Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Making Cookies for My Little Pumpkins

It's been a very good week here in Middle Grove, New York.  First of all, Hurricane Sandy came and went with hardly any interference in our lives, and given her devastating impact on other areas, we are indeed fortunate.  Secondly, I got to spend the weekend with my grandsons Henry and Peter (heard of 'em?  Sure you have!).  Their parents went away to the Maine coast for a kid-free weekend with their friends.  And thirdly, I get to make their Halloween special by baking cookies just for my little guys - I'm making Alton Brown's sugar cookie recipe into Jack-o-lanterns (just half a recipe).  I LOVE this recipe because it is so simple, and so very good.  The buttery dough rolls so easily into a silky sheet that just invites your cutters to make an impression.  No chilling necessary even though the recipe calls for it.  Mine rolled beautifully right out of the mixing bowl.  I used a circular cutter today, because I was too lazy to dig into my treasure-trove of a gazillion cookie cutters to find the pumpkin.  Pumpkins are round, I had a round lid at the ready, so, wah-lah!  Well, a little true confession here -- I did buy a bag of Halloween candy, of those bite-sized Butterfinger and Baby Ruth bars, but it's the night before Halloween and the candy seems to be missing...  Wonder how that happened?  So, instead of manufactured, impersonal bites of chocolately goodness, my boys are getting home-baked cookies from Grandma ("Meena" as Pete calls me), and it's kind of a happy accident, right?

H and P at B and J's!
(That's chocolate ice cream smeared on Pete's cheek!)

So, about Halloween -- we live in the middle of a sparsely populated forest here in MG, and it is more a home here and a home way over there than a typical neighborhood, so the boys will trick-or-treat tomorrow at Skidmore College where Henry goes to pre-school (and where I work in Admissions).  Pete will join him and, as Darth Vader and Yoda, the duo will go with their Mom and Henry's class office-to-office, building-to-building, in what will be their primary trick-or-treating experience.  I'll try to sneak out to run an errand at just the right time, and maybe catch my little Star Warriors as they parade around campus.  I can't wait to see them all decked out!

To top it all off, I won a raffle (I seldom win contests!) and will pick up pizza, beverages, and cupcakes for Halloween dinner at Mama Mia's in Saratoga Springs.  I was one of four lucky winners, and so was my friend Karen.  The funny thing is, we both went to MM's for lunch with our friend Liz, on different occasions, and we both won, but Liz didn't!  I'll make it up to her.  She's a winner in my book of very best friends!

Following are photos of my time with H and P this weekend, as well as pics of the cookies that I'm in the middle of making right now.  In fact, you can't see it, but I have flour all over my navy blue cardigan, since I always think of wearing an apron, but a little too late.

Happy Halloween everyone.  Maybe I'll dress up as a baker! That'd be a stretch!   I hope you capture the spirit of little goblins and have a wonderful fright night!

Click to have fun with us...
(and that's Hank and Pete's friend Lynn DiMenna in the center pic)

Cookies for my lil punkins...


3 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 egg, beaten
1 tablespoon milk
Powdered sugar, for rolling out dough  (I use flour)

Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside. Place butter and sugar in large bowl of electric stand mixer and beat until light in color. Add egg and milk and beat to combine. Put mixer on low speed, gradually add flour, and beat until mixture pulls away from the side of the bowl. Divide the dough in half, wrap in waxed paper, and refrigerate for 2 hours. (I didn't refrigerate - used it right after mixing, and it was great.)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Sprinkle surface where you will roll out dough with powdered sugar (I used flour). Remove 1 wrapped pack of dough from refrigerator at a time, sprinkle rolling pin with powdered sugar, and roll out dough to 1/4-inch thick. Move the dough around and check underneath frequently to make sure it is not sticking. If dough has warmed during rolling, place cold cookie sheet on top for 10 minutes to chill. Cut into desired shape, place at least 1-inch apart on greased baking sheet, parchment, or silicone baking mat, and bake for 7 to 9 minutes or until cookies are just beginning to turn brown around the edges, rotating cookie sheet halfway through baking time. Let sit on baking sheet for 2 minutes after removal from oven and then move to complete cooling on wire rack. Serve as is or ice* as desired. Store in airtight container for up to 1 week.

*Use Royal Icing to ice cookies (any good recipe will do - here's one from Joy of Baking:  http://www.joyofbaking.com/RoyalIcing.html

Original recipe: http://www.foodnetwork.com/food/cda/recipe_print/0,1946,FOOD_9936_25187_RECIPE-PRINT-FULL-PAGE-FORMATTER,00.html

Sunday, October 28, 2012

A Post from Last Year - About Irene

We're busy battening down the hatches and taking care of pre-storm preparations just in case Hurricane Sandy lives up to the reputation that proceeds her arrival.  Like Governor Cuomo advises, "Hope for the best but plan for the worst."  It makes sense to be more prepared than less. Couldn't hurt.  I don't think we're going to be as affected as we were (in this area) by last year's Hurricane Irene (by then, "tropical storm") but still, we're working to make sure we've done everything we can to be ready for not only the storm but a potential long-term power outage.  So, while I am too busy to create a new blog post today, I did go "back to the future" to dig this one out.  You might enjoy reading it again.

Enjoy this calm before the storm, and if it does hit us, and hard, remember, we're in it together.  Take good care!


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Revisiting Home, Again

Every now and then, I go back to read early blog posts.  Some seem brand new to me -- as if I had never seen them before, as if someone else had written them.  The post that follows is one I do remember, and well, because it is rooted in recollections of the first  home I remember.  The posts from 2009, 2010 and even into 2011 almost have no comments left, at all.  I wrote almost every day as if writing to the universe, hoping that someone might read and enjoy.  (Kind of a "Field of Dreams" mentality).  If nothing else, I can go back and enjoy the early posts, because they trigger my life's memories, capture moments in time, and serve as a record or diary of life on a specific day.

Please follow the link below to a post I wrote over three years ago, about Home, and what it means to me, decades later:  My friend Lynn DiMenna found this post just a week ago, and commented, which was a little treasure as I was cruising back in time.  Thank you, Lynn, for reminding me.


Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Crescent Roll Mini Cheese Danishes!

As I write this, a small pot of blueberries and sugar is bubbling on my stove, reducing in volume to become a thick sauce to crown the cheese danish that are about to be made.  I was inspired by a Pillsbury recipe for a short-cut, home-made danish made from crescent rolls. There are many bloggers who've covered this, but I wanted to fancy up the basic recipe a bit.  I'm baking mine in muffin tins.  I'm glazing them with an egg wash, and I'm using not only a delicious cheesecake filling, but also the blueberries.  All will be drizzled with a glaze of confectioners sugar, vanilla, and butter.  This is a complete experiment on my part, but something tells me that my bad-kitchen-karma of late has passed, and it's time for a successful project.  Last weekend's fallen coffee cake and those burnt apple pie muffins will banish from memory once these little gems come out of the oven (I'm hoping!).

So, here's the recipe, along with photos, so you can make your own mini-danish in a flash!

makes about 17
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Farenheit.  Spray muffin tins with cooking spray.

1 roll Pillsbury Crescent Rolls
1 egg, beaten
1/4 lb. cream cheese, room temperature (1/2 an 8 oz. block)
1/3 c. granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon lemon extract
2 teaspoons flour
1 heaping tablespoon sour cream

Fruit preserves or sauce*

*Blueberry sauce
Place 1 cup frozen blueberries in a small sauce pan.  Add 1/2 cup granulated sugar and 1/4 cup water.  Bring to boil.  Let bubble on a low flame until thickened, about 10 minutes until it thickens up and coats a spoon well. Watch carefully.  The sugar in it can burn if you let it go too long.  Remove from heat and let cool for about 1/2 hour.  It should be nice and thick.

Cheesecake filling:

Beat cream cheese with sugar and extracts, 1/2 of the beaten egg (about 2 tbsp.), flour, and sour cream until very smooth and creamy, scraping sides a couple of times.  Set aside.

Open crescent roll package and don't unroll the dough. On cutting board, slice the intact roll into 1/4" or so slices.  I got 17.

Press each slice into the bottom of a standard muffin cup in a 12-cup muffin tin and spray enough cups of an additional tin to accommodate the rest of your slices.

With your fingers, spread dough to cover bottom of muffin cup, and with your thumb, make a good indent in the middle, just about down to the bottom, to hold the filling.

Using the rest of the beaten egg, with pastry brush lightly brush surface of dough.  This will give a nice, shiny surface.

Using 2 spoons, drop a generous teaspoonful of cheesecake batter in the center of each danish.  Swirl it a bit to make a dip for the blueberry sauce, but make sure the edges are visible.  You want a dollop in the middle, not a spread of batter to the edges.  The drop about 1/2 teaspoon of your preserves, or my blueberry sauce (with blueberries) in the center of that.  It will flow down and around a little bit, that's OK.

Bake at 350 for 18 - 21 minutes or until crescent dough has puffed and taken on a golden color.  Watch carefully to make sure crescent dough doesn't get too dark. (Mine went for 21 minutes and probably would have been better at 19/20 - they got a little dark.)

Remove pans to cool on wire rack.  Remove from pans using small spatula, and cool completely on wire rack set over a piece of wax paper (or something else useful) to catch the glaze.

Make the glaze:

1 cup powdered sugar
1 tablespoon very soft or melted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
UP TO 1 tablespoon milk or more.

Thoroughly combine, in small bowl with fork, powdered sugar, butter, and vanilla extract.  A bit at a time, add milk until it is the perfect drizzle consistency (flows slowly off a fork).  Drizzle over cooled danish.

Taste test result:  OMG!!!!  They are SOOO good! (and little).  Delish!

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Fairy Tales Can Come True

Photo by Ronnie Betor
The day after my daughter Tricia was married (last Sunday, October 14th) one of the guests of the wedding (friend, Pete Valenti) sent me a slideshow of photos he shot, set to Jimmy Durante's "Young at Heart."  It precisely reflected moments of that special day, which I will treasure forever.  To capture time that way is a wonderful thing. You can follow this link to the video, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

We woke Sunday morning, the wedding day, to rain.  It wasn't just rain, it was a downpour.  My friend Annie, aware days ahead of my concern for the forecast, hung a rosary in her Vermont window to bless the upcoming day and clear the skies.  I was hopeful, saying to myself, "c'mon Annie, hope it works!"  From 10 days out, I continually checked weather.com for the extended forecast, and reluctantly decided that we were going to be dealing with rain.  Resigned, that Sunday morning I backed my car up to the garage door so I could put all the parts of the wedding cake in the cargo section of my Jeep.  Each tier was in its own box, but I didn't dare to try walking in the rain to my car.  This cake was too important, too special, to take any risks at all.  The move from my kitchen to the car was all done under cover.

I had planned to be at Jimbo's, at Point of Pines (the location of the wedding, about an hour north, on Brant Lake) by noon, and to leave home around 11 am.  Katie, Bill, my son Jeff, and the little boys were leaving in a separate car at the same time.  Russ planned to head up later in the day, closer to the time of the ceremony.  I couldn't imagine him waiting while I did all the cake set up, got myself dressed, and helped the girls with make-up, hair, gowns, etc. -- all the lovely moments women share preparing for the ceremony and reception.  So, it was just Meghan and me, which provided a bonding hour for the two of us, something we haven't really had enough of since she moved back from California, and I loved that. We, of course, solved all the world's problems on the way, and chatted excitedly about the pending wedding, since we can both talk!  Still, it was raining so hard I was losing hope for a lovely day, weather-wise, but also thought, que sera, sera.  We'd make the best of it.  But on our way north on I-87 toward exit 25, I sensed a brightening of the skies ahead, gold tones were visible beyond the grey clouds, even though it was still raining, and hard, I just knew it was going to be OK.  By the time we arrived at Jimbo's, the rain had stopped (thank you, Annie, for arranging the divine intervention!).

There were so many special moments on Sunday, starting with waking and the awareness "Today's the day!," to the preparations, to the ceremony, to the happy hour, to the first dance, the father/daughter and mother/son dances, the anniversary dance, and toasts by the best man and maid of honor.  I cried through most of it, but happy tears, which are understandable. There was so much emotion and visual stimulation to process.  The venue was so beautiful in its Adirondack glory, with wood, and stone, and lights, and rustic decor.  I savored the vision of the room; the ambiance was so perfect, it was almost overwhelming.  October 14, 2012 is a day now engraved in my heart and memory.  In addition to witnessing the marriage of my daughter and the love of her life, I was able to spend time with my kids, my siblings from near and far, and in-laws (even though we've been divorced for years, the relationships still flourish, even with my ex-husband Gene and his lovely wife Kathryn - we're unusual, I know!), all Tricia's and Jeff's good friends, cousins, and now new family members.  Together, we all shared the joy of their day.  (Photos at the end of the post can relay the day's story better than my words, so please check them out.)

And then there was the cake - my major project of the previous week.  The wedding cake was so well received, most importantly, by Tricia and Jeff, but also by wedding guests who took many photos and seemed to love the flavor combination (pumpkin and dark chocolate cake layers joined by cinnamon buttercream).  Before cake, we all enjoyed a fantastic dinner of chipotle barbequed chicken, gourmet macaroni and cheese, sweet and savory baked beans, potato wedges, salad, and rolls. The food, served buffet style, was incredible!  Once Tricia and Jeff chose the chicken dish, everything else seemed to fall into place, culminating in a simple yet elegant presentation of basic, wonderful food.  Everyone seemed very happy with their meals.  (I payed attention!).

At 9:30 sharp, the party moved outside to a campfire on the beach, where a double ring of Adirondack chairs encircled the fire pit.  It was damp and chilly, and while all the young people had energy and enthusiasm to keep going, I was fading fast, and soon retreated to my room (on-site) where I slept like a log until the sun streaming in the window woke me to a beautiful new Monday, and it wasn't long before I said "good morning" to Mr. and Mrs. Jeffrey Ayers!

Here are some "Kodak moments" of that very special day!:

Henry and his bevy of beauties!

...and all the king's men (!)

Looking up 

Little men

The Vows

Just married!...


Tricia and Caitlin, her maid-of-honor

My loves...
My baby and me xoxox

The parents

Anniversary Dance

My gift...

The glorious morning after....

There are so many more happy memories, in my mind and also in photos, that I may add to this post at another time, but for now, these are the few I want to share with you before too much time has passed.  Thanks for following along on my family's wedding adventure.  It's been great having you here with me!

Pete Valenti
Jeannie Eddy
Ronnie Betor (photographer extraordinaire!)

Monday, October 15, 2012

A Labor of Love - The Wedding Cake

Yesterday was the day.  After more than a year of anticipation, my daughter Tricia married her fiance Jeff, and they are now Mr. and Mrs. Ayers.  It was a beautiful wedding, with a memorable ceremony and reception at the magnificent Jimbo's Club on the Point in Brant Lake, New York.

In all the many months of planning, my major role was to translate their wishes into the wedding cake of their dreams, which I've written about in the last few posts leading up to today.  I wrote about the flavors, the design, and diving into the project, with all my hopes and anticipation about how it might turn out.  I was nervous and a little bit worried, but in hindsight that was wasted energy, because the cake was successful beyond my most optimistic expectations.

So, here it is:  a chocolate and pumpkin tiered cake with cinnamon buttercream and a fondant "birch bark" exterior.  The leaves and acorns are also made of fondant.  It was assembled, on-site and without a hitch,  about an hour and a half before the ceremony.  

I have more pictures to post and stories to tell about the wedding itself, the food, the people, the sights and sounds, but for now, here's a photo of Tricia's and Jeff's wedding cake, and the baker!

My "labor of love" for Tricia and Jeff!

Displayed on the perfect table!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Wedding Tiers

These are the last photos of the wedding cake construction that I will share pre-wedding, since I want to be sure there's some "aha!" factor with the big reveal as Tricia and Jeff enter the reception.  What I can share with you is that the baking went very well, that both the pumpkin and dark chocolate layers came out nice and high and firm, and the frosting went on like a dream.  The cakes are on their platforms, supports are in place, and all the decorating is about to begin.

Still to do:  fondant work, the final touches before the cake is loaded in my car (in parts!) and assembled on site early Sunday afternoon (which, fingers crossed, looks like it might be rain-free!!!).  Sometime between delivery and assembly, I'll shed these layers of sugar coating and get gussied up as Mother-of-the-Bride.  The celebration begins tomorrow night with the rehearsal dinner at 5 p.m.  I better have all my ducks in a row by then!  Keep your fingers crossed that my vision for the cake can be translated into reality! : )

Here's what took shape today (please stop by Monday evening to see photos of the wedding AND the cake!)...

Chocolate/pumpkin layers with cinnamon buttercream....
fondant still to go!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Pumpkin Cake Recipe

14- inch pumpkin layer for bottom tier
I took today and tomorrow off from my day job to bake THE cake of the year - the wedding cake for my daughter Tricia and her very-soon-to-be husband, Jeff (3 days!)...

Phase one of the wedding cake is almost complete.  It smells GREAT in here!  I'm baking 3 layers (14-inch, 10-inch, 8-inch) of pumpkin cake, which will be followed by the baking of same-size layers of dark chocolate cake.  I'm also baking an extra cake for the restaurant to reserve in the kitchen just in case they need more (to be on the safe side).  With a full dessert table in addition to the cake, there should be plenty of options for anyone craving a sweet ending to the wedding dinner!

In addition to baking the cake, we're making the topper.  Henry, Meghan, and I took a walk in the woods today, and chose twigs with which we'll fashion the letter "A" for Ayers, Tricia's new last name.  I'll secure the twigs with copper wire, attach the monogram to large toothpicks, and insert the supports into the top of the cake.  It all works in my head - just have to see if it works in real life!

My pumpkin cake recipe is something I have adapted from a recipe I found on-line, at About.com's Southern Food page.   Instead of all white sugar, I incorporated brown sugar as well.  I also added vanilla extract, because it's a cake and I think almost all cakes are enhanced by a bit of vanilla.  I used pumpkin pie spice rather than individual spices, and I left out the pecans because of potential nut allergies (it's a big wedding!).   This seems to be a very successful adaptation. The cake smells devine, and it is so pretty coming out of the oven, with a gorgeous, deeply colored crust.  I can't wait to trim the layers to level the cake, and sample the goods (quality control is absolutely required!).  Recipe follows the collage of photos...

~ Click to Enlarge ~

Half the cake ~ dark chocolate layers to go!

adapted from About.com's Southern Food
makes two 9-inch layers
Oven 350 degrees Farenheit, preheated

Prepare pans with parchment lining and baking spray, or grease and flour the traditional way

Make the batter:

In large mixing bowl, mix the following:

4 eggs
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

To the egg mixture, add the following ingredients, sifted together and added all at once, and mix thoroughly:

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2.5 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice (or a combination of cinnamon/ginger/nutmeg to equal 2.5 teaspoons)

Then add in and mix well:  2 cups mashed pumpkin (canned is great).

Pour batter into prepared pans and bake for 35 minutes or until center tests done with toothpick, or bounces back when lightly pressed with your finger.

Cool on wire racks for 20 minutes.  Turn out onto rack to cool completely.

Frost with your favorite cream cheese frosting or buttercream.

Options:  add a cup of chopped pecans or walnuts to the batter before pouring into pans.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Starting the Project! My Daughter's Wedding Cake

Pumpkin cake batter, ready to go!
Today is the day I start my daughter Tricia's wedding cake.  She and Jeff are getting married in 4 days, at a beautiful setting on Brant Lake, this Sunday.  We have a plan for the cake, and this afternoon I picked up the silver base that will proudly display tiers of baked happiness.  The cake will consist of layer upon layer of alternating dark chocolate and pumpkin cakes, joined together in cinnamon buttercream, all enrobed in a layer of fondant dressed as birch bark.  There will be fondant acorns and fall-colored leaves, and the monogram "A" for Ayers on top, made of twig and wire.

The players are all in place, waiting for their call.  There's mashed pumpkin, autumn spices, Ghiradelli chocolate, butter, eggs, sour cream.  There's pure vanilla extract, and baking powder, and fine white sugar.  There's love and hope and optimism that this cake will reflect not only my love for my youngest child and her new husband, but also their love for each other and optimism for the future.

I am so honored.