Friday, December 31, 2010

Tasty Gifts: Pumpkin Bread

Every year at Christmas it seems there are more people to give to than I have money to spend on them. Between friends and family and extended family... the list goes on and on. And especially when someone is kind enough to give something to me, I cannot help feeling like I should give something in return.

Baked goods are a wonderful, relatively cheap and easy way to show you care. As long as you stick to a simple recipe - and something with a high yield helps too - you can give something tasty and comforting to many different people, without breaking the bank or your arms. And people say that it's the thought that counts anyway... that time is often a better gift than things... well, giving baked goods offers the opportunity to give plenty of both. :)

Following this principal, I decided that I'd bake a loaf of pumpkin bread for each person I wanted to give a little something to but couldn't afford to buy for this year. This seemed a relatively easy idea at first... until my list kept growing as I thought of more people, and I wound up committed to over 12 loaves of bread. Luckily this recipe makes 2 loaves per batch, haha!

This recipe is one that I tried earlier this fall, and one I fell in love with immediately. A moist yet dense bread, this sweet and spicy loaf lends itself well to a light slathering of butter and a warm cup of coffee. It makes for a lovely addition to breakfast - one of the last things many people have time think about this time of year - so it's easy to grab a slice and a cup of coffee and go! It's also sweet enough to act as dessert after dinner, if one so desires. Plus, who can resist pumpkin during the holidays?

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Cranberry-Orange Pinwheels

Phew... what a crazy week it's been since I last talked to you! It seems like Christmas is always super-busy, no matter how much pre-planning goes into it. But despite the craziness, I had one of the best Christmases in recent memory this year.

As I mentioned before, I did a whole lot of baking in the week prior to Christmas. I'm not sure where all of my ambition came from - trying to keep up with my fellow food bloggers perhaps! - but this year I decided that I wanted to contribute something homemade to each holiday gathering I could. I always hate walking into a party empty handed, and with all the cooking and baking I've been doing it just didn't seem right to bring anything store-bought. But why four kinds of cookies? Surely one or two would have sufficed. Haha... who knows... call me crazy, but it sounded like fun.

In this year's cookie bin: returning acts Coconut Macaroons and Raspberry Thumbprints, as well as newcomers Chocolate Crinkles and these tasty and pretty treats, Cranberry-Orange Pinwheels.

Lightly crisp on the outside, soft on the inside, these little gems are perfect for pairing with tea (or coffee or hot chocolate or apple cider...). With the sweetness and consistency of shortbread, these cookies are just sweet enough to curb a craving without sending you into sugar-overload, and they're light enough that even a few won't fill you up. Just a hint of orange in the cookie, combined with the nutty cranberry-pecan swirl, gives an instant feeling of Christmas. Plus they look festive, with that pretty little red swirl in the middle.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Oven Overtime

My oven has been putting in overtime over the last week. 

In the last three days I have baked a total of 10 loaves of pumpkin bread, 1 loaf of banana bread, 1 batch of cupcakes, and 4 different kinds of cookies. Add to this the 2 loaves of pumpkin bread I baked last week and all of those treats I made for my professors the weekend before that and well... that's a whole lot of holiday baking, to say the least. Call me crazy, but I felt that everyone deserved a little taste of Jessica this year, and it's definitely been worth all of the work.

All of this baking has left me little time to prepare for this weekend, so sadly, I do not have time to share all of my delicious recipes with you right now. I fully intend to enjoy every drop of cheer this Christmas weekend has to offer, but rest assured, come next week I will share all of the tasty adventures with you.

I hope you're all enjoying some Christmas fun of your own! See you all next week. :)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Bronco Cupcakes

While Boise may be the home of Bronco Nation, most of BSU's hardcore fans are in Las Vegas tonight. Boise State's football team has had a crazy season this year... undefeated and looking toward the Rose Bowl (if not the National Championship) until that fateful game in Nevada in late November. Once ranked happily at #4 in the BCS standings, my beloved Broncos found themselves ranked #10 and playing #19 Utah in the Maaco Las Vegas Bowl this evening... an appreciated and well-played game, but a bitter disappointment in comparison to the golden dream that was once on the horizon.

Prestigious or not, we're still proud of our Broncos and of a well-fought win in the Las Vegas Bowl. We do live in the home of the "Smurf turf," afterall. Dane and I invited some people over for the big game... we ordered a giant sandwich from Subway, bought a few bags of chips and some cheap soda and beer... and I decided to make blue cupcakes in honor of our beloved team. :)

As you can see, the cupcakes came out more green than the true blue I was hoping for. But I put them in blue baking cups, topped with white frosting, and sprinkled some blue and orange nonpareils, and no one cared. They were tasty, and the sentiment was appreciated... and none were left by the end of the night, so I'd say they were a success. 

 For the cake, I chose to use a white cake recipe, thinking that it would be a better base for dyeing than something like, say, red velvet cake (which I considered using, substituting blue for the red food coloring). Whether it was the cake recipe, the type of food coloring I used, or the amount, my cupcakes turned out a weird teal color, so if I do these again I'll have to do some experimenting to figure out how to get a better blue. I had fully intended from the beginning to use blue and orange sprinkles, so I went with a good white frosting as a base... for which I chose a creamy frosting recipe. 

Click to read more. :)

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Tasty Gifts, Professor Edition: Part 2

Continuing from yesterday's post...

The chocolate-covered pretzels were by far the easiest to make. I used store-bought mini pretzels and a few chunks of semisweet baking chocolate, and voila... chocolate-covered pretzels. I created a double-boiler using a small saucepan and a medium glass bowl, being careful to leave plenty of room between water and my bowl. The chocolate easily melted over medium-high heat, and then I simply dropped my pretzels in, one or a two at a time, to coat. Once coated, I let them dry for a few hours on wire racks (set over paper towels to catch the chocolate drips). I completely covered about half of the pretzels I made, and simply dipped the rest, leaving about half of the pretzel plain. These make a nice, salty-sweet snack and are a great way to cure a chocolate craving.

Next came the raspberry thumbprint cookies. I used this recipe from, but I'll share it for you too.

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon fine salt
3/4 cup unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), softened
2/3 cup sugar, plus more for rolling
1 large egg
1/2 vanilla bean, seeds scraped from pod, or 1/8 teaspoon vanilla bean paste or 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/3 cup raspberry jam or preserves. cherry or strawberry would also make great choices. 

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease 2 baking sheets or line with parchment paper or silicone mats.
2. Whisk the flour, baking powder and salt together in a bowl. Set aside.
3. In another bowl, whip the butter and the sugar with a hand-held mixer until fluffy, about 5 minutes. Beat in the egg and vanilla until just combined. Slowly beat in the dry ingredients in 2 additions, mixing just until incorporated.
4. Scoop the dough into 1-inch balls with a cookie or ice cream scoop and roll in sugar. (Or you can do like I did and simply scoop the dough up with a teaspoon and roll in your hands, and then roll in sugar.) Place about 2-inches apart on the prepared baking sheets. Press a thumbprint into the center of each ball, about 1/2-inch deep. Fill each indentation with about 3/4 teaspoon jam.
5. Bake cookies until the edges are golden, about 15 minutes. (For even color, rotate the pans from top to bottom about halfway through baking.) Cool cookies on the baking sheets.

The butter cookie base is light, creamy, and moist... the perfect compliment to the heavy, sweet-tartness of the raspberry preserves. Plus they still look festive with the little spot of red-purple sparkling in the center... without the headache of frosting. :)

And of course I saved my favorite for last! I took my recipe for coconut macaroons from my trusty Better Homes and Gardens cookbook. 

2 2/3 cups flaked sweetened coconut (7 ounces)
2/3 cup of sugar
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract or 1/4 teaspoon almond extract (I used vanilla)
4 ounces semisweet chocolate (optional)
1 teaspoon shortening (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Lightly grease and flour (I actually sugar, to keep the cookies from getting tough) a large cookie sheet or line with parchment paper. 
2. In a medium mixing bowl combine coconut, sugar, flour, and salt. Stir in egg whites and vanilla. This is best done with a spatula, not a mixer.
3. Drop mixture by rounded teaspoons 2 inches apart onto the prepared cookie sheet. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until edges are lightly browned. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool.
4. If desired, melt chocolate with shortening over medium-high heat in a double boiler. Dip the cookies in the chocolate or drizzle lightly over the top. Adding shortening to the chocolate may seem a little weird, but it does help to create a better consistency for drizzling. If planning to dip the cookies, the shortening could easily be omitted. 

Crunchy on the outside, buttery on the inside, with the warm, sweet flavor of the coconut... these cookies are hardly resistible. And with their small size, it's easy to justify eating more than one or two. :) 

For presentation, I placed a few of each cookie and several pretzels in separate baking cups, and then stacked the cups on top of each other in a small gift bag. I tied the bag with red or green ribbon, and tied on a handmade card with a heartfelt thank-you message and description of the treats on the inside. 

I left each package in the office of each professor, and got several thank-you emails later in the day. :)

I hope they enjoyed eating these goodies as much as I enjoyed making them! And, most of all, I hope they understand how grateful I am for all the hard work they do for each of us everyday. 

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Tasty Gifts, Professor Edition: Part I

The BSU Respiratory Care Department has the best professors in the world, hands down. No other department can boast faculty more effective, more dedicated, or more compassionate than the one I belong to. These are people who voluntarily come in before 5am, sometimes leave long after midnight, and often take their work home with them, all for the enrichment of their students and the furthering of the profession. Each one of them will gladly invite you into their office for an hour or two, whether it's to talk about a concept you don't understand or simply for a good conversation, no judgement and no appointment needed. I have never in my college career met professors who are more genuinely invested in the success of their students.

These are people who inspire me to greatness every day. And for that, I feel I owe them something special, especially at Christmas... something more than a store-bought Christmas card, for sure. But as much as I'd love to buy them each a trip to Hawaii for a much-deserved vacation, finances just never seem to fall the right way to support such intentions... and with 6 faculty members to give to, buying them each something special wasn't really in the budget this year either. So guess where I turned? My kitchen.

Everyone loves sweet treats at Christmas time, right? So cookies, of course, came immediately to mind. Most people would probably opt for some festively-decorated sugar cookies, but here's the thing... I think I might be the only person in the world who actually hates sugar cookies. I don't think I've ever eaten a sugar cookie - store-bought or homemade - that actually tasted good, and unless you have the patience of a saint they never, ever wind up looking like you hope. Between making sure the dough is cold enough not to stick to everything in site, ensuring you haven't rolled the dough so much that the cookies wind up tough and dry, hoping they hold the shape you cut them into, and then praying to dear Jesus that you don't screw up the frosting... the reward hardly outweighs the work in my book. So sorry guys... no sugar cookie recipes here.

So what to make? Surely just one kind of cookie wouldn't do. That seemed kind of lame in comparison to the amount of work these professors put in for me all year. Two kinds of treats didn't seem quite right either... somehow three always feels like a nice even number (even though it clearly isn't, haha). But three kinds of cookies...? That just seemed like overkill. I wanted variety, and something that everyone would like, despite differing tastes.

At first I came up with several ideas involving chocolate... but too much of a good, well, isn't. Then I had several ideas that included hazelnuts or walnuts or macadamias... until I discovered that one of my professors doesn't like nuts at all. Then I thought about making candy... too much work to accomplish during finals week.  So after much agonizing and changing my list several times I decided on these three things: coconut macaroons, raspberry thumbprint cookies, and chocolate-covered pretzels. Good variety of tastes and textures, and, most important during the craziness that is finals, all easy to make.

And to avoid making this the longest post in blog history and losing you all, I will continue this post with the recipes tomorrow! :)

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Snow Day

Here in Idaho, we get our fair share of snow. Usually it's no big deal... the roads get plowed and sanded and people lace up their snowboots and throw on their water-proof coats, and life goes on as usual. It's really pretty rare for us to get enough snow that it keeps people from going out.

But yesterday we woke up to this. It snowed more than 5 inches between when I arrived home from work at almost 11 the night before and 6am yesterday. In total, Boise got over 7 inches of snow in 12 hours. I woke up to go to class, only to find my car buried, and the roads unplowed. By 6:30 all classes at BSU had been canceled until noon, and as the snow continued to fall without sign of relent the school finally decided to cancel all classes for the rest of the day too. So, for the first time since I was 14 years old, we had a snow day.

Normally, a snow day would have been really fun. I would have gladly run out to the grass and made a big snow man, and come inside and baked cinnamon rolls and made soup for the rest of the day. But alas, this snow day came at a really inconvenient time. You see, Dane and I have been staying in a hotel since Tuesday. The bathroom at our apartment has suffered some major water damage from some poorly-done plumbing work (which was done before we moved in), and our landlord has kicked us out until Friday so it can be repaired. Luckily, the landlord is footing the bill for our stay, but still... no grass on which to build a snowman, and no kitchen in which to cook. :(

Of course, my first thought was, "What am I going to eat today?" Continental breakfast was free, of course, but what about lunch and dinner? I didn't really want to drive, and the hotel we're staying at has no restaurant... I found myself wondering if Pizza Hut would deliver during a blizzard. But still, pizza would get old really fast, and it didn't sound all that appealing. So I decided to brave the roads after things had warmed up a little, and drove the mile down the street to Albertson's to stock up a little.

Perhaps all this cooking and food-blogging has made me a bit of a culinary snob, but I wanted real food. Even though I had no means by which to cook (other than a microwave), I was not going to settle for preservative-laden frozen dinner. And on a blustery day such as this one, what could possibly be better than soup? I had my heart set on butternut squash soup, but the only kind they had at the store was almost $5 a can, so I settled on some Progresso hearty tomato instead. I hit the bakery for some nutty artisan bread (which was, omg, the best bread I've eaten in a long time) and the deli case for some pungent asiago cheese, and went back to the hotel to curl up with my lunch and a good book (The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken is a dynamite book by the way... I'd definitely recommend it to any foodie out there). I picked up some other things too... deli chicken with salad for dinner (since I wasn't sure if the snow would clear enough by dinner time for us to get out to a restaurant), and some veggies and a couple of apples for snacking.

I spent most of the day hunkered down in the hotel room, studying for my next test, watching food network on the cable TV we don't get at home, and drinking my fair share of the hotel's free hot tea. Meanwhile, the temperatures outside continued to rise and the sand trucks continued to run, and by the time Dane got home from work the road conditions had greatly improved.

So we headed out to the Idaho Botanical Garden, to check out their annual light display.

I really wish we had snagged the camera from home for this occasion (please forgive me, for all of the pictures in this post are from the camera on my phone, haha). The garden - which is gorgeous enough in the spring and summer - came to life with all of the sparkling lights. There were simulated icicles and huge light ornaments... the stone gazebos had been generously lit, and every 100 feet or so there were little wooden fires to get warm at... some of the lights had even been buried by the snowfall of the last 24 hours, and it was truly marvelous to see them glowing underneath the virgin snow. We warmed ourselves with free hot chocolate and cookies, and the pleasure of each others' company. Between the craziness of work and school, Dane and I don't see each other much these days, so the festive, quality time together was much appreciated.

All in all, not a bad way to spend a snow day. Good food, warm drinks... good book, light show... and the company of a kindred spirit. :)
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