homemade vanilla sugar

With holiday baking in full swing, my kitchen is powering through sugar and vanilla extract faster than I thought possible (I had a different analogy prepared, but I’ve already offended today).  Almost everything that comes out of my oven contains vanilla in some form or another.  And lots of it.  So when last week’s caramel sauce left two vanilla beans behind, the only warranted next move involved their reincarnation.  Whether whole or scraped of the caviar, vanilla beans can make an intensely fragrant and flavored sugar.  Because I’m a fiend, I’ll still use extract, but some recipes definitely benefit from the extra dose.


1 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean, cut in half and split lengthwise
airtight container



1. Place a cut vanilla bean into food processor, add sugar and pulse a few times.

2. Transfer to an airtight container and store away.  Pretty easy.

The aroma of vanilla will strengthen over time.  Just remember to sift the sugar through a small strainer before use.  Then add more sugar, and eventually another bean.

white chocolate chip, pistachio & sea salt cookies

Dinner’s been made and eaten, and the kitchen cleaned sterilized.  It’s time for dessert, but there’s nothing sweet in the house.  No, an apple isn’t the kind of sweet I want right now.  Unless it’s warm, sprinkled with cinnamon, flanked by a buttery crust and bathing in vanilla ice cream, an apple is just an apple.  I want a real dessert.  And now that I’ve mentioned it, my main taste tester does, too.  The problem is, I’ve already taken my face off, and have slipped into my velour jumpsuit (aka “comphies”), so going out for dessert is not an potion.  There may not be anything sweet in the house, but I do have white chocolate chips, a bag of shelled pistachios (a bad idea unless you practice restraint) and all the basic baking ingredients.

It’s settled– we’re having cookies!



What I love most about these cookies is that the sweet, salty, chewy and crunchy all happen at the same time.  The pistachios can be chopped with a knife, but using a food processor creates coarsely chopped pieces, plus a bit of pistachio butter, which enhances the flavor.



Materials (for 25-30 cookies, depending on your scoop, and whether you eat raw batter like I do; adapted from Joy the Baker)

1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1 Tbsp vanilla
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp Kosher or sea salt
1 1/2 cups white chocolate chips
1 cup shelled pistachios, chopped in the food processor
coarse sea salt for sprinkling



1. Pre-heat oven to 300 degrees F.  Line a cookie sheet with a silicone mat or parchment paper, and set aside.

Before I continue, I have to tell you that I love love love my silicone mat.  But, to see what difference it would make, I baked a batch of these cookies on parchment paper, and these cookies took 5 minutes longer to bake, looked different and had a slightly harder texture.  The silicone mat cookies baked faster and had a better consistency.  Both materials work.  It’s just a matter of what you have available.

2. In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda and salt.  Set aside.

3. In another bowl, beat butter and sugars until light and fluffy.  Add the egg, and beat to combine. Add vanilla and beat until completely mixed in.

4. Pour in the dry ingredients, and mix until incorporated, but don’t over beat.

5. Using a spoon, stir in the chocolate chips and pistachios.

6. Scoop out about 2 Tbsp and form into a ball.  Place on prepared cookie sheet about 2 inches apart, and bake for 15-18 minutes, or until cookies are golden brown.

7. Allow to cool at room temperature for a few minutes; then transfer to a cooling rack.  Store cookies in an airtight container at room temperature.

I reheated day old cookies in a toaster oven for about a minute at 200 degrees, and they were as perfect as their freshly-baked cousins.


vanilla beans

If you’ve ever been in my presence, you know that I always smell of vanilla.  It’s my absolute favorite scent, and I not only saturate myself in it, but almost everything I bake contains vanilla.  Tahitian, Mexican, Bourbon… extract, beans, perfume… anything vanilla is a treat in my manuscript.  When using extract in baking, I rarely measure and usually just pour directly from the jar.  And if I do measure, I add extra.  The richest vanilla fragrance, however, comes from the bean itself.  No extract can substitute the decadence a vanilla bean provides.  It’s the second most expensive spice in the world, and if you’ve ever worked with a real bean, you know why.  Saffron is number one, by the way.

Not sure why it took me so long, but I started making my own extract earlier this year.  As with most homemade products, there’s no comparison to store bought version, no matter how fancy.  Homemade vanilla extract means I control what alcohol is used and how long to age it.  It also means that I get to keep the pod, which can be used to make vanilla sugar and, most important, that my extract is studded with caviar.

Ten vanilla beans arrived in the mail today, and I can hardly wait to put them to work and share the recipes.  Glistening with moisture and sticky with caviar, some beans will become extract, others custard, ice cream or cake; a few will become sugar and at least one will be stored in a test tube in case of emergency.

Vanilla is but plain or ordinary.  My hands still smell divine and there may be a fragrant dot or two on the camera…

chocolate-dipped coconut macaroons

“Yuck, coconut.  I hate coconut!”

“Give it here, Percy.  I don’t mind coconut.”

“You don’t mind nothin’, girl!”

If you’ve seen Corrina, Corrina, you may recognize those quotes from the scene in which the kids are sitting around eating chocolates.  Percy bites into two bon bons and proclaims his hate for cream and coconut, while his chubby cousin quickly accepts the task of getting rid of them for him.  Too cute!  This was the inspiration behind chocolate-dipped coconut macaroons.  That, and my dad’s birthday is coming up and he, unlike Percy, loooves coconut, and chocolate!

These macaroons are super easy to make.  Only six ingredients, two bowls and a little heat.  The result is a chewy center and a crunchier outside that just begs to be bitten.


Materials (for approximately 13 macaroons; recipe adapted from the Barefoot Contessa)

7 ounces shredded sweetened coconut (1/2 standard package)
7 ounces sweetened condensed milk (1/2 can)
2 Tbsp vanilla (1 Tbsp is OK, but the extra vanilla gives a more intense aroma)
1 egg white
pinch of Kosher salt
8-10 ounces semi-sweet chocolate or chocolate chips



1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.  Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper, and set aside.

2. In a medium bowl, stir together coconut, condensed milk and vanilla.

3. In another bowl, beat egg white and salt using an electric mixer until stiff peaks appear.

4. Gently fold the whipped egg white into the coconut mixture, and stir well to combine.

5. Use a small ice cream scoop, funnel or tablespoon and portion out about 2-3 Tbsp worth of final coconut mixture.  You can also use a piping bag with a large tip (or a plastic bag with a corner cut off), and pipe directly onto the parchment paper.

6. Bake for 20 minutes or until the macaroons are golden brown.

7. Remove from oven and rest on a cooling rack (a refrigerator works well for faster cooling).

8. In a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt chocolate on very low heat until creamy.  Use a whisk to stir.

9. Remove from heat, and dip one side or bottoms of cooled macaroons into the chocolate, or drizzle some on top.

The method doesn’t matter, as long as you are generous.  Place finished macaroons on a plate lined with wax paper (helps with removal) and allow to set for at least 30 minutes.  These sweet babies keep well in the fridge, but prefer to be stored in your belly.


a change of heart & lemon olive oil cake

Last week, while walking to New Seasons with my other half, I announced my plan to make an olive oil cake.  “Why?” he protested.  For fun, because a lemon winked at me earlier, and why not?  It’s cake, and cake consumption doesn’t always need to be justified.  He wasn’t convinced, but wasn’t going to stand in my way.  By now, he knows better.

Fast forward two minutes.  New Seasons is having a tasting, and on the menu– almond olive oil cake.  As though I planned it.

A bite in, and I hear a hearty “yuuum.”  Can you tell where this is going?

Another two minutes and three samples later, my olive oil cake idea is brought up.  But this time, it’s heavily supported and encouraged.  Though it was tasty, the almond cake had anise in it, which I try to avoid as much as possible.  It reminds me of O-chem lab and the day I spent too much time in front of a distillation column making my own anise extract.  I’ve since repressed the memory of the licorice-like stench and the grade that came with it.

Lemon it was.

Moist, dense and fluffy inside; crunchy and imperfect on the outside.  Delightful alone; magical alongside a Moscato.  Like my 4.0 GPA, this cake didn’t last long.


Materials (adapted from Gourmet)

1 cup cake flour (or this, in case of emergency)
1 large lemon (zest and juice)
5 egg yolks
4 egg whites
3/4 cups granulated sugar, plus 2 Tbsp for sprinkling
3/4 cup good quality olive oil
1/2 tsp Kosher salt



1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees  F.

2. Grease a 9-inch springform pan with butter, place a 9-inch round piece of parchment paper on the bottom and grease the top of the paper.  Set aside.

3. Grate an entire lemon, add the zest to the flour and squeeze the juice.  Save for a few steps ahead.

4. In a medium bowl, beat yolks and 1/2 cup sugar on high for about 2 minutes, or until the mixture thickens and turns pale yellow.

5. Reduce speed, add olive oil and lemon juice and beat only to combine.

6. Gently fold in the flour mixture, and set bowl aside.

7. In another bowl, beat egg whites and salt until foamy (about 30 seconds).

8. Add sugar, about 1/4 cup at a time, and continue beating until soft peaks form.

9. Gently fold in half of the whites into the yolk mixture until the color lightens, then add the remaining whites and continue to fold in until no streaks remain.

10. Pour batter into the prepared pan, and drop the pan onto a cutting board three times to remove any trapped air bubbles.

11. Sprinkle the remaining 2 Tbsp of sugar over the top, and place into oven.

12. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean and dry.

13. Cool the cake on a rack for 15 minutes, or until you can safely remove the wall of the pan.

14. Allow the cake to further cool at room temperature for about an hour, and then remove the parchment paper from the bottom.  Set onto a serving plate, grab a fork and enjoy the Summer party about to hit your taste buds.

vegan dark chocolate cupcakes with peanut butter cream cheese frosting

Some things just go together.  Bread & butter, the sun & wrinkles, black & everything, and peanut butter & chocolate.  With an important birthday to celebrate, it was crucial to make the most decadent version of a Reese’s cup because on birthdays, calories don’t count.  Just kidding, of course they count, and this cupcake will destroy your diet.  But go for it anyway, because life’s too short to eat non-, low- and free-.

This cupcake doesn’t just resemble sunshine, it causes clouds to part and angels to sing


Materials (for 12 incredibly moist and fluffy cupcakes, adapted from Joy the Baker)

1 1/8 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (best quality available, i.e. NOT Hershey’s)
1 tsp baking soda
pinch of Kosher salt
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
1/3 cup oil (I used light olive)
1 tsp white distilled vinegar (I’ll explain)
1 cup cold water


Frosting (makes enough to generously pipe onto 12 cupcakes. Use half the recipe if lightly spreading onto cupcakes)
8 oz. cream cheese, softened at room temperature
4 ounces (1/2 stick) of butter, softened at room temperature
2-3 cups sifted powdered sugar (depending on desired level of sweetness)
2/3 cup creamy, natural peanut butter
peanut butter cups (for garnish)



1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F, and prepare a cupcake pan with liners and set aside.

2. Sift flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt into a medium bowl, and set aside.

3. In another bowl, add the vanilla extract, oil, vinegar and water.

4. Gently whisk the wet ingredients into the bowl with the dry ingredients, and mix to combine.  Do not use an electrical mixer, and do not overmix (batter will be very runny and wet).

5. Pour the batter into the prepared cupcake pan, and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of a cupcake comes out clean and dry.  Allow cakes to cool completely before frosting.

So why the vinegar?  Well, vinegar is an acid, and its interaction with baking soda (a base) results in a fizzy chemical reaction that creates carbon dioxide, which helps give rise to your cakes and other baked goods.  Works great when you’re out of eggs, or don’t want to use them!

To make the frosting, place the butter and cream cheese into a small bowl and cream using an electrical mixer.  Add half of the powdered sugar, and beat to combine.  Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add remaining sugar, and mix for another 30 seconds.  At this point, you’ve made a luscious cream cheese frosting, and it’s perfectly acceptable to eat a large spoonful of it.  Consider it quality control testing.  To finish the frosting, add peanut butter and mix to combine.  Spread over cooled cupcakes, and garnish with chopped peanut butter cups.  Then do more QC testing.

not-so-secret ingredient banana bread

When an overabundance of ripe bananas presents itself, one has at minimum two sensible options– bake something, or peel and freeze for future smoothie use.  Being in a baking mood, I opted for the former.  I had never made banana bread before, and for whatever reason, believed that I needed no more than 15-20 minutes of baking time.  Be advised, it takes almost an hour.  So don’t agree to go for a walk with your neighbor and the fur-children in “a few minutes” because you’ll turn up a big, fat liar like I did.  Should you do that, invite her over and share the sweet love once it’s out of the oven.  Creamy, buttery, and rich in texture, this recipe’s definitely a winner.  And how could it not be?!  It contains butter and sour cream!


Materials (recipe adapted from Martha Stewart)

1/2 cup softened butter
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs (or 3 small ones)
1 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
3 very ripe bananas, mashed
1/2 cup sour cream (the secret!)
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup roughly chopped walnuts (optional)

P.S.  For a decadent version, add 3/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips with the nuts, or swirl in 3/4 cup Nutella after you’ve poured the batter into the pan.  Take that, bikini season!



1. Heat oven to 350 degrees, and butter the bottom and sides of a 9×5 (8×8 works, too) loaf pan.

2. Using an electric mixer, beat butter and sugar until creamy.  Add eggs and beat for another 30 seconds.

3. In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, salt and cinnamon.

4. Add the butter mixture, and mix until combined.  Add the bananas, sour cream and vanilla and mix.  Stir in nuts.

5. Pour into loaf pan, and bake for approximately 50 minutes, or until a thin knife inserted into the center of the bread comes out clean.


chocolate-dipped peanut butter pretzel sandwiches

Who knew that peanut butter, chocolate and a little crunchy salty goodness would create such bliss?  I did!  I stumbled upon 17 and Baking, and knew that I had to make these stacks, STAT!  And I just so happened to have all the ingredients.  How convenient!  They were extremely easy to make, they’re so good, and quite fun, too.

Let’s hit it!



Materials (for approximately 50 sandwiches)
1 cup creamy peanut butter
2 tsp butter (I used Earth Balance)
2/3 cup powdered sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 tsp vanilla extract (I used 1/2 tsp vanilla paste)
12 oz. bittersweet chocolate chips



1. Beat the butter and peanut butter until smooth and creamy.

2. Add the sugars and vanilla, and mix well– until filling is smooth, but thick enough to handle.

3. Scoop peanut butter mixture between your palms, roll into balls, and sandwich between two pretzels.  Repeat this until your limiting reagent runs out.  Place sandwiches on a plate and freeze for about 15 minutes.

4. In the meantime, melt the chocolate chips in a non-stick boiler on very low heat.

5. Dip each pretzel sammie into chocolate, and place back onto the plate.  Return the plate to the freezer and allow the chocolate to set (about 15 minutes).  Store in refrigerator until ready to serve.  Or place directly into mouth.

They may look sinful, but my math yielded about 65-70 calories per piece. Only.

peanut butter cup martini

While giving the treadmill some ferocious attention, I watched a Food Network special on Hershey’s Chocolate World.  The host of the show took a tour of the chocolate factory, then stopped off at a bar to have a chocolate peanut butter martini, and finished his day at the Spa at Hotel Hershey, where he took a bath in frothy chocolate milk!  While pondering a career change, I promised my taste buds a treat and took note of the martini recipe.  As the euphoria of my run dissipated, so did my memory, taking the crucial recipe with it.  I attempted to recall, but was forced to improvise, and did quite well.



2 oz. Castrie’s peanut rum creme (Frangelico hazelnut liquor works well, too)
1 oz. Godiva chocolate vodka
1 oz. Godiva chocolate liquor
chocolate syrup
peanut butter cup for garnish



1. Shake the rum creme, vodka and liquor in a shaker with ice and pour into a glass drizzled with chocolate syrup.

2. Garnish with a peanut butter cup, and indulge!