Baked Goods Basket : Chocolate Almond Truffles

As I mentioned in the last post, my college suite mate recently asked me to donate a baked goods basket for a fundraiser in response to the earthquake in Nepal. Her mixed martial arts studio, Pentagon MMA, was hosting an event to raise funds to help support relief efforts. There were going to be games, free self-defense lessons, a backyard barbeque, and a silent auction - what an awesome idea and cause!

Even more exciting than the opportunity to help this fundraiser through baking was deciding what to make for the basket. I busted out a pen, notepad, and arsenal of recipes. These had to be recipes that would survive in transport and could keep at least one night ahead of time. Game on!

After careful deliberation, four recipes made the cut: 

>> 1. Chocolate Almond Truffles
>> 2. Salted, Brown Butter, Vanilla Bean Rice Krispie Treats
>> 3. Spice Blondies with Chai Ganache
>> 4. Oatmeal Cherry Nut Cookies

What a killer line up! None of these recipes were terribly difficult and I tried to stick with ingredients that were practical without being bland. I'll review each of these in future posts but for now, let's focus on the Chocolate Almond Truffles from Baked: New Frontiers in Baking (pictured below, on the left).

These truffles are decadent, luxurious, and sinful. I would LOVE to dunk one in a warm cup of coffee and let it slowly melt on a fall morning. They would be just as good chilled on a summer day! I would compare them to a less processed version of those Lindt chocolate truffles you see everywhere. The ingredient list is extremely short and sweet (oh come to me dark chocolate) but don't let that fool you. They are the most labor intensive to make and need time to set. You have to form each individual ganache ball, dip it in melted chocolate, and then sprinkle on the fixings.

The saving grace of this recipe is the truffles can be made way in advance and frozen until show time. This definitely kept my mind at ease knowing there was an army of bons bons waiting in the freezer.  Should anything go wrong, at least this one thing was right and ready!

The other cool part about the truffles is that they do not have to be almond flavored. There are three, yes three, different versions in Baked. These could have been a gift basket by themselves! Get creative and make your own modifications with a dash of peppermint extract or a dusting of Oreo crumbs. Nothing's better than a versatile recipe!

Please note on the side of this blog, there is a section titled "good karma" where I try to recommend charitable efforts.  From an earthquake in another country to a puppy that needs surgery, I strongly encourage and support helping those in need. It's not about doing nice things in hopes you will receive something in return. The world simply needs more compassion and generosity. Just being thoughtful is huge! Thank you!

The recipe for these delicious Chocolate Almond Truffles can be found in Baked: New Frontiers in Baking. This is one of my few go-to baking books and a worthy investment!

One Bowl Chocolate Cake with Mocha Buttercream Frosting

A few weeks back, my college suite mate (wow that makes me feel old) reached out to see if I could contribute a baked-goods gift basket for a fundraiser. The event was scheduled the same weekend we were celebrating my in-laws birthdays. They were born only one day and one year apart - talk about destiny! We had planned to take them out to dinner and bake them cake for dessert.

The hubby looked at my crazy eyes and knew... I wasn't going to back down from either task.

This tight rope walk required laser focus on the schedule. Dry ingredients were premixed and ready to go in Tupperware; Mike even rolled up his sleeves and made the cookie dough. Starting Wednesday night all the way up until Saturday morning, each recipe was baked in batches. We ended up with four sweet treats for the gift basket and a darling chocolate cake for his folks. It was surprisingly stress free thanks to all the advanced planning.

The main reason this feat was achievable was the selection of smart, simple recipes. I didn't want to cut corners but I also knew I couldn't drive myself crazy with multi-day instructions. Hence, the birthday chocolate cake of choice is this One Bowl Chocolate Cake with Mocha Buttercream frosting. Using one bowl cuts back on mess and gets the cake in the oven quickly. In and out mission.

Additionally, when it comes to baking for a small crowd (four to six people), I prefer making cakes in 6-inch round pans. Leftovers are great but I don't want that temptation hanging around the house. Plus, tiny cakes are hella cute and classy! They behave how a proper young lady should-  leaving you wanting more without giving away too much.

This recipe is from Hummingbird High (my first time on this site) who adapted it from the cook book,  One Bowl Baking. The key to making the batter is to not over-mix or else the cake will be heavy. The texture has a slight crumb to it and does not have bold chocolate flavor since it's purely cocoa powder. I would not say that it's dry but it is not moist like other luscious and decadent chocolate cakes that I've made in the past. It got the job done but it's not one of my favorite cakes.

What holds this cake down? The creamy, dreamy mocha buttercream. It's like having a built in glass of chocolate milk as you eat a cookie! The consistency is silky smooth and keeps that slight crumb together. In my opinion, this frosting makes the cake. It's very easy to frost and holds up beautifully. If it gives you any trouble, pop it in the fridge the firm up.

Fill the cake with pure frosting or add a little texture with chocolate chips, crumbled oreos, or toasted halzenuts.

To garnish the cake, I made cute little chocolate hearts out of melted chocolate chips. Simply melt the chocolate and pour into a piping bag with a number 2 tip. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper (*if you're in a hurry, pre-chill the cookie sheet so the hearts harden faster). On the parchment paper, do a couple test hearts to make sure that the chocolate isn't too warm to keep shape. To draw the heart, write the letter V but squeeze a second longer on the top two points to form dots. You'll get the hang of it after a couple of tries. Anytime it gets too messy, pop the cookie sheet in the freezer for a few minutes to give yourself a break.

The super time-saver recipe can be found on Hummingbird High: One Bowl Chocolate Cake with Mocha Buttercream Frosting.

Peanut Butter and Jam Muffins - Gluten Free and Vegan

This post is going to start with a forewarning to those of you who play video games: do not buy "Arkham Knight." It will consume hours and the attention of loved ones. My hubby played it non-stop over the course of the past drizzly weekend here in Virginia. It's not exactly cheerful. He hasn't been this captivated since, "Last of Us." Yes, the title alone implies yet another feel-good time!

Aside from the persistent sound of the Joker and Batman in the background, it has been a non-stop barrage of rain over the past two weeks. There have been tornado to flood warnings, never-before seen leaks in the basement, and soggy walks with our little Remington (post to follow). Rain, rain, go away! Or at least go to the West coast where they were having droughts!

If you need a little sunshine, make your own with these tasty Peanut Butter and Jam Muffins from Minimalist Baker. Honestly, I don't recall how these even got onto my list of things to bake - it was a spur of the moment decision fueled by a longing for an amazing peanut butter and jelly muffin. Yes, this is a longing of mine.

When I was a kid, my mom used to swing by this cute coffee shop in historic Occoquan, VA. It's been many moons and has since closed. They had the most eclectic collection of nick-knacks everywhere and a room decorated with tons of mugs. On weekends, they would have live music and the tiny shop would be brimming with people. I was too young to enjoy the coffee but what I did passionately adore were the yogurt muffins. We used to buy them by the dozen in an assortment of flavors, my two favorites being Cappuccino and the (you guessed it) Peanut Butter and Jelly.

As the fates would have it... I have been so lucky as to run into my old friend, the Cappuccino muffin, at our usual coffee hang out, Java Loco, about two week ago. I recognized it on sight and stared. Could it be? The little kid in me remembered the wrapper. It was love all over again at first bite. The hubby was skeptical... what's the big deal about this damn muffin? Then he had a bite. And understood the awesome.

I learned that the brand is actually a New York based company, Morrison Pastry Corporation. They have since discontinued my dear Peanut Butter and Jelly muffin due to peanut allergy concerns. *hangs head* 

These muffins, however, have helped soften the blow. They taste nothing like my old favorite but that's okay. They are far healthier than the Morrison variety and are vegan and gluten free. They are addictive, hearty, packed with flavor, and provide a dose of protein. 

I used raspberry jam but go with what you love. I used the serve-yourself peanut butter from Wholefoods because well.. that's what we had. Baking with less-processed peanut butter takes some elbow grease if there's separation so I recommend using a more creamy variety. You could always sprinkle in some crushed peanuts in the batter or top!

May this muffins bring you joy and happy tummy! For the recipe, check out Minimalist Baker's post on Peanut Butter and Jelly Muffins!

America's Test Kitchen's Cheesecake with Roasted Strawberry Topping

A little pet peeve of mine is recipes whose titles start with, "the best." Really - the best? In those whole vast culinary world you want to throw down the gauntlet and make that claim? That takes some mighty large huevos my friend.

Hence, when a co-worker tried a slice of this cheesecake from America's Test Kitchen and exclaimed, "this is the best cheesecake that I have ever had," my natural skepticism paused. 

This cheesecake... is too legit to quit. Now I'm not going to give it the title of "best" but goodness gracious it's better than good. It's freaking good. Why so? Adjectives include luscious, creamy, rich, and smooth, full-bodied without being heavy. 

The crust offers a nice counter balance because of the baked in cinnamon. I would say you could even cut back a little bit on the sugar in the crust. As with any cheesecake, make sure you schedule around the cooking time (about 2 hours total with cake and crust)! I prefer baking the day before so it has the night to chill.

This cheesecake was specially made for my kuya (brother) as a birthday treat! You've seen a few cheesecakes (White Chocolate Cheesecake with Hearts and Raspberry Swirled Cheesecake) that I've made for him for past birthdays.  Brandon is always more than grateful.  He gives a big hug and thank you no matter what someone gives him. I could bestow him with a bowl of mud and he'd be appreciative. You can imagine my surprise when he simply said, "this is better than last year's cheesecake." 

If this recipe can break kuya's super considerate silence... well then we're cooking with fire.

Know this now! When you sign up for cheesecake... real cheesecake... you are signing up for sinfully high calories and a trip to confession. Better make that the gym. This angelic looking recipe holds an asinine amount of cream cheese, a whole bunch of eggs, a little sour cream, just a hint of lemon, a dash of vanilla extract, and some serious sugar. Don't you dare try to lie to yourself with that "light" cream cheese nonsense. 

Steer into the skid, my friends.

Adorning the top of this cheesecake, I added some roasted strawberries. Roasted strawberries are my answer to everything! They're incredible on top buckwheat pancakes, served with some wine, or slathered on millet muffins. The best part is their simplicity and versatility. I bake them whole on at 375F until their tender, about 15-20 minutes, with a little maple syrup drizzled on top. There's no need for a lot of sugar, let nature do her work. 

The only issue I had with this recipe was the quantity it produced. I definitely had enough batter for TWO cheesecakes. I'm not sure if this is the intention of yield but it sure made for some happy co-workers!

For the America's Test Kitchen's Cheesecake recipe, subscribe to their site or check it out on My Baker Lady's site.

Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free Red Velvet Cupcakes

Onward we go! Bravely dipping our pinkie toe back into the mysterious jungle that is gluten-free baking! I've had very limited experience in this arena, with a roaring eight recipes under my belt! On this episode of Squirrels and Sweets, we take on Gluten-Free AND Dairy-Free Red Velvet Cupcakes!

Clearly... these parameters were not my devising. One of our friends recently has taken on a strict dietary plan in response to recent rosacea break outs. The power of diet will never cease to amaze me! By changing what we eat, we have a direct influence over our body. It sounds simple in theory but is difficult in practice.  

For her birthday, her boyfriend sent me the list foods that she "can" and "cannot's." How to apply this conundrum to her favorite cupcake, the majestic red velvet?

Ladies and gentlemen of the gluten-free community - you are some crafty bastards! I was amazed by the number of options that came up on the search for gluten-free and dairy-free red velvet cupcakes. The recipe of choice for the cake is from The Dusty Baker, a gluten-free guru, because it sounded very similar to previous batches that I have baked. Check on the cocoa, baking soda, and vinegar! Could this really work? I had to find out!

These cupcakes turned out fabulous. I cringed on the first bite expecting a grainy after-taste. The difference between a regular, fully-evil cupcake and this one is barely noticeable. These came out soft with perfect texture and no crumble.

The Dusty Baker provides a break down on how to make your own gluten-free cake flour. I went the lazy route and used Bob's Red Mill gluten free baking flour. Plus, for someone who doesn't bake gluten-free on the regular, it saved a few bucks from mixing an assortment of flours.

If I was going to be a true stickler to my friend's diet, I could have substituted the eggs for chia seed or flaxseed eggs.

The other area that I skimped on was using Tofutti sour cream only because it was not at the local grocery store. Looks like this is one of those "Whole Foods" ingredients. It's only tablespoon so if you find your back to the wall.... go ahead and cheat.  It's a trace amount.

As for the frosting, there are several options out there! I used the vanilla, gluten-free frosting from the Science Themed cupcakes. It's tasty, especially when served slightly chilled. Dusty Baker has her own plain frosting, Fluffy Vegan Frosting, that has smooth finish.  A common frosting for Red Velvet is cream cheese which you could try with Mama Sophia’s, "Tofutti Better Than Cream Cheese Frosting Recipe" (Dairy Free). You could also try one of my all-time FAVORITE toppings, the Fluffy Seven Minute Frosting (Dairy Free), which tastes like marshmallow fluff without the stickiness!

The other bonus of making cupcakes was that I finally got to use this super cute ferris wheel that I bought on sale about two years ago. That last time that I made a batch of cupcakes was April 2014 for my friend's daughter's Princess birthday party! It's a little over the top but the darn thing was too fun to ignore.

The recipe for these awesome Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free Red Velvet Cupcakes can be found on The Dusty Baker's site