Strawberry Pretzel “Salad”

We first learned about this odd sounding recipe on Cook’s Country. I suppose someone might enjoy it as a first course however in our home this fits firmly in the dessert category. While a 24 hours recipe might seem daunting there is a lot of downtime between steps and a most of that time can be a long overnight rest in the refrigerator. I think active time is around a hour, spread across maybe 2 hours.

I’ll repeat this hint at least twice more, thaw the strawberries in the refrigerator the night before you want to make the recipe. Maybe you need 48 hours before you start. Trust me, the end product is worth the wait.

This is a fine make ahead recipe. You could make this up to 3 days in advance and the pretzel base will remain fairly crisp.

Strawberry Pretzel Salad
Servings: 8-10
Active time: 1 hour
Total time: 7 hours minimum (24 hours would be better)

Ingredients:

  • 3 lbs. frozen strawberries, thawed
  • 12 Tbsp. (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 6 1/2 oz. pretzel sticks
  • 2 1/4 cups granulated sugar, divided
  • 8 oz. room temperature cream cheese
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 3 lbs. frozen strawberries, thawed
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1 envelope unflavored gelatin (see note)
  • 1/2 cup cold water

Directions:

  1. Take your strawberries out of the freezer, stick the unopened bag in a bowl and slip them into the refrigerator over an overnight thaw.
  2. Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 400°F. Spray 13 by 9-inch baking pan with vegetable oil spray. Take the strawberries and cream cheese out of the fridge so they can come to room temperature.
  3. At any point forward you can slice up 1 pound of the strawberries and set them aside. You’ll need them in step 9.
  4. Melt the butter by your preferred method (see note) and set aside to cool while you complete the next step.
  5. Place the pretzels and 1/4 cup of sugar in your food processor and pulse 15-20 times until you have coarse pretzel crumbs. Pour in the slightly cooled butter and pulse another 8-10 times to incorporate it. Transfer pretzel mixture to the prepared pan and use the bottom of measuring cup to press crumbs into bottom of pan. Bake for 10 minutes, rotating pan halfway through baking. Transfer crust to a cooling rack and allow it to rest for at least 20 minutes.
  6. Beat the cream cheese and 1/2 cup sugar with a stand mixer on medium for about 2 minutes. Slowly add the heavy cream and, once incorporated, increase the speed to medium-high for 1 minute. Spread the cream cheese mixture over the cooled pretzel crust, cover with plastic wrap and then refrigerate it for at least 30 minutes.
  7. Next up we finally get to those thawed strawberries. Place 2 pounds of the strawberries, plus any juice that came out during thawing, into the bowl of the food processor. Process until pureed smoother, 30-45 seconds. Transfer the pureed strawberries into a fine strainer set over a medium saucepan. Use the bottom of a ladle to gently push the puree thorugh the strainer, leaving behind the seeds.
  8. Stir in the remaining sugar, and the salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until bubbles begin to appear around the side of the pan, about 5 minutes. Note, the sugar should be completely dissolved. Remove pan from heat and set aside to cool briefly.
  9. Add the water to a large bowl and sprinkle the gelatin over it. Let sit for about 5 minutes to allow the gelatin to soften. Whisk the strawberry puree into the gelatin and add the sliced strawberries. Refrigerate for 45 minutes to an hour until the gelatin thickens slightly; it should start to cling to the side of the bowl.
  10. Carefully pour the strawberry gelatin over the cream cheese layer. Recover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until the “salad” is fully set-up. That’s at least 6 hours; a 20+ hour rest couldn’t hurt.

Notes:
The original recipe I worked from called for 4 1/2 teaspoons of unflavored gelatin. In my experience that is what is found in 1 envelope of the name-brand unflavored gelatin that I see in most megamarts. You might want to check the first time you make this recipe.

Final Reminder – you’ll be much happier if you thaw the strawberries overnight prior to making this dish.

Brown Sugar Cookies

Browned butter and dark brown sugar combined equals something delightful. These cookies are pretty sweet yet I’m pretty sure you’ll find yourself reaching for a second one.

We came across the original recipe in Cook’s Illustrated. While we enjoy reading the magazine, and watching the TV programs by the same producers, I think they tend to overwrite their recipes. I’ve tried to simplify the instructions while giving you advance notice that some ingredients are used in different steps.

Brown Sugar Cookies
Servings: ~30 cookies
Prep time: 5 minutes
Total time: 90 minutes

Ingredients:

  • 14 Tbsp. unsalted butter, divided
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 cups packed dark brown sugar, divided
  • 2 cups plus Tbsp. all-purpose flour (~300g)
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. table salt
  • 1 egg and 1 egg yolk
  • 1 Tbsp. vanilla extract

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F with a rack in the middle of the oven. Line 2 rimmed baking pans with parchment.
  2. Place 4 tablespoons of unsalted butter in a the bowl of a stand mixer and set it aside. Heat the remaining butter in a stainless-steel skillet over medium heat until melted. Continue to cook until the butter is dark golden brown and you smell a nutty aroma. You’ll want to swirl the melted butter after it melts to ensure even browning. Add the browned butter to mixer bowl and allow to cool for 15 minutes.
  3. While the butter cools mix the granulated sugar with 1/4 cup of packed brown sugar in a shallow dish, such as a pie plate, until well combined. In a separate bowl whisk together the dry ingredients (flour, soda, powder and salt). Finally combine the egg, extra yolk and vanilla in a small bowl and beat until blended. All 3 bowls can be set aside.
  4. When the butter is cooled add the remaining dark brown sugar and beat until combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the egg mixture. Beat again until combined and scrape once more. Finally add the dry ingredients and mix until just combined. This is a dense dough so you might want to give your mixer a break if it sounds like it is straining.
  5. Use a disher to scoop out 12 balls of dough. Roll each between your hands and then toss with the reserved sugar. Place 12 coated dough balls on one of the baking sheets. Bake for 7 minutes, rotate the pan, and finish baking for 6 additional minutes.
  6. While the first pan of cookies bakes you can scoop up, form and coat the remaining dough. I usually usually end up with about 2 1/2 dozen cookies.

Notes:
I use a #40 disher to get ~30 cookies. You can tell the disher size by the number stamped into the sweep inside the bowl of the disher. In theory the stamped number indicates the number of scoops necessary to fill a 32 oz. container. Dishers are widely used in food services to control portion size.

Very Chocolate Cake

Our friend G celebrated his birthday this past weekend and IMHO birthdays require cake. He requested a cake of the red velvet variety. After a bit of research I came up with the following recipe. When finished I frosted it with cream cheese frosting for a delicious result.

Sadly, despite a whole bottle of gel paste food coloring, this cake did not turn out red. It was, however, a very delicious chocolate cake and I’m pretty sure part of deep chocolate color came from all the red dye. So I updated the name of the recipe and kept the food coloring.

Very Chocolate Cake
Servings: 12+
Prep time: 30 minutes
Total time: 1 hour 10 minutes plus cooling time

Ingredients:

  • 2 1/4 cups cake flour
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa, sifted
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp. table salt
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 oz. red food color
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1 tsp. vinegar
  • baking spray

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray a 13″x9″ with baking spray and then use a sheet of parchment paper to create a sling inside the pan.
  2. Combine flour, cocoa, soda and salt in a bowl and whisk together. Set aside.
  3. Place the sugar and butter in the bowl of a stand mixer and beat on medium-high until fluffy. While butter beats beat the eggs and food coloring together. Add the egg mixture to the butter/sugar and beat until combined.
  4. Combine the buttermilk, vinegar and vanilla. Add a third of flour mixture to the butter/sugar followed by half the buttermilk mixture. Beat on low until just combined then repeat with another third of the flour and the remaining buttermilk. Beat again until just combined and add the remaining flour. Scrap the beater and give the batter a final stir by hand.
  5. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and distribute evenly. Bake for 35-40 minutes, rotating the pan 180° half way through cooking. Cake is done when a toothpick inserts in the middle comes out clean.
  6. Cool for at least 30 minutes before cutting. Cool for 2 hours before frosting.

Notes:
I used gel food coloring paste in place of liquid food coloring. With a white or yellow cake batter the coloring paste produces a very vibrant hue. Red velvet being a chocolate based cake came out more murky red-brown.

I took inspiration from a couple of recipes I found online, which you can view here, here, and here.

Cream Cheese Frosting

Certain cakes go best with certain icings. A carrot cake with out cream cheese frosting is just isn’t the same. I also use this for red velvet cake.

Cream Cheese Frosting
Servings: enough to frost a 13″x9″ cake (or probably 2 8″ rounds)
Prep time: 2 minutes
Total time: 10 minutes

Ingredients:

  • 12 oz. room temperature cream cheese
  • 12 oz. room temperature unsalted butter
  • 2 tsp. vanilla
  • 24 oz. powdered sugar
  • 2-3 Tbsp. milk or heavy cream

Directions:

  1. Combine the cream cheese and butter in the bowl of a stand mixer. Beat on low for about 30 seconds to break out both and move to high for 2 minutes to cream both ingredients together.
  2. Reduce the speed to low once again and add the vanilla. Beat on medium for 30 seconds to incorporate.
  3. Once more reduce the speed to low and add about a third of the sugar and a tablespoon of milk. Beat until combined and repeat with the second third of sugar and another tablespoon of milk.
  4. Add the remaining sugar and once combined with the frosting increase the mixer speed to high. Beat for 1 minute to incorporate air and increase the volume of the frosting.

Notes:
It’s important for the cream cheese and butter to sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes before making this frosting.

12 oz. of cream cheese is 1 1/2 packages and 12 oz. of butter is 1 1/2 sticks at my mega-mart.

Buttermilk Chocolate Chip Cake

We celebrated a birthday at a recent Saturday night gathering and, for me, birthdays need cake. The birthday boy’s mom mentioned chocolate chip pancakes as something the 8 year old was asking for so I set out to make a cake that might, in some small way, match the flavor of the griddle cooked treats.

I leveraged this recipe from Jen’s Favorite Cookies and then ended up improvising after I realized I had doubled the butter.

The birthday boy liked the cake well enough that I hastily scribbled down some notes in the hopes of being able to produce something similar in the future.

Buttermilk Chocolate Chip Cake
Servings: 12
Prep time: 15-20 minutes
Total time: 1 hour plus time for the cake to cool (for 2 round pans)

Ingredients:

  • 405 grams (3 cups) all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp. table salt
  • 1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1 cup unsalted butter (that’s 2 sticks), softened
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 2 cups buttermilk
  • 12 oz. dark chocolate chips

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Greased the bottom and sides of 2 9″ cake pans. If you have parchment you can also place a parchment round in the bottom of the pan.
  2. Whisk together the flour, salt, soda, powder, and cinnamon in a bowl. Set aside.
  3. Crack the eggs into a bowl, add the vanilla and whisk until the eggs and vanilla are well combined.
  4. Add butter and sugar to the bowl of a stand mixer with a paddle attachment. Start out on low until the sugar is mushed into the butter then increase the speed to medium-high for 3 minutes until the butter has lightened in color.
  5. Add the egg/vanilla mixture to the creamed butter/sugar and mix well.
  6. Add a third of the dry ingredients to the mix followed by a third of the buttermilk. Mix on medium-low until combined then add the next third of both flour and buttermilk. Mix again and add the last of the flour and buttermilk.
  7. Remove the bowl from the mixer, scrape the paddle and set aside. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula, add the chocolate chips and mix to combine.
  8. Split the batter between the prepared pans (a scale help). Use your spatula to spread the batter evenly across each pan. Bake for 30-35 minutes, rotating the pans half way through cooking.
  9. Before removing the pan make sure it is cooked through by either checking the temp. (it should be 210°F in the center) or, if you lack an instant read thermometer, the toothpick method (a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake should come out clean).
  10. Move cake pans to a rack and cool for 10 minutes. Run a knife between the pan and the cake, remove each cake from it’s pan and return the cake to the rack until completely cool.
  11. Frost with your choice of frosting, icing or whipped topping. I made a chocolate version of my regular buttercream frosting.

Notes:
I finally had a chance to make this in a 13″x9″ pan. Bake time was between 65-70 minutes. My plan is to skip frosting, serve it in the pan and dust it with a couple of tablespoons powdered sugar after it cools.

Soft M&M Cookies

I made these for a pot-luck event I attended recently. I had a partial bag of M&Ms that I wanted to use up (so I wouldn’t keep eating them by the handful). I decided I wanted a soft cookie rather than a crisp one. There are multiple ways of doing that, though I’ve had varying degrees of success with them. More brown sugar than white seems to work best for me. The rest in the fridge helps as well.

These stayed fairly soft for the first couple of days after I made them. After that they started to get a bit stale. 5 seconds in the microwave did a far job in reviving them.

Soft M&M Cookies
Servings: 3 dozen
Prep time: 10 minutes plus minimum 2 hour rest
Total time: 3 hours

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp. cornstarch
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 3/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 cups M&Ms

Directions:

  1. Combine flour, cornstarch, soda and salt in a bowl and whisk to combine. Set aside.
  2. Combine the egg and vanilla in a small bowl; scramble until combined. Set aside.
  3. In the bowl of a stand-mixer, combine the butter and sugars. Beat on medium high until well-creamed and butter has lightened in color. Add the egg/vanilla mixture. Beat until combined with the creamed butter and sugar.
  4. Add the dry ingredients to the creamed butter mixture and mix until just combined. Add the M&M and fold in until well distributed.
  5. Line a baking sheet with plastic wrap. Using a #40 disher to scoop out cookie balls. Fill the baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. You can actually keep them in the fridge for a day or more in this state. See the notes at the end for longer storage options.
  6. When the dough has rested for at least 2 hours preheat your oven to 350°F. Line another baking sheet with parchment and place 12 cookie dough balls on the sheet. Bake for 8-10 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through cooking. The cookies are done when the edges have just set. The tops will appear slightly underdone.
  7. Allow the cookies to rest on the baking rack for 5 minutes before transferring to a cooling rack. Repeat baking process until all your cookies are baked.
  8. Cookies should be cooled completely before storing in an air-tight container for up to a week.

Notes:
Unbaked cookie dough balls can be stored in an air-tight container, in the fridge, for up to 5 days. Bake them up all at once or enjoy freshly baked, warm cookies, for a week.

This recipe borrows heavily from one by Averie Cooks.

Applesauce Spice Cake

This recipe comes from an tattered paperback copy of the Betty Crocker’s Cookbook I received ~20 years ago when I moved out on my own. The recipe language is rather sparse and yet I turn to this book time and again for some very delicious things. This cake is certainly among them.

Applesauce Spice Cake
Servings: 15
Prep time: 10 minutes
Total time: 2 hours

Ingredients:

  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. table salt
  • 3/4 tsp. ground cinnamon (I used Ceylon Cinnamon from Penzeys)
  • 1/2 tsp. ground allspice
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cloves
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup shortening
  • 1 1/2 cups unsweetened applesauce
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cups currants
  • 1/3 cup dried cranberries
  • 1/3 cup dried tart cherries

Directions:

  1. Place rack in the medium position of your oven. Preheat to 350°F. Spray a 13″x9″ baking pan with non-stick spray and line with a sheet of parchment paper to form a sling along the long sides.
  2. Whisk together the dry ingredients in a bowl and set aside.
  3. Combine sugar, shortening and applesauce in the bowl of a stand mixer. Beat on low for 30 seconds until it forms a paste. Add the water and eggs; beat on low for another 30 seconds to combine.
  4. Add the dry ingredients, beat on low until just combined and then raise speed to medium high for 2 minutes.
  5. Add the dried fruit and beat on medium for ~30 seconds until well combined.
  6. Scrap the batter into the prepared pan and distribute evenly. A couple of short drops of the filled pan onto the counter will help even out the batter and remove any air pockets that may exist (at least that’s what my mother told me).
  7. Bake for 60 minutes, rotating the pan for halfway through baking. Check doneness with a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake. It should come out clean with no damp batter sticking to it.
  8. Allow cake to cool, in the pan, for 15 minutes, on a cooling rack. Slide a knife along the non-parchment sides of the pan to loosen the cake and then remove the cake using the sling. Carefully remove the parchment from the bottom of the cake and allow to cool completely.
  9. Dust with powdered sugar, drizzle with glaze or frost with something flavorful and tasty. Or just eat it as is ’cause it’s pretty darn tasty by itself.

Notes:
You could use 1 type of dried fruit, such as 1 cup of currants or dried cranberries rather than a mix.

The original recipe also called for 1/2 cup of chopped walnuts. I left those out since this was for a potluck event and you never know who will have an allergy.