Peppermint Bark

We made it to Louisiana yesterday to celebrate the holidays with my family.  This morning, I gave one of my goddaughters her apron, so she could wear it for our annual marathon Christmas cookie-baking session, and she loved it!  As children, my siblings and cousins and I would decorate Christmas cookies to leave for Santa every year.  Now, we bake cookies with our cousins’ children, who love to load their cookies up with so many M&Ms, chocolate chips, and sprinkles as to render them completely inedible, much as we used to do when we were little (and some of us still do…not me, of course!).  The cookies usually come out of the oven looking like colorful blobs, completely unrecognizable as the gingerbread men, Christmas trees, and angels they were meant to be.  I’m sure half of our cookies quietly made their ways into the trash within a few days because Santa couldn’t possibly stomach them, and we didn’t have any business consuming that much sugar.

This peppermint bark, on the other hand, is a treat sure to please Santa, Mrs. Claus, and his elves.  It’s fun to make, and simple to throw together.  I struggled with the white chocolate and ended up just using white bark (don’t knock it…I promise you can’t tell the difference when mixed with delicious semi-sweet chocolate and sprinkled with candy canes).  Inspired by the pretty peppermint bark you see in stores like Williams-Sonoma, I swirled the chocolates together.  The first batch I made this year (and I’ve made many!) was, though still tasty, a minor disaster.  I poured the semi-sweet chocolate into the pan first, then added a layer of white chocolate, and finally sprinkled the broken candy canes on top.  When the bark cooled, and I tried to break it apart, the layers sadly separated.  Unsure of what caused this issue and unwilling to experiment and figure it out, I swirled the chocolates to create a much prettier effect certain not to separate.

I’m off to make my last batch of peppermint bark now.  I hope all of you enjoy the holidays and lots of delicious goodies, no matter where you are!

Peppermint Bark
makes two cookie sheets of bark

1 package (10-12 oz) semi-sweet chocolate chips (or solid chocolate, chopped)
1 package (10-12 oz) white chocolate chips or white bark (or solid chocolate, chopped)
1 package candy canes (6 oz)

1. Line two jelly roll pans (cookie sheets with lips all the way around) with waxed paper or parchment paper. Unwrap candy canes and break into pieces. I placed candy canes in a ziplock bag and crushed them with a meat mallet.

2. Fill bottoms of two double boilers, or two pots with heat-proof bowls on top, with water. Bring water to a simmer. Melt white chocolate in one boiler and semi-sweet in the other. Stir until smooth.

3. Spoon dollops of the two chocolates into each pan, then use a fork to swirl them together until the chocolate is evenly distributed and the desired pattern is achieved. Sprinkle tops with broken candy cane.

4. Let bark cool, then break into pieces.


Toffee Crunch Cupcakes

I had a housewarming party to go to Saturday night, and I couldn’t decide what to bring. What does one take to a housewarming party?  Wine?  Wine is my go-to host or hostess gift, but honestly, I’m always nervous about picking out a bottle unless I’ve got a specific wine in mind that I’ve really been into lately.  Even if you know a wine is good, how do you know your host or hostess will like it?  And besides, you don’t want your wine to be one of seven bottles of lonely reds sitting on the bar that night, neglected for tangy margaritas or other liquor-filled concoctions packing much more punch.

What about flowers?  My friend had filled her beautiful new townhouse with fabulous floral arrangements, as I suspect many a housewarming party host or hostess would do to make his or her new home feel a little brighter and more welcoming.

So…what’s left to bring?

How about cupcakes?  Specifically, these toffee cupcakes.  Very chocolatey, decadent, but not too rich, with a bit of crunch.  They were a big hit Saturday night!

Check out the recipe below, and be sure to scroll all the way down to the bottom for some tips for making truly pretty cupcakes!

Toffee Crunch Cupcakes
Makes 30 cupcakes

2 cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 Tbsp espresso powder
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
2 cups sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
4 large eggs, at room temperature
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup coffee (I used 1 tsp espresso powder dissolved in 1 cup hot water)
1 cup toffee bits

1.  Preheat oven to 350º.  Line cupcake tins with cupcake papers.  This is a large recipe, so you will need to fill up two and a half cupcake pans (that fit a dozen cupcakes each) and bake them in batches.

2.  Combine flour, cocoa power, espresso powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl.

3.  Cream the sugar and butter in a stand in mixer.  Beat on medium-high for 2-3 minutes or until light and fluffy.

4.  Beat in the eggs one at a time, then add vanilla.

5.  Add 1/3 of the dry ingredients, then one third of the coffee.  Repeat until you have added all of the dry mixture and coffee, beating just until combined after each addition.

6.  With a spatula, fold in toffee bits.  Then fill your cupcakes tins, using about ¼ cup of batter for each cupcake.

7.  Bake for 18-20 minutes.  You can test for doneness two ways.  If you insert a toothpick into the center, and it comes out clean, these babies are good to go!  OR, lightly touch the top of a cupcake, and if it springs right back up, you’re all set!

8.  Let cupcakes cool on a wire cooling rack while you start the ganache.

8 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped (I used 4 oz. semi-sweet and 4 oz. extra bittersweet)
1 cup heavy cream
3 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon-sized pieces
2-2 ½ cups toffee bits

1.  Place chopped chocolate into a heatproof bowl.  Heat your cream in a small saucepan until it comes to a simmer.

2.  Pour cream over chocolate and let sit for 1-2 minutes.  Be patient!  Whisk cream and milk together.

3.  Add the butter, a tablespoon at a time, stirring until it melts after each addition.

4.  Place bowl of ganache in bowl of ice water and whisk rapidly until it is thick enough to spread.  GANACHE TIP: I like to keep a small saucepan of simmering water on the stove and a bowl of ice water while working with ganache.  Since you will have to glaze 30 cupcakes, your ganache may get too hard while you are working with it.  If this happens, simply whisk the ganache again over the simmering water (as if you were using a double boiler).  If the ganache gets too thin, you can re-whisk it in the bowl of ice water.  Presto!

5.  To assemble cupcakes, first place toffee bits in a bowl.  Spread ganache onto cupcakes or dip cupcakes into ganache.  Dip cupcakes into toffee bits and press lightly, so they’ll stay on.

Adapted from Annie’s Eats, adapted from Bakers Royale, originally from Alice Medrich

Tips for making pretty cupcakes:

1.  Follow the directions!  Don’t do what I did and fill twenty-four cupcake tins with enough batter to make thirty cupcakes.  Your cupcakes will have muffin tops, and only muffins should have muffin tops!

2.  Fill your cupcake tins evenly using an ice cream scoop, cookie dough scoop, or measuring cup (1/4-1/3 cup).  Your cupcakes will all be close to the same size!

3.  Use two liners: a plain one for lining the cupcake tins and a pretty one to cover the plain one after baking.  If you bake your cupcakes in your pretty liners, the liners will stick to your cupcakes, and you won’t be able to see the cute designs!  Just add the second liner after cupcakes are cooled and before icing them.

What other tips to do you have for making pretty cupcakes?

Tinker Day Doughnuts

I was thrilled when I checked my email this morning and receiving a message wishing me a happy Tinker Day from my alma mater and this blog’s titular inspiration, Hollins University.  I have very fond memories of crisp October mornings in Roanoke spent climbing Tinker Mountain with my Hollins sisters.

from, by Claire McCown

To the uninitiated, Tinker Day may seem pretty wacky, and well, it is.  Tinker Day is a century-old tradition at the all-women’s Hollins University. Formerly, it marked the first frost, but now, Tinker Day takes place on a surprise day in October.  Students and professors alike dress in crazy costumes (think colors so vibrant the 1980s look downright prim along with funky underwear worn on the outside) and hike Tinker Mountain for a picnic lunch of fried chicken and chocolate Tinker Cake.  Skits and singing complete the festive atmosphere.

Heather (right) with friends Lydia and Layla eating Krispy Kreme doughnuts on Tinker Day 2004

First, though, we eat doughnuts.  Our nourishment for the brisk hike comes in the form of gorgeous, glazed Krispy Kreme doughnuts.  We rush over to the dining hall for this delightful meal without bothering to change from our PJs.  Over a breakfast of these heavenly delicacies, we celebrate our community.  We come from all over the country and around the world, but we are able to celebrate our sisterhood with doughnuts.

Maria (center, with finger moustache) on Tinker Day 2011

Today, I’ve made doughnuts, in honor of both Tinker Day and Homefries U, which Maria and I attended at the end of September in Palm Springs.  Homefries U, hosted by the lovely and talented Joy and Tracy, along with the rest of the Homefries Team, was relaxing weekend filled with bacon, sparkling wine, and glittery nail polish.  (What more could you want?)  We took pictures, giggled lots, and talked about red flags.  We made friendship bracelets; we made friends; we made doughnuts.

Tracy and Joy at work

Actually, we didn’t make doughnuts, but Joy did.  She slaved over the stove all morning, and I don’t think she got to eat a single one.  Joy and Tracy worked all weekend on the food, and they didn’t get to enjoy the fruits of their labor.  So, I made Joy’s doughnuts for breakfast this morning.  Thanks for a fabulous weekend, Joy and Tracy!

Happy Tinker Day!  Now go make some doughnuts!

makes 12 doughnuts, plus many doughnut holes

2 1/2 tsp active dry yeast (1/4 oz.)
2 Tbsp warm water (just hot enough that it feels barely warm on the inside of your lower arm)
3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus some for rolling out dough
1 cup whole milk, at room temperature
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, softened
3 large egg yolks
2 Tbsp sugar
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cinnamon
vegetable oil for deep frying (about 10 cups, depending on size of your pot)

1.  Whisk together yeast and warm water in bowl of stand mixer until yeast is dissolved.  Then let stand about five minutes, or until the mixture becomes foamy.

2.  Add flour, milk, butter, sugar, salt, and cinnamon to yeast and water.  Beat on low until mixture starts to come together.  Beat another three minutes on medium-high speed.

3.  Let dough rise at room temperature until doubled in size, about 1-2 hours, depending on air temperature.  To minimize dirty dishes, scrape down sides of mixing bowl, sprinkle with flour to prevent crust from forming, and cover with a kitchen towel.  If making dough ahead of time, allow dough to rise in fridge overnight.

4.  Roll out dough on a lightly floured surface until it is about 1/2-inch thick.  Be sure to flour your rolling pin first to prevent dough from sticking!  Cut out a dozen rounds with a 3-inch biscuit cutter, then cut out the holes with a 1-inch cutter.  I did not have a 1-inch cutter, so I used the top to a soy sauce container.  Feel free to get creative–you can use jars for a 3-inch cutter if you don’t have one!

5.  Optional  Cut out additional holes in the remaining dough with your 1-inch cutter.  Cut and twist the leftover scraps, which you can also fry, and then roll in a mixture of cinnamon sugar along with the doughnut holes.  Try to keep them at an even thickness, so they will cook all the way through.

6.  Transfer doughnuts, holes, and twists to a lightly floured baking sheet (or 2), then cover with your kitchen towel.  Let rise for another 30 minutes, until slightly puffed.  The doughnuts will need to rise for a bit longer if you let your dough rise the first time in the fridge.

7.  Heat your oil (about 2 1/2 inches deep) in a heavy-bottomed pot.  I used my Dutch oven for this.  Your oil should be 350º.  Fry doughnuts until golden, turning as needed with tongs or a slotted spoon.  It should take about 1 minute per side.  After drying, place on plate lined with paper towels.

8.  Fry doughnut holes for about 1 minute total.  Fry your doughnut twists for about 2 minutes, if you made any.  Transfer them immediately from hot oil into cinnamon sugar mixture.

Adapted from Joy the Baker, originally from Gourmet Cookbook

Chocolate Glaze

The original recipe for his glaze made a ton, so I’ve halved the recipe.  Feel free to re-double it if you are making a double batch of dougnuts!

1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/8 cup whole milk, warmed
1/2 Tbsp light corn syrup
1 Tbsp vanilla extra
2 oz. bittersweet chocolate (chopped or chips)
1 cup powdered sugar, sifted

1. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine butter, milk, corn syrup, and vanilla. Melt butter.

2. After decreasing heat to low, add chocolate and stir until melted.

3.  Remove saucepan from heat and add powdered sugar.  Whisk until smooth.

4.  Dip doughnuts in glaze.  If glaze starts to set in the saucepan, you can place it over a bowl of warm water, re-whisk, and leave it there while you dip the rest of the doughnuts.  I didn’t find this step necessary.

5.  Eat and enjoy!  Practice some patience if you can, and don’t burn your fingers and mouth!  Burning your taste buds would be tragic.

Adapted from Joy the Baker, originally from Alton Brown