Ohhh, the food hangover. I’m writing this from my hometown of Chicago, which is basically the best place in the entire universe to celebrate Thanksgiving (I may be a bit biased). We’ve had fantastic late fall weather (very cold for these now-Californian bones, but very little wind, which really is what kills ya out here), great food, and lots of much-needed family time. I hope wherever you are, even if you’re not in a Thanksgiving-celebrating place, you’re doing the same.
But let’s get real.
Now that November is on its way out, we’re about to get into some hardcore crazy holiday times. Shopping and decorating and baking and holding empty threats over our children’s heads so they’ll behave or finish their dinners, lest they get nothing but coal. Fun times! Might I suggest a little something to kickstart your holiday shopping?
Quirk Books, the wonderful publisher of my first two books, knows how to get folks into a holiday gift-giving frenzy. Through their Quirk DIY Book Club, they offer all kinds of creative titles that are perfect for the crafty types on your holiday shopping list. This month, their featured title is Pure Vanilla, woo-hoo! What this means is that for the month of December you can buy the eBook of PV for a mere $3.99. Hot! And because the Quirk people love my people (read: you), they’re offering up TEN free copies for me to give away. Heck yes!
To win one, just enter below using the Rafflecopter (note that you’ll get extra entries for following on Twitter, Facebook, etc.). Winners will be notified by e-mail after December 8th!
Ooh-whee, are you feelin’ the Fall, people? We are, even in San Francisco. As per usual, the sunshine and blue skies have finally joined us just in time for temperature to drop, which I can never quite get used to. You know what else I can’t get used to? Daylight savings time. Before children, this used to mean an extra hour of sleep, and feeling even cozier in the late afternoon as the sun dropped out of the sky earlier and earlier. Kind of dreamy. But all this means now is that my kids’ sleeping schedules are even more terrible than usual, and I have less hours in the day to try and get a decent photograph of some really great hot chocolate for you (I give up; see above). Bah. Luckily I’ve had a few fun things going on that have buoyed my mood and kept me from jumping off the roof in a premature Seasonal Affective Disorder tirade:
1. Our big Kindergarten girl has really started reading and writing and generally blowing us away with her hilarity. She’s started lamenting the fact that she can’t walk to and from school alone like all the “collegers”. “Collegers” meaning the older kids in her school. Invented, earnestly delivered words are the best words.
2. My baby boy is still very much a baby, but is now eight (!) months old. Which means that we are officially in the Very Best Stage with him, the stage that makes people have babies in the first place: squidgy, babbling, present, funny, lovable, crawling, sitting up, and getting into things that I didn’t even know were in my house. Never mind that I still haven’t had a full night’s sleep since February, right?
3. Honeyed Hot Chocolate, which I will get to in a bit.
4. I’m actually back to work–teaching a class here and there, doing all kinds of recipe development with exciting new ingredients (more on that soon), and realizing that the importance of having some kind of creative project going can’t be overstated, especially for moms. Even within the madness of mothering two small people, making my own creative life a priority has supercharged me in a whole new way. I feel like a better version of myself, a better mother, generally just more excited to be in the world. I can’t help but wonder what the world might be like if every mother took the time to nuture her creative self as much as she does her children. With the way we mothers can multitask, can you imagine the results? We could start a revolution! And here is where I get a little Oprah on you for a sec.
So here we are, careening towards the holidays. Please stop the train, I need to get off.
Fortunately, there is something to look forward to in all this calendar-flipping madness. The good part is that the best of high baking season is coming up soon! Let’s make it great this year, friends. Let’s break out our best tried-and-true recipes and magazine clippings that we shoved away and haven’t gotten to yet. Stock up on flours and sugars and pounds of butter. Finally buy a dang candy thermometer and get to some old-fashioned confectionery magic (you can do it!!). Wrestle the baking sheets out from under the everyday pots and pans and fire up the oven. And hey, even let your kids get into the fray! (I’m speaking for my Type A self here–it’s not my favorite thing to bake with little ones underfoot and under armpit; there I said it.)
But here’s a top tip that I think has changed my baking for the better: Reach for the bittersweet chocolate this year, even if your recipe calls for semi-sweet or milk. I’m talking at least 60 to 70% cacao, nice and dark. Because nothing balances out a sea of sweet quite like it. In the same way that a good hit of salt or acid (like lemon juice or buttermilk) makes sweet things all the more craveworthy, a slight bitter edge can also add the kind of balance that makes you unable to resist taking just one. More. Bite. Tastebud trickery! Plus, if you really love chocolate, bittersweet is just that much more chocolaty, because it’s got more cacao power AND it has less fat and sugar, both of which can coat and confuse the tongue and keep you from getting the ultimate chocolate experience.
I feel like I owe you an apology, friends. I made this Boston Cream Pie weeks (months?) ago, with the intention of telling you all about it the very next day. It was an event, this Boston Cream Pie. A day of assembling the elements–baking cake layers, whisking pastry cream, melting chocolate. Doing my Food Blogger Due Diligence, taking photos of the creation of said elements, in between baby feedings and kid snack distribution and making shopping lists and errands and all those other crazy things you do on Sundays. When the resulting cake was served, we all marveled at its glory. And in fact, it was so good (and enormous) that I promptly lopped off hunks of the remainder and drove around the neighborhood after dark, delivering them to friends after a furiously sent text–HAVE BOSTON CREAM PIE. TOO GOOD. MUST GET IT OUT MY HOUSE. WILL DELIVER.
And then I totally forgot to tell you all about it.
So let’s make up for lost time, yes?
Hey! So basically last week I was all, “You must try dark muscovado sugar! I am totally giving you a fabulous recipe to do just that!” and then BOOM. Ball dropped hard. I’m so sorry. Let’s just say that ever since my girl started kindergarten, she’s turned our entire household into a veritable petri dish. Yeah. Lotta Kleenex around here, not a lotta sleep. Good thing she’s adorable and does hysterical things like making her father play all four judges simulateneously while she pretends to audition for The Voice. Otherwise she’d be wearing a hazmat suit to school and/or possibly living in her own apartment.
Okay! So, cake. This cake. This seemingly innocent, plain-looking, how-great-can-it-be-REALLY? cake. You know what I love about this? It’s dead simple, it’s packed with flavor, and it’s the kind of thing that’s such a nice surprise when you take a bite. Because of its deep color and complex fragrance, you start out thinking it’s going to taste like a spice cake, but really, there’s no spices involved. What comes up instead is a huge amount of rich, dreamy molasses flavor from the muscovado sugar, and a soft sweetness. You should know about it.
Picasso had his blue period, Hugh Hefner had his blonde period. I am currently in my dark muscovado sugar period.
That sentence made a lot more sense in my head before I typed it.
At any rate, I’ve been playing with this heady, dark, mysterious sugar a whole lot over the past few months, and I’m smitten, friends. In my last Baking Booster post, I waxed all fangirl about dark brown sugar, and can’t nobody take those feelings away. But! When I want Real Big Dark Brown Sugar Flavor, all smoke and molasses and sticky sweetness, I reach for dark muscovado, and since we’re heading into serious baking season and lots of sweets with big bold flavors like gingerbread and pumpkin pie and decadent dark chocolate somethings, I’ve got to urge you–nay, implore you–to find some and give it a shot. It’s basically dark brown sugar on steroids! Magical. Let’s talk about it.
Over the next couple of weeks as we head into High Baking Season, I’m giving shout outs to my go-to ingredients that instantly transform standard baking recipes into something infinitely more crave-worthy. It’s not necessarily about spending more on exotic items (although Ina is right–sometimes the “good” vanilla really does make a difference!), it’s about easy swaps that you might already have in your pantry, or simply handling ingredients in a different way to get the best out of them, leaving you with baked goods that will blow minds and take names. As the old saying goes, “Bake smarter, not harder”…or something like that.
To kick off this series of Baking Boosters, I can think of no better, easier baking ingredient upgrade than switching to dark brown sugar. Any recipe that calls for light brown sugar will be 50 times more flavorful (roughly–what do you think I am, a flavor scientist?) by simply swapping out light brown sugar for dark, and it won’t cost you a penny more at the supermarket. These days, I typically only keep dark brown sugar in my pantry, and have raaarely run into a situation where light brown sugar would have been a better fit.
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