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.

A Cozy Fall Dinner Party

So often food connects us to memories or people. We have a favorite dish our mother made for us as children or remember a special breakfast our grandparents made only when we visited them. We highlight memorable meals with friends and memorialize the trips we’ve taken based on what we ate.

We make a connection to the people we care about through food. It doesn’t matter one bit if you consider yourself a ‘foodie,’ or have no idea how to get around the in the kitchen.  What we find is that the food really didn’t matter all that much, ultimately it’s about the gathering.

My aunt, whose recipe for mashed potatoes is included in this menu,  understood the simple pleasures of a good meal, good friends, the decadence of a sweet-smelling candle and a good piece of chocolate. She never missed an opportunity to gather with her friends and family. She loved to cook and was a natural generous host. I think of her often when I’m in my own kitchen. Her food was thoughtful and inspiring while in the same breath completely approachable.

As the holiday season quickly approaches and so many of us steel ourselves for the onslaught of gatherings and events, here is an opportunity to make a meal for friends and family that feels like a warm hug on a cold blustery evening.

This isn’t a fancy menu; just good, simple food for a cozy evening. Grilled tri-tip steak is marinated in soy sauce, brown sugar, and garlic with a splash of sriracha resulting in tender flavorful meat. Mashed potatoes get a makeover with sour cream and cream cheese, then baked to give the potatoes a twice-baked texture. Your guests will be fighting over the last spoonful, I can guarantee it. And finally, a big spinach salad full of fruit, tangy goat cheese and delicious caramelized onions, not only surprise you but add big delicious flavor.

Dessert is decadent but so easy. Homemade mocha pudding literally comes together in 10 minutes but will wow your guests. It is rich and chocolaty with a hint of espresso. A dollop of whipped cream and a few berries softens the richness of the dessert and makes it so special.

Don’t worry too much about the perfect centerpiece or matching napkins. Just set the table, turn some music on and invite people over. Sit around the table long after the meal ends sharing stories and laughing until your sides hurt. The dishes can wait until morning, just enjoy being at the table, in the moment. 

Grilled Tri-Tip Steak

  • 2-3 pounds tri-tip
  • ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup soy sauce
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • 4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
  • 1 tablespoon minced ginger
  • 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon sriracha
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

In a large bowl, combine olive oil, soy sauce, brown sugar, garlic, ginger, vinegar, sesame oil and sriracha. Whisk to combine. Liberally salt and pepper the tri-tip steaks on both sides of the meat. Submerge the meat in the marinade. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside to marinate at least 3 hours, longer if possible.

Preheat outdoor grill to medium-high. Place tri-tip steak on the grill. Sear each side for 5 – 8 minutes per side.

Lower grill to medium-low heat and continue to grill for 6-10 minutes or until a thermometer reaches 130 degrees in the center of the steak. Tri-tip steaks can range in thickness. I suggest using a meat thermometer to check the temperature to ensure the meat does not overcook. The total cooking time will be about 20-25 minutes. 

Meredith’s Potatoes

  • 5 pounds Russet potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • 2 cups full-fat sour cream
  • 8 ounces cream cheese
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • Kosher salt and ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon green onions, thinly sliced
  • Dash of smoked paprika

Place potatoes in a large pot of salted water. Boil potatoes over medium heat for 20 to 25 minutes until potatoes are fork tender. Drain water from potatoes and return them to the pot. Turn the heat back to medium and cook for one to two minutes until moisture evaporates. Turn heat off.

Using a hand mixer or a potato masher, begin to mash the potatoes. Mix in the sour cream and cream cheese and continue stirring and mixing until the potatoes are smooth and the ingredient are well-combined. Salt and pepper to the potatoes liberally. Taste to see if they need more salt.

Generously butter baking dish. Add potatoes to the buttered dish, smoothing the surface. Sprinkle with a dash of smoked paprika. Bake potatoes in the oven at 350 degrees for 30-35 minutes. Garnish with slivered green onions. Serve immediately.

*Potatoes can be made ahead of time. Instead of baking, cover with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator until ready to bake. Allow the potatoes to come to room temperature while oven preheats.

Harvest Salad with Caramelized Onions and Balsamic Dressing

  • 1 8 oz. container organic baby spinach
  • 1 honey crisp apple, thinly sliced
  • 1 6 oz. container fresh blackberries (or raspberries)
  • 1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
  • ¼ cup crumbled goat cheese
  • ¼ cup toasted pumpkin seeds
  • ¼ cup toasted slivered almonds

Maple Balsamic Dressing

  • 1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • Kosher salt and ground black pepper

Start by caramelizing the onion. In a medium saucepan, drizzle two tablespoons extra virgin olive oil over thinly sliced onions. Give the onions a quick stir and sprinkle with kosher salt. Turn the heat to medium-low and cover with a lid. Stir every couple minutes until the onions are richly brown and condensed down by about half, usually about 30 minutes. After the first 10 minutes of cooking, remove the lid and continue to stir the onions.

In a large bowl, layer the honey crisp apple, blackberries, goat cheese, pumpkin seeds and slivered almonds over baby spinach. Top everything with the caramelized onions. Drizzle with maple balsamic dressing and mix to combine all ingredients. Serve immediately.

Herb Butter

  • ½ cup salted butter, softened
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh herbs such as Italian parsley, basil and rosemary
  • Zest of ½ lemon
  • Coarse sea salt

In a small bowl use a fork to mix softened butter with fresh herbs and lemon zest. Sprinkle with coarse salt. On a piece of parchment paper, place the butter in the center of the paper. Wrap the parchment around the butter forming a cylinder. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Just before serving, unwrap butter from parchment and sprinkle with coarse sea salt.

Chocolate Mocha Pudding

  • 4 cups whole milk
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1 1/3 cups sugar
  • ½ cup cocoa powder
  • 1 ½ teaspoons instant espresso
  • ¼ cup cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • Sweetened heavy whipping cream
  • Raspberries

In a medium saucepan, whisk together sugar, cocoa powder, instant espresso and cornstarch. In a separate bowl, whisk together milk and egg yolks. Turn the heat to medium and pour the milk mixture over the sugar mixture, stirring to combine. Whisk constantly until the mixture begins to boil and thicken, about five minutes. Allow the pudding to boil an additional minute before removing from the heat. Stir in vanilla.

To make whipped cream, whip one cup heavy whipping cream with a hand mixer. For additional flavor add one tablespoon powdered sugar and a dash of vanilla extract. Store extras in an air-tight container in the refrigerator.

*As soon as the pudding is finished thickening and the vanilla extract is stirred in, place a piece of parchment paper or plastic wrap over the pudding. This prevents a skin from forming and keeps the pudding decadently smooth.

To serve, divide pudding into individual cups. Top with sweetened whipped cream and a few fresh raspberries.

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.

Roasted Tomato Pasta

I had a rare and blissful night last week where the only person who needed dinner at my house was me. My kids had bounced from one end-of-the-school-year party to another all afternoon and evening eating their weight in hot dogs and chips. They were so amped up on sugar and their new-found summer freedom they couldn’t be convinced to come in for a real meal. My husband was working late which gave me two options: make something special just for me or skip dinner altogether.

I finally corralled my kids inside, threw them into showers and settled them in front of a movie. I surveyed the kitchen for something to eat and was just about to pour myself a bowl of cereal when the pint of cherry tomatoes sitting on my kitchen counter caught my eye.

Instantly I knew I wanted to roast the tomatoes in a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar. If I had a loaf of sourdough bread, I probably would have just scooped the tomatoes onto toast and called it dinner. But I didn’t so I went to the next best thing, pasta.

Fifteen minutes later I had a pot of spaghetti noodles tossed with tangy and bright roasted tomatoes. A big pile of chopped basil from the pplant growing on my patio and swirl of goat cheese made for a decadent but light dinner. A little glass of red wine and eating my dinner in (relative) peace outside in the warm evening sunshine made my simple meal absolute perfection.

Roasted Tomato Pasta

  • 8 ounces spaghetti noodles
  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 heaping tablespoons (or more) chopped fresh basil
  • 2 ounces crumbled goat cheese
  • Kosher salt and black pepper

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. While the oven preheats, start a pot of heavily salted water to boil over high heat. When the water boils, cook spaghetti to package instructions (about 8 minutes). Drain and set aside.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Spread the tomatoes evenly on the tray. Mince garlic and sprinkle over the tomatoes. Toss the tomatoes and garlic in the olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper. Roast in the oven for 10-15 minutes until the tomatoes begin to burst and are very fragrant.

In a pot, combine the cooked spaghetti and roasted tomatoes, scraping the pan to add the juices and garlic. Toss gently to combine. Mix in chopped basil and goat cheese. To serve, portion the pasta onto a plate. Garnish with any leftover basil and goat cheese as well as a sprinkle of salt and pepper.