Tag Archives: pumpkin

A Dozen Pumpkin Recipes from Willow Bird Baking

My pumpkin craze is far from over, y’all. Just a fair warning.

The pumpkin shortage over the past two seasons must have really scarred me, because it seems like every time I pass a display I pick up a couple more cans. I don’t mind; my pumpkin stash has come in handy plenty o’ times. Here are a few of my favorite pumpkin recipes, hand-picked to be perfect for your Thanksgiving meal. Enjoy!

1. Jack O’ Lantern Whoopie Pies
2. Pumpkin Spice Pull Apart Bread with Butter Rum Glaze
3. One-Skillet Gooey Pumpkin Cookie Cake

4. Mini Pumpkin Pies
5. Pumpkin Cheesecake Stuffed Snickerdoodles
6. Pumpkin Streusel Swirled Cream Cheese Pound Cake

7. Pumpkin Cheesecake Bread Pudding
8. Vegan Pumpkin Nut Bread
9. Easy Sopapilla Pumpkin Cheesecake Bars

10. Chocolate Pumpkin Truffles
11. Pumpkin Pecan Streusel Breakfast Braid
12. Browned Butter Pumpkin Croquemcake with White Chocolate Chai Mousse

…and you guys know there’s more where that came from. Pumpkin and I are BFFs.

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Pumpkin Streusel Swirled Cream Cheese Pound Cake

I recently attended the Foodbuzz Blogger Festival in San Francisco, California, 2,700 miles away from my home. Traveling alone is always a meaningful, reflective experience for me, and over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be sharing vignettes that I hope are meaningful to you, as well.

. . .

I’ve started to write this story countless times. Sometimes you get so tangled up in words that they suddenly seem more like a net than a lubricant, more like a shroud than a lamp.

It’s when the ideas are most important that the words get the stickiest. Personally, I find that I have to scrap those sticky words entirely — sometimes repeatedly — to set myself free and finally get the tale told. So. Here’s another try…

“Proposition?”

It was the first word the man next to me on the bus (the correct bus, thankfully) had uttered, and I didn’t understand what he meant. I looked at him quizzically. He repeated himself, pronouncing the word slightly wrong: “Proposition?”

I noticed he was pointing to something and looked down at the book in his lap. His finger was settled on — what else? — the word “proposition.” I finally put the pieces together. “Oh! Yes, that’s ‘proposition,'” I answered, pronouncing the word correctly. He thanked me and went back to his book with a satisfied nod.

I forget how the conversation started up again, but eventually we were chatting. He introduced himself as Vincent. I told him I was a food blogger and teacher from Charlotte. He revealed that he had family in Winston-Salem but had lived in California for years. Finally, the pleasant conversation ambled back to his book. “What are you reading?” I asked. It seemed like a totally innocent question.

Rather than answering aloud, he turned his book over so I could see the cover. It was 12 Steps and 12 Traditions, an Alcoholics Anonymous book.  I immediately stuck my foot in my mouth wondering if I’d embarrassed him, but he seemed unfazed by the interaction.  I was touched — both that he was diligently reading this book on the bus and that he was willing to share it with me.

But I was also a little self-conscious. How should I respond to the information he’d just shared with his simple gesture? Wouldn’t anything I had to say sound patronizing? After all, while he seemed to have had plenty of hard knocks, I was giving off the air of an easy life. I was wearing a blue Parisian scarf and a camel trench coat, holding a huge camera case, and I’d just flown across the country for a vacation of sorts.

He couldn’t know that the scarf was a gift, the coat a hand-me-down, and the plane ticket a contest prize. Nor did it really matter. I just looked floofy. Floofy in that wealthy lapdog sort of way. And compared to the sort of obstacles he was facing, my life was pretty floofy.

Floofy or not, I decided there was nothing to do except respond sincerely. Quietly, I said, “That’s awesome, Vincent. I really admire that you’re doing that.” He flashed a big smile and I inwardly sighed with relief.

Up until now our chat had been lighthearted, but we’d just turned a corner into SeriousLand (a little known suburb of San Francisco, apparently). Before long we were talking about his recovery (he was on his way to see his sponsor at that moment), his life in San Francisco, and about Jesus. You know, the usual.

I was nervous about missing my stop, but Vincent was getting off at the corner of Lombard too. “The view of the bay is beautiful here,” he said as we alighted from the bus. “You should try to walk around if you get a chance.” He took a moment to direct me toward my next bus stop before shaking my hand and rounding the corner toward his sponsor.

I met a lot of people over the course of my San Francisco trip — even some pretty fancy bloggers! — and I enjoyed them all for different reasons. I did some schmoozing, some eating, some shopping (Dear H&M, please come to Charlotte. Thanks.) But as I sit here in Charlotte with little Byrd snarfling into her supper bowl beside me, Vincent is the one who comes to mind. In a weekend full of people with their game faces on — me included — Vincent was the one who was sacrificially genuine. With a stranger, at that.

I gave him a Willow Bird Baking card. I hope he gets a chance to happen by sometime, and I hope he recognizes himself through the pseudonym I’ve given him. Vincent, if you ever read this: Thank you for a conversation I’ll have tucked in my heart for the rest of my days. Godspeed.

. . .

In honor of a special guy, here’s a special pound cake.

But listen, THIS AIN’T YOUR GRANDMAMA’S POUND CAKE.

Okay, it kind of is, actually. It’s Southern Living’s Cream Cheese Pound Cake and it’s been a staple in many family recipe boxes for decades. But first off, GRANDMAMA DON’T PLAY. She knows exactly what she’s doing in the kitchen, thankyouverymuch.

Second off, this pound cake has a new twist; namely, pumpkin-cinnamon-pecan-streusel-awesomeness swirled throughout the cake. Add the maple brown sugar glaze and some toasted nuts on top and you have the perfect autumn dessert. It’s a handsome one, at that, so consider this recipe for your holiday table.

Have you one of these unexpected, significant conversations?

Pumpkin Streusel Swirled Cream Cheese Pound Cake



Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking, inspired by Southern Living
Yield: 12 servings

This dessert was made for autumn! A ribbon of pumpkin custard and cinnamon pecan streusel winds through this luxurious, rich cream cheese pound cake. It’s topped with maple brown sugar glaze, toasted pecans, and a dusting of cinnamon. The finished product is pretty as can be — and so delicious!

Cream Cheese Pound Cake Ingredients:
1 1/2 cups butter, softened
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
3 cups sugar
6 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups flour
1/8 teaspoon salt

Pumpkin Pie Filling Ingredients:*
6 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/8 cup sugar
1/2 cup pumpkin puree
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ginger
1/8 teaspoon allspice
*This makes a little more filling than you need, but I used most of it and baked the small amount I had leftover in a greased ramekin for 15-20 minutes — instant pumpkin custard!)

Pecan Streusel Ingredients:
1/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoon cold butter
1 cup chopped pecans
1/2 cup cinnamon chips (optional — you can find these seasonally at some grocery stores or online from King Arthur’s Flour)

Maple Brown Sugar Glaze Ingredients:
2 tablespoon butter
4 tablespoons milk
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons real maple syrup
pinch salt
1 1/2 – 2 cup powdered sugar (I ended up using just 1 1/2)
cinnamon for sprinkling

Directions:
Toast pecans: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spread pecans out on a baking sheet, and bake for 4-6 minutes or until fragrant, stirring and flipping nuts once in the middle. Spread the nuts out on a plate to cool. Leave the oven on for the cake.

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 cake.

Make the streusel: 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 the cinnamon chips (if you’re using them) and 1/2 cup of the cooled toasted pecans (if they haven’t completely cooled, stick ’em in the fridge for a bit first — you don’t want to mix warm nuts into this and melt your butter, since it should stay cold). Save the rest of your nuts for decorating the finished cake. Set the streusel aside.

Make the pound cake: Beat the butter and cream cheese on medium speed for about 2 minutes or until it’s creamy. Gradually add sugar and beat 5-7 minutes until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating only until yellow disappears after each one. Stir in the vanilla.

Whisk the flour and salt together in a bowl and add to creamed mixture gradually, beating on low speed after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Pour/dollop 1/3 of the batter into greased and floured 10-inch tube pan and use a spatula to smooth it right up against the sides of the pan and level it.

Dump your streusel into your pumpkin pie mixture and fold it together a few times to loosely mix — you’re not trying to combine them completely. Dollop big spoonfuls of this pumpkin mixture on the batter in your tube pan and swirl with a wooden skewer or table knife. Top this layer with another third of the batter and add another pumpkin layer (swirling again). Top with the final third of the batter. Fill a 2-cup ovenproof measuring cup with water and place in oven with cake (this keeps it moist!).

Bake the cake at 350 degrees for 1 hour 30 minutes to 1 hour 55 minutes (the original recipe said 1 hour and 10 minutes, but this was way too short for me. Nevertheless, you should start checking early and often just in case. This is a good practice, also, because you may have to cover the top with foil if it’s getting too brown). To test for doneness, insert a wooden skewer in a few different areas of the cake and pull it out. You want it to come out with just a few moist crumbs (no liquid batter, but not completely clean either).

Let the cake cool on wire rack for 10 minutes before running a knife around the edge of the pan. Remove the cake from the pan by topping the pan with a plate and carefully inverting it. Then invert the cake again onto another plate so that it’s right-side up. Let cool completely (at least 1 hour).

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, whisking until the brown sugar melts. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the powdered sugar, starting with 1 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 cooled cake. Sprinkle the cake with toasted pecans immediately (the glaze sets quickly) and dust with cinnamon. Serve immediately. Refrigerate leftovers in an airtight container and microwave for about 20 seconds to serve.

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One-Skillet Gooey Pumpkin Cookie Cake

Pale strands of my hair tangled into the mess of dusky flowers in my lap. Mike’s car sliced quietly through the lukewarm air of the countryside until a gravel drive slid into view. We turned into it with a crunch, parked, and began the arduous process of shuttling picnic supplies down a rocky path.

Some time later we sat alone by a still pond, the flowers now perched on a stack of books beside us. We’d just finished eating an elaborate lunch on my childhood patchwork quilt. The ground was hard and uneven — it always seemed so soft in movies — but at one point I lay down, the silk of my slip dress cool in the autumn breeze, and watched the highest leaves fluttering against the sky. Then I looked back to Mike’s ruddy, bespectacled face and smiled.

Sometimes you only realize how special a moment is once it’s passed, but every now and then, you get the gift of realizing in the moment itself. This was one of those times.

I’d never been on a legitimate blanket-on-the-ground picnic before, and living in different cities, Mike and I rarely got to just sit and enjoy each other’s company. Now here we were, grinning at each other, stuffed like turkeys in the middle of the woods and post-lunch euphoria. The streamer of hearts I’d hung from the trees around us whispered in the wind. The whole afternoon spread out before us.

That was last fall. In the dark days that followed, I remembered that picnic as a bright bit of joy to hold onto.

I love those unexpected moments that settle into your heart as significant — the ones that nestle like bookmarks into the very best folds of time. I remember so many of them:

Sitting by a fire in Gatlinburg with Mike, drinking hot chocolate in mugs we’d just bought from a Walgreens around the corner.

Dancing with a stranger on the sidewalk one night in San Francisco.

Pausing with Mike on the stairwell of my apartment building to watch the sunset.

Looking down at the fluffy mop in my lap while driving home from Carolina Poodle Rescue and realizing that Byrd was truly mine.

Embracing my new friend, 7-year-old Zoe, when she ran up to hug me after we’d been baptized together one Sunday morning.

Walking alone across the Georgia Tech campus one summer night in the middle of my teacher training, the golden skyline glowing above me.

Getting the phone call where my dad revealed that after years of dangerous treatments, he was cancer-free.

Running barefoot through the grass in La Jolla one warm night with my sister, Sarah, for no reason at all.

Sitting in traffic on i-85 to Raleigh with the sun illuminating the gorgeous fall leaves and little Byrd poking her nose out the open window.

And, most recently, sitting with Mike and eating gooey pumpkin cookie cake straight out of my cast iron skillet. I’d just pulled the cake from the oven and taken dozens of photos, and with my camera still propped up beside me, we dug in. No plates needed — just forks and some ice cream. There’s just nothing like the casual, sweet act of devouring forkfuls of a shared dessert without even an ounce of fuss.

And this cake! I made it twice to fiddle with proportions a bit. The first version (pictured throughout this post) was great, but the second version (see pictures below) was insane: a moist, gooey, comforting cake boasting surprise bites of caramel and toasted pecans.

Not only that, but you can make this cake in about half an hour with one skillet! Even if you choose to toast up some pecans and make some streusel to go with it (which I recommend!), you’ll have minimal dishes to wash. Especially if you skip the plates.


A slice of the final cake.

You have to make this thing as soon as possible. Make it tonight! Throw it together and eat it on the couch with someone sweet. Or take it to your Halloween parties. Or eat the entire thing alone while watching old episodes of Hoarders. No judgments. It’ll be amazing no matter what.

And in the meantime, share a beautiful moment that stands out in your memory.

One-Skillet Gooey Pumpkin Cookie Cake



Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking, inspired by Sophistimom and Food Network
Yield: about 8 servings

This melt-in-your-mouth pumpkin spice cake is warm, moist, and delicious. Gooey caramel and toasted pecans amp up the “mmm” factor. And to say it’s easy is an understatement — you can make it in one skillet in about 35 minutes! This is the perfect recipe to whip up on a whim and eat in your PJs on the couch. Devour it straight from the skillet with a pile of ice cream. (P.S. If you don’t care about the number of pots and pans and want to go a little crazy, cut down the sugar a little and try the cake with this amazing caramel sauce.)

Ingredients:
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
1/4 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 cup pureed pumpkin
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 eggs
2 1/8 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon allspice
some dulce de leche or 10-15 caramels
1/2 cup toasted pecans (optional, see note in directions)

Directions:
Note: The first time I made this cookie cake, I mixed in 1/2 cup of chopped pecans that I’d toasted (on a sheet pan at 350 degrees F for about 6 minutes or until fragrant, stirring a couple of times). The second time I made it, I mixed in this toasted pecan streusel — heavenly! These extra mix-ins will add a bowl and a sheet pan to your prep, but I highly recommend them.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. In a 10- or 12-inch cast iron skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Stir in the vegetable oil, sugars, and vanilla and remove from heat. Let this mixture cool until the pan is no longer hot (about 5 minutes) so you won’t scramble your eggs.

Add both eggs to the butter mixture, whisking them well to combine. Whisk in the pumpkin. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice (Note: it’s kind of lame to use another bowl for this, and according to Sophistimom, you should be able to just dump all your dry ingredients on top and whisk them in well, but I was too chicken to try. So I guess this is technically “One-Skillet, One-Bowl” cake if you do it my way. If you just dump them in, please let me know how it goes!)

Stir in the toasted pecans or streusel if you’re using them. Place dollops of dulce de leche or caramel candies around the surface of the batter. Bake your skillet cookie for 15-25* minutes, or until the edges are getting golden and the center is still soft (a toothpick inserted into the center should come out with some moist crumbs, but no liquid batter). Eat immediately (preferably straight out of the skillet!) with heaps of vanilla ice cream (or a fun caramel flavor).

*Depending on your skillet, this cooking time can really vary. I’d start checking at 15 minutes and then check every couple of minutes after that with toothpicks. Make sure to look for moist crumbs, not a clean toothpick. If you overbake, it might be dry!


Recipe before and after tweaking to warm, gooey perfection.

Need a closer look at the final product?


Gooey, caramelly, streuselly, pumpkiny, amazing.

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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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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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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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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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