Holiday season, baking season


Every holiday comes with some baking, but I think that Thanksgiving and Christmas come with the most. For Easter or the Fourth of July or any other holiday, you can eat whatever dessert you want — cake, ice cream, pie, tons of chocolate, anything. But for Thanksgiving, you have to have pumpkin pie. For Christmas, you have to have cookies. Those are just the rules.

A cranberry cake, made from a Chicago Tribune recipe, sits on a platter.

There was a pumpkin dessert at my Thanksgiving this year — admittedly, a roll cake, not a pie, so I guess we bent that rule — as well as this amazing cranberry cake that my mom found and we made together. Cranberry sauce is my favorite Thanksgiving food, and I loved getting that flavor in our dessert, with some orange thrown in. Check out Leah Eskin’s recipe in the Chicago Tribune if you’re a cranberry fan, too.

Three kinds of cookies — chocolate with m and m's, chocolate chip, and peanut butter — sit on a christmas placemat.

For Christmas, we made many, many cookies. My mom likes to teasingly remind me that when I was growing up, I hated the cooking and baking parts of Christmas preparation — it just “wasn’t me,” I said, probably with some overly dramatic tears. These days, I get into it gleefully — this year, I was up working on cookies until at least 2 a.m. two nights in a row. I made:

  • Nestle Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies. The classic, though I somehow managed to mess them up this time, ending up with two trays of flat cookies that were simultaneously burnt and underbaked before fixing the dough by adding flour. Blame 2 a.m. baking.
  • Chocolate cookies with mint M&Ms, using these Inside Out Chocolate Chip Cookies from Sally’s Baking Addiction as a base. Delicious, though they didn’t come out as fluffy as I wanted them to be — I’ll try again soon! Even flat, they were still chewy.
  • Peanut butter cookies, again using a Sally’s Baking Addiction recipe. I tried Sally’s PB cookie recipe this year because I was unhappy with the recipe I’ve used in past years, and after this first try, I am never going back to that old recipe. These came out perfect beyond my expectations — tasty, fluffy, a hit with every relative and coworker who tried them. Yum.

I didn’t get a picture, but I also made these Homemade Jingles from Shugary Sweets. Have you ever had Jingles, also known as Santa’s Favorites? I grew up eating them at Christmastime and assumed they were a standard thing, but when I talked about them at school in Missouri, no one knew what I was talking about, so maybe they’re a Chicagoland thing. They’re cookies flavored with anise, a spice that tastes kind of like black licorice, and they were always sold topped with red and green sugar sprinkles, cut into Christmas shapes like stockings or wreaths. I just learned that they have been discontinued by Keebler, which is sad news, but I guess that means I found this recipe just in time. I’ve tried a few sad copycat recipes in years past, but this one is the real thing. Fans of the classic cookies will be satisfied.


And I know this isn’t a dessert, which breaks my theme, but these brussels sprouts with cranberries are too pretty not to share. After I found the recipe, from Rachel Schultz’s Household Almanac, on Pinterest, I showed it to my mom, who is brussels sprouts’ No. 1 fan, and she put it on our Christmas menu. I can’t tell you about the taste personally — sorry, Mom, I’ve never liked brussels sprouts! — but everyone who ate them seemed to enjoy them.

I’m not quite done yet with holiday baking — my high school friends and I celebrated a few baking-heavy New Year’s Eves, and although everyone is spread out this year, I intend to carry that on. But it’s been a fun few weeks of tasty eats, and it’s put me back in baking mode after a few months off. I’m all stocked up on candy mix-ins thanks to after-Christmas sales, and more frequent baking (and blogging!) is on my New Year’s Resolutions list. Stay tuned. 🙂

If you baked something great this holiday season, please share! What are the traditional treats around your house? Did you try anything new this year that you loved?


A quick programming note


This blog has been rather neglected this fall as I have been focusing on completing my master’s degree. But it’s almost December, which means three things are coming: graduation, my yearly “Winter Break” rush to see tons of Oscar contenders, and lots and lots of holiday baking. Expect a return to regular blog activity soon.

In the meantime, if you have any requests for types of recipes you would like to see, feel free to leave them in the comments. I have many things on my to-bake list — let me know where you’d like me to start!

UPDATE: I have launched the “official page” for my 2015 Oscar Project, where I will be tracking what I have seen and want to see. Check it out — link in the sidebar!

Gone Girl


I don’t want to write a lot about Gone Girl, because the fun of Gone Girl is in the surprises, and I know that if I write a lot I’ll ruin something. But man, what a great movie.

I read the book the summer before last, and it was one of those books that you can’t put down until you’ve read it from start to finish, even though it’s over 400 pages long. I went into it fully aware that there were going to be surprises, and I was still constantly caught off guard. The movie, also written by the novel’s author, Gillian Flynn, was the same. I was constantly on my toes, even though I knew what was coming.

The performances were fantastic. Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike were perfect as Nick and Amy Dunne — they made the characters complex, multilayered, just as they are in the book. The other characters were wonderful, too; I especially enjoyed Carrie Coon’s performance as Nick’s twin, Margo. I do wish they had not cast Neil Patrick Harris as Amy’s former boyfriend, Desi — for me, there was something mildly reminiscent of his “How I Met Your Mother” character, Barney Stinson, in his performance, and it was extremely disconcerting. But overall, no complaints.

The movie had great pacing, great scoring, great shooting. Everything was done in a way that kept you guessing, kept you feeling uneasy. It gets scary, and it gets graphic in both violence and sexual content — think before bringing your kids, small siblings, grandparents, etc. — but it’s all worth it. I left the theater feeling pretty creeped out, upset, what have you, but still very happy that I had seen the movie.

Would I recommend Gone Girl to a friend? Absolutely, but with the warning that he/she might not sleep well after seeing it.

Oscar-worthy? I don’t know much about the competition yet, but I will be baffled if Gone Girl doesn’t get a Best Picture nomination. It was just so strong in every way. I’m sure there will be well-deserved nominations for Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, and I won’t be surprised if the movie shows up in the directing and screenplay categories, too.

Programming note: With this post, I’m officially kicking off my 2015 Oscar Project. The most wonderful time of the year! Expect a full game plan to come out soon.

On rain and Ramen (and football, and love)



Thursday afternoon, a sort-of-rainy fall afternoon, I came home from work, sat at my kitchen table and ate Ramen noodles.

Do you have any foods you associate with certain people or places? Like, you take one bite, and you remember where you were the first time you had it? Who taught you how to make it, or who told you to try it?

The first time I had Ramen noodles was in fall 2009, my first semester of college.

It was a Thursday night, and I was getting ready for what I was sure would be an awful football game. Football on a Thursday night? With rain in the forecast? No, thanks.

Continue reading

Local Noms: Zaxby’s



A Big Zax Snak meal at Zaxby's includes chicken fingers, fries, Texas toast and a drink.

In a little less than a week, I’ll be leaving Columbia, Mo., my home for the past five years. A lot of things about this make me sad. Leaving behind a lot of people I love, leaving behind a school and town I love, moving on from college stuff to the *~*real world.*~*

But here’s the real sad part: I’m leaving just two weeks after discovering the wonderful thing that is Zaxby’s.

Zaxby’s opened two locations in Columbia in January — the Georgia-based chain’s first Missouri locations — but I didn’t make it to either until recently. I wasn’t interested, because I’ve never been a fan of Chick-fil-A and I assumed they were basically the same thing. But I figured I should give Zaxby’s a try before I moved out of Columbia, and I’m not sure if that was a good decision or a bad decision — I’m glad I got to try it, because it’s great, but now I have one more Columbia eatery to miss. Womp.

Anyway, in search of a quick dinner on my way to work the other week, I made a spontaneous stop at the Stadium & 63 location while driving back into town from Jefferson City. I ended up with a “Big Zax Snak Meal,” which, okay, do you see that thing pictured at the top of the post? Is that a snack? No. Chicken fingers, fries, Texas toast and a drink? That, friends, is a meal.

And a darn good one, too. The fries are fantastic, with some kind of seasoning that is great. The chicken tastes like real chicken. The Texas toast was a surprise for me (I opened my to-go box in the newsroom and said out loud, “Why is there bread?”) but it’s a nice touch.

A piece of chicken sits next to a packet of Zaxby's special sauce.


And the Zax Sauce! I like the sauce a lot. I was wary — I am typically not a sauce person — but I think it’s great. It’s a little spicy, but not overwhelmingly so. People who are used to spicy things would probably not even think it’s spicy. But it has a nice kick. Put it on your chicken! Put it on your fries! Nom nom nom. I enjoyed every part of my meal. Two thumbs up, Zaxby’s.

Also, on a non-food note, it’s worth mentioning that at both the Stadium & 63 location and at the Nifong & Providence location (I went there over the weekend on a fries-for-dinner run, sorry I’m not sorry), the service was great. At Stadium & 63, the guy working the drive-thru answered my many first-time-visitor menu questions with patience and kindness, like he really cared about helping me order something I would like. At Nifong & Providence, I ended up waiting a few minutes while they made the fries fresh, and several employees checked in with me, making sure that I had been helped and that I had everything I needed. Lots of smiling faces, lots of genuinely nice people. I wasn’t at either location for long, but I wouldn’t hesitate to go back. And I plan to do so at least once more — I want more of those fries! And I might take a few packs of Zax Sauce back up north with me, too 😉

So, in conclusion, don’t be a dummy like me and get yourself over to Zaxby’s ASAP. You won’t be sad that you did.

(PS, to clarify, I don’t actually think leaving Zaxby’s is the real sad part of my impending departure from Columbia. I have better priorities than that. But it is really tasty food.)

Catching up: May/June Noms


Hi friends!

Like I said a few weeks back, the past two months have been busy: finals, vacations, thesis logistics and more. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t made time to bake here and there. Because I fell so horrendously behind in posting to this blog, I’m just catching up in one fell swoop. Here’s a rundown of all the treats I made in May and June. If anything in particular catches your eye and you want a full post on it, feel free to comment and I’ll do my best 🙂

Loaded M&M Oreo Cookie Bars

Loaded M&M Cookie Bars from Averie Cookies are a great quick treat.

I’ve had this Loaded M&M Oreo Cookie Bars recipe from Averie Cooks pinned for a long time, and I finally gave it a try in early May. I brought the bars to a friend’s going-away party, and I think everyone enjoyed them! I liked that they were quick to make, and that other than the Oreos, all the ingredients were things I already had at home. A tip: Go for regular Oreos, not Double Stuf. I think having so much Oreo cream running loose in the bars threw off the chemistry a little bit and made them more crumbly than I wanted. Still tasty, though!

Memorial Day weekend noms

A fruit-filled lemon cake, brownies and blondies make great desserts for summer barbecues.

I got a treat around Memorial Day: an unexpected chance to go home to Chicagoland for the weekend and spend a few days with my family. The best part was getting to visit with many members of my extended family, including some relatives from overseas whom I had never met before. Also fantastic? Getting to spend a morning baking with my mom. For a pre-Memorial Day family barbecue, we made three desserts: brownies, blondies and a lemon cake that we filled with fresh fruit.

Brownies and blondies are perfect for outdoor parties — no silverware needed!Brownies and blondies are both perfect treats for outdoor summer barbecues, especially when you have guests of all ages — no silverware needed, or really even a plate! Just grab and enjoy. The two we made for Memorial Day are both among my favorite recipes, and don’t they look fun piled up together like that? You’ve seen these Cake Batter Blondies from Girl Meets Life before, in one of my February posts — they’re always my go-to party treat 🙂 These brownies have become another go-to. I use Sally’s Baking Addiction’s recipe for Triple Chocolate Pretzel Brownies, but I leave out the pretzels and sea salt, and I use normal cocoa instead of dark. I have made the brownies as written before, and I loved them, but I love a good, classic, nothing-but-chocolate brownie, too. It’s a no-fuss recipe — using cocoa instead of melted chocolate makes it nice and quick. And they’re delicious — my dad liked them so much that he asked me to make another batch for another family party the next day, then helped me make them. Such fun 🙂

Using a bundt pan to make lemon cake gives you the opportunity to fill the center with fresh fruit, as shown here.

The lemon cake was a new adventure, but we will definitely make it again! Mom had bought a bunch of beautiful fresh fruit, and after much brainstorming, we decided to make a lemon cake to go with it. We started with an “Easy Yellow Cake” recipe that we found on — using lemon extract, not vanilla — then topped it off with a Sweet Lemon Glaze from Sally’s Baking Addiction (the same one I used for my Cranberry Citrus Butter Cookies — it’s good on everything!). Because we used a Bundt pan, we were able to fill the center with the fresh fruit. Isn’t it beautiful? And perfect for summer, with so many lovely fruit flavors. Nom.

Cookies, or burnt cookies

Mix crushed Oreos into a normal cookie dough base for Cookies and Cream Cookies.

As much as I love making brownies and blondies to share with friends, they’re not the best choice for bigger parties — most recipes are written for an 8×8 pan, which only gives you about 16 bars. Most cookie recipes, on the other hand, give you at least 36 to share. Way better for hungry graduate students 🙂 So, for the past few weeks, every time I’ve received a Facebook invitation for a cookout or potluck, I’ve given this response: “I’ll be bringing cookies. Unless I burn them, in which case I’ll be bringing burnt cookies.”

For one gathering, I made the cookies pictured above: Cookies and Cream Cookies, a new experiment and an instant favorite. They were SO. GOOD. I used the same cookie dough base I used for my Pretzel Chocolate Chip Cookies —  the Original Nestle Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies, but I insist on using Imperial margarine instead of butter — but with different mix-ins. I started with about a cup and a half — maybe more, I can’t remember? — of Oreos that I crushed up into small pieces, no bigger than chocolate chips (and throw in the crumbs, too!). Then, because my local Walmart Express unexpectedly did not stock chocolate chips and necessity is the mother of invention, I added about 3/4 of a King Size Hershey’s Cookies ‘n’ Cream bar, again cut into chocolate-chip-size pieces. The cookies turned out just wonderful, huge and soft and fluffy and full of cookie flavor. Yum.

I made cookies for two other gatherings, too, but they were made in such a hurry that I forgot to take pictures. Sorry! I recommend both recipes: Hershey’s “Perfectly Chocolate” Chocolate Chip Cookies (tasty even though, whoops, I did kind of burn them — they definitely need to be baked on a parchment-paper-lined cookie sheet) and Sally’s Baking Addiction’s Cake Batter Chocolate Chip Cookies (I did something wrong with these, they came out kind of flat, but the flavors were still great!).

Snickerdoodle Cake Batter Blondies

20140707-000332-212854.jpgFor my June book club meeting, I pulled out another one of my favorite bar recipes: Snickerdoodle Cake Batter Blondies from Girl Meets Life, the creator of the standard Cake Batter Blondie. These are just as simple — 5 ingredients: melted butter, cake mix, cinnamon, sugar and an egg — and possibly even more tasty. I love snickerdoodle cookies, but they’re super time-consuming. These blondies give you the same great taste in a much more quick-to-make form.

And, finally, more banana bread

You guys, I barely even like bananas. But I keep buying them, or my roommate keeps leaving them for me, and so somehow I always end up in perfect shape to make banana bread. A blessing? A curse? You decide. Anyway, for some reason, this month I decided I wanted to use up the frozen mango that’s been sitting in my freezer, so I went hunting for a mango banana bread recipe. I didn’t want to use the two banana bread recipes I’ve used before — read about them here and here —  because neither involves fruit as a mix-in, and I was worried that the frozen mango would add too much unexpected moisture and throw everything off. Eventually, I settled on this Pineapple Coconut Oil Banana Bread recipe from Averie Cooks. I made all kinds of substitutions — swapped vegetable oil for coconut oil and mango for pineapple, left out the nutmeg — but in the end all was well. Plus, because the recipe called for using two 8×4 loaf pans and I only had one, I ended up making an 8×4 loaf and a bunch of muffins. Slice of bread to share now, muffins to freeze and enjoy later. Perfect.

This has been a long post — 50 points to your Hogwarts house if you read to the end — but I hope you saw something you liked in it. There are so many things to bake out there! I wish I had time to make them all.

So… what do you want to see next? 🙂

Noms: Pasta Salad with Chicken, Grapes and Cashews


This pasta salad contains pasta, chicken, grapes and cashews.

In college, you hit a bunch of milestones that make you feel like you’re growing up. Signing your first apartment lease. Traveling on your own. Graduating with a degree.

But I’ve always felt that it’s not the big things that make me feel like I’m on my way toward adulthood as it is the little things, the ones that your parents always did for you, like taking your fancy clothes to the dry cleaner or using Draino and boiling water to fix your sink.

A recent “Oh my gosh, I might sort of be a kind of adult” moment? Making my mom’s pasta salad, a delicious combination of chicken, pasta, grapes and cashews coated in a semi-sweet dressing.

Continue reading