Easy Sopapilla Pumpkin Cheesecake Bars

There’s a banner that hangs above the whiteboard at the front of my classroom. It’s about six feet long and so high that you can see it from anywhere in the room — unless you’re hiding under my desk, I guess, but why would you be doing that? You’re just asking for a behavior tally.

I made the banner by hand, writing its message (which comes from a book I read before I started teaching) in huge blue block letters: THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS.

For most of my students, middle school is just the right time to be confronted with this reality. New 6th graders walk into my classroom fresh from the cottony, comforting cocoon of elementary school. Their elementary school teachers did a little more hand-holding, offered a little more amnesty. It’s not because they were softies; rather, it’s because students aren’t typically ready to be independent learners at that point in their development. Some of my 6th graders aren’t ready when they first meet me, either — but it’s my job over the course of two years to get them there.

Sometimes it happens the hard way. I can see the surprise in their eyes when I give them their first zero on a homework assignment. They stammer, “But my printer was broken! I couldn’t print it!” I ask if they followed the advice given at the beginning of the year to find a “printer buddy,” a classmate willing to print for them in case of technical difficulties. The blank stare I get in response speaks volumes. I pencil in the zero, and as I move along briskly to the next student, there’s a heavy lesson being learned in my wake.

They don’t quite know what hit them, but if they asked, I could tell them: it’s responsibility. The whole weight of it just fell on their little shoulders! It feels like a heavy load, but actually, they can manage that zero. In doing so, in fact, they get used to managing (and working to prevent) discomfort, disappointment, and failure. They get used to making their own choices and experiencing the results. They become independent learners.


This was supposed to be a drizzle, but I got carried away.

Teaching them that there are no shortcuts (you just have to buckle down and complete the work, study for the tests, take ownership of your learning experience) is invaluable, but I also work with some kids who need a different message.

There are a few kids every year who come in with everything color coded. Their handwriting is perfect. They create mile-high stacks of flashcards before every quiz. It’s a teacher’s dream — until you notice the tiny cracks in their morale that are widening under pressure. You hear that they’re agonizing over their homework for hours to make it perfect, or you see them tearing up over a few missed points on a quiz. You feel their tension when you confer with them about their essay. These kids are the perfectionists. I empathize with them because I’m a perfectionist, too. I know what a heavy load it is to bear.


Drenched. This is too much honey, but it looks nice.

Perhaps this sounds hypocritical considering the first half of this post, but for the perfectionists, my message is often: THERE ARE SHORTCUTS. While it’s not a message I’d want to post on the wall of my classroom (the perfectionists are a small minority, after all), it’s a crucial one to convey.

These are children who need to be given permission to give 80% rather than trying their “best,” which is often overkill. They need help scaling their efforts down for smaller assignments with lower point values, and saving their ardor for important endeavors. They sometimes need advice, believe it or not, on how to relax.

One of my college English professors said it best — and I repeat this to my students every year — when he said something to the effect of, “Your cat will still love you if you don’t make an A.” The perfectionists need to know that there’s life beyond working hard for the sake of working hard. This literally didn’t sink in for me until after college, when I tried my hardest at something and for the first time, failed miserably — but that’s a story for another day. For now, I just want to tell you: THERE ARE SHORTCUTS.


I ate this.

Last winter I bought some pumpkins to chop in half, seed, roast, and strip for pumpkin puree. It was lovely to work with the pumpkins, but I did it mostly for the sake of having made the dish completely from scratch. I was in the middle of Project Food Blog and certainly didn’t want to take any unnecessary shortcuts. There’s nothing wrong with that — except that it was another hour in the kitchen, another mess to clean up. Did I really have to do all of that just to be “perfect”? Probably not: America’s Test Kitchen determined with taste tests that people can’t really differentiate between canned and fresh pumpkin in a recipe.

It’s not that there’s no point in ever making things from scratch. Apart from being able to fully control how you nourish your body, you gain confidence by making something beautiful from a collection of raw ingredients. Every now and then, though, when a simple and satisfying dessert is your primary goal, there are shortcuts. In this recipe, for instance, two cans of premade crescent roll dough and some canned pumpkin make a gorgeous autumn treat in 40 minutes flat. Enjoy a restful recipe now and then.

Where do you take shortcuts?

Easy Sopapilla Pumpkin Cheesecake Bars



Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking, using adapted versions of Pillsbury’s Sopapilla Cheesecake Bars and Philadelphia’s No-Bake Pumpkin Cheesecake
Yield: about 15-20 bars

I first saw the recipe for Sopapilla Cheesecake Bars on Cookies and Cups and decided to give them some pumpkin love. In these bars, two layers of premade crescent roll dough sandwich a thick layer of simple pumpkin cheesecake — it couldn’t get easier and quicker! The top bakes into a crisp, buttery cinnamon-sugar “sopapilla.” I served the bars heated up a few seconds (just to remove the chill), sprinkled with toasted pecans, and drizzled with a little honey.

Bar Ingredients:
2 cans crescent rolls
2 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened
2 cup canned pumpkin
5/8 cup sugar
2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon*
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice*
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg*
1/2 teaspoon ginger*
*or substitute 2 teaspoons of pumpkin pie spice for these spices.

Topping Ingredients:
6 tablespoons butter, melted (for topping)
1/2 cup sugar (for topping)
1 teaspoon cinnamon (for topping)

Optional Extras:
honey
toasted pecans (see directions below)

Directions:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a glass 9×13 inch baking dish. Unroll one can of crescent roll dough (all in one piece) and lay it in the dish, pressing it out to cover the bottom and pinching any seams together.

In a large mixing bowl, beat together the cream cheese and sugar until light and fluffy. Add pumpkin, vanilla, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice, and beat to combine. Spread this mixture over the crescent roll dough in your pan. Unroll the other can of crescent roll dough and lay it over top of the pumpkin cheesecake mixture (I actually found it easier to lay it on some plastic wrap secured over a cutting board — this gave me a surface on which to pinch the seams closed and make it into one big rectangular sheet. I then used the plastic wrap to “flip” it carefully over onto the cheesecake mixture).

In a small bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup sugar with 1 teaspoon cinnamon. Pour melted butter over top of crescent roll dough and sprinkle cinnamon and sugar mixture evenly across the surface. Bake for 30 minutes or until golden brown. While the bars bake, you can also toast the pecans on another rack — just 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.

Let bars cool completely before covering them and placing them in the refrigerator to chill for at least a couple of hours (I left mine overnight). Cut into squares, heat for just about 20 seconds to take off the chill, and serve with a drizzle of honey and a sprinkle of toasted pecans.

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Foodbuzz 24×24: Cheap and Simple Taco Pockets

i sat watching a flower as it was withering;
i was embarrassed by its honesty.

-bright eyes

This is not a diary. I can’t smudge ugly, unfiltered thoughts into this blog and tuck it deep under a virtual mattress. This is a place for tidy stories that have fully played out in my life — or at least enough to have lost the raw, unfinished edge of uncertainty.

Otherwise, things just get sloppy.

But I’m going to get a little sloppy here for a bit: this has been the hardest year of my life.

I feel embarrassed saying that, because I know some of you are dealing with things that are so much harder, things that make my year look like a fairy tale. There are people right now losing their homes and carefully rationing their cash to afford the week’s groceries. So I hope you’ll forgive me my lesser struggle — that we can have the grace of being in different places and loving each other where we are.

For me, this year has been a mountain to climb — the air is thinning, and I’m not sure I ever wanted to reach the top in the first place.

Last November, as you may remember, I broke up with Mike, my boyfriend of almost 12 years. It took me two months to get up the gumption to write to you about it, but the struggle wasn’t over.

Month after month went by and I found I couldn’t get used to my new world, which had turned inside out and taken on a pallor. Daily life felt like stumbling through a thick wall of cotton. My grief became a dressing room in which I tried on all different Julies, searching for who I was without Mike. Everything I put on was too tight, too abrasive, too loose, too heavy.

Recently, though, a couple of you noticed and commented that I’ve been mentioning Mike here and there. It’s true — we’re slowly, carefully spending time together again. Feeling out the next steps. There’s just not time to waste when you love someone, and it feels like we’ve already wasted so much.

So there it is. This isn’t exactly a great time to tell you what’s up. This is not a diary, like I said, and I’m hesitant to share such a new, uncertain development. But first off, I know I’m among friends. Second off, Foodbuzz issued a 24×24 challenge this month that I knew I wanted to dedicate to Mike.

The 24×24 is usually an opportunity to showcase 24 fun dinner party ideas, but this month, Foodbuzz challenged us to create a meal using only pantry staples. Scraping together something passable from the pantry wouldn’t have been too hard; people do it every day for their families. But as I thought about what I usually have available — some ground meat, cheese, salsa, baking supplies — I realized I wanted to create something truly special.

One of Mike’s favorite dishes during our time together was a silly convenience meal. These Taco-Stuffed Crescent Rolls are delicious, but also based on a can of crescent rolls, for goodness’ sake. Nevertheless, I made them for him throughout our relationship as a quick way of saying, “I love you (and I want some carbs.)”

For the Foodbuzz 24×24, I invited Mike over and recreated this meal — this time with a homemade yeast dough. I wanted to turn my quick I love you into an earnest I love you. The things I took for granted, I can’t take for granted anymore, and I think he feels the same. What we’re working on between us is worth more than a can of crescent rolls. It’s worth adding flour bit by bit. It’s worth waiting the hour for the dough to breathe and rise. It’s worth the messy counter, the sticky shaping, the extra step of egg washing. I would slice avocados for years. I would clean my dough hook a million times over.

The beauty of this meal is that it’s homemade from scratch, but still simple and convenient. The recipe made plenty of dough for taco pockets with enough leftover to dress up as Apple Cinnamon Monkey Bread Sundaes (I’ll share how I did this in an upcoming post). Also, since you can prepare both dishes a day in advance, you have enough time to floof your hair and vacuum the apartment the day your long-lost boyfriend is coming over. Nice.

Oh, by the way, your fear of yeast called and told me to tell you it’s not working out. You’re just going to have to get over him. I’m stocking you up with simple yeast dough recipes so you’ll have a good place to start.

Speaking of good places to start, for me and Mike, this is as good a place as any. I don’t know how things will go, but no one ever does. I’m just going to hitch up my skirts and petticoats and keep on climbing.

I told you my secrets, now tell me yours. What new developments are coming your way these days?


Me and Mike via photobooth, a couple of years ago.

Cheap and Simple Taco Pockets


Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking (yeast dough recipe from Our Best Bites)
Yield: about 26 3-inch long crescent pockets, or 5-6 servings (or you can use half for pockets and half for making monkey bread!)

These Taco Pockets are pillowy yeast rolls filled with a creamy, cheesy, spicy Tex-Mex filling. I like to serve them with an array of accoutrements — sour cream, guacamole, salsa, and fresh cilantro. As a time-saver, you can wrap this cheesy filling in premade crescent rolls and bake per the package instructions, but don’t do it just because you’re afraid of yeast! This is a simple yeast dough that’ll help you conquer your fears. If you’d like, make taco pockets with half the dough and use the rest to make simple Monkey Bread Sundaes for dessert — two dishes for the price of one!

Dough Ingredients:
1 1/2 cups warm water (105-115 degrees – use a candy thermometer to check)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon yeast
1/2 teaspoons salt
3-4 1/2 cups flour
1 egg and a splash of water (for egg wash)

Filling Ingredients:
1 pound ground beef
1 packet McCormick’s cheesy taco seasoning (or taco seasoning of your choice)
6 ounces cream cheese, softened
2-3 heaping tablespoons salsa
1/4 cup shredded cheddar cheese
sprinkle of cheddar cheese for the top of pockets

Directions:
Notes on making this in advance: There are two points at which you can stop this recipe and refrigerate it overnight. The first is just before the first proof. Instead of letting the dough proof, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and then a clean, damp cloth. Place it in the refrigerator for 1-5 days, keeping the cloth damp. When ready to roll, let it sit out until it comes to room temperature and doubles (about 2 hours). Another point at which you can leave the recipe overnight is after the pockets are filled and shaped. Instead of allowing them to rise another 30 minutes, cover them and refrigerate them overnight. In the morning, allow them to come to room temperature and rise (about 2 hours) before egg washing and baking.

Make dough: Mix the warm water, sugar, and yeast in a large bowl (such as in the bowl of your stand mixer, if you have one) and let it sit for 5-10 minutes until it foams. Add the salt and 1.5 cups of flour and mix. While kneading on a low speed, gradually add more flour (I added about 1 1/2 more cups) until the dough is pulling away from the sides of the bowl and barely sticks to your finger.

Spray a large bowl with cooking spray and place dough in the bowl for the first proof. Cover and place the dough in a draft-free place (many use the inside of a turned-off oven) to rise for 45 minutes or until doubled in bulk.

Make filling: While dough rises, brown ground beef, drain, and return to pan. Add packet of taco seasoning with a bit of water and cook until combined. In a separate bowl, combine cream cheese, salsa, and cheddar cheese. Add ground beef mixture to the bowl (which will melt the mixture a bit) and stir to combine.

Shape and Bake: Spray a cookie sheet with cooking spray or line it with parchment paper. Remove dough from bowl and place on a lightly-floured surface. I placed a damp, clean cloth over some of the dough while I tore off pieces to work with. Tear off golf ball sized portions (or maybe a little larger) and roll each portion out to about 1/4-inch thick (moving it around as you roll to ensure it’s not sticking, and reflouring your surface as needed). Use a large round cookie cutter (or a knife) to cut out circles about 3 or 4 inches in diameter. Spoon about 1-2 tablespoons of ground beef mixture onto each circle. Fold the circle over on itself, wetting and pressing the edges to seal. Poke each pocket with a knife to give it a steam vent, dust the excess flour off of it with a dry pastry brush, and place it on the prepared baking sheet.

Once all pockets are shaped, cover them with a clean dish towel and let them rise for another 30 minutes. When you have about 20 minutes left, preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Whisk egg and water together and brush over pockets just before baking. Sprinkle each pocket with a bit of shredded cheddar cheese. Bake pockets for 15-20 minutes or until golden. Let cool on sheet pan for a few minutes and serve warm.

Note: I received a stipend from Foodbuzz for creating this meal.

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Thanks a Million

Willow Bird Baking just hit 1,000,000 all-time views. Typing something to you just didn’t feel like enough. Instead, I got out my sharpie-of-a-regrettable-color and wrote you a letter.

…A letter that you kind of have to be sideways to read. Okay, so I didn’t think through all the details. What can I say — I was filled with emotion!

Basically: Each and every comment, each and every visit, each and every kitchen triumph you’ve shared with me and with your families — each one has meant so much to me. Thank you so, so much.

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Pumpkin Spice Pull-Apart Bread with Butter Rum Glaze

So I’m currently joining the rest of the blogosphere in doing a happy dance and singing, “Pumpkinnnnnnnn!”

Before I gush about this Pumpkin Spice Pull-Apart Bread, though, I have to tell you about my other Pumpkin: my little pumpkin-wumpkin fluffypants.


…no fluffypants, here.

Pets make people weird. One day you’re a normal, reasonable adult that people can take seriously. Then you get a pet.

Suddenly you’re schnookie-wookums-ing, buying them furniture that is bigger and more expensive than your own, dressing them up in Santa hats for the annual Christmas card, and giving them their own theme posts on your blog (Caturday is the best day!)

I’ve been a little weird from the beginning, so when I got my pets (Byrd the toy poodle and Squirt the red eared slider), all bets were off. Sure enough, a couple of years ago I got this idea. You’re going to make fun of me, so let’s just get this over with.

I decided to, um, commission a painting of my pets.


Here’s that pull-apart bread again to distract you from what I just said.

I would try to defend myself, but I know plenty of you are in the process of making a birthday cake for your cat or buying your dog one of these right now. You don’t have even a millimeter of room to talk. Ha!

Anyway, the painting was going to be an ironic interpretation of Grant Wood’s American Gothic. It would have the same surreal quality, but look something like this:


Don’t worry, Squirt’s happy. He always frowns.

The painting unfortunately never came to fruition, but I got an email a couple of weeks ago that revived the dream. It was from Easy Canvas Prints, a company that transforms pictures to canvas. They asked if I might like to create a canvas from one of my photos and write up a review.

I often turn down product reviews because they don’t fit my vision for Willow Bird Baking (I could talk for hours about my philosophy on blog-brand relations and the role of bloggers in journalism and integrity, etc., but I’ll spare you). But when I’m asked to review a product I’m genuinely excited about, I have no problem giving it an honest try.


I want to give this an honest try, too. Or a dozen honest tries.

Easy Canvas Photos offered me a free small canvas print or a discount on a larger one to review. I chose to get a larger one and, though I seriously considered printing a big ol’ cheesecake on it, decided to finally create that pet portrait. Thankfully, my new camera had just been ordered and Byrd had a grooming appointment scheduled. Once she was coiffed, we had a little photo shoot.

Some of the photos were, um, less than canvas-worthy:


Really, Byrd? Really?!

We finally got a good one, though, and ordering my canvas took literally minutes. Once you choose a canvas size, you upload your photo. The site determines if it’s high enough quality for the canvas so you don’t have to wonder. You then choose how to have the canvas wrapped (you can get a solid color on the sides of the canvas, or let the image wrap around the edges — I chose the latter). And just like that, your work of art is finished.

When my canvas arrived in the mail, I was overjoyed with it. It’s high quality and downright adorable. If I weren’t just about as poor as a pile of dirt (and if I had infinite patience) I would put a bowtie on Squirt and take a billion photos (“FLIPPIN’ HOLD STILL AND WILL YOU GET YOUR HEAD OUT OF YOUR SHELL!!”) to make one of him, too. Maybe someday.

Want to see how it turned out?


Awwww. Sweet haircut thanks to Tami at the Dog Salon.

In short, my experience with Easy Canvas Prints was a great one. It was an easy process with reasonable prices and a lovely result. I think you should go immortalize your pumpkin-wumpkin, too.

Now about that other pumpkin — Pumpkin Spice Pull-Apart Bread! Hopefully you’ve seen this lovely loaf being rebaked and reposted around other blogs, but Willow Bird Baking is the home of the original recipe. I cobbled it together from pumpkin yeast dough and cinnamon pull-apart bread recipes and had no idea if it would be the right texture or even come together at all. I’m so glad I had the courage to experiment, though, because it was phenomenal.

The aroma of yeast dough alone was enough to make it a success, but the sweet autumn flavors were the real victory. The buttery rum glaze complemented the mild pumpkin and cinnamon spice of the warm, tender yeast dough. The recipe takes a bit of time, but most of that is waiting for dough to rise — and of course the taste more than makes up for every minute of work.

Okay, spill it: What silly things have you done for your pets?

Pumpkin Spice Pull-Apart Bread with Butter Rum Glaze


Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking, adapted from All Recipes, Joy the Baker, and Pumpkin Tart
Yields: one loaf, about 8 servings
Prep Time: (including dough rising) about 3 hours

This sticky, sweet pumpkin pull-apart loaf is irresistible. It’s made from layers of fluffy pumpkin yeast dough coated with browned butter, cinnamon, sugar, and nutmeg. Let it cool until it has just a hint of warmth left, drizzle on some glaze, and enjoy — preferably with the windows open to let in a crisp autumn breeze. Oh, and by the way, this recipe makes use of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, but there’s no reason you can’t knead this dough by hand. It’ll just take a little longer (and a little more elbow grease).

Pumpkin Pull-Apart Bread Ingredients:
1/2 cup milk
3/4 cup pumpkin puree
1/4 cup white sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon salt
2 1/4 teaspoons (1 envelope) active dry yeast
2 1/2 cups bread flour

Filling Ingredients:
1 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Butter Rum Glaze Ingredients:
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/8 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon plus 1 1/2 teaspoons milk
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/4 teaspoon rum (the original recipe called for extract, which I found too strong)

Directions:
Make the pull-apart bread dough: Grease and flour a loaf pan and set aside. In a saucepan over medium-high heat, brown the 2 tablespoons of butter. Let it bubble and foam and when you see it start to brown, stir it so that it browns evenly. When it’s the color of dark honey, remove it from the heat and pour it into a large heat-safe mixer bowl to cool. In the same saucepan over medium-low heat, warm the milk until it bubbles. Remove it from the heat and pour it into the bowl with the butter. Let these cool until they’re about 100-110 degrees F (use a candy thermometer to check). Set the saucepan aside for another use later. I use the same one throughout the entire recipe; why do more dishes?

Stir the sugar and yeast into the milk/butter mixture and let it sit for about 10 minutes to proof (it should foam; if it doesn’t, discard it yeast and try again with new yeast). Stir in pumpkin, salt, and 1 cup flour. If you haven’t already, fit your mixer with a dough hook. Add the rest of the flour 1/2 cup at a time, stirring between each addition. When the dough is combined, knead on low speed with a dough hook until smooth and elastic (about 4 minutes with a mixer).

Place the dough in a greased bowl and cover it with a damp cloth. Let it rise in a warm place for about an hour until it doubles in size (After it rises, you can put it in the fridge overnight to use it in the morning, but let it sit out for half an hour before rolling if you do.)

Make the filling: While the dough is rising, whisk the sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg together in a small bowl. Toward the end of the rising time, melt the 2 tablespoons of butter for the filling in the saucepan over medium-high heat and brown it as directed above. Put it in a small heat-safe bowl to cool for use later.

Shape and bake pull-apart bread: Knead a sprinkling of flour (about 1 tablespoon) into the dough, deflating it, and recover it. Let it sit to relax for 5 minutes. Flour a large work surface and turn your rested dough out onto it. Roll it out to a 20 inch long and 12 inch wide rectangle, lifting corners periodically to make sure it’s not sticking. If it seems to be snapping back, cover it with your damp towel and let it rest for 5 minutes before continuing (I had to do this twice during the process).

Spread the browned butter over the surface of the dough with a pastry brush and then sprinkle the sugar mixture over the top, patting it down to ensure it mostly sticks. Joy the Baker encourages you to use it all even though it seems like a ton, but I admit I got squeamish at the amount and only used most. It was fine despite my nerves. Go ahead and pile it on.

With the long edge of the rectangle toward you, cut it into 6 strips (do this by cutting the rectangle in half, then cutting each half into equal thirds. I used a pizza cutter). Stack these strips on top of one another and cut the resulting stack into 6 even portions (again, cut it in half, and then cut the halves into equal thirds). Place these portions one at a time into your greased loaf pan, pressing them up against each other to fit them all in. Cover the pan with your damp cloth and place it in a warm place for 30-45 minutes to double in size.

While dough rises, preheat oven to 350 degrees F (or 325 if you have a glass loaf dish instead of a metal pan). When it’s risen, place the loaf in the center of the oven and bake for 30-35 minutes until dark golden brown on top (if you take it out at light golden brown, it’s liable to be raw in the middle, so let it get good and dark). Cool for 20-30 minutes on a cooling rack in the loaf pan while you make the glaze.

Make the glaze: In your saucepan, bring the butter, milk, and brown sugar to a boil over medium-high heat. Remove it from heat, add the powdered sugar and rum, and whisk it to a smooth consistency.

Assemble and serve: Use a butter knife to loosen all sides of the bread from the loaf pan and gently turn it out onto a plate. Place another plate on top and flip it to turn it right side up. Drizzle glaze over top. Serve each piece slightly warm with a drizzle of glaze.

Easy Canvas Prints offered me a discount on the canvas I ordered and asked for an honest review. My opinions are unvarnished and never influenced by products or discounts provided.

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Gooey Cookies & Cream Bars

On top of a sheet of felt-and-glitter tabletop snow, wooden blades were spinning, propelled by steam from tiny candles. Below the windmill but carved from the same light wood, tiny German townspeople busied themselves preparing for a wooden winter. I stood there for a few minutes, watching the delicate dance of the Christmas Pyramid: wood and fire, fuel and hunger.

It was my first visit to Mike’s great-aunts’ house, and thankfully, I was just in time to see their earnest and intricate Christmas display. Rose and Martha had been adding to their holiday collection over the course of many years and many travels, and their home now good-naturedly bore its heavy load of cheer.

Along with the Christmas Pyramid, a yuletide scene adorned every available surface in the house. The sturdy 1950s countertop in the kitchen boasted a full Christmas village. Warm orange lights glowed from miniature, snowy-silled windows. Plastic children, round with winter wool and red-nosed beneath fur caps, constructed snowmen in the yard. Figurines of all shapes and sizes skated on a mirrored glass pond thanks to tiny unseen magnets. And, in my favorite tableau, kids posed with St. Nick before a toy camera that gave a CLICK-FLASH! every few seconds as if snapping their photo.

The entire house was busy with whirring, chirruping, chiming, ringing. Understated carols rung out at regular intervals from mysterious origins. I would turn my head to find the source only to see a Christmas train, a Christmas snowman, a Christmas door hanging, a pudgy Christmas Santa statue, lights, bells, snow — Christmas chaos!

Imagine yourself as a child. Imagine that one day you really did get to step through your mirror, like you’d always dreamed might be possible. All it took was a little shimmy, a heel click or two, maybe a wink, and you were finally allowed to flow right through the glass. Imagine that when you stepped in, you stepped straight into a world of candy and jolly Santas and benevolent holiday rabbits and secret gardens and fairies and talking animals.

The joy of this house was that same joy. Walking into the door of this house was like walking into a fantastic place you knew existed somewhere, but could never seem to find as a child.

If the house was a Christmas fairyland, Rose and Martha were the magnificent queens of the domain. Martha was lovely, humble, and meticulous, welcoming and distributing presents. And Rose was mischievous, adventurous, and excited, whispering sly comments and shaking gifts. Together, what a pair.

They weren’t just wonderful on Christmas, either, and not just the first time I met them. We would celebrate their birthdays together at a boisterous gathering at Trio, one of their favorite restaurants. Folks from far and wide would turn up and share stories of the things they’d accomplished.

Both were teachers that poured out their time and energy for their students. Rose spent 11 years in night school to earn her degree in History. She then spent several more years learning about computers as she taught, creating a computer lab for her elementary school students. Rose and Martha traveled around the world together, sometimes preferring a foreign country, and sometimes heading to Chetola, a beloved spot in the North Carolina mountains, instead.

It was hard to believe things could ever be difficult for Rose. It seemed impossible that her pure fire-engine gumption couldn’t propel her through just about anything, including health problems and age and, good grief, probably a wall of fire and a mountain of steel at that.

She did slow down, though. At one point she broke a bone and had to recover in a nursing home, and I remember going to see her and realizing her gumption was willing, but her body demanded rest. When you see a pillar of strength and realize it’s fragile, it shakes you. Your whole frame of reference starts to bend just a bit.

Rose’s bone slowly healed. She went home and continue living her beautiful life. We went to dinner and a basketball game with her and Martha months later — her beloved UNCC 49ers — and though she had grown more frail, we could still see the spark of her heart.

This past Saturday, though, just hours before Mike was planning on visiting her, Rose passed away. The book of Greek myths he planned to take and read to her still sits where I tucked it quietly away once I heard. There’s nothing I can say to fully eulogize this sort of burning life. I wish, instead, you could’ve heard Martha’s strong voice at Rose’s funeral singing Amazing Grace with unexpected verve.

And I hope that Rose feels just now as if she’s stepped, finally, through a looking glass. I hope the real presence of Christ is stronger even than the joy of a billion Christmas wonderlands on a billion countertops. I hope she feels like, finally, she’s home.

Gooey Cookies & Cream Bars


Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking, inspired by S’mores Bars
Yield: About 12 bars

I made these Gooey Cookies & Cream Bars as a treat for Mike, ditching a previous plan involving pumpkin (which he’s not fond of). I’m so glad I did. They’re rich and heavenly, crunchy and gooey, and altogether full of warm niceness for a cool autumn day. Apart from tasting amazing, they’re super quick and simple — something I value more and more lately. Heat up one or two of these and enjoy them with some cold milk.

Ingredients:
1/2 cup butter, room temperature
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup chocolate sandwich cookie crumbs (i.e. crumbs of about 10 Oreos)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 king-sized Cookies ‘n Cream candy bars (e.g. Hershey’s)*
1 1/2 cups marshmallow creme
*can substitute a regular white chocolate bar if these are unavailable where you live!

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease an 8-inch square baking pan and create a foil sling: tear off 4, 16-inch long pieces of aluminum foil and fold them in half. Situate two side-by-side in the pan, covering the bottom of the pan to the edge (they will overlap). Situate the other two strips in the same manner, but perpendicular to the first. The overhanging foil of the sling will make it easy to remove the bars from the pan after baking and cooling. Grease the foil as well.

Cream the butter and sugar together in a large bowl until fluffy and pale yellow (2-3 minutes). Beat in the egg and vanilla. In a small, separate bowl, whisk together the flour, cookie crumbs, baking powder and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture and mix until just combined. Divide the dough roughly in half, placing half the dough in your prepared pan and the other half in the fridge to chill until you’re ready for it.

Use the back of a spoon sprayed with cooking spray and to press and spread the dough in the pan until it covers the bottom of the pan in an even layer. Place the Cookies ‘n Cream bars side by side over the dough (if they fit; if not, break them and arrange) such that you have a full single layer of chocolate (about 1/4 inch thick). Glop on marshmallow creme and use a greased offset spatula to spread it evenly across the candy bars. Take the remaining dough out of the fridge and place it on top of the marshmallow layer (to do so, take a small handful at a time and flatten it into a “shingle” in greased fingertips. Lay these side by side over the top. They’re a little sticky so it takes some fiddling, but just clean your fingers off if the dough starts sticking to them too much and continue).

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until lightly browned. Let cool completely in pan before gently using the overhang of the foil sling to lift the bars out of the pan and place them on a cutting board to slice. When ready to serve, heat each bar in the microwave for about 25-30 seconds. Store extras in an airtight container. Enjoy!

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Presenting . . . Your Amazing Cupcakes!

Well, color me impressed. One month ago I issued a challenge here on Willow Bird Baking. Because I know how inspiring it can be to create your own dish, I asked you to come up with a fun cupcake combination all your own.

Some of these fantastic bakers were mamas baking with their kids (Sarah let her son, Jonathan, help out) while some of them were kids themselves (Erica’s in 7th grade this year). Some of them went the decadent route — chocolate, peanut butter, and beer, oh dear! — while some of them stayed bright and fruity — summery strawberries, blackberries, and citrus. Across the board, though, the one thing you all have in common is kitchen creativity. You came up with plans for a fantastic dessert for your family and friends, and you made it happen! Now it’s time to show off your handiwork!




Faygie the Fantastic

Faygie Made: Chocolate Cupcakes with Guinness-Chocolate Pudding and Caramel Buttercream
Comments:“I had a lot of fun doing this challenge! It took a while to find a combination that was not only unique, but also complemented each other well. The chocolate cupcake recipe is fantastic. The pudding was also very good, […] and I really thought that the caramel buttercream complemented the chocolate and Guinness really well. Because it is a Swiss meringue buttercream, it’s not too sweet (even with the large amount I piped on). I brought these to a friend’s birthday party and they were a huge hit!” (see more on her blog!)




Just look at those mountains of delicious frosting! These sound so rich and decadent.



LeAndra the Lovely

LeAndra Made: Banana and Choco-Banana Cupcakes with Peanut Butter(cream) Filling and Marshmallow Buttercream Frosting
Comments:“Thank you for hosting this cupcake challenge. I’m really looking forward to seeing everyone’s creations. I baked banana cupcakes with peanut butter buttercream filling and marshmallow buttercream icing. The baking itself went well, but I was concerned the banana cake and the peanut butter filling were too similar in coloring. So, I mixed some cocoa powder into the remaining batter for chocolate-banana cupcakes.” (see more of her fun cupcakes on her blog!)




Peanut butter, banana, and marshmallow sound like a match made in fluffernutter heaven. Yum!



Erica the Energetic

Erica Made: Yellow Cupcakes with Lemon Filling and Orange Icing
Comments:Erica is my youngest challenge entrant this time around — she just started 7th grade (in my class)! Aren’t these citrusy cupcakes adorable? Way to go, Erica!




Erica came straight out of my cupcake camp this summer and completed the cupcake challenge! So impressive!




Corisa the Creative

Corisa Made: Tandy Kake Cupcakes
Comments: “I made a ‘Tandy Kake’ cupcake, because Tandy Kake is one of my most loved desserts. I enjoy the combination of peanut butter and chocolate a whole lot! I started with a butter cake and filled it with Ina Garten’s peanut butter frosting. Then I topped it off with a simple chocolate frosting! Thanks so much for this opportunity. I’m so excited to see all the fabulous cupcakes!”




It doesn’t get better than peanut butter and chocolate. I want about 5 of these!



Sophia the Sophisticated

Sophia Made: Butterbeer Cupcakes
Comments: Sophia took two of my cooking classes last year — we had so much fun! She says, “I made the Butterbeer cupcakes. They were awesome! I used some techniques that I learned in your class when I made them, so that was great! They tasted a lot like cream soda and butterscotch (surprise!) I had so much fun! I don’t think I would have been able to make them as well if it hadn’t been for your cooking class…so thanks again.” Aww, what a sweet thing to say. Those kids were naturals in the kitchen, though!




I love butterscotch, and these cute cupcakes make me want to drive my broom straight to Harry Potter world in Florida, licking my fingers all the way.




Diana the Daring

Diana Made: Chocolate-Covered Banana Cupcakes
Comments: “I’m sending you my creation, a Chocolate-Covered Banana Cupcake. I was inspired by our trip to King’s Island (an amusement park in Cincinnati, Ohio) this summer. This was a fun challenge. Thanks for putting it together.”



These are so gorgeous, and I love that they’re a play off such a classic dessert.




Annie the Artistic

Annie Made: Red Velvet Cupcakes with Chocolate Monograms
Comments: “I love reading your blog for inspiration! Here’s a link to my red velvet cupcake with monograms recipe. It was quite a disaster the first two times — the recipe I had didn’t specify to add the vinegar and baking soda together before putting them in the mixture and, as I’m sure you know, red velvet cupcakes are a little tricky! Anyways, it was an overall success and the knitting ladies loved it.” Way to try, try, try again, Annie! (see more on her blog)



The monograms make these red velvet cupcakes unique and special.



Sarah the Sensational

Sarah Made: Champagne Cupcakes with Strawberry Puree Filling and Strawberry Buttercream
Comments: “I modified this Paula Deen recipe because my husband is crazy and doesn’t like peaches. I made a strawberry version.”



I love all things strawberry, and these cupcakes look like heaven. Look at the cute frosting squiggles!




Susan the Sweet

Susan Made: Blackberry Merlot Cupcakes
Comments: “This is my Blackberry Merlot Cupcake!
It’s a dark chocolate cupcake with blackberry preserve filling and a country buttercream made with a fresh blackberry & Merlot reduction. I came up with it when my niece was trying to decide which vice — chocolate, cake, or wine — to partake in. I decided to come up with a way for her to have all three at once!”
(see more on her website)




These sound so decadent and delicious — what a way to “have your cake and eat it too!




Erin the Elegant

Erin Made: Boston Creme Pie Cupcakes
Comments: “I couldn’t help but join in the fun and bake a cupcake! I’m an avid reader of your site and am always inspired to bake after looking at the delicious food you’ve made. Thanks for the opportunity to create something new! I baked a yummy Boston Creme Pie Cupcake with vanilla cake, vanilla cream filling, and dark chocolate ganache topping. To really make the cupcake shine, I added macaroon coconut as a garnish on top of the ganache.” (see more on her blog)




These came out so cute, and I love the addition of coconut! This is the perfect way to eat Boston creme pie — in adorable single portions.




Cathy and Kevin the Courageous

Erin Made: Bananas Foster Cupcakes
Comments: “We made Bananas Foster cupcakes! We used a banana cake recipe, caramel filling, and a cinnamon-madagascar bourbon vanilla bean cream cheese frosting (long enough for you?) topped with vanilla wafer crumbs and butterscotch caramel sauce. These babies were to die for!! (Not for the faint of heart-if you don’t like rich banana-y goodness these are not for you!) Thanks for a great challenge to make us come up with these goodies; we will be making these again.” (see more on their blog)




All I can say is oh my goodness, yum. I need to try these!


As always, I’ve been totally inspired by you — thank you for plunging in and taking the cupcake challenge! If you didn’t get to join in this time around, don’t worry — there are always more WBB challenges coming up to build your kitchen confidence.

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Gooey S’mores Bars

GUESS WHAT I JUST BOUGHT. Can you guess?! First, let me tell you a story. Maybe I’ll drop some hints here and there . . .

I got my first camera in high school. It was a Polaroid I-Zone, and I had no idea how cool it was. It took grainy, gorgeous photos full of unintentional auras and printed them instantly on adhesive-backed paper. You’ll have to forgive my poetic heart for the example below — a triptych (am I allowed to call it that?) of a goose that had been hit by a car. The middle frame is my hand full of its oversaturated feathers. Morbid, I know, but isn’t it pretty?

My next camera was a little Kodak film camera. I carried it everywhere with me, hoping to capture some gritty reality. I took photos of the outcast crowd at my high school (I wasn’t cool enough to fit in, even with them), of my feet, of neon lights. I filled rolls of film and convinced my parents to get them developed only to find, again and again, that my photos weren’t this or this or this. They were flat snapshots.

I gave up.

Fast forward to food blogging. I’m a baker and I’m a writer, so food blogging suits me nicely. But, I told everyone who asked, I am not a photographer.

Photography was the red-headed stepchild (what’s so bad about one of those, anyway?) of Willow Bird Baking. It was an ill-behaved upstart of a stepchild at that — one that I often had to drag along behind me as it kicked its tiny mismatched-stocking feet.

Since WBB’s inception in June 2009, I’ve used a Canon PowerShot A540 to shoot all of my photos. That faithful little point-and-shoot was powerful, don’t get me wrong, but the fiddling that went in to my hours-long photo shoots was extremely stressful. I shot in manual mode and it went something like this:

Make food for hours. Style food. Wait until the perfect time of day. Go out onto the balcony to freeze and/or sweat. Set up my camera on its tripod. Set all camera settings: manual mode, white balance, macro mode, exposure time, self-timer. Hold up white boards to bounce light in crazy directions. Change all settings repeatedly, taking photos with varying exposures, camera angles, and lighting setups. Run into the apartment to upload the photos every 50 or so snaps to see if I’m on the right track, usually to find that ALL of the photos were out of focus. Hours and hundreds of photos later, drag myself inside and clean up. Go through the hundreds of photos looking for the 6 or 7 acceptable ones. Edit them. Write my post.

Even while I loved my camera (so much so that I decided I’d stick with Canon whenever I upgraded), it’s not hard to see why photography stressed me out. There was a teensy (and sometimes nonexistent) yield for all the sweat I put into it.

When Willow Bird Baking was featured recently in the Davidson Journal, Meg Kimmel was kind enough to mention my “burgeoning skills as a food photographer.” They even printed my photo of my Coffee Cookie Dough Fudge Cheesecake for good measure. But oh, did I have a love-hate relationship with photography.

That is, until now.

Have you guessed yet? I think I set you up pretty well, and hopefully the photos were helpful hints. I bought a new camera!

A Canon Rebel T2i with a 50mm f/1.4 lens, to be exact. By no means did the camera make me an instant photographer extraordinaire, but when I styled and photographed these Gooey S’mores Bars (inside! with air conditioning!), I marveled at how fun and exciting and creative it felt!

I wasn’t doing acrobatics to get an acceptable shot in 100 degree heat — the camera was doing more than its fair share of work! I wasn’t forcing the photos — I was making artistic decisions! I wasn’t fretting and uploading a dozen times to check my shots — I was contentedly fiddling with various camera settings and enjoying the results! For the first time in years, I think I’ve almost recaptured the joy of snapping a photo with that old Polaroid I-Zone and sticking it in my poetry notebook surrounded by walls of messy handwriting.

. . . Almost.

P.S. Will you look at the number of exclamation points in that last paragraph? I must be in love.

P.S. 2 There’s just over a week left in the Willow Bird Baking Cupcake Challenge! Bake your creation and email photos to juruble ‘at’ gmail.com by Wednesday, September 7, 2011. I’ll feature your cupcake on WBB! Find more details and some cupcake inspiration here.

Gooey S’mores Bars



Recipe by: Adapted from Lovin’ From the Oven
Yield: 9-12 bars depending on your appetite

These Gooey S’mores Bars were more than worthy of being the first dish snapped by my new camera. They combine a chewy, graham cracker-flavored base with melty marshmallow creme and a hearty dose of chocolate. I heated each bar in the microwave for 25 seconds and then used a kitchen torch to toast the sides before serving, resulting in the perfect s’more flavor. Don’t worry if you don’t have the torch, though — they’d be delicious without.

Ingredients:
1/2 cup butter, room temperature
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup graham cracker crumbs
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 king-sized milk chocolate bars (e.g. Hershey’s)
1 1/2 cups marshmallow creme/fluff

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease an 8-inch square baking pan and create a foil sling: tear off 4, 16-inch long pieces of aluminum foil and fold them in half. Situate two side-by-side in the pan, covering the bottom of the pan to the edge (they will overlap). Situate the other two strips in the same manner, but perpendicular to the first. The overhanging foil of the sling will make it easy to remove the bars from the pan after baking and cooling. Grease the foil as well.

Cream the butter and sugar together in a large bowl until fluffy and pale yellow. Beat in the egg and vanilla. In a small, separate bowl, whisk together the flour, graham cracker crumbs, baking powder and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture and mix until just combined. Divide the dough roughly in half.

Press half of the dough (using clean fingers is easiest) into the pan. Place the chocolate bars side by side (if they fit; if not, break them and arrange) over the dough such that you have a full single layer of chocolate (about 1/4 inch thick). Glop on marshmallow creme and use a greased offset spatula to spread it evenly across the chocolate. Place the remaining dough on top (to do so, take a small handful at a time and flatten it into a “shingle,” laying these side by side over the top). Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until lightly browned. Let cool completely in pan before gently using the overhang of the foil sling to lift the bars out of the pan and place them on a cutting board to slice.

When ready to serve, heat each bar in the microwave for about 25-30 seconds and use a kitchen torch to lightly “toast” the exposed marshmallow (optional). Enjoy!

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