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Easy Apple Puff Pastry Tarts with Almond Whipped Cream (Voting Now Open in Project Food Blog!)

Willow Bird Baking is a contestant in Project Food Blog, a contest comprised of a series of 10 challenges to find the next food blog star. Voting for Challenge #7 is now open! I would be SO grateful if you’d consider voting for me in this round! Just sign in to your Foodbuzz account (or register if you don’t already have one). Then go to my cheesecake video entry here and vote by clicking the heart next to the words “Vote for this Entry.” I appreciate your support so much!

I just arrived in Orlando after 9 hours in a car (thankfully, I was accompanied by a fun coworker, Kyle). I’m in town to give a presentation at the National Council of Teachers of English convention, but after that road trip, I’m not even sure I can still speak English, much less teach others how to teach it.

I kind of expect the next few days to be a blur. Wayyy too much Coke Zero, wayyy too much work done this week, and wayyy too much bustling around this morning means that I’m currently feeling crumpled and headachy.

Kyle and I spent the last 45 minutes of the trip searching for food in a starvation-induced trance. We’d already ruled out Steak ‘n Shake, but every exit had one (and almost nothing else), as if taunting us. Lots of hotels, lots of outlet malls, lots of big-neon-lit-Orlandoy places — but no normal, honest-to-goodness FOOD. Lulled by hunger delirium and the soporific British accent of Kyle’s GPS, I had almost lost touch with reality when we finally spotted a Chick-fil-a. We definitely needed one of those easy buttons you see on TV. Easy dinner for people with currently confuzzled brains, please!

Well, an easy dinner didn’t happen, but here’s an “easy button” for dessert, at least. These apple puff pastry tarts are truly painless in addition to being warm and comforting. I served these treats at my parents’ anniversary dinner. Before beginning dinner prep, I made sure my puff pastry was thawed, cut into squares, and ready to go. After dinner, the family retired to the living room to relax while I mixed my apples and spices and baked up the tarts. Just before serving, we topped each tart with almond whipped cream, which turned out to be my favorite component.

The entire dessert was fancy-looking enough for company, but easy enough for any busy weeknight (easier, obviously, than my food quest with Kyle).

Okay, enough bleary-eyed blogging. Before I say anything too silly, I’m signing off and heading to bed (in the condo bedroom that’s decorated entirely in Disney characters — no confusion about what city I’m in!)

Make some tarts, y’all!

Easy Apple Puff Pastry Tarts with Almond Whipped Cream

Recipe by: Pioneer Woman
Yields: about 6 individual tarts

Tart Ingredients:
homemade or store-bought puff pastry sheets, thawed and cut into rectangles
4 apples, cored and sliced but not peeled
1 cup brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
optional spices to taste: cinnamon, nutmeg, etc.

Almond Whipped Cream Ingredients:
2 cups heavy whipping cream
5-6 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar (to taste)
1 teaspoon almond extract

Preheat your oven to 415 degrees. Put the puff pastry rectangles on a greased baking pan (with edges, so the juices don’t run down and caramelize on your oven, or on your mom’s freshly cleaned oven . . . not that I’m speaking from experience, or anything. Combine apple slices, sugar, salt, and any spices you’re using in a bowl and allow them to sit for a few minutes. Then arrange the apple slices on the puff pastry in a straight line, overlapping.

Bake 18 – 20 minutes, or until pastry is puffy and golden brown. While pastry is baking, whip together cream, sugar, and almond extract in a medium bowl to soft peaks. Place this in the fridge until you’re ready to use it.

Remove pastries from the oven and immediately serve with a dollop of cold almond whipped cream (allow diners to place this on their own tarts to ensure it doesn’t melt before it gets to them!)

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Apple, Brie, and Toasted Pecan Panini (& Voting Now Open in Project Food Blog Round 4!)

Willow Bird Baking is a contestant in Project Food Blog, a contest comprised of a series of 10 challenges to find the next food blog star. Voting for Challenge #4 is now open! To vote for my Croissant Tutorial to win this round, register for a Foodbuzz account. Once you’re registered, sign in and go to my Croissant Tutorial entry here. To vote, click the heart next to the words “Vote for this Entry.” I am so grateful for your support!

A few of years ago, back when I was still working in a developmental neuroscience lab (sounds fancy, but you can think of it as “playing with tadpole neurons”), I was given a travel stipend to head to San Diego for a conference. To put this trip in perspective for those of you who are jet-setters, I had never in my life been west of Missouri. Even that 12-hour Missouri trip had always been taken by car; I had only been on a plane once when I was 8 years old. I was also 22 years old and poor, so the last thing I expected was to suddenly be able to fly off to beautiful California for a visit.

Apart from being terrified of the plane, I was over the moon about traveling 2,500 miles away from everything familiar. I traced the distance on maps and looked through photos of the city, trying to get a grasp on the journey I was about to embark upon. My awesome sister, Sarah, volunteered to fly out and show me around, since she loves the city.

Every part of that trip was incredible: walking into the raspberry scented hotel lobby each night and seeing the lights of downtown all around my window, walking past flowers that seemed overwhelmed by their own huge blooms, eating pastries above the surf in La Jolla — and the HILLS! Hills like I’d never seen, rolling all around with houses creeping stealthily up their sides and staring off into the Pacific Ocean.

My sister rented a convertible and even though it was November, we drove with the top down to Coronado Island. We stopped into a little restaurant, Cafe 1134, for lunch. We weren’t expecting much, but ordered some panini. As we each took our first bites, our eyes met, and we realized we had just walked into something special. These were no ordinary panini. These were extraordinary panini: warm, melty, amazing! Even after a fancy seafood dinner, pasta in Little Italy, breakfast by the shore, and an Indian feast in La Jolla, we both still think of those panini as one of the best meals we ate in San Diego.

They’re just sandwiches, right? Wrong! They can be transcendental.

What perfect, amazing timing for this post. I’m so excited to share with you that I’m about to embark upon my second journey to the West Coast. I’ve just been chosen as the Nature’s Pride Bread Ambassador and awarded a trip to San Francisco.

How fitting is it that, just as I’ve discovered I’ll be returning to California, I’ve also found another transcendental panini — this time from my own kitchen, with my own homemade croissants! My sister Sarah isn’t going to believe me when I say that these are as good (if not better) than the panini at Cafe 1134, but perhaps I’ll make her a believer with a bite!

Everything about this panini is incredible. The buttery, fresh croissants embrace crisp apples, creamy brie, toasted pecans, bright rosemary, and a drizzle of sweet honey. The flavors melt and meld into a gorgeous medley of sweet and savory. I swooned. I devoured. I wished I hadn’t frozen the rest of the croissants.

Have you made your croissants yet? I’ll let you in on a little secret: I tried “handmade” croissants from a Charlotte bakery, and scout’s honor, homemade was about a billion times better. That being said, making these panini is an urgent matter. Even if you have to pick up some croissants from your local bakery to try this, you should do so as soon as possible!

What are your special travel memories? What food reminds you of your trip?

Apple, Brie, and Toasted Pecan Panini

Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking
Yield: 3 panini

3 big croissants (preferably homemade!)
1 large apple (I use Gala), cored and sliced relatively thin
2 teaspoons chopped rosemary
1 8-ounce round of brie, sliced
1/2 cup pecans, chopped
honey for drizzling

Toast the pecans: Place nuts in a dry skillet over medium-high heat and stir constantly. Once they begin to toast (when you start to smell them), shake pan to ensure all sides of the nuts are toasted evenly and none of them burn. Pour out onto a plate to cool while you assemble the sandwiches.

Preheat panini press to medium and spray with cooking spray. Slice croissants open and layer brie slices, apple slices, a small handful of nuts, a generous pinch of the chopped rosemary, and one more slice of brie on top. Drizzle with honey and replace the top of the croissant. Grill on panini press for a few minutes, checking periodically, until cheese is starting to melt and croissant is toasted. I finish mine in the microwave for about 15 seconds to get the cheesy nice and melty. Serve warm.

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Assorted Donut Muffins and Project Food Blog: Vote Now!

Willow Bird Baking is a contestant in Project Food Blog, a contest comprised of a series of challenges to find the next food blog star. If you missed it, my first challenge post explains why I blog, and what makes WBB special. Voting for Challenge #1 is now open! To vote, register for a Foodbuzz account. Once you’re registered, sign in and go here. To vote, click the heart next to the words “Vote for this Entry.” I am so grateful for your support!

At this point, just about all of us have either made Donut Muffins, eaten Donut Muffins from a generous friend, bookmarked a recipe for Donut Muffins, drooled over photos of Donut Muffins, or cursed the day Donut Muffins were invented as we kicked our scales across the bathroom.

I was in the “bookmarked the recipe” category for way too long. Every time I’d see another Donut Muffin post pop up in my Google Reader, I’d admonish myself for not having made them yet. They’re billed as warm, pluffy cake-donut-like muffins that have soaked up butter before being coated in cinnamon and sugar. It’s basically criminal that I hadn’t made them until this past weekend. But don’t worry — I made up for lost time.

What’s the fun of donuts? The taste, definitely — but also the puff of powdered sugar, the jam centers, the colorful sprinkles, the melty chocolate, the sticky glaze. A major component of what makes donuts so fun is the assortment. Even though I have a favorite donut, I always buy a few kinds so that I can pick through the box excitedly, tasting different combinations and flavors. So why make just one sort of Donut Muffin? Especially when it’s so easy to make a few kinds?

In my Donut Muffin assortment: Caramel Apple Donut Muffins, Jam-Filled Powdered Sugar Donut Muffins, and of course, Chocolate Sprinkle Donut Muffins.

You start out by making the batter like normal, but then separate a third of it to add diced apples to. After baking all the muffins up, the apple donut muffins get coated in cinnamon, sugar, and a caramel glaze. Another 1/3 of the batch gets coated with powdered sugar and filled with raspberry jam. The final 1/3 gets a bath in melted chocolate and some sprinkles. I bought a box of bakery cookies just to have a cute little “donut box” to put them in (no clue what I’m going to do with those cookies)!

The Chocolate Sprinkle Donut Muffins were good — but next time I’ll fill them with whipped cream or pastry cream for more donuttiness (that is a Merriam-Webster-certified real word, y’all. Okay, it’s not. Not even close). The Jam-Filled Powdered Sugar Donut Muffins were delicious little jammy bites. But the Caramel Apple Donut Muffins . . . they were OUT OF THIS WORLD. Like, OUT OF THIS GALAXY. Like, OH MY GOODNESS. My roommate had to sit down when she took her first bite, and she insists they’re the best thing I’ve ever made. Are you dicing apples yet? Good.

When they’re warmed up slightly, full of apply, buttery, cinnamon-sugary goodness, and coated with the buttery caramel glaze, these fluffy Caramel Apple Donut Muffins are analogous to the donuts you’d drive across town for. Sure, you want the assortment — and I ate plenty of the other two tasty flavors — but these are the ones you’d keep coming back for.

By the way, are you afraid of caramel? That’s probably because you’ve been using recipes with directions that say things like “look for an amber color,” or, even better, a “dark amber color.” I don’t know about you, but I think “amber” is pretty subjective. What gives? We stopped using terms like “low oven” and “slow oven” in recipes long ago in favor of fancy little things called oven temperatures. It’s time we switched over our sugar recipes to include temperatures as well. Caramel is nowhere near as frightening with a candy thermometer, y’all. You’ll be glad to see I’ve provided temperatures for your caramel sauce below, since I’m not feeling prehistoric.

What’s your favorite kind of donut? I think mine changed with my first bite o’ Donut Muffins! The recipe below shows you how to make all 3 kinds at once, but feel free to make just one sort if you’re feeling decisive.

Assorted Donut Muffins

Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking, adapted from the base recipe by Buns In My Oven. Caramel sauce by Martha Stewart.
Yield: 36 mini-muffins or 18 regular muffins

Batter Ingredients:
3/4 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
2 tsp baking power
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup milk (low fat is fine)
1 tsp vanilla extract

Extras for Chocolate Sprinkle Donut Muffins:
melted chocolate
whipped cream (if desired, for filling)

Extras for Caramel Apple Donut Muffins:
2 tablespoons melted butter, for dipping
1/4 cup sugar mixed with 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 apple, peeled and diced (I used a Gala apple)
caramel sauce (recipe below)

Extras for Jam-Filled Powdered Sugar Donut Muffins:
raspberry jam (or flavor of your choice)
about 3/4 cup powdered sugar, sifted
melted butter leftover from Caramel Apple Donut Muffins

Prepare two mini-muffin pans by spraying with cooking spray. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Beat sugar and egg together in a large bowl until fluffy. In a smaller bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, salt, and nutmeg. Pour dry ingredients into wet ingredients and stir until combined. Add vegetable oil, milk, and vanilla extract and mix. Separate 1/3 of mixture into separate bowl and fold in diced apples (these will be the Caramel Apple Donut Muffins). Pour all batter into prepared muffin tins, filling each about 3/4 full. Bake for 13-15 minutes until tester comes out clean.

Let cool in the pan for a few minutes before removing onto a cooling rack (if muffins are extremely delicate and difficult to remove, you may need to bake them a minute longer — mine weren’t quite done enough. On the cooling rack, separate the donut muffins into 3 batches: the apple muffins, 1/2 of the plain muffins, and the other half of the plain muffins. These will be your three types of donuts.

For the Caramel Apple Donut Muffins: Melt the butter in the microwave and mix the cinnamon and sugar in a separate bowl. When the muffins are cool enough to handle, dunk the tops into the melted butter and then into the cinnamon-sugar mixture. Let dry/cool on cooling rack as you prepare caramel sauce (as directed in recipe below). Store caramel in fridge and drizzle on heated Apple Muffins right before serving.

For the Chocolate Donut muffins: When the muffins are cool enough to handle, dunk the tops into the melted chocolate. Add colorful sprinkles. You could fill these with pastry cream or whipped cream using a narrow pastry tip inserted into the bottom of the muffin if you wanted a cream-filled donut muffin.

For the Jam-Filled Powdered Sugar Donut Muffins: When the muffins are cool enough to handle, dunk the tops into the leftover melted butter and then into sifted powdered sugar. When donuts are cool, fill them with raspberry jam using a small pastry tip jabbed into the bottom of the muffin. Be careful not to overfill and burst your muffin (that should definitely be a more popular idiom than ‘burst your bubble,’ don’t you agree?) You may have to re-powder tops before serving if you keep these overnight, since some of the powdered sugar dissolves.

NOTE: Store all your muffins in an airtight container in the fridge.

Caramel Sauce Ingredients:
3/4 cups sugar
1/8 cup water
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/8 cup creme fraiche or sour cream
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Pinch of coarse salt

NOTE: This makes more caramel than you need, but I don’t reduce the recipe because it would make it difficult to use a candy thermometer, a tool that I believe is absolutely crucial in preparing caramel. I know you can find something else to spoon caramel sauce over — and this is truly delectable caramel.

Prepare a bowl set in an ice-water bath. Place sugar and water in a saucepan and heat over medium-high heat until it boils and the sugar is dissolved. Throughout this process, use a wet pastry brush to wash down the sides of your saucepan often to prevent crystal formation. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until the mixture reaches 345 degrees on a candy thermometer (begin swirling gently when you see hints of amber, so the sugar cooks evenly), about 5-7 minutes. Immediately remove from the heat and add cream carefully (the mixture will bubble up) while whisking constantly. Return mixture to medium heat until it boils and sugar melts.

Remove from heat, and pour into the bowl set in your ice-water bath. Let the caramel cool, whisking often, for 10 minutes before whisking in creme fraiche, vanilla, and salt. Cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours before serving over Caramel Apple Donut Muffins. Can store in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.

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