grandma's old recipe box. The card is covered with lots of splotches, so you know it's a good one that was used a lot.

It's peanut butter cookie dough in mini muffin cups, filled with a mini peanut butter cup. I used to love these, and now my own kids do.

Peanut Butter Temptations

1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup peanut butter
1/2 cup white sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
36 miniature peanut butter cup candies, unwrapped
Mini muffin cup liners, optional

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

In a medium bowl, cream together the butter and peanut butter. Add the white sugar and brown sugar and mix well. Add the egg and vanilla and mix. Sift together the flour, baking soda and salt. Stir into the peanut butter mixture until the dough comes together. Shape into 1 inch balls and put in the cups of an ungreased (or paper-lined) mini muffin pan. (I just use a small cookie scoop and drop them into the cups.)

Bake for 8 to 10 minutes. As soon as the cookies come out of the oven, press a mini chocolate covered peanut butter cup down into the center of each cookie until only the top is showing. Let cool 10 minutes, then remove from pans. Store in airtight container.

Cranberry Streusel Shortbread Bars

Why is it that every time I double a recipe, I screw it up?

When I was young, I was good at math. Seriously good. When I was a Marquette University undergrad, I took calculus and got a good grade without too much trouble (can't remember any of it, though). But somehow my math escapes my brain when I get in the kitchen.

Take this recipe, for Cranberry Streusel Shortbread Bars, from Fine Cooking. I had two packages of cranberries in the freezer that I wanted to use up, and since this recipe called for one bag, I doubled it to make two 13" by 9" pans. The crusts and streusel topping went fine, but when it came to making the cranberry filling, I used one cup of sugar when I should have done two. Luckily, it wasn't a disaster. The filling was tart, but not unpleasantly so. In fact, some people may prefer this filling with less sugar.

I (deliberately) made a couple of other changes to the recipe. I adding a bit of orange to the cranberry filling, because orange always tastes good with cranberries. And I used my hand-held stick blender to make the filling smooth.

A recipe that tastes good, even when you screw it up. I call that a keeper.

Cranberry Streusel Shortbread Bars
(Adapted from this recipe in Fine Cooking If you don't have an orange handy, use the original recipe.)

For the crust and streusel:
10-1/2 oz. (1 cup plus 5 Tbs.) unsalted butter, melted and cooled to just warm
1 cup granulated sugar, divided
3/4 tsp. table salt
2 large egg yolks
14-1/4 oz. (3 cups plus 3 Tbs.) unbleached all-purpose flour
(Tip: For the best results, always measure your flour by weighing it.)

For the cranberry filling:
12-oz. bag fresh or frozen cranberries, picked over, rinsed, and drained
1 cup granulated sugar (if you like tart fillings, you can reduce the sugar to 1/2 cup)
Zest of 1/2 of an orange
2 Tablespoons orange juice
2 Tablespoons water

Make the crust:

Line a straight-sided 13x9-inch metal baking pan with foil, letting the ends create an overhanging edge for easy removal. In a medium bowl, stir together the butter, 3/4 cup of the sugar, and the salt. Whisk in the egg yolks. Stir in the flour to make a stiff dough. Transfer about 2 cups of the dough to the prepared pan, and press the mixture evenly into the bottom. Prick the dough all over with a fork. Refrigerate the pan for 30 minutes (or freeze for 5 to 7 minutes), until the dough is firm.

Meanwhile, position a rack near the center of the oven and another near the top. Heat the oven to 325°F.

Bake the dough until the crust begins to set but does not brown at all on the edges (the center will not be firm yet), about 20 minutes. While the crust bakes, prepare the streusel and the topping.

Make the streusel:

With your fingers, combine the remaining 1/4 cup granulated sugar with the reserved dough until crumbly. The mixture should hold together when pressed, but readily break into smaller pieces.

Make the cranberry filling:

In a medium saucepan, bring the cranberries, sugar, orange zest, orange juice and water to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium high and continue to boil until the liquid is reduced to a thick syrup, 5 to 8 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let the mixture cool 5 to 10 minutes—the syrup will continue to thicken as the mixture cools. (I used a stick blender to puree this mixture.)

Spread the cranberry mixture evenly over the hot crust. Scatter the streusel over the cranberries (don’t crumble the streusel too much). Increase the oven temperature to 350°F and bake the bars near the top of the oven until the streusel is golden and set, about 25 minutes. (I don't think the streusel needs to be very golden -- just set.)

Place the pan on a metal rack to cool until the crust is completely firm, at least 1 hour. (For faster cooling, put the bars in the fridge once the pan is no longer piping hot, or even outside in winter.)

When the bottom of the pan is cool, carefully lift the bars from the pan using the foil sides and transfer them to a cutting board. Separate the foil from the bars by sliding a spatula between them. Cut the bars into 1-3/4-inch squares.

Make-Ahead Tips
The bars will keep at room temperature for one week. I froze them.

From Fine Cooking 82, pp. 75
December 1, 2006

Our Gingerbread House 2010

The year 2010 will be the year remembered as the year Mom lost her sense of humor about our gingerbread house.

I arrived at our friends' house for our afternoon of gingerbread with our house assembled, royal icing ready to go (foolproof recipe here) and edibles for decorating the house purchased. As our friends peacefully created their beautiful farm (previous post), my teenage sons started their annual ritual of creating stabbed snowmen, snowmen with their heads blown off, and the like. In past years, I was amused. I even joined in. But this year I had had enough (and my husband didn't like the sick humor in the first place). I put my foot down.

In retrospect, I should have told them in advance that it was time to think of another way to express their creativity. I wouldn't have minded a funny theme, but in my book, violence isn't part of the Christmas spirit.

My 15-year-old son, who avoids unpleasant situations and especially irritated Moms, resigned himself to putting waffle-shaped pretzels on the roof and arranging Peeps Christmas trees around the house. He spent about a half hour on the house and wandered off. My 13-year-old son would not be dissuaded, and created a few things that he found amusing. I gave in and let him put it on the board, but Mom gets her way in the end. I'm not showing his stuff on this blog post.

So let's move on. Did you spy a doghouse in the background? Why yes, my friends, it was Snoopy's doghouse. It was a piece of unfinished business I had related to gingerbread.

A few years ago, we tried to create a Snoopy gingerbread house, and failed. An epic fail, the boys would say. I chronicled it here. But I always thought it was a cute idea, and wished we had pulled it off.

Instead of having a big Snoopy house, I thought we could have a little doghouse behind the regular size gingerbread house. (That makes our big house Charlie Brown's house. In my memory, his house is nondescript so I figured we had creative license.) I made Snoopy's house from graham crackers and sculpted Snoopy out of regular and vanilla Tootsie Rolls. His Christmas lights were black licorice strings and mini M&Ms.

To make the house red, my husband adhered red Fruit by the Foot to the crackers with royal icing. It was a messy process and as a result he got royal icing fingerprints all over the place. (I tell myself it's snow.) A better idea may have been painting the crackers with red food color, the way our friends did for their barn in the previous post. The black for Snoopy's door was a concoction our friends had made for their barn roof. My husband fashioned a Charlie Brown Christmas tree, complete with a pink blanket around the bottom, and put it next to the house. (Although come to think of it, wasn't Linus' blanket blue?)

I made Woodstock out of a lemon Tootsie Roll. It's hard to make Tootsie Rolls look like feathers. He looks like he has horns on his head instead of feathers. He's sitting on a Tootsie Roll log next to the pond in front of Snoopy's house. The pond was actually a reject from our friends' barn, made from melted blue hard candies.

My husband made a cute back porch of various pretzels.

Pay no mind to the snowman with red splotches on the ground next to it.

Our Friends' Gingerbread farm

Our family had our traditional day of gingerbread house decorating with another family, whose creations get more and more beautiful every year. Their creation this year was my favorite -- a gingerbread farm. Here's what they created, along with some of their techniques.

When we arrived, they had several elements ready to go.

Wegmans sells a package of unadorned, pre-baked gingerbread house pieces for about $5, and that's what they used. They trimmed the front pieces and cut the roof pieces in half lengthwise to make a Gambrel roof. They cut holes in the side pieces for windows. I wasn't there for this step, but my guess is that they used a Dremel tool to do the cutting.

They stained the barn pieces red by painting them with food coloring. They made some sort of a thick black concoction for the roof.

They used a glue gun to put the barn pieces together. That wouldn't fly in a gingerbread competition, but this wasn't a competition. It was more dependable and less messy to use than royal icing.

They also had made a pond by putting hard candies on parchment and baking them until they were melted. Then they shaped the pond to their desired shape.

The husband of the family and their 13-year-old daughter have become sophisticated in their molding of various figures, and their tools have followed suit. They used retired dental tools (scored from a family member who is a dental hygienist) to shape their figures.

Their sculpting medium: Tootsie Rolls candies. Wait until you see the things they can do with Tootsie Rolls!

Cat, along with some stacked Tootsie Roll logs.


Ducks and turtle on the pond.

And (my favorite), dogs.

Here's the barn, almost done (every time I thought their masterpiece was complete, they added embellishments). The silo was made adhering a mixture of dried beans to an empty food container with royal icing. Again, this wouldn't fly in a gingerbread competition but it looked great. The path leading up to the barn also made use of the dried beans, and was lined with colorful small candies.

The trees were made by covering sugar cones with green frosting. Each had a Tootsie Roll bird on top.

Note the use of white space. Because they didn't feel the need to cover every bit of snow, you can appreciate the details.

Here's a shot the finished barn from the side. Note the garland and the bird on the roof. Do you see the horse looking out the window and his hay (Chinese noodles) on the ground?

Want to see some of this talented family's past creations? Here are some:
The Zoo from 2009 (Some photos are missing. I will try to remedy that.)
The Pretty House from 2007
Another Pretty House, from 2006

Eggnog-Filled Cookie Cup

Note that the title of the post is Eggnog-Filled Cookie Cup, not Cups. That's because exactly one of this recipe came out. This is it.

It's irritating whenever a cooking disaster happens, but it's especially so whan it happens to a 13-year-old cook. Young cooks don't have the experience to know that when a disaster happens, it's as likely to be the fault of the recipe as it is of the cook. I'm fairly convinced that this is the fault of the recipe because I was around when he was baking.

My son loves eggnog (I don't) so he was excited about making this recipe, from his own cookbook, Best-Loved Cookies and Bars, published by Taste of Home. It consisted of two elements: an eggnog pudding and cookie cups.

The first task was making the eggnog pudding, which consisted of pudding mix, eggnog, milk and vanilla extract (which he used instead of rum extract). The instructions said to bring the mixture to a boil. Because the mixture was foamy, it was hard to tell when it was boiling, but eventually some fat, thick bubbles broke the surface.

The pudding was put in a bowl, covered with wax paper, and cooled. THAT part of the recipe my son loved. But then came the cookie cups, which were pretty fussy.

You make a dough (which I noticed was very soft), form it into balls, roll the balls in a sugar/allspice mixture and put them in mini tart pans. (We sprayed those tart pans well with cooking spray.) The directions said to use floured fingers to press the dough up the sides of the pan, which is not an easy task. Luckily, I had this handy dandy mini-tart shaper to make quick work of it. (I purchased it from Pampered Chef, and I mention it here because I like it; they did not compensate me in any way to mention it.) He needed to dip it in flour each time so that it didn't stick to the soft dough.

When they came out of the oven, they had filled in quite a bit, so he used the tart shaper to gently push down the middles a bit. Would this have caused what came next? I truly don't think so.

These buggers would not come out of the pan. He tried right when they came out of the oven, as directed, and they fell apart. Then I stepped in. We tried waiting a few minutes, and they stuck to the pan. When we did manage to get them out of the pan, they still fell apart. We tried waiting until they were completely cool. They completely stuck to the pan, so we tried running a knife around the outside of each cup. That caused them to crumble right in the pan.

I'm not printing the recipe here because I don't want anyone to experience the same frustration he did. If, for some reason, you want to try it, you can find it here, on the Taste of Home website. (I noticed that the two most recent reviewers had the same trouble he did.) If you come up with better results that he did, please let me know and give us a clue as to what went wrong. I will post my son's version of the pudding because he enjoyed that:

Danny's Eggnog Pudding

Adapted from a Taste of Home recipe

1 package (3 ounces) cook-and-serve vanilla pudding mix
1 1/2 cups eggnog
1/3 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a small saucepan, combine the pudding mix, eggnog and milk. Cook and stir until mixture comes to a boil. Remove from the heat; stir in extract. Transfer to a small bowl. Put a piece of waxed paper right on top of the pudding so that it doesn't form a skin. Refrigerate until chilled.

Salted Peanut Chews

The past year was the busiest I've had in terms of writing/PR work. I'm grateful for the business, particularly in the midst of a difficult economy, but it didn't leave me a lot of time for cooking or blogging. I thought I'd try to catch up by posting a few new (to me) successful recipes that I managed to photograph.

The first is for the chewy and nutty Salted Peanut Chews, which would be a great addition to anything from a picnic to a holiday cookie tray. I enjoyed them, although I think my favorite nutty bar cookie would be the similarly named Salted Nut Bars.

Salted Peanut Chews

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 egg yolks
3 cups miniature marshmallows

2/3 cup corn syrup
1/4 cup margarine or butter
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 pkg. peanut butter chips (10-oz.)
2 cups crisp rice cereal
2 cups salted peanuts

1. Heat oven to 350F. In large bowl, combine all crust ingredients except marshmallows at low speed until crumbly. Press firmly in bottom of ungreased 13x9-inch pan. Bake at 350F. for 12 to 15 minutes or until light golden brown.
2. Remove crust from oven. Immediately sprinkle with marshmallows.
3. Return to oven; bake an additional 1 to 2 minutes or until marshmallows just begin to puff. Cool while preparing topping.
4. In large saucepan, combine all topping ingredients except cereal and peanuts. Heat just until chips are melted and mixture is smooth, stirring constantly. Remove from heat; stir in cereal and peanuts. Immediately spoon warm topping over marshmallows; spread to cover. Refrigerate 45 minutes or until firm. Cut into bars.

Chocolate Mint Sandwich Cookies

My 13-year-old son surprised me at the grocery store.

He spotted one of the small magazine-type cookbooks that are sold near the checkout, and it contained nothing but Christmas cookie recipes. He asked me to buy it. That was hardly a surprise -- he asks for stuff all the way through the grocery store, and he's got an insatiable sweet tooth.

"I've got more recipes than I can make in my entire lifetime," I said firmly. "I'm not buying another cookbook."

Here's what surprised me: he decided to use his own money and buy the book for himself. It was only $4.99, but this is a kid with a limited income, and he usually uses it to buy video games or Nerf gun darts.

The book is called Best-Loved Cookies & Bars, and it's published by Taste of Home. He has systematically gone through the cookbook and bookmarked the recipes he'd like to make.

The first recipe he tackled was just before Thanksgiving (I did spring for the ingredients). He took his Chocolate-Mint Sandwich Cookies to our family's Thanksgiving celebration, and received great reviews. The cookies were chewy and the filling was quite minty.

Considering all the surprises that can come from a 13-year-old boy, I'm thankful for this one. I'm looking forward to tasting more experiments from his surprise purchase.

Chocolate Mint Sandwich Cookies
From Taste of Home, with minor changes

Cookie Ingredients:
6 tablespoons butter, cubed
1-1/2 cups packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons water
2 cups (12 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips
2 eggs
1 teaspoon Vanilla Extract
2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt

Filling Ingredients:
2-1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
1/4 cup butter, softened
3 tablespoons milk
1/2 teaspoon peppermint extract
1-2 drops green gel food coloring
Dash salt

In a small saucepan, combine the butter, brown sugar, water and chocolate chips. Cook and stir over low heat until chips are melted. Cool. Beat in eggs and vanilla. Combine the flour, baking soda and salt; gradually add to the chocolate mixture.

Drop by rounded teaspoonfuls 2 in. apart onto ungreased baking sheets. (Danny used a small cookie scoop). Bake at 350° for 10-12 minutes or until firm. Remove to wire racks to cool.

In a large bowl, combine filling ingredients until smooth. Spread on the bottoms of half the cookies; top with remaining cookies. Yield: about 2-1/2 dozen sandwich cookies.

Delicious, Healthy Chocolate Chip Muffins ... From a Mix!

I'm ashamed to admit it, but I tend to be skeptical when I see labels with words like, "all-natural" and "multi-grain." Experience tells me that makers of those products tend to sacrifice taste for nutrition. But I've been seeing mixes from Allens Hill Farm around town and hearing positive reviews. I decided to give their 8 Grain Chocolate Chip Muffin mix a try, but I honestly didn't have high expectations.

One of the reasons for choosing that particular mix is that I'm not very good at making muffins. I make a mean scone, but my muffins seem to turn turn out dense and leaden. I know the secret is not to over mix the batter, and I don't think I do, but in any case, nobody clamors for my muffins.

Most muffin mixes, though, may as well be cake mixes. They are so sweet that when I use them, I feel I may as well give my kids cookies and cupcakes for breakfast.

I doctored up the Allens Hill Farm mix to suit our family's tastes. I thought the amount of chocolate chips seemed skimpy, so I added another half cup, plus sprinkled a few on top of each muffin. I also sprinkled the top of the unbaked muffins with a little Turbinado sugar.

The muffin baked up nicely -- better than most of my homemade attempts. The mix yielded the perfect amount for 12 muffins, and rose just above the height of the muffin cups.

The muffins were just sweet and light enough to be a hit with both of my teenage boys -- even the one with an uncontrollable sweet tooth. I also enjoyed them -- they weren't as sweet as a cupcake -- and I'm delighted to know that we're all getting some fiber and nutrition from the eight grains.

In fact, I've been a bit hesitant to post a review because I don't want them to find out that the muffins are "healthy." Shhh ... it will be our little secret.

I got my mix at Wickham Farms, but I've also seen the mixes sold at the Fairport Farmers Market. Since those are both closed for the season, you can check the Allens Hill Farm website, which has retail locations (under "links") and an online store (click on "products").

(In full disclosure, I did not get paid for writing this review. The Allens Hill Farm people don't even know about it.)