Vanilla Pudding

Homemade vanilla pudding is as creamy and delicious as ice cream, and worth the minimal extra effort compared to the instant kind. It’s extra special to have it as a dessert because you know you’ve made it yourself.

Serve this with fruit, cookies, fun sprinkles on top — or all three! This is adapted from a Better Homes & Gardens recipe.

Serves 4-5

1 cup sugar
2 Tbsp. cornstarch
3 cups half-and-half
4 egg yolks, beaten
1 Tbsp. butter
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. salt

Mix sugar and cornstarch in a pot. Add half-and-half, then stir over medium heat until thickened and bubbly. Cook and stir 2 minutes more. Remove from heat, stir 1 cup of the mixture into the egg yolks, then add that back to the pot with a whisk. Bring to a gentle boil, reduce heat, and cook and stir 2 minutes more.

Remove from heat and stir in the rest of the ingredients. Pour through a sieve into a bowl to remove any clumps, lay plastic wrap directly onto the surface, and chill several hours.

Rolo Pretzel Bites

These are delicious dessert nibbles that are always popular at parties, because they’re easy to pick up and just so scrumptious. You can offer a whole tray of them and they’ll disappear quickly. You need only pretzels (the small square ones), Rolos, and pecan halves, and they take only 2 minutes in the oven.

I first had these at a holiday party years ago and they were practically addictive. The recipe is now on the back of the bag of Rolos, so it’s not exactly a secret — but it lives in my cookbook, and these are so yummy, that I wanted to share it.

Heat oven to 250F/120C degrees.

Place pretzel squares on baking sheet lined with parchment paper and put an unwrapped Rolo on each one. Put in the heated oven for 2 minutes, then remove and put a pecan half on top. Press down slightly and let cool before serving.

Apple Praline Ice Cream

This ice cream has the deliciously distinct taste of apple pie. It’s made with applesauce, which gives it a fruity taste, but it’s also creamy. You make it with chopped pecan pralines or candied pecans, though you could also substitute plain ones.

The original recipe came from a UK newspaper years ago, hence the metric measurements that I have converted, but I have altered it since.

Makes 4 servings

125 ml (about 1/2 cup) heavy whipping cream
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/8 tsp. cinnamon
2 egg yolks
100g (3.5 oz) sugar
125g (just under 4.5 oz.) sour cream
175g (just above 6 oz.) unsweetened applesauce
3/4 cup roughly chopped pecan pralines

Make sure your ice cream maker’s freezer bowl is frozen. (I always need a reminder for this step!)

In a saucepan, combine cream, vanilla, and cinnamon and bring to a boil.

Whisk the egg yolks and sugar in a bowl. Pour in the cream and mix until blended, then pour the mixture into the saucepan and cook gently, stirring continuously, until the mixture coats the back of a spoon. Remove from the heat and strain through a sieve. Let cool.

Stir in the sour cream and applesauce and churn. Add the nuts to the ice cream maker toward the end of mixing, or layer them in when you pour the ice cream into a freezer container.

Gingerbread Men Cookies

These are so much fun to make and decorate, and the smell and taste of the spices is wonderful, especially during the holidays. The recipe doesn’t take much skill, either — just some patience while the dough chills so the cookies can better hold their shape. And after the cookies are baked comes the next fun part — decorating! My favorite royal icing recipe is below.

I made these for Christmas this year and gave some as presents. Of course, these can be made in any shape you like — try huge snowflakes, circles as Christmas ornaments, or triangles for Christmas trees (if you don’t have a tree cookie cutter). I had leftover dough, so I improvised the shape of a house with a paring knife.

Yield: A whole lot of cookies (depends on the size of your cookie cutters!)

6 cups sifted all-purpose (plain) flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 cup unsalted butter
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
4 tsp. ground ginger
4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. white pepper
1 1/2 tsp. salt
2 large eggs
1 cup molasses (unsulfured)
Royal icing (see recipe below)

In a large bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, and baking powder. Set aside.

In an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Mix in spices and salt, then eggs and molasses. Add flour mixture and combine on low speed.

Divide dough into thirds and wrap in plastic. Chill for at least 1 hour.

After the dough has chilled, on a floured surface, roll out one of the dough portions until 1/8 inch thick. Cut into desired shapes and transfer to ungreased cookie sheets. Refrigerate until firm, about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, heat oven to 350F/175C degrees.

Bake the cookies until crisp but not darkened, 8-10 minutes. Transfer them to a baking rack to cool and repeat the process with the rest of the dough. When cookies are cool, decorate as desired.

I used flat sprinkles for the buttons. Mini M&Ms would be nice, too.


ROYAL ICING

2 cups confectioner’s (icing) sugar
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
2 tsp. light corn syrup
2 1/2 Tbsp. hot water, more if needed
Piping bag with narrow tip, or plastic bag

Mix all ingredients in a bowl with electric hand mixer on medium speed until well blended.

The icing should not be watery, so be careful when the water and only add a DROP or two until it’s the right consistency (a drop of water goes a long way when making icing). You want it to be stiff enough to go through a piping bag. Use a narrow tip on the piping bag or snip off a very small corner of a plastic bag. Scoop the icing inside the bag and enjoy the decorating!

(Icing recipe from a 1998 Christmas cookie recipe booklet from Williams-Sonoma.)

Striped Jell-O

This is a fun dessert made with three layers of Jell-O, one of them creamy, and you can change the colors and flavors any way you like. I found this on a subreddit for old recipes, where the user said an Italian grandma gave him the recipe with the colors of the Italian flag. That’s how I made it the first time. You’ll see I’ve used different colors this time — grape and cherry — as picked by my children!

Because you have to wait several hours between layers to allow them to set, you shouldn’t plan to serve this the same day you make it. Cut through it gently with a sharp knife and lift out the pieces with a sharp spatula — otherwise you’ll lose part of the bottom layer.

Makes 16 pieces.

2 large (6-oz.) boxes of Jell-O, any flavor
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup sugar
2 envelopes gelatin dissolved in 1/2 cup water
1 tsp. vanilla

Dissolve the first box of Jell-O in 2 cups boiling water. Pour into a 13×9-inch pan and let set in refrigerator for several hours.

Boil heavy cream, sour cream, sugar, gelatin, and vanilla. Allow to cool and pour over first layer. Let set in refrigerator for several hours.

Dissolve the second box of Jell-O in 2 cups boiling water. Let cool and pour over the second layer. Let set in refrigerator, then cut and enjoy.

Halloween Cupcakes

Halloween is a great holiday for fun treats and desserts, with so many creative possibilities. (I made these Eyeball Cupcakes a few years ago.) This year, I decided to make a whole bunch of Halloween cupcakes all at once — I’ve had pictures of these in my binder for a long time and I just wanted to finally make them. Here are the designs and instructions. Note: You may find it easiest to use a cake mix for the cupcakes, because the decorations are the focus. Chocolate cupcakes made from a devil’s food cake mix hold up well.

MUMMY CUPCAKES

You will need:
Chocolate cupcakes
White fondant (use a gourmet brand for the best taste)
Something for the eyes (I used mini chocolate morsels. Mini brown M&Ms would be good, or you could use candy eyeballs.)

Roll out the fondant until about 1/8 thick. Best to do this on a surface covered in confectioner’s sugar (icing sugar). Use a knife or pizza cutter to cut thin ribbons, then lay pieces of the ribbon across the cupcake. Attach the eyes. They won’t stick very well on their own, so use a dab of water or even frosting to fix them in place.

PUMPKIN CUPCAKES

You will need:
Vanilla cupcakes
Buttercream frosting
Orange food coloring
Orange sanding sugar
Pretzel sticks

After coloring the frosting, spread a nicely shaped mound of it on top of the cupcake. Cover with sanding sugar and press it lightly so it adheres. With the tip of a knife, draw lines extending from the center. Insert a pretzel stick into the middle.

WITCHES’ CAULDRONS

You will need:
Chocolate cupcakes
Chocolate frosting
Vanilla pudding
Green food coloring
A mix of Halloween sprinkles
Pretzel sticks

Scoop out a portion in the middle of each cupcake. Don’t go too far down. Put the chocolate frosting around the hole and put a dab of it at the bottom of the hole (to help keep the pudding in place).

Make the vanilla pudding and color it green. Scoop it into the cupcake holes, then top with sprinkles. Insert a pretzel stick at an angle into the pudding. (If you’re not going to eat these right away, insert the pretzel sticks shortly before serving — otherwise they will get soggy.)

WHITE GHOST CUPCAKES

You will need:
Chocolate cupcakes
Chocolate frosting
White chocolate
Mini chocolate morsels

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Snip off a tiny corner of a plastic sandwich bag.

Melt white chocolate in the microwave (remove it as soon as it’s melted, or it will become too thick). Spoon it into the sandwich bag and pipe the outline of a ghost on the parchment, making one corner of the bottom of the ghost very long and narrow — this is what you will use to insert into the cupcakes. Fill in the outline with chocolate and smooth it out ever so gently with your finger or a knife. Quickly place two morsels on for eyes, then refrigerate until solid. Insert into frosted cupcakes.

M&M MONSTERS

You will need:
Any kind of cupcakes
Buttercream frosting
A variety of food coloring — try green, purple, and orange
Brown, green, and orange M&Ms
Candy eyeballs

Color the frosting in a variety of colors and spread on the cupcakes. Decorate with M&Ms and candy eyeballs. You can see I did random designs as well as faces.

Note: You should store these at room temperature or make them just before serving, as the M&Ms will get a frosty look after spending time in the refrigerator.

The main thing with all of these cupcakes is to HAVE FUN and be creative.

Happy Halloween!

Lemon Blueberry Frozen Yogurt Sandwiches

These are very easy to make and even easier to devour. Just stir everything in a small bowl and freeze overnight, then cut into bars, sandwiched between graham crackers. With the fat-free yogurt and large dose of fruit, these could be a healthy snack, a healthy dessert, or even a treat at breakfast. You can skip the graham crackers and eat the bars on their own, too — though your fingers will get cold and you won’t get the fun crunch of the crackers.

I adapted the recipe from this one at WW. I used a larger pan, because it made for thinner pieces that were easier to bite into. I added the graham crackers on a whim.

Makes 6 sandwiches

1 lemon
1 cup fat-free vanilla yogurt (I have used both Greek yogurt and a mixture of Greek with regular yogurt)
1 Tbsp. agave syrup
1 cup fresh blueberries
13-14 graham cracker rectangles

Line an 8×8-inch pan with parchment paper that hangs off the sides, so you can easily lift the yogurt out later.

Zest and juice the lemon. You need 1/2 tsp. of zest and 1/2 tsp. of juice. Mix the zest and juice into the yogurt with the agave syrup and blueberries.

Crush 1-2 graham cracker rectangles (amount depends on your preference). Spread half the crumbs onto the parchment, then spread the yogurt mixture evenly on top. Scatter the rest of the crumbs over the yogurt, pressing down gently, if possible, to make sure it all adheres.

Freeze overnight. When ready, lift it out of the pan and cut into six bars. Sandwich each bar between two graham cracker rectangles. Enjoy.

Peanut Brittle

This recipe comes from a community cookbook published in Atlanta in 1985. It’s the kind of cookbook bound with plastic rings and with the names of the people who submitted the recipes below each one. I love these kinds of cookbooks — they give a peek into people’s kitchens and the recipes they love to make. This particular cookbook is where I got my candied pecan recipe, which I make during the holidays, and it’s also the source for this peanut brittle.

You do need a candy thermometer. I tried making it without one, but it was a failure — it took too long and I got impatient, and the result was bendy and stick-to-your-teeth chewy. With a candy thermometer, the process is easy.

The key to brittle is baking soda: It forms bubbles that make the brittle light enough to break apart and eat. The baking soda reacts with the melted sugar and foams up, in the same way it reacts with acids like buttermilk, vinegar, or lemon juice to make baked recipes light. Here’s a great article about brittle, if you want to learn more.

1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 bottle (8 oz.) light corn syrup
2 Tbsp. water
2 cups unsalted peanuts
2 tsp. baking soda

Butter a 9×13-inch baking sheet.

In a very large pot, mix sugar, syrup, water, and peanuts. Have the baking soda measured and ready in a small dish next to the stove.

Cook at moderate heat, stirring constantly, until the candy thermometer reads hard crack (just above 300F, or exactly 150C degrees). Remove from heat and immediately stir in baking soda. Pour out quickly onto baking sheet and let cool. Then break into pieces and serve.

Notes:
— Use a large pot because the mixture will foam up more than you may think. I used a 4-quart pot.
— Do not try to flatten the mixture after you pour it on the baking sheet, or you’ll break up some of the bubbles that are key to making it brittle.

Recipe originally from Melba Lehman.

Chocolate Croissant Bites

This is a quick little dessert that reminds me of chocolate-filled croissants from a nice pastry shop somewhere — the kind of place with small tables and a big window to the street, that smells more of sugar than coffee and has a display case full of desserts almost too beautiful to eat. (I really do miss visiting places like that.)

Gourmet thoughts aside, this is actually a simple back-of-the-box recipe I’ve had in my cookbook for ages. It was called Fudgy Brownie Cups, but to me that doesn’t describe it well enough. There is no rising agent in the chocolate mixture, and that’s what makes them fudgy, but they just don’t seem like brownies when they’re wrapped in the flaky layers of puff pastry.

All you need is a saucepan, a rolling pin and a couple of muffin pans and it’s ready in less than 20 minutes.

Makes 20

8 oz. (227g) sheet of puff pastry (half of a standard U.S. box), thawed
4 oz. (113g) dark chocolate (I used Lindt‘s 70% cocoa chocolate bar)
4 oz. (113g) unsalted butter (half a stick)
3/4 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 Tbsp. all-purpose (plain) flour, plus extra for dusting countertop
Confectioner’s (icing) sugar (optional)

Heat oven to 400F/200C degrees.

In a pot over medium-low heat, melt chocolate and butter. Turn off heat and mix in sugar. Add eggs and vanilla, then mix in flour.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out puff pastry to a 12×15-inch rectangle. Cut into 3×3-inch squares and press each one into an ungreased muffin cup. Fill with 1 tablespoon of chocolate mixture. Bake 15-20 minutes or until golden (you want to err on the longer side to make sure the puff pastry comes out crispy on the bottom, not chewy).

Immediately remove to a wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature, dusted with confectioner’s sugar.

Kentucky Derby Day Pie

I didn’t know what a Derby Pie was until a colleague of mine, Kara, posted this recipe around the time of the Kentucky Derby this year. She said it’s her mother’s recipe. As much as I love making pies, I also cherish recipes from other people’s kitchens — they’re authentic, and every time I make one, I remember the person who shared it with me. It wasn’t until recently that I had a chance to make this.

I have since learned that the name “Derby Pie” is trademarked, so I can’t use it, even though I’ve also learned it’s a beloved pie for many cooks who happily call it that in their collection of recipes.

The pie contains chopped walnuts and chocolate morsels beneath a soft, sweet filling. Use your favorite pie crust, whether frozen, refrigerated, or homemade, in a 9-inch pie plate. I’ve made this twice now and everyone has loved it. Thank you, Kara, for letting me share it! 😋

Heat oven to 350F/175C degrees.

In a large bowl, mix one by one in this order:
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup flour
1 stick melted butter, cooled
1 cup chopped walnuts (pecans are OK, too)
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 tsp. vanilla

Pour in pie crust and bake for about 45 minutes, until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean (though there might be some chocolate on it, which is fine).