Dark Chocolate Orange Shortbread Cookies

One of my favorite parts of the holiday season is the opportunity to gift friends and family with a homemade treat. Whether it’s a cookie exchange with girlfriends, a token of gratitude for my children’s teachers or a little something for my neighbors; I like to gift something homemade.

Each year it’s a little different; but I try to think of something that’s easy to make but will feel special and decadent. I like to add a gift card to go along with the treat, but I love giving something that’s a small expression of my own creativity.

I lean towards an edible gift because my creativity seems to come out more in the kitchen than anywhere else. The internet and sites like Pinterest are great for inspiring ideas and tutorials. But, if cooking or baking aren’t your thing, projects like homemade candles, soaps, tree ornaments and handmade cards are fun and (mostly) easy to make instead.

Shortbread is one of my favorite cookies, especially during the holiday season, because there are so many flavor combinations you can add.

Shortbread is a simple cookie to make but so delicious. The only ‘trick’ to these cookies is to be patient long enough to let the dough firm up before baking. Dark chocolate and the zest of an orange add a lovely and sophisticated flavor, perfect for gift-giving.

Dark Chocolate Orange Shortbread Cookies

 1 cup unsalted butter, softened
 2/3 cup sugar
 Zest of one medium orange
 ¾ teaspoon vanilla extract
 ¼ teaspoon almond extract
 2 cups flour
 ½ cup cornstarch
 ½ teaspoon salt
 4 ounces dark chocolate chips

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cornstarch and salt. Set aside. In the bowl of a stand mixer, mix together the butter and sugar on medium speed until smooth, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula until well-incorporated. Mix in the vanilla and almond extracts as well as the orange zest, mixing until smooth, stopping to scrape the sides of the bowl as needed. Add in the flour mixture and mix on low until just combined.

Roll the dough between two sheets of parchment paper until the dough is about 1/3 to ½ inch thick. Chill until completely firm. When ready to bake, slice cookies into squares (should make about 30). Transfer to a parchment-lined sheet pan with enough space to spread slightly. Use a fork to lightly press down the cookies. 

Bake in a 350 degree oven for 15-20 minutes until the cookies are lightly brown. Remove from oven and allow to cool.

Pour the chocolate chips into a microwave safe bowl and microwave in 30 second intervals until the chocolate begins to melt. Stir vigorously after each 30 second interval until the chips are completely melted. 

Dip each cookie halfway into the melted chocolate and lay on a piece of parchment paper to cool.

Homemade Vanilla Syrup

Homemade vanilla syrup is one of my favorite gifts to make.Wrapped up in pretty little glass bottles and a ribbon, this syrup feels so special.  

In reality, it’s just three ingredients and comes together in 10 minutes flat. Even better, the syrup has a rich vanilla flavor perfect for stirring into coffee or hot chocolate or even drizzling over oatmeal on cold mornings. It’s the perfect hostess or teacher gift. You could even slip a jar into the stocking of the coffee-lover in your life.

Homemade Vanilla Syrup

  • 2 vanilla beans
  • 4 cups sugar
  • 4 cups water

In a medium pot, combine sugar and water over low heat. Slice the vanilla beans and scrape out the pulp into the sugar and water. Add the vanilla beans as well. Stir with a whisk until the sugar is completely dissolved.

Simmer for 10 to 15 minutes until syrup is condensed by about a third. Turn heat off and allow syrup to cool completely. Line a jar with cheesecloth and pour syrup through cheese cloth to catch the larger pieces of vanilla pulp. Remove vanilla beans and discard.

Pour syrup into individual four-ounce jars. Store in refrigerator until ready to gift. This batch makes about eight jars of syrup.

Dark Chocolate Peppermint Cookies

I was the ‘mystery reader’ in my daughter’s kindergarten classroom this week. Which essentially means I show up unannounced and read a couple of books to the kids. Scarlet knew I was coming in but didn’t know which day, so she had prepped me that I absolutely had to bring a Christmas
book in to read. She set out her special copy of Twas the Night Before Christmas and I dutifully brought it in.

Kindergartners have to be the very best age to enjoy the magic of the holiday season (well anything really) because they are so delightfully enthusiastic and excited over every little thing. They listened to
the story in bated breath and then proceeded to talk over each other telling me what Santa was going to bring them this year. It was the best.

As I was getting ready to leave, my daughter announced to the class we would be making cookies after school and she would be happy to bring one in for everyone. Her teacher and I laughed and of course, the kids were all too hopeful for a cookie delivery in the morning. And while I can’t quite deliver on those hopes, it made me think of my absolute favorite cookies to make this time of year.

Richly decadent chocolate cookies are studded with dark and white chocolate chips as well as peppermint bark. Sometimes the peppermint bark pieces can be hard to find but I’ve had good luck at Target and Wal Mart. We make batch after batch of these special cookies all month long and gift them to neighbors and friends, take to holiday gatherings and wrap up a few in extra special paper to give our favorite teachers.


Dark Chocolate Peppermint Cookies:

  • 1 ½ cups brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 ½ tsp. vanilla extract
  • 2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup cocoa powder
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • ½ tsp. baking powder
  • ½ cup dark chocolate chips
  • ½ cup white chocolate chips
  • 1 cup peppermint bark, crumbled into small pieces

In the bowl of a stand mixer beat butter and sugars until creamy and well-combined. Add the eggs and vanilla and continue mixing for an additional two minutes. In a separate bowl combine flour, cocoa powder, salt, baking soda and baking powder. Use a whisk to stir until there are no clumps in the flour mixture. Slowly combine the flour mixture with the butter mixture, mixing until a dough is just barely formed. Using a spatula or wooden spoon, add the chocolate chips and peppermint bark to the dough and stir until well-combined. Place a piece of parchment paper over the dough and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to 24 hours.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. Use a small ice cream scoop or a spoon to make cookie balls. They should be roughly two tablespoons of dough. Give them plenty of room on the baking sheet. Bake for about 12 minutes or until the cookie has spread out and looks firm.

Sausage and Cabbage Soup

A couple weeks ago, I saw a picture on Instagram of a cabbage and sausage soup by Nom Nom Paleo. I’ve made enough of her stuff to know whatever the recipe was , it was going to be killer. But I’m challenging myself to try and use photos I find on Instagram, Pinterest or even in my beloved cookbooks and make the recipe from what I have on hand or how I think it should be made. Weird, I know, but it’s my own little personal challenge to help me (hopefully) become a better cook.

So instead of clicking the link to her blog, I grabbed some pork sausage out of the freezer and surveyed my fridge to see what I could add. I ended up throwing in onion, carrots, celery, garlic, mushrooms and savoy cabbage. I had some homemade bone broth so I used that too and topped the soup with fresh parsley and chopped green onions.

The result is sort of ramen-esque but hearty and comforting all at the same time. The rich broth gets flavored with the mushrooms and sausage and the cabbage is cooked just until it softens. The veggies are tender without being mushy and the whole dang thing takes 30 minutes to make.

I won’t even try and pretend my kids eat this soup. Not a chance. Last night I didn’t even offer it to them. Sadly, I think they would actually like it, if they wouldn’t turn their noses up at the cabbage. Oh well. Mayne some day. I’ve made this a couple times now and I can already see this is going to be one of my winter staples. 

Sausage and Cabbage Soup

  • 1 pound ground pork sausage (any kind will do, just NOT breakfast sausage)
  • 1 yellow onion, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 carrots, diced
  • 3 stalks celery, diced
  • 5 ounce container sliced mushrooms (a mix of button and shitake is ideal)
  • 1 medium head of savoy cabbage, shredded
  • 2 32-ounce boxes of organic chicken bone broth (regular chicken stock works too)
  • Kosher salt and black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon minced green onion
  • 1 tablespoon fresh OR dried parsley

In a large Dutch oven, brown sausage over medium heat, breaking the meat up into small pieces, until just cooked through. Remove meat from the pot and drain on a plate lined with paper towels.

Return the pot to heat and sauté the onion, carrots and celery for 5-6 minutes or until the onion is translucent and the vegetables are fragrant. Add the garlic and stirring well, cook for 2 more minutes. Add the mushrooms and cabbage to the pot. Salt and pepper the entire vegetable mixture liberally, continuing to cook for another 3-5 minutes. Stir well. Add the sausage back to the pot along with the chicken broth. Turn the heat to low and allow to simmer at a slow boil until the cabbage is tender, about 20 minutes. The cabbage should not have any crunch but not so cooked that it begins to fall apart. Taste the soup and add more salt and pepper if needed.

To serve, ladle soup into bowls. Garnish with green onion and parsley. Soup should feed 6-8 people. Store leftovers in an air-tight container in the refrigerator for leftovers the rest of the week.

Winter Cobb Salad with Roasted Delicata Squash

This is a big long recipe and it would be easy to be intimidated but I promise you; it’s easy. And once you make the different components of this delicious salad, you have meals all week long. 

I’m not usually one for salads in the winter. I don’t know why, but I usually lean towards warm and comforting soups to get my vegetables in, but this winter cob salad is a game-changer. Roasted squash, tart pomegranate seeds, creamy avocado and tangy pickled onions work so well together. It’s a recipe that I’ve made over and over again and we’re barely to December. I like it because it’s a one-pot (or really one-bowl) recipe. Throw all the ingredients together and you have a healthy and delicious meal.

Even better, once you have all the ingredients, you can use them in different ways. Don’t feel like a salad? No problem…eat the squash on its own with some roasted chicken. Didn’t have time to make pickled onions (or just don’t like them)? No problem. Skip them. This salad is incredible forgiving, so swap in and out what you like best.

Winter Cobb Salad with Roasted Delicata Squash

For the Squash

 2 delicata squash, washed and cut in half with seeds and pulp removed
 Zest of half a lemon 
 1 teaspoon minced garlic
 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
 1 teaspoon parsley
 2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
 Kosher salt and black pepper.

Cut the squash into half inch pieces. In a large ziplock bag or bowl, toss the squash in olive oil, lemon zest, parsley, parmesan cheese and a liberal pinch of salt and pepper. Set aside and allow to marinate for one hour. When ready to roast, preheat oven to 450 degrees. Arrange squash on a baking sheet sprayed with cooking spray. Make sure to get all the bits of parmesan cheese and lemon zest onto the tray. Roast in the oven for about 10-12 minutes, flipping the squash halfway through the cooking time. The squash is done when they begin to turn golden brown and a fork easily pierces the flesh. Remove from oven and allow to cool.

For the Salad

 5 ounces arugula
 Roasted delicata squash
 1 cooked chicken breast, cubed (I usually just grab a rotisserie chicken from the store and peel the skin off)
 1 honeycrisp apple, diced
 2 tablespoons toasted pumpkin seeds
 2 tablespoons toasted slivered almonds
 2 tablespoons pomegranate seeds (dried cranberries work well too)
 Pickled red onion (optional)
 Avocado, sliced

Quick Pickled Onions

 1 red onion, thinly sliced
 1 tablespoon sugar
 1 teaspoon kosher salt
 Apple Cider Vinegar
 Water

In an air-tight container, combine the red onion with the sugar and salt. Pour apple cider vinegar over the onion until they are halfway covered. Fill the container the rest of the way with water. Put the lid on and let sit on the counter for at least onehour. Store in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

Salad Dressing

 Juice of one lemon
 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
 ¼ cup white wine vinegar
 1 teaspoon dried mustard
 1 teaspoon dried parsley
 Kosher Salt and Black Pepper

In a measuring cup or a jar with a lid, combine ingredients. Mix well and taste to make sure it tastes to your preference. Add more salt or lemon juice as needed.

To assemble the salad, layer the squash, apple, pumpkin seeds, almonds, chicken, pomegranate seeds, pickled onions and avocado over the arugula. Garnish with kosher salt and pepper.

Drizzle the salad dressing over the salad and using two forks, toss and mix until ingredients are well-combined. Store any leftover ingredients in air-tight containers in the refrigerator. 

 

White Bean Chicken Chili

After a long weekend of many indulgences: hello Trevari rose, hello stuffing and pumpkin pie not to mention the next-day turkey sandwich of my dreams, I’m more than ready to get back to the basics of eating healthfully. It was a tasty and memorable holiday and I hope yours was too.

This week I’m prepping a big batch of white bean chicken chili. I’ve thrown out the last scraps of leftovers and I hit the grocery store for lots of fruits and vegetables. With school and work and activities back in the swing of things this week, I know a big bowl of soup at the end of a long day will be just what everyone needs.

This recipe is perfect to meal prep at the beginning of the week for an easy and healthy dinner or lunches all week. I’ve written the recipe for an instant pot, but if you don’t have one, no problem. Simply combine all the ingredients in a crockpot and cook on low for 8 hours. At the halfway point, use two forks to break apart the chicken.

White Bean Chicken Chili

 2 chicken breasts
 ½ yellow onion, diced
 1 red bell pepper, diced
 2 carrots, diced
 1 16-ounce jar medium salsa (red or green)
 1 can green or hatch chilis
 2 13-ounce cans great northern beans
 1 16-ounce bag organic frozen corn
 1 10-ounce bag frozen riced cauliflower
 2 32-ounce boxes organic low-sodium chicken stock
 1 teaspoon all-seasoning
 1 teaspoon cumin 
 1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
 Black pepper

Place two frozen chicken breasts and the jar of salsa in an instant pot. Cook on manual for 25 minutes. Release pressure and turn to sauté function. Add the diced onion, bell pepper and carrots and stir into the chicken. Use a fork to begin breaking up the chicken. After 3-5 minutes of cooking, add the rest of the ingredients. Cook on manual for another 15 minutes. Release pressure, give the soup a good stir and finish breaking up the chicken, so it is nice and shredded. Taste to make sure it doesn’t need a bit more salt. 

To serve, ladle soup into bowls. Top with slices of avocado, fresh chopped cilantro, a squeeze of fresh lime and a dollop of fat-free sour cream. Serves 6-8 generous portions.

 

Cranberry Orange Relish

 

I’ll keep my words short and to the point because I know the hustle and bustle of the day is going to take over in what feels like the blink of an eye.

Whether your house is filled to the brim with every family member in a 100-mile radius or you’re enjoying a cozy quiet Thanksgiving, I wish you a day full of good food, a moment to steal away to reflect on the year’s blessings and priceless memories that will carry you the entire year.

As I write this note, my children are running through the house treading the line between happy jovial play and wild feral animal. It’s a blurry line that they seem to cross and retreat from all day long.

I’ve spent weeks thinking about the menu for Thanksgiving and now that it’s finally here, I realize with crystal clarity that I really don’t care all that much. What I care about is those wild children, my family near and far, friends who I miss and don’t see nearly enough and this wonderful, special opportunity I have each week to share a few words and recipes in this space. I feel so lucky to gather at the table over a meal with the people I love and to share it here as I go along.

And because I can’t just let a week slip by without a recipe, I offer you my most favorite cranberry sauce. I recognize everyone seems to have a firm stance on whether they like cranberry sauce or not, but wherever you fall with your preferences, I challenge you to make this easy dish. Tart cranberries are softened with a little sugar and fresh orange juice and then mellowed with cinnamon and ginger. 

Cranberry Orange Relish, adapted from The Pioneer Woman

 12 ounces, fresh cranberries
 3/4 cups sugar
 1 tablespoon orange zest
 1/2 cup fresh squeezed orange Juice
 1 cinnamon stick
 ¼ teaspoon ground ginger
 Pinch of salt

Rinse cranberries well, then place them in a heavy bottomed saucepan with the sugar, orange zest, orange juice, ginger and cinnamon stick. Give it a stir, then place the pan over medium-low heat. Cover the pan with a lid and cook for 15 minutes, stirring the mixture every 5 minutes to ensure the bottom doesn’t burn. 

After 15 minutes, the cranberries should all be popped. Remove the pan from the heat. The sauce will look very liquidy, but as it cools, the sauce will thicken up significantly. After the sauce has cooled completely, you can add additional water for a thinner texture. Remove the cinnamon stick and serve the cranberry sauce at room temperature or chilled. Enjoy!