Decadent Hot Chocolate Mix

I’d like to introduce you to my new favorite hot chocolate mix.

I’ve made hot chocolate or hot cocoa mix for the past several years as part of the gift boxes I like to send to friends and family. When I started, I would make hot cocoa mix that included powdered milk. Then I switched to this hot chocolate mix. The past two years, I’ve made Decadent Hot Chocolate mix from Smitten Kitchen.

Both this and my previous favorite are mixes that you combine with hot milk. I had problems with my previous recipe not fully blending into the milk at times. The last time or two I made it, I felt that it was a little too sweet at times (like drinking a candy bar, although I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that’s nice from time to time). This recipe uses a little less mix per cup of hot chocolate, which helps remedy that.

This recipe is a dark hot chocolate mix, so if you prefer milk hot chocolate, I suggest you try using that instead of regular semisweet or dark chocolate bars or chips. You can experiment with adding less mix per cup of milk to make it less chocolatey (although I certainly won’t do that!). I generally use chocolate chips when I make hot chocolate mix, so I don’t have to chop up chocolate. I always make hot chocolate mix with a food processor, as it pulverizes the ingredients the most finely, which is important in ensuring the chocolate dissolves well in the hot milk. If you don’t have a food processor, you can try grating chocolate bars for this instead.

This chocolate mix is very giftable. One batch yields about 1 3/4 cups, or 9 servings, and is a great size gift for a couple or family. I’ve also heard that spoonfuls of this mix are an excellent addition to coffee, so be sure you give plenty to your friends and family.

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Microwave Peanut Brittle

As I was preparing to do my holiday baking and cooking, King Arthur Flour posted a recipe for Microwave Peanut Brittle. The recipe sounded perfect. I love making candy to gift for the holidays because it ships well and stays good for a long time. However, although candy-making can deceptively simple – you boil sugar water to a given temperature, then add things – it can also be time-consuming and prone to failure. I did not want time-consuming when I would make 3 batches of brittle to include with my other baking, but this recipe took no more than 20 minutes to make. Perfect.

I’ve made peanut brittle a few times, since it happens to be a favorite of my dad’s. This recipe is my favorite one yet.


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For Bread 43, I made Stollen. I’d actually planned to make a different panetonne recipe than I have in years past (and skip fruitcake entirely), but with the move and holiday travel, I didn’t have a chance to plan my holiday baking and gifting until last week, with only a week until Christmas. That meant no planning ahead and ordering panetonne papers in advance from Amazon, and the staff at the Michael’s that I went to didn’t know what panetonne was. So, like any good baker, I improvised with a different, but similar, bread. Stollen, like panetonne, also has nuts and liquor-soaked fruit. To its advantage – you can start the dough and bake the bread on the same day.

Stollen is a bread with history and symbolism behind it, of which I basically know what exists on the internet, and so I won’t discuss it here. In any case, it stands to reason that there are many different stollen recipes, but since I’d planned to use the panetonne recipe from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice (which I couldn’t do in any case, since the panetonne requires a sourdough starter), I opted for the Stollen recipe from the book instead. Reinhart said that he sometimes baked stollen in panetonne wrappers, so I hoped it would be similar enough. Also a plus – the stollen looked to be much less heavily spiced and lighter on alcohol than fruitcakes I’ve made in the past, which is a good thing if I have to eat some of it. I don’t like heavy, clovey spice mixtures, and I can’t try anything with much alcohol.

Overall, this was a delicious bread – much better than stollen I tried to make several years ago before I knew anything about baking bread. It’s also a great bread to give as gifts. I made several batches, so I did not have the energy to shape the bread traditionally, but I hope that next time I can practice some fancy, decorative shaping.


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How to Make Vanilla Extract

I make a lot of desserts. In fact, no fewer than 78 of my recipes have been desserts. And that doesn’t necessarily count the 15 posts I’ve tagged “brownies” or the 41 posts I’ve tagged “cookies.”

Thus, I use a lot of vanilla extract. Real vanilla extract is expensive in the grocery store. Sometimes you’re lucky and you find a sale on it; the best sale I’ve ever found has been a dollar for a 1 ounce bottle. If you’re a baker, you buy about 5 bottles to stock up.

I don’t know exactly how I came across the how-to on making vanilla extract. I don’t even remember what gave me the idea, but once I learned that I could make vanilla extract at home, I had to.

I first started making my own vanilla extract two and a half years ago (May 2009, to be exact). I got the tutorial from Vanilla Review, which doesn’t seem to be updated very much anymore. It’s a nice walk-through that I’ve linked to, with lots of great pictures. I ordered my vanilla beans (both then and now) from a store on eBay, but you could get yours from or other places.

Regular vanilla beans that you buy in the grocery store are usually for baking or cooking. For extract, you actually want extract grade beans, which have less water content and aren’t as plump or nice-looking – and they should be cheaper. You could make vanilla with regular vanilla beans, but it would kind of be a waste unless that’s all you could get your hands on.

So, you know what vanilla beans are. What makes them extract? Basically, you steep vanilla beans in alcohol of some kind (usually vodka, sometimes rum or another clear liquor). The extract you buy in the grocery store usually has a little sugar or corn syrup added to it as well, but it’s really not necessary.

Doesn’t that sound simple? Yes, it is actually that easy.

Vanilla extract, after about 3 months. This is minus some extract decanted into 1oz bottles, but plus some extra vodka

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Chocolate Almond Graham Bar Mix

The final thing I made in 2011 that I wanted to share with you was Chocolate Almond Graham Bar Mix. This was another recipe that I made as gifts (from the Holiday Gifts from a Jar booklet that I mentioned before). One of the things I particularly like about this recipe is that it doesn’t call for many of the usual ingredients you bake with, like flour.

This looked like an incredibly easy recipe to make, and it certainly was. I tested it and enjoyed it, but I neglected to take pictures and wanted to improve on the results.

Tonight I made them again. Here’s what I’m eating right now:

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Lithuanian Christmas Bread (Mix)

For Christmas 2010, my aunt Renee got me a one of those Holiday Gifts from a Jar booklets with lots of recipes inside. It gives instructions on how to make a presentable gift jar with a recipe attached.

This year, as I decided what edible gifts to make, I decided to have a little fun and make one or two of the recipes from the booklet. Of course, I can’t send out anything I haven’t tried before; that would be a recipe for failure.

I’m against any kind of mix that requires a lot of work. Once, I bought a coffee cake mix that didn’t save me any effort at all. I still had to make two separate mixtures, one of which involved cutting/rubbing butter into the mix for a streusel, and layer them – the only thing you didn’t have to do was measure ingredients. If I want to use a mix, it’s because I don’t want to do as much work! (I’m clearly a baker, because I don’t mind measuring ingredients.)

As I looked at these recipes, I only wanted to give gift jars that would be easy for the recipient to make. I shouldn’t give a gift that makes the recipient work. Thus, the best gifts would be ones where you simply mix in a few perishable ingredients, pour into a pan or scoop onto a sheet, and bake. Lithuanian Christmas Bread Mix fit this description.

I would like to tell you more about the recipe, about why this bread’s history or why it uses poppy seeds or honey or raisins, but honestly, I know anything else to add right now. Just the recipe.

Lithuanian Christmas Bread

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Golden Fruitcake + French Toasted Fruitcake

Every year I bake a fruitcake to send to my relatives (although last year, it was technically fruitcake drops). While I strongly believe that fruitcake is not the scary food that it’s made out to be, I’m not particularly interested in it. I have both cake and fruit year-round. Why would I eat fruitcake when I can eat other desserts on Christmas – all the pies, cookies, and candy that we make?

This year I decided to try a different recipe, and I was excited about it. The Golden Fruitcake included primarily fruit I liked, and promised not to be too heavy or spicy. As I made it, I decided that I wanted to keep one for myself, to sample what I was making. Part of this motivation was that my friend Kate sent me a link to several things I could make with fruitcake. How could I not try at least one of them?

Fruitcake is one of those things that, since it generally contains alcohol which acts as a preservative, can be made in advance. In fact, often it’s said to be best if it’s made in advance and allowed to mature. My decision to make fruitcake was a little last minute, so it didn’t get to age.

This recipe for fruitcake makes a lot of fruitcake. If you’re just curious about fruitcake, you can try to scale back the ingredients and make less, but the math might be a little tricky. If you want lots of pictures of the fruitcake-making process, you can check out the King Arthur Flour blog post about it, because I found some of it to be useful as well.

Golden Fruitcake (photo courtesy of Mom)

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355: Glazed Almonds

I decided to make candied almonds as a part of all my gift packages. The Glazed Almonds recipe I came across was pretty simple. It involved cooking sugar, almonds (which should have been blanched, but I used raw), and butter (I always use real butter to make candy) on the stove for 9 minutes in an 8-inch skillet, until the sugar is melted and starting to brown. Stir in vanilla and pour onto a buttered sheet pan to let it cool. The syrup was thin, so that the almonds along the edge had brittle running out from them, rather than just coating them. The nuts were pretty easy to break apart after they cooled.

I wish I had a picture to show you. This seemed much more like almond brittle than candied almonds. I wish that I hadn’t cooked the syrup quite as much, because I browned it more than I had wanted to. It was still delicious, though, and was very simple to make. I’d recommend this tasty recipe due to its simplicity, but do realize that you’re getting something more akin to a candy brittle than just candy coated almonds.

350: Chocolate Spoons

I can’t believe I haven’t taken a picture of the Chocolate Spoons I made to put in gift baskets. They were incredibly easy to make. I also can’t believe that I haven’t used one yet, but I’m sure I will soon.

With this recipe, I can’t remember exactly the recipe I used – I had printed out a few (including this one and this one). In the end, I used a mixture of Hershey’s Special Dark and regular semisweet chocolate chips. I put 2 cups (one bag’s worth total) into my 2-cup Pyrex measuring cup, and microwaved it in 30 second bursts, stirring after each one, until the chocolate was all melted. Alex and I dipped plastic spoons in the chocolate, coating it well, and set them on waxed paper to let them harden. I think we got about 30 spoons dipped. After they hardened, we put them in sandwich baggies and ribbon.

Honestly, wrapping them up was the most difficult part. They looked very cute wrapped up with ribbon – it’s a shame I forgot to take a picture of them. I’ll make them again, but I’ll have to figure out a more efficient way to wrap them up than with the sandwich baggies and handcut ribbon.

344: Homemade Marshmallows

Last year my coworker Megan brought homemade marshmallows to work that her husband Jason had made. I’m not really a marshmallow person, but these were pretty good, different from store-bought, and I ended up having a few. Since then, I’ve wanted to make Homemade Marshmallows myself, but I never got around to it until now, when I’m trying to do a lot of baking and candy making (for gifting and for eating). [Edit: You can see my recipe here, as well as a chocolate/chocolate chip adaptation.]

Homemade Marshmallows

Surprisingly, marshmallows were not hard to make at all. Not difficult as long as you have a candy thermometer and a stand mixer, that is. The corresponding blog for the recipe says that you could whisk the marshmallows with a hand mixer, except that it would take longer and perhaps not be as fluffy. Perhaps I’d try it sometime with a hand mixer, but a candy thermometer is essential.

Marshmallows are basically gelatin that you pour a candy syrup into and whip the heck out of. You start by soaking gelatin in water (in your stand mixer bowl, or another large bowl if you’re going to use a hand mixer). Meanwhile, you heat water, sugar, salt, and corn syrup over medium heat. You stir until the sugar dissolves, and then you cook without stirring until the temperature reaches 240F. I’m not sure how you’d know when it reaches 240F without a candy thermometer, so that’s why it’s so important.

Next, you put the stand mixer on low speed and slowly add the hot syrup to the bloomed gelatin; this will generate a ton of steam. Crank the stand mixer to high and whip the marshmallows for 8-10 minutes (I did mine for 8), until the mixture is fluffy. Add the vanilla toward the end of mixing time – I did this at about minute 7, but the blog accompanying the recipe says that she did it around minute 5.

Once you’re done whipping the marshmallow mixture, it should be cool enough that you can spread it into a greased (glass or ceramic) 9×13 inch pan. Smooth the marshmallows over with wet hands to smooth them. The recipe says to sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar, but I did this and honestly didn’t like the sugar on top of them. Perhaps I got too much, but I don’t think there’s a good amount to put on there. Alex wanted me to emphasize that he didn’t like it either.

Homemade Marshmallow in cocoa

Overall, the marshmallows were good. They’re tasty and fluffy. I enjoy them, which I can’t really say about store-bought marshmallows. These go really well in hot cocoa, but they’re pretty good on their own. The recipe was very simple as far as candy goes, and I recommend it before making something like a toffee or brittle.