Who Stole the Best Italian Cookie……?

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Who stole the cookie from the cookie jar? Remember this sing-song rhyme? Bakers with kids know it well. It’s sweet and fun just like my all time favorite Italian cookie which just happens to make the perfect dessert bite for an Easter or Mother’s Day celebration.

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Made with ricotta cheese these cookies are soft and cake-like. They absolutely melt in the mouth. Recently, I made them for a bridal shower. I had many requests for the recipe which brings me to their decorating versatility. They can be dressed up for any occasion and so not limited to Easter or Christmas when typically eaten in my family.

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The cookies  featured here are dressed for Easter, but add a little gel color to the icing and/or make a topping change and they can easily be featured at a baby shower or Mother’s Day brunch. Don’t hesitate to change up the flavoring, too. Any extract or citrus zest will play well.

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So who stole the cookie from the cookie jar?

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The ones with the sprinkles on top!

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Annabelle stole the cookie from the cookie jar. Nice breakfast, huh? Grandma’s privilege.

Italian Ricotta Cookies

  • Servings: 3 dozen cookies
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1/2 (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

1 cup sugar

1 cup ricotta cheese

1 teaspoon grated lime zest

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 teaspoon coconut extract

2 cups all purpose flour

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon fine sea salt or table salt

Icing

1 cup powdered sugar

1 teaspoon unsalted butter

1/8 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon vanilla or coconut extract

2 teaspoons buttermilk or lime juice

Toppings

Sprinkles, coconut, finely chopped nuts

Heat oven 350F. In large bowl, cream butter and sugar until light. Add ricotta and zest; blend well. Add egg, vanilla and extract; blend again. In another bowl, whisk flour, baking soda and salt; add to dry ingredients and blend well. Chill dough for 30 minutes. Drop cookie batter by tablespoonfuls or use a cookie scoop onto ungreased baking sheets. Bake 12-15 minutes or until bottoms are golden brown. The cookies will look pale on top. Cool. For icing, mash powdered sugar, butter and salt together with the back of a spoon until butter is well incorporated into the sugar. Add flavoring and just enough buttermilk or lime juice to get a light icing consistency…more of a glaze than a thick icing. One at a time, dip top of cooled cookies into icing, letting excess drip off, and then immediately dip into one of the toppings. Makes about 3 dozen cookies.

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The Best Darn Lemon Cake

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After last week’s revelation of whether internet recipes were well tested or NOT I promised to deliver a better lemon cake. The photo below is the recipe dud my friend experienced that kicked off lemon cake mania in my kitchen.

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~friend’s photo

Looking over the written recipe she used I guessed those sinking centers were a result of too much leavening. The cake collapsed down the middle because the batter could not hold the excess carbon dioxide. She also mentioned that the cake was very oily. With a half cup of oil stirred in at the end that came as no surprise. Based on the concept that oil and water don’t mix I imagine the oil just coating the wet batter rather than joining into the pool. The next photo is that same recipe with less baking soda and half the amount of oil with the oil incorporated in the beginning of the recipe rather than at the end. The collapse is gone, but it still felt oily and didn’t have much lemon flavor.

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too oily and not enough lemon flavor

 

It took a bit of internet recipe research and thumbing through a variety of my own cookbooks AND a field trip to Starbuck’s to understand the many variations available. Baked with everything from oil to instant pudding mix I knew I wanted a less processed ingredient cake that would tingle all the way down to your toes with fresh lemon flavor. It was not an easy task.

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In addition to my daughter and husband, my neighbor agreed to be a taste tester. Pam is a very good cook and I trust her tastebuds. Then it happened. The first slice I sent over her response is “this is better than Starbuck’s”. I knew I needed to get my hands on a slice to properly compare since this whole project started over a copycat recipe that failed.

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I am not sure why anyone likes this cake. See those tunnels in that slice? That most likely means the leavening is not distributed evenly into the flour. Oh, and it also collapses. AND at $3.00 a slice Starbuck’s is not cheap. Even before the cashier handed me the bag I was hit by a waft of lemon scent. Sadly, it was an odor that brought memories of my mom dusting the living room furniture with lemon Pledge rather than something baking in the oven.  Back home, as my sense of smell and taste mingled over a bite of the cake I guessed it was heavily dosed with either lemon oil or extract. It was an overwhelming and unpleasant bite. An assault to my nose as there was no flavor in my mouth. It was all in my nose. I wondered why anyone would want to recreate it, but taste is subjective. Right? I will give it props for the icing. I think it’s a simple mix of fresh lemon juice and powdered sugar.

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When it comes to the flavor of our food the sense of smell rather than that of taste is the dominant force. The common experience of pinching our nostrils close to swallow a spoonful of awful tasting medicine during cold and flu season illustrates the point. While the tastebuds distinguish between salty, sweet, bitter and sour the nose is far more sensitive and can discriminate among 100’s of different substances. We smell and taste the flavor of our food at the same time because the nose and mouth share an air passage known as the pharynx. Ingredients like lemon extract and lemon oil add aroma. In small doses it’s a good thing. I think Starbuck’s is using too much of a good thing in their cake recipe. Okay, enough science lets get down to the recipe.

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Second try using lemon pudding mix and a soaking lemon glaze. Taste testers like it. Still not enough lemon punch and a bit dense in my opinion. Find the recipe below.

In an attempt to enhance the lemon flavor I try instant lemon pudding in the next test plus a soaking lemon glaze. This cake bakes up dark and a bit dense. All the taste testers like it, but I don’t love it.

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Buttery light cake with a wallop of real lemon flavor

 

So, onto test #3. This is it. The goal is to eliminate the processed ingredients and create a buttery light cake with that punch in your face, lip-smakin’, pucker power fresh lemon flavor that make your shoulders shiver. It might not be yours, but it is my favorite lemon loaf cake. If you try it I would love to hear your honest opinion. I can thank one of my dessert heroes, Maida Heatter, for the inspiration.

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soaked in glaze

The Best Darn Lemon Cake

  • Servings: 8 to 10
  • Difficulty: easy
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Adapted from Maida Heatter’s New Book of Great Desserts

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon fine sea salt

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted

1 cup sugar

grated zest of 2 large lemons

2 eggs

½ cup milk

2 tablespoons lemon extract

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1/3 cup almond flour

Glaze

¼ cup fresh lemon juice

¼ cup sugar

Icing(optional)

1 tablespoon soft unsalted butter

½ cup powdered sugar

pinch of fine sea salt

3 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

Heat oven to 350F. Butter an 8 ½ x 4 ½-inch loaf pan. Line the bottom of the pan with a strip of parchment paper leaving a 1-inch overhang. Butter the parchment or use a no-stick spray. In small bowl, whisk flour, baking powder and salt; set aside. In large bowl, with an electric mixer, beat butter and sugar until creamy. Add zest and eggs; blend well. Add 1/3rd of flour mixture, alternating with half the milk, blending well after each addition and scraping bottom of the bowl. Add lemon extract and lemon juice; blend well. Stir in almond flour. Pour into prepared pan. Bake 65 to 70 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. The cake should have cracks in the top. Transfer cake in pan to a cooling rack. For glaze: heat lemon juice and sugar together in small saucepan, stirring, just until sugar is dissolved. While cake is still hot in pan slowly brush the glaze over top of cake until it is absorbed. The cracks in the cake are a gateway to the inside, so no need to poke holes all over it unless you are in a hurry. Let cake cool completely before lifting it from the pan using the parchment paper as handles. Makes 8 to 10 slices.

If you like icing just mix the butter, powdered sugar and salt together and then add enough lemon juice to create the desired consistency. Spread over the top and let set.

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Lemon Loaf with Pudding in the Mix

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

1 (3.4 oz) instant lemon pudding mix

½ teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

¼ cup canola oil

3/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 teaspoons lemon extract

3 eggs

zest of 2 lemons

1/3 cup buttermilk

Glaze

¼ cup sugar

¼ cup fresh lemon juice

Icing

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

1 cup powdered sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Heat oven 350F. Spray a 9×5-inch loaf pan with no-stick baking spray. Line pan with a strip of parchment paper with a 1-inch overhang. Lightly coat parchment with baking spray. In bowl, whisk flour, pudding mix, baking powder, baking soda and salt; set aside. In stand mixer, beat butter, oil and sugar until combined. Add vanilla and lemon extract, eggs and lemon zest; blend well. Add half the flour mixture; blend just until moistened. Add buttermilk; blend well. Add remaining flour mixture just until blended. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake 50 to 60 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cover with foil last 10 minutes if browning too much. Transfer cake in pan to a cooling rack. Prepare glaze. In small saucepan, over medium heat, stir sugar and lemon juice just until sugar is dissolved. Brush glaze over loaf while it is still warm. Cool completely. Using parchment overhang as handles lift cake from pan. Peel off parchment and place on serving plate. For icing mash butter, powdered sugar and salt together with the back of a spoon until well blended. Add just enough lemon juice, stirring, to desired icing consistency. I like it lemony. You can substitute milk if you don’t like so much lemon, but then why are you here? (LOL)

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Note that Starbuck’s bakes in a narrow pan to get that height

And as an added bonus for all you Gluten-Free foodies check out my friend Kim’s blog for a delicious dairy free, gluten free version of the best darn blueberry lemon loaf. Just click on this link: The Gluten Free Gathering

Garden Fresh Fig Coffee Cake

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I never dreamed that I would ever be able to grow fresh figs until this move to southeast Pennsylvania. The climate here is warmer and the growing season longer. With a little winter protection my fig trees have thrived. As grocery produce goes they are a pricey commodity, so it’s a great example of why tending a small backyard garden is worth it. Here we are on the edge of November and these fresh figs are ripening fast and furious.

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Once picked figs don’t last long. They are quite perishable. We love them sliced and caramelized in butter with goat cheese and balsamic glaze, but we can only eat so many that way. Simmering a large pot of figs with honey and orange yielded two nice jars of jam. Still so many figs, so I baked a fresh fig cake recipe that I present today.

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This is a dense fruit cake filled with toasted pecans, chopped dates, dried cranberries and the fresh figs. It’s flavored with cardamom, citrus zest and a little orange liqueur. It is a moist cake that is delicious for breakfast topped with plain Greek yogurt or can be served as an elegant after dinner dessert topped with whipped cream.

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Garden Fresh Fig Cake

1 cup dried sweetened cranberries

1/2 cup pitted dates, quartered

2 tablespoons orange liqueur or orange juice

3 cups all purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 1/4 cups canola

1 tablespoon grated orange zest

3 eggs

1/2 tablespoon vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract

1 cup chopped toasted pecans

 

12 ripe figs, quartered

Heat oven to 350F. Spray a coffee cake pan with no-stick baking spray. In small bowl, toss cranberries, dates and orange liqueur or juice; reserve. In medium bowl, whisk flour, baking soda, salt and cardamom; set aside. In large mixing bowl, beat sugar, oil and orange zest on high speed for 5 minutes. Add eggs and vanilla; blend well. With mixer on low speed gradually add flour mixture blending just until dry ingredients are moistened. Stir in pecans and reserved dried fruit mixture. Spread half the batter evenly over bottom of pan. Evenly space half the figs on the batter. Spread remaining batter over figs. Top with remaining figs. Bake for 70 to 80 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes. Invert onto a plate and then invert again on to a cooling rack. I prefer the fig side up.

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I prefer to flip this over and serve it fig side up