cranberry turtle bars

Hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving. I love this holiday because it’s the only one where food is truly the star of the show. I’m not yet at the point where I can cook the entire Thanksgiving meal on my own (nor am I anywhere close), but I managed to contribute this year by way of these cranberry turtle bars.

No disrespect to anyone who bakes homemade pies for the holiday, but I find them a bit boring. I wanted to throw a little variety into our dessert spread, and something cranberry that wasn’t a gross, gelatinous consistency seemed like a good idea. (Yeah, I’m as much of a fan of cranberry sauce as I am of pumpkin pie.) These cranberry bars have a perfect tartness, balanced by the shortbread crust and sweet chocolate drizzle.

looks aren't everything...

The ingredients were a bit expensive relative to other things I’ve made, but it was for the sake of the holiday and it yielded a ton of treats (about 20 giant bars, or 40+ smaller ones). Apparently, pecans are pretty elusive nuts compared to commonplace peanuts and walnuts; I struggled to find them in the store, and — not surprisingly — a small bag was pretty pricey.

Cubing the butter was a disaster, and cutting the butter into the shortbread crust mix didn’t go very well, either. When I pressed the batter into the baking dish, it didn’t seem as evenly dispersed as it should have been. To remedy the situation (and moisten the crust?), I gave a few spritzes of baking spray to the less buttery side.

The “caramel” involved here is a loose interpretation, and I’m sure this might have come together a little better if I had a candy thermometer; instead, I flew by the seat of my pants and prayed it’d all turn out okay. You can either follow my directions below, or see the above link for the legit recipe.

♦2 c. flour
1/2 c. packed brown sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 sticks butter, cold, cut into cubes

2 sticks butter
1 2/3 c. sugar
1/4 c. light corn syrup
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 c. cranberries, coarsely chopped
1 tsp. vanilla
3 c. pecans, toasted and cooled, coarsely chopped

2 oz. chocolate, finely chopped

Line a 15-by-10-inch baking dish with tinfoil, and butter all four sides (but not the bottom). Blend flour, brown sugar and salt in food processor, then add butter and pulse until it forms into small lumps. Sprinkle into pan and press down evenly with spatula. Bake at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes, until firm.

In the meantime, melt butter for topping in saucepan over medium heat and stir in sugar, corn syrup and salt. Boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for about 8 minutes. Stir in cranberries, then boil. Remove from heat, add vanilla and stir in pecans until coated. Quickly spread mixture over shortbread, distributing evenly. Garnish with melted chocolate. IMPORTANT: Let the bars cool completely before cutting; I waited two hours for this to be manageable.

Total time? About 35 minutes to prep, bake and prepare. Let stand two hours.
Cost? $4.99 for about 2 cups chopped pecans, $2.49 for light corn syrup, $3.99 for way too many cranberries.
Overall success relative to expectations? 7 out of 10. My expectations wavered on this. Initially, I had high expectations, but once I got my hands into this (and realized I didn’t have a candy thermometer), they started to come back down to Earth. After I cut into the uncooled bars and the topping spilled over, I thought, “So…this was a disaster,” but the end product turned out to be pretty successful. Aesthetically, they could have been a lot better (they were nowhere near as beautiful as Curvy Carrot’s), but there’s always next time.

black-bottom cake, you make the rockin’ world go round

click for a better view!

“More pumpkin?! When are you going to be done with that stupid can?”

My friend, Randi, dislikes almost everything that’s not chicken fingers. I’ve been trying to broaden her palate by offering her some of my non-chicken finger kitchen creations. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Despite her distaste for pumpkin, I managed to lure Randi into helping me make these black-bottom mini caramel pumpkin cheesecakes — quite a mouthful, both literally and phonetically.

She’s right: This can of pumpkin purée seems to be unending, but I’m not complaining, and neither were the visitors I had over the next three days. People loved these things. I even went for some style points — putting the cakes on a plate, drizzling them with caramel sauce and topping them off with a Hershey’s Pumpkin Spice Kiss right before my guests’ eyes.

The hardest part was the 10 minutes Randi and I spent trying to figure out how to use my new food processor. It took approximately five minutes for us to realize we hadn’t put the blade back in after filling the cup with Oreos. It took another five for us to realize we had to match up the little dots to get the motor to turn on. When it finally began chopping, you would have thought we won the Super Bowl.

♦8 whole Oreos, ground in food processor
1 1/2 tbl. melted butter
8 oz. softened cream cheese
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. pumpkin purée
1 egg
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
Caramel sauce (from a bottle works — I used Hershey’s)
12 Hershey’s Pumpkin Spice Kisses, unwrapped

Combine crushed Oreos and melted butter in a bowl. Spoon into 12 muffin cups that have been coated well with cooking spray. Push into the bottom of each cup so the crust is flat and packed. Partially bake for 10 minutes at 350 degrees, and remove from oven. In a separate bowl, beat cream cheese, sugar and pumpkin until smooth. Beat in egg, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg. Pour evenly into cups, about 3/4 full. Spoon a teaspoon of caramel onto the tops of the cups and swirl with toothpick. Bake 25-28 minutes at 350 degrees. Let cool completely. When serving, top with caramel and Kiss.

Total time? 10 minutes prep (20 minutes if you don’t know how to use a food processor), 25 minutes bake.
Cost? $2.69 bag of Pumpkin Spice Hershey Kisses, $2.19 can of pumpkin purée, $1.79 caramel sauce, $2.99 Oreos, $1 cream cheese.
Overall success relative to expectations? 7 out of 10. I really enjoyed the taste of these, and I’m not even a big cheesecake fan. If I had a mini-cheesecake cup tin, this adventure might have earned an 8; it was difficult to get the cakes out of my muffin tin, and I lost some crust in transit. Make sure you wait until the cakes are completely cooled to take them out. I also cut a corner by using caramel sauce instead of the Lifehouse caramel dip Picky Palate recommends, so the coating wasn’t as substantial — or enjoyable — as it could have been. Either way, Randi didn’t hate them (though she substituted out the Kiss for some chocolate chips), so I’ll consider it a victory.

chocolate fungus ball?

I watch a lot of “Top Chef.” I’m always hearing about ceviche, risotto, tartare and molecular gastronomy. Over the seasons, I’ve picked up on the basics, but I’ve always been slightly confused on what a truffle actually is. I mean, I know I’ve eaten it as a dessert before, but why the hell are they talking about mushrooms? Was I eating a chocolate-covered fungus ball!?

Thanks to a little bit of research, I can rest easy knowing that wasn’t the case — no disrespect to mushrooms, of course. Turns out a truffle is a rare, edible mushroom considered a delicacy in many parts of the world, and a chocolate truffle is a confectionery that has no relation to the fungus (unless, of course, you filled that confectionery with mushroom).

Unfortunately, knowing what a chocolate truffle is isn’t even half the battle of making one, as I recently discovered in my attempt to make chocolate-pumpkin truffles. I had good intentions (making these for a work party, trying something I’d never tried before), but the execution was pitiful.

Word of advice: When a recipe calls for “candy coating” and/or “tempering,” don’t try to use chocolate chips. Siiigh.

My biggest mistake was poor planning, seeing as the truffle filling needs to sit in the fridge for at least two hours and I didn’t start this plight until 9 p.m. After my weekly soccer game, I stopped at ShopRite to pick up some ingredients — namely meltable candy coating for the outside of the truffles, which, not surprisingly, ShopRite doesn’t carry. It was getting late, and I was starting to panic, so I opted for a one-pound bag of chocolate chips, thinking, “This is probably the same thing…right?” When I got home and Googled “how to make truffles with chocolate chips,” I found out it was a cardinal sin. And I did it anyway.

As if that weren’t enough to lead this truffle trial to failure, my impatience was. After about 45 minutes in the fridge, I pulled the filling and attempted to roll it. Didn’t go so well, as seen at left. It looked like I’d been attacked by that sludge monster thing in “FernGully.”

I got angry, threw the bowl in the freezer and caught the end of “The Apprentice.” When I returned, I worked some poor-man’s tempering, aka melting chocolate chips and cream in the microwave and not really tempering at all. (I’ll attempt to temper some other time.) I rolled the filling into balls, dipped in the melted chocolate and rolled them in chocolate sprinkles. They quickly turned into big messy blobs, but I was so far gone at this point (about 1 a.m.), that I kept rollin’ rollin’ rollin’ like I was in a Limp Bizkit song, popped them in an airtight container and threw them in the fridge.

When I tried one the next day, it wasn’t as bad as I expected — then again, you have to be the worst cook in the world to make chocolate rolled in chocolate and then dipped in chocolate taste bad. They got melty incredibly fast, so I had to keep them in the fridge. Also, beware of the chocolate sprinkles getting stuck in your teeth.

I’m not going to bother listing the recipe because I barely followed it, so if you’re interested in doing this the right way, click here.

Total time? Three LONG hours.
Cost? $2.39 for chocolate chips, $1.39 heavy cream, $1.89 pumpkin, $2.09 sprinkles.
Overall success relative to expectations? 5 out of 10. I had low expectations going into this — especially taking the shortcuts I did. I wanted the pumpkin taste to come through some more, but after everything I went through, the fact that these tasted good at all earned this adventure some bonus points. One of my taste-testers said they were like Dunkin Donuts Munchkins. I’m not sure that’s something you want your truffle likened to, but hey, that works for now. Next time, though, I will do this the right way.

candy-laden cookies

If you still have Halloween candy hanging around, you either have incredible restraint, or you didn’t get any trick-or-treaters. Whatever the reason, turn those leftovers into a cookie: more calories, less unwrapping.

For my candy-cookie concoction, I used Butterfingers and Milky Ways (thanks to some encouragement from my favorite food blog, Picky Palate). I was a little worried about the Butterfinger remnants getting stuck in my teeth, as so often is the case with the candy bar itself, but crushing it up into the mix actually alleviated that problem and gave the cookies a light peanut buttery flavor. It also somewhat caramelized the bottom of the cookies, which added a little textural variety.

Feel free to improvise with whatever Halloween candy you have around, so long as it’s not, like, Skittles. Or that ghastly candy in the nondescript orange and black wrappers. My brothers and I used to use those as missiles when we were younger — pelting each other if an offensively imbalanced candy trade was offered.

A helpful hint from my co-worker, Molly, who — unlike me — knows what she’s doing in the kitchen: My cookie dough was unmanageably sticky as I tried forming it into balls on the baking sheet. The reason? The butter was too soft. Keeping it at room temperature might make mixing a little more difficult, but the dough will be much more obedient, according to Molly.

♦2 sticks softened butter
♦3/4 c. brown sugar
♦3/4 c. granulated sugar
♦2 eggs
♦1 tsp. vanilla
♦3 c. all-purpose flour
♦1 tsp. baking soda
♦3/4 tsp. salt
♦6 fun-size Butterfingers, broken up
♦6 fun-size Milky  Ways, broken up
♦1/2 c. chocolate chips

Beat butter and sugars until well combined. Slowly add in eggs and vanilla until well mixed. Place flour, baking soda and salt in a separate bowl; mix to combine. Slowly add to wet ingredients, along with the candy bars and chocolate chips until just combined. Scoop onto greased baking sheet. Bake for nine to 11 minutes at 375 degrees.

This recipe yielded about three dozen cookies, and they sure went fast.  If you come up with a winning combination of candy for your cookies, please share!

Total time? About 20 minutes prep, 11 minutes bake.
Cost? $2 for each bag of fun-size candy, $1.67 for chocolate chips and assorted costs for all other standard baking ingredients.
Overall success relative to expectations? 7 out of 10. These were good cookies, but they lost a few points because a couple were really weak on candy bits. Next time, I’d pump up the count to eight to 10 fun-size bars — hell, maybe even a whole bag.

candy corn is the worst

I am going to preemptively apologize for a potential lack of posting over the next 30 days. I’ve decided to get on the NaNoWriMo train this year, which means I’m saying ‘so long’ to what little free time I had and [hopefully] ‘hello’ to a 50,000-word, 175-page novel. If you want to know more or participate, visit It’s quite the undertaking, but I’ll do my best to keep you feeling important…

So hopefully, you got a lot of trick-or-treaters this weekend. My favorite part of Halloween is the littluns who show up between 4 and 6 p.m. because they’re precious and incredibly grateful for each sugar-laden piece that gets dropped in their pumpkin-shaped buckets. What’s simultaneously the best and worst thing about Halloween, though, is all the leftover candy. I’ll get a post up later this week about some fantastic leftover candy cookies, but in the meantime, here’s a quick, incredibly easy way to use up that crappy candy corn you’ll otherwise having sitting in a bowl somewhere for the next six weeks.

Kudos to this recipe poster for being ambitious with this treat, but if you’re lazy and/or unwilling to spend money on this like I am, you can make my unattractive — but still delicious — version.  Not surprisingly, this gets pretty sticky. Recipe makes about 10 huge balls. Go ahead and giggle.

♦5 c. popcorn, cooked
1 c. candy corn (or however much you’ve got left)
1/2 c. butter
3 c. marshmallows

Set popcorn and candy corn in a big bowl. Melt butter in saucepan over medium heat. Add in marshmallow and stir ’til melted. Pour mixture over popcorn and candy corn, mix about until completely covered and break up into balls. Place on wax paper and let sit for 10-15 minutes.

Apparently, Brach’s sells enough candy corn each year to circle the earth 4.25 times if the kernels were laid end to end. That makes me sick. If you’re looking for a more sophisticated (or intoxicating) use for this holiday staple, check out the candy corn cordial, with candy-infused vodka.

Total time? Less than 10 minutes prep; 10-15 sit.
Cost? $1 for bag of candy corn, 25¢ bag of popcorn, $1 bag of marshmallows.
Overall success relative to expectations? 4 out of 10. At first, I proclaimed these better than rice krispie treats, but after a few bites, I reneged. While the popcorn gives it a nice salty taste, it also makes it a little too chewy for my taste. Nevertheless, if you love sugary things, these will surely give you plenty of happy cavities. Again, I really didn’t follow the directions to make them look like something you’d want to eat, but because we’re in post-Halloween mode, you should probably care less about presentation and more about disposing of that horrid candy corn.

two-pump chunk

I’m pretty disappointed with the fact that we’re 28 days into October and I’ve yet to post about my favorite autumnal mainstay: pumpkin. I love pumpkin-based recipes — except traditional pumpkin pie. Blame my strange taste, but I despise pumpkin pie (and, subsequently, anyone who offers it as the sole dessert at holiday dinners). All other pumpkin progenies, though? Yes, please!

My friend Rachel’s birthday is this weekend, and when she first learned of my culinary adventures, she asked if I’d make her pumpkin cupcakes. Unfortunately, the timing wasn’t right, but I did manage to make her a batch of these double pumpkin kissed chocolate chunk cookies I first saw on Picky Palate.

What gives the cookie its “double” moniker is a pumpkin base along with bits of the ever-elusive Pumpkin Spice Hershey’s Kisses. If you’ve never heard of/had these things, trust me when I say they’re amazing; and if you know of them, but can’t find them, one word: Target. Don’t even bother looking anywhere else because they won’t have ’em.

I grabbed two bags even though I halved the recipe, which calls for one bag (about 35 kisses), but don’t fear: I’ll use the leftovers in a TBA recipe. Even split in half, this recipe yielded 28 medium-sized cookies. I’ll post the full recipe because halving this forced me to divide fractions in two, and that gave me a headache. Guess I shouldn’t have complained about how irrelevant to my future that math lesson 10 years ago was…

One other word of advice: If you don’t plan on going pumpkin crazy in your upcoming baking forays, go with the small can of pumpkin puree. This recipe needs only one cup of the stuff, and I’ve got enough left over in my gigantic can to last me 26+ rounds (not that I’m upset about that or anything — just prepare yourselves for many more pumpkin-centric recipes).

2 sticks softened butter
1 c. granulated sugar
3/4 c. brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tbl. vanilla
1 c. pumpkin purée
3 1/4 c. flour
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
12 oz. chocolate chunks or chips
35 (approx.) Pumpkin Spice Hershey’s Kisses, quartered

Cream butter and sugars until fluffy. Beat in eggs and vanilla until well combined, then add pumpkin. Mix flour, salt, baking soda, cinnamon and nutmeg in a separate bowl. Slowly add wet ingredients, then chocolate, then Kisses. Scoop dough into balls on a lightly greased baking sheet. Bake 10-12 minutes at 350 degrees, or until edges are light brown. Allow to cool before removing.

Total time? 25 minutes prep, 12-14 minutes baking.
Cost? $2.69 for bag of Pumpkin Spice Hershey Kisses, $2.19 for can of pumpkin purée, $2.29 for chocolate chips.
Overall success relative to expectations? 8 out of 10. The end product has a light, cake consistency. When I took a bite of a fresh-out-of-the-oven cookie, I was disappointed at how overwhelming the chocolate was; however, after they cooled off and I gave them another try, the pumpkin flavor really came through and each bite that had a Hershey Kiss bit in it was doubly as good. Wish I had made the full recipe! Nothing else I’ve made has flown off the plate as quickly as these; I brought a bunch into work and they were gone before lunch (though we’re pretty sure the grubby ad reps in our office got to them first, grrr).

P.S. I steered clear of pumpkin puns throughout this post, but on the last “pumpkin,” I accidentally hit “n” instead of “m,” which made me giggle uncontrollably at how desperate to be corny my brain actually is.