National Cookie Day + Speculaas

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Did you all survive Thanksgiving? We had the best time in our new place, with old friends who trekked all the way up here so that I could make them various carb casseroles and fill them with wine. Then we slept in and ate pie for breakfast. It was the best. And later this week, we’ll get our tree, after which we will reward our hard work by making mulled wine, eating Jet’s pizza and watching Hallmark movies for the rest of the night. We may also eat a salad, because geez, our diets are really screwed up by holiday eating and my pants are already starting to object.

Until I full-on can’t fit into my pants anymore, we’re talking cookies! If you’ve stepped foot on Instagram today, you’ve probably noticed that today is #nationalcookieday. Obviously, December is peak cookie-making time, not only in the United States, but around the world. Obviously, sweets have been making an appearance at special events since early times, but how did the cookie become synonymous with Christmas?

Europeans have been making cookies around Christmas since at least the 1500s. It was also around this time that gingerbread, as a sweetened form of cake, gained popularity in Britain. Gingerbread was not yet considered a Christmas tradition, but was instead used in various instances of “wooing,” with gingerbread men even being used by Queen Elizabeth I as a gift to dignitaries.

Gingerbread cookies have been made for almost that long, employing some variation of sugar, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves, all spices that were brought back to Europe during and after the Crusades. And while gingerbread didn’t become associated with Christmas-time in Britain until the reign of Queen Victoria, gingerbread-type cookies called speculaas have been made in the Netherlands and Belgium since at least the 1600s. The cookies are often large and imprinted with a cookie press, depicting a variety of scenes. It is even rumored that woodcarvers could design their own cookie mold, portraying their profession, and give it to the woman they hoped to marry. There is no definite proof of the name’s history, but it’s said that it may come from the Latin word “speculum,” which means “mirror,” because of the mirror image imprint that a cookie stamp would leave behind. Another theory is that the name is taken from the Dutch word for spice, “specerij.”

Speculaas/Speculoos, to Americans, might mean the delicious cookie butter you can buy at Trader Joe’s. However, in the Low Countries, speculaas is most often made to celebrate St. Nicholas Day, which is celebrated in early December by Western Christians, and in mid-December by Eastern Christians. St. Nicholas Day celebrates the feast of St. Nicholas, a fourth-century Greek saint who was said to have secretly given gifts and performed miracles. On St. Nicholas Day eve, children set shoes (instead of stockings) out by the door, hoping that Nicholas might leave a small present inside their shoe for them to find the next day.

And while making cookies around Christmas has been happening in Europe for centuries, the Dutch are credited with bringing the “Christmas cookie” to the United States. This Dutch tradition probably arrived first in what is today New York state’s Dutchess County-area. The English word “cookie” is also of Dutch origin. Koekjes were tiny “cakes” made when cooks used a small amount of batter to test their ovens before baking cake.

We in America do not only owe our Christmas cookie traditions to the Dutch, but our Santa Claus himself. Santa Claus’ name is derived from the Dutch name for Saint Nicholas, Sinterklaas. It is said that Santa Claus may have become an American tradition during the Revolutionary War when, more than 100 years after their ancestors arrived from the Netherlands, colonists in New York were attempting to dissociate themselves from their British enemies and embrace their Dutch heritage.

Even speculaas butter, the Trader Joe’s cookie butter that we all love–which I was sure was an American invention–actually has roots in the Netherlands and Belgium. Workers in those countries were known to make a speculaas “sandwich” of the cookies and butter. By mid-day, the butter would have softened the cookie to a spreadable amalgam.

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Speculaas
Makes 10-12 large cookies, or 20-24 large cookies. This recipe is an adaptation of one from the New York Times.

Ingredients:
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup sugar
1 3/4 cup flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp cardamom
1 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp coriander
1 tsp almond extract
1 tsp orange zest
2-3 tbsp milk, whole

Instructions: 

In a large bowl, beat together the butter and sugar until smooth.

Stir in the flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves, and coriander.

Finally, stir in the almond extract, orange zest, and milk. The mixture should hold when pinched together. If it doesn’t, add one tablespoon of milk at a time until it does.

Form the dough into a disk and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least two hours, or up to overnight.

After refrigerated, roll the dough out on a floured surface to 1/8-inch thick.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Cut out shapes using cooking cutters or stamps, placing the cutouts onto cookie sheets. Continue to roll out the remaining dough until you have used all of it.

Bake cookies for 20 minutes, rotating once halfway through cooking. Allow to cool for five minutes on the cookie sheet before removing to cooling rack.

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If you’re not into crisp cookies (like me), you might not love these cookies. Though I am considering making them again, just to turn them into an icebox cake. But the history of these cookies is the most interesting part, like most of what I write about here. These old recipes have mostly become well-worn American ideas, but it is exciting (at least to me!) to dig up their stories and show how our traditions in the United States have been shaped over the centuries. Happy National Cookie Day, y’all!

National Boston Cream Pie Day

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I don’t know why October 23rd is National Boston Cream Pie Day, but it is! Boston Cream Pie has been on my to-make list for so long. I think I’ve actually tried to do a post on it for several years running, and something always came up. But 2019 is my year in so many ways, that it’s also going to be the year I tackle the Boston Cream Pie post. Strap in.

If you’re unfamiliar, I should first break the news that Boston Cream Pie is not a pie at all. Instead, it’s a two-layer sponge cake, filled with cream, and topped with chocolate ganache. It’s likely, though, that the “pie” part of its name came from the cake being baked in a pie tin. Pies and cakes were often cooked in the same pans in earlier days, and the names would have been used interchangeably.

The Boston Cream Pie is associated most closely with the Parker House Hotel (now the Omni Parker House Hotel) in Boston. More specifically, they can be traced back to one man, Augustine Francois Anezin, a Frenchman who was the head cook at the Hotel. Many records incorrectly listed Anezin’s name as Sanzian, which immediately made me think he was Armenian, instead of French, but it turns out they just got his name wrong. He was definitely French, born around 1824 in Marseilles, France. He didn’t begin his tenure as chef at the Parker House until he was about 40, so his famous pie-cake would’ve been created sometime after 1865, but before he retired in 1881.

However, even though Anezin was responsible for bringing the pie to the Parker House Hotel, he did not invent cream pies (cake). They had already been around for years, but might have been enjoying a bump in popularity around this time. In fact, there is a recipe that dates back to 1864 called “Boston Cream Cakes” in Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book, a women’s monthly book published in Philadelphia. The Boston Cream Cakes recipe differs slightly from the Boston Cream Pie recipe that we know today, but it does show how common pudding pies and cakes were in that day. And it is interesting that, even in those early days, a pudding cake was attributed to Boston.

I’ve found no original recipe for Anezin’s Boston cream pie, but it was likely composed of sponge cake leavened with eggs, as baking powders were not yet commonly used in American baking until after the 1860s. And his recipe may or may not have had chocolate on top at the time. What we do know is that it was years before it would become known as Boston Cream Pie. Recipes referencing “Boston Cream Pie” begin popping up in newspapers outside of Boston as early as 1876. These recipes call for a sponge cake to be baked, split and filled with pudding, but with no mention of chocolate on top. Perhaps some credit for the chocolate covered version of the Boston Cream Pie should go to a woman named Maria Parloa, a well-known “domestic scientist” of her time. In 1877, she opened Miss Parloa’s School of Cooking in Boston. Ten years later, Parloa published her book Miss Parloa’s Kitchen Companion. In the book, Parloa has a recipe for “chocolate cream pie,” which appears very similar to what we know today as the Boston cream pie, calling for two rounds of cake, filled with pastry cream, and now with the addition of a chocolate icing topping. While Ms. Parloa’s name isn’t as well-known today, she was considered something of a “celebrity chef” of her time. (So, perhaps the “Boston” in Boston Cream Pie comes from Ms. Parloa’s version of the pudding pie, and her link to the city of Boston, rather than Anezin’s. It’s hard to know without documentation of the original recipe.) Whatever the origin, the pie-cake, topped with chocolate ganache, over time became eponymous with, not the hotel that it is attributed to, but the city of Boston itself. In 1996, it was even declared that Boston Cream Pie was the state dessert of Massachusetts, beating out other local treats, such as the Toll House cookie and Indian pudding.

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Boston Cream Pie
Makes one 8-inch cream pie.

Ingredients:
For cake:
3 eggs
3/4 cups granulated sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 cups flour

For pastry cream:
3 egg yolks
1 egg
6 tbsp sugar
3 tbsp cornstarch
1/4 tsp salt
2 cups milk
2 tsp vanilla extract
3 tbsp unsalted butter

For ganache:
4 oz semi-sweet chocolate bar, chopped into small pieces
1/2 cup heavy cream

Instructions: 

For pastry cream: Stir together the yolks, egg, sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a heat-safe bowl until completely combined. Set aside.

Heat the milk in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, until small bubbles just begin to form around the edge of the saucepan. Turn off the heat.

Pour about half of the milk, very slowly, in a thin stream into the egg mixture, whisking rapidly and constantly to temper the eggs. Once the eggs are tempered, pour the egg mixture back into the remaining milk in the saucepan.

Turn the heat back on medium. Whisking constantly, allow the mixture to come to a boil. Once you see bubbles forming, keep mixing for about 1-2 minutes. You should see the mixture becoming thick.

Remove from heat, pour into a clean oven-safe bowl, and put a piece of plastic wrap directly on top of the hot pastry cream. Allow the pastry cream to come to room temperature, then refrigerate for at least two hours before using in your cream pie.

For cake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Thoroughly grease an 8 x 2-inch round cake pan, and line bottom of the pan with parchment paper.

Beat together the eggs, sugar, salt, and vanilla extract until very pale yellow in color, about 12-15 minutes, with a hand mixer. The mixture should be quite thick.

Sift the flour over the top of the batter in three or four batches, completely mixing the flour in with a wooden spoon between each addition.

Pour the mixture into the greased cake pan and place on the center rack in the oven for 20 minutes.

The top of the cake should be golden on top by this time. Before opening the oven door, turn off the heat and crack the oven door, but do not yet remove the cake. Allow the cake to sit in the oven for 5 minutes.

Remove the cake from the oven and allow to cool upside down on a cooling rack.

Once the cake has cooled completely, carefully remove the cake from the pan. You may need to use a butter knife to loosen the sides of the cake from the pan, even if you greased the pan well.

Slice the cake in half, lengthwise.

Top the bottom half of the cake with the pastry cream, and place the top of the cake on the pastry cream. Place in the fridge while you make the ganache.

For ganache: Place the chopped chocolate in a heat-safe bowl.

Warm the heavy cream in a small saucepan, until you just begin to see bubbles forming around the edge of the pan.

Pour the milk directly over the chopped chocolate. Allow to sit for about 5 minutes.

Stir together the chocolate and the cream until it is fully combined and smooth.

Spoon the ganache over the top of the cake and smooth to the edges, allowing some to drip over the sides.

Enjoy!

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I got lost in the research for this post, because I was fascinated to learn about Maria Parloa, whom I had never heard of before. Also, the recipes that I saw reprinted in newspapers under the name chocolate cream pie seem to be taken verbatim from her book, so it is surprising that she has not traditionally been a part of the Boston cream pie story. The research is a bit thin all around, but I always love to chase these histories, and I also loved making this pie/cake.

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!

Peanut Butter and Jelly Linzer Cookies

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Ah, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I prefer them more in my adult life than I ever did as a kid. I have distinct memories of peanut butter in jelly sandwiches in a brown paper bags for lunch. Then, when lunch came, I usually wouldn’t eat, because by that time, the jelly had seeped through the soft white bread. As a child, I found this unacceptable, assuming something was wrong with it. I was an awful child, is what I’m saying.

But every now and again, since becoming an adult, I will need a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. If I can’t think of anything to eat, and I’m not craving anything (a real rarity), I’ll just make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and everything is right with the world again.

Some might argue that a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is more American than apple pie. (And they would basically be right, since apple pie has been around since at least the 1300’s, and probably originated in England.) Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are a truly American, born and bred.

The peanut butter and jelly sandwich came about with the proliferation of its three ingredients, at approximately the same time: peanut butter, jelly, and sliced bread.

Let’s begin with peanut butter. Peanut butter was developed in the late 1800’s as a health food, by John Harvey Kellogg, a name you might recognize from your breakfast cereals as a kid. Kellogg ran the Western Heath Reform Institute, a sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan, which was more a health spa for the middle and upper classes, rather than a hospital. Kellogg began using a peanut paste in the sanitarium as a way of administering vitamins for patients who had trouble chewing or swallowing. Before Kellogg, it was Dr. Ambrose Straub who patented the first peanut butter making machine. Kellogg, however, patented the first process to produce peanut butter. At this time, the peanut paste that Kellogg was feeding his patients was unlike the butter as we know it today. It would be years before peanut butter was available to the masses, as it did not transport well, and was generally only considered a health food for the rich.

By 1901, the very first peanut butter and jelly sandwich recipe was printed in The Boston Cooking School Magazine of Culinary Science & Domestic Economics, by Julia Davis Chandler. Chandler suggested that her readers serve the bread, crab apple jelly, and peanut paste bite, to guests at parties, or high tea. Though Chandler combined peanut butter with jelly, at the time, peanut butter was most often served with savory accompaniments, such as watercress, at upscale restaurants or tea rooms.

As for jelly, it has been around, in some form, for more than a thousand years. The first known recipe for a jam dates back to the 4th or 5th century in one of the earliest known cookbooks in existence, De re coquinaria (called the Art of Cooking in English), otherwise known as Apicius (after its presumptive author). However, until pasteurization, jelly would have been made in smaller batches, for the home. It was Nicholas Appert, a Frenchman, who answered Napoleon Bonaparte’s offer of a reward for anyone who could find a way to preserve foods in large quantities for soldiers in 1785. Appert discovered that, by boiling the fruit at high temperatures, and storing them in jars that had been tightly sealed, food would remain safe to eat for long periods of time. Since that time, home cooks would use this method to make jams and jellies as a way of preserving seasonal fruit for the winter. In 1918, however, the brand Welch’s, which was, at the time, exclusively making grape juice, invented “Grapelade,” a food similar to marmalade, but using grapes. The initial stock was bought by the U.S. Army for troop rations during World War I. After the War, the troops brought home their love of grapelade, and in 1923, Welch’s created their Concord grape jelly, the cornerstone of the original PB&J.

The third and final component of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is the bread. Of course, bread has been around for thousands of years. But, like jam, making bread was something that was often done in the home, and required time. In the late 1920’s, Otto Frederick Rodhwedder of Iowa invented a bread slicing machine, which revolutionized the way people ate bread. With the arrival of sliced bread, people were eating more bread than ever before. And the timing of the invention, just a few years after Welch’s released their grape jelly, meant that people were using more jams to go along with their bread. By this time, too, peanut butter was no longer considered only a food for the rich. The price point had dropped, allowing all classes to enjoy it. By the time the Great Depression hit in 1929, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches had become an easy, fairly nutritious, and cost-effective meal that was easy for children and adults alike to assemble and carry with them. By the time WWII began, peanut butter and jelly sandwich ingredients were included in the soldiers rations, which cemented their status as a icon in American history.

For today’s recipe, I thought, why not take the beloved sandwich, and dessert-ize it by turning into a beloved sandwich cookie. I give you: Peanut Butter and Jelly Linzer Cookies.

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Peanut Butter and Jelly Linzer Cookies
Makes about 15 sandwich cookies. Adapted from this recipe from Southern Living.

Ingredients: 
1 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
1 large egg
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
3 cups flour
3/4 tsp salt
1/3 cup grape jelly
powdered sugar, optional

Instructions:

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

In a large bowl, beat together the butter, both sugars, and the peanut butter until well combined. Add in the egg and vanilla and beat in until just combined. Add in the flour and salt, all at once, and beat in until just combined with no white streaks remaining.

Dump out the dough onto a well-floured surface, gathering up any loose pieces that fall away, and form into a disk. Separate the disk into two equal pieces.

Working with one half of the dough, roll out to 1/4-inch thickness. Cut out 15 (or as many as you can fit) 2 3/4 to 3-inch circles with a cookie or biscuit cutter. Place the cut outs onto the parchment-lined cookie sheet, about 1 centimeter apart.

Bake for about 9-10 minutes, or until lightly golden brown. Allow to cool on the cookie sheet for five minutes, and then remove to a cooling rack.

Repeat the above process with the second half of the dough, this time cutting out a smaller hole in the center of the circle cutouts. Place the cutouts on the second lined cookie sheet and bake for 9-10 minutes.

When the cookies have completely cooled, put a one teaspoon dollop of grape jelly in the center of each of the whole cookies. For the cookies with the center cutout, sprinkle with powdered sugar (optional), and sandwich with the cookies topped with grape jelly.

*Cookies can be served immediately, but I think they actually get better after a day in an airtight container.

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These cookies are quite delicious, almost impossible to stop eating (especially if served with milk!), and really do taste like a PB&J. Bonus: They look like they have little jewels in the middle! Happy National Peanut Butter and Jelly Day! P.S. If you’re craving more peanut butter history, you can check out my previous post here.

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!

Lemon Juice Day + Lemon Curd Tart

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I feel summer leaving and I hear fall knocking. It’s less than a month away, and let me tell you, I’m ready for it: Apple cider slushies from County Line Orchard, autumn-colored mums on stoops, fuzzy sweaters, and making my Halloween costume… However, we have a lot of stuff to do before summer disappears completely. We have a BIG September coming up. We’re going to be traveling a lot. And I’m trying not to think about it all, lest my anxiety goes into overdrive.

But before September arrives, let’s pucker up: It’s National Lemon Juice Day!

I had no grand plan going into this post. Mostly, I wanted to share a sunny lemon recipe before summer ends. But then I fell down a rabbit hole reading about the history of lemon juice and medical science. We’re going to talk about scurvy first, and then I’m going to give you a lemon tart recipe. Sound good? That all goes hand in hand, right?

Before the 1800’s, there was a deadly scourge plaguing the British Navy’s sailors: scurvy. Scurvy was a disease caused by a severe Vitamin C deficiency. Those inflicted would suffer from things like hallucinations, bleeding gums, weakness, and wounds that wouldn’t heal. Untreated, scurvy would eventually lead to death and it is estimated that, between the years of 1500-1800, 2 million sailors died of the disease. Far fewer were killed during combat.

It wasn’t until 1747 that Dr. James Lind, a Scot and ship’s surgeon aboard the HMS Salisbury, discovered that lemons could be used to prevent scurvy. Lind’s fellow crewmembers were afflicted with an outbreak of scurvy, so the doctor began an experiment using 12 sick sailors. One group was given seawater, while others were given sulfuric acid or cider. Two of the men were given two oranges and lemon. While most of the other sailors remained ill, one of the sailors given citrus was healed, and the other had greatly improved by the end of the six day trial. Using this information, Lind published A Treatise of the Scurvy in 1753. The work linked a lack of scurvy with citrus fruit, as well as other fruits and vegetables, though at this time, Vitamin C was not pinpointed as the key.

But Lind’s discovery was ignored! To give you an idea of the cost: During the Seven Years War, which began three years after Lind wrote his Treatise, of the almost 185,000 men who enlisted in the Royal Navy, around 1,500 died in combat, while another 133,000 died from disease, mostly scurvy. It wasn’t until years later that the wider community learned the secret, after another Scottish physician in the Royal Navy, Sir Gilbert Blane, wrote a pamphlet entitled On the most effective means for preserving the health of seamen, particularly in the Royal Navy. He also pushed for monthly health updates from sailors, and began advocating for sailors to be given citrus during times at sea. The suggestion was finally implemented in 1795, almost 50 years after Lind’s first scurvy treatment experiment.

Incredibly, it turns out that Lind’s discovery and lack of traction was not even the first time this had happened. In 2016, a cure for scurvy was found written in a book of household remedies in 1707 by housewife Ebot Mitchell, from Gloucester, England. Mitchell’s “Recp.t for the Scurvy” includes alcohol and a healthy serving of orange juice to combat the illness. Had her recipe been more widespread, thousands of lives could have been saved.

I found it amazing that the use of citrus juice to combat scurvy has been forgotten and rediscovered more than once in the history of seafaring. The disease killed thousands before knowledge of its treatment became widespread. Eventually, however, the cure became very closely associated with the British Navy: If you’ve ever heard a British person referred to as a “limey,” that nickname comes from the practice of British sailors eating lemons, and eventually limes, from the Caribbean while at sea. Meanwhile, in the United States, the citrus cure for scurvy wasn’t commonly used until after the American Civil War, when many men succumbed to the disease.

So, you could basically consider this lemon tart a health food recipe.

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Lemon Tart 
Makes one 8-inch tart.

Ingredients: 
For shortbread crust:
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp whole milk
1 1/4 cup flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt
10 tbsp unsalted butter, cubed and very cold

For curd filling:
3/4 cup lemon juice
2/3 cup sugar
1/8 tsp salt
zest of 1 lemon (about 1 & 1/2 tsp)
3 eggs
8 tbsp unsalted butter, cubed and room temperature

Instructions: 

In a small bowl, combine the vanilla, egg yolk, and milk. Whisk to combine.

In a food processor, combine the flour, sugar, and salt. Pulse to combine. Add in the butter and pulse until butter is in pea-sized pieces. Add in your egg-milk mixture and pulse until the mixture combines and begins to pull away from the sides of the processor bowl.

Pour the mixture out onto a lightly floured surface. Pull the dough together, kneading a few times until all dry streaks are combined. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 35-40 minutes.

Once rested, press the dough into an 8-inch pie pan using your fingers. Using a fork, poke holes all over the top of the dough. Refrigerate the dough as you preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Before putting in the oven, fill the pastry shell with parchment paper held down by dried beans or pie weights. Bake for 20 minutes, remove parchment and pie weights, and continue baking for about 15 minutes, or until lightly golden brown.

Allow the tart crust to cool for at least half an hour before beginning the curd.

For the filling, add the lemon juice, sugar, lemon zest, and eggs to a heavy-bottomed saucepan and whisk to combine. Place over medium heat and begin continually whisking, adding a few cubes of butter at a time. Continue whisking after all the butter has been added, until the mixture begins to thicken. Remove from heat.

Pour curd through a metal strainer straight into the cooled tart crust. Use the back of a spoon to push the curd through the strainer.

Allow the curd to cool to room temperature and then refrigerate for at least 2 hours as the curd sets.

Sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar (optional), and enjoy!

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It’s quite lemony, which is my favorite. If you’d rather make it a bit sweeter and less tart, you can use equal parts lemon and sugar. Also, if you’re looking for more lemon juice recipes, might I suggest one of my favorite summer desserts of all time (to squeeze in before summer is completely over): Lemon Atlantic Beach Pie.

I wish you fair winds and following seas!

Michigan Trip + Blueberry Muffins

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Hey, guys! How was your 4th of July?? I hope it was full of good eating and safe fireworking! We spent our 4th on the road, on our first road trip of the season! We were in Michigan for a few days, stopping in all the adorable lakeside towns we could find. We made a stop at the National Cherry Festival in Traverse City and ate plenty of cherry pie, cherry donuts, and cherry salsa (SO.GOOD.). We ended by spending some time in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, Sleeping Bear Dunes.

On our way back to the city, we stopped to grab some blueberries from a roadside fruit stand. (Did you know that the western swath of Michigan is part of America’s fruit belt? What a perfect place to be when practically every beautiful fruit is in season.) Blueberries are native to the United States, and Michigan is one of the top producers of the berry.

Native Americans have been using the wild plant for centuries, usually combining it with meat and fat to form pemmican, or adding it to cornmeal bread, or using it as a dye for clothing. But wild blueberries are not the blueberries that you find in stores. In the early 20th century, a botanist named Frederick Coville began experimenting with ways to domesticate wild blueberries. He published his findings in 1910, revealing that wild blueberries thrived in acidic soil, and his work was read by a cranberry farmer’s daughter living in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, named Elizabeth Coleman White. She had often noticed wild blueberries growing near her family’s cranberry bogs, so she reached out to Coville, inviting him to her farm to continue his study of how the wild fruit could be bred as a viable season-lengthening crop. Coville, with the funding of White’s father, was able to work with local residents who knew where the the best wild plants were located. For five years, locals would bring Coville wild berry plants. Coville, in turn, would attempt to cultivate the wild plants. Only a handful of the 100 plants that were brought to Coville proved successful. In 1916, Coville and White sent their first domesticated blueberries to market. It’s hard to believe that “tame” blueberries have only been available for a little over 100 years.

Blueberries are on the menu today because… it’s National Blueberry Muffin Day, and on top of that, July is National Blueberry Month! So let’s celebrate!

I have the best memories of my mom making blueberry muffins (from a box) on Saturday mornings, biting into the warm muffins too soon and getting burned by little molten lava blueberries. I also have great memories of just destroying the cartons of blueberries my mom would buy in the summer. I think I was trying to get all my nutrients in one sitting.

Anyway, this recipe for blueberry muffins is not from a box, but it’s still weekend-morning-easy to make, and makes tall and fluffy muffins that aren’t too sweet (very important to me, when it comes to muffins) and are just stuffed to the gills with fresh blueberries. They are what you want in the morning and also any other time of the day.

For the muffin recipe, I tweaked the no-fail pancake recipe that I’ve been using for over a decade. The pancakes are delicious, I thought, so why not try it. The results did not disappoint.

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Blueberry Muffins
Makes 12 muffins.

Ingredients:
2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 cup buttermilk (or 1 cup whole milk, plus two tbsp lemon juice or white vinegar)
5 tbsp unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups blueberries, washed and dried

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Combine the flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, and baking soda in a large mixing bowl.

In a large measuring cup, or small mixing bowl, combine the buttermilk, butter, egg, and vanilla extract. Whisk to combine. (If you don’t have buttermilk, you can instead use 1 cup whole milk, combined with 2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice or white vinegar. If you use this method, combine these items and allow to sit for five minutes before adding the butter, egg, and vanilla.)

Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients until just combined. (If the mixture is still a little dry, you can add up to a 1/4 cup of whole milk, one tablespoon at a time. The mixture should still be quite lumpy, but should not be clumping together or have any dry streaks.) Carefully fold in blueberries, without too much additional stirring.

Allow the batter to rest for about 10 minutes at room temperature.

Fill a muffin tin with paper liners. Spoon the mixture into the top of each liner. Bake for 10 minutes, then turn the pan 180 degrees and continue baking for another 10 minutes. (You can begin checking for doneness at the 18 minute mark. When done, the top of the muffin should spring back when gently pressed.)

Remove the muffins from the oven and allow to cool in the pan for about 10 minutes. Eat right away, or remove to a wire rack until completely cooled.

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I believe these muffins will be making a regular appearance in my house from here on out. The recipe only makes twelve muffins, because I find that they don’t keep for very long, and while they’re good, 12 muffins seems sufficient for most households. However, the recipe could easily be doubled if you have guests or are a blueberry muffin monster.

Also, if you have any good recipes that use blueberries, please pass them on. I still have lots and I cannot sit back and watch these precious babies go bad. Back in May, I made blueberry rhubarb pandowdy. I’m thinking of doing it again, this time swapping out the rhubarb for some delicious, sweet peaches that I’ve had my eye on.

I hope you’re taking full advantage of blueberry/fruit season. If you follow this blog, or my social media, I will apologize now for the inundation of fruit-related recipes/photos that are to come. You’ve been warned!