According to the old proverb, March comes in like a lion and out like a lamb – and this first week of March certainly lived up to that prediction.
The snow, which surprised us all on Monday morning, continued throughout the week, along with gusty winds that made for a stormy start to the month. While March in the Pacific Northwest can often be a bit rough on the spirit, this week’s weather was actually quite magical.
And I have to say, there’s also something quite magical about baking on a winter day.
As the snow flurries continued, I spent the week tucked in my kitchen – awash in flour and butter, cinnamon and sugar, chocolate and cream – baking from the Joy the Baker Cookbook – and enjoying the opportunity to cajole just a little more brightness from this winter.
In the foreword to her cookbook, author Joy Wilson writes, “If you have the power to coax something beautifully sweet out of your kitchen, it’s as though you have a magic wand in your hand.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Here is this week’s Taste Five.
Vanilla Bean Snickerdoodles
I selected this week’s cookbook – and these five recipes – because they reminded me so much of baking with my mom. Snickerdoodles might be traditional, but they’re also one of my absolute favorites, and one of the first cookies she taught me how to make.
One of my earliest memories is standing on a little step stool, leaning over the counter with my mom at my side, patiently guiding me through the steps of forming the cookie dough into balls and then carefully rolling them in the cinnamon and sugar mix.
I’ve tried a lot of snickerdoodles over the years…and this is my new favorite. One of the things I most admire about Joy’s recipes is that she takes the “traditional” and adds unconventional touches…such as the inclusion of a vanilla bean in this recipe.
Crisp on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside, with subtle hints of cinnamon and vanilla – cookie bliss.
Chocolate Fudge Brownies With Chocolate Buttercream Frosting
My mom liked to make brownies from a boxed mix, and I loved helping her, especially when it meant “testing” the warm brownies as they came out of the oven. Boxed or not, her brownies were delicious, particularly when served “sundae style” with a scoop of rich vanilla bean ice cream, hot fudge sauce, and a hefty dose of love.
Earlier this year, I wrote about my quest for the “perfect” brownie recipe – the one that would firmly earn a place in my “keeper” repertoire. And Joy’s chocolate fudge brownie recipe fits the bill. Thick, soft, chewy, and laden with double-chocolate flavor – these brownies are simply fabulous.
And, oh…the frosting. Joy calls it “The Best Chocolate Buttercream Frosting,” and she isn’t exaggerating. Her “secret” ingredient, Ovaltine powder, may seem like a strange addition, but it absolutely works. This frosting is rich, smooth, and creamy…a bit reminiscent of a thick chocolate milkshake.
I made a bit of a mess while cutting them – my technique is definitely a “work in progress” – but everyone I shared them with absolutely raved about these brownies.
The hunt for my “perfect” brownie recipe might be over…well, maybe not – half the fun is in the exploration. But, what I do know, is that this “keeper” recipe belongs in every chocolate lover’s collection.
Everything Caramel Corn
There are foods that take us back in time, foods that are rife with nostalgia and memory. Caramel corn is one of those.
My mom loved anything with “caramel” in its name…caramel sauce, chocolate-coated caramels, and always…caramel corn.
It’s not a recipe I’ve ever made at home, but it was fun giving it a go this week. I had a few mishaps along the way…two batches of burnt popcorn, and a battle with caramel “glue” when I didn’t remove it from the pan quickly enough – but the end result was worth the struggles.
Loaded with salty pretzels, almonds, Ritz peanut butter bits, and a thick coating of buttery caramel, this recipe is without a doubt the best caramel corn I’ve ever had.
Fun, frivolous, and fabulous.
As Ruth Reichl, the former editor of Gourmet magazine, put it, “Anyone who thinks they’re too grown up or too sophisticated to eat caramel corn, is not invited to my house for dinner.”
Browned Butter Peanut Butter Crispy Rice Treats
Standing over the stove watching the butter and marshmallows slowly melt into one another, vigorously stirring in the cereal, and then carefully patting the sticky mixture into a waiting pan. And always, the great payoff – sinking a knife into the treats and tasting the first bite of that warm, buttery goodness.
If there’s one common cooking experience that a majority of kids share – it’s making Rice Krispie treats. In truth, it might almost be a considered a culinary “rite of passage” for American youth.
My mom used to add peanut butter and a chocolate chip topping to the traditional recipe, and when I saw Joy’s browned butter peanut butter crispy rice treat recipe, so similar to the treats I remember from my childhood, I knew I had to give it a try.
Ironically enough, I messed it up. Joy’s core recipe – the treats – worked out perfectly. However, when I decided to add a chocolate topping, one not included in her recipe, I ran into trouble. “How do you mess up Rice Krispie treats?” an incredulous friend asked me, as I shared my chocolate woes. The answer – long story – but it involves chocolate, cream, and a double boiler.
But you know what, I still enjoyed every bite of these treats, including the chocolate topping.
And I found myself remembering the many times I had apologetically presented an amateur baking attempt to my mom – misshapen, not the prettiest, but prepared with good intentions. I can still remember her words, always encouraging, kind, and honest.
“It may not look perfect honey, but it sure tastes good.”
Brown Butter Blueberry Muffins
When I think about my mom, there are so many moments that I wish I could experience with her again.
Sitting at her kitchen table on a lazy Saturday morning, chatting over a cup of hot coffee and breakfast, is one of those moments. When I was in college, I used to love coming home for the holidays and occasional weekend – sleeping in, waking up to the smell of baking – often my mom’s blueberry muffins, and then joining her at the table.
Catching up, sharing, connecting.
And today, whenever I indulge in a blueberry muffin, I’m brought back to those special mornings spent with my mom.
She also loved butter – way more than anyone I’ve ever met. Growing up on a farm might have had something to do with it, and I can still remember her eating a spoonful of butter straight from the crock – a little horrifying and intriguing at the same time. It’s entirely possible that butter – and especially browned butter – does indeed make everything a little better. It certainly does in this recipe.
The nutty flavor of the browned butter subtly comes through, adding a unique touch to these muffins. Rife with plump blueberries and topped off with a thick crumble topping, I have no doubt my mom would have absolutely loved this blueberry muffin recipe.
In the preface, Joy Wilson writes, “I pinky-swear these will be the best blueberry muffins to ever emerge from your oven.”
That is the truth.
My mom was on my mind throughout this week as I baked my way through these five recipes… remembering the lessons she taught me, and the wisdom she passed on – both in and out of the kitchen.
Teaching me how to gently roll a snickerdoodle ball in cinnamon and sugar. Be patient and it will all work out. Encouraging me when I burnt a batch of butter. Mistakes are opportunities to learn. Laughing as she’d sneak a bite of cookie dough. Anything done with love just “tastes” better.
Above all else, what I most remember about my mom is that she was a woman of great faith.
There’s a certain faith that is required when baking, and I believe the same is true of life.
Shortly before her passing, she shared a final thought, words that she wanted us to live by. “Put God first, and everything else will fall into place.”
My mom loved eagles, and her favorite Bible verse, Isaiah 40:31, reflects this. It’s a beautiful message of trusting in God, of finding your strength renewed, of soaring like eagles.
My mom passed away at our island home on a frosty January afternoon, surrounded by family and friends, secure in her faith and future. Shortly following her passing, engulfed in waves of grief and yet thankful her suffering was over, we opened the curtains of her bedroom window…and were greeted with a beautiful sight.
A sight that we had never seen in that particular location before.
Perched on a the branches of an evergreen tree, peering into our home, were three magnificent bald eagles.
Maybe a coincidence. I think not. I prefer to see it as one more gentle reminder…to keep the faith.