Cookie Month: Caramel, Walnut and Chocolate Thumbprints

I woke early.  The morning was unusually quiet.  Fog enshrouded our hill and the valleys beyond it dampening any sound.  I put the kettle on the stove, made a fire and then sat on the couch for a while just staring at the landscape, the fog, the apple trees.  Suddenly I was overcome by a desire to walk amongst it all.  To be there in it.  I headed back to the bedroom to change, wrote a note to Tom and headed down the road.  I eventually ended up in a big apple orchard near my house.  It was beautiful.  The leaves were yellow and occasionally the lightest breeze would shake one loose and it would twirl silently through the fog to rest on the ground.

I am amazed by the bounty of life in this place.  Maybe it’s because I was raised in the desert where life is harsh and brutal.  Out there you are more likely to come across a pile of bones than a live animal.  Northern CA is very different.  I found late blackberries still growing on vines near my road.  Mushrooms everywhere.  Those red ones were gigantic and were growing right next to our mailbox.  I found tracks for a small herd of deer, but not the deer themselves.  Starlings have flocked to the vineyards by the hundreds gobbling up everything the pickers have left behind.  With them came extra hawks and turkey vultures looking for the slowest birds of the flock.  Plus we have been on the lookout for raccoons, opossums, and foxes breaking into our bird house.

Its been fascinating to watch the transformation of the vineyards.  The brilliant colors were completely unexpected.  I thought grape leaves just turned brown and fell because that’s what the grapevines back home did, but here is different.  Its been a pleasure to drive past them each morning and watch as the leaves transform from green to yellow to russet and then suddenly vanish overnight in the crazy windstorm we had.  Now the vines are beautiful in their stark barrenness.  Perfect rows of empty brown vines reaching for the sky.  Bright green grass blanketing the paths between and eventually disappearing into the low fog that hugs the foothills beyond.

All this beautiful winter weather really put me into the Christmas spirit.  I started by joining in on the Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap.  You can check out all 500+ cookie recipes through that link.  The cookies I received were awesome and I cant wait to participate next year.

When I was 6 my new step-father moved into our house bringing with him a passion for Christmas cookies that he could trace all the way back to his Ohio born great grandmother.  I have many happy memories of deciphering her 100 year old recipes,  mixing the dough, freezing dough, sneaking bites of dough, and making more cookies than anyone would ever want to make in a weekend.  We would send these cookies out to every person my stepfather had ever met and then sink down with exhaustion and swear not to make another cookie until next Christmas.  Of course, that never lasts.

I asked my stepdad if I could share some of his family’s recipes and got a resounding NO!  Instead I am testing out new recipes for my old favorites starting with caramel, shortbread and nuts.  Any combo of these ingredients and I am in love.  This year I came across an awful recipe for Caramel Walnut Thumbprint Cookies.  I wont say which recipe it was, just know it involved a lot of premade ingredients!  What does matter is that I completely reworked the recipe and came out with something I really liked.  The chocolate cookie base is Alice Waters Pate Sucree recipe I have used before with a little chocolate powder thrown in.  The caramel sauce recipe belongs to David Lebovitz.  His helpful instructions on making caramel were vital to my success.  Hope you enjoy them!

Caramel, Walnut & Chocolate Thumbprint Cookies

For the cookies

  • 8 tbsp butter (1 stick), softened at room temp for 15 minutes
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 egg yolk, room temp
  • 1 1/4 cups of all-purpose flour
  • 2 tbsp chocolate powder
  • 1 cup of crushed walnuts

1.  Preheat the oven to 350F and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.  In a small bowl stir together the flour and chocolate powder and set aside.

2.  In a medium sized bowl beat the butter and sugar together with an electric mixer until smooth & creamy.

3.  Add the salt, vanilla and egg yolk and mix until completely combined.

3.  Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and mix with a wooden spoon until until there are no dry patches.  Form into a disk and wrap with plastic wrap.  Chill for 4 hours in the fridge.

4.  When firm let the dough soften on the counter for 15 minutes then break off pieces of dough and roll into 1 inch balls.  Roll the balls in the crushed walnuts.  You may need to press the nuts into the ball slightly.  Place on a parchment lined baking sheet about 1 inch apart.  Press your thumb into the center of each ball making a crater like depression.

5.  Bake in a preheated oven for 12 minutes.  Remove from the oven and fill the depressions with warmed caramel sauce.  Bake cookies for another 3-5 minutes or until the caramel smooths out.  Let them cool completely before serving.

For the Caramel Sauce

This is David Lebovitz’s recipe found via The Purple Foodie.

He sure to read David’s Caramel Help Page before attempting to make caramel.

  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 6 tbsp butter
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1 tsp sea salt

1.  Spread the sugar evenly over the bottom of a light-colored heavy pot.  I like using my white enameled cast iron pot.  Heat the sugar over medium heat without stirring very much until the sugar is completely melted and has turned a rich amber brown.  Gently swirl the pot or push the sugar toward the middle of the pot if it looks like it is darkening too quickly.

2.  When the color resembles the top photo on David’s help page, a rich amber brown, very carefully take the pot off the heat and carefully add the butter & cream.  Expect foaming and bubbling so stand back and let it go for a few seconds.  When the steam has cleared stir everything until smooth.  Stir in the salt.  Let cool.

Store in a bell jar in the fridge.  It will last for weeks.  Eat from the jar with spoons or put on ice cream, or cookies, or on top of my Chocolate Tart.

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Salted Caramels

Salted Caramels

When I told Tom I wanted to try making caramels his first response was typical of many non cooks.

“Why would you want to make them when you can buy a bag from the store.  Why don’t I just pick some up today?”

I couldn’t answer his question.  Why did I want to make caramels when I could buy them from the store?  Working with sugar is supposed to be hard.  You need a thermometer, kids far from the kitchen, no distractions.  Yet, I love caramels, not those from the grocery store Halloween caramels.  The only caramels worth eating are the ones I get from specialty chocolate shops, and we are not talking See’s Candy here.  These handmade caramels, made with a chocolatier’s love take me over the moon.  The are soft and creamy instead of hard.  They melt in your mouth without a single bit of graininess. Yes, these were the caramels I was after.  If I could make them myself and not pay an arm and a leg then all the dangers of cooking sugar would be worth it.

Salted Caramels

What did I find out?  Making caramels is easy.  I mean really really easy.  So easy I may never buy caramels from a chocolate shop again.  Well, not really.

My caramels came out just like a chocolate shop’s caramels.  Creamy and smooth, melt in your mouth.  Unlike any store-bought caramel I have tasted.  As the caramel set we happily licked the pot and spoon burning our tongues on the hot sugar, but no one cared.

Many thanks to Julie from My Cooking Adventure and Bree from Baked Bree for their wonderful recipes and caramel expertise.  Follow their guidelines and you can’t go wrong.

Salted Caramels

Thanksgiving Cranberry Upside Down Cake

Cranberry Upside Down Cake

It is a miracle this cake made it.  I started baking early in the afternoon, just after lunch.  First the butter and brown sugar were brought to a rich and creamy dark brown in my cast iron pan.  Cranberries were cooked in orange juice until they popped out of their skins.  The cake batter called for 1/2 cup of whole milk, but I only had 2%.  So I used 1/4 cup 2% milk and 1/4 cup half & half.  I figure that the cake wouldn’t mind the extra moisture and I am going to forget those extra calories even exist.  It’s all about tenderness (from fat) and flavor when it comes to baking anyway.

Cranberry Upside Down Cake

I had no idea when I took it out of the oven that it was still mushy inside.  The top (or bottom?) was a rapidly darkening golden brown, I could see cranberry juice bubbling up the edges where the cake had started to pull away from the pan.  It looked ready to go.  Then the phone rang.  It was my daughter’s kindergarten teacher.  “We had a meeting scheduled at 2:15 today to go over your daughters report card.  Did you forget?”

%$#@!  How could I have forgotten!  I have been looking forward to my daughter’s very first parent teacher conference for a couple of weeks, “I am so sorry I am late, I will be right there.”

I pulled the cake out of the oven, set it on the stove to cool and rushed out the door without a glance back.

An hour later, we returned and I went straight into the kitchen to check on the cake.  Strange, the center was a little sunken in. I flipped it out of the pan and onto a tray.  Everything looked okay.  Caramel and cranberries held together on top of a golden layer of cake.  It looked pretty.

I knew something was wrong the second I slid the knife in.  This is all wrong.  There has to be liquid in here.  My piece slid out and sure enough the entire center was still raw and gooey.  I looked at my daughter.  “Oh no! This is terrible!  It’s not cooked!  I think it’s ruined!” She looked at the cake and said calmly, “Its ok, just cook it for longer.”

Could I do that?  Put it back in an hour after I took it out?  After it had completely cooled and been cut into?  Would it work.  Well, there is no reason not to try.  I gently replaced my piece of cake,  flipped the whole thing back into the pan and slid it in the oven for another 15 minutes.  This time, when the timer beeped I pressed gently on the middle of the cake.  It sprung back energetically.  It’s definitely done now.  I let it cool and cut another piece.  Perfection.  The cranberries are tart and juicy, cutting the sweetness of the sugar caramel just enough.  The cake is tender and moist.  It did not crumble at all, but clung to the cranberries like a Siamese twin.

Cranberry Upside Down Cake

My first piece never made it to the photo table.  I couldn’t stop taking bites, it’s so good!  The second piece lasted long enough to be photographed, but I had to eat that one too.  Not that I minded.

Cranberry Upside Down Cake

Thanksgiving is a great time to make this cake.  Once you taste how blissful it is you will want to share it with friends.  I gave half our cake to Tom’s partner at work.  Just what a guy needs after a long grind.  Fresh cranberries will be easy to find during the holidays and apparently if you screw up the baking, this cake will forgive you and be delicious anyway.

Cranberry Upside Down Cake

Cranberry Upside Down Cake

From The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters (I told you I love this cookbook!)

  • 1 1/2 sticks of butter, unsalted
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1 bag of fresh cranberries (abt 2 3/4 cups)
  • 1/4 cup fresh orange juice
  • 2 eggs, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup whole milk, at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

1.  Preheat oven to 350F.  Take butter, 2 eggs and 1/2 cup milk out of the fridge to warm.

2.  Measure 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter and brown sugar into a 8 inch cast iron skillet or heavy-duty cake pan that stove & oven safe.  Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until melted and bubbly.  Remove pan from the heat and allow to cool.

3.  In a small saucepan cook together cranberries and orange juice on medium heat until the cranberries begin to pop.  Remove from heat and pour evenly over the cooled caramel.

4.  Separate the egg yolks from the whites.  Set aside.  Stir together flour, baking powder, and salt in a small mixing bowl.

5.  In a large mixing bowl beat 1 stick of softened butter to lighten.  Add granulated sugar and cream until light and fluffy.  Beat in the egg yolks one at a time.  Stir in vanilla extract.  Mix well.

6.  Add flour and milk, alternating and adding only 1/3 of each at a time starting and ending with the flour (like this, 1/3 of the flour, 1/2 the milk, 1/3 flour, 1/2 milk, 1/3 flour).  Stir until combined, but don’t overmix.

7.  In another bowl beat the egg whites until they hold soft peaks.  Fold in 1/3 of the egg whites into the batter then gently fold in the rest until all egg white is incorporated.  Pour the batter into the pan on top of the cranberries and caramel.  Smooth the top with a spatula.

8.  Bake for 30-35 minutes or until the top is golden brown (really golden, not light golden) and the cake pulls away from the edge of the pan.  If you still are not sure then make sure that a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 15 minutes.  Run a knife around the edges to loosen then place a plate right side down on top of the pan and flip the pan over to release the cake onto the plate.

Enjoy and Happy Thanksgiving!