Cream Rolls with Apple Mousse (Šamróle)

If somebody writes a food blog, it’s probably fairly safe to assume he or she doesn’t mind spending time in the kitchen. In my case that’s definitely true. I’d cook and bake 24/7 if my back would cooperate, and if I didn’t have to clean the kitchen afterwards. Cleaning is one aspect of culinary endeavors I could absolutely live without, but thankfully I have people in my life who are quite willing to load the dishwasher and clean the counters in exchange for good food.

Years in the kitchen have made me into quite a foodie, which is probably just a nicer way of saying that someone is a bit of a culinary snob 🙂 I won’t touch boxed anything and prefer to make what I can from scratch. It makes sense, especially in light of our family’s dietary restrictions: Gluten-free grub isn’t the cheapest, but when you make it at home, this way of eating is actually quite doable. I like knowing what I’m feeding my men (so they have the strength to clean the kitchen for me!), I like saving money (so that I can buy more good food), and I absolutely and positively love playing with food.

My obsession with all matters culinary was the main reason why I’ve been stubbornly resisting Mr. Photographer’s suggestions to buy a pressure cooker. You see, for years he’s been singing praises for melt-in-your-mouth tender meats his Mom used to make in her pressure cooker, and trying to convince me just how much time would that little gadget save me. But I’ve bravely opposed the pressure (pun intended). I don’t need darn pressure cooker and I don’t care for less time in the kitchen, thank you very much! And what, you want to tell me I can’t make the meat tender with just the good old stove and oven?! All the pressure cookers and crockpots and similar nonsense are for people who don’t have time to cook or who hate cooking! Poor souls who haven’t yet discovered that chopping and stirring and tasting can be fun! (Can you feel the foodie snobbism just dripping from my lips? Yup, and as it’s often the case, I was about to fall from my high horse and it was going to hurt.)

A couple weeks ago a friend of mine called me saying she got herself the Instant Pot, the mighty machine that does the work of seven kitchen gadgets. It was before Christmas, it was on sale, and so I thought: “What the heck, I’ll buy one too. I’ll play with it a little, declare it not good enough for what my needs, and swiftly return it. I’ll prove to Mr. Photographer that such gadgets have no place in life of a self-respecting good cook, and he’ll forever hold his peace.

Yes. Well. That was the plan.

Ever since that little devil of a machine showed up in its brown box on my doorstep, it’s been plugged in pretty much non-stop. Holy jackpot! It’s a slow cooker. It’s a pressure cooker. It’s a rice cooker. It’s a yogurt maker. It sautées, it cooks, it bakes. It doesn’t constantly ask me questions like my men do (How much oil? Is that enough water? How long do I cook it for? And do I need to stir it or not?). It. Just. Knows. Everything. By. Itself. Remember the old fairy tale about a little girl who was gifted a porridge making magic pot? She just said, “Cook, little pot, cook!” and when she had enough, she ordered it, “Stop, little pot, stop!” Well, I feel just like that little girl, except my pot doesn’t even need to be told to stop – it stops by itself when it’s time! (No sticky porridge running down my counters, woot!)

Please, I’m begging you – do yourself a favor and don’t just go, but run to buy the Instant Pot. (I just accidentally typed Magic Pot, but could’ve just left it, because, well, it’s true!) It’ll make your life so much easier, and if you want to stay in the kitchen, no one is stopping you. The pot just frees you to do something else while it cooks dinner for you. It’s as if you hired an assistant chef!

And that’s exactly what I’ve done this weekend. While the soup was bubbling away in the pot on the counter, I wrapped puff pastry around the metal molds and licked the cinnamon-y apple mousse off my spatula. And these little cream rolls are the result. My grandma used to make them each December and send them to us as a part of her Christmas cookie assortment, but I think they’re good any time of the year! They’re pretty easy to make too, especially if you buy puff pastry from the store. The baked apples will fill your home with the most delicious aroma, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll have to use all your willpower not to gobble them all up just as they are coming out of the oven, and leave at least some for the mousse. Be strong. I promise, when you’ll taste the crispy cream roll overflowing with the smooth sweet filling it’ll be all worth it!

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Cream Rolls with Apple Mousse (Šamróle)

(adapted from http://www.bonvivani.sk; makes about 12 – 15 cream rolls)

Quick Puff Pastry for the rolls – makes about 500 g (1 lb.) of dough:
  • 235 g (7.5 oz.) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 60 g (2 oz.) cake flour
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 250 g (1/2 lb.) cold unsalted butter
  • 125 ml (4 oz.) iced water
Apple Mousse:
  • 2 egg whites, room temperature
  • pinch salt
  • ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 125 g (4.5 oz.) powdered sugar
  • 2 big apples (I used a mix of Granny Smith and Honey Crisp apples)
  • ½ teaspoon each vanilla extract and ground cinnamon

+ 2 egg yolks, mixed with 1 tablespoon water (egg wash for brushing the rolls)
– extra powdered sugar for sprinkling the rolls if desired

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Method:
  1. Prepare the puff pastry: In a bowl of a food processor, combine cake flour and salt; pulse to aerate. Add in the cold butter, diced, and pulse until the mixture resembles peas (you should still see pieces of butter throughout the dough). Lastly, with the processor on, slowly and carefully pour in the icy cold water, just enough so that the dough comes together. Wrap the ball of dough in saran wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
  2. While the dough is chilling, bake the apples: Wash the apples, but don’t peel or core them, leave them whole. Place them on a baking sheet, add in a little water (about ½ cup) and bake them at 375 °F (190 °C) for about 50 minutes until soft.
  3. Let the apples cool a little and then scrape out the pulp, leaving peel/core behind. Place the scraped out pulp into a food processor and give it a little whirl to make smooth and thick apple sauce. Transfer the apple sauce into a glass bowl, mix in vanilla and cinnamon, and set aside.
  4. Making the puff pastry rolls: Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper, lightly butter your cream roll molds and preheat the oven to 360 °F (180 °C). Take the chilled puff pastry dough from the refrigerator. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough into a 3 mm thickness. Work fast, and try not to handle the dough too much – you want it to stay as cold as possible. Cut the dough into stripes about 2.5 cm ( 1 inch) wide and 30 cm (12 inches) long.
  5. Working with one strip at a time, wrap the dough around the mold, overlapping the dough slightly. Brush the dough on the molds with the egg wash and bake them for about 15 – 20 minutes, until they puff up and are nice golden brown in color. Take the rolls out of the oven, let them cool on the molds for about 5 minutes and then take them off the molds and let them cool completely.
  6. Make the apple mousse: Place the egg whites, salt, and cream of tartar into a glass/metal bowl (I used the bowl of my stand mixer), and then set the bowl over a pot of boiling hot water. Whip the egg whites in the water bath until soft peaks form, about 5 minutes. Transfer the egg white mixture into a bowl of your stand mixer fitted with a whip attachment and with the mixer on a medium speed gradually start adding the powdered sugar.
  7. Heat the apple sauce in a microwave for couple of seconds until lukewarm/warm, but not hot. With the mixer still on, by small increments start adding the lukewarm apple sauce to the egg white mixture, whipping constantly, until you use up all the apples and the mousse forms very firm peaks.
  8. Assembling the cream rolls: Transfer the apple mousse into a piping bag. Fill the cream rolls with the mousse, dust the tops with powdered sugar if desired, and serve.
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Bi-colored Sweet Yeast Crescents

Mr. Photographer and I are about as opposite as they come. He’s a night owl; I have trouble to keep my eyes open after 11 pm. He’s very artsy; I’m anything but. He’s a math whiz; I hate math’s guts, and to this day suffer with occasional nightmares about derivations and descriptive geometry. He’s annoyingly level-headed; I way too often let my emotions get the best of me. I enjoy playing with words and stringing them together; he still sometimes struggles with grammar rules I don’t ever need to think about. He’s an extrovert who’d go out every night of the week if he could; I’m an introvert who’d rather snuggle up next to the fireplace with a good book. He loves knick-knacks that stir up memories and rakes up tons of little somethings from everywhere he goes; growing up with two sisters in one room has made me into a minimalist who prefers to have bare minimum on her shelves. I say that way the room can breathe (and I don’t have to dust more than necessary!); he says it lacks character and is devoid of life.

Yet by some twist of fate we somehow ended up together. They say opposites attract, and it might be true. It seemed we complemented each other so beautifully – I still remember him teaching me some crazy math concepts before a test I was dreading, and a couple years later me proofreading his thesis in computer science for him. The text might’ve just as well been in Chinese, as I had no clue what I was reading about, but I made sure all the hundred pages of it were grammatically flawless. Awesome, right? I have gaps, you have gaps, and together we’ll patch them and make it work. But from where I sit now I have to confess that over the years our many differences have repeatedly caused noticeable friction between us as well, and not just in matters pertaining to decorating style 🙂

There is no such thing as a perfect marriage. After all, marriage is just an union of two imperfect people, and as such it takes a lot of tending and is a never-ending work in progress. The marriage experts have a lot to say about how to keep it alive and happy, and assert that the key to a happy relationship is to learn to live with the differences, and not just merely tolerate them, but to be able to enjoy them. We’re working on that 🙂 Without revealing too much, there are definitely differences we enjoy more than others!

Similarly, this week’s bi-colored crescents are a result of the unexpected union of polar opposites. I was kind of missing playing with yeast dough, plus we have about four jars of different jams in the fridge to use up. On the other hand I wanted to keep things simple this weekend, and that’s how these little yin-yang crescents were born! It’s just a simple yeast dough divided in half, with one part colored with cocoa. Thanks to the butter the dough is soft and very easy to work with, and after rising the crescents come together in a snap – you just roll light-colored and dark-colored dough, place them on top of each other, cut out a circle, which you then cut into eight small triangles. Working with one triangle at a time, stretch the dough to elongate it, sprinkle the triangle with some cinnamon sugar, and roll a crescent. Let the rolls rise a bit second time and bake. After baking I brushed the hot crescents with thick sugary syrup to make them nice and shiny, but you could also give them a coat of egg wash before baking, or brush them with melted butter when you take them out of the oven – the butter will keep them nice and soft. Like I said – nothing complicated, just tried and true soft yeast dough and some playing with contrasting colors. I can’t decide if I like the light ones or the dark ones better, and I love the contrasting color peeking out at the edges. The crescents will be awesome for breakfast with either jam or honey; I’m secretly hoping they’ll buy these yin- and yang parents some extra sleep on Sunday!

I’ll say it again: I don’t think there is such thing as a perfect marriage, but if there were, this would be it, at least in the culinary world: Opposites that coexist in a perfect harmony; surprisingly simple, and very delicious together!

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Bi-colored Sweet Yeast Crescents

(recipe makes 16 small crescents; 8 of each color)

Sweet Yeast Dough:
  • 175 ml (scant 6 oz.) whole milk, lukewarm
  • 2 teaspoons dry yeast
  • pinch sugar
  • 375 g (13 oz.) bread flour
  • pinch salt
  • 100 ml (3.3 oz.) melted butter (or mild tasting oil)
  • 4 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1 egg
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3 leveled tablespoons unsweetened baking cocoa
  • 3 tablespoons milk
Filling:
  • ¼ cup granulated sugar
  • ½ tablespoon ground cinnamon
Sugar Glaze:
  • 75 g (2.6 oz.) granulated sugar
  • 50 ml (1.5 oz.) water

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Method:
  1. First, make the yeast dough: Combine the 175 ml (scant 6 oz.) lukewarm milk with yeast and pinch of sugar; let stand for 10 – 15 minutes to activate the yeast.
  2. Meanwhile, place all the remaining ingredients for the dough into a bowl of your stand mixer fitted with a hook. When the yeast is nice and bubbly, add it to the bowl. Knead the dough on a low – medium speed until it’s soft, smooth, and elastic. If the dough seems too dry, add in couple of tablespoons milk one tablespoon at a time; if it’s too wet, gradually add some more flour. Knead the dough for about 10 minutes, and then divide it in half. Put one half aside, covered; to the other half of the dough in the mixer bowl add 3 tablespoons cocoa and 3 tablespoons milk. Re-knead until the dough is soft, smooth, and elastic.
  3. Transfer both light and dark dough into two well-oiled bowls, cover, and let them rise in a warm spot until they double in volume – about 1 hour.
  4. Forming the crescents: Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Divide each ball of dough in half (you’ll have two light and two dark doughs). Take one dough ball of each color and keep the remaining two covered. First roll out the light dough into a rough square about 3 mm thick. Do the same with the dark dough. Place the two squares on top of each other with the dark side facing up and using a plate cut out a circle; discard the rest of the dough.
  5. With a sharp knife cut the bi-colored circle into eight triangles. Stretch each triangle a bit to elongate it, sprinkle it with a little bit of cinnamon sugar and starting from the wide side roll it up into a crescent. Place the crescent on a baking sheet with the tip down. Continue making the crescents; when you’re done, you should have eight crescents on the sheet.
  6. Take the remaining light and dark balls of dough; roll them out, and place them on top of each other, this time with light side facing up. Again, trace a plate using a knife and discard the remainder of the dough.
  7. Cut the circle into eights; place a bit of cinnamon sugar on each triangle, and roll it up into a crescent. Place the crescent onto the second parchment lined sheet. When you’re finished, you should have eight light colored and eight dark crescents, eight pieces on each pan. (Leave them enough room to expand; they will get bigger during baking.) Cover the crescents with a clean dishtowel and let them rise the second time in a warm spot for about 20 minutes while preheating the oven to 350 °F (175 °C).
  8. Bake the crescents for about 10 – 12 minutes until they are baked trough and are nice golden brown.
  9. While the crescents are baking, prepare the sugar syrup: In a small saucepan, combine sugar with water and cook, stirring occasionally, until thick syrup forms. (Watch the syrup closely, so that the water doesn’t evaporate and the sugar won’t turn into caramel.)
  10. Brush the hot crescents with sugar syrup upon taking them out of the oven and let them cool slightly before serving.

Double Chocolate Caramel Chestnut Cake

I’m a queen of lists. I’ve been scribbling lists ever since I can remember; nicely organized, in bulleted points, on colored post-it notes that I used to slap on every surface around: on the computer monitor, on the fridge, on the front door. Yellow notes were for the things I planned to get from the store, green ones for the things I needed to do. I was proud of my multi-tasking abilities (Doing five things at once and thinking about five more? Yep, I can! High five!) and I was convinced I was being proactive and effective.

I’m sure I’m not the only one: We live in a chaotic world, overstimulated in an era of an informational overload. Lists are our anchors of sorts – they give us an illusion of being in control and make us feel productive. They help us remember things, and no matter how long they are, they’re usually finite, which means that line by line we are moving forward and when we’re done, we can pat ourselves on the back and put our feet up. They’re helpful helpers, helpfully helping us move through life more smoothly.

Or so I thought.

But oddly over time I actually developed love – hate relationship with my lists. I was still compelled to write them, so every morning I’d sit down and jolt on paper what needed to be done: Mop the floors. Call the dentist. Wash the bedding. Get groceries and stop at the library. And when I looked around, things just kept flowing, from my mind to the pen and onto the paper: this and that – oh wait, I’ve forgotten about this – just one more thing! In the end I’d always put down way too much, piling on myself more than what was possible to accomplish in a day or what I was able to handle. As a result, I was stressed right from the get-go, even before I started with anything. The long list made me feel like a failure: How come there is so much to do? How could I let things slide so much that now I don’t even know where to start? Plus, just because I wrote things down it didn’t necessarily mean they got done. We all know life has a way of getting in the way, and when the evening rolled around and I realized I’ve spent the entire day doing things that had nothing to do with my list, I wasn’t a happy camper. Seeing all those lines I haven’t managed to cross made me feel like I wasn’t doing enough, too. But maybe most importantly, even when I succeeded in checking off the mountain of tasks, the stuff that got done were largely things I was doing in response to other people’s wants and needs, and at the end of the day I was left with no time nor energy pursuing what I myself wanted to do.

Somehow, somewhere the helpful list stopped being a helper and became more of a curse. And something needed to be done. And so, albeit reluctantly, I’ve ditched the notes that used to look at me reproachfully like colorful exclamation marks from every corner and I never looked back. I’ve also realized I don’t want to be a slave to a constant beeping flow of incoming e-mails, messages, and Facebook notifications anymore, and decided to outsmart my phone and unplug when the onrush gets to be too much. Instead of making those blasted lists I now go for a walk first thing in the morning before tackling everything that needs to be done. These days I do only what my mind reminds me to do, and if I forget something, I tell myself it probably wasn’t all that important in the first place. And even though I’m still tempted to dust while talking on the phone, I’m learning to focus just on the one thing in front of me. I think it’s called something like living in the moment 🙂 It’s not easy for me, that’s for sure, but I’m slowly getting better. The only list I’m allowing myself to write is a list of ingredients for my weekly baking session, and I think all the people in my household are happier for it.

Coincidentally, the list for this week’s cake is rather extensive. In the spotlight of this elaborate festive cake are chestnuts – the wintery treat of my childhood. We used to buy roasted chestnuts from a street stand, and then walk through the squeaky snow picking out hot, sweet, and tender fragrant chestnuts from a paper cone. Chestnut season is almost over, but thankfully you should be able to find peeled roasted chestnuts in a specialty grocery stores year round. Better yet, get the ready-made sweetened chestnut puree – that way despite the long list of ingredients the cake is quite easy to make. The original recipe calls for a 9-inch square pan, but I didn’t want to bother with cutting the square cake into three layers so I made the cake in a half-sheet pan and then cut it lengthwise into three long strips. The cake layers are generously soaked in Crème de Cocoa and covered in milk-chocolate ganache, and because you can never have too much chocolate in your life, the cake is finished with bittersweet chocolate glaze. I had fun dusting the chestnuts in golden pearl dust; that simple extra touch made the cake look very festive and worthy of any wintertime celebration. I hope you won’t let the long list keep you from giving it a try!

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Double Chocolate Caramel Chestnut Cake

(adapted from Bon Appétit 1/2005)

Chestnut Cake:
  • 2 cups (260 g, 9 oz.) cake flour
    (please see Note on how to make cake flour at home)
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 cup (226 g, 8 oz.) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 ¼ cup golden brown sugar, divided
  • 4 eggs, room temperature, separated
  • ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1 cup sweetened chestnut puree
    (use store-bought puree or see Note on how to make homemade chestnut puree from fresh roasted chestnuts)
  • ¼ cup half-and-half (or whole milk)
Milk Chocolate Ganache:
  • 6 tablespoons white granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 370 g (13 oz.) high-quality milk chocolate, broken up
  • 1 cup + 2 tablespoons heavy whipping cream
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 230 g (8 oz., 2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
Dark Chocolate Glaze:
  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream
  • ¼ cup water
  • ¼ cup white granulated sugar
  • 225 g (8 oz.) bittersweet dark chocolate, broken up

+ ¼ cup Crème de Cocoa liqueur for brushing the cake layers
– 24 whole roasted chestnuts (or jarred); 12 chopped up and 12 left whole for decoration
– Wilton Pearl Dust in golden color (optional)

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Method:
  1. To make the cake, butter and flour the sides of a half baking sheet (46 x 33 cm, 18 x 13 inches). Line the bottom with parchment paper. Preheat the oven to 350 °F (175 °C).
  2. Sift cake flour and baking powder. Beat butter with 1 cup sugar until light and fluffy. Add vanilla extract, and one by one mix in the egg yolks.
  3. Add in 1 cup of sweetened chestnut spread and milk and combine.
  4. Whip egg whites with salt and cream of tartar until soft peaks form. Gradually add in the remaining ¼ cup brown sugar and whip the mixture until firm peaks form. With a spatula, carefully fold the egg whites into the cake batter in three additions.
  5. Spread the batter into the lined pan and bake until the cake is golden in color, springs back to the touch, and the toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Let the cake cool in the pan for 5 minutes and then invert the cake onto a cooling rack, peel off the parchment paper and let the cake cool completely.
  6. To make the Milk Chocolate Ganache Frosting:  Place the milk chocolate into a glass bowl. Combine sugar and water in a deeper non-stick pan. Add in the cinnamon stick. Heat the mixture over medium heat until the water evaporates and the sugar caramelizes. Don’t stir, just gently swirl the pan from time to time, but watch the sugar closely so that it doesn’t burn. When the sugar turns nice golden color, add in the cream and salt. (The mixture will bubble vigorously and the caramel will crystallize.) Stir the caramel in the hot cream over low heat until it dissolves again. Remove the cinnamon stick.
  7. Pour the hot caramel cream over the chocolate and whisk until the chocolate melts and the mixture is smooth. Let the ganache cool to room temperature stirring occasionally – about 1 hour.
  8. Using electric mixer, whip butter until fluffy. By tablespoons, add in the cooled chocolate ganache and combine.
  9. Assembling the cake: Cut the cooled cake lengthwise into three equal strips. Place the first strip onto a flat surface and sprinkle it generously with Crème de Cocoa. Spread it with 1/3 of the ganache frosting and sprinkle with half of the chopped chestnuts. Cover with the second cake layer, brush with the liqueur, and spread with 1/3 of the chocolate ganache and the rest of the chestnuts. Place the third cake strip on the chestnuts, brush it with the liqueur and spread it with the rest of the ganache. Press lightly, and place the cake into the refrigerator to firm up, at least 2 hours.
  10. Make the glaze: Place the bittersweet dark chocolate in a bowl. Bring cream, sugar, and water to boil. Pour the mixture over the chocolate and whisk until smooth. Let the gaze cool until it thickens but is still pourable, about 1 hour. Pour glaze atop cake, covering the sides as well.  Return the cake into the refrigerator to firm up.
  11. Decorate the cake with golden chestnuts if desired: Brush the chestnuts with a little Crème de Cocoa and sprinkle them with Wilton Pearl Dust. (I used a paintbrush.) Let the chestnuts dry before putting them on the cake.
  12. The cake can be made up to 24 hours in advance; store in the refrigerator, covered. Bring the cake to room temperature before serving.
Note:

To make the cake flour, measure 1 cup of unbleached all-purpose flour, and then remove 2 tablespoons and substitute them with cornstarch. (For this recipe, you’ll need 2 cups all-purpose flour with 4 tablespoons removed and subbed with cornstarch.)

To make homemade chestnut puree, combine 170 g (6 oz.) of fresh roasted chestnuts, 1 cup water, ½ cup sugar, and 1 teaspoon vanilla in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook until most of the water evaporates. Strain the chestnuts, reserving the sugar syrup. Process the chestnuts in a food processor, adding the sugar syrup as needed to achieve desired consistency. These quantities should make about 1 cup; let the puree cool before proceeding with the recipe.

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Meringue Sandwich Cookies with Caramel Coffee Buttercream Filling (Laskonky)

It’s that time of year again. We flipped our calendars, wrapped up the year 2015 and lifted our glasses in a toast to happy new year. Folks have been reminiscing and talking about their resolutions. I have to say I’m not usually one to set new-year’s resolutions – to me they’re just empty lofty proclamations that don’t have a big chance to stick for long. That doesn’t mean I don’t reflect on things that happened and think about changes I’d like to make, though.

We made a trip to the ocean on a New Year’s day. I’m a Pisces and love the sea, and as I was strolling along the beach listening to waves crashing against the shore I was thinking about the year that passed – pondering the things I wish I’d done, those I wish I’d not done, and what I’d like to take from it for the future. Over the past year, I have all too often found myself pushing myself – to do more, to work harder, to try make everything just right until I could no longer continue. We women and mothers especially are quick learners when it comes to taking care of others, and can get very good in anticipating and fulfilling their needs. Seemingly we also take very good care of ourselves – at least on the outside: I start off every day with a green smoothie and drink sixty-four ounces of water. I eat healthy and use sunscreen religiously. I schedule yearly check-ups and keep up with the doctor’s recommendations. But way too often I forget the other, far more important part – how to take care of myself on the inside. I push myself to the side, play resilient, slap band-aids on feelings I’d rather not know about or tell myself I can deal with them later. I convince myself and everybody else I’m fine when in fact nothing could be farther from the truth.

And so my resolution and “to-do list” for the 2016 consists of only one item, really: Learn to take better care of myself. I want to be gentler with myself and listen to my body and soul more, instead of paying too much attention to the world and people around. I vow to become a better friend to myself – after all, we just wished each other a happy new year, and it’s rather hard to be happy when someone is mean to you, even if/especially if that someone is you! I plan to make a conscious effort to do me – to do whatever brings me joy as opposed to what I for whatever reason feel compelled to do. Be more present, and live a fuller and more authentic life.

As for me, spending time in the kitchen playing with tastes, textures, and aromas is definitely a step in right direction! So without further ado I present to you my first baking effort of the year. I had way too many egg whites left after the Christmas baking that needed to be used up, and these meringue sandwich cookies fit the bill perfectly. They are commonly sold in Slovak bakeries, just as the popular French macarons are made with only egg whites, ground nuts, and sugar, and can be filled with different buttercream based fillings. The typical oval shape is achieved thanks to a special plastic form with openings through which you press the batter onto the baking sheet, but if you can live with less uniform and less perfect cookies, you can just take an icing bag/tablespoon and make small mounds of batter on the parchment paper and flatten them slightly. I went a little overboard in my quantity estimations – the batch made with six egg whites gave me 50 individual cookies, which I filled with buttercream and ended up with final count of 25. It was way too many, so next time I’ll probably halve the recipe. Good news is that you can store the unfilled meringue cookies in an airtight container in a cool and dry place for couple of days and fill them later as needed. The buttercream is caramel based with hints of coffee, but you can use any buttercream that suits your fancy!

Whether you bake, make pottery, sing, or jog, may we be able to make this year truly happy for ourselves. Here’s to 2016!

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Meringue Sandwich Cookies with Caramel Coffee Buttercream Filling (Laskonky)

 Cookies:
  • 6 egg whites, room temperature
  • pinch salt
  • ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 330 g (11.5 oz.) white sugar
  • 160 g (5.5 oz.) finely ground walnuts (pecans)
  • 100 g (3.5 oz.) powdered sugar
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour (if you want to make the cookies gluten-free, use gluten-free flour mix in the same quantity)
  • pinch baking powder
Caramel Coffee Buttercream Filling:
  • 6 tablespoons white sugar
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 250 ml (8 oz., 1 cup) half-and-half or whole milk; divided
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 tablespoon instant coffee
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 10 g (0.4 oz.) cornstarch
  • 230 g (8 oz., 2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

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Method:
  1. To make the cookies: Line two big baking sheets with parchment paper and preheat the oven to 265 °F (130 °C).
  2. Put egg whites with the salt and cream of tartar in a bowl, and then place the bowl over a pot with small amount of boiling water. Whisk the egg whites over the water bath gradually adding granulated white sugar until very firm peaks form, about 15 minutes. (I transferred the egg white mixture after 15 minutes into a bowl of my stand mixer and whisked it on a high speed for a couple more minutes to achieve a very stiff consistency.) You want the egg white mixture to be very firm, so it won’t thin out after adding the ground nuts. This way, the cookies will be easier to form as well.
  3. Combine  finely ground nuts, powdered sugar, flour, and baking powder, and carefully fold them into the egg white mixture. Use a spatula and take care not to deflate the egg whites.
  4. When using the special cookie making tool for laskonky, spray the bottom side with a cooking spray and place it onto the parchment lined baking sheet. Place about 1.5 tablespoons of meringue batter into each opening, pressing it down lightly. Level off excess batter with a knife and then carefully lift the form off, so that the cookies can fall off onto the parchment paper. Wash the form, spray it with the cooking spray again and continue making the cookies until you use up all the meringue batter. Alternatively, make the cookies with an icing bag or a tablespoon forming a small mounds and flattening them slightly.
  5. Place the cookies into the preheated oven and bake them for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes lower the temp to 176 °F (80 °C) and let them dry out slowly in a warm oven until very firm to the touch, about 30 minutes. When they are done, you should be able to easily peel them off the parchment paper. If they don’t seem to be dry enough, give them a couple more minutes in the warm oven. Let the cookies cool completely before filling.
  6. While the cookies are baking/cooling, prepare the Caramel Coffee Buttercream: Place 6 tablespoons of granulated sugar into a deeper pan. Add 2 tablespoons water and let the sugar mixture cook, not stirring, until the water evaporates and the sugar turns nice golden color. Watch the sugar closely so it doesn’t burn.
  7. Take the caramel off the heat and carefully pour in 200 ml (6.5 oz.) half-and-half (milk). The mixture will sizzle and the caramel will crystallize. Place the milk-caramel mixture over a low heat and cook, stirring constantly, to melt the caramel again. Add in the vanilla extract and the coffee.
  8. Combine cornstarch, 2 egg yolks, and remaining 50 ml (1.5 oz.) half-and-half (milk) until smooth. Combine the egg yolk-cornstarch-milk mixture with couple of tablespoons of hot caramel milk to temper it, and then add the warmed up egg yolk-cornstarch-milk mixture to the caramel coffee milk. Cook the mixture over a low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens, about 3 minutes. Let the caramel coffee pudding cool to room temperature before proceeding.
  9. Whip the soft butter until light and fluffy. By tablespoons add in the cooled caramel coffee pudding, whipping constantly, to make a light smooth crème.
  10. To assemble the cookies, sandwich two meringue cookies with about 2 tablespoons of caramel coffee crème and serve.