Thursday, December 15, 2016

A Twist on a Classic Christmas Dessert

I've noticed over the past few days and reversion to 80 degree weather that Florida tends to do Christmas a little differently than I'm used to. While there are still neighborhoods full of lights and decorations, many houses are "Under the Sea" themed with rows of blue-lit waves or green-lit algae. Santa Claus is frequently seen in festive holiday...Hawaiian...shirts with sunglasses and a general "I'm sure I have something more important to do, but I'm on island time" attitude. Even the snowmen aren't made of snow around here. I mean, obviously they'd melt in record time and turn into a splash pad, but even inflatable snowmen aren't safe from the beachification of Christmas around here. They're the sandcastle equivalent of a regular snowman. It's kitschy. But it's fun. And also incredibly alarming--literally. Last night we were watching The Santa Clause (because bad 80-90s Christmas movies are the best), and suddenly lights were flashing and firetruck sirens blaring on our street. I thought to myself, this is finally got so hot that Florida set itself on fire. But no, there was no cause for actual alarm now that we know the local fire department decks out their trucks with lights and garland and parades around each neighborhood with Santa on one of them to deliver gifts to children. And for the moms standing outside waiting with their children, there's hot firemen. This is a tradition I can get on board with. You can catch me standing curbside next year with the dogs, "waiting for dog treats," just so I don't look too obvious. All this twisting of tradition had me in the mood to take a classic holiday treat, peppermint bark, and put my own spin on it. Naturally, this meant adding even more chocolate. May I present to you peppermint bark fudge:
I will hold for applause.
So now comes the part where I tell you that once again my sheer brilliance (or overwhelming desire to fit into my 30th birthday party dress) has allowed me to craft a fudge that is only 70 calories per square. I give you a moment to digest this while I digest the fudge, and then I explain how this is possible. Still with me? This is how we're doing things around here from now on. I promise to deliver calorie content because I am so tired of finding the "holy grail of low fat desserts" on Pinterest only to calculate calories and realize whoever blogged it was a big fat liar, maybe even literally, because it's still a 500 calorie dessert. I want to be the exception to the "too good to be true" rule. This entire 8x8 pan of fudge comes out to 2,492 calories. I cut this into 36 decent chunks to equate to 69.22222 calories. My father always used to tell me it's all about math, and damned if he wasn't right. Don't tell him that though, or I'll never hear the end of it. I became an English teacher for a reason, alright. While I have cut calories, I have not cut down on taste. This is still fudge. It is melt-on-your-tongue chocolate and peppermint bliss. It's the flavor of the season for a reason! 
Yes, fat free sweetened condensed milk is actually a thing. Who knew?
Thanks to my manly biceps and linebacker shoulders, I was blessed with the ability to make really great fudge. Since 98% of making fudge is the continual laborious process of stirring chocolate until it melts or your arm falls off (whichever comes first), make the strongest member of your family your sous chef. You can executive chef your way to a bar stool to supervise. To make this perfectly Christmasy peppermint bark fudge, you need:
  • 1 can of fat free sweetened condensed milk, divided
  • 1 1/2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
  • 1 1/2 cups white chocolate chips
  • 1 tsp of vanilla
  • 1/2-1 tsp peppermint extract (if you like a normal amount of mint, go for 1/2. If you are someone that likes to eat toothpaste or are just generally really into candy canes, go for 1.)
  • Crushed candy canes (1/4 cup) or 1/4 cup peppermint crunch (found at, where else, Target...because I live there now).
Also needed: cooking spray and foil, or you will have to employ your sous chef to scrape and scour the pan.
Before you begin, line an 8x8 pan with foil overlapping the edges and spray with cooking spray. With fudge, time is certainly of the essence, so be sure you've got all your ingredients measured out and ready to go. I started out by measuring 1/2 a cup of the condensed milk and 1 1/2 cups of chocolate chips. I made the chocolate the bottom layer, but you could get crazy and switch it up, or do an extremely thin layer on the bottom and another extremely thin layer on the top to create a peppermint bark fudge sandwich. That would look really cool, but the beauty of fudge is that it should be quick to throw together, and that sounds time consuming. Like, I could watch Christmas Vacation at least twice in that time. So if you're into complicated desserts and kinda hate yourself, go for it. As Ellen Griswold would tell you, “I don’t know what to say, but it’s Christmas and we’re all in misery.”
We're at the threshold of deliciousness.
When you've got half your milk measured out, place the chocolate chips into a medium pan and stir in the milk. Heat on medium while continually stirring with a rubber spatula. Be careful to scrape all the sides of the pan and keep any chocolate from resting on the bottom of the pan too long so it won't scorch. I'd still eat burnt fudge, but I have a dessert problem. Once all the chocolate is completely melted, pour in 1 tsp of vanilla extract. Stir to incorporate, then dump into your lined pan.
This is what happens when you don't work quickly enough.
I took like 10 seconds to sneeze or something and already my fudge had hardened up a little, so it require a lot of pressing, nay, slapping, with my rubber spatula to smooth out into an even layer. Thanks to those muscly arms I was telling you about, it left a lasting impression. Now, place this into the fridge for 10 minutes so that it is firm enough to pour and smooth the peppermint layer of fudge on top.
This photo was blurry because my arms hurt too much to hold the camera still. Labor of love, that fudge.
 When there's about 4 minutes left on the fridge fudge, measure out the white chocolate chips, and dump that in the cleaned and totally, 100% dry (or it will ruin your chocolate) pan along with the rest of the condensed milk. Measure out 1/4 cup of peppermint pieces and have the peppermint extract at the ready. Melt the white chocolate and milk on medium, continuing to stir constantly until no lumps remain (take a 5 second breather and remove the pan from the fridge). Then add in the peppermint pieces and peppermint extract and stir well.
Don't take time to sneeze or anything before layering.
This should be able to pour on nice and smoothly if you don't waste any time. You can use a spatula to smooth out a bit, but I just tilted the pan back and forth until the top layer was even. While the white chocolate was still wet, I sprinkled extra peppermint on top. Because nothing can be too minty! Or pretty. You can recall last week and my sprinkle addiction. Everything should have a topping!
It just looks prettier that way.
Now comes the unbearably hard part...put the fudge into the fridge or freezer to set. I placed mine in the fridge for four hours, but you could probably cut that time in half in the freezer if you're in a hurry. When you gotta eat fudge, you gotta eat fudge. No judgement here.
No sane person would blame you; just look at the stuff.
Now that the Pavlovian response of delicious dessert and drooling is out of the way, once your fudge is set, cut into squares. You can leave in the pan or lift out the foil and cut on a cutting board. I measured out even squares because OCD is one of the myriad of mental disorders I suffer from (I put the fun in dysfunctional), but it does lend itself to some perfectly crafted and portioned food, so there's that. Once cut, you're ready to serve! If you're making your fudge ahead of time, still cut and portion the way you'd like. You can place back into the pan and cover with foil, or you can place into a Tupperware with a layer of Parchment paper in between each row of fudge. In either case, put in the fridge or freeze until the day you're ready to serve. I mean, down here in Florida if I left fudge out on the counter for more than five minutes, it would turn into a small lake of chocolate. Would still eat. Too good not to. The only thing peppermint bark was ever lacking for me was more chocolate, and this totally solves the problem. It's got the right ratio of chocolate to mint layering so no flavor overwhelms the other. Basically, it's a Christmas freakin' miracle. And all thanks to Florida's weirdly beachy Christmas for showing me that sometimes the best way to celebrate is by bucking tradition and doing whatever the hell you want. Even if that includes wearing flip flops and shorts while you go caroling. Tis the season! I'll be back next year with more treats. Enjoy your Christmas, have a happy New Year, and I'll begrudgingly meet you back here for my 30th birthday cake in January. 'Til next time, my fellow eaters!
It's a good thing I have this fudge to help me cope.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Edible Trees That Aren't Broccoli

For 72 hours, I have been in pure winter bliss. I am sure this is some sort of Floridian record, and I greatly appreciate the weather gods for listening to my (annoyingly) relentless pleas for cooler weather to get into the Christmas spirit. When approaching the eve of my 30th birthday, it is shocking to watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas as an adult and realize I wholeheartedly understand the titular green creature whose heart is three sizes too small because I am him. I've always hated popular, lyrically-sappy Christmas music, Santa Claus is a creepy old guy with a B&E record that could circle the North Pole a million times, and if I see one more child pitch a fit in the aisles of Target only to be rewarded with a toy, I might lose it and start decking someone's halls. As it stands, I'm wearing Halloween socks today. So it really, really takes a lot to get me into the spirit of Christmas...but when the temps drop below freezing and Jack Frost is actually nipping at my nose, I'm all in. I want to listen to "Carol of the Bells" for five hours straight while baking every Christmas treat known to man directly followed by eating most of them while driving around looking at Christmas lights, full of splendor and uninhibited hope for the season. I really am all or nothing when it comes to life. But since I've actually been able to bust out the gloves and boots and get into the Christmas spirit, the oven mitts and baking equipment came out with the cold weather, too. Peppermint is the essential oil of Christmas, and I'm going to go full steam ahead with it in my baking this week. I can't let that zest for the holidays leave when its 75 again tomorrow. Peppermint will help me limp through the week before its time to travel off to much colder parts of the world. And since I never got into gear early enough to put up our Christmas tree, I decided to decorate a whole bunch of tiny ones instead to keep me inspired:
Edible trees that aren't broccoli...a Christmas miracle!!
These mini chocolate cupcakes with peppermint buttercream Christmas tree decorations were so unbelievably fun and festive to make I almost forgot I'm a curmudgeonly grump that hates everything except dogs (another thing I have in common with the Grinch; it's a startling resemblance, really). I am still on a mission to make Christmas healthy and not the season of the bulging waistline, so I tried another science experiment in the way of the actual cupcakes themselves: they're made out of only chocolate cake mix, one egg, and Coke Zero. That's it. I thought for certain they'd be a puddly mess or just taste like Coke and not chocolate, but the Coke Zero doesn't lend any taste here once baked; it evaporated like alcohol would and instead left an incredibly springy and moist cupcake in its wake. If you didn't frost these, each mini cupcake is only 64 calories! So eating a normal serving size of two would only set you back less than 130 calories. If you omitted the egg (I might try this to see if the cakes still hold together) and didn't frost them, they'd be practically zilch. But I like frosting. Nay, I feel the way for frosting most people feel for the holiday season: can't get enough of it. I want it inappropriately early in the day like Christmas lovers want the holiday to continue coming inappropriately early in the year. So a mound of delicious peppermint wonder adds on an additional 63 calories per cake for the grand total of 127 calories per mini cake. Still not bad for a 2 serving deal, and certainly way less than when prepared the traditional way with butter, more eggs, and milk.Don't say I never did anything nice for anyone trying to battle the bulge this Christmas!

Pictured: sprinkles I already had on hand.
I have a problem. I love sprinkles. I always stop to peruse when I see nonpareils because they're tiny, adorable, and usually sparkly, like the gemstones of baking. I have an entire cake safe packed full of sprinkles and edible glitter. I knew with these Christmas tree cupcakes, it was literally time to let my massive sprinkle collection shine. I used white and yellow stars as tree toppers, and a variety of green, silver, red, and white sprinkles. I added white pearls and silver and gold stars as ornaments as well. The key was to mix and match. As much as I wanted to add all the sprinkles at once, I knew that would end up looking more like a Jackson Pollock painting than a cupcake, so restraint was needed. Gather up mini cupcake papers and sprinkles in your preferred Christmas colors before you set off on a mission to don we now our sprinkly tree apparel.  
Ugh, even Coke cans are more in the spirit of Christmas than I am.
I only used HALF my box cake mix, one whole egg at room temp, and 5 ounces of Coke Zero (still chilled) to make 26 mini cupcakes. This would probably yield 13 regular cupcakes or one 8-inch round cake. To double, simply use the whole box of mix, two eggs, and 10 ounces of Coke Zero. If you want to omit eggs, use the full 12 ounces of Coke. Follow baking temperature recommend on the box and preheat your oven. Dump the egg, mix, and soda into a mixing bowl and blend on high for 2 minutes.
'Cookie scoops are versatile!' I justify to myself for spending more than two dollars on one.
Line your mini muffin tin, gather up your batter, and scoop a cookie scoop a little over half full. Use this to quickly and less messily dump your cake batter into the liners:
Such precision! Your dish soap and sponge will thank you.
 Once all liners are 2/3 full, tap the pan gently on the counter to remove bubbles. These suckers bake fast, so only cook for 10 minutes before toothpick testing. Mine were ready to be removed from the oven and cooled on a cooling rack after 9-10 minutes.
They look like cupcakes...
At this point I thought for sure after they cooled they would cave in and implode because I still couldn't wrap my head around Coke working well enough to hold something together when I've seen it dissolve a penny with my own eyes (I type as I drink one...). Some people might gripe diet colas are terrible for you, but so is butter and a ton of sugar. You're reading a baking blog, what exactly were you expecting? When someone finally comes up with a healthy way to eat baked goods that doesn't potentially embalm me from the inside out, I'll totally follow along. Until then, I'm gonna have my cake and eat it too, but in a way that doesn't cause an extra hour on the elliptical every day. 
I also have way too many choices when it comes to decorating tips.
Awesome thing about mini cupcakes (other than being able to fit an entire one in your mouth at once), is that they cool off incredibly fast. I spent a few minutes weighing out which tips I wanted to try for my trees, and after that agonizing ten minute assessment (I'm really thorough), they were already cool on the cooling rack, so I set aside my #21 and #32 Wilton tips and got down to business. Frosting business.
I'm still wondering why in Florida, my commissary milk brand is named California Sunshine.
These mini cupcakes don't need a ton of frosting, so this is a half batch of my peppermint buttercream. I didn't even use all of it, and I could've easily frosted 5-6 more mini cupcakes with it. To make, you need:
  • 1/2 cup room temp butter
  • 2 1/2 cups powdered sugar (2 might even suffice)
  • 1/2 tsp peppermint extract
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 TBS skim milk
  • Green gel dye
Cream the butter until fluffy, then add in the extracts and sugar. Blend on low while adding in enough milk to get things into thinner piping consistency. Once this is done, add in the green dye until you get a nice festive green. Load up into a piping bag fitted with a #21 or #32 tip. If you're frosting regular sized cupcakes, use a 1M tip. Ensure all the lids are off your sprinkles for quick access, and you're ready to roll.
On the left: the #21 tip. On the right: the #32.
To make a tree, start on the edge of a totally cooled cupcake and make a ring. While continuing to pipe, slightly overlap that bottom ring with another ring on top of this. Continue ringing-around-the-cupcake until you have a tall mound of frosting. Pipe a little extra on top while gently pulling away to create the top of your tree. Now, I thought the #21 tip did a better job of looking like an actual tree, but you can use either tip here for this look. You could also try using a 1M tip while simply piping a large mound of frosting for one uniform tree. Whichever tip or method you choose, only frost 3-4 of these at a time because you have to work fast to get your sprinkles on each tree before the frosting sets up and things will just roll off--like water off a duck's back or your Christmas spirit off my cold shoulder. 
A tiny field of glee!
I frosted 4 cupcakes at a time, then topped each one with a star sprinkle before adding either pearls, various glitters, sprinkles, etc. The combinations here are pretty endless as you can tell above. I made most trees completely different from one another, but a uniform style for all 26 would've been pretty as well. I finally felt the Christmas spirit, so I was like a kid in Santa's Workshop just going for it, no holds barred with reckless delight. Similarly, my fingers were also sticky like that of every child I've ever come into contact with. Go figure.
Pictured: my missing Christmas spirit.
Baking has, and will always be, a cathartic experience for me. When I am sad, it cheers me up. When I am happy, it fills me with hope. When I am still wearing Halloween socks in December, it gets my butt into gear. Upon glancing my creations, I was positively giddy and filled with a month of missing Christmas spirit all at once. If I had a Santa hat, I would've put it on. Maybe I should just start small and find some Christmas socks. Either way, I knew exactly what the Grinch felt like when his heart grew three sizes. Thankfully this was just a metaphorical and not physical experience for me, or, you know, I'd be dead and all and unable to eat these delicious cupcakes. That would be the real tragedy. I've got enough juice (of the peppermint extract variety) left in the tank and a few days before we head off, so I'll be back in later in the week with my next great experiment: peppermint bark fudge. But as for now, I'm going to find appropriate sock wear and giggle with delight at the field of Christmas trees in my kitchen. 'Til next time, my fellow eaters!
Oh Christmas tree, oh Christmas tree, how tasty are your branches.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Leftover Pumpkin Has Met Its Match

"...hello, it's me. I was wondering after all these weeks if anyone still reads these?" Sing that in the tune of Adele's "Hello," and you've got one catchy ear worm about how long it has been since last I blogged. We've been a little busy. You know, moving across the country and unpacking and eating all the Thanksgiving and what not. But we're finally settled in, and after over four months without it, yours truly finally got reacquainted with her stand mixer. I will never take that particular piece of kitchen equipment (see also, a cheese grater) for granted again. Florida's been nice. If you're into 80 degree weather while putting up your Christmas lights, this is the perfect place for you! I, on the other hand, happen to love being so cold my nose might fall off, so I've been a bit of a Scrooge (if he also suffered from humidity-related hair issues, even better comparison). Large dandelion-esque locks aside, being able to breathe in moist air and walk down to the beach every morning with my dogs has been a bit of a dream. The dogs love the water, so much so that Hank tries to out drink himself every time we go for a walk, truly making him a salty dog. We've been reunited with friends, furniture, and my closest Target is only ten minutes away. I really, really miss the mountains though. And Florida sunsets could learn a thing or two from Texas and New Mexico. Don't get me wrong, trees are nice and all, what with the life-giving oxygen they provide me, but damned if they don't ever get in the way of that feeling of vast expanse as the sun sets and the stars take over the sky. I sometimes somberly hum "Deep in the Heart of Texas" to get me by. At least I have my mixer back to bake away the homesickness and whip up some pumpkin whoopie pies. Bury me with a tombstone that reads, "You can't be sad when you're eating dessert." You also really can't be sad when you're eating a whoopie pie because the name alone is absolutely ridiculous.
At least they also taste absolutely delicious.
Buy a lot of pumpkin puree for Thanksgiving and forget to make the pumpkin pies? Living your best basic white girl life and keep a stock of pumpkin puree handy? Relocated to a region where "fall weather" hasn't even occurred yet and it's almost Christmas but you're soooo not feeling it? Going against all of humankind this time of year and watching what you eat? You need these pumpkin whoopie pies with pumpkin cream cheese filling because they taste of pumpkiny goodness without killing the calorie count. I found and heavily adapted a few recipes in order to cut down the average 600 calories per whoopie pie (that's a damn double cheeseburger and some, y'all). My whoopie pies clock in at only 315. That's almost half the norm. And in a world where said double cheeseburgers do exist, slicing dessert calories is a hard truth and a must. I knew bikini season would start early here in Florida, but I did not realize it would be starting so early because it never actually ends. So badly I want to wear winter boots and sweaters, and I have thus far refused to wear shorts outside of dog walks, so swimsuits are not happening until the next calendar year.
Where's the butter?
So remember those other 285 calories (or something close. I teach English for a reason) I saved? That's because I passed on oil on the pies and harshly cut down on butter in the icing recipe. It was hard, downright sad, and resulted in lots of praying and finger crossing that my pies would still bake up enough and taste delicious. Either the praying or finger crossing worked (depending on who you do or do not pray to) because hot damn these babies are tasty! So, to make this recipe that yields 10-12 pies, gather up:

  • 1 1/2 cups flour, packed (I used All-Purpose. You could try wheat to cut down more calories.)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 TBS cinnamon
  • 1 TBS pumpkin pie spice
  • 1 cup dark brown sugar, packed
  • 1/2 cup cinnamon applesauce (regular would also work)
  • 1 cup pumpkin puree
  • 1 egg at room temp (I realize there's two in the photo, but seriously, just use one. I was having a blonde moment.)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla 
Preheat the oven to 350 and line a few cookie trays with Parchment paper. I gave a light mist of Pam to these. In a medium bowl, mix the flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and pumpkin pie spice together and set aside. In your staaannnd mixxxerrrrrr (sung like the Goldfinger theme song) that you're not nearly as excited about using as I was, mix the brown sugar and applesauce until combined. Dump in the pumpkin, egg, and vanilla and blend well. Take half the dry mix, add it in to the wet mix, and blend well. Dump the rest of the dry mix in and blend well but don't over mix.
Yes, I finally graduated to granite counters. My life is complete.
Take a cookie scoop and mist with cooking spray. Plop each ball of scooped dough on your Parchment paper; try to get these an inch or two apart since they expand while baking. Once you've finished scooping, come back in and try to smooth out any misshaped blobs with your fingers. We're looking for uniform roundness. I also tapped my sheets on the counter a few times to even things out.
Left: tapped. Right: untapped and kinda wonky. Makes a difference.
Pop into the oven and bake for 12-15 minutes. They should be springy, the tops might crack a little, and a toothpick should come out clean. Thirteen minutes seemed to, ironically, be the lucky number for me when it came to timing. Now, let these cool for a minute or two on the cookie sheet. If you want to get fancy, dust the tops with powdered sugar at this point. Then remove to a cooling rack.
I got fancy, mostly so I could take more photos of my granite counters.
These don't take long to cool, maybe a half hour or so. You can speed things up and put them in the fridge. I was trying to do a science experiment where I made cream cheese icing without any butter and failed horribly. So in that amount of time, these cooled off and were ready for filling. On the plus side, I now have a lot of pumpkin cream cheese in a jelly consistency for bagels! Happy accidents. Also during this time, ensure you match up your whoopie pie...shells? so they each have a mate of equal sizing and shape.
Hello butter my old friend.

If anyone can tell me how to make a low calorie icing that still holds shape, tell me and become my new savior. I wanted to knock off even more calories, but butter said otherwise. To make the pumpkin cream cheese filling, you'll need:
  • 3 TBS butter at room temp
  • 3 ounces reduced fat cream cheese at room temp
  • 1/4 cup pumpkin puree
  • 3-4 cups powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
You shouldn't need to use milk or anything to get the piping consistency right, but if you find you've put in way too much sugar, add a tablespoon or two of milk to thin. All I had to do was cream the butter and cream cheese together for 2-3 minutes until fluffy, then dump in the pumpkin and 3 cups of powdered sugar. This was stiff enough on all its own. 

It felt so nice to hold a piping bag again. Baker withdrawals are real.
You could use a plastic bag with the tip snipped off to fill, but I loaded up a piping bag with a 1A round tip. This is a nice, large tip, so it was easy to pipe a circle around the edge of the pie and then fill in the middle.
Start by working your way around the edge. Leave a little space between the edge and the frosting...the frosting will get smooshed down and out when you place the top on.
If you want a lot of frosting in the middle, pipe a mound after you've outlined a circular border and use the tip to blend things in. I made a circular motion with the tip placed in the frosting in order to smooth things out and ensure the circle around the edge didn't have a seam where I started/stopped frosting.
Technically winter isn't until December 21, so eat all the pumpkin you can stand.
Place the top on the frosting mound, and gently press together; you're set! Repeat for all your pies. Marvel at the wonder that is home baking. I really missed it. Minus throwing a pecan pie with a premade crust together for Thanksgiving, it has been since HALLOWEEN that I did any baking. Criminal! I missed the entire month of November! I mean, we did end up eating that cake for what felt like a month, but in the meantime it's been a lot of Skinny Cow and Nutella (separately. Although...). When I asked my husband what to bake this week, he was the one who offered up the idea of something pumpkin flavored. It's like he knew how badly I needed to do fall baking since I missed the season entirely. Thank God for understanding spouses, and thank God for grocery stores selling pumpkin puree year round. Biting into one of these makes me forget that it was 80 when I walked the dogs earlier. It takes me to a place where leaves are falling, hoodies are worn, and heaters are permanently switched over for the year. I'm still running my A/C, so you can see why this brief respite a la pumpkin whoopie pie is needed. I promise I'll actually give December a fair shake after this week and come up with some Christmas desserts. But unlike the rest of you heathens that started celebrating Christmas the day after Halloween, I am still giving Thanksgiving its time in the spotlight. 'Til next time, my fellow eaters!
You can't sing Christmas carols when you've got a mouth full of pumpkin whoopie pie.