Dessert Essentials: Graham Cracker Crust and Homemade Whipped Cream

Graham cracker crust was one of the first things I learned how to cook myself.  I remember being in elementary school crushing graham crackers with a rolling pin (too little to work a food processor), melting butter in the microwave in what always seemed to be the wrong container (plastic, metal), and stirring in a little sugar to make it all come together with a fork.  Over the years I’ve improved my original recipe, but sometimes I still use the rolling pin just for nostalgia’s sake.  I use salted butter and I typically add a little extra salt because I love salt, but definitely taste before you do – it typically needs none unless you use unsalted butter.

As for homemade whipped cream, it’s one of my most favorite things in the world.  It classes up the simplest of desserts, comes together in about 4 minutes, and is light years ahead of anything you could purchase.

I’m putting these two recipes together because you need both to make my two favorite summer pies: key lime and coconut, both of which I’ll be sharing soon.  You could also make a graham cracker crust, fill with chocolate Jello pudding pie filling (the directions are on the box!), top with whipped cream, and have a pretty excellent chocolate pie in no time.

Graham Cracker Crust

1 sleeve “Nabisco Graham” graham crackers in the red box.  No cinnamon, no honey, just the red nabisco box.  A box comes with 3 sleeves, I think there are 8 long crackers in each.

2-3 Tbsp sugar

5 Tbsp butter (salted or unsalted – add 1/2 tsp of salt if using unsalted butter)

1/2 cup sweetened flaked coconut (optional)

1. Crush the graham crackers in either a food processor or using a rolling pin.  Add the sugar and melted butter and stir with a fork until well combined.  Fold in the coconut (if using).

2. Preheat the oven to 350.  Press the crust into a pie pan using the bottom of a smooth glass or measuring cup and/or your fingers to cover the bottom and sides.  Bake the pie for 10-15 minutes until brown and fragrant.  Allow to cool before filling.

Note: if you’re making a pie that requires no additional baking, bake for closer to 15 minutes.  If you will be doing additional baking, only bake for about 10.

 

Homemade Whipped Cream

8 oz. whipping cream

3 Tbsp sugar

1 tsp vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste

1. Combine ingredients in a bowl and beat at high speed using either a hand mixer or stand mixer until soft peaks form.

2. You can easily add coconut or almond extract in lieu of (or in addition to) the vanilla to give the cream a different flavor – it works well!

Note:

Focaccia Bread

There’s an amazing brunch place in Dallas that serves $1 bellinis and mimosas until 2 p.m.  They limit you to six (six!), but the mimosas are basically champagne with a little splash of orange juice, in other words, a perfect mimosa.  That, in itself, is reason enough to drive across town and, inevitably, waste the remainder of your day in a post-brunch coma, but they also have amazing food.  Specifically, their focaccia bread is out of this world.  They bring it before your meal on a big pizza pan and ours is always long gone.  After several trips, I decided to try and replicate the focaccia – I had big dreams of doing it one afternoon following brunch, but after 3 mimosas, 4 slices of bread, and a massive eggs benedict (to think – I used to hate brunch food!), all I did was lie on the couch and watch The Little Mermaid with my kids for the millionth time.

I’ve eaten many focaccias over the years – some with onions, olives, and other craziness.  Typically if there’s a food option that contains additional fancy ingredients such as those, I’m all in, but, in the case of focaccia, it’s truly a less is more situation.  This calls for no toppings except rosemary, salt, and a little parmesan cheese.  It’s shockingly easy to make, and a really great introductory bread if yeast breads intimidate you.  Basically, when making bread, in order to get your dough to the right consistency you either need to add your flour to your water or water to your flour slowly.  So much depends on how sifted your flour is, the humidity in the air, the heat in your kitchen, etc.  Most breads have you mix the wet ingredients and add flour until you reach the desired consistency, but in this recipe you add water, and I think it’s easier to gauge the consistency that way because it’s easier to add until the dough just sticks together.

I grow rosemary in my garden, so I have the ingredients for focaccia on hand all the time and started making it about once a week.  You really only need an hour and a half of rise time and half an hour of baking, so it’s possible to make on a weeknight, which is rare for bread.  I actually use canned parmesan cheese for topping – typically I’m a total cheese snob and use fresh grated, but in this case, the can is pretty ideal.

Focaccia Bread

5 cups AP flour

2 tsp yeast

2 Tbsp olive oil

1 tsp salt

2 cups warm water

olive oil for drizzling

coarse salt

fresh rosemary

1/4 cup of parmesan cheese

1. Stir the flour, yeast, and salt together in the bowl of a stand mixer with a bread hook.  Add in the oil and mix until well-combined.  Add the water slowly, a half cup at a time, until the dough comes together in a ball.  Use the mixer to knead the dough for about 5 minutes, until smooth and elastic.  Transfer to a greased bowl, cover with a dishcloth, and allow to rise in a warm spot for about an hour when the dough is doubled in bulk.

2. Punch the dough down and spread into a rimmed baking sheet.  Continue to work the dough until it covers the bottom of the pan.  Allow to rise for an additional 30 minutes while preheating the oven to 425.  Dimple the dough all over using your fingertips and drizzle with olive oil, salt, fresh rosemary, and parmesan cheese.

3. Bake for 20-25 minutes until golden brown.

 

Toasted Coconut Cookies

When it comes to desserts, I have very little discretion.  The only things I truly dislike are flan and creme brulee (a texture issue), I’m not really a cake or cheesecake lover, and chocolate and fruit aren’t so much my jam, but, of course, if there’s a chocolate cake with fruit available I’m not one to exercise any restraint.  I will, however, skip the meal and go straight to dessert whenever there’s coconut involved.  Toasted coconut is one of life’s greatest pleasures – and, in my opinion, makes for a great garnish to any dessert.  A sprinkling of toasted coconut is great on ice cream, cupcakes, in a pie, and especially baked into a cookie.  These cookies go beyond a garnishing of coconut and really put the coconut on display.  The result is a crispy, chewy, buttery coconut cookie.

The original recipe calls for coconut chips, which I had trouble locating.  Usually I use sweetened coconut for toasting purposes because it’s cheap and easy to locate, but this time I bought a bag of unsweetened coconut flakes at Target and it worked really well.  The flakes were really fine and incorporated well into the dough.  You could use sweetened coconut if it’s all you have at the grocery store, but if you do, I would consider really backing off on the sugar (starting with half and tasting) or rinsing the sweetened coconut in a strainer and letting it dry out (apparently this removes most of the sweetness).  Unsweetened coconut is hard to find, but I generally can find it at Target or Trader Joe’s and stock up when I see it.

I also browned the butter, which is easy, but takes some time.  You could just use softened butter and skip step 1, but that sort of goes against my life’s mantra of “anything worth doing is worth overdoing”.  Browned butter is just so darn decadent and delicious that it’s worth the effort.  If you use regular butter, omit the 2T of water.

Toasted Coconut Cookies

1 cup (2 sticks) butter

2 Tbsp water

1/2 cup sugar

3/4 cup brown sugar

1 egg

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 tsp baking soda

1 1/4 cups flour

1/2 tsp coarse salt

2 1/2 cups unsweetened flaked coconut

1. Cook the butter in a small saucepan over high heat, stirring frequently until it begins to foam and brown.  It will burn in no time at all, so once the foaming begins, keep a close eye on it and remove from the heat when it starts to smell nutty and turn brown.  Transfer to a small container (I used a glass pyrex measuring cup) and place it in the refrigerator for a few hours to solidify.

2. Preheat the oven to 350.  Beat the butter, sugars, and 2T of water together until light and fluffy.  Add the egg and vanilla, beat to combine.  Add the baking soda, flour and salt and mix until well combined.  Fold in the coconut.

3. Scoop the dough into 1T sized balls and bake for about 11 minutes until golden brown.  Allow the cookies to cool and set on the cookie sheet before transferring to a plate.  Store in an airtight container.

Strawberry Short-Cup-Cakes

My toddler loves strawberries.  She requests that I always cut off the leaves, and insists that I do NOT sugar them, and then can eat roughly half a pound a day.  She essentially exists on strawberries, cherry tomatoes, and cheese.  It’s a good life.  Because we always need to have strawberries on hand for her, I buy a carton every time I see them (sort of like milk – it’s never on the list because it’s ALWAYS on the list) – the grocery store, Costco, Target, etc.  So sometimes I don’t pay enough attention and end up with 5 pounds of strawberries.  While my little cutie COULD consume 5 pounds of strawberries in a matter of days before they go bad, it would be awfully hard on her stomach.  Enter strawberry shortcupcakes.  They’re basically a vanilla cupcake with a strawberry balsamic filling and a strawberry buttercream on top.  Pure heaven.

Unfortunately my strawberry-lovin’ daughter takes books very seriously and had recently become obsessed with Pinkalicious before I made these.  In the story, the little girl makes pink cupcakes with her mom, eats too many, and turns pink.  To my two year old literalist, it was not a risk worth taking, so she wouldn’t eat them at all.  Her loss.

Note: if you don’t have/want to buy cake flour, you can substitute AP flour, just take 2T of each cup out and replace it with cornstarch.  Also, all in all, you’ll need 5 sticks of  butter, 1.5-2lbs of strawberries, and 9 eggs so, just be aware.  These really are a lot of work, but if you’re looking for something impressive and outstanding, their worth the effort.  I’d recommend baking the cupcakes the evening before, and filling/frosting the next morning.

Strawberry ShortCupCakes

for the cakes:

2 sticks butter, softened

1 cup white sugar

1 cup brown sugar

5 eggs

1 Tbsp vanilla extract

3 cups cake flour

1Tbsp baking powder

1 tsp salt

1 1/4 cup buttermilk

for the filling:

12 oz strawberries (fresh or frozen)

3 Tbsp sugar

1 tsp balsamic vinegar

for the frosting:

12 oz strawberries (fresh or frozen)

1T balsamic vinegar

1 and 1/4 cup sugar

4 egg whites

3 sticks of butter

1. Preheat the oven to 350. To make the cakes, begin by beating the butter and sugars together until light and fluffy.  Add in the eggs, one at a time, and the vanilla.  Stir the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, and salt) together and alternate adding the dry ingredients and the buttermilk until everything is incorporated.  Fill cupcake liners to 2/3 full (mine made roughly 24).  Bake for 15-18 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean.  Allow the cupcakes to cool completely before proceeding.

2. To make the filling, hull and finely dice the strawberries and toss with the sugar and balsamic vinegar.  Allow the mixture to set while you core the cupcakes.  You can either use a knife or a handy coring tool (like this).  Spoon a bit of the strawberry mixture in each cupcake until full – sort of mashing the strawberries in with the back of the spoon.  They can mound a little over the top, they will be covered by the frosting.

3. To make the frosting, hull and roughly chop the strawberries and toss with balsamic vinegar.  Cook the mixture over medium heat in a small saucepan for several minutes until fragrant.  Allow to cool.  Meanwhile, stir the egg whites and sugar together in a heatproof bowl over simmering water, whisking constantly until it hits 160 degrees.  Transfer to a stand mixer with the whisk and beat on medium high until the mixture is completely cool and stiff peaks form.  This takes 10-12 minutes for me.  While it’s beating, pour the strawberries into a blender or food processor and blend until smooth.  Put it in the freezer while you finish the frosting so it’s nice and cool.  Once the stiff peaks are achieved, turn the mixer down a notch or two and add in the butter, in small chunks until it’s all incorporated.  Bump the speed back up and beat another 4 minutes until the frosting is fluffy.  Add in the strawberry puree until incorporated.

4. Frost the cupcakes using a piping bag to cover the strawberry filling.

Nutrition:

If you yield 24 cupcakes: 352 calories per cupcake, 18g fat, 31g sugar.

Hawaiian Buns

We’ve been in the midst of picnic season in North Texas lately, so picnic food has long been on my mind.  Sandwiches are my go-to, especially egg salad, tuna, and a bizarre TVP concoction I’ve been eating since I was a kid.  At the crux of all small picnic sandwiches are my favorite store-bought bread – King’s Hawaiian rolls.  Soft, fluffy, sweet – they’re one of those foods I could eat for every meal, and polish off the whole bag in a day.  Of course, I’ve longed to make my own.  These are not quite the same as the standard King roll – they aren’t quite as fluffy, a little denser, especially if you make them with some whole wheat flour, but they also don’t come with hundreds of unpronounceable ingredients.  The beauty is that you can customize them to fit any sandwich – small for picnic sandwiches, big for hamburgers, etc.  They do need to rise for a substantial amount of time (that’s why they’re fluffy!), but they aren’t much work otherwise.

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Hawaiian Buns

3 eggs

7ish cups AP flour

2 cups pineapple juice

1/2 cup suga,

2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp ground ginger

1 tsp vanilla extract

1.5 Tbsp yeast

1 stick of butter, melted

1. Beat the eggs and add the pineapple juice, sugar, salt, ginger, vanilla, and melted butter (I use my stand mixer).  Stir together until combined.  Add the yeast and mix until the yeast is fully incorporated.  Add the flour, one cup at a time, waiting for each to fully incorporate.  Continue to add flour until the dough is sticky, but not overly wet (usually 7 gets it there for me).  Continue to knead the dough either with a bread hook or your hands until it forms a soft ball.  Transfer to a greased bowl and allow to rise for a few hours, until doubled in size.

2.  Once doubled, punch the dough down and roll sections of dough into individual rolls (I shoot for ping-pong ball sized).  Place these into a greased pan – I usually fill one 9×13 pan and one 8×8 pan.  Place the rolls far enough apart to allow them to double in size.  Cover with a dishtowel and allow to rise for another hour or two until the rolls have doubled in size again.

3. Bake at 350 for about 25 minutes.  Overbaking will cause these to become crunchy, so be sure to pull them out before they get too brown.

Crazy good cheesecake

Full disclosure: as much as butter, sugar, and baking are my “jam”, cheesecake is not my jam.  It’s not like cheesecake is gross to me (like flan), but as far as desserts go, it’s really low on my list.  To me, it’s too rich and often a lot more work to make than it’s worth.  That said, it’s one of my husband’s absolute favorite desserts so, because I love him, I make him a cheesecake every year for Valentine’s Day.  This year was our TENTH Valentine’s Day together, and though there have been some cheesecake winners in the past, this one was my favorite – to the point that I might consider making 2 per year.

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Cheesecake is an inherently difficult dessert to make, and this is no exception.  It’s a lot of work because there are four layers of goodness involved, but none of the steps are too challenging.  The chocolate-covered espresso beans aren’t crucial to the cheesecake and I’ve heard they can be hard to find, so if you can’t it’s no problem.  I found them in the bulk foods section of a local store, and I’ve gotten them at Trader Joe’s before.   Be sure to allow plenty of cooking and cooling time – you might even want to start a day early.  The cake is good for a solid week covered in the refrigerator (maybe more, ours was gone by then).

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Chocolate Espresso Cheesecake

Crust:

2/3 package of oreo cookies

6T butter

1/4tsp salt

Ganache:

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

20 oz bittersweet chocolate (chopped or buy it in chocolate-chip form – Guittard makes a great bittersweet chip)

1/4 cup kahlua or similar coffee liqueur

Cheesecake:

24 oz cream cheese (3 packages)

1 cup sugar

1.5 T flour

2 T rum

2 T instant espresso powder

2 tsp. vanilla extract

1 1/2 tsp molasses

3 eggs

Topping:

1.5 cups sour cream

1/4 cup sugar

2 tsp vanilla extract

Chocolate covered espresso beans for garnish

1. Set the cream cheese out to soften.  To make the crust: twist the oreos in half and discard the cream.  Place the cookies in a food processor to make a very fine crumb.  Melt the butter and add stir the butter, oreo dust, and salt together in a medium bowl.  Press the mixture into a 9-inch springform pan completely covering the bottom and coming up about halfway up the sides.  Put the crusted pan in the refrigerator until you’re ready to pour in the ganache.

2. To make the ganache: in a small saucepan, heat the heavy cream to a simmer.  Place the chocolate in a medium bowl and, once the cream is simmering, pour it over the chocolate and stir until the chocolate melts.  Add the liqueur and stir until incorporated.  Pour about half the mixture into the springform pan, just make sure the chocolate doesn’t come above the crust.  Reserve the rest of the ganache for topping.  Return to the refrigerator.

3. Preheat the oven to 350 with the rack in the middle.  To make the filling: beat the cream cheese and sugar together until smooth.  Add the flour, rum, espresso powder, molasses, and eggs, one at a time, beating until incorporated.  Pour the mixture into the pan and place on a rimmed baking sheet before placing in the oven.  Bake for 45 minutes to an hour – until the top is puffy and starting to pull away from the edge of the pan.  Remove from the oven, but leave it on while you prepare the topping.

4. To make the topping: beat the sour cream, sugar, and vanilla together until smooth.  Carefully spread over the top of the cheesecake, using a spatula to smooth.  Return to the 350 degree oven and bake for 10-15 more minutes.  Allow the cheesecake to cook for at least half and hour, then pipe the remaining ganache over the top and garnish with espresso beans.  Be sure to pipe along the edge to give it a nice side view.  Then move to the refrigerator (or freezer, if you watch carefully) to chill for an additional several hours until completely cool and set.  Carefully remove the springform and cut with a sharp knife.

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Almond Poppy Seed Bread

Before you go any further, let’s just get one thing straight: this is “bread” in the sense that a bellini is a “fruit smoothie”, but eating bread for breakfast seems so much more reasonable than eating cake for breakfast and it IS baked in a loaf pan.  This comes together really quickly, uses pretty basic pantry ingredients, and smells absolutely divine while it’s baking.  Pair it with your favorite coffee for breakfast, or with a hot cup of tea for an afternoon snack and you’ll feel super decadent, even for a Tuesday.  Of course, pair it with a bellini and you basically have toast and a fruit smoothie – super healthy breakfast!

Almond Poppy Seed Bread

3 cups flour

2 tsp, baking powder

1/2 tsp. salt

1 cup vegetable oil

3 eggs

2 cups sugar

1 1/2 cups milk

1 Tbsp poppy seeds

1 tsp almond extract

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 1/2 Tbsp melted butter

for the glaze:

3/4 cup flour

1/4 cup orange juice

2 Tbsp butter

1/2 tsp vanilla or almond extract

1. Preheat your oven to 350.  Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt.  Stir in the oil and eggs until well combined.  Mix in the sugar and milk.  Fold in the poppy seeds, extracts, and butter.  The batter should be a thin, not at all dough-like.

2. Divide the batter into two greased loaf pans.  Bake for 50 minutes, until the tops begin to crust.

3. As soon as you remove the bread from the oven, stir the glaze ingredients together in a small saucepan.  Cook over high heat until the sugar melts (I brought mine to a boil, which was fine), stirring constantly.  When the glaze has cooled a bit, remove the bread from the pans and drizzle the glaze on top, stopping occasionally to let it soak in.  I recommend doing this on a plate or over foil because it will drip over the sides.  Allow the bread to cool before serving.