Dark Chocolate Pumpkin Truffles

Despite the fact that I’ve been inexplicably bought and paid for by the Son of God Himself, I feel guilty all the time. Call it a complex.

adorable napkins courtesy of sweet Erin

Sometimes it’s Byrd’s fault. She does this thing when I’m leaving for work every morning — do your dogs do this? — where she ramps up her cute factor by 200%. Suddenly she seems fluffier and snugglier. She’ll kiss my ankles and roll over for belly rubs. She’ll look up at me with eyes that I could swear weren’t that adorable yesterday.

It’s as if she’s saying, “You’re not gonna LEAVE me, are you mom? You couldn’t possibly leave your innocent wittle baby puppy, could you?”

But every morning, I break her heart by telling her goodbye and shutting her up in my bedroom. Then I walk out to my car feeling like a heel.

Other times it’s my own fault that I feel guilty. I’ll have a mile-long list of things I need to accomplish, but I’ll allow myself 5 or 10 minutes to check Facebook. And, you know, I have to check Pinterest. And what if something important happened in the world? I’ll read CNN online for just a minute or two. And what if something important happened to Reese Witherspoon? I’ll hop over to People.com for a bit. Of course I need to check my site traffic. And gosh, it’s been forever since I’ve checked Facebook . . .

Suddenly it’s 1 o’clock in the morning and my to-do list suddenly looks a lot like an accusation staring up at me from my notepad.

Last night my guilt was even more justified. I always feed my turtle, Squirt, in a plastic storage container on the kitchen counter. I usually keep an eye on him so he doesn’t climb out and get hurt, but yesterday I was just so preoccupied. I had piles of 7th grade essays, 6th grade quizzes, and 6th grade projects to grade. Modern Family was playing in the background. Byrd was playing in the floor. My head was lost in a cloud of thesis statements and Gloria’s Colombian accent.

Suddenly, I heard a thump. I walked into the kitchen and found Squirt not in his feeding tank on the counter where I left him, but standing in the middle of the kitchen floor, looking around thoughtfully.

He had fallen off the counter.


quick, think of something happy. like pumpkin truffles.

MY BABY FELL OFF THE COUNTER BECAUSE I WAS TOO BUSY TO WATCH HIM CLOSELY. After bursting into tears, repeatedly checking all of his little turtle limbs for injuries, hugging him (much to his dismay), and investigating the scene of the accident, I sat in floor, awash in a sea of guilt. I promised myself I’d be a better mother. I thanked God profusely that he’d fallen on the carpet and not the linoleum. I called Mike and confessed my negligence.

Meanwhile, Squirt swam around in his tank and chomped at carrots, pleased as a plum to be back in the water and apparently none the worse for the wear.

The truth is, guilt is useful insofar as it leads us to make a change. The discomfort I felt after Squirt’s fall has convicted me to never leave him unsupervised again. For some people, discomfort about the way they’re living is what leads them to submit to Christ and be changed. It’s a good thing.

But beyond that, guilt is a disease. Once you’ve made a change, lingering guilt serves no purpose but to cripple you. It’s a lying voice telling you that you’re unworthy, incapable. Don’t believe it.

Today as Squirt basks under his sun lamp, I’m going to ignore the deceitful voice of guilt. I’m going to believe that I’m the best mommy for that reptile. I’m going to give myself a blank slate. And I might even try to cut down on the Facebook…

…after I post another status update about pumpkin truffles.

Since we’re on the topic of guilt, here are some truffles for you to eat way too many of — and to forgive yourself for later!

They’re worth it. In this super simple recipe, rich pumpkin cheesecake middles are coated in indulgent dark chocolate. The resulting truffles are adorable and totally poppable. Give yourself a break and make some dessert.

What kinds of things do you feel guilty about sometimes?

Chocolate Pumpkin Truffles



Recipe by: Adapted from Whole Foods
Yields: About 30 truffles

A creamy pumpkin mixture spiced up with gingersnap and graham cracker crumbs is rolled into a ball and coated with rich dark chocolate. These delectable truffles would make a lovely autumn gift since they’re so cute and poppable, but don’t feel guilty saving them all for yourself!

Ingredients:
2 cups dark chocolate chips (see note below recipe)
1/2 cup white chocolate chips
1/4 cup pumpkin puree
3/8 cups finely ground gingersnaps
3/8 cup graham cracker crumbs
1 tablespoon powdered sugar
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch of orange zest (I used a dash of orange extract)
2 ounces cream cheese, softened
pretzel sticks (optional, for pops)
sprinkles or extra cookie crumbs (optional, for decoration)

Directions:
Make the pumpkin middles: In a large bowl, melt the 1/2 cup of white chocolate chips according to instructions on package (usually in the microwave on half power in about 30 second intervals, stirring between each). When the white chocolate is melted, let it cool down for a bit before adding the gingersnap crumbs, pumpkin, graham cracker crumbs, sugar, extract or zest, cinnamon, salt and cream cheese. Beat this mixture until it’s completely smooth. Cover it and refrigerate it for about 2 hours until it’s firm enough to roll into balls.

Roll ’em: Roll the pumpkin mixture into balls and place them on a wax-paper lined baking sheet. Refrigerate them for another hour to let them firm up. When you’re ready to make your truffles, melt your dark chocolate according to the instructions on package (usually in the microwave on half power in about 30 second intervals, stirring between each).

Insert the pretzel sticks: (Obviously skip this step if you’re making truffles and not pops!) Take a few pumpkin balls out of the fridge at a time. Poke the end of pretzel sticks into the melted chocolate and stick one in the center of each pumpkin ball, placing them back in the fridge to set. Repeat with all of the pumpkin balls.

Dip ’em: Take out a few pumpkin pops at at time (if you just inserted pretzel sticks, use the ones that have been chilling the longest) and carefully dip the balls into the melted chocolate while holding the pretzel, using a spoon to help you coat them. Gently bounce and turn the pop (while supporting the whole pretzel stick) to let the excess drain off. Sprinkle on some sprinkles, graham cracker crumbs, or gingersnap crumbs if desired, and then stick the pop into a foam block in the fridge to dry. Alternatively, if you’re making truffles instead of pops, use two forks to dip the pumpkin ball into the chocolate and pass it between the forks to drain the excess. Roll it carefully onto a sheet of wax paper in the fridge to dry. Chill the pops about an hour, until they’re completely dry and set.

NOTE ON COATING CAKE POPS OR TRUFFLES: When it comes to coating cake pops or truffles, there are several options. My favorite coating is usually Candiquik or candy melts, because they have a lovely texture when melted, dry quickly, and don't melt if they sit out of the fridge. In this recipe, though, I chose to use plain dark chocolate to coat my truffles. Though it takes longer to dry and can get melty in your hands even once it's set, I wanted the taste of rich dark chocolate to contrast with the pumpkin. My chocolate of choice is always Ghirardelli 60% cacao chips — they are seriously delectable.

OTHER TIPS:
– If you need to thin your chocolate or candy melts, stir in a scant spoonful of shortening until it’s melted. Add more as needed until desired consistency is reached.
– Don’t ever put water or water-based substances in chocolate or candy melts, or they’ll seize and become unusable.
– Keep your bowl of melted chocolate or candy melts inside of a larger bowl filled halfway with hot water. The heat from the water will keep your chocolate liquid while you’re dipping all of your truffles, so that you won’t have to keep reheating.
– See this video for a visual of how to dip cake pops and truffles.

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Naked Vegan Tacos with Corn Relish and Cilantro-Lime Slaw

Do not make naked vegan tacos while naked.

Yes, I know it’d be clever. I know it’d be a fun story to tell your friends (who would then promptly decline all future dinner invitations). But if one splatter of hot oil goes awry, all amusement you had hoped to gain from the experience will promptly disintegrate (along with patches of your skin, I’m just sayin’).


Make me with clothes on, please.

Also, do not assume Naked Vegan Tacos are made specifically for naked vegans. You may certainly eat these if you are a naked vegan, but clothed vegans are also welcome to partake. Even you omnivorous folks (clothed or otherwise) can enjoy this recipe if you’re so inclined.

This is an equal opportunity blog, y’all.

So why are Naked Vegan Tacos called Naked Vegan Tacos? ‘Cause they’re not wearing their taco shells! All the lovely stuffins of a vegan taco are included, but engineered for your fork instead of your hands.


Exposed.

This quick dinner was a take on sweet potato and black bean tacos, a dish I’ve had on my to-make list forever. Just as I expected, the sweetness of the roasted sweet potatoes was fantastic with the heat and cumin in the black beans. The cilantro-lime slaw added acid and crunch. The corn relish — boasting bright corn, tomatoes, and creamy hunks of avocado — cooled things off.

This huge, cheap, flavorful meal was so satisfying; I ate it over the course of 4 days and loved every bite, even though the avocados were oxidizing (i.e. turning all brown and creepy) after the first day.


Not vegan anymore.

Since it’s full of veggies, only 451 calories per serving, and includes components to make up complete proteins, I’m also going to decree that this meal is healthy (though I’m no expert). Serve it atop your favorite grain for an even more filling dinner. Heck, you could even go crazy and serve the tacos in flippin’ taco shells. You know, if you’re that kind of person.

What’s your favorite fresh vegetable?

Naked Vegan Tacos with Corn Relish and Cilantro-Lime Slaw



Recipe by: Adapted from Joy the Baker and Paula Deen
Yields: 4 servings

The focus of this meal is flavor. Roasted sweet potatoes sweeten, black beans with cumin bring the heat, cilantro-lime slaw adds crunch and acid, and a bright corn relish with creamy avocado and juicy tomatoes lends freshness. Filling my plate with all of these lovely bits and pieces and then spending my entire dinner creating various perfect “bites” was so satisfying — especially since it was also healthy.

Sweet Potatoes Ingredients:
2 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes
1 tablespoon olive oil
salt and red chili flakes to taste
juice of 1 lime

Cilanto-Lime Slaw Ingredients:
2 heaping cups finely shredded cabbage
1/4 cup finely diced yellow onions
2 heaping tablespoons chopped cilantro
juice of 2 limes
salt and red chili flakes to taste

Black Beans Ingredients:
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/4 cup finely diced yellow onion
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 (15-ounce) can black beans, drained and rinsed
juice of 1 lime

Corn Relish Ingredients:
2 cups cooked corn, fresh or frozen
1 avocado, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
1/2 cup finely diced red onion
1 teaspoon finely diced jalapeno (or to taste)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper

Optional Extras:
Fried or poached egg (obviously this makes it un-vegan)
salsa, fat free sour cream, green onions, fresh cilantro, limes

Directions:
Make sweet potatoes: Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. In a bowl, toss sweet potato cubes with oil, salt, chili flakes, and lime juice. Spread out on a baking sheet. Roast 40-45 minutes (stirring/flipping gently a couple of times during the process) or until tender and brown. Remove the potatoes from the oven and set aside.

Make Cilanto-Lime Slaw: While the potatoes are roasting, place shredded cabbage, onions, cilantro, lime juice, salt, and chili flakes in a bowl. Toss them together and set aside to let the cabbage soften.

Make Black Beans: Heat oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. When the oil shimmers, add the onions and cook them for a few minutes until they’re soft and translucent. Add the cumin and garlic and toast these for a few seconds until fragrant. Finally, add the beans and lime juice and cook until they’re heated through.

Make the corn relish: Mix the corn, avocado, tomatoes, jalapenos, and onion in a large bowl. Whisk together the oil, lime juice, cilantro, salt, and pepper in a separate bowl. Pour it over the corn mixture and gently toss.

Assemble: Serve your naked tacos by heaping sweet potatoes and black beans on a place and garnishing with a big spoonful of cilantro-lime slaw and corn relish. Accompany your meal with a dollop of sour cream, fresh cilantro, chopped green onions, and salsa. If you fancy some added protein and aren’t vegan, you can top with a poached or over-easy fried egg.

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Pumpkin Pecan Streusel Breakfast Braid

Today is “Nerdy Day” at Woodlawn, the school where I work. All of my students are sporting taped glasses, suspenders, pants hitched up to their eyeballs, pocket protectors, and bow ties. They asked me why I didn’t dress up and I replied honestly, “What do you mean? I did.”

I don’t need a pocket protector to dress like a nerd. I’m naturally a nerd, through and through. Like I told my students: I love to read. I love to write. I love technology. I love obscure art. I love learning. I write essays for fun. I annotate the books I read in my spare time. I often ruminate on literary theory, politics, and feminism. I was born a nerd and I’ll die a nerd. Amen.


Ooh. Amen!

Such was my nerdiness as a child that I detested the outdoors and was a bit of a cave-dweller. Have you ever met a kid like that? My friends usually wanted to play some wildly active (often destructive) game outdoors: Who can run down this hill the fastest, completely oblivious of oncoming traffic? Who can climb to the very highest, most excruciatingly tenuous limb of this tree? Who wants to tumble pell-mell through snakes and venomous spiders in the woods?

Not me. I was a pale, chubby child who preferred to sit and read in an air-conditioned, artificially lit corner. I always bossily petitioned for an orderly indoor game: a board game, perhaps, or a polite game of snack-eating.

My aversion to the outdoors and to all athletic activity was particularly strong when it came to my dreaded elementary P.E. class. Far from “educating” me on much besides torture and pain, my Physical Education class struck fear deep into the air-conditioned depths of my heart. For one thing, we went outside all the time (much to the glee of most other students). For another, I was a klutz.

I remember standing on a dusty, grassless kickball field one hot day in May. My friend and I were watching the game cynically and whining about our circumstances. First off, we were hot, sweaty, and red-faced. Worse still was the fact that we were almost up to the plate. Unless we got another “out” — and fast! — we were going to have to try to kick the ball in front of all of our classmates (including all of the cute boys in class). We’d then have to walk back to the team in shame, enduring their fervent, angry shouts about our athletic ineptitude.

I suggested we try to imagine ourselves jumping into a cool swimming pool. The power of visualization and positive thinking, I noted to my friend, was immense. We both scrunched up our eyes and started to visualize with all our might. One of our teammates kicked the ball into the outfield. We visualized harder. Another teammate kicked the ball even farther. We visualized with all our might. Another teammate kicked the ball into the stratosphere.

We gave up with a sigh, and I walked up to the plate. Lame.

Kickball wasn’t the worst, though. The worst activity — the one that sent chills of absolute terror down my lazy little spine — was the mile run. What sort of sadist decided to try and make us run an entire mile?

Y’all, I don’t care if I were getting chased by a gigantic black bear. I don’t care if he were breathing down my neck with bloody bear fangs and breath that smelled of my impending doom. I don’t care if he were as hungry as a hippo with razor claws and rabies. If my only hope of salvation were to run a mile, I would plop myself down on a plate and sprinkle some salt and pepper on my head.

I hate running.

As it was, I did get chased, so to speak, by my rabid elementary P.E. teacher. She was fit as a fiddle and always barked encouragement at us from the sidelines as we dragged ourselves around the track. I remember talking to myself out loud (more nerd points?) as I struggled to put one foot in front of the other. My monologue went something like this: “If I just keep pushing myself, I’ll pass out and probably die. But then at least I’ll never have to do the mile run again. In fact, they’ll probably ban the mile run from schools everywhere. If I can just run hard enough to pass out, that can be my legacy: eliminating the mile run for the children of the future.”

If that seems twisted, you ought to have heard me at home the night before the mile run. I would literally plead with my parents to somehow break my toe. Stomp on it, perhaps? Run over it with the car, maybe? Does that sound drastic?

I figured a broken toe wouldn’t be that inconvenient, and it would heal before too long. In the meantime, though, my quality of life would increase a thousandfold as a result of missing the mile run. I lay in the floor and whined when my parents refused. Didn’t they realize they were consigning me to pass out in the middle of a gigantic dirt field? Didn’t they want to spare me all of my anguish? Didn’t they LOVE me?

I may be 27 years old now, and I may have started to appreciate the outdoors, but I still maintain that my fragile constitution was built for reading, writing, and recipes — not for running. In fact, I’d still prefer an injury to an athletic event. This coming Friday, at the end of Woodlawn’s spirit week, there’s a faculty vs. students soccer game, and you can imagine my utter terror when I was asked to participate. All of these years thinking I was finally free from that school field . . .

Thankfully, though (I’m so weird), the other day I was stretching and I felt something twist in my knee. My first thought was, “Ow!” followed immediately by, “Ooh, now I don’t have to play in the soccer game!” Some things never change.

I’ll settle for being a clumsy nerd. Some of my students are geniuses on the soccer field, some are geniuses on horseback, some are geniuses in ballet shoes, some are geniuses on stage. I’ll settle for being at home with a book, at home with words, and at home in the kitchen. We all have our talents, right?

In that spirit, I offer you not my soccer savvy (hahahahaha, for which you should be thankful) but my breakfast braid. I couldn’t wait to tell you about this recipe! I dreamed about posting this braid the entire time I was baking it, photographing it, transporting it to Raleigh, and eating it with Mike while watching past episodes of Parks and Recreation and drinking lots of milk.

What I most want to emphasize about this recipe is that it’s EASY! The first time I made a breakfast braid with this dough, I fell in love. It’s the perfect beginning pastry, since it doesn’t involve any yeast or rise time, or even much kneading. It’s not sticky or stubborn. If you’ve ever used canned crescent rolls, this dough is a textured a lot like that.

Naturally, in addition to being easy (SO EASY. DID I MENTION HOW EASY?), it was delectable. I call it a breakfast braid, but it’s an eat-anytime-you-can-possibly-shove-it-in-your-face braid. It’s a mind-blowing combination of flaky pastry, autumn pumpkin, cinnamon and spice, buttery streusel, toasted pecans, and a rich maple brown sugar glaze. I may not be able to kick a soccer ball, but I can make a mean pumpkin braid. That’s good enough for me.

Are you nerdy?

Pumpkin Pecan Streusel Breakfast Braid with Maple Brown Sugar Glaze



Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking. Inspired by The Luna Cafe, with glaze from Caitlin Cooks
Yield: About 4-5 servings of 2 slices each

In this breakfast braid, tender, flaky, almond-scented pastry envelops a delicious pumpkin pie custard topped with buttery cinnamon pecan streusel. An addictive maple brown sugar glaze and toasted pecans top the whole shebang, creating a perfect autumn breakfast (or dessert, or lunch, or dinner…!) This braid looks fancy, but don’t be fooled. It’s one of the easiest things I make. The dough is lovely to work with — it doesn’t need to rise, barely needs any kneading, and isn’t sticky or finicky. I’m always amazed that such gorgeous results can be achieved with such little effort.

Easy Dough Ingredients:
2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, cold and cut into cubes
3 ounces cream cheese, cold and cut into cubes
1/2 cup milk, minus 1/2 teaspoon
1/2 teaspoon almond extract

Pumpkin Pie Filling Ingredients:
(this makes a little more filling than you need)
6 ounces cream cheese, softened
3/8 cup sugar
3/4 cup pumpkin puree
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg
1 1/8 teaspoons cinnamon*
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg*
1/4 teaspoon ginger*
1/8 teaspoon allspice*
*You could probably substitute a teaspoon or so of pumpkin pie spices for these.

Pecan Streusel Ingredients:
1/8 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/8 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon cold butter
1/2 cup chopped pecans

Maple Brown Sugar Glaze Ingredients:
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons milk
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon real maple syrup
pinch salt
3/4 – 1 cup powdered sugar
cinnamon for sprinkling

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Make the creamy pumpkin pie filling. In your electric mixer, or with a hand mixer, beat the cream cheese until smooth. Add the sugar and beat until fluffy and smooth. Add the pumpkin, egg, and vanilla extract, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice and mix until combined. Set in fridge while you make your braid.

Toast your pecans. Spread them out in a single layer on a baking sheet and toast for about 6 minutes or until fragrant, stirring about halfway through the cook time. Transfer nuts to a plate to cool. Raise oven temperature to 425 degrees F.

Make your pastry dough. In the bowl of a food processor, mix the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add the cream cheese and butter into the flour mixture and pulse to cut the fat into the flour (about 6 pulses). Add the milk and almond extract and blend into a loose dough.

Turn the dough onto a sheet of lightly-floured parchment paper and knead very lightly for just 4-5 strokes (be careful not to overwork the dough or it’ll be tough! Don’t worry about getting it smooth — just knead for these few strokes and let it stay a little rough.)

Very lightly flour the top of the dough and place another sheet of parchment paper on top. Between two sheets of parchment paper, roll the dough to an 10- by 12-inch rectangle (I lift the paper off every now and then and flip the dough and repeat on the other side, to ensure the dough isn’t sticking). Remove the top sheet of parchment and discard. Measure and mark the dough lengthwise into thirds. Glop your creamy pumpkin pie filling down the middle third of the dough — try to keep your filling about 1/4 inch from the mark on both sides. I piled it up a bit (not so much that it was overflowing, but plenty!)

Make the streusel topping. Combine the flour and brown sugar in a medium bowl and using two knives or a pastry cutter, cut in the butter until you have crumbly streusel. Mix in 1/4 cup of toasted pecans (save the rest for decorating the finished braid). Sprinkle streusel over top of pumpkin mixture in center of dough. Really pile it on!

Continue assembling the braid (see photos at the bottom of this recipe, which show the process of marking and assembling a raspberry almond braid, for guidance). Make diagonal cuts at 1-inch intervals on each the long sides. Do not cut into the center pumpkin-filled area. Fold strips, first one from one side and then one from the other side in a rotating fashion, over the filling. It will now resemble a braid. Don’t worry if it doesn’t completely hide your filling — it’s actually nice when the filling is peeking out. Use the sheet of parchment to carefully transfer your braid to a baking sheet (at this point, you can brush the pastry with a mixture of 1 beaten egg and a teaspoon of water if you want it darker than mine. I didn’t bother). Bake in the 425 degree oven for 12-15 minutes, until the dough is cooked through, the pumpkin filling is set, and the top is lightly browned. Let the braid cool slightly while you make your glaze.

Make the Maple Brown Sugar Glaze. Combine the butter and milk in a small saucepan over medium heat. When the butter melts, whisk in the brown sugar, syrup, and salt, stirring until the brown sugar melts. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the powdered sugar, starting with 3/4 cup and adding more to thicken per your preference (taste as you go to ensure you don’t oversweeten). Drizzle the glaze over the top of your braid. Sprinkle the braid with toasted pecans and a dusting of cinnamon. Serve immediately. Refrigerate leftovers in an airtight container and microwave for about 20 seconds to serve.



Example of how to cut and assemble braid.

Other breakfast braids you’ll love:
Raspberry Almond Breakfast Braid
Blueberry Cream Cheese Almond Breakfast Braid

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Sassy Sausage and Hash Brown Breakfast Bake

Things I learned from experience this week:

1. If you give in to the urge to take a nap after around 7pm, your body is going to decide it’s sleeping all night (and it won’t bother to consult with your blaring alarm clock). Drink some more caffeine and push through ’til bedtime.

2. Byrd might be certifiably insane. She now brings me pieces of her kibble to throw. She’ll fetch them once or twice before eating them. It’s gotten to the point where she almost won’t eat her food unless she’s played with it first.

I’m not going to lie; I’ve done this test on her. Just in case.

3. I might be certifiably insane. Because I throw that piece of kibble for her every. single. time.

And not only that, but if I’m paranoid she’s not eating enough, I’ll sit in the floor and feed her dinner to her piece by piece like I’m feeding grapes to a flippin’ Roman emperor.

4. Don’t ever say the word “menopause” to 7th graders. You will never get them back. They’re probably still somewhere doubled over in awkward laughter at this very moment.

5. Middle school children will come up with myriad excuses to be violent with each other. The game of “Punch buggy” has apparently expanded: there’s now “Honda Hit,” “Kia Kick,” “Chevy slap,” “Ford flick,” and “Toyota tap.”

6. There’s some sort of principle at work in the universe where, if you’re running late, the passing lane of the highway will be completely blocked by slow drivers. These lovely folks, instead of passing anyone, will be lackadaisically playing a game of “Tap Your Brakes Unnecessarily at Random Intervals.”

Their cars usually sport obnoxious bumper stickers designed to infuriate you while you almost run into them repeatedly. Today, it was a huge Sponge Bob decal that took up the entire rear window. I could not make this stuff up. I almost ran into them on purpose to wipe that oafish starfish grin off of Patrick’s face.

7. Condiments make everything more fun. Please give me dipping sauce, garnishes, toppings, relishes, creams, pastes, flakes, and herbs. I can’t decide if things actually taste better when they’re all dolled up, or if I just love the assembly process.

8. When you’re putting on your fancy dress and high heels, googling librettos, driving downtown, paying for parking, and running full-tilt to make it on time to your very first opera (Carmen, in case you’re wondering), do be sure to check the date on the tickets first. Turns out there was no chance of Mike and I arriving late, considering the opera is next week. We ate Lebanese food in our fancy clothes instead.

9. Always order extra tahini. See #7.

10. Breakfast is one of the best parts of the day. Sometimes I go to sleep early specifically to get to breakfast sooner. And I think you need to go to sleep RIGHT FLIPPIN’ NOW to get to this Sassy Sausage and Hash Brown Breakfast Bake ASAP.

This casserole is super easy, can be prepared in advance, and is one of the best sorts of breakfast to wake up to: hearty, spicy, warm, comforting, and filling. And one you can serve with lots of condiments.

What did you learn from your experiences this week?

Sassy Sausage and Hash Brown Breakfast Bake



Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking
Yields: 9 servings

Oh, this breakfast casserole is perfect. The slight heat of the peppers, sausage, and cayenne pepper are the perfect complement to the layers crisp hash browns and cheese. It’ll fill you with warmth and satisfaction on a cold autumn morning. Since it can be prepared days in advance and popped into the oven when you wake up, it’s perfect for brunches or family breakfasts where you’d rather not be trapped in the kitchen for hours!

Ingredients:
4 cups frozen shredded hash brown potatoes
16 ounces hot sausage
1/4 cup finely chopped onion
1/4 cup finely chopped green and red peppers
1/2 clove minced garlic
minced jalapeno to taste (I used about 1/2 teaspoon)
1 cup shredded, sharp cheddar cheese
1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
dash paprika
salt and pepper to taste
Toppings: sour cream, diced jalapenos, hot sauce, salsa, chopped green onions, and some fresh cilantro or parsley

Directions:
Grease an 8-inch square baking pan and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (if you’re baking the casserole on the same day). In a large skillet over medium-high heat, crumble and cook the sausage until completely browned and cooked through. Remove the sausage to a paper-towel lined plate to drain. Discard all but a couple of teaspoons of its grease.

Place peppers, jalapenos, and onions into the skillet and toss to coat them with the grease. Sauté them for a few minutes until they’re soft and the onions are beginning to turn translucent. Add the garlic and cook for about 30 seconds, stirring constantly, until it’s fragrant. Remove this mixture to the paper-towel lined plate with the sausage.

Add a couple of teaspoons of olive oil to the skillet. Brown the hash browns in batches by spreading out about a third of them over the bottom of the skillet in a flat layer. Cover the skillet and let them cook without stirring for around 10 minutes (double check the directions on your hash browns package). When one side is browned, flip the hash browns and brown the other side. Remove these to a separate paper-towel lined place. Continue until all hash browns are browned.

Place half of the hash browns into the baking pan in an even layer. Top with half of the sausage, peppers, and onions mixture and 1/2 cup of cheese. Repeat these layers once more. In a small bowl, whisk together the egg, evaporated milk, cayenne pepper, paprika, salt and pepper. Pour this mixture evenly over the hash brown casserole and cover it with aluminum foil. You can refrigerate the casserole overnight at this point or bake immediately. If you refrigerate it, let it sit out at room temperature while the oven preheats.

Bake the casserole for around 50 minutes before removing the foil and baking an additional 10-15 minutes. Let the casserole cool for 10 minutes before serving it with sour cream, diced jalapenos, hot sauce, salsa, green onions, and some fresh cilantro or parsley.

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The “Just Trust Me” Fried Bologna Breakfast Doughnutwich

When Mike and I went to the North Carolina State Fair last year, I had two goals: pet as many dirty, adorable barnyard animals as possible, and eat as much ridiculous, unhealthy food as possible. High on my list was the Krispy Kreme burger, an admittedly gimmicky new sandwich being marketed (and mocked) across the country. The burger was just like any other burger, except that it was served on two Krispy Kreme doughnuts in the place of a bun. I was sure I was going to absolutely love every bite.


YES.

My first goal was readily accomplished. Mike and I stumbled around until we spotted the closest pettable livestock, whereupon we bought a bag of carrots and subjected our fingers to great peril. We fed goats, sheep, llamas, and even a camel or two. Is it weird that I think there may have been a buffalo in there? I might’ve made that part up.

Anyway, the animals pranced around, joyously accepting our scritches until we ran out of carrots. During this fiasco, I may or may not have illicitly scaled a fence to feed a goat that had been head-butted out of the way by his siblings. Put it this way: I didn’t get caught. Or head-butted.

My second goal turned out to be more complicated. We nibbled around the fair — corn dogs, cheesesteaks — until we finally found the vendor selling the notorious Krispy Kreme Burger. We slipped in line and waited our turn for greatness. When I got up to the booth, the cashier asked me what I’d like on the burger. That was the first sign of trouble.

I hate being asked what I want on my sandwich. Before you decide I’m one of those insufferably picky diners (okay, you might decide that anyway), let me explain. I go to a restaurant to taste a dish someone else has conceived of and prepared. I want the creator of a sandwich to decide what ingredients should be on it to create the right overall flavor. I don’t know what to put on my sandwich to make it taste like the dish they envisioned! And if I wanted to taste my own vision — to create my own sandwich — by golly, I wouldn’t have bothered coming to a restaurant to do it! (Side note: This is why I never go to Subway anymore.) (Side note #2: I think italics make people sound snootier. Don’t you agree?)

So when the cashier asked me to construct my own version of the Krispy Kreme Burger, I was understandably nervous. Would it taste okay with lettuce and tomato? Would mayonnaise be appropriate on it? Mustard? How about cheese? I was stumped and a little miffed, but I ordered the burger with lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise. Mike and I fought the crowds and found a seat by a kiddie ride to enjoy our culinary adventure.

Mike lasted two bites before he handed me the sandwich. I thought he was just giving me a turn, but it turns out he was down for the count. “I don’t like it,” he declared, wiping doughnut glaze off his fingers with an air of finality.

Really? After hours of waiting and pushing through sweaty throngs of people, you give the sandwich two bites’ worth of a chance? I wasn’t going to be discouraged so easily. I grabbed that sandwich, took a giant bite, and–

It was okay.

The pulsing carnival music from the ride in front of us suddenly seemed a little louder, a little more grating. After hours of waiting and pushing through sweaty throngs of people, the Krispy Kreme Burger was just OKAY?!

I debated in my head: would it have been better without the lettuce and tomato? Was it the mayo that made it so-so? I polished the sandwich off pensively, still disappointed with its mediocrity. Mike and I headed off defeated, in search of better treats (don’t worry, some deep-fried cheesecake later cheered us up).

The other day, though, I had a stroke of inspiration. I was planning on creating a fancy breakfast for Mike and I’d been craving a delicious Southern staple: fried bologna biscuits. Before you start in about how you don’t like bologna: I don’t like bologna either. But fried bologna is an entirely different experience (particularly with little cheese, some yellow mustard, and for breakfast, a fried egg). I knew I didn’t have time to squeeze biscuit making into my schedule, though.

Like a flash of brilliance straight from the heavens, I realized that these flavors — fried bologna with cheese and a gooey fried egg — were the exact sort of flavors that would’ve rocked that Krispy Kreme bun. Instead of the muddy, inexact flavor profile of the State Fair burger, this sandwich would have a bold salty and sweet combination in addition to the gooey, mild saucing of the egg. Far from a gimmicky novelty item you might dare your friends to eat, this sandwich was gonna be delicious.

And it was. In fact, unlike its burger cousin, it was more delicious in real life than it was in my imagination. I’d wait in line behind a thousand other sweaty fair-goers for this baby. Thankfully, though, I don’t have to. It takes about 5 ingredients and maybe 15 minutes to make your own in the comfort of your kitchen.

So listen, JUST TRUST ME! I know it sounds a little weird. I know it packs a caloric-punch. But I promise it’s an incredible breakfast treat. Pick a special weekend, scope out the “Hot Doughnuts Now” sign at your local Krispy Kreme, and try it for yourself.

What’s your favorite weird indulgence?

The “Just Trust Me” Fried Bologna Breakfast Doughnutwich



Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking
Yields: 2 doughnutwiches

This breakfast “doughnutwich” has the absolute perfect balance of salty and sweet. Pillow-light Krispy Kreme glazed doughnuts act as a bun for savory fried bologna, a slice of cheese, and a gooey fried egg. Make this your new special occasion breakfast. It’s a little out of the ordinary, but so incredible!

Ingredients:
2 eggs
4 Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnuts*
2 tablespoons butter
2 slices bologna
2 slices American cheese

Directions:
Lay 2 doughnuts out on a plate. Cut a slit from the middle of each slice of bologna to the edge (so it won’t curl). Heat a skillet over medium-high heat and melt 1 tablespoon of butter in it. Place the slices of bologna in the frying pan. Laugh at how they start to look like little PacMen. Fry them until they’re browning on one side and then flip them. Add a slice of cheese to the top of each piece of bologna and continue frying until bottom is browned. Place the slices briefly onto a paper towel-lined plate to drain off the excess butter, and then place them onto the 2 waiting doughnuts.

Melt the last tablespoon of butter in your skillet. Break one egg at a time into the pan and fry it to your desired doneness (I’d like to make a pitch for over-easy or -medium, since the gooey yolk is delicious in this sandwich!) Place the fried egg briefly on the paper-towel lined plate to drain off the excess butter, and then place one on top of each slice of bologna and cheese. Top each doughnutwich with another doughnut as the “top bun” and serve immediately.

*Note: Feel squeamish about eating 2 doughnuts in one sitting? Carefully split one in half with a serrated knife to use as your bun. I don’t have this issue myself…!

Edited to add: Oh by the way, someone just asked in the comments if Mike liked it. Of course you’d want to know if it was Mike-approved. I’m happy to report that he loved every bite!

Edited to also add: I didn’t receive any compensation or product from Krispy Kreme — I just love ’em.

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Pumpkin Cheesecake Stuffed Snickerdoodles

A few evenings ago I was driving home on Harris Boulevard straight into the hot-gold sunset. The windows were rolled down — enough so that the tepid autumn air rushed into the car across my forehead, but not enough to assault me with a face full of blonde tangles. My favorite 80s song tumbled out of the speakers and vibrated the swirling air around me.

I acquiesced: okay, fall.

I’m a summer girl. Cold air feels like a heavy restraint: every trip outside with Byrd involves shrugging on two coats, two pairs of pajama pants, a scarf, and some mittens. I have to wrangle her into her snuggie (what? don’t act like you don’t own a dog snuggie) and wrap her in my scarf. It feels like I’ve doubled in weight as I lumber down the stairs like an abominable snowperson (with an abominable — but adorable — little snowdog in my arms).

It’s harder to move. The ice-edged air is harder to breathe. It takes longer to get up the gumption to do something as simple as take a walk.

Besides the discomfort, there’s that slate winter sky. Every day is a sloshy gray, and the sky seems lower somehow. Some summer days breeze in with mountainous clouds; their enormity makes the ocean of blue sky seem endless. In winter, though, the clouds form a heavy wool blanket that seems to sit just overhead. All summer we drift about in miles of free space; all winter we’re squashed like heavily-clothed little bugs.

I dislike winter so strongly that even on the most oppressively hot days this summer, I refused to complain. Sweat? Okay. Sunburn? No problem. Heat stroke? I’ll deal. Because the alternative is disgusting, wet, despicable, muddy, gray, depressing winter.

Facebook friends pined all summer for cooler weather and it was all I could do to avoid responding, “If you wish away my summer, I will find a way to haunt you all. winter. long.”

I dislike winter so strongly that every year, I initially dislike fall. Fall is a premonition of winter’s evil, marching stolidly across the globe toward us, indifferent to our terrified screams–

Okay, well that’s a little much. But fall means winter’s coming, and that makes me sad. Instead of accepting the advent of cooler air, I hang on to summer as long as possibly.

Others get out their boots while I stubbornly continue wearing my bohemian beach flip flops. I wear tiny sundresses, budging in my resolve only to slip on a sweater with a scowl when the temperature drops to 40 degrees each evening. I heat my house like the tropics and continue wearing my beloved nightgowns. I eat ice cream sundaes.

But every year, things start to happen that weaken my resolve. I’ll realize that I can light my fir tree and cinnamon spice candles at the same time and make my apartment smell like Christmas. I’ll see that the Southern Christmas Show (only my favorite event of the year!) is coming to town. I’ll remember the awesome sweater I was sad to put away last spring.

And finally, most importantly of all, I’ll realize there’s a whole new season of recipes to be created. Y’all know I bake anything and everything with pumpkin as soon as the first can hits the shelf. I love apples and nuts and cranberries, but there is no ingredient that winterizes the summery cockles of my heart (wait, that doesn’t sound like a good thing?) as much as that gourd.

Eventually there comes a moment when I accept the inevitable. Jamming out in my car a few evenings ago, I finally welcomed fall. And you know, I might have even been a little joyful to do so.

Whether you’re still having trouble accepting the change of seasons or not, these cookies will make you joyful. I don’t say this often because it totally ruins your street cred if you just throw it out there about every recipe you create, but these cookies are one of the best things I’ve ever made. Warm snickerdoodles are already the cinnamony, sugary bees’ knees, but when you stuff them plumb full of an autumn-spiced pumpkin cheesecake mixture, they become otherwordly. Who needs summer?

What’s your favorite season?

Pumpkin Cheesecake Stuffed Snickerdoodles



Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking, cobbled together from Whole Foods (filling) and Sunset, 1998 (via Bakergirl) (cookies)
Yield: about 30-35 large cookies

Make these cookies as soon as you can — they are incredible! Warm, cinnamon-sugar snickerdoodles surround a creamy ball of pumpkin cheesecake spiced with graham cracker and gingersnap crumbs. These cookies are crumbly, buttery, melt-in-your-mouth nuggets of autumn love. Sure, they have a lot of fat and a lot of sugar — so reserve them for a special occasion. But don’t skimp! They’re worth it. Also, while the cookies look fancy, they’re quite simple to make. Store leftovers in an airtight container in the fridge and heat them for 20-30 seconds or so before serving them with a tall glass of milk.

Snickerdoodle Ingredients:
1 cup butter, softened
1 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 cup powdered sugar
2 large eggs
4 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup granulated sugar + 1 tablespoon cinnamon for rolling cookies

Filling Ingredients:
2 cups white chocolate chips (about 10 ounces)
1 cup pumpkin puree
1 1/2 cups finely ground gingersnaps
1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs
4 tablespoons powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch of orange zest (I used a dash of orange extract)
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened

Directions:
First, make the pumpkin spice truffle filling. Melt the white chocolate chips in the microwave on half power. Start with 1 minute and stir. Continue to heat the chocolate in 15 second intervals, stirring well after each to aid the melting, until it is smooth (be careful not to overheat). Set this aside to cool slightly. In the meantime, mix the pumpkin, gingersnap and graham cracker crumbs, confectioners’ sugar, cinnamon, orange zest or extract, and cream cheese together. Add the white chocolate and mix well until thoroughly combined. Transfer the mixture to the refrigerator to chill and firm up. In the meantime, make the snickerdoodle dough.

Mix together the butter, vegetable oil, granulated sugar, powdered sugar, and eggs in a large bowl. In a separate large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, cream of tartar, and salt. Add the flour mixture into the butter mixture in 3-4 additions, mixing until just combined between each. Place the finished dough in the refrigerator to chill. While the cookie dough chills, roll pumpkin mixture into balls and place the balls on a wax paper lined baking sheet. Cover, and freeze until firm (about 1 hour).

In a small bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup granulated sugar and cinnamon. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Take a few pumpkin balls out of the freezer at a time to work in small batches (so they stay firm). Scoop out about a tablespoon of chilled cookie dough. Press a frozen pumpkin cheesecake ball into the center, then cover with another bit of dough, working the dough around the whole ball. Roll in cinnamon-sugar and place on a greased baking sheet. Repeat the process, placing cookies 3-4 inches apart. If cookie dough gets too soft, re-chill it for a bit and continue working. I made sure to stick it back in the fridge during any downtime (like when the cookies were in the oven).

Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until edges are slightly browned. Let the cookies cool on the pan for a few minutes before removing them to a cooling rack to cool completely.

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Apple Cinnamon Monkey Bread Sundaes (using leftover yeast dough!)

While we’re on the subject of getting used to failure and letting yourself take shortcuts, I have a confession to make. Growing up as a perfectionist sometimes meant I was a very, very poor sport.

In 6th grade, I was determined to accumulate every possible accolade available to me. I tore through novels at a frantic pace to be the top Electronic Bookshelf reader. I drew up posters to campaign for a student council position. I left class each day to run the controls for the entire school’s closed circuit news station. I assisted the computer teacher setting up technology for special events. I wrote columns for the 6th grade newsletter, The Leopard’s Roar. I slaved over every assignment as part of my neverending quest for perfect grades. I practiced endlessly to execute the perfect flip over the monkey bars on the playground. Life was juuuust about perfect.

One cool spring morning, though, things changed. I’d been eagerly awaiting an announcement from my teacher, Mrs. McRae. She was looking for a few trustworthy students with integrity and strong academic performance to appoint to the coveted position of safety patrol. Being on the safety patrol would add another shiny pip to my starched, pristine collar, and I was absolutely rabid over it.

The morning was packed with independent work. I was absorbed in completing my math worksheet while folks milled about the room attending to their own tasks. At one point, I realized Mrs. McRae was calling out the answers to the worksheet, but since I wasn’t finished, I tuned her out and continued working without much thought. I didn’t think twice about doing so until one of my classmates piped up with a whine, “Mrs. McRae, Julie’s cheating! She’s writing down answers while we’re checking it!” I looked up, shocked.

Just to bandage my wounded pride a little (15 years later, because you know, that’s normal), I was not cheating. I was calculating the answer to every problem and hadn’t heard or recorded a single answer that was called out. I was just trying to finish my worksheet, y’all! Nevertheless, Mrs. McRae called me out of the classroom.

I explained my situation to her in a panic. Surely she couldn’t possibly think that what that little twerp said about me was true?! Her bespectacled face stared down at me with doubt. You could see the wheels turning in her head: Well, Julie does care an awful lot about grades. Maybe…

Confronted with what felt like the greatest injustice I’d ever suffered, I began to have a full-on anxious meltdown. As I restated my case and pleaded with her to believe me, I started crying tears of frustration. Finally, I stormed into the bathroom beside our mobile classroom to flip out in private. A few minutes later, Mrs. McRae followed me. She told me that she didn’t know if I’d cheated or not, but considering the situation, she did not feel it was appropriate to appoint me to safety patrol.

Oh my goodness, y’all. Oh my goodness.

My little 6th grade life flashed before my eyes. I cried some more in the bathroom. I cried at home that night. I glared daggers at the safety patrol students when I passed them in the hallways in the following weeks. I’d love to say, “And then I got over it!” but here I am writing an entire blog post about it as an adult, so uh. That’s probably kind of unhealthy, right? Whatev. It scarred me, people!

But ultimately, even though it was hard to swallow, I can honestly say I appreciate the lesson in dealing with unfairness and disappointment. Getting used to the fact that things don’t always go your way (and sometimes, aren’t even fair!) is part of being a healthy human being.

Talking about disappointments is an apt opening to a monkey bread post on Willow Bird Baking. Don’t worry; these Apple Cinnamon Monkey Bread Sundaes aren’t disappointing! They’re gorgeous, rich fall treats. Monkey bread in general, though, has always been a total fail for me. It typically falls apart, overflows its pan, or ends up doughy in the middle. Even when I tried straight up convenience monkey bread with canned biscuit dough I managed to use too many cans and create quite the underbaked mess (stop laughing!) I can’t explain this phenomenon — monkey bread should be so darn easy. What’s the matter with me?!

Anyhow, instead of throwing a fit in the bathroom, I’ve kept trying new monkey bread recipes. I love the stuff, so even the “failures” get devoured in short order. And these Apple Cinnamon Monkey Bread Sundaes were quite the little success. With one batch of yeast dough, you can make some Taco Pockets and a quick dessert — two dishes for the effort of one! The “recipe” that follows outlines this simple method for dressing up your leftovers. Next time you’re making some yeast rolls or dinner pockets, save some dough for monkey bread!

What’s an injustice you remember experiencing?

Apple Cinnamon Monkey Bread Sundaes (using leftover yeast dough!)



Recipe by: Bits and pieces adapted from What’s Cookin’, Chicago?, All Recipes
Yield: depends on your leftover dough

This recipe is actually just a method of dolling up leftover dough to make monkey bread sundaes. Using this little technique, you can save some dough from any dinner recipe and create a dessert to enjoy at the end of the meal with no extra fuss. Even if you only have a small amount of leftover dough, you can bake your monkey bread in the wells of a cupcake pan and serve the warm, gooey pieces over vanilla bean ice cream!

To make Apple Cinnamon Monkey Bread with leftover dough, grab:

Leftover yeast dough* that has already completed one rise. Maybe you used the first half for some Taco Pockets? You sly devil, you.
Sauce: You can use 1/2 cup (1 stick) melted butter mixed with 1 cup brown sugar to form a caramelly sauce. For more apple flavor, you could also try mixing 1/2 cup butter and 1/2 cup brown sugar over the stove, removing it from heat, and adding 1/2 cup apple butter.
Cinnamon and sugar mixture: 1/2 cup sugar whisked together with 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon.
Melted butter: about 1/2 cup.
Apples: 1 peeled, cored, and chopped apple (or more if you have lots of leftover dough)
Nuts: about 1 cup of chopped nuts like pecans or walnuts. I chose pecans because I love them.

Then do this:
Set up each of your items in a row to form an assembly line: an apple station, a melted butter station, a cinnamon/sugar station, and then a greased bundt pan (or greased cupcake pan if you only have a bit of leftover dough). Set your sauce and nuts to the side for now.

With floured fingers, take a ping-pong-ball-sized pinch of leftover yeast dough (you can change this to smaller pinches if you’re baking in a cupcake pan). First, place some apples in the middle of the ball of dough and pinch the dough closed around them. Then drop the dough ball in melted butter, tossing gently to coat with a fork. Next, drop it in the cinnamon and sugar mixture and toss gently to coat (use a separate fork in this bowl). Drop your coated dough ball in the greased pan.

Once you have a single layer covering the bottom of the pan you’re using, spoon a layer of sauce over the dough balls and sprinkle on a layer of nuts. Continue pinching, filling, and coating dough balls to form another layer, and then spoon sauce and sprinkle nuts over this, too. Keep going until you’ve used all your dough.

When you’ve used all of your dough, distribute a last bit of sauce and nuts over the top. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and let the dough rise for about an hour in a draft-free place. In the meantime, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. When risen, bake the bread for 20-35 minutes (this can vary depending on the size of your dough balls and the size pan you used, but look for a dark golden brown color on top. If you take it out when it’s just golden brown, it’ll likely still be raw inside, so let it get dark.) Let cool in the pan for 5 minutes and then invert onto a plate (or pick out the monkey bread pieces with a fork like I did, to serve over vanilla bean ice cream!)

*Note: You can use this technique with canned biscuit dough, too — just cut out the rise time.

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