Monday, November 25, 2013

Chocolate Covered Cashew Clusters

Almost anything dipped or covered in chocolate tastes better, right? High on the list of my favorite chocolate covered foods, other than Oreos, are cashews. As delicious as cashews are all on their own, when covered in chocolate they are transformed into a bite of pure decadence. Remember the somewhat memorable line from the Forrest Gump movie "Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get? ". Well a box of chocolate covered cashew clusters is the perfect gift for those in your life that like a little bit (or even alot) of predictability (aka for whom change doesn't come easy) as well as for those who are a little more adventurous (aka willing to take some risks). In other words, you can't go, you won't go wrong making these chocolate covered bites of wonderfulness.

Making chocolate covered cashew clusters could not be easier. During the hectic holidays or one's hectic life, having a chocolate confection that is simple, relatively quick to make, and doesn't require much planning ahead can be a lifesaver. If you believe in keeping things simple, chocolate covered cashews could become one of your favorite things to make and give to family and friends.

Like with most things, the quality of the ingredients can sometimes mean the difference between 'not so good' and 'really great'. Whatever you do, don't use the chocolate wafers that come in every color under the rainbow (you know the ones I am talking about, they are the ones often called 'candy melts' or 'almond bark' as these are generally made with vegetable fats instead of cocoa butter). One of my favorite chocolate shops in Illinois is Grahams. Their milk chocolate confectioner's discs are perfect for making cashew clusters (available online for those you not living in the western suburbs of Chicago). (The dark chocolate confectioner's discs from Grahams's are equally perfect.) However, the Ghiradelli melting chocolate discs work really well too. If you have a chocolatier near where you live and they sell confectioner's chocolate, you have yet another option. In other words, I am trying to eliminate all of the obstacles for you!

Melting good chocolate, mixing in roasted, salted whole cashews and dropping by the tablespoonful on parchment paper is the extent of this 'recipe'. The size of the cashew clusters is about the only decision you need to make. Once the chocolate cashew clusters have set simply place them in small candy papers. If you are not serving them on the day you make them, just store in a covered container. These are so addictively good that you may have to hide them from your family if you were planning on serving them at a gathering.

Chocolate Covered Cashew Clusters

1 pound of milk chocolate confectioner's discs (recommend Grahams Chocolates or Ghiradelli Melting Chocolate) or for those of you like dark chocolate I recommend using a semi-sweet chocolate or bittersweet chocolate (no more than 60% cocoa)
1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds of roasted and salted whole cashews (a generous 3 cups)

1. Melt chocolate discs in a glass bowl set over a pan of hot, simmering water.
2. When chocolate has melted, remove bowl from pan. Stir in cashews.
3. Drop tablespoons of the cashew/chocolate mixture on parchment paper. Allow chocolate to set.
4. Place cashew clusters in small paper cups. 
5. Store cashews in a covered container.

Just like any act of service, there are always small ways to show others you care. For me, cooking and/or baking for others has been my way of sharing a small part of myself, of showing gratefulness. The holidays always provide me with the opportunity to thank people that extended a kindness to me over the year even if I had already shown my appreciation and thankfulness to them.

For me the best kindnesses are the ones unexpected, the ones genuine, and the ones coming from the heart. It is often hard to repay these kindnesses, because more often than not, they are given without the expectation of anything in return. And it is the simplest of kindnesses that are the most endearing. A bag of my favorite brought when working a really long day, a note left on a windshield, freshly picked flowers waiting for me, and the 'just thinking of you' phone call are just some of the kindnesses permanently etched in my memory, in my heart.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A Wicked Cranberry Margarita

One cannot thrive on food alone, especially during the Thanksgiving holidays. And cranberries were not just meant to be eaten. Whether we are rewarding ourselves for being on our feet for hours of cooking, bracing for the family dinner (even the best of families have their moments), spending it without loved ones or helping everyone relax just a bit, serving a beverage (one containing alcohol of course) is mandatory. And I am not talking about the wine served before or during dinner. No, this holiday calls for something a little more memorable and with a bit of a kick. And what better way to honor the holiday or add to the holiday cheer than to make Cranberry Margaritas. Okay for those scotch, bourbon or martini only lovers out there, you might think there is a better way to enjoy the holidays (really?), but for those of you who love a great margarita, this is a cocktail for you.

I have shared before that I hold one of my dearest friends responsible for my affection for both martinis and margaritas. And of the many things I am thankful for this holiday is my friend's influence on me, in more ways than just appreciating a great margarita (yes, it might be a little shallow to say I am thankful only for margaritas at the Thanksgiving table, but it wouldn't be the most shallow thought that has ever crossed my mind).

The only decisions you have to make when serving this margarita are deciding salt or no salt and ice or no ice. For me, salt is a necessity and with regard to ice, well let's just say I wouldn't send a margarita back if it had ice it. I am not that high maintenance (when it comes to margaritas that is).

The making of the Cranberry Margarita all begins with making a simple syrup. Cranberries, water and sugar are simmered until the cranberries burst. After the mixture is poured into a strainer, a wooden spoon is used to crush the cranberries to further release all of their incredible flavor. Three cups of cranberries, one half cup of water and one half cup of sugar yielded a little more than one half cup of a cranberry syrup (a rather thick syrup). The strained syrup is cooled and set aside.  Note: The recipe yields only 4 six ounce margaritas, so consider making more than one batch of the cranberry syrup if you are serving more than 4 people as I am certain at least one of them will ask for another.

Freshly squeezed lime juice are a must in a margarita. Two medium sized limes should yield about 1/3 cup of lime juice.

Cointreau and tequilla are the only other ingredients you need. Use your favorite tequila as this is a margarita that deserves nothing less.

The cranberry syrup, lime juice, Cointreau and tequilla are all mixed together in a pitcher. At this point you can either chill in the refrigerator or serve over ice. But you might not want to wait.

After one sip you will definitely want to be stocking up on cranberries as well as maintaining a supply of your favorite tequilla. This isn't just a margarita to be made during the holidays as a way of making them memorable (or forgettable), although it just might do that. No, this seriously wicked Cranberry Margarita should be made and served from the moment cranberries are first harvested until they are no longer available at the market. I am just glad I could share it with you while cranberries were still in season.

A Wicked Cranberry Margarita (inspired by a recipe shared by the Sweet Life)

3 cups of fresh cranberries
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup water
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lime juice (2 to 3 limes)
1/2 cup Cointreau
1 cup tequilla (recommend Avion Silver)
Margarita salt

1. Combine cranberries, water and sugar in a medium sized saucepan. Simmer until cranberries burst.
2. Pour mixture into a strainer set over a bowl. Mash cranberries with the back of a wooden spoon to further release their flavor. Allow cranberry syrup to cool. Yield should be at least one half cup.
3. Mix together freshly squeezed lime juice, Cointreau, tequilla and cranberry syrup in a pitcher. Either chill for at least an hour or serve over ice in glasses rimmed in salt.
Note: Makes four six ounce margaritas.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Pumpkin Pie

This Thanksgiving I decided it was finally time to make the pumpkin pie with a crust from scratch. My pie making cheating days needed to come to an end along time ago (cheating in my world would be using a store-bought refrigerated pie crust). Convenience and pie dough making trepidation has been standing in the way of me getting the satisfaction out of making my own crust. If the refrigerated pie crust dough I have been using all of these years has been good, I started to think 'wouldn't a homemade dough be even better, maybe even great?' Probably, right? So what's the worst thing that could happen if I couldn't first develop a knack for making a great tasting pie crust? The simple answer is a slightly deflated culinary ego and a not so great tasting pie. My ego has been bruised before and I have made my share of recipes I would rate as a one star. So the bar I have set for myself may not be as high as I think it is.

For years I have made only pumpkin pie recipe, Grandma Cottington's (a recipe published in Bon Appetit years back and remaining available on Epicurious) with a store-bought refrigerated pie crust. Since I was going out on a limb making a crust, I thought I would climb out a little further and try another pie filling recipe. This pumpkin pie was either going to be half good or all bad.

I couldn't have been happier with how the dough rolled out and I was beyond ecstatic at the color of the finished pie. Admittedly I am a little dough crimping challenged, however, I sort of liked the rustic look of my finished crust. It was after all 'just' a pumpkin pie, the pie we would like to believe was served in 1621 at the multi-day dinner between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag to celebrate the colony's first successful harvest. (Historical records actually show that pumpkin was served but not pumpkin pie. Such myths we learn in grammar school.)

Yet no matter how happy I was with the dough and look of the pumpkin pie, it would all come down to taste. The pie already had a leg up on its' looks, it just needed to pass the taste test. If you are not a big fan of pumpkin pie, this one could change all of that. This pumpkin pie is scream worthy good (as in When Harry Met Sally scream worthy). In just one bite I knew I had found a pumpkin pie recipe to rival the one I had been making all these years. And hey, even the ding to my culinary ego was averted, at least for the moment.

Traditional pie dough ingredients always call for some sort of fat (butter, lard or a combination of both), flour, salt, and a liquid. The liquid is generally water. In this dough recipe there are two liquids, water and apple cider vinegar. The apple cider vinegar helps to prevent the formation of gluten, which can make for a tough crust. And who wants a tough pie crust?

Rather than use a fork or pastry cutter to make the dough, I used a food processor but was careful to not over mix the dough. I learned while making this pie dough that I did not need to use all of the liquid the recipe called for. I attributed this to the fact that it was a cool, low humid day. Most likely when the weather is warm, the amount of liquid actually used will increase.

The dough came together beautifully. I quickly formed it into a flat disc, wrapped it in plastic wrap and placed it in the refrigerator to rest and chill. The dough needs to rest in the refrigerator for only an hour, but can be kept chilled overnight to allow the flavors to better develop. Because I was making this dough for the first time, I went with overnight chilling period.

This dough has a pliability to it that other doughs I have made in the past didn't (maybe that was one of the reasons for my dough making trepidation). I believe the easy of rolling out the dough had everything to do with the addition of the apple cider vinegar. I waited less than 10 minutes before rolling out the dough on a floured surface. I was amazed at how easy it was to roll out this dough. After wrapping the rolled dough around the rolling pin, I placed it in a ceramic pie plate. Once the dough was fitted into the pie plate, a fork was used to prick holes in the bottom. The rolled out dough was returned to the refrigerator to chill for (at least) 15 minutes. The oven is preheated to 375 degrees. Before the pie shell is put into the oven, it is covered with aluminum foil and filled with dried beans or pie weights. The shell is baked for 15 minutes or until the sides set up. Note: I removed the aluminum foil and weights from the pie shell after 15 minutes and returned the pie shell to the oven for an additional three minutes. While the shell is cooling, the filling is assembled.

I like a pumpkin pie that is highly spiced. The combination of cinnamon, ginger and allspice gives me the taste I am looking for in a pie. While cinnamon is the more dominant spice, the taste of ginger and allspice comes through. What attracted me to this recipe was the use of sweetened condensed milk in addition to the use of whipping cream. So what's a few more calories, if the outcome is a richer, creamier pie?

All of the pie ingredients are combined in a large bowl and whisked together. Instead of using freshly cooked pumpkin as the new recipe I found called for, I used the already prepared pumpkin puree (a 15 ounce can). If it means using canned pumpkin puree makes me a pumpkin pie filling 'cheater', I will live with that status.

The pie filling is poured into the pre-baked shell. In a pre-heated 350 degree oven it is baked for about 1 hour (or until center is set). There was a very slight jiggle left in the center of the pie after 60 minutes, however, when it cooled, it had the perfect texture. The pie is cooled on a rack for at least 30 minutes. Served at room temperature or chilled and with or without freshly whipped cream, it is a rich, creamy delicious pie. It took only one bite of this pie for me to know that this recipe was a keeper, but of course, I needed a few more bites for me to be certain.

Pumpkin Pie (crust from Four and Twenty Blackbirds and pie is an adaptation of a recipe shared by Nancy Fuller)

1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1/4 pound cold unsalted butter cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1/2 cup cold water
2 Tablespoons cider vinegar
1/2 cup ice

A 15 ounce can of pumpkin puree
1/2 cup whipping cream (plus whipping cream for serving)
A 14 ounce can of sweetened condensed milk
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
2 Tablespoons molasses
2 Tablespoons canola oil
1 Tablespoon Saigon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt
3 large eggs, room temperature

For Crust:
1. Combine water, cider vinegar and ice in a large measuring cup and set aside.
2. Stir together flour, salt and sugar in medium-large bowl and pour into food processor.
3. Add butter and process until pea sized pieces of butter remain.
4. Add 2 Tablespoons of ice water mixture and pulse slightly. Continue to add more of the ice water mixture 1 to 2 Tablespoons at a tie until dough begins to come together in a ball (there may be a few straggling pieces, that is okay it will all come together.)
5. Remove dough from food processor, shape into a flat disc and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least one hour or overnight to allow flavors to develop.
6. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
7. When chilled, remove dough and roll out on a floured surface. Transfer to a 9 inch glass or ceramic pie plate. Pierce the dough all over with a fork. Chill in the refrigerator for 15 minutes.
8. Line the crust with foil, fill with dried beans or pie weights and bake until the sides are set, about 15 minutes.
9. Remove foil and beans. 
10. Reduce temperature to 350 degrees.

For Pie:
1. Combine all filling ingredients in a large bowl and whisk until well blended.
2. Pour filling into pre-baked shell.
3. Bake at 350 degrees in the center of the oven for 1 hour or until filling is set in the center.
4. Place pie on rack and cool for at least 30 minutes before serving. 
5. Serve at room temperature or chilled.
Note: Serve with whipped cream.

I can sometimes be a creature of habit which is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it can be a good thing, with sometimes being the operative word here. There are some habits I wish would return to more of a daily occurring habit (like running) and there are other habits I wish I could completely rid myself of (like drinking diet soda). But I am, as they say, still a work in progress, so shifts are still possible. Some of my habits fall into what I call the perception category. I can have a blind eye to some things and some people, meaning, no matter what (good or bad), my opinions get 'stuck' instead of remain 'fluid'. Rather than look for or even see changes, I look for the things that validate my own perceptions. Because for various reasons I don't want my perceptions to change (self-preservation, fear, and forgetting are amongst some of the reasons explaining my unwillingness to change these perceptions), with 'don't' being the operative word here.

Admittedly staying in the 'stuck' place is not fair, to anyone or anything, including me. More importantly, this inflexibility in my own thinking has, at times, meant that my expectations of others don't match the expectations I have for myself. Yet, every now and then something happens that causes a seismic shift in my thinking, in my perceptions. It can be as simple as having a conversation with someone or reading a book or as difficult as doing some soul searching. The concept of 'we see what we want to' is not a new one, but it is one that can have a significant impact on our personal happiness. Whether it is by divine intervention or an internal or external push, when one of these seismic shifts happens I feel fortunate. Fortunate not only that it happened, but even more fortunate that I didn't let the opportunity slip by (again). No one ever said change was easy, because sometimes the best things that happen to us aren't easy.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Spiced Cranberry and Dried Fruit Chutney

My first exposure to the taste of cranberries came at Thanksgiving while growing up in the midwest. To be more specific, it came in the form of a canned cranberry sauce (the jellied versus the whole berry version of course). As a kid, the overly sweet and tart cranberry sauce which slid out of the can and retained its' barrel like shape for hours was like having dessert with dinner. It made being forced to eat mashed potatoes tolerable. I don't think I ever saw a real cranberry until sometime well into adulthood. No, I am not going into a childhood food deprivation whine here (even though I would like to) as I would rather share how I came to find a cranberry alternative to the canned jellied sauce of my youth.

I don't have an exact count but I believe I have made more than a dozen versions of cranberry sauce and cranberry chutney over the years. Possibly more versions than any other food (including chocolate chip cookies). Whether it was using raw or cooked cranberries with varying amounts of sugar, spices, fruits, nuts or alcohol or whether it was a recipe labeled as a sauce or chutney, I just couldn't seem to find one having the perfect combination of taste and texture. Many of the recipes made I liked well enough, but I was committed to keep trying until I found 'the one' (I think I heard John Wayne's voice saying 'You are a persistent cuss, Pilgrim' several times over the past few years during this cranberry sauce/chutney making journey). For awhile I was beginning to think my search for this elusive perfect cranberry concoction would go on endlessly or I would just end up settling for one of them. One thing was certain, there would not be a return to the canned jellied cranberry sauce. So I was as beside myself as one can be when I finally discovered 'the one'. 'The one' turned out to be a spiced cranberry and dried fruit chutney. And it couldn't have been more different in taste and texture than what I had eaten growing up.

Of course, this would be one of those recipes I wouldn't share what the ingredients were until everyone had tasted it. Not because there was anything unusual in it, but because the combination of ingredients might give some pause before they even tried it (you know who these people are in your life). If you haven't guessed by now, I enjoy maintaining my 'taste first, tell later' philosophy when something new is being served. Particularly when this something new means a change is being made at the Thanksgiving table. Thankfully, this change was so well received I am convinced there would be a few unhappy campers if something other than spiced cranberry and dried fruit chutney was placed on the holiday dinner table.

Fresh cranberries, I have learned, come in various sizes. Some of the cranberries coming out of the bogs on the Cape are the size of large grapes and gorgeous, however, most cranberries are the size of marbles. Regardless of their size or shape, cranberries are not only one of the most beautiful fruits, they are considered by some to be a 'superfruit' due to their nutrient content and antioxidant qualities. Finally, I like a food that is actually good for you!

In addition to fresh cranberries, this chutney is made with two dried fruits: blueberries and apricots. The smaller wild dried blueberries are my personal favorites, but any dried blueberry will work in this chutney. The apricots are sliced thinly but not too thinly as you want them to remain intact in the chutney during the cooking process. Depending on the size of the dried apricots, they can yield three to four slices. I have found using scissors is easier than using a knife when slicing the apricots.

Okay so you are thinking, why all of the initial secrecy around the ingredients? Nothing different or unusual yet. Brown sugar and thawed frozen canned cranberry juice wouldn't qualify as different. However, maybe the combination of cinnamon, crystallized ginger, and crushed Aleppo pepper would. Alone the crystallized ginger and Aleppo pepper are not that unusual, except for me, they are not ingredients generally thought of as being used when making either cranberry sauce or chutney.

On the easy to hard scale, the making of this chutney falls to the easy end of the continuum. All of the ingredients except two are placed in a medium sized saucepan over medium-high heat. When the sugar has dissolved, the heat is increased to high. Stirring often, the mixture is boiled until thickened. This could take up to 4 minutes.

To gauge its' thickness readiness, I like to scrape a wooden spoon on the bottom of the pan. If I can see the bottom of the pan, I know I am at the right level of thickness. The chutney further thickens as it sets so if you slightly err the level of thickness, not to worry. Just make sure most of the cranberries have burst during the cooking process. When the chutney reaches the desired state of thickness you remove from heat and add a pinch of salt and two teaspoons of balsamic vinegar. While I think everyone likes balsamic vinegar, it might be another one of those ingredients not expected in a recipe with cranberries.

The oh so pretty cranberries are transformed into a really beautiful chutney. Beyond how it looks, I absolutely love the texture and layers of flavor in this chutney. And its' versatility makes it preferable over a traditional cranberry sauce. In addition to being a great side with either chicken or turkey, it can be served as an appetizer with softened cream or goat cheese and crackers. If that wasn't enough versatility for you, it also makes for a terrific condiment on turkey sandwiches.

Spiced Cranberry and Dried-Fruit Chutney (ever so slight adaptation to recipe created by Jan Schroeder of Corvallis, Oregon)

2 cups fresh cranberries
16 dried apricots, thinly sliced
1/2 cup dried blueberries
1/3 cup light brown sugar
1/4 cup crystallized ginger, chopped
1/4 cup frozen cranberry juice, thawed (frozen cranberry juice is more concentrated than cranberry juice in the bottle and makes for a more flavorful chutney)
1/4 cup water
1/2 teaspoon Saigon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon crushed Aleppo pepper (or cayenne pepper)
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
pinch of Kosher salt

1. Place all ingredients (except balsamic vinegar and salt) in a medium saucepan.
2. Cook over medium-high heat until sugar dissolves.
3. Increase heat to high and cook until thickened (stir often). Could take up to 4 minutes.
4. Remove from heat and add balsamic vinegar and season with a pinch of Kosher salt.
5. Cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate.
Note: The Spiced Cranberry and Dried Fruit Chutney can be made at least one day or up to a week before serving. Personally I like to make this chutney either on the morning of or the day before serving.

A few weeks back I created a game of sorts with the only players being my niece and nephew. Once a week I text them a photo from an experience occurring during their childhood. The game part comes in when they have to identify its' location. The sibling who gets the location correct first receives a financial reward (we aren't talking alot of money here, just the kind of money that comes in handy for a college kid and just enough to peak their interest while indulging their aunt in this endeavor). With one of them in the eastern time zone and the other on mountain time, the timing of sending these texts has been the most challenging aspect of the game (because they are all about having it be fair, competitiveness is in their DNA).

Early on in their lives, they spent an incredible amount of time with us and almost every experience was photographed with a camera (cell phones with cameras weren't around back then, which really wasn't that long ago). I had wanted to capture these experiences in film, so that someday they could look back at the photos and remember their time spent at zoos, museums, county fairs, and on trips with an aunt and uncle who loved them very much. For me and hopefully for them, each of these experiences are (or will someday be) seen as the things that created the (indestructible) foundation of the relationship we have with one another today.

Now that they are in college and the amount of time spent with them is considerably less than it was when they were younger, I have sought to find (and not leave to chance) creative ways to continue to keep our connections with one another strong. So the game for me is just another way for me to remind them how much they have always been loved as well as a way of creating another memory between us as well as them. While it thrills me when they remember the events or places we went to, it thrills me even more to know that the quality of relationship we have with one another today came as a result of the time spent together. Finding ways to spend time and engage with these busy college kids on top of my busy life over the years hasn't always been easy. But every now and then, I need to make sure there are no cracks in the proverbial (relationship) foundation by creating new memories, even ones as seemingly silly as the game they are now playing.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Sweet Dream Cookies

Waking up to snow this morning had me momentarily experience the (irrational) fear I had slept through Thanksgiving and the Christmas holidays were already upon us. (And if you have gone into any store these days you might actually believe this fear was plausible.) Before I even begin to think about buying presents or decorating for the Christmas holidays, my pre-holiday thoughts are usually about which cookies I will be making for friends and gatherings. So that's where my early November morning thoughts took me. Invariably I know I will make the 'standards' and will also make a new cookie or one I hadn't made in awhile. This morning I decided I would return to making the Sweet Dream Cookies, a chocolate chip cookie dredged in confectionary sugar and containing the spices of cinnamon and ginger. This is a recipe taking chocolate chip cookies to a very different dimension of look and taste.

It has been a few years since I have made the Sweet Dreams, a cookie having rather strong memories on many levels. The year there was a cookie baking contest held at work was when the permanently instilled memory occurred. When I hear the words cookie and contest in the same sentence, my interest is generally peaked. Although I wasn't responsible for organizing the contest, I was given the responsibility for getting the judges. So I asked three local community leaders, who all just happened to be men (men and food seemed to be a combination that made sense at the time) to, in the spirit of community service, judge the Christmas cookies made by their local educators.

The Sweet Dream cookies were amongst the array of cookies in the contest. After all of the cookies were tasted and rated, the judges learned who made each of the cookies. Now I have to be honest and say I thought I would win this little competition hands down (a moment of unusually high confidence). So when the judges came down to my office their first words, said in harmony (and well rehearsed) were 'Don't quit your day job'.  Even though the Sweet Dreams weren't awarded first place (I think they came in third), to this day I still think they were the best cookie in the competition. Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I have convinced myself the judges were challenged to award the 'blue ribbon' to the person who recruited them, the person who was also one of their peers in the community. (Yes, I have had to rationalize this cookie contest 'loss' somehow.) Whatever memories that are created when you make this cookie, who knows what they will be, but you won't have any unless, of course, you make them.

There are two kinds of sugar in this cookie: brown sugar and confectionary sugar. The brown sugar is mixed into the batter while the confectionary sugar is reserved for rolling the balls of dough in before the cookies are baked.

What changes these cookies from chocolate chip cookies to Sweet Dreams are the spices ginger and cinnamon. Like the use of sea salt elevates the taste of chocolate, ginger and cinnamon compliment it perfectly. The Sweet Dream recipe was around long before all of the 'designer' chocolates went mainstream. Someone was definitely ahead of their time when they created this recipe.

This would be a no sifting required recipe. The flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger and salt are mixed together in a medium bowl and set aside. It is added to the batter created with the butter, brown sugar, vanilla and egg.

There are so many chocolate chips choices on the shelves of the grocery store these days it can be at times daunting as to which ones to choose. But my personal favorites are the Ghiradelli 60% bittersweet chocolate chips. They are a slightly oversized chocolate chip and when baked are creamy, not grainy. While it is an extra (and definitely worthwhile) step to toast walnuts before mixing them in, it is always preferable to buy walnut halves rather than pieces. To enhance the sweet nutty flavor of walnuts, they are simply placed on cookie sheet and baked at 350 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes.

This is one of those recipes where you have some wait time before you bake them as the dough needs to be refrigerated for several hours or until the dough is firm. Personally, I consider making cookies needing refrigeration a good thing particularly during the baking frenzied holidays. Sometimes you just need to move on to other things and the 'make now, bake later' cookies are a blessing in disguise.

Once chilled the dough is formed into one inch balls. For purposes of uniformity I like using an ice cream scoop (if you don't have or haven't bought one yet, you might want to add this to your list this year, that is, if you can wait that long). The balls of dough are rolled in confectionary sugar and placed two inches apart on a parchment paper lined cookie sheet in a preheated 375 degree oven. The cookies bake for 12-14 minutes (if you reduce or increase the size of the balls of dough you will have to adjust your baking time). Important Note: The original recipe called for a 10 minute baking time but in my experience with these cookies, 10 minutes wasn't long enough. I would recommend you check for doneness at 10 minutes and then adjust the time based on your oven. 

These cookies are as delicious as they are beautiful (makes me wonder if the judges in the cookie contest were wearing blind folds when they were tasting cookies!). And no, I am not getting started on baking holiday cookies, it's just the Sweet Dreams cookies have been put on hiatus for much too long and today was the perfect day to resurrect them. I guess I just couldn't want to wait any longer until these cookies were made and shared. And oh, as for how the outcome of the cookie contest has affected me, well let's just say it was really an endearing memorable moment amongst friends, the most important part of this memory.

Sweet Dream Cookies (minor adaptations of a recipe from the Foothill House Bed and Breakfast, Calistoga, California)

1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/2 cups firmly packed light brown sugar
1 large egg, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon Saigon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
12 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips (recommend Ghiradelli 60% Bittersweet Chocolate Chips)
1 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped
1 cup confectionary sugar

1. Combine flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.
2. In a standing or hand mixer, cream the butter (if using a standing mixer, use the paddle attachment).
3. Beat in brown sugar, and vanilla. Add egg and continue mixing until well blended.
4. Blend flour mixture to the butter/sugar/egg mixture.
5. Fold in chocolate chips and walnuts.
6. Refrigerate until firm, at least 2 hours or overnight.
7. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
8. Form dough into one inch balls. Dredge in confectionary sugar before placing on a parchment paper lined baking sheet. Space at least 2 inches apart.
9. Bake 12-14 minutes. Allow to cool 5 minutes on cookie sheets before removing.
10. Transfer to racks, cool and serve or store in an airtight container.

If there is one thing I know to be true is that taste is all a matter of opinion. What I or anyone else thinks looks good or tastes could either be the same or different. These perceptions are not nearly as important as is how one shares them. There are nuances to being honest, being polite, and there is also context. How I might say something to a really good friend or someone I care about might be a little different than what I might say to someone I don't know well, to a co-worker, or to someone that no longer matters to me. I say 'might' because sometimes I might say the exact same thing or I 'might' say something completely different. Giving a compliment or validating someone is a whole lot easier than expressing a differing view.

For me it's all about reading the context, reading the person. Sometimes a really close friend is in a place in their lives where the words chosen need to be a little more thoughtful. Judging when or when not to use humor can be the one thing that either makes them feel good and laugh or makes them wonder 'what is she thinking?' Either way I know I play a role in whatever their reaction might be. I certainly can't take credit for making someone laugh but not take some responsibility if they are momentarily wounded. I say 'momentarily' because how I react to them will affect whether my words remain with them or are forgotten (and possibly coming back as good teasing later on). In this day and age when face to face and ear to ear conversations are replaced (intentionally and unintentionally) with emails or texts, we lose the opportunity to strengthen connections. Maybe even more important, we risk having our intended outcome go awry. Seeing and hearing the judges (aka friends) say 'Don't quit your day job' just might have been received very differently if it came in the form of an email. For me, facial expressions, body language, and tone communicate more than words. They always have, they always will.