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.

Pumpkin Whole Wheat Waffles

It feels a little like a light switch was flipped and we went from summer to fall in the blink of an eye. The mornings and evenings are crisp and cool and everywhere I look the trees and foliage are making their transformation from emerald green to deep hues of red, orange and yellow. I love this time of year.

And because I just can’t resist a good pumpkin recipe in the fall, I had to take a stab at some pumpkin waffles. I’ve bought the Trader Joe’s waffle mix for years, stocking up on a few boxes every fall. And while they’re delicious, my kids were hit and miss in liking them, not to mention I don’t live anywhere close to a Trader Joe’s.

So, with a weekend ahead full of soccer and football, I decided what we needed was a warm, cozy and little bit decadent breakfast to get us through. I’ve made overnight waffles dozens of times and they are literally the easiest way to get delicious, light but crisp waffles. You mix up most of the batter the night before, and really it takes just five minutes. Throw it in the fridge and in the morning, when everyone is ready to eat, mix in the last two ingredients and you’re ready for waffles.

I stirred in pumpkin puree and a few spices and the result was absolutely delicious. Light and fluffy with a hint of pumpkin pie flavor, my entire family gobbled these up.

For a special addition, make honey cinnamon butter to top your waffles. Simply take a softened stick of salted butter. Mix in two tablespoons honey and half a teaspoon of cinnamon. Set that out with some warm maple syrup for a breakfast everyone will beg you to make again and again.

Pumpkin Whole Wheat Waffles

Night Before:

• 1/2 cup warm water

• 1 tablespoon yeast

• 1/2 cup melted butter

• 2 cups milk (2%)

• 1 teaspoon salt

• 2/3 cups pumpkin puree

• 2 tablespoons sugar

• 2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice

• ½ teaspoon cinnamon

• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

• 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

• 1 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour

The Next Day:

• 2 eggs, beaten

• 1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Combine the yeast and water in a large mixing bowl and let stand for a few minutes. Stir to make sure the yeast dissolves. Melt the butter in the microwave. Combine the butter with the milk, pumpkin, salt, vanilla, spices and sugar. Test with your finger to make sure the mixture has cooled to lukewarm, then stir it into the dissolved yeast mixture. Add the flour and stir until a thick, shaggy dough is formed and there is no more visible flour.

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and throw it in the refrigerator. The batter will double or triple in bulk as it rises.

The next morning, beat the eggs together and add them to the batter along with the baking soda, stirring until completely combined.

Make the waffles according to your waffle maker’s instructions, cooking until the waffles are golden-brown. Serve with cinnamon honey butter and maple syrup. Leftovers can be frozen. Warm them in a toaster oven to reheat.

Zucchini Bread with Dark Chocolate and Walnuts

My garden got off to a slow start this year. The dogs ate all the broccoli and cauliflower before I could harvest any of it and we accidentally overwatered our pumpkin vines to an untimely death.

The potatoes and tomatoes are a go and finally the zucchini plant, which you would think would be impossible to kill, is finally ramping up to full production. I picked the first two vegetables off the plant a few days ago and couldn’t resist making my favorite zucchini bread. This is a recipe my mother made for me when I was growing up. She clipped the recipe from the newspaper back in the eighties and still makes it today. Now I make it for my kids and the tradition continues.

This recipe makes a giant loaf and it can be deceiving because the crust gets very dark and you might worry it’s burning or drying out, but it doesn’t. The crust is a little bit crispy and the inside is moist and delicious. I like to add dark chocolate chips and toasted walnuts for crunch and texture but don’t feel like you have to follow suit. Often, I split the recipe between two smaller loaf pans and make one the way I like it and the other with nothing extra for my kids who love the chocolate but don’t like the nuts. Either way, you can’t go wrong.

Zucchini Bread with Dark Chocolate and Walnuts

  • 3 eggs
  • 1 cup canola oil
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 1/2 cups shredded zucchini
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 tablespoon cinnamon
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1 cup dark chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line bread pan with parchment paper or coat it in cooking spray. Beat eggs and oil for 2-3 minutes until creamy in the bowl of a stand mixer. Add sugar and mix for another minute. Add zucchini and vanilla.

In a separate bowl, mix together all dry ingredients. Slowly combine dry ingredients with wet ingredients until well-combined. Stir in chopped walnuts and dark chocolate. Pour batter into bread pan and bake for one hour and 15 minutes or until a toothpick stuck into the center of the bread comes out clean.

*If the bread is getting too dark on top but not finished baking, fold a piece of tin foil in half and create a little ‘tent’ to cover the bread. It will continue cooking but the top won’t get overly brown.

Blueberry Crumb Bars

Last week I rallied my motley crew of three capable, but less than enthusiastic, kids and we headed to Sloop Blueberry Farm out in Naches. There’s a few things to know about me, and one of them is: I’m serious about blueberry picking. I’ve picked blueberries in 90 degree weather and 9 months pregnant, I’ve picked blueberries at 6 in the morning, I’ve picked blueberries with a 1-week-old infant. I don’t mess around. My goal is to stuff enough blueberries in my freezer for the entire year. It never quite happens, but every year I try.

I promised the person who picked the most blueberries (fully expecting it to be me) got to pick the ice cream treat on the way home. Well, my two boys ‘teamed’ up and they picked 25 pounds of blueberries, leaving my daughter and I in the dust with just 23 pounds. They gleefully announced to everyone within a one-acre radius we were headed to Dairy Queen for giant blizzards.

Before you think we were toiling away for hours, we picked almost 49 pounds of blueberries in under two hours. Blueberries grow in clumps, almost like grapes and picking them is literally the easiest thing you can do. The berries practically fall into your bucket as you gently pull the fruit from the stems. I want to go out and pick some more but I’m not sure I have the room in my freezer. To preserve my berries, I filled my clean kitchen sink with ice cold water and dumped the berries in. I laid out clean towels on my kitchen counter and using a colander, scooped the berries out of the water after a minute or two. I allowed the berries to dry on the towels and then stored them in gallon-size freezer bags. At just $1.75 per pound, I have enough berries for pancakes, smoothies, treats and snacking to last months. If you’re local, and want to find a u-pick farm near you, go to www.farmfreshfun.com for a list of farms and what’s in season.

These blueberry crumb bars are the perfect way to use blueberries. Whether you pick them yourself or buy a container at the grocery store, nothing says summer like this sweet, fruity dessert. The crust is basically a lightly sweetened shortbread cookie with a hint of lemon zest. The filling is just blueberries with a bit of corn starch to thicken the juices and the crumb on top is the same as the crust, just crumbled over the blueberries. I found this recipe on a website called smittenkitchen.com years ago and it’s one I go back to every summer once blueberries are in season. The original recipe calls for a 9×13 pan but I prefer to use a 9×9 square pan for a thicker crust. Whichever size pan you use, you can’t go wrong.

Blueberry Crumb Bars

·         1 cup granulated sugar

·         1 teaspoon baking powder

·         3 cups all-purpose flour

·         ¼ teaspoon salt

·         Zest of one lemon

·         1 cup cold unsalted butter, cut into chunks

·         1 large egg

·         4 cups blueberries

·         Juice of 1 lemon

·         4 teaspoons cornstarch

·         ½ cup granulated sugar

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a 9×9 pan with parchment paper.

In a bowl, stir together sugar, flour, baking powder, salt and lemon zest. Use a fork or pastry cutter to blend in the butter and egg. Dough will be crumbly, kind of like a shortcake or biscuit dough where the butter pieces are the size of a pea. Pat a little over half the mixture into the bottom of the pan, forming an even layer.

In another bowl, mix the blueberries, cornstarch, sugar and lemon juice gently together. Layer the blueberry mixture over the crust. Crumble the remaining dough over the blueberry layer.

Bake in the oven for 45 to 60 minutes until the top is lightly brown and the juices are bubbling. The smaller pan will require closer to 60 minutes, the larger 9×13 pan will take closer to 45 minutes. Cool completely before cutting into squares. Store extras in the refrigerator.

 

Puff Pastry with Havarti, Prosciutto and Asparagus

I am officially the mom of big kids. My youngest ‘graduated’ from preschool last week and will attend kindergarten with her brothers at their elementary school in the fall. To say she is excited and ready would be an understatement.

For seven straight years I’ve had at least one preschooler. Most of that time I was also holding a grumpy toddler or wrangling an infant car seat while also attempting to get my preschooler to school. I was the mom with the spilled coffee and spit up on her shirt, just trying to make it through the day hour by hour. Those were some wild years and at times I thought they would never end.

And now suddenly here we are. On to the next season of life. It seems like all those hard and beautiful days were over in the blink of an eye. The more seasoned moms in my life constantly remind me that time only speeds up. I believe them.

I am looking forward to summer break, to soaking up time with my three wild and crazy big kids. I won’t think too much about kindergarten but instead try and squeeze every drop of fun out of our days together. I’m sure as the dog-days of summer catch up to us, school and structure won’t seem like such a bad idea.

After preschool graduation we had a little celebration. I whipped up these special puff pastries stuffed with cheese and prosciutto and thin pieces of asparagus. The buttery and flaky pastry with a rich and savory filling was out-of-this-world delicious. Puff pastry can be found in the freezer section of your local grocery store, usually near the frozen desserts. Simply allow the pastry to thaw on the counter or in your refrigerator until the dough is very cold but not frozen anymore. We made a big bowl of fruit salad to go along with our pastries but this dish could easily be served for lunch or dinner alongside a simple green salad. Served warm or at room temperature, you can swap the filling for whatever kinds of meat or cheese you prefer. Brie, smoke gouda or sharp cheddar are lovely cheeses to try as well.

 

Puff Pastry with Havarti, Prosciutto and Asparagus

  • 1 sheet puff pastry, cut into 9 squares
  • 4-5 slices Havarti cheese
  • 1 package prosciutto
  • 1 bunch asparagus
  • 1 egg
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Unfold puff pastry on a lightly floured surface. Lightly roll out the pastry so the dough is even and has no creases. Use a sharp knife to cut the dough into 9 squares.

Rinse asparagus and pat dry with a paper towel. Select the thinnest spears and cut them in half. Discard the bottom half the spears and set the tops aside.

To make the puff pastries, layer half a slice of cheese, one slice of prosciutto and two to three spears of asparagus diagonally on the puff pastry. Fold two corners over the filling. Place the pastry on the baking sheet and continue until all nine puff pastry squares have been filled.

In a small bowl, whisk an egg with a splash of water until well combined. Use a pastry brush to lightly coat the pastries with the egg wash. Sprinkle the pastries with salt and pepper and bake for 25 minutes.

When the pastries are golden brown and the cheese is bubbling and melted, they are finished baking. Allow them to cool on the sheet for a few minutes before serving.

Orange Cardamom Bundt Cake

I’ve got the perfect cake to make for Easter brunch. This cake is full of bright orange flavor and a hint of almond. It’s sweet without being overly sweet and the dollop of whipped cream and handful of tart berries on top are not only a pretty garnish but delicious with the orange and almond flavors of the cake.

Cardamom, often used in Indian cooking, is available at your local grocery store and gives a wonderful subtle warm spicy flavor to the cake. Cardamom has a bit of a citrus flavor too, and is often paired with orange and apple flavors.

As for our family, I’ll be wrestling my children into clothes with collars and buttons and hopefully some cute little sandals all the while throwing down coats and fleeces into the car for the inevitable Pacific Northwest weather you can almost always count on this early in spring. We will go to church and have an Easter egg hunt. My kids will eat way too much candy and shed their ‘fancy’ clothes and eventually we’ll sit down together for a late brunch.

I like to balance whatever sweet dish I make with something savory. I’m thinking a frittata because it’s ridiculously easy and quick to throw together. Sauté chopped asparagus, a shallot and spinach in olive oil over medium heat for a couple minutes. Turn the heat to low and pour 12 whisked eggs into the pan. Salt and pepper liberally and allow the eggs to set. Put the whole pan in the oven under broil for a couple minutes until the dish is cooked through and golden brown on top. Sprinkle with whatever cheese you like (maybe Beechers?) and brunch is ready.

You can also search the breakfast tab for a bunch of different egg dishes.

Whatever you’re up to this weekend, I hope it includes a dose of sunshine, some fresh air and good food. Spring is finally here and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate.

Orange Cardamom Bundt Cake

• 3 ½ cups all-purpose flour

• 2 teaspoons baking soda

• ½ teaspoon baking powder

• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

• 1 tablespoon cardamom

• ½ teaspoon kosher salt

• 1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks), at room temperature

• 2 cups sugar

• 4 large eggs, at room temperature

• 1 teaspoon almond extract

• 1 cup sour cream

• Zest of 2 medium oranges (about 2 tablespoons)

• Powdered sugar

• Whipped cream*

• Raspberries, blackberries and strawberries for serving

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a bundt cake pan or two loaf pans and set aside. In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, scraping down the sides after each addition. Add the almond extract, sour cream and orange zest and mix for one more minute until well-combined.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, cardamom and salt. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture in three parts, mixing until just combined, scraping down the sides to make sure everything is incorporated.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for about 50-60 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Allow the cake to cool in the pan for at least 20 minutes. Turn the cake onto a platter and dust with powdered sugar.

To serve, slice pieces and top with a dollop of whipped cream and berries.

*To make homemade whipped cream, pour one-pint heavy whipping cream into the bowl of an electric mixer. Add 2 tablespoons powdered sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract. Turn the mixer to medium and mix until soft peaks form. Store extras in the refrigerator for up to three days.