Simple & Addicting Caramel Chex Mix

caramel chex

Meet one of easiest to make and most addicting sweet snacks you will ever encounter. I think you two will get along very well!

My lab is partnering with another group on campus for a field campaign at Cape Cod over the next few weeks. I’m part of the set-up crew. One of our responsibilities was driving all the equipment out to the site and prepping instruments for sampling. Since the drive was a few hours, that’s kind of like a road trip, right? And all good road trips require proper snacking supplies, right? (Answers: yes and heck yes.) Fortunately, I just so happen to have the perfect, incredibly addicting road trip snack.

My family made this mix to take to our relatives a few years ago. We ate the entire batch en route and, upon arrival, handed them the empty tin with the sheepish promise to fill it up if they’d let us use their oven (and go grocery shopping). We must have made at least three more batches of this stuff over the course of our visit. I’m not even sure where it all went, but somewhere between all the card playing and drinking, bowl after bowl kept disappearing.

This recipe is embarrassingly easy to make. But everybody needs some fallback quick and delicious party/road trip/family gathering snacks in their repertoire, so I thought I’d share one of my family’s staples with you. Maybe you could use it for the upcoming Superbowl? I hope you find it as ridiculously addicting as we do. One note of warning: this makes a LOT, so plan to either have plenty of people over or give bags of this away!

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SIMPLE & ADDICTING CARAMEL CHEX MIX

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter

3/4 cup white corn syrup

1 cup brown sugar

1-2 cups chopped pecans, almonds, and/or walnuts (adjust mix to your liking)

1-2 cups pretzels*

1 (12oz) package Chex cereal (rice is my family’s favorite, but corn or wheat will also work)

*If your grocery store is also organized by a five year old and, even after half an hour of searching, you can’t find the normal pretzels anywhere they should logically be, use whatever you can find. For example, pretzel Goldfish work great.

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1. Preheat oven to 275 F. Spray a large roasting pan generously with baking spray.

2. Pour the cereal, nuts, and pretzels in two large bowls or one extra large bowl (you’ll need space to stir them).

3. Microwave butter, corn syrup, and brown sugar in a microwave-safe bowl for 2 minutes. Stir together until well-mixed. The butter will want to float on top, so you’ll have to do some creative stirring (stir in large vertical loops, pulling up the bottom and folding it over the top so that the butter gets pulled into the rest of the mixture).

4. Pour the butter/syrup/sugar mix over top of the cereal/nut/pretzel mix and stir to coat as evenly as possible.

5. Spread the coated mix in the roasting pan and bake for 1 hour. Every 15 minutes, pull the pan out of the oven and stir the mix really well. The more you stir, the more even you’ll coat all the pieces and the better the final mix will be.

6. Spread the mix on sheets of wax paper to cool. Be sure to break up any large clumps or it’ll harden together in a big lump.

7. Serve to anyone you want to fatten up. (Just kidding, but it really is impossible to stop munching on this stuff once you get started!)

big batch

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B^3 Cake (Brown Sugar, Browned Butter, and Brownies)

side

side cut

In general, I’ll try to refrain from bragging on this blog because no one likes a bragger.

But can we make just one tiny exception for this cake? Because you guys. This cake. I DID IT. I turned Tosci’s best ice cream flavor into a cake. Do you understand what this means?? Toscanini’s is one of the greatest ice cream places in the world. It’s true – numerous national sources have touted the awesomeness of their frozen treats. And at Tosci’s (which is a dangerously short walk from my apartment…), you can get the greatest ice cream flavor known to humankind: B^3. AKA B cubed. AKA brown sugar, browned butter, and brownies. AKA taste bud bliss.

I had this ice cream during grad school visits and it just about sealed the deal. Forget the interesting research, fancy lab equipment, awesome department, the chance to try out the east coast… It’s really about Tosci’s and B^3. That is how good this ice cream is. And now you can have this trifecta of glorious flavor in your own home even if you can’t visit Tosci’s whenever you please, and all because I love you and am sharing this magical recipe with you. Try not to make this cake every week, okay? It’ll be hard, I know. But do your best. With great power comes great responsibility and all that jazz.

tosci ice cream

Because I am such a dedicated baker, I sacrificed my waistline for the greater good and bought a pint of Tosci’s B^3. Quality assurance taste testing and all that, right? I had to make sure I captured the flavors properly! Side-by-side, eating the cake batter and ice cream, the only discernible difference is the temperature. Oh my, what a success!

Ever since the idea popped into my head to turn B^3 into some form of baked good, I have been fixated on the thought for weeks. How to go about properly displaying all three glorious flavors of Tosci’s genius ice cream? Finally, inspired by Robin’s birthday today, I decided a cake would be the perfect medium. I developed the recipe by searching “brown sugar cake recipe” and combining multiple sites with my own ideas (notably: Adventures in the Kitchen, babycakes, and Plays With Food). The brownies I told you about in the previous post (didn’t I tell you I had something spectacular in store for them?). The frosting is from no attributable source; many folks have made browned butter frosting before, and this is my own take on the delicious frosting to tone down the “browned” flavor and bring it to just the right flavor strength. The result is a dessert bursting with all three fantastically paired flavors: the cake is a crumbly, tastes-just-like-a-cookie base, the brownies are deliciously unexpected surprises in each bite, and the frosting is a creamy, buttery finish. It took major will power not to eat all the batter raw because it tasted just like the ice cream

Also, I would be remiss if I did not mention one of my phenomenal pen pals, who generously sent me a gift card to Williams-Sonoma (fancy pants, right?!). I used it to get an offset spatula (among other to-be-shared goodies) and let me put it this way: if you don’t have an offset spatula and you plan on making more than one cake in the future, get yourself to any home goods store and buy one right now. It is magic. Seriously. I always figured it was just an extra tool to use but I could exist just fine with a normal knife/spatula… I can’t believe it took me this long to realize what I’ve been missing! Thanks a million, Lauren!! I was singing your praises the entire time I frosted (which was longer than usual because I was having so much fun), and it’ll make me think of you every time I make a cake from now on!

AND on top of that, I came into lab today only to discover that the amazing people in my department banded together to get me a super snazzy, just-what-I-needed cake and cupcake carrier so I no longer have to bring my treats to lab in questionable homemade covers. Plus they got me a gift card to the grocery store to keep buying supplies, since I’ve been essentially keeping the local baking supplies economy afloat lately. So in case you were wondering, the answer is yes, I do have the best lab/department-mates EVER!!! Goodness, all this generosity is overwhelming. How did I get so darn lucky?!

Okay, brag time over. Thanks for letting me get away with that. For your patience, I have the perfect reward for you: B^3 Cake. Il est fantastique!

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BETTER-THAN-BOX-MIX-BROWNIES

Use ingredients from my previous post or substitute any 8×8-inch brownie recipe.

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B^3 CAKE

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, browned

2 ½ cups brown sugar

½ cup granulated sugar

4 eggs

1/3 cup vegetable oil

1 carton (8 oz) sour cream

1 ½ tsp. vanilla extract

3 cups flour

1 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. baking soda

½ tsp. salt

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BROWNED BUTTER FROSTING

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

3/4 cup  (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, browned

1/2 tsp. vanilla

5 tbsp. milk

6 cups powdered sugar

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Make the brownies:

1. Make according to my previously posted instructions, or use any brownie recipe you like (about 8×8-inch size).

2. Cut off the edges (hang onto these and eat with the leftover frosting), and crumble the middle into small pieces about the size of jelly beans. Set aside.

Make the cake: 

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease three 9-inch round cake pans well (bottom and sides) with baking spray. Cut parchment or wax paper in a circle to fit the bottom of the cake pan, place on top of the greased bottom, and grease the paper.

2. Brown the butter, and put in fridge for about 20-30 minutes. (Instructions located in the Spiced Orange Cupcakes recipe if you need them.)

3. In a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.

4. Using a hand mixer, cream the browned butter and granulated sugar together in a large bowl, then slowly add brown sugar. (Note: by the end, this mix will be dominantly sugar instead of the usual fluffy sugar-butter mix.)

5. Beat in eggs in pairs, until well-mixed. Add oil, sour cream, and vanilla and beat until smooth and well-mixed.

6. Add dry ingredients in thirds, beating just until each addition is incorporated.

7. Divide the batter between the three prepared pans. Reserve 1/2 cup of brownie crumbles and divide the remaining crumbles between the three pans and sprinkle over the top. Press the brownies down into the batter; try to cover them as best you can with batter.

8. Bake in the oven at 350 F for 25-30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out almost clean (they will get pretty brown on top). *Note: I did 30 minutes and thought it was a bit too dry for my liking, so I recommend removing them sooner. Alternately, follow the syrup suggestion in this article to add moisture back to your cake before you frost it.

9. Cool the cakes in their pans on wire racks for about half an hour then remove cakes (and paper circles) and place them in the fridge.

Make the frosting:

1. Place 1/2 cup unsalted butter (non-browned) in the bowl of a stand mixer.

2. Brown 3/4 cup unsalted butter. Let it settle for a few minutes, then pour the top (clear-ish) butter over top of the non-browned butter. Discard the last bit of butter that has all the brown flecks.

3. Stir the butters together until the non-browned sticks melt almost entirely. If you have time, let this mixture sit and harden for a little bit (the fridge can help).

4. Attach the bowl to your stand mixer. Alternate adding tablespoons of milk and cups of powdered sugar. Add the vanilla extract near the end. Cream the frosting until it’s soft, fluffy, and well-mixed.

Assemble:

1. Frost according to the instructions in my Cinnamon-Swirled Banana Cake. Make sure you do the crumb coat!

2. Decorate with the reserved brownie crumbles.

3. Keep refrigerated until ready to eat; remove at least 1 hour prior to serving. Cut small slices; this cake is rich, sugary, and decadent!

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Better-Than-Box-Mix Cocoa Brownies

1 brownies stacked

I have grand plans for these brownies. In fact, I wasn’t even going to share them as-is because they are just a stop along the way to potential greatness. But then I tried one and, well, let’s just say you need these in your life. It would be cruel of me to not share these immediately. This is just the beginning for these babies, but while you wait for what’s coming, make a batch of these delicious (and oh-so-easy) brownies. They’re just like box-mix brownies but better. Which I didn’t think was possible, because I am total box-mix brownie lover. But I think this could convert even the biggest box-mix brownie fan: they have that perfect moist, dense texture with an incredible rich cocoa flavor. And best of all, start to finish takes less than an hour. What are you waiting for? Get baking!

Recipe (barely adapted) from Smitten Kitchen, which Deb adapted from Alice Medrich’s Bittersweet.

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BETTER-THAN-BOX-MIX COCOA BROWNIES

10 tbsp. (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup brown sugar

3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (natural or Dutch-process)

1/4 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

2 large eggs, cold

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

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1. Preheat oven to 325 F. Push a sheet of parchment paper (or aluminum foil) into an 8×8-inch square baking pan; it won’t stay very well, but that’s fine – just make sure the edges and bottom are all covered. When you add the batter later, it’ll push the parchment paper into place.

2. Combine the butter, sugars, cocoa, and salt in a medium bowl (heat-safe) and microwave for 30 seconds. Stir together gently until as well-mixed as you can get it, then microwave an additional 15 seconds. Stir together until thick and completely mixed. The batter should be warm to the touch; additional, short bursts of microwave time (don’t burn it!) may be necessary to get the batter warm.

3. Stir in vanilla extract then add eggs one at a time, stirring vigorously. When the batter is shiny and well-mixed, add the flour. Stir until it’s all mixed in, then beat vigorously for 40 strokes (incorporating air gives your brownies some “lift” and ensures they aren’t too flat/dense).

4. Pour into the parchment paper-lined pan and spread evenly. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until a toothpick comes out just slightly moist with batter.

5. Cool completely, then lift the paper + brownies out and cut into squares. Easy, right?! Enjoy!

If you leave extra parchment paper hanging off the sides, it'll be a cinch to remove the brownies from the pan later - simply lift out!

If you leave extra parchment paper hanging off the sides, it’ll be a cinch to remove the brownies from the pan later – simply lift out!

Frosted Soft Sugar Cookies

sugar cookies

I made this recipe a while back, but it’s worth sharing because I know there are people out there who are addicted to those awful, cardboard-y sugar cookies they sell at the chain grocery stores. You know, the ones that come in the plastic trays and are there for every season and holiday, in different colors with different sprinkles? I hate those things! They’re so powdery and nasty. But these… These I can get on board with. These are soft, sugary, and oh-so-tasty. If you like those grocery store cookies, make these. If you despise those grocery store cookies but like the idea of soft sugar cookies, make these. Hostess with the Mostess hit a home run here. She’s been making them since she was in sixth grade and even goes so far as to say these are the best sugar cookies in the world, so think about that when you’re deciding whether to make these. (Hint: you should make them!)

Directions, as I made them, are provided here for ease, but check out the original link for some adorable pictures!

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FROSTED SOFT SUGAR COOKIES

1 cup butter
1 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 tbsp. vanilla
3 cups flour
3 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp salt

FROSTING

1/3 cup butter, melted
1 tbsp. vanilla
3 tbsp. milk
5-6 cups powdered sugar (thicken to desired consistency)
food coloring
sprinkles

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1. Preheat oven to 400 F. Line a cookies sheet with parchment paper.

2. Mix the flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium-sized bowl.

3. In a large bowl, combine butter and sugar; beat until soft and fluffy (at least 2 minutes). Beat in the eggs and vanilla until well-mixed. Add the dry ingredients in slowly and mix until just incorporated. Cover and put in the refrigerator for at least an hour to stiffen the dough. Form dough balls (1/4 cup or less) and flatten into 1/2-inch-tall circles with your hands (you can also roll the dough out with a rolling pin and cut shapes with cookie cutters, if you want fun shapes).

4. Bake for 8-10 minutes, or until just the edges of the cookies start to turn a very light golden brown. Don’t over-bake! These cookies taste much better when they are soft and just done. For an extra-doughy consistency, remove the cookies before the edges start to brown. Transfer to a wire rack to cool before decorating.

5. To make the frosting, whisk together the butter, vanilla, and milk. Slowly mix in powdered sugar, 1 cup at a time, until the frosting reaches your desired consistency (you want to be able to spread it on the cookies, but you also want it to hold it’s shape and not drip off the cookies). As you are decorating the cookies, the frosting with slowly harden. Simply add small amounts of milk (<1 tsp. at a time) to bring it back to a spreadable consistency. And of course, decorate with sprinkles as you go. So cute!

Spiced Orange Cupcakes

orange cupcake

Wow, I did not expect that… These are strangely good!

Just as I am terrible at eating bananas before they go ripe, I’m awful at eating oranges quickly. I usually eat two or three and then I’m sick of the peeling and the smell all over my hands and the white pith everywhere and maybe I’m just weird?! It’s perfectly fine. I can manage just fine. Except I had five oranges on the counter threatening to go bad and requiring some creative re-purposing, and the thought of peeling and eating them was enough to make me want to throw them away immediately.

Enter these orange cupcakes.

Yes, you read that right.

Orange cupcakes. Have you ever heard of anything like it before? Banana, sure. Lemon, of course. But orange? It’s certainly news to me! Except, when I went searching for a recipe, it started to seem like maybe this wasn’t such a novel idea after all. Plenty of people have made orange cupcakes, and they don’t seem to be too awed by the concept. Maybe you’re rolling your eyes because you eat orange cupcakes every day, but if this is news to you and you’re thinking, “Hmm I’m not so sure I’d like that…” then trust me on this: if you like oranges, you should like these cupcakes. I was a skeptic at first, but I was so intrigued by the idea that I tried it anyway. And I’m so glad I did! They’re moist, dense cupcakes with just the right amount of spices in them to make you smile. And the frosting (which is optional, because the cupcakes are fantastic on their own) is its own special breed of amazing.

Makes 16 cupcakes. (Or, 15 because you have to eat one right out of the oven because you’re totally shocked that it even worked because despite the internet seeming to be an expert on orange cupcakes, this is still totally foreign to you and you need to make sure they worked before you give them away to anyone and wow they sure do taste good – who would have thought!) They were inspired by this Beat and Bake Orange Cake Recipe on Allrecipes.com, which I changed up quite a bit to make sure the cupcakes stayed moist, were bursting with orange flavor, and had some extra spices to draw out the orange flavor and keep things interesting.

These were for a friend’s birthday. We had them in the department kitchen and I was so nervous when everyone started eating them, because what if my midnight taste buds misled me and these were actually awful?? Someone even had to remind me to take one for myself – I was so anxious that I just stood there, fingers crossed, hoping for the best. I can’t even begin to describe my relief when everyone really liked them. Succès!!

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SPICED ORANGE CUPCAKES

2 cups flour

½ tsp. salt

3 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. cinnamon

½ tsp. ground nutmeg

½ tsp. ground clove

1 ½ cups granulated sugar

½ cup sour cream

½ cup orange juice

½ cup vegetable oil

3 eggs, beaten

1 ½ tbsp. Grand Marnier (or Triple Sec)

2 tbsp. grated orange zest

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BROWNED BUTTER & ORANGE FROSTING

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter (browned; instructions in recipe)

3-5 cups powdered sugar

2-3 tbsp. orange juice

2-3 tbsp. milk

2 tsp. grated orange zest

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1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Prepare a cupcake tray with cupcake liners.

2. In a large bowl, whisk/stir together the flour, salt, and baking powder. Mix in sugar and spices until well-combined, then set aside.

3. In a small bowl, stir together the sour cream, orange juice, Grand Marnier, vegetable oil, eggs, and the 2 tbsp. orange zest. (Don’t stress when these won’t combine all the way; just get them mixed a bit.)

4. Add the liquid mixture to the dry ingredients and stir until just combined, making sure that it mixes evenly.

5. Using a ¼-cup scoop, fill each cupcake liner to about ¾ full. Bake for 20-22 minutes (mine took 21), until a toothpick inserted into the center of a cupcake comes out with just a few crumbs on it (but no liquid-y batter).

6. Cool the cupcakes before frosting. While the cupcakes are cooling, let’s brown some butter! Put the 1/2 cup butter in a small saucepan and turn to medium-low heat. Stir gently and continuously. The butter will melt, then start frothing and bubbling (don’t get splattered!), and finally go from a yellow color to a pretty amber. The whole process will take what feels like a few minutes (I honestly have no idea what it actually takes, as I wasn’t watching a clock) but the color switch happens very quickly. Once it’s amber, turn off the stove and move the pot away from the heat. Photos are provided below for reference. Let this sit for a bit and small brown flecks will settle to the bottom. Slowly pour off the top, smooth butter and discard those brown flecks. Don’t worry about losing some butter – you’ll just add less powdered sugar in the next step. The browned butter needs to harden again before you use it, so unless you want to wait upwards of 2 hours for it to harden on the counter, pop it in the fridge for about 30 minutes.

7. To make the frosting, cream the browned butter in the bowl of a stand mixer until smooth. Gradually beat in 1/2-1 cup of powdered sugar and orange zest until well combined. Alternately beat in small amounts of orange juice, milk, and extra powdered sugar to bring to a fluffy consistency good for spreading on the cupcakes. The ranges in orange juice, milk, and powdered sugar are so you can keep adding bits of each until you’re satisfied with the amount and consistency of the frosting (liquids will thin and powdered sugar will thicken the frosting).

8. Use a knife or spatula to spread on frosting. Or, use a decorating bag or thick plastic bag with the tip cut off to pipe on frosting (what I did). If you have extra orange zest, sprinkle some on top and gently press it into the frosting so it stays in place. Merveilleux!

Keep the flame low or else you'll risk heating the butter too quickly and burning it.

Keep the flame low or else you’ll risk heating the butter too quickly and burning it.

As you heat the butter, it'll start to bubble. Keep stirring almost constantly and watch closely. When you stir, look at what color the butter is underneath - when it switches from yellow to amber, you're done!

As you heat the butter, it’ll start to bubble. Keep stirring and watch closely. When you stir, you’ll be able to see the butter below the bubbles. Look at what color it is – when it switches from yellow to amber, you’re done!

The butter will take a few minutes to change color, but once it does, it goes FAST. As soon as you see this amber color develop, turn off the stove and move the pot away from the heat. (Another indication that it's done is when it smells almost nutty; you'll notice a difference in aroma once it's "browned.")

The butter will take a few minutes to change color, but once it does, it goes FAST. As soon as you see this amber color develop, turn off the stove and move the pot away from the heat. (Another indication that it’s done is when it smells almost nutty; you’ll notice a difference in aroma once it’s “browned.”)

Save some of the orange zest to decorate the tops of the cupcakes. So cute & fragrant!

Save some of the orange zest to decorate the tops of the cupcakes. So cute & fragrant!

*Note: In researching ideas for using oranges, I came across this impressive post all about oranges. If you ever wanted to know anything about oranges, I’m sure you could find it here!

Dark Chocolate Banana Oatmeal Muffin Tops (with Walnuts and Butterscotch)

chocolate banana muffin tops

I have used up the last of my ripe bananas, thank goodness. I have so many other ideas hanging out in my brain, clamoring for attention and getting jealous that I’ve been spending so much time with bananas lately. Nonetheless, I’m excited about this recipe because it gave me the perfect opportunity to use the World Market dark chocolate spread my mom gave me for Christmas. While the spread is good on toast and whatnot, I couldn’t wait to find a way to bake with it. And the opportunity finally presented itself with this recipe idea! Of course, you could use any chocolate spread – including Nutella, like the recipe over at Chef in Training that inspired this post – but I like the dark chocolate because it’s not too sweet, so it doesn’t overpower the other flavors in the muffin tops.

Alright. About that. I need to come clean: I adapted the above recipe so much that it’s basically my own recipe at this point, which means I have to take full blame for these should-have-been-cookies. They have a very soft, dense-cake texture. The walnuts give a bit of a crunch, the oats add some chewiness, and the butterscotch and chocolate swirls bring in some much-appreciated sweetness. But ultimately, these don’t really taste like cookies. They’re just too soft/squishy/cake-y. Clearly, I haven’t quite mastered the art of recipe development yet! However, someone in my building took a bite and brilliantly suggested, “Call them muffin tops!” Genius, I tell you. If you eat these as cookies, you’ll wonder at the slightly strange texture. If you eat these as muffin tops, your brain won’t be confused and you’ll like every bit. So, enjoy these muffin tops! This recipe makes about 4 dozen muffin tops; I had to make a big recipe, because I needed to use up 3 ripe bananas.

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DARK CHOCOLATE BANANA OATMEAL MUFFIN TOPS (WITH WALNUTS AND BUTTERSCOTCH)

2 ½ cups flour

¾ cup granulated sugar

½ cup brown sugar

1 tsp. baking soda

1 ¼ tsp. salt

1 cup shortening

2 eggs

½ tsp. vanilla extract

3 ripe bananas, mashed

1 ¾ cup quick-cooking oats

¾ cup chopped walnuts

1 cup butterscotch chips

½ cup dark chocolate spread (World Market has a great one!)

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1. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Prepare a cookie sheet by lining with parchment paper (what I did) or greasing with baking spray.

2. In a bowl, whisk/stir together the flour, sugars, baking powder, and baking soda, and salt. “Cut in” the shortening (see photos below; I used two knifes and keep cutting the shortening, coating it with the mixture, cutting again, coating, etc. until you have a bunch of pea-sized clumps and there’s no “dry” powder left).

3. Using an electric hand mixer, add the eggs, vanilla, and bananas and beat until well mixed.

4. Stir in the oats, walnuts, and butterscotch chips.

5. Pour the chocolate over the dough and gently swirl it into the dough (mix carefully by folding the dough and chocolate together, or use a knife to make grooves for the chocolate – the key is to not mix it together all the way, so you still have some ribbons of color that make it look pretty).

6. Use a tablespoon to drop heaping scoops of batter on prepared cookie sheets. Leave at least 1.5-inches between drops.

7. Bake for ~12 minutes, until the muffin tops are set and spring back from your touch. Immediately remove from tray when done cooking and transfer to cooling racks.

8. Pour yourself a glass of milk and sample one fresh from the oven. You deserve it!

Just starting to "cut" in the shortening, using two knifes and making "x" cuts into the shortening.

Just starting to “cut” in the shortening, using two knifes to make “x” cuts into the shortening.

Further along in the process. Be sure you're coating the cut pieces with the powder mix as you cut - this will keep the shortening from sticking to itself in the center.

Further along in the process. Be sure you’re coating the cut pieces with the powder mix as you cut – this will keep the shortening from sticking to itself in the center.

At about this point, when it's pretty well mixed and the largest clumps are about the size of peas, I stop using the knives and switch to mixing it in by hand. You want to crumble the dough together, not smoosh it like bread dough. Think of it like you're picking up sand and feeling the grains between your fingers and thumbs. Do that motion with the mixture to get the shortening to mix in nicely with the powder.

At about this point, when it’s pretty well mixed and the largest clumps are about the size of peas, I stop using the knives and switch to mixing it in by hand. You want to crumble the dough together, not smoosh it like bread dough. Think of it like you’re picking up sand and feeling the grains between your fingers and thumbs. Do that motion with the mixture to get the shortening to mix in nicely with the powder.

What the final shortening + dry ingredients should look like when you're done cutting and mixing it by hand. There should be no obviously large sections of dry powder; you want it to look almost like damp sand.

What the final shortening + dry ingredients should look like when you’re done cutting and mixing it by hand. There should be no obviously large sections of dry powder; you want it to look almost like damp, coarse sand.

Gently swirl in the chocolate. Do not mix past this point! In fact, I almost think I mixed it in too much. These cookies are pretty because they are multi-toned, so don't get too zealous with the mixing here!

Gently swirl in the chocolate. Do not mix past this point! In fact, I almost think I mixed it in too much. These muffin tops are pretty because they are multi-toned, so don’t get too zealous with the mixing here!

Using heaping tablespoon scoops to plop cookie down onto the tray, leaving space for the cookies to spread a bit. Almost there...

Using heaping tablespoon scoops to plop the batter down onto the tray, leaving space for the muffin tops to spread a bit.

chocolate banana on plate

Cookies… er, muffin tops for everyone!!

Cinnamon-Swirled Banana Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

Aka: YOU SURVIVED!

I always think I’m going to eat bananas, and pick up a half dozen from the grocery store each time I go. Clearly I never learn: every time, I end up with overripe, brown bananas staring me in the face and mocking my inability to consume them fast enough. If we were in a race, my eating vs. their ripening, they’d win every time.

Except when I think of a delicious recipe to put them in. Then I win. Take that, bananas! And somehow, it seems much easier to eat banana cake than bananas…

This cake is good. Really good. As in, you take a bite and you think, “Yeah, that’s yummy” and then the second bite is, “Wow, this is pretty good” and then the rest is gobbled up with mouth-full exclamations of, “Could a banana cake really taste this good? Do I even like bananas?! Who cares, this is delicious!” (This evolution was determined scientifically, through careful observation of my own opinions and the compliments that others gave as their eating progressed.) It started as a honeybun cake recipe that I changed up quite a bit, adding vanilla extract, baking soda, flour, and bananas and baking in round cake pans so I could make a proper cake with layers and lots of frosting.  The result is a not-quite-dense-but-definitely-not-airy cake laced with small chunks of banana and ribbons of cinnamon and brown sugar, topped with my newest favorite cream cheese frosting (it holds its shape really well and has tons of sugar, but still tastes like cream cheese).

Cake inspiration: Michelle’s Honeybun Cake on AllRecipes

Frosting (minus the pecans): Cream Cheese Butter Pecan Frosting on MyRecipes

As you can see by the writing, quals are finally over! The grad students all survived (a bit brain-dead by the end, but they made it) and now get to wait one anxious month to find out if they passed. Now, what to make when that time rolls around? Decisions, decisions…

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CINNAMON-SWIRLED BANANA CAKE

1 box yellow cake mix
4 eggs
1 (8oz) carton sour cream
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup water
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. baking soda
1 cup flour
3 ripe bananas, peeled & mashed

Cinnamon Swirl:

1 1/4 cups brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp. cinnamon

CREAM CHEESE FROSTING

2 (8oz) packages cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 (32oz) package powdered sugar (or 2-16oz packages)
2 tsp. vanilla extract

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1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease two 9-inch round cake pans well (bottom and sides). Cut parchment or wax paper in a circle to fit the bottom of the cake pan, place on top of the greased bottom, and grease the paper.

2. In a bowl, whisk/stir together the cake mix, baking soda, and flour until well-mixed. Using an electric hand mixer, beat in eggs, sour cream, vegetable oil, water, and vanilla extract to make a smooth batter. Beat in mashed bananas for ~30 seconds (there will still be some lumps). In a separate bowl, mix the brown sugar and cinnamon. Pour 1/4 of the cake batter into one prepared cake pan and 1/4 of the cake batter into the other pan. Sprinkle the brown sugar/cinnamon mixture over the batters (divide between the two pans). Pour the remaining batter over the cinnamon mixture (divide between the two pans), and gently swirl the batter ~15 times with a butter knife.

3. Put both cake pans in the oven and bake for 45-50 minutes, until lightly golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Cool in the cake pans for ~20 minutes, then transfer to a wire cooling rack (place your (clean) hand on top of the cake, flip the pan over, lift the pan off, remove the parchment/wax paper, place a cooling rack on top of the cake where the paper just was, and gently flip the whole thing back over and set the cooling rack down).

4. Place the cakes in the freezer for 15-30 minutes (depends on how much time you have) to make them easier to frost later. While they firm up, make the frosting. Beat the softened cream cheese and butter together until creamy, then beat in the vanilla extract. Add the powdered sugar gradually, stopping when you like the consistency/flavor of the frosting (I always add the full 32 ounces).

5. Prepare your cake plate by placing small strips of wax paper in a circle about the size of your cake (this will catch the frosting spills and keep your plate looking pretty).

6. Remove the cakes from the freezer. Use a serrated knife to level off the rounded tops of each cake (someone really ought to eat these scraps, don’t you think? And there’s a very large bowl of frosting sitting on the counter; no one would notice if some were missing…). Place one of the cake rounds on the wax paper circle (the wax paper should be partially under the cake), with the serrated side facing up. Put a generous amount of frosting on top and smooth it out to an even layer, then put the second cake round on top with the serrated side facing down.

7. Spread a thin layer of frosting all over the sides and top of the cake. This is called a “crumb coat” and will effectively seal in all the crumbs, so when we frost “for real” later, it’ll look magnifique! Put the cake in the fridge this time (not the freezer), for 10 minutes.

8. Frost the cake with generous scoops of frosting, spreading it all over the sides and top. Reserve some of the frosting if you wish to add writing and/or decorations. You can tint this frosting with gel food coloring (which won’t change the consistency) or liquid food coloring (which will require the addition of more powdered sugar to counteract the extra liquid). Use a frosting bag and fancy tip or a plastic bag with the end snipped off to pipe anything you want on your cake.

9. Eat. Share. Smile. Repeat.

It's important to line the bottoms of your pans with parchment/wax paper, because this will make it a LOT easier to remove the cakes later. (Be sure to grease both the bottom of the pan AND the paper.)

It’s important to line the bottoms of your pans with parchment/wax paper, because this will make it a LOT easier to remove the cakes later. (Be sure to grease both the bottom of the pan AND the paper.)

When you swirl the batter + cinnamon/brown sugar + batter layers together, use big, cross-pan sweeps.

When you swirl the batter + cinnamon/brown sugar + batter layers together, use big, cross-pan sweeps.

Stick your (clean) finger against the side of the pan until it's level with the cake's average height and turn the pan slowly, so that your finger sweeps the edges clean (check out the previous picture to see what I mean about it being "messy" before).

Stick your (clean) finger against the side of the pan until it’s level with the cake’s average height and turn the pan slowly, so that your finger sweeps the edges clean (check out the previous picture to see what I mean about it being “messy” before).

The wax paper circle, which you will place your cake on, keeps the tray/platter/plate/cake stand clean when you frost. When you're done, you'll gently remove these strips of wax paper and everyone will think you are a professional cake decorator! (How else could you keep that plate so clean?!)

The wax paper circle, which you will place your cake on, keeps the tray/platter/cake stand/plate clean while you frost. When you’re done, gently remove these strips of wax paper and everyone will think you are a professional cake decorator for keeping the plate so clean. Shh, it’ll be our secret!

Carefully cut off the rounded tops of the cakes. Be careful you don't cut too deep! Some people have methods to keep the cake from rounding up in the center, which means you can skip this leveling step. But I prefer this way, because then you get to taste the cake before you give it to anyone else. (For quality assurance purposes, of course; it's not that I'm too impatient to wait...)

Use a serrated knife to cut off the rounded tops of the cakes. Be careful you don’t cut too deep! Some people have methods to keep the cake from rounding up in the center, which means you can skip this leveling step. But I prefer this way, because then you get to taste the cake before you give it to anyone else. (For quality assurance purposes, of course; it’s definitely not that I love rewarding myself with a bowl of cake scraps and leftover frosting…)

First cake goes on bottom down, serrated side up. Big glob of frosting. Second cake goes on serrated side down, bottom side up. Putting the serrated sides on the inside prevents pesky crumbs from jumping into the beautiful frosting outside.

First cake goes on bottom down, serrated side up. Big glob of frosting. Second cake goes on serrated side down, bottom side up. Putting the serrated sides on the inside prevents pesky crumbs from jumping into the beautiful frosting outside.

Applying the crumb coat (initial thin layer of frosting) will seal in any rouge crumbs, make it a lot easier to frost later, and dramatically improve the appearance of your final cake. All the cool kids do it...

Applying the crumb coat (initial thin layer of frosting) will seal in any rouge crumbs, make it a lot easier to frost later, and dramatically improve the appearance of your final cake. All the cool kids are doing it…

Once you have the crumb coat, you can spread the top (thick!) layer of frosting on with ease. Pat yourself on the back - you just mastered one of the biggest tricks in cake decorating!

Once you have the crumb coat, you can spread the top (thick!) layer of frosting on with ease. Pat yourself on the back – you just mastered one of the biggest tricks in cake decorating!

Reserve some frosting for decorating (I recommend gel food coloring to achieve vibrant colors while preserving the frosting consistency). To easily place sprinkles, use (clean!) tweezers.

Reserve some frosting for decorating (I recommend gel food coloring to achieve vibrant colors while preserving the frosting consistency). To easily place sprinkles, use (clean) tweezers. Magnifique, indeed!!

Good-Luck-on-Quals Brownies (or, Seven-Layer Bar Cookies Baked into Fudgy Brownies)

Do you think they got the "good luck" message?
Eleven students in my department recently took their qualifying exams (“quals”). Quals consist of five very open-ended, difficult questions written by five different professors. You have three days and three hours to complete the take-home exam, using any books, notes, the Internet, etc. that you want – you just can’t discuss the questions with anyone. Remember open-note exams in college? And how they were often more difficult than close-note exams? Well this is like that… but a million times harder. You have to pass quals to become an official PhD candidate, and you only get two chances. Yikes!

I’ll be taking this monstrous exam in a year, but this time around, I got to be on the “good luck” committee! Which doesn’t exist. I invented it. But it ought to exist. Because who doesn’t want a good luck brownie when they’re going into a three-day exam?!

While all the quals kids suffered, you can 1) be thankful that you are not in their shoes, and 2) consider making this recipe of fudgy, sugary ridiculousness. These brownies were inspired by a recipe from the book “Bake it in a Cupcake” by Megan Seling, which my best friend gave me for my birthday. This cookbook contains a bunch of fantastic desserts baked into various flavored cupcakes for double the awesomeness. I adapted the Seven-Layer Bar Brownie Cupcakes and made a tray of brownies instead. I increased many of the ingredients, added toffee bits to the brownies, and went bonkers over the crazy increase in baking time. These brownies are almost like fudge on the inside, they’re so gooey and sugary.

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SEVEN LAYER BAR COOKIES

6 tbsp. (3/4 stick) butter, melted
1 1/5 cup graham cracker crumbs
1 cup chocolate chips
1 cup butterscotch chips
1 cup toffee bits
1 ¼ cup shredded sweetened coconut
1 ¼ cup chopped pecans
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk

BROWNIES

6 ounces unsweetened chocolate, broken or chopped into small pieces
1 1/8 cup (2 ¼ sticks) unsalted butter
3 cups granulated sugar
4 large eggs
¾ tsp. salt
1 ½ tsp. vanilla extract
1 ½ cup all-purpose flour

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1. Make the seven-layer bars first. Preheat oven to 350F, spray a 9”x13” baking dish with nonstick cooking spray. Stir the melted butter & graham cracker crumbs together until all crumbs are moist; press them into the bottom of the pan. Evenly layer the rest of the ingredients, in the order listed, over top of the crust. Pour the condensed milk over the top and bake for some crazy amount of time. The book says 25 minutes; mine took 35+. You want the edges to be bubbling and the coconut starting to turn golden brown, but the inside of my bars was still a bit gooey at this point so I ended up cooking an extra 10+ minutes. Cool completely before cutting (but be sure to sample the corner while it’s warm, accompanied by a glass of milk!).

2. Make the brownie batter once the seven-layer bars are cool. Place the chocolate and butter in a medium microwave-safe bowl and microwave on high for 90 seconds, stopping halfway through to stir the butter and chocolate together. Continue stirring until everything melted together – you can microwave a tiny bit more as necessary, but be really careful you don’t burn the chocolate. It’s much better to stir and wait for the chocolate to melt slowly. Using a wooden spoon, stir in the granulated sugar until it’s well-mixed. Stir in the eggs, one at a time until the mixture is smooth. Add the salt and vanilla and stir for 30 seconds, until they’re both well-mixed. Mix in the flour until just combined – don’t overstir!

3. Finally, assemble the brownies. Cut up the seven-layer bars into 1.5-2 inch squares (it doesn’t matter how neat these squares are) and move to a different plate/container. Wash the 9-inch by 13-inch pan, dry, and spray again with nonstick cooking spray. Pour about half the brownie batter into the tray, gently place squares of the seven-layer bars on top so they’re almost touching each other, and pour the rest of the brownie batter on top. Bake for goodness knows how long. I think I ended up baking for 50+ minutes. Keep testing the brownies with a toothpick. The edges and top will be very crusty, but the inside stays oh-so-gooey, so pull them out when there’s just a tiny bit of dough sticking to the toothpick. Allow them to cool before cutting (you can refrigerate them after 15 minutes if you want to speed this step up).

If everyone fails quals because they OD on sugar, this recipe never happened

Peanut Butter & Chocolate Checkerboard Cookies

Stop drooling & get baking!

I love these. Everyone enjoyed them, but I loved them, probably because I’m obsessed with anything that contains peanut butter and chocolate. And in this recipe, there are chocolate chips in the peanut butter dough and peanut butter chips in the chocolate dough so anywhere you bite, you’ll get a mouthful of peanut butter and chocolate heaven.

I’m also partial to these cookies because they combine two of my favorite cookies growing up: Easy Cake Mix Cookies and Peanut Butter Blossoms. The cake mix recipe came from a good friend in elementary school. Whenever we’d hang out after school, her mom would make us these amazing cookies. Warm from the oven with a glass of milk, these cookies taste like childhood. Ever since, these have been my go-to cookies when I need something fast, easy, and delicious. (My friend wrote the recipe card for us back in second grade; at the end, it says in the sweetest little-kid handwriting, “And now you have cookies!” So, so cute.) The peanut blossoms recipe came from my mom, who got them from an old coworker. I know there are lots of recipes out there for peanut blossoms. My mom has the best recipe. Really. So, with these two cookies coming together to make one super cookie, I highly recommend you give this recipe a try!

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PEANUT BUTTER HALF (Peanut Butter Blossoms)

Sift together:

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt

Cream together: 

1/2 cup shortening + 1/2 cup peanut butter

Gradually add to shortening & pb, and cream well:

1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar

Add, and beat well:

1 large egg
2 tbsp. milk
1 tsp. vanilla

Blend in dry ingredients gradually; mix thoroughly. Stir in until well-mixed:

1 ½ cups chocolate chips

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CHOCOLATE HALF (Easy Cake Mix Cookies)

1 box chocolate cake mix
1 large egg
1/4 cup vegetable oil
3 tbsp. water
1 cup peanut butter chips

Mix all ingredients (except for the chips) together, then stir in the peanut butter chips. 

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ALSO HAVE ON HAND

~1 cup granulated sugar
Parchment paper or non-stick baking spray

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1. Preheat oven to 350F. Cover cookie sheet with parchment paper (or spray with non-stick baking spray).

2. Make the peanut butter and chocolate cookie doughs (separately) as detailed above.

4. Take about a tablespoon scoop of the peanut butter dough and a smaller scoop of the chocolate dough (about ¾ of the size of the PB scoop). Roll each of them into a ball (separately) then make them slightly elongated so they resemble a fat baby carrot. Push them together side-by-side then gently tear in the middle so you have two halves with both kinds of dough. Flip one of the halves, and re-connect them so that the chocolate side of one half now matches up with peanut butter side of the other half and vice-versa. Squish them together really well (so they don’t fall apart while baking), and gently shape them into rounded cookies (like a slightly flattened ball).

5. Roll the cookies in granulated sugar and place on the prepared cookie sheet (parchment paper or baking spray). Bake at for 10-12 minutes. The cookies will be soft to the touch. Transfer carefully to a cooling rack to firm up.

“And now you have cookies!”

Gingerbread Cookies

Run, run as fast as you can... Because I'm going to eat you, and I'm going to have so much fun doing so!
This was my last chance to bake with Christmas flavors and sprinkles at school for the year. Now that it’s January, I have to switch back to more season-neutral treats. But as I’m posting old recipes, you get these wonderful treats! I made some classic gingerbread cookies to celebrate surviving my first semester of grad school, the approaching holidays, and the amazing people I’ve met here. That final reason is one of my favorite parts of baking: in return for passing out cookies, I received two hours of great conversations. Worth every second of baking for sure! And one shamelessly proud moment: my professor emailed me over break to request this recipe for his family baking. Are you tempted to make them yet?!

Okay, enough babbling: what you really want is this recipe. These cookies are great. Flavorful, crunchy on the edges, and soft in the middle – classic goodness. I combined two different recipes with my own ideas and this was the result. If you want to make gingerbread cookies (and don’t have a family recipe that you could never bear to abandon), then definitely try these!

I drew from two of my favorite blogs:
Annie’s Eats – Gingerbread Cookies
Smitten Kitchen – Spicy Gingerbread Cookies

Follow the instructions on Annie’s Eats, but use these ingredients (I changed/added a few things):

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GINGERBREAD COOKIES

5 cups flour
1 ¼ tsp. salt
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. baking soda
3 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 ½ tsp. ground cloves
2 tsp. ground ginger
1 ½ tsp. ground nutmeg
½ tsp. black pepper (seriously – weird, I know, but it’s good!)
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature (I used ½ cup unsalted butter + ½ cup butter flavored shortening because I ran out of butter)
1 cup dark brown sugar (you could also use white, but brown sugar will make it more flavorful and chewy)
1 cup molasses
1 large egg
1 tsp. orange juice (water if you don’t have OJ)*

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*Orange juice is the secret to making really awesome gingerbread. If you have a different recipe that you insist on using instead of mine, I won’t mind – but please trust me and substitute orange juice if your recipe calls for water! Or, do what I do: add the orange juice to the recipe and bump up the flour & spices to make up for the additional liquid. Orange juice brings out the flavors and will make your gingerbread extra awesome. I promise.

The instructions are very clear on Annie’s website, so I won’t replicate them here. I’ll just give you my tips:

1. Divide the dough into thirds, wrap with cling wrap, and then refrigerate for an hour before rolling the dough out.

2. Refrigerate the cookies again for 5 minutes (or more) before baking them. Then you won’t need to leave 2 inches between each cookie when you bake them, because they will retain their shape better.

3. If you don’t have parchment paper (darn you, Shaws, for running out!), coat your pans with baking spray and your cookies will be fine (just a bit darker on the bottom).

4. 10 minutes is key! Don’t bake them any longer! 9 minutes might even be enough. Or 8. Find out how your oven cooks and be careful not to overcook these or they’ll be crunchy all the way through.

5. If you’re impatient like me, you don’t have to let them cool on the baking sheets for 10 minutes. They’ll be fine being transferred immediately to the cooling racks (they’re just soft, so be careful – they’ll harden up later).

6. Decorate with frosting! A very simple recipe that I used = 1 cup powdered sugar for every 1 tablespoon water (I ended up using about 5 cups of powdered sugar to decorate them all). Add water as needed, in very small amounts, to keep it smooth enough to spread. Too runny, though, and it will not stay on your cookies! Find that sweet spot that allows you to spread it with a knife (like on the gingerbread men) or pipe it out with a frosting bag (like on the snowflakes).

7. Use the crystalized sugar sprinkles instead of crunchy/harder sprinkles. The crunchy ones will distract from the gingerbread’s texture. Put the sprinkles on immediately after you frost each cookie, or else it’ll harden and the sprinkles won’t stick.

8. Let the frosting harden overnight. Store the cookies with wax paper between each layer. The less stacking you have to do, the better, because they’ll get a bit smashed if you stack them too high.