2011 Wrap-up! My year in baking...(part 1)

My annual breakdown of baking I've done. This only includes new recipes that I have baked from scratch. Not the simplicity of boxed baked goods. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

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2011 Project: Cookies Inspired by Books!

A new project for this year, and perhaps next, is to create cookies based on books that I enjoyed. So far two newly released YA books I very much liked, "Cold Kiss" and "Daughter of Smoke and Bone" are high on my list.

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Baking Bloggers Unite! Some fave baking blogs

Now that my new website design is up showing off my loves of writing and baking thought I'd do a post showcasing some of the baking blogs I enjoy. Feel free to provide me links/mentions to your faves.

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How to have a successful cookie (and bar) competition!

Happy New Year Reader(s)! Now that we've been through the worst of the snowfall this winter let's look on to happier times. Late last year I got to thinking... what with the worsening recession and the rise of unemployment I was wondering how, in times of financial constraints, one can have a fun and successful party where no one will think about the dire straits of our country? Something that has united me and those around me has always been the effect of good food, particularly yummy baked goods. So, it only made sense to have a cookie (and bar) competition to celebrate my birthday, the beginning of a new year, hopefully the end of the recession, and above all sugar-infused treats!

I have to tip my hat to Jason Lam, the man behind MeSoHungry, who hosts an annual cookie competition before the Christmas holiday. And hearing how successful his parties had been I thought "Hot damn it's solidified!" I'd have a cookie (and bar) competition and hope my friends would be kind enough to participate. The bars came into play when a friend of mine mentioned a preference for making them. Plus, I didn't want to be prejudice against bars because they're so damn delicious.

Once the plan was set I got to thinking how this could all work out...

Step 1) The Contestants! Luckily I have many baking inclined friends or those who are just into trying new things. Some are into cooking/baking to wow the masses, like my husband, while others were happy to do me a solid and get some accolades in the process.  If you're throwing a competition and don't have enough entries then there may be trouble afoot and you may have  lie and say Paula Deen is going to be there and give out heaping amounts of deep-fried goods to all who attend. I won't say I didn't politely urge some people into baking, especially if I knew they could bring it and bring it hard.  There were about a dozen or so contestants resulting in a might fine spread. And all were more than happy to partake.

Why let the cookies have all the fun in the competition?

Step 2) Location, Location: I've had my birthday party at Stone Creek Bar & Lounge for the past few years because the service is phenomenal and the back room is spacey. I reserve ahead of time and usually get the room on the date I request. With no time constraints, a private room and bar the party can go all night long! You should look into where you can have said competition ahead of time and hope it can hold all the aspiring bakers and empty bellies. Also try to negotiate pricing or learn of fees beforehand.

And do I spy some brownies in the back?

Step 3) Advertise! I made sure to contact people ahead of time and let them know this was a "COOKIE PARTY." Of course this doesn't stop people from looking at you with raised eyebrows wondering how they'll get "real food." I couldn't help but stare at some people as I emphasized the words "Baking party!" as they headed out to try and find protein and vegetables or whatever leaving perfectly good sugary goods behind.

If you're really nice have some finger foods available for consumption before everyone digs into the sugary pile. (I'd also recommend asking or strongly urging people who don't enter the competition to make donations to help pay for healthy spreads like crudite, chicken fingers, or cheese and crackers for people to nosh on before the competition begins or even to help cover costs for the room/space if there's a set fee.)

One of the winners and a low-cal brownie treat!

Step 4) Prizes! What good is a competition if you just get glory "in name"? Yes, we compete for the accolades but dang it if I weren't also in it for prizes. The Olympians of yester-year used to get a simple olive branch wreath. Now they get medals that they can show off and pimp themselves regularly for endorsements of various foods and athletic apparel. Prizes are the way to go so try to find some that will make your guests happy or at least smile. In my case I offered different tiers of movie passes for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place, which really made people excited about entering. Even those that didn't rank for the top prizes got a cute lil' button proclaiming their badassness in the kitchen. Or as my friend BLee says "official cookie aficionado, JBH approved." Heck yeah!

Gimme some sugar, lemon sugar cookies that is. Te he.

Step 5) Democracy! This is America dammit (the U. S. of A.) and as such the competition was a democracy. Just because it was my birthday party doesn't mean I was fit to judge. My husband entered for crying out loud how am I expected to be impartial? So I made ballots AND labels so people could be voted on appropriately. We wouldn't want any Indecision 2000 stuff going on at a cookie party as things could get dangerous with a few dozen people on a sugar high.

And those are my steps to having an awesome and democratic cookie/bar competition. Follow said steps, allow the masses to enjoy the spread, stand back and watch the good times roll, then repeat as necessary.

As you can see from the pictures the entries were vast and awfully tasty. There were vegan options and none, many bar entries, and things I'd never think would taste good in a cookie like cardamom. Who knew?

The winners of my inaugural 2010 competition were as follows and you can get the recipes for these tasty treats online by clicking on their respective links:

1st place: Key Lime Coconut Bars made by the lovely mistress behind Dessert Landscape!

2nd place: Orange Citrus Bars made by my hubby!

3rd place: Vegan Mint Chocolate Chip Cookies made by my co-worker KP!

Other entries included Amaretto Bars, Good ole Chocolate Chip Cookies, Vegan Peanut Butter Oatmeal "amazingness" Cookies, Vegan Cardamom Pistachio Cookies, Lemon Bars, Sugar Lemon Cookies, Cream Cheese Swirl Brownies, Banana Tart, Cookie Concoction (a colored sugar cookie with a spice-laden surprise), and so on and so forth.  Some were family recipes others were open to the public but all and I mean all were good.

Sorta reminds you of The Last Supper, no?

Thanks again to everyone who participated and came out for a successful birthday celebration and competition! See you next year!

Wrap up! My year in baking...(Pt. 2)

And here are my remaining baking efforts for the year. The second half of the year brought a lot of use of my oven. Thankfully, it can take it. August:

The Dish: If it isn't already evident that I'm a lemon nut then here's more proof. My baked good for August was: Lemon Poppyseed Cake. Hell, I had left over lemons and, as mentioned, a whole lot of poppyseeds. Why not make bread?

Tarter than your average "cake"

End result: Also from Sweet Melissa's Cookbook, but I was not a fan of this one. Too tart and not sugary enough for me. Plus, I believe I left one loaf in a bit longer than necessary so it was a bit too crisp on the bottom. But, I brought it to work and people enjoyed it. I was told that the fact it was more lemony than sugary made it taste more like a traditional bread rather than cake. Go fig.

September:

The Dish: The previous month I had gone to Vermont for a Writer's Conference. My roomie at the conference went to a Maple shop and I implored her to get me maple sugar if she could find it. She did! (Thanks, Iris!) And so I made it a point to find something to use this decadent sugar for. And so I found a simple recipe, because I like simple, for Mapledoodles.

Not my favorite recipe of the year, so I'll keep on the look out...

End result: For me, I think these cookies tasted better cool rather than warm. I got a metallic like taste from either the maple extract or the maple sugar. And lastly, too much maple! This recipe called for maple extract and maple sugar in the cookie along with maple sugar outside of the cookie and an (optional) maple glaze! I had to hold off from doing maple outside of the cookie because the taste was too darn strong! Decent enough cookies, but I've seen alternate mapledoodle recipes I'll try.

The Dish: In addition to the, somewhat disappointing, mapledoodles I made a classic fave: pumpkin chocolate chip cookies! My same friend who is a gifted baker introduced me to pumpkin chocolate chip bars, which are amazing! This is a take on that.

A personal fave!

End result: These have a cakey texture rather than your normal cookie texture. And to eat these warm is amazing! The moist cakey-ness along with melty chocolate chips makes these to die for. It's filled with the same spices you'd use to make pumpkin pie as well as pumpkin filling and is amazing!

You'll fall in love with these and the recipe I use makes five dozen or more which is never enough! People in the office loved them and I found the adult mentors liked them too. Kids and teenagers may be a bit sketched out by pumpkin cookies, but once they try them they'll be reformed. I'm drooling just thinking about them.

October:

The Dish: Of course one would think that I'd save the pumpkin treats for October, but in all honest they're good any time! But this month I actually delved into a treat I've eaten a lot, but never had the cajones to make: pound cake!

Turns out it's super-easy!

Basically butter cake, but an old time fave...

End result: Main difference is that it is made with light brown sugar rather than regular granulated as per the recipe on the back of the Domino's sugar box. So it looks a bit darker as well. Tasted really good and familiar, almost like my grandma's!

Made it for my drinking group (hey ladies!) and they enjoyed it. Moistness keeps if sealed well for a couple of days, but definitely tastes best right out of the oven and with some accoutrements such as cream or berries.

The Dish: I also did a pumpkin recipe for Halloween! Last year I had an awful pumpkin bar recipe. The bars were incredibly dense and not sweet at all. Not happy. So I went with a Paula Deen recipe this year because, quite frankly, you can trust her butter-filled delicacies. And I wasn't disappointed!

Just between you and me, this is pumpkin cake...

End result: I just couldn't be bothered with icing and didn't want to deter from the pumpkin taste, so there you go. I have to say that this was more of a cake then a bar. It was mighty fluffy and could've used icing. It tasted fabulous and I'll make again instead calling it Ms. Deen's pumpkin cake!

November:

The Dish: And as the year comes full circle so does this month's dessert which was, well, lemon of course! This time lemon cupcakes with lemony cream on top. I made it for my department's first ever Dessert Hour before Thanksgiving and these cupcakes were a hit! If you're not a big dessert person lemon is excellent because it's not too strong and complements the sweet just right.

The lemony cream is the best part!

End result: These cupcakes are somewhat of a semi-homemade approach and you just do your own thing after using the cake mix. Lemon curd is the secret ingredient for these minicakes and it's really good. I have to say my main delight was in the lemony cream (heavy whipping cream, lemon curd, and confectioner's sugar that you beat the hell out of). I've made it again since I had left over ingredients and it was well received with some brown sugar bundt cake on Christmas. Also, used the lemony cream on a pumpkin tart with friends for Thanksgiving and everyone loved it! So it just goes to show that again...lemon shows its versatility!

The Dish: And lastly for the year of the pumpkin (and lemon) was pumpkin chocolate chip muffins from the same book I got the lemon cupcake recipe Cupcakes from the Cake (mix) Doctor by Anne Byrn It was hard for my husband to find a chocolate chip muffin mix, but when he did I went buck wild with left over pumpkin filling and enjoyed the results merrily.

Notice a trend?

End result: Pumpkin and chocolate is basically the best combination...ever. Just don't argue with me on this one. These muffins kept, when well sealed, and I brought some in for co-workers who are also pumpkin fanatics. Needless to say they loved them also.

December:

Well, another marathon baking month for moi this month.

The Dishes:

First up, Almond toffee crunch cookies from Cookies to Die for. Another hunt for me, but I found toffee bits! You put almond extract, chopped almonds (which I left out so my husband could eat the cookies), toffee bits, and your basic cookie ingredients to make this decadent type cookie.

The toffee's the best part, I think.

End result: Well, the recipe said you could make five dozen and I stayed up making about eight or nine dozen. Almond extract has quite a particular taste so if you're a fan of that (or say almond croissants and such) then you'll enjoy these cookies immensely. They're soft and slightly crispy. The toffee sticks to your teeth, but that's the best part about toffee! I'll probably try these again and use vanilla extract instead of almond and see how much more you can taste the toffee.

Next up, peanut butter cookies (from scratch!) from the Sweet Melissa book. Another super easy recipe, hoorah! I added chocolate chips because I think most things with chocolate are awesome so I just keep adding. I made these for a friend's holiday cookie party when my original cookie dough went up in smoke or crumbles I should say.

Peanut butter and chocolate? Pure genius!

End result: The recipe calls these chewy peanut butter cookies, but if you cook them a bit longer they become crunchy, which isn't a bad thing really. I've gotten them in the middle for the past two times I've made them. Very enjoyable and I have the ingredients at home so I'll make these again and again.

And then there were maple chocolate chip cookies! This was the basic chocolate chip cookie recipe (courtesy of Hershey's) and instead of brown sugar I added in maple sugar and a smidge of maple extract.

Maple sugar can make all the difference.

End result: Again, better the next day. I dunno if it's the maple extract or sugar but right out of the oven there's a bit of a metallic taste. However, the next day when cool (and super chewy) these cookies tasted awesome with a hint of maple. Co-workers loved this holiday treat!

And for me that's it for the year in baking. I look forward to the new year and new recipes and experiments in the kitchen.

Happy Holidays and Happy Baking!