German Chocolate Cupcakes

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Today is National German Chocolate Cake Day! And we’re here to talk about it. First, right off the bat, let’s get one thing straight: German chocolate cake has absolutely nothing to do with the country of Germany. Shocked? I know.

So why is German chocolate cake called such? In the early 1850’s, an English-American chocolate mill worker named Samuel German invented a sweet chocolate baking bar for The Baker Chocolate Company in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Walter Baker, owner of Baker’s, bought the recipe from German for $1000, and the chocolate bar was named in honor of him: Baker’s German’s Sweet Chocolate.

At the time, Baker’s (which is also a misleading name, as “Baker” was the last name of the family, and was not chosen to mean that the chocolate was only for bakers) chocolate was exclusively used for baking. It was more bitter, whereas the German chocolate bar had a higher sugar content, and was marketed as “palatable” and “a great favorite with children,” implying that it was meant to be eaten on its own, much the way you would eat a Hershey’s bar now, instead of to be used in baked goods.

The Baker Chocolate Company continued to thrive over the next hundred years, which allowed for what we now know as German chocolate cake to be created. German chocolate cake, a multi-layered chocolate cake separated by a caramel-pecan-coconut filling, and sometimes topped with chocolate frosting, is often attributed to Mrs. George Clay, a homemaker in Dallas, and was first shared by The Dallas Morning News food editor Julie Benell in 1957. While this is the most-referenced origin of the recipe,  I’ve seen a reference to almost the exact same recipe over a year earlier in a May 1956 edition of The Irving News Record, printed in Irving, Texas. Curiously, the 1956 article states that “Daisy,” the food editor for The Irving News Record, actually got the recipe from her daughter, who was living in Oklahoma, and brought it back to Texas.

Whether we thank “Daisy” or Julie Benell for the recipe, we know that once it hit papers, it spread like wildfire across the United States. By 1958, General Foods, which now owned Baker’s chocolate, had decided to print the recipe in a recipe booklet. After this, the public’s interest was fully piqued, and Baker’s German chocolate sales increased by a whopping 73%.

It should also be noted that, by the earliest printings of this recipe in newspapers, the cake was already being called “German chocolate cake” instead of “German’s chocolate cake.” I’ve seen a lot of references to the fact that the name changed over the years, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I have guesses as to why this is, the most probable being that home cooks, 100 years after Samuel German invented his chocolate bar, had no idea that the possessive German’s chocolate bar was created by a man named Samuel German. I would suppose that they assumed it was a German form of chocolate.

Hopefully this post will give Samuel German a bit of his due. To celebrate the day of his influence, I’ve made cupcakes, instead of the traditional 3-layered cake.

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German Chocolate Cupcakes
Makes 20-24 cupcakes.

Ingredients: 
For cupcakes:
1 1/2 cups flour
1 1/4 cups sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
2 large eggs
1 egg white
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup buttermilk
1/3 cup vegetable oil
2 oz. Baker’s German chocolate, chopped
1/2 cup boiling hot coffee

For filling: I used 3/4 of the filling from Sally’s Baking Addiction.
6 tbsp unsalted butter
3/4 cup brown sugar, packed
2 large egg yolks
6 oz evaporated milk
3/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups sweetened shredded coconut
3/4 cup pecans, chopped

Optional:
Chocolate frosting (store-bought works fine, but you can also make your own)
Maraschino cherries

Ingredients: 

For cupcakes: In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, brown sugar, cocoa powder, salt, baking soda, and baking powder.

In a medium bowl, mix well the eggs and egg white, vanilla, buttermilk, and vegetable oil.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients. Mix together until fully combined.

Chop chocolate and add to a bowl. Pour boiling coffee over the top. Quickly whisk until the chocolate has melted, then quickly whisk into the other ingredients.

Preheat oven to 350. While the oven is preheating, fill two cupcake tins with cupcake liners.

Fill each liner up halfway. Bake, and begin checking for doneness at 18 minutes.

Remove and allow to cool completely.

For topping and filling:

Add the butter, sugar, yolks, and evaporated milk in a saucepan.

Heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally.

Allow the mixture to come to a steady boil, then begin whisking constantly until the mixture thickens (about 4-5 minutes).

Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla, shredded coconut and chopped pecans. Allow to cool completely before filling cupcakes.

Scoop out the center of each cupcake, but not the entirety of the top.

Pipe a ring of chocolate frosting around the top of each cupcake, optional.

Fill each cupcake with the coconut/pecan mixture. Top each cupcake with a maraschino cherry, optional.

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Look, there are people who can do amazing things with cake. I’m not one of them. I kind of hate decorating cakes. Cupcakes, though, I can do! Plus, you get your own little maraschino cherry on top that you don’t have to share with anyone!

Thanks, Samuel German, for giving the world the essential ingredient for your namesake cake!

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Tiramisu

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Hey, guys! It’s been a while! I stepped away from the blog for the month of May (you didn’t notice), but now I’m back! And, even though it’s not really warm enough here to be using the old “It’s been too hot here to turn on the oven, so here’s an awesome no-bake recipe” food blog trick, I’m doing it anyway! Let’s talk tiramisu, shall we?

Tiramisu, though an iconic Italian dessert here in the states, has only existed since the middle of the 20th century. (This gives you an idea of what Italians were doing with mid-century recipes, while we were over here putting hot dogs in Jell-O.) Roughly translated to “pick me up,” or “cheer me up,” it’s composed of savoiardi, or lady fingers, dipped in espresso, layered lasagna-style with a fluffy mixture composed mostly of eggs and mascarpone cheese, and finally dusted with cocoa. It’s sweet, and bitter, and creamy. Basically a dream.

Even though it’s hard to imagine a time before tiramisu, it wasn’t even introduced to the United States until the 1980s. The earliest record of a tiramisu recipe I could find in a newspaper was from 1981. Until quite recently, it was thought that tiramisu was created in the 1960s or 70s in the Veneto region of Italy in a restaurant called Le Beccherie, by the pastry chef Roberto Linguanotto. However, even this story is up for debate. Some stories say the recipe was instead created by Alba Campeol, who owned Le Beccherie along with her husband Ado. It’s said that she came up with the idea after her mother-in-law brought her a zabaglione, or an egg yolk custard made with wine, spiked with espresso to help give her energy after the birth of her children.

Perhaps the most convincing argument comes from famous chef Lidia Bastianich. Bastianich, while researching her book Lidia’s Italy: 140 Simple and Delicious Recipes from the Ten Places in Italy Lidia Loves Most, may have discovered the origin one step before the Campeols. Restaurant owner Celeste Tonon told Bastianich that chef and restaurateur Speranza Garatti was the true creator of tiramisu. He said that Garatti served a variation of the dish in a goblet and called it coppa imperiale. Tonon also claims that it was not Alba Campeol, but Ado, who recreated the dish and renamed it tiramisu.

Aside from this wide-ranging fight in Veneto, there have also recently been claims made from the nearby region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia. While arguments were going on a few years ago in Veneto about who created tiramisu, Friuli-Venezia Giulia drew a line in sand by declaring that the dessert was one of their traditional dishes. The rivalry was ignited when authors Clara and Gigi Padovani claimed they discovered recipes for the dish in Friuli that date back to the 1950s. 

It’s also worth pointing out that while this dish as a whole is relatively new, savoiardi (ladyfingers), an important component of this very simple dessert, have been around much longer. Savoiardi date back to the late 1400s in the newly-created Duchy of Savoy, a small area that lay on the French-Italian border. A dry, sweet, sponge biscuit, cut in the shape of a finger, they were created to honor a visit to the Duchy by the King of France!

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Tiramisu
A very slight adaptation of this recipe. Makes 6-9 servings.

Ingredients: 
28-30 Italian savoiardi (ladyfingers)
2 cups very strong coffee/espresso
3 tbsp creme de cacao or dark rum
4 large egg yolks
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup sugar, divided
1/2 tsp vanilla
pinch of salt
8 oz mascarpone
1/3 cup cocoa powder, divided

Instructions: 

In a shallow bowl, mix together the espresso and creme de cacao or rum. Set aside.

In a small bowl, beat together the egg yolks with 1/4 cup sugar until the mixture becomes light yellow in color and smooth. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the heavy cream, 1/4 cup of sugar, vanilla and a pinch of salt. Beat together until the cream is light and about triple in size. Add in the mascarpone all at once and continue to beat until fully combined. Fold in the egg yolk mixture until fully combined.

Working quickly, briefly dunk the savoiardi, one at a time, into the espresso mixture, lining the bottom of an 8×8-inch pan. Once you have placed one layer of lady fingers, spread half of the egg mixture over the top, then dust with half of the cocoa. Place another layer of lady fingers, and repeat. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least two hours, or overnight. Serve chilled.

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This is not the first dish I’ve written about here that has a lively and contentious dispute about its origins. It certainly makes a big difference when a heavyweight like Lidia gets involved, but in truth, we aren’t closer to knowing who exactly soaked these dried cakes in espresso before covering them in cream. But I do know, we owe whoever it was a debt!

The Melungeons + Chocolate Gravy

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Ooh! That feeling of spring is in the air! Meaning, it’s supposed to get over 40 for consecutive days this week. We’re already well into March, and I’m slowly starting to remember how much I love Chicago when it’s not gray and only 5 degrees. We’re almost through this, guys.

Before we’re able to dig into all the beautiful fruit recipes of spring and summer, right now we’re keeping our focus on chocolate. More specifically, we’re talking about chocolate gravy. Stay with me here. When my friends ask about my blog, they’re often curious where I get my recipes. It varies, but sometimes my research projects lead me in an unexpected direction. A while back, when looking into a family in southern Kentucky, my research led me to a group of people in the area known as Melungeons, which then led me down a rabbit hole of trying to figure out who exactly these people were, and where they had come from.

If you have never heard of the Melungeons, as I hadn’t: The group is mostly found in the Appalachian region now, but it’s thought that they may have originally come from North Carolina or Virginia. The term Melungeon, likely coming from the French word melange, meaning “mixed,” was used in the past as a derogatory way of distinguishing this particular mixed-race group. Today, the term has been reclaimed by descendants of the earliest members of the group.

But the question–that not even those identified by this name could answer for a long time–is: Who were the Melungeons?

The mystery surrounding the Melungeons comes from the fact that they lived in Appalachia, but had different physical traits than many of those settlers of northern European heritage in the area. While today many Melungeons would appear Caucasian, Melungeons a century ago were identified by their darker skin and light eyes. These features led to rumors about the origin of the group. They were alternatively identified as gypsies, or Turks, or even as the long-lost descendants of the Aztecs. However, their heritage was most commonly believed, even among the Melungeons themselves, to be Portuguese.

Before 2012, historians and genealogists guessed that the group was composed of the descendants of Native Americans, free African Americans, and possibly Portuguese. However, in 2012, with the emergence of DNA testing, the group finally began to learn their real heritage, and it proved fascinating. While, of course, there is no single type of Melungeon DNA, samples taken from modern-day members identified a common result: that they were likely descended from men with Sub-Saharan African lineage, and white women of European descent. The best assumption is that these groups would have intermarried sometime around the 1600s, likely between free, formerly enslaved men, and white indentured servant women.

It is hard to say where the suggestion of Mediterranean or Middle Eastern heritage came from, but it is very likely that the group, appearing darker than those of European ancestry, were trying to make sure family members remained free, and did not suffer legal repercussions. For example, in 1874, a woman named Martha Simmerman was challenged for her inheritance, and if it had been determined that she had African ancestry, she would have lost the case. However, her attorney asserted that her family was descended from the Phoenicians, an ancient Mediterranean civilization, who had migrated to Portugal before arriving in the United States. Additionally, as recently as 1924, Virginia passed the Racial Integrity Act that included the so-called “one drop” rule, which would deny legal privileges to anyone of even partial African descent.

The obscurity of the history of the Melungeons is terribly sad, but is also a reminder of the incredible things that genealogical research, as well as DNA testing, can dig up.

After learning the amazing story of the Melungeons, I looked at several Melungeon cookbooks, and found today’s recipe: Chocolate gravy. More broadly, this is a fairly common southern recipe. The Gravy (that is, the Southern Foodways Alliance, not the chocolate gravy referenced in this post) says that chocolate gravy should be thicker than a chocolate sauce, thinner than chocolate pudding, and is commonly served with biscuits. It is associated with the Blue Ridge Mountains, an area also associated with a large Melungeon population.

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Chocolate Gravy

Ingredients:
2 tbsp unsalted butter, or bacon fat
1/4 cup cocoa
1 1/3 cups milk
1 cup water, or strongly brewed coffee
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
salt, to taste

Instructions:

Bring coffee to a boil over medium heat. Add in the butter or bacon fat.

Mix cocoa, sugar, flour, and salt in a small bowl, and mix in a little milk to make a paste. Add remaining milk to the coffee in the saucepan.

Add the chocolate paste to the saucepan, and whisk together over low heat until smooth and thick.

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There are particular family names associated with the Melungeon group, such as Collins, Gibson, Goins, and Denham (one of these names is what led me down this rabbit hole in the first place). I’m curious if any of my readers know of any connections they have to the Melungeons! Alternatively, did any of you grow up eating chocolate gravy for breakfast? (Lucky!) Or, do you have any other genealogical mysteries that have (or haven’t!) been solved? Those are totally my jam, and I’d love to hear about them. Particularly if you have a recipe to go along with them!

Anna Pavlova + Mini Chocolate Pavlovas

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If you’re like me, you may have recently noticed pavlovas popping up around the internet. They’re a lovely, delicate, meringue confection, often topped with cream and fruit. Also, if you’re like me, always on the lookout for the story behind the dessert, you may have also wondered to yourself, “Why are they called that?” Well, here is the history of Anna Pavlova, the great Russian ballerina and choreographer, in whose honor the pavlova was created.

Anna Pavlova was born on this day, February 12, 1881, in St. Petersburg, Russia. Her parents were not wed at the time of her birth, and Pavlova was later adopted by her mother’s husband after her birth father died, and took his surname.

As a young child, her mother took her to a ballet performance of The Sleeping Beauty, which sparked her interest in ballet. At the age of 10, Pavlova was accepted into the prestigious Imperial Ballet School, but not before at first being rejected for her slight and “sickly” appearance. Pavlova’s body was atypical of the classic ballerina of the time. She was short and slender, with very arched feet. This made it difficult for her to dance en pointe. Eventually, she would compensate for this by inserting leather soles into her shoes, as well as hardening the toe and shaping it into a box. Some criticized this as “cheating,” but her invention led to the modern-day pointe shoe, which allows dancers to remain en pointe for extended periods of time.

It is said that she had bad turnout and often performed with bent knees. But her determination was great. In addition to her classes at the ballet school, she would take extra lessons from noted ballet teachers of the time, and practice for hours and days on end. She never shied away from the hard work required of a great dancer. She once said, “God gives talent. Work transforms talent into genius.”

At the age of 18, Pavlova graduated from the Imperial Ballet School. While her style was unconventional, she became an increasingly popular dancer, and a favorite of Marius Petipa, one of the most influential ballet choreographers ever. In 1905, she, along with choreographer Mikhail Fokine, created the solo dance of The Dying Swan, a four-minute act that follows the last moments of a swan’s life. At the age of 25, she finally earned the title of prima ballerina, after a performance of Giselle, which was known as a notoriously difficult ballet for dancers to perform.

By the age of 30, Pavlova had founded her own dance company to tour the world. Striking out on her own in this way, she performed for millions of people throughout the world, introducing many to ballet for the first time. She also never stopped learning her craft. She was known, during her travels, to take classes from local teachers, learning traditional dances of Mexico, India, and Japan.

Pavlova continued touring until her death in 1931. Before a tour through the Hague, her train was in an accident, and the dancer was left waiting on the platform in the cold for 12 hours, in only a thin coat and pajamas. Shortly after, she developed pneumonia and was told that she needed surgery to save her life, but was also told that the surgery would likely prevent her from ever dancing again. She declined the surgery and, as a result, died just before her 50th birthday. Her love of dance was so powerful that she is said to have uttered, just before her death, “Get my ‘swan’ costume ready,” though this may have been a romantic embellishment.

It is said that Pavlova’s “swan” costume is the basis for the pillowy pavlova, and it is hard to look at the fluffy design of the pavlova and not imagine a resemblance. In the 1920s, Pavlova’s tours were very popular in the United States, as well as New Zealand and Australia. And it is the latter two countries who are responsible for the popularity of the pavlova pastry, which was named in honor of the dancer’s tour. Since the 20s, in fact, Australia and New Zealand have been in a friendly disagreement about which country is actually the birthplace of the pavlova. But to this day, neither country has been able to prove their case beyond a doubt. (In fact, in 2008, a book was published that definitively stated that the first recipe appeared in New Zealand. However, more recently, the dessert has been traced back to a similar German torte that came to the United States and evolved from there.)

Wherever the pavlova was first created, it has become an important cultural fixture in both Australia and New Zealand, where it is often served around Christmas and is usually topped with cream, strawberries, and kiwi.

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Mini Chocolate Pavlovas
Makes two 4-inch pavlovas.

Ingredients:
1 large egg white
1 small pinch of table salt
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 tsp vanilla
4 1/2 tsp cocoa powder
1/2 cup heavy cream, very cold
Raspberries, as desired
Chocolate shavings, as desired

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 250 degrees.

Place a piece of parchment paper onto a cookie sheet. Using a bowl, trace two 3-inch circles onto the parchment paper, then flip the parchment over on the cookie sheet. You should be able to see the circles through the parchment. Set aside.

In a large bowl, beat the egg white with salt until smooth, adding sugar one tablespoon at a time and beating in completely until it has doubled in size, and is smooth and glossy. Then, beat in the vanilla.

Sift the cocoa powder over the top, and use a plastic spatula to fold the cocoa in completely. Spoon the mixture into the two circles on the parchment paper (pile them as high as possible, as they will deflate as they bake and cool.) Bake for 30 minutes. Turn off the oven, leaving the door closed, and allow to cool for 15 minutes. They should be crisp on the edges, but squishy in the middle.

Top with whipped cream, raspberries, and chocolate shavings, and serve immediately.

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This delicate dessert is not unlike its namesake, the sensational Anna Pavlova. It’s light, not too rich, and honestly, it’s hard to go wrong with whipped cream and chocolate shavings on anything. I love them, and I hope Ms. Pavlova would, too! Happy Birthday, Anna!

National Oatmeal Month + Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

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It’s January. The weather is nasty, and is supposed to get nastier before it gets better (tomorrow the temp is a high of -12!!!!). Comfort foods are a necessity and my chosen breakfast has become oatmeal. I’ve been eating it every morning, and while looking for new recipes to make my daily oatmeal more savory, I discovered that January is National Oatmeal Month! My best guess for this designation is that everyone is trying to detox from the holidays. But instead of eating healthy, we’re going to discuss the history of oats as food, and then reward ourselves with oatmeal chocolate chip cookies at the end. Let’s go!

It seems to me that oatmeal cookies, and oatmeal as food in general, are fairly divisive even today. Oatmeal raisin cookies in particular seem to be an issue for many. (I mean, can it really even be considered a cookie??) Present-day oatmeal cookies can be traced back to Scotland, where oatcakes, a less moist, crisper version of modern-day oatmeal cookies, have existed since the Middle Ages. Scotland seems to have been an early adopter of oats as a viable food option for humans. However, some other places were not as fast to catch on. Samuel Johnson’s famous dictionary, written in the mid-1700’s, defined oats as “A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people.”

Many Americans before the mid-19th century agreed with the English. While oats were grown in the United States since the 1600s, they were mainly used to feed cattle. It wasn’t until Ferdinand Schumacher, an immigrant from Germany who arrived in the United States in the 1850s, attempted to change people’s minds about oats. Shortly after settling in Akron, Ohio, he founded the German Mills American Cereal Company. Realizing that oats, which were commonly used for porridge in his home country, were relegated to horse feed in his newly adopted land, he came up with a plan. At this time, oat kernels were ground very coarsely and would have taken a great deal of time to cook. Schumacher developed the “rolled oat”–literally a kernel that had been rolled flat–reducing the cooking time significantly. The timing worked in Schumacher’s favor, as it was around this time that the Civil War began. Rolled oats were a relatively cheap and shelf-stable food, making it an ideal food for both soldiers and civilians during lean times.

After the War, in 1877, Henry Seymour and William Heston registered the trademark for rolled oats as the first breakfast cereal. These two founders of the Quaker Oat Company chose perhaps the most famous face now associated with oatmeal in the United States: The smirking, elderly, Quaker man. He is not based on any real person, but was created for their logo by the two founders as “a symbol of good quality and honest value.”

Even before the cereal was trademarked, people began figuring out how to use oats in sweet treats. Oats were often used in the South during the War to make a cheaper version of pecan pie. And the earliest record I could find for an oatmeal cookie was in several newspapers from the fall of 1883 (though this means that recipes certainly existed before this, in unpublished form). The same recipe was circulated from New England to the Midwest, calling for the oatmeal cookie to be made “just like an ordinary cooky, using two-thirds oatmeal and one third wheat flour.” By 1896, a recipe for oatmeal cookies appeared in Fannie Merritt Farmer’s famous The Boston Cooking School Cook Book. Farmer’s recipe is much drier than the recipes we know today. Her recipe instructs you to mix the ingredients and then “Toss on a floured board, roll, and cut into shape,” in something that sounds more like a scone than a chewy cookie. Farmer’s recipe also did not include raisins, which did not become the norm for oatmeal cookies until Quaker Oats began printing a recipe for oatmeal raisin cookies on every carton of their oats in the early 1900s, the result of a collaboration between Sun-Maid Raisins and the Quaker Oat Company, who employed the same advertising agency. The recipe gained popularity during the difficult times of World War I and the Great Depression, again, as a somewhat cheap staple pantry item.

If you are comfortable knowing your go-to breakfast choice and common cookie ingredient were once horse food, then I think you’ll be able to get on board with these oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. (The recipe I made calls for chocolate, not raisins, but they could easily be substituted if you’re a oatmeal raisin cookie purist.)

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Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies
For the recipe, I used a mash-up of the classic Quaker Oats Vanishing Oatmeal Raisin Cookies, and the original recipe for Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies. Makes 18-24 cookies.

Ingredients: 
1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick), softened
1/4 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 large egg
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 cups flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/4 cups oatmeal
6 oz. semi-sweet chocolate, chips or chopped into small pieces, or a mix of both (approximately 3/4 cup total)
Flaky sea salt, optional

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two large cookie sheets with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, combine the butter and both sugars. Beat until fully combined and smooth. Add in the egg and vanilla, and beat until combined.

Add the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt to the butter and sugar mixture. Beat until just combined so that no flour streaks remain.

Use a wooden spoon or spatula to mix in oats and chocolate.

Use a tablespoon to create scoops and place at least two inches apart on the baking sheet. Sprinkle lightly with flaky sea salt, optional.

Bake for 10-12 minutes, turning the pans 180 degrees halfway through baking.

Allow to cool on the cookie sheet for 10 minutes before eating warm, or moving to a cooling rack to cool completely.

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These cookies have come a long way since the oatcakes of Scotland. Simple and so good. I could’ve gone with the traditional raisins, which I actually really like and maybe even prefer, but I can’t be trapped inside my house by the cold with a bunch of oatmeal raisin cookies. Like, I can’t trust myself. Plus, my husband likes chocolate and is, generally, a cookie fiend. And he’s really into these. I think you will be too.

Happy baking and, please, stay warm, my friends!

National Blonde Brownie Day + Brown Butter Blondies

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Blondies, or blonde brownies, always remind me of school lunch. Don’t get me wrong–that’s a good thing. School lunch memories for me are surprisingly positive. I loved the weird, sort of stale-tasting pizza; I still have dreams about something they served in our cafeteria called “chicken hot rodders” (side note: if anyone knows what this is, or where I can find it, let me know–think chicken tender, but in the shape of a hot dog, and on a hot dog bun–I assume they’ve been outlawed for being the most unhealthy thing ever, which is probably why I love them so much); and my final cafeteria favorite, blondies! Blondies were not something my mom ever made at home. We had a very strict chocolate-only brownie rule in our house, and I was pretty meh about chocolate when I was little. But at school, blondies were chewy, buttery, and always a stark contrast to whatever the steamed vegetable was for the day! I loved them.

Today is National Blonde Brownie Day. I can find no information on how this day got started, or if it’s even a real day at all. And I think we can all agree that a National Blonde Brownie Day is a bit much, but I’m taking the opportunity anyway to write a little about one of my favorite desserts.

If you are a brownie lover, you might think: Who even cares about blondies, when there are brownies in the world? Brownies hold a special place in the hearts of so many, but you might be surprised to learn that blondies actually predate brownies.

In the 1896, in the Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking School Cookbook (the cookbook that is responsible for the standardization of measurement in baking), there is a recipe for a “brownie” that calls for sugar, flour, and butter, based on earlier recipes for a dessert bar that resembled gingerbread, minus the spices. No mention of chocolate. The original “brownie” was, in fact, what we recognize today as a blondie, and would have been flavored with molasses. Brown, for sure, but not the beautiful brown-black that we recognize as a chocolate brownie today.

The story the chocolate brownie is a little roundabout. In 1893, Bertha Palmer, a socialite and the President of the Board of Lady Managers of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, called on the chef at the Palmer House Hotel, owned by her husband, to make a chocolate cake that was could easily be handled by women at the fair without getting their hands and gloves dirty. The unleavened chocolate cake created by the chef would have closely resembled the modern-day brownie, but it wouldn’t be called a brownie until after the turn of the century, and there does not seem to be any record of this original recipe today. (This was actually one of the first things I ever wrote about on this blog. If you’re interested in learning more about Bertha Palmer and the first brownie, you can find that post here.)

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By the early 1900’s, though, brownie recipes containing chocolate began to be published. Fannie Farmer is often credited with the first chocolate brownie recipe in 1906, after she updated her cookbook from the 1890’s. However, a recipe from two years earlier has been found, calling for the addition of chocolate. Once chocolate was in the mix, brownies, unsurprisingly, were a hit, and the humble molasses brownie became a somewhat distant memory. Then, around the 1940’s, a dessert bar showed up containing brown sugar instead of just molasses, which was renamed a “blonde brownie.” The earliest entry I’ve seen in a newspaper for a blonde brownie was in 1941. The blonde brownie increased in popularity over the years and, in 1956, traveling food critic and cake mix king, Duncan Hines, released boxed mixes of both brownies and “blond brownies.” The ad above announces their release in the Janesville Daily Gazette from March 15, 1956.

So, I can’t answer the question of which is better, blondie or brownie, but if you’re ever in a heated argument with someone about it, at least you know a little history. The blondie recipe below is not Fannie Farmer’s or Duncan Hines’, but my own version using brown butter, which makes a great party treat–even if it’s just you at the party.

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Brown Butter Blondies
Makes 9 2.5-in blondie squares, or 36 two-bite pieces. 

Ingredients:
1 1/4 cup flour
1/4 tsp baking soda
2 tsp cornstarch
1/2 tsp salt
12 tbsp unsalted butter
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup white sugar
2 eggs
4 tsp vanilla extract
Powdered sugar, for dusting, optional

Instructions:

Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Line an 8 x 8-inch pan with two pieces of parchment paper, crisscrossed over one another. Spray lightly with cooking spray.

In a small bowl, combine flour, baking soda, cornstarch, and salt. Set aside.

Add butter to a small saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the butter turns light brown in color, begins to smell slightly nutty, and ceases to sizzle and pop. Pour into a large, heat-safe bowl to cool slightly.

Add both sugars to the melted brown butter and stir to combine. Stir in the eggs and then the vanilla.

Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients, and mix with a wooden spoon until just combined. Pour into the prepared pan.

Bake for 20-25 minutes. You can test by using a toothpick inserted into the middle. It is done when it comes out with damp crumbs, but not wet streaks. Do not overcook.

Allow to cool for at least 45 minutes. Dust with powdered sugar, cut, and serve.

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If you want to add mix-ins, heck yeah, you can do that! Sprinkles, white chocolate chips, nuts, those all sound good! Me? I’m a blondie purist, save for a dusting of powdered sugar, but honestly, these guys don’t need the cover up. They are rich, chewy, slightly nutty from the browned butter, and not overly sweet. And, weirdly, quite important for me: NOT TOO TALL! I kind of like my blondies hovering around a centimeter in height, whereas I prefer a good solid inch square for brownies. Personal preference, probably influenced by that school cafeteria dessert so long ago.

I hope you enjoy these as much as I do!

Chocolate Beet Cake with Cream Cheese Beet Frosting 

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Happy November! I hope you all had a great first week and have had time to adjust to the fact that we are less than two months away from a NEW YEAR! Whoa. We are spending our time delaying pinning down travel plans for the holidays and watching Hallmark Christmas movies. (We like to yell life advice at the characters, like, “HE SHOULDN’T WANT YOU TO GIVE UP THE JOB YOU LIKE IN THE CITY IF HE REALLY LOVES YOU!”) Anyway.

As soon as it turned chilly, I started cooking up a storm, and now our fridge is now full of deliciously cozy leftovers. I’ve reached an age (and the time of year) where I cook at home almost every day because I just don’t want to go outside. Our dinner sides often consist of whatever vegetables I can roast together with some salt, pepper, and oil without giving them much thought. In fall, that vegetable increasingly becomes beets. We have them around the house constantly this time of year, which made me start hunting for new recipes. Then I realized, why not dessert??

This recipe for chocolate beet cake with beet cream cheese glaze comes to you because 1) I LOVE beets (tbh, it’s hard to believe there aren’t several more beet recipes on this blog) and 2) because it’s been really dreary here lately and I needed a pop of color (provided by the bright, naturally beet-colored cream cheese glaze).

The thought of pairing beets and chocolate might seem strange, but it shouldn’t. During the World Wars, when sugar and butter were rationed, home cooks would often add beets or beet juice to their chocolate cakes for both their color and to help keep the cake moist.

And, you may not think of beets as a sweet vegetable, but they actually contain a high amount of sugar. It wasn’t until the mid-1700’s that German chemist Andrea Margraff discovered that sucrose could be derived from beetroot. Initially, this discovery was nothing more than an interesting realization, but a few years after Margraff’s death, and almost fifty years after Margraff first made his discovery of sucrose in beets, one of his students, Franz Carl Achard, revived his studies. Achard began experimenting with sugar-producing plants on the grounds of his home, finding that sugar beets were the most efficient producers of sugar. More than 10 years after beginning his studies, Achard opened the first sugar beet processing plant in present-day Konary, Poland, under the patronage of Frederick William III of Prussia. Within 10 years of opening, the Napoleonic Wars had started, and the plant was destroyed during the fighting, though by this point other factories had begun springing up. The sugar beet sugar industry surged during the war, particularly in Germany, because Napoleon established a blockade that prevented Caribbean cane sugar from reaching Europe and, in 1813, banned the import of sugar all together. This ban ensured that factories producing sugar from sugar beets continued to pop up. The success of Achard in deriving sugar from beets so worried British sugar merchants that they offered him money to say that his experiments had failed, but he refused. Today, most of the sugar we consume comes from sugar cane, but a surprising 30% of the world’s sugar still comes from sugar beets.

Which brings us to this chocolate beet cake–in this case, not made with the sweetest beet, the sugar beet, but just regular old purple beets you find in the grocery store.

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Chocolate Beet Cake with Cream Cheese Beet Frosting
This recipe is inspired by Joy the Baker’s Beet Cake, and my recipe for malted chocolate cake. I used a 10-inch bundt pan, but this is about 6 cups of batter, so two 8 or 9-inch round cake pans could be used instead, though you will need to adjust your cooking time.

Ingredients:
For cake:
1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 1/4 tsp baking soda
1 1/4 tsp baking powder
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, plus more for dusting the bundt pan
1 1/2 tsp salt
2 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup vegetable oil, plus more for greasing the pan
1/2 cup boiling water
1 1/2 cups shredded beets (about 2-3 large beets)

For glaze:
4 oz cream cheese, very soft
1/3 cup milk
6 tbsp powdered sugar

Instructions: 

For cake:
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Thoroughly wash beets (without peeling them), coat them in olive or vegetable oil, and wrap them in foil. Place on a cookie sheet and bake for about an hour or until you can easily pierce them through with a fork. Remove from the oven and allow them to cool completely. Once cooled, cut off the ends, peel with a knife or vegetable peeler. Shred them on a box grater. Set aside.

Turn oven down to 350 degrees.

In a medium-sized bowl, mix together the flour, sugars, baking soda and powder, unsweetened cocoa powder, and salt.

In a large bowl, beat together the eggs, buttermilk, vanilla, and vegetable oil.

Pour the dry mixture into the wet mixture and use a spoon to stir together until no flour streaks remain.

Add the boiling water and stir until completely combined. Add the shredded beets, reserving about 1/4 cup for glaze, and stir until combined.

Coat a 10-inch bundt pan with vegetable oil or butter, and dust with cocoa powder.

Add the batter evenly to the bundt pan and bake for 35 to 45 minutes. Begin checking at 35 minutes by inserting a toothpick or thin knife. If it comes out clean, it’s done.

Allow the cake to cool in the pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Then, trace the edges of the pan with a butter knife and invert onto the wire rack to cool completely.

For glaze:
In a small saucepan, add 1/4 cup shredded beets to milk. Heat, stirring occasionally, removing from heat when the milk begins to steam. Strain the shredded beet from the mixture. Allow to cool slightly.

In a small bowl, combine the softened cream cheese with powdered sugar. Beat with a mixer until smooth. Beat in 1 tbsp of the beet-milk until you reach the desired consistency.

Pour evenly over the top of the cooled cake.

Serve and enjoy!

Chocolate Beet Cake

I like a tender cake. Tender and moist. Probably because I grew up on cakes made from boxes (I love them still), with everything perfectly measured and timed for the home baker. This cake gives me both of those things. And it makes me wonder why everyone isn’t putting beets into their baked goods. Please let me know if you have other beet-in-dessert recipes. I’m dying to try them!