Baking for a Barbecue

I have been baking up a storm this week. Once again I am providing desserts for the Midtown Alley BBQ. I baked the desserts last year and couldn’t pass up the chance to do it again this year.

I decided to make the same desserts I made last year:

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Gooey Butter Tarts

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Chocolate Gooey Butter Tarts

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Gingersnaps

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Chocolate Chip Cookies

I was going to make a new gooey butter tart flavor, lemon blueberry, in honor of summer. The first experiments weren’t quite there yet, but stay tuned for the perfected recipe soon.

Feel free to stop by Atomicdust in Midtown St. Louis if you are in town and looking for something to do tonight. For now, I’m headed back to the kitchen to finish baking.

Calling all Cream Lovers

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We have a surplus of cream. By surplus, I mean more than a quart. My mother-in-law is visiting us for a few days while Calvin is on spring break from school. We usually plan for a certain amount of indulgences while she is visiting, ranging from homemade desserts to a trip to the doughnut shop. To prepare I made sure we had a ready supply of butter, along with a pint of heavy cream. Then our neighbors called and asked if we wanted a little cream and some broccoli that they couldn’t eat before they left for vacation. Of course I said yes. Her definition of a little cream turned out to be a full pint, plus part of another one.

I am looking for ways to use up the cream. So far I have thought of cream scones, chocolate mousse, cream over oatmeal and cream in our coffee. I need more ideas. Send them my way. We just might make one or two. Or three. And then we’ll eat some steamed broccoli. That should counteract all the cholesterol and fat from the cream, right?

Sweets for Your Sweetie

Not sure if you’ve heard, but Valentine’s Day is Friday. How could you miss the diamond commercials, the restaurant specials and the greeting card ads? I don’t buy into the idea that we have to get candy, flowers or jewelry to recognize the day. I really think Valentine’s Day should be more about celebrating however you like.

Rich and I sometimes go out for a date night dinner, but the last few years we have decided to cook at home and treat ourselves to a homemade dessert. Some years we make the expected decadent chocolate treat. Other years we go for something more non-traditional.

I have a few suggestions if you want to make something sweet for your sweetie, or yourself.

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If you want to have some fun, and make something impressive, try making your own candy hearts. They are much easier than they look. If you can play with play-dough, you can make these.

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For a supremely easy treat, try snickerdoodle bars. If you feel fancy you can cut them into hearts instead of bars.

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Try toffee bars for another easy treat that combines caramelly goodness with chocolate.

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If you feel like something a little more involved, try my version of zebra cakes. This is a great group project to share with your family or your better half.

We are still deciding what to make for our dessert this year. We do know we are having steak, baked potatoes and roasted green beans for the main event.

What are your plans for Valentine’s Day?

Peanut Butter Gooey Butter Tarts

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Peanut butter gooey butter was born out of a Twitter conversation between Rich and some of his colleagues. I’m not sure how it started – I came in on the middle of it. They were talking about peanut butter and somehow the discussion turned to gooey butter cake. That led to talk of peanut butter gooey butter and the gauntlet was thrown down to challenge The Cook’s Life to come up with a recipe.

Long story short, which is probably already too late, Rich and I whipped up a peanut butter gooey butter version that night and the office sampled it the next day. Everyone pronounced it a success.

While we made the original in cake form, I am still enamored with gooey butter tarts. There is something about getting my own little cake that makes me happy. And, with the peanut butter version, it is like eating a peanut butter cup in gooey butter cake form. You can even break out the mini muffin pan and make tiny tarts.

The peanut butter totally changes the filling – roasted peanut butter flavors and aromas harmonize beautifully with the cream cheese sweetness that is gooey butter. And there is no better platform for peanut butter goodness than a dark chocolate crust.

Say what you will about Twitter and its relevancy, but those 140 character posts led to one great recipe. Anyone have an idea for another gooey butter variation?

Download or print the recipe here.

Peanut Butter Gooey Butter Tarts
From The Cook’s Life
Makes 24 tarts

I prefer to use natural peanut butter in the filling. Mine has just peanuts and salt. You can use regular peanut butter, but the filling will be sweeter and less intensely peanut-flavored.

Crust:
1¼ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup cocoa powder
1 cup sugar
2½ teaspoons baking powder
¾ teaspoon salt
½ cup (1 stick) butter, melted
1 egg

Filling:
1 8-oz. block cream cheese, room temperature
1 cup creamy natural peanut butter (see headnote)
2 eggs
3 cups powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease 24 muffin cups – do not use cupcake papers.

In a large bowl, mix together flour, cocoa, sugar, baking powder and salt. Mix in melted butter and egg. Press slightly less than 2 tablespoons of crust mixture into the bottom of each muffin cup and set aside.

In same bowl, beat cream cheese and peanut butter until fluffy and fully combined. Beat in eggs until well blended. Add powdered sugar and mix well. Divide filling evenly among muffin cups, using 2-3 tablespoons per cup.

Bake 13-15 minutes, or until filling is mostly set and slightly puffed. The tops of the tarts will flatten as they cool. Let tarts cool in pans on a wire rack for about 15 minutes so they can firm up. Run a knife around the edge of each tart before removing it to the rack to cool completely.

Store in an airtight container for a few days, in a single layer or with parchment or waxed paper between layers, as they tend to stick to each other. Freeze for longer storage. Thaw at room temperature for a couple of hours.

Mini Tart Variation
Makes 72 tarts

You can also bake these as bite-sized mini tarts. They are great party desserts – one bite, no utensils or plates required.

Follow the above directions for mixing. Use about 2 teaspoons of crust mixture per mini muffin cup. Use about a tablespoon of filling. Bake 8-10 minutes. Cool in pans for about 10 minutes before removing to racks to cool.

Chocolate Almond Custard

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Rich and Calvin requested a chocolate version of custard when I was testing batches of vanilla custard a few weeks ago. I was perfectly happy with the simple flavors of the vanilla recipe, but they wanted something with more complexity.

I started with the vanilla recipe as a stepping off point. I wanted to add chocolate, but I wasn’t sure what textural issues I would have if I used melted chocolate. When I adapted my vanilla ice cream recipe to make it chocolate, I used cocoa powder with great success. I figured custard wasn’t that different from ice cream, so I decided to go with cocoa powder. Then it was a simple matter of replacing some of the vanilla extract with almond and I had chocolate almond custard.

I wasn’t sure if the cocoa would affect the texture of the custard once it was baked. I was pleased that it didn’t – the custard was still creamy and velvety. It was sweet, without being too sweet, and rich with dark chocolate and almond. I opted not to sprinkle any spices on top to avoid adding any flavors that might compete with the chocolate and almond.

I seem to be on a roll lately, giving you recipes for desserts and then offering you a chocolate version later. I guess there’s nothing wrong with bringing a few more chocolate desserts to the world.

Download or print the recipe here.

Chocolate Almond Custard
From The Cook’s Life
Makes 4-6 servings

Use any kind of milk you have on hand – the richer the milk, the richer the custard. This is not a sweet dessert. You can increase the sugar to ½ cup if you like, with no other changes to the recipe. Or sprinkle sugar on top when serving for added sweetness and crunch.

2 cups milk
4 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
dash salt
⅓ cup sugar
¼ cup cocoa
sugar, for serving (optional)

Equipment:
Custard cups or ramekins
9 by 13 inch baking pan, or equivalent
boiling water for a water bath

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bring a large pot or teakettle of water to a boil and keep hot. Lightly grease 4-6 custard cups or small ramekins. I used 6 ounce custard cups and needed five of them. Place ramekins in a 9 by 13 inch baking pan or other pan large enough to hold them without crowding. Set aside, preferably near the oven.

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Heat milk in a 2-3 quart saucepan over medium heat until very hot. The milk will be steaming and there will be bubbles all around the edges when it is hot enough. Don’t let it boil. Stir occasionally at the beginning and more often as it gets hotter. It should take 5-7 minutes to get hot enough, depending on your stove and the size of your pan. The larger the pan, the faster the milk will heat (and the closer you need to watch it).

While milk heats, beat or whisk eggs, extracts and salt together in a large bowl. In a small bowl, stir cocoa and sugar together well mixed. Add cocoa mixture to egg mixture and beat until sugar is no longer gritty.

When milk is hot, beat it gradually into the egg mixture. Add the hot milk very slowly so you don’t scramble the eggs. When all the milk is mixed in, pour the custard into the prepared ramekins, filling them almost full.

Pour boiling water into the larger pan, trying to get the water to the same level as the custard in the cups. Carefully transfer the filled pan to the oven.

Bake custard 25-30 minutes, or until the centers barely jiggle when you move the pan. Remove the pan from the oven. Remove ramekins from the hot water and place on a rack to cool. When cool, cover and refrigerate. Let custards come to room temperature for a few minutes before serving. Store leftovers in the fridge for two or three days, covered.

Lemon Zucchini Muffins and Family Reunion Fun

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I really should be posting a recipe for something like plain oatmeal, or even gruel, after the long weekend of eating at my family reunion. Not only did I bake up a storm before I got there, but I fulfilled a few requests after we arrived.

We hadn’t been in the door at my Aunt Linda’s house for more than five minutes when I was mixing up peach cobbler for dessert that night. We didn’t have quite enough peaches (last year’s summer bounty, from my freezer), so we threw in a pint of blueberries we had picked up at an orchard on the trip. I made a slightly sweet, whole wheat pie crust to top the fruit. You will just have to imagine how good it looked and tasted, since I totally forgot to take pictures. And the cobbler was gone almost as soon as it came out of the oven, so there wasn’t even a little dab to take a picture of later.

Linda was on a quest to clean out her freezer before garden produce starts ripening in earnest. The second night we had last fall’s fried apples for dessert. I made a double batch of caramel sauce, at her request, to top them. Let me tell you, it is an interesting experience to cook with at least fifteen relatives milling in and out of the kitchen, hovering over the stove to check the progress of the sauce. I did get everyone to let it cool for a few minutes before they pounced, but only with dire warnings about how hot it really was.

Lest you think all we did was eat all weekend, we did spend a lot of time visiting and taking pictures. Of course, most of us are perfectly capable of catching up and eating at the same time. The kids fit in quite a few card games, washer tournaments and electronic entertainment. And we had a white elephant auction that distracted us from eating for at least a little while. But mostly we ate and talked.

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Family members ambled into town over several days. By Saturday, when we had the biggest shindig, there were thirty-two of us, comprising three generations. Not that you really care to look at my family photos, but I thought I would include one. We managed to corral most everyone, though several people are missing in this one. Note the dog getting in on the action in the front row.

The family is spread out both in age and geography, so there were some in-laws and kids who hadn’t met everyone. I had a son of one of my cousins (a second cousin?) ask me exactly what a generation was. I think I explained it as briefly as possible, but his eyes still glazed over just a bit. And one of the littlest guys was just figuring out that his grandpa wasn’t every kid’s grandpa. Great uncle is a hard concept to explain. But it’s all family, and it’s all good.

The lemon zucchini muffins were one of the successes of the weekend – lemony, flecked with green zucchini bits, not too sweet, just rich enough to serve as dessert but healthy enough to double as breakfast. I baked them on Monday and froze them until we left on Thursday. They were still fairly moist on Sunday. Of course, a little butter and a few seconds in the microwave brought out the lemon and made them even better. A few people had them with leftover caramel sauce and apples, but that was too many flavors going on for me. Butter was perfect.

Download or print the recipe here.

Lemon Zucchini Muffins
Adapted by The Cook’s Life
From “Country Baking” by Ken Haedrich
Makes 12 muffins, easy to double

The original recipe was for bread, baked in an 8 ½ by 4 ½ inch loaf pan. Baking time was 50 minutes.

1⅔ cups white whole wheat flour
⅔ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
⅓ cup canola or vegetable oil
2-3 tablespoons lemon juice (the juice of one lemon)
2-3 teaspoons lemon zest (the zest of one lemon)
1 cup grated zucchini (don’t peel it and don’t squeeze it dry, you want all the moisture)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease 12 muffin cups. Mix the white whole wheat flour, the all-purpose flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs; then add the oil, lemon juice and zest. Mix well, then add the zucchini and mix again.

Add the flour mixture to the egg mixture and mix gently until all the flour is mixed in and there are no dry streaks. Do not beat. Batter will be very thick.

Divide the batter evenly between the muffin cups, filling them almost full. Bake 15-18 minutes, or until the centers are firm when pressed or a toothpick inserted in the middle of a muffin comes out clean.

Cool the muffins in the pan on a rack for 5-10 minutes, then remove from the pan and let cool to room temperature on a rack. Store in an airtight container for a few days or freeze for longer storage.

Gooey Almond Bars

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The final version of gooey chocolate almond bars in Wednesday’s post came about after weeks of experimentation. These gooey almond bars are the result of an offhand comment and a family discussion.

When I made the chocolate almond bars for Rich’s parents, they were blown away by them. As far as they were concerned, the recipe was fine as it was. Until I suggested that maybe we make them with a butter crust instead of chocolate. At least Rich’s mother and I were intrigued. The rest of the family wasn’t so sure. We took a vote and the chocolate won by one, with the votes splitting along gender lines. Of course, I was the baker, so I got veto power.

I decided to take pity on the men and made the batch of bars half and half, with one end of the crust chocolate and the other end butter. Of course then we all had to have one of each to make an informed judgment.

The butter crust only enhanced the almond flavor, highlighting the decadence of the bars without competing with the almond at all. The filling was velvety and rich, with a strong almond flavor. And it had the crackly crust on top reminiscent of gooey butter cake. The crust was just a bit softer than the chocolate and the filling was a little gooier. The different bars were baked in the same pan, with the same batch of filling for all. It was amazing, at least to me, how eliminating the cocoa from half of the recipe changed the character of the bars so much. I am still not sure which I like better, and it mostly depends on which flavor I am eating at the time.

Which do you prefer – chocolate and almond together, or almond by itself?

Download or print the recipe here.

Gooey Almond Bars
From The Cook’s Life
Makes 16-20 bars

If you have some on hand, you can substitute 7-8 ounces of almond paste for the almonds and powdered sugar in the filling. Just cream it with the butter until smooth and then proceed with the recipe.  Grinding the almonds fresh makes the filling slightly creamier, with a stronger almond flavor.

Crust:
¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
½ cup granulated sugar
1¼ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup (½ stick) butter, melted
1 egg

Filling:
¾ cup whole almonds (blanched or natural, I used blanched)
¾ cup powdered sugar
½ cup (1 stick) butter, room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 tablespoon amaretto liqueur, optional
2 eggs
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup flour

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease an 8-inch square pan or 7 by 11-inch pan and set aside.

Make the crust first. Mix together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large bowl or the bowl of your mixer. Add butter and egg and mix until smooth. Press or spread into prepared pan. Set aside. Set bowl aside for mixing the filling.

Grind almonds and powdered sugar in a food processor or blender until finely ground. Transfer to the bowl you used to mix the crust. Add butter and mix until combined and smooth. Add sugar, extracts and amaretto and beat until well mixed. Add eggs and beat again. Stir in salt and flour and mix gently. Pour on top of crust and spread to edges.

Bake for 25-35 minutes. The 8-inch pan will take longer than the 7 by 11 pan. When bars are done, filling will be golden brown on top and almost set. The center will still jiggle slightly when you shake the pan. If top starts to brown too fast, lay a piece of foil lightly on top of the bars to shield them a bit.

Let cool in pan on a wire rack until room temperature. Cut into 16-20 bars. Bars keep for several days at room temperature. Freeze for longer storage.

Almond Tuile Cookies

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Tuile recipes have intrigued me for awhile, but I have never gotten around to making any. I had the perfect opportunity last week when we were on spring break. Calvin had requested almond crème brûlée when we gave him the choice of what to make for dessert. I wanted something crunchy to go with the custards – tuiles fit the bill. And with my mother-in-law, Mary, visiting I would have extra help to shape the hot cookies.

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The cookies aren’t hard to make, and they are truly impressive. They would be beautiful turned upside down and filled with ice cream – a nice dinner party dessert that would knock the socks off your guests for sure. They are crispy, fragrant with almond and a subtle hint of vanilla. I preferred the sesame seed tuiles, though the sliced almonds were a close second. The chocolate-topped ones were good, but I thought the chocolate overpowered the almond just a bit.

The original recipe called for a vanilla bean, which I didn’t have and didn’t want to go out and buy for an experimental recipe. I used vanilla extract, and threw in almond extract to go with the flavor of the crème brûlée.

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Be sure to watch the cookies like a hawk. I left the kitchen, trusting the baking time in the original recipe. Mary’s nose just saved that pan – we were able to snatch them out of the oven before they burned. I shaved over five minutes off the original baking time when I tweaked the recipe. Your oven may vary from mine, so be vigilant until you see how long each pan takes to bake.

It was easy to get all the cookies shaped before they cooled, with two of us working. Calvin said he was going to help, but the lure of the computer pulled harder than baking on this particular afternoon.

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If you are by yourself, you might have trouble getting them shaped fast enough. You can either do fewer per pan, or leave some of them flat. Flat ones would be pretty tucked into the top of a scoop of ice cream. Next time I think I might make them smaller, especially if I leave them flat. I expected them to be about the size of a Pringle potato chip, but they were twice that size. The cookies are on a standard sized dinner plate, to give you an idea of how big they are.

No matter what size or shape you make, your tuiles will be crunchy, crispy goodness packaged in a cookie. Add a little ice cream, custard, crème brûlée and you will be in dessert heaven.

Download or print just the recipe here.

Almond Tuiles
Adapted by The Cook’s Life from Everyday Magazine
Makes 24 large cookies

⅔ cup granulated sugar
7 tablespoons flour
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ cup butter, melted
3 egg whites
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
½ cup sliced almonds, chopped chocolate or sesame seeds (or a combination of all three)

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking liners. You can grease the baking sheets instead of using parchment, but it might be hard to get the cookies off without wrinkling them.

Mix sugar flour and salt in a medium bowl. Add butter, eggs whites and extracts and mix until smooth.

Use about a teaspoon of batter for each cookie. Do no more than 6 cookies on a sheet, leaving plenty of room between them. Use a wet finger to spread cookies into large circles, about 4 inches in diameter. Use a ruler – 4 inches might be bigger than you think. Sprinkle each cookie with your topping of choice.

Bake only one pan at a time. Bake until cookies turn golden around the edges, about 9 minutes, depending on your oven.

While cookies are baking, set up your area so you will be ready. Have a rolling pin, or two, if you have them, on a folded towel to keep it from rolling. You could also use a glass bottle or smooth glass if you don’t have a rolling pin. Set these up next to a rack or trivet for the hot pan. You will also need a thin metal spatula (I used an offset icing spatula and it worked beautifully).

When the first pan is baked, move it immediately to your work area. Quickly, but gently remove each cookie from the pan and place it on the rolling pin. Press it gently around the curve of the rolling pin and then move on to the next cookie. By the time you get two cookies done, the first should be cool enough to remove from the rolling pin, if you need the space. As the cookies start to cool they won’t be pliable enough to curve.

Note: If you don’t want to mess with the curved cookies, use you can also just leave them flat. I would recommend smaller cookies if you are doing this, with maybe a ½ teaspoon of batter for each.

Cool cookies to room temperature before eating. Store in an airtight container for several days, or freeze for longer storage.

Double Dark Chocolate Chip Brownies

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These are our second favorite brownies, right behind One Bowl Brownies. We have used them as a base for caramel brownies, cream cheese brownies, Mexican s’mores brownies and as the bottom of countless brownie sundaes. They are a good, basic brownie – fudgy more than cakey, studded with dark chocolate chips. Eat them slightly warm so the chips are melted and gooey. You can always nuke them a few seconds in the microwave if you aren’t eating them freshly baked.

Unlike the butterscotch brownies I posted about on Friday, the whole family agrees that these brownies are the bomb. I don’t really know what else to say about them. They are good – deep, dark and chocolatey. They come together in just minutes and require no more than a bowl and spoon to make. You don’t even need to have baking chocolate on hand – they use cocoa instead of melted chocolate. Make these. Today.

Download or print the recipe here.

Double Dark Chocolate Chip Brownies
From The Cook’s Life
Makes 9 by 13 pan, 24 brownies

1 cup (2 sticks) butter, cut into pieces
¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 cups sugar
4 eggs
4 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup bittersweet or semisweet chocolate chips (I like Ghirardelli 60% cocoa chips)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 9 by 13 inch pan. Set aside.

Melt butter in a large bowl in the microwave. Stir in cocoa powder until well mixed. Add sugar and stir again. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each. Stir in vanilla extract. Add flour and salt and mix gently until about half-mixed. Add chocolate chips and stir until there are no white streaks of dry flour. Spread in prepared pan and level top.

Bake 20-25 minutes, or just until the middle is set and a toothpick comes out with a few crumbs attached. Cool in pan on a wire rack for at least 30 minutes before cutting.

These are fabulous as is, but you can also microwave each serving for a few seconds to melt the chocolate chips. These freeze very well if you don’t plan to eat them all in a day or two.

A Trio of Vanillas

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How much thought do you put into vanilla extract? If you are the average bear, not much. Well, if you are a bear, probably none at all. In our house, we think about vanilla a lot. It is one of our favorite flavors and we probably spend way too much time thinking about it.

Rich’s mother asked us for Christmas ideas in November (she is on the ball with all things, but especially Christmas shopping). I had seen a vanilla extract sampler with one bottle each of Madagascar, Tahitian and Mexican extracts in the King Arthur Flour catalog and thought it would be perfect for Rich. I like vanilla, but Rich likes it a LOT. When he bakes anything, he usually doubles the vanilla. And if I ask his opinion about adapting a recipe, he always wants to increase the vanilla. (I wonder how many more times I can write the word “vanilla” before I finish this post?)

I was right about the success of the present. Rich was thrilled. We both have been having fun using the various extracts in different recipes. The extracts smell a little different from each other in the bottles, but they smell wildly different when they are cooking in something. We keep thinking we should make something like custard, vanilla pudding or ice cream with each different extract so we can do side by side taste tests. Are we food nerds, or what?

Last week I made waffles and used the Tahitian extract. The whole house smelled like those fabulous ice cream shops that make their own cones. The waffles didn’t taste exactly like ice cream cones – they were better. The Tahitian extract is more floral, with a lighter scent but a deeper vanilla flavor than typical vanilla extract.

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The Madagascar extract is closest to “regular” vanilla. It is vanilla, but certainly not plain vanilla. Try adding a little more than the recipe calls for and see what it does for chocolate chip cookies, brownies or your favorite cake.

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The Mexican extract has a deeper, fuller scent and flavor than the other two. It is more assertive, if you can call a flavor like vanilla assertive. So far I have used it in flourless chocolate cakes, homemade caramel sauce and the icing for biscuit cinnamon rolls. It pairs particularly well with chocolate and cinnamon. Strangely enough that was what the label said. I guess sometimes the label writers really know what they are talking about.

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Tonight we had blueberry pancakes for dinner, with a little Tahitian vanilla in the batter. I have been adding a teaspoon of vanilla to my pancake batter since I happened to see a recipe for pancakes that was almost identical to mine, with the addition of vanilla. I can’t imagine why we hadn’t thought of that, given our crazy vanilla obsession fascination. The whole house again smells like an ice cream shop.

We don’t have a favorite. It would be like choosing which kid we liked best, if we had more than one. Why should we have to choose between our vanillas? Like children, we love each vanilla for its own unique attributes. That might be going a little far, but we are having fun playing around with them.

How do you have fun in the kitchen?