A Year in the Making: Springtime Sugar Cookie Nests

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Sugar Cookie Nests

Last year I saw some really, really cute cookies on Pinterest. They were little thumbprint cookies, topped with chocolate and decorated with tiny chocolate eggs. I had every hope of actually making them. But then life happened and my motivation for fiddling around with tiny cookies flew right out the window.

Luckily this year was less chaotic and I actually managed a few sweet spring-time experiments like homemade Peeps and — finally — these little sugar cookie nests. And I have to say they were adorable enough (and tasty enough!) to be worth the wait.

While there are TONS of cookie nest recipes around, I really liked the simplicity of this one — no mini muffin pan necessary, just a basic sugar cookie recipe and some imagination. I contemplated using coconut flakes as the grass, but in the end I went with melted dark chocolate, green jimmies and mini chocolate eggs.

Not much else to say about these except I loved them. The cookie melts in your mouth and the bittersweet dark chocolate offsets the sweetness of the candy egg. They are the perfect happy spring cookie to go with the sometimes rainy, sometimes sunny type of days we’ve been having here lately. And while I’ve never been never a huge fan of rain, I do love the flowers it brings!

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The Peeps make cute plate decorations at least…

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Hot pink and pastel pink are equally happy spring colors!

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My lilacs are going crazy this year — love the way they smell.

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Pretty, pretty tulips.

The Ups and Downs of Homemade Peeps

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When I was younger, I always wanted to like Peeps — they were so cute and colorful and looked so festive it was hard not to want to bite their little heads off. But even as a kid, I’d get halfway through the pack and lose interest. They just weren’t as delicious as their bright candy colors made them seem. (They were still better than Cadbury Eggs, with their creamy yolks that still give me the creeps, but a far cry from my favorite Easter candy, mini-Whopper Robin Eggs.)

And yet, this year I became obsessed with making my own. After all — homemade marshmallows are infinitely better than store-bought ones, so it would seem that homemade Peeps would follow the same logic.

I did some recipe and technique research before I began, which led me to trying out Alton Brown’s recipe for marshmallows. Normally I am a big proponent of Martha Stewart’s recipe, but it seemed like as good a time as any to try something new. (Personally I still find Martha’s recipe to be fluffier and sweeter, but feel free to use whatever recipe you like best.)

If you are a newbie at marshmallow making, make sure you have a candy thermometer that is calibrated and that actually works (mine broke and I ended up having to test for the soft ball stage using a cup of water. Effective but not very fun). Also prepare yourself for the mess, especially if you try to color part of your mixture like I did. Imagine yourself in a stringy web of sugar — it gets everywhere!

And in hindsight, dying the marshmallows was pretty silly. The sugar covers them anyways, I was just experimenting.

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Pink and White Marshmallows. They look unassuming but managed to put up quite a fight.

After the marshmallow mixture is made, scoop it into a greased pan and press it down with greased hands or a spatula. You will be cutting them out with cookie cutters so you don’t want it thicker than the cutter you plan to use. Don’t worry if they look bumpy or a little wrinkled. The sugar will hide any blemishes.

Then let the pans sit for 4 hours or overnight. This gives you plenty of time to clean the sticky sugar mess off your counters (though really why bother…it’s about to get worse) and turn your entire kitchen inside out looking for every bottle of sanding sugar you own. As a note — the finer the sugar, the better.

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Perfect Peep Pink!

Then comes the fun, incredibly messy and occasionally frustrating part — decorating the Peeps.

The sugar won’t really stick to the front and backs of the marshmallows as most recipes will have you dust them in a combination of confectioners sugar and cornstarch so you can handle them. This means the sugar will only coat the sides where they have been cut.

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I learned that by dipping  a pastry brush in water and gently dabbing the ‘mallows that the sugar would stick fairly well. Which meant I had water, a brush, dishes of sugars plus the marshmallows all. over. the. place.

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This was actually the eye of the storm…

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Don’t mind the nubbins in the middle of the plate…

Sugar will most likely get everywhere. I promise you. You will need way more than expected and so you’ll keep dumping it into plates, realizing that the cute little dishes you poured it in won’t work at all. Really, what were you thinking?

But in the end, you will be greeted with adorableness and every granule of sugar lodged into your skin, your socks and in your hair will have been worth it.

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The Blue Bunny

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The flower cutter doubles as a bunny tail!

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Homemade Easter Peeps

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Bunny tail!

Now are you ready for the bad news? They tasted terrible! Like weird metallic grossness. The marshmallows themselves were fine and dandy but the sugar coating made them awful. I googled as much as I could but didn’t really find a good answer, though a friend of mine told me it was most likely some form of anti-caking mixture added to the sugar that would make them taste “off” when used in large quantities.

It seemed like a reasonable answer since I’ve used the sprinkles before, in much lesser amounts, without ever noticing anything weird.

So these Peeps will get to keep their heads. I’m seeing if they dry out well enough that I can coat them in something (Modge Podge? Shellack? any suggestions?) and have them last a few years as fun Easter decorations.

Even though I didn’t eat them, I still feel like mission “make Peeps” has been accomplished. Next up on my candy bucket list is to make black licorice.

Have you ever tried to recreate an old childhood favorite? Did it work out or were you disappointed in the results?

Heart on a String: A sweetly simple sign of love

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It’s funny the way that holiday decorations can instantly bring me to a happy place. In December, the stress of holiday traveling melts away when I see my childhood stocking (made by my mother years ago) hung over the fireplace. In college, I remember the sense of connection and solace when my friends and I would do silly things like paint Easter eggs together or decorate our dorm rooms with hand-print turkeys. It made being away from home a little easier.

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Seeing this vase makes me feel like I’m home.

Logically, it doesn’t make much sense because growing up I was never at my grandparents’ house this time of year — I was always in school. Instead they would fly to Alaska (on alternate years) to visit my brother and me for our birthdays. I was oblivious to the whole pussy willow/candy heart tradition until I was living in Portland and began spending my birthday weekends with them in Tacoma. Yet, there’s still a nostalgic feeling attached to those little gummy hearts.This is how I feel every February when I go up to my grandma’s house for my birthday and see a familiar white vase on the table, full of pussy willows and dangling red heart candies. I feel like a kid again, like I’ve come home from camp or a weekend slumber party.

Maybe it’s because the story connected to the vase and its enticing sweets is so familiar. Every year I hear about my uncle, who in his younger days used to pull all the hearts off their strings, leaving behind the empty circles of thread as evidence. My grandma loves to tell me this story and honestly, every year I enjoy hearing her recount the memory. It makes me feel connected knowing that traditions (along with having a sweet tooth) remain a constant in my family.

My older cousin, before he moved to Texas, also employed my uncle’s technique, stripping away the hearts and leaving the thread behind. Conversely, my personal (and more ladylike, I might add) strategy is to take the whole thing off, eating the candy, tucking the string in my pocket and leaving no trace behind.

However, for the sake of this picture and to reassure my grandma that indeed her candies are being appreciated, I did pull one lone heart off its tether. I’d say I ate it for the family members who weren’t present to celebrate Valentines Day, but for the sake of honesty, I’ll admit I was just feeling snacky.

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Chocolate Dipped Peppermint Meringue Cookies

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Meringue in the wild!

Like many new projects I tackle on a whim, these peppermint meringues were found on Pinterest. They were just too pretty too pass up and I happened to have egg whites left over from making ice cream for Thanksgiving (we made a goat cheese ice cream and a straight up old-fashioned vanilla — both were awesome!). I decided it was a perfect time to use them up and cross a cookie off my holiday “must bake” list.

Meringues are super easy to make and I can totally, absolutely appreciate a cookie that you can let bake for two hours and not have to think about. In fact, the only things you have to worry about with meringues are having any fat in the egg whites when you whip them (bad news) or over/under whipping them. Happily, I avoided both of those issues and my cookies turned out pretty darn adorable.

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I like to do different sizes so people can have “just a nibble.”

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It’s like a meringue mountain range!

However, if you click on the link you’ll notice the original post/recipe has pretty red-and-white swirled cookies while mine are just maybe faintly tinged pink white. Well, this is one of the those times where you read something over and over and somehow it just doesn’t sink in. Basically I was supposed to paint the inside of the pasty bag with red food coloring to get those lovely little candy cane stripes. Instead I painted the end of the pastry tip.

That will not get you pretty swirls. It will get you this:

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I’m a bit unimpressed.

*Sigh*

So after two cookies I gave up and just piped them sans food dye. It wasn’t until the next night when I read the recipe again (for like the 4th time!) that it sank in — I was totally doing it wrong. I still have no idea how I misread that but I’m over it now. Kind of.

Since my cookies tasted just fine but lacked a little finesse, I figured a nice chocolate dip would add some flair. And if I were to dip them in chocolate, it would only makes sense to sprinkle them with peppermint, right?

I thought so.

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And I have to say — I think I’m in love. Not only as they super cute (and festive) but they taste delicious. They are crunchy and sweet with a hint of peppermint. The flavor is not overwhelming which makes the sprinkle of peppermint even better. And I used dark chocolate to coat them so the sweetness is slightly reduced.

Seriously. These things are magic. I just look at them and feel happy.

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As you can see I tried several different “dipping” methods — and I pretty much love them all!

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Fully chocolate dipped!

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I love this one!

The Obsession Continues: Apple Cider Caramels

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Apple Cider Caramels

I have been on cider bender the past few months. Since early October my fridge has contained no less than one half-gallon of fresh apple cider, purchased anywhere from Farmer’s Markets to the grocery store. I’ve drank it straight, mulled with Applejack and used it for various cooking endeavors, like this brined pork roast.

However, the best creation I made are these apple cider caramels from an old issue of Food & Wine magazine. They tasted (depending on which friend of mine you asked) like caramel apple pops, apple fritters or candied apples. To me they were just as I imagined,  a perfect combination of the spiced cider flavor — cloves, cinnamon and tart apple — and creamy decadent caramel.

They were also luxuriously soft. While they’d hold their shape in the refrigerator, once popped in your mouth, they would melt almost instantly. They were so good I had to fight my natural instinct to hoard them and instead manged to share them with co-workers, friends and even some of my favorite customers in Seattle.

My friend Ariel loved them so much I think I have to make a batch just for her and her husband to enjoy. I gave her a few to take home and got this hilarious text message later that night: “Holy sheep shit, Batman” is what Eric said after trying a bite of one of your caramels. Now that’s a compliment, people!

Anyways, onto the process: I won’t say these delicious little guys are quick to throw together. Planning ahead is definitely necessary. Reducing the cider took about an hour and getting the caramel to the right temperature took at least that long. But the end results are so, so worth it. Also I only made a half batch and still had plenty to share. If you want to give these out as holiday gifts, a full batch will make around 120-150 caramels!

And a little hint: I used an already spiced cider for my reduction. I was worried the spices would become too intense, but other recipe reviews had mentioned they had wanted a more “cider” flavor so I went with it. And it was a great decision — the spices came through loud and clear but were not overwhelming.

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The mixture: cream, butter, sugar, cider reduction and sweetened condensed milk

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Waiting to hit 245 degrees was a long, slow process…

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Slab of caramel

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Such a pretty color — and you can see speckles of the spices in the candy.

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Can’t wait to start batch #2!

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Some to give away, some for me to eat!