Archives for December 2011

Recipe: Peanut Butter Sandwich Cookies

This year's Rocca-Villanueva Christmas card. Made 'em ourselves.

Merry Christmas Eve, Eve! Tomorrow is one of my favorite days of the year. No matter how old I get there’s still something special about Christmas Eve and that sense of anticipation that it brings.

We always have cookies as part of our Christmas Eve dessert, and I’m hoping that I’ll be able to look at them again by then. I never thought that I would lose my appetite for cookies, but after baking up quite a few batches this week, I’m officially in a state of cookie overload.

If you are still looking for a fairly easy cookie to make for your holiday festivities this weekend, I would recommend this peanut butter chocolate sandwich cookie from my girl Martha. The dough is comprised of just a few ingredients so it’s easy to whip up. Then, you chill it for an hour, slice, bake, and fill. Martha’s recipe suggests peanut butter cream for the filling, but I substitute chocolate ganache. Because, really, we all know that there’s nothing better than the PB and chocolate combo.

These cookies are decadent—like the kind of thing you can get from a fancy bakery. They have that stick-to-the-roof of your mouth feeling that you get from a really good peanut butter sandwich. Definitely have a glass of milk ready.

I hope that everyone has a wonderful few days ahead, filled with food, family, friends and presents (maybe this will be the year I finally get that pony). I’ll be spending Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with my mom, aunt, and brother, and then heading out to join my hubby and his family in Chicago until New Year’s. Guess that means I better finish packing!

Peanut Butter Cookie Sandwiches

From: Martha Stewart’s Holiday Cookie Magazine (2010)

What you will need


  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup unsalted butter (softened)
  • 1 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1 cup smooth peanut butter (Martha suggests natural. But, that’s probably because she makes her own peanut butter from scratch with peanuts she grows organically on one of her farms. I use Jif)
  • 1 large egg

Chocolate Ganache Filling

  • 4 oz of bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
  • ½ cup of heavy cream

What to do


  1. Whisk flour, baking soda, and salt together in a bowl. In a separate bowl, beat butter, brown sugar, peanut butter with an electric mixer on medium high speed until fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes. Beat in egg. Reduce speed to low and gradually add flour mixture, beating until just combined.
  2. Shape dough into two, 8-inch rectangular logs, pressing edges to shape. Wrap each in parchment paper and chill at least one hour
  3. Preheat oven to 350. With a sharp knife, slice dough ¼ inch thick and place on parchment lined baking sheets. Bake, rotating sheets halfway through until cookies are puffed in center and golden brown at edges, 12 to 15 minutes. Cool completely.
  4. To make ganache, place chocolate in a heatproof bowl. Bring cream to a boil in a small saucepan and pour over chocolate. Let stand 5 minutes. Whisk until smooth. Let cool, stirring occasionally, until thick enough to spread.
  5. Spread one cookie with filling and place another cookie on top


Recipes: Lemony Slice-and-Bakes and Black and White Chocolate Chunk Cookies

Although I’ve enjoyed the quiet of my own house for the past couple of days (did I mention my last day of work was Monday and I don’t have to do back until January 3rd? That’s right. I have two weeks off. It’s been awesome.), it’s really a lot more fun to bake with someone else. So, I  headed over to my aunt’s house this morning, where we cranked up the Christmas music, drank some coffee, and got to work.

Side note. My aunt has the most adorable dog. She’s named Sally and she’s awesome. I mean, look at this face. It’s the reason why we couldn’t get mad when she stole a butter cookie right off the table. She also gives really good hugs. Seriously. This dog is a hugger.

Sally in her holiday best

Now to the cookies.

My aunt had made all of her dough in advance for chocolate chips, butter cookies and nut balls which were a special request from my mom (I’m sure I could make some kind of joke here about my mom. But it’s Christmas and I don’t want her to take my presents back. (I love you, mommy)). So, she just had to roll and/or cut and bake.

Aunt's Cookies

In the meantime, I worked on lemon and black and white cookies.

The lemon cookies were a new recipe I found Bon Appetit magazine. They are a slice and bake variety, which I have decided I kind of don’t like making. I can never roll the dough the right way so the cookies invariably end up with squared off edges when they should be round. And, I’m kind of terrible with a knife so they end up with varying degrees of thickness, which results in some getting burned. Anyway, the majority of them turned out just fine in this case and are pretty delicious in spite of the fact that they look absolutely nothing like the picture in the magazine. Appearances aren’t everything, right?

The cookies themselves have texture similar to shortbread and have just a subtle hint of lemon, since the zest is incorporated into the batter. The powdered sugar/lemon juice icing really punches up the flavor. These would be a great summer cookie, too.

I’ve made these black and white chocolate chunk cookies a million times before, since they are Chester’s favorites. I got the recipe from somewhere on the Internets, but I wrote it down so long ago, I can’t remember exactly where I found it. The best part is that they are drop cookies, which means I can use my cookie scoop to make everything a nice, uniform size.

Chopping up the three bars of white chocolate that the recipe calls is a bit time consuming, but you should not be tempted to take a shortcut by using white chocolate chips. I’ve tried gone this route the end result was just not the same. The chips made everything just a little too sweet for my taste and something was off with the texture—the chips almost seemed to get lost, whereas the chunks of chocolate add a bit more substance to the fudgy batter (You could also add pecans, if you would like, but I skip this).

It was a productive day, overall. Thanks, Aunt, for letting me assist in making a mess of your kitchen. It was fun!

With three more days until Christmas, what have you made so far?

Lemony Slice-and-Bakes

From: Bon Appetit

Makes about 50 cookies (if you cut them all evenly and don’t burn any. Not everyone is this skilled).

What you will need


  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 4 large egg yolks


  • 1 1/4 cups powdered sugar
  • 2 tablespoons (or more) fresh lemon juice
  • Food coloring (optional)
  • Sanding sugar (optional)

What to do


  1. Whisk flour and salt in a medium bowl. Using an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat butter, sugar, lemon zest, and vanilla in a large bowl, occasionally scraping down sides, until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.
  2. Add egg yolks; beat just to blend. Reduce speed to low; add flour mixture and beat, occasionally scraping down sides, just to blend.
  3. Divide dough in half; roll each half into a 10″-long log about 1 3/4″ in diameter. Wrap in plastic and chill until firm, about 1 hour.
  4. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Unwrap 1 dough log. Using a sharp, lightly floured knife, cut log into 1/4″-thick rounds. Transfer to prepared sheets, spacing 1″ apart.
  5. Bake until cookies are firm and golden brown around edges, 16–18 minutes. Let cool for 1 minute, then transfer to wire racks and let cool completely. Repeat with remaining dough log.
  6. To prepare icing, whisk sugar and 2 Tbsp. juice in a small bowl, adding more juice by 1/2-teaspoonfuls if too thick. Spread or drizzle icing over cookies. Decorate as desired. Let stand until icing sets, about 10 minutes.

Black and White Chocolate Chunk Cookies

From: ?

Makes about 3 dozen

What you will need

  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • ¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • ¾ cup packed light brown sugar
  • ½ cup solid vegetable shortening
  • ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 12 oz chopped white chocolate for baking

What to do

    1. Preheat oven to 350. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
    2. Whisk flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt in medium bowl.
    3. Using electric mixer, beat both sugars, shortening, and butter in a large bowl until fluffy. Beat in eggs and vanilla.
    4. Add dry ingredients a little at a time until incorporated.
    5. Add white chocolate chunks
    6. Drop by tablespoonfuls on baking sheets. Bake until just set, about 13 minutes

Recipe: Sugar Cookie Cutouts

Christmas preparations are in full swing around here. The house is all decorated, presents are wrapped, and cookie baking has started.

Cutout sugar cookies were on the agenda today. The dough was super easy to make and to work with after it had chilled in the refrigerator overnight. The finished cookies are crisp at the edges, and chewy in the center.

As a side note, I’m really glad that I finally broke down and bought Silpat baking mats this year. Not only do they make clean-up easier, but they also help the cookies bake more evenly and prevent them from getting too brown on the bottom.

I also made a batch of royal icing to decorate them with, but when I frosted one to try, I decided that they were better plain. The icing was overly sweet, and just overwhelmed all of the buttery goodness that make these cookies so delicious (Plus, let’s be honest, the prospect of piping icing onto all those cookies was making my head spin). Sometimes simple is better.

I ended up getting about 32 cookies per batch, so perhaps my cookie cutters are slightly smaller than the recommended three or four inches. I wrapped up the dough that was leftover after I cut out all the cookies that I could handle and put it in the freezer. If someone can find me a Mummer shaped cookie cutter, maybe I’ll make some more for New Year’s.

Sugar Cookie Cutouts

From: Martha Stewart Holiday Cookies Magazine (2010)


Yield: About 2 dozen

What you will need

  • 4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for work surface
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

What to do

  1. Whisk flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl.
  2. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat butter and granulated sugar on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy (three to four minutes). Mix in eggs and vanilla. Reduce speed to low. Gradually add flour mixture.
  3. Divide dough in half and shape into disks. Wrap each in plastic and chill for at least one hour.
  4. Preheat over to 325. Soften disks of dough to room temperature (one at a time, they’ll soften pretty quickly).
  5. Lightly flour a piece of parchment paper. Lay dough in center and place another piece of parchment over it. Roll out dough to just under ¼ inch thick.
  6. Cut dough out with cookie cutters and transfer cutouts to lined baking sheets. Keep re-rolling scraps and cutting until you run out of dough.
  7. Chill cutouts on baking sheets until very firm (about 30 minutes) before baking.
  8. Bake, rotating sheets halfway through, until edges turn golden, about 12 to 15 minutes. Let cool on wire racks (and, make sure to cool completely if you are planning to add icing).

Restaurant Review: Bellini Grill

When Center City District hosts its Restaurant Week (s), the participating restaurants bring a card along with your check so that you can submit your contact information for their mailing list, and a chance to win 52, $50 gift certificates. Well, Chester won (I, however, want partial credit for this good fortune, since I filled out the card for him)! He’s just lucky that way. I, on the other hand, can’t even win a free ticket on one of those lottery scratch-offs.

Needless to say, we’ll be eating pretty well and I’ll have more that enough options to choose from to come up with blog posts for the foreseeable future. Thank you Center City District!

Tonight, my mom and aunt were in Center City to do some Christmas shopping, so  I met up with them for dinner at Bellini Grill, an Italian BYOB in the Rittenhouse Square area, after work. We have been there before and have always have enjoyed the food. And, as another plus, it just so happened to be included in the bag o’ gift certificates that we received a couple of weeks back.

Bellini Grill is a casual, Italian BYOB in the Rittenhouse Square area. The menu features traditional favorites at prices that are very reasonable for the neighborhood in which it’s located. The outside of the place is pretty nondescript and the interior is reminiscent of an Olive Garden (the painted ceilings are a bit ridiculous. And, there’s a creepy baby up there), but don’t let this deter you as the food and the service are both pretty solid.

On this visit, we started off by sharing the mussels in white sauce, which were tender and fresh. The broth was so good that we all couldn’t resist soaking it up with bread. Although I’ve had chicken or fish dishes on some visits, the homemade pasta is really Bellini’s specialty. I like that it can be ordered in a whole wheat version. Today, I had the thinnest cappelini ever, which was served in a light tomato sauce with a generous helping of crabmeat.

In some of the reviews I’ve read, people complain that the staff was rude and rushed them out of the place. I have never found this to be the case, and have always thought that the servers and the owner (who always seems to be there) are warm, welcoming, and attentive. However, I’ve also noticed that these reviews come from visitors who were dining with very large parties (12 people or more); since the restaurant and kitchen are pretty small, I could see there being some issues with bigger groups.

This is Philadelphia, and you’ll probably find more outstanding Italian food somewhere else, but Bellini can always be counted on for a consistently satisfying experience. And,  it’s also a good place to keep in mind if you are in need of a quick bite before heading to a show at the Kimmel Center or Academy of Music.


Christmastime Fun at Winterthur and Restaurant Review: Pagoda Noodle Cafe

One of Winterthur's many Christmas trees.

There are so many Christmas-y things to do in Philadelphia that it would be impossible to try to fit them all in each holiday season. Of course, there are some things that we try to do every year—the Light Show and Dicken’s Village at Macy’s—just because we’ve always done them. But, during the past couple of years, we’ve tried to visit some different places with holiday festivities taking place. This year, my mom, aunt, Chester headed to Delaware for the “Yuletide at Winterthur” tour.

Close up of the peony tree.

Winterthur is a sprawling estate that takes up nearly 1,000 acres of land and was the home of Henry Francis DuPont and his family.  Henry was quite the hoarder collector. Over his lifetime he accumulated, literally, thousands of objects—from glassware to books to building facades that he incorporated into the architecture of his estate. To store all of these treasures, he just kept adding rooms onto his house. During the holiday season, many of the 175 rooms are done up with festive décor that reflects Christmas traditions from colonial America through World War II.

Montmorenci Staircase. DuPont found this in a home in South Carolina and had it brought to Winterthur.

If you are planning to go, this year’s Yuletide runs through January 8th and reservations can be made in advance on the museum’s website. We had a really excellent guide for the hour-long tour, who knew so much about the history of the place, traditions, and the objects on display.

Dried flower tree. Smelled so good!

Afterwards, we headed over to King of Prussia Mall so that we could do some shopping. As expected, there were jerks in the parking lot (Chester was waiting patiently for a parking spot and someone swooped in and stole it!), it was crowded and lines were pretty long. Although we all got a few things checked off our lists, we didn’t want to brave the crowds for dinner around there. So, we headed back into the city for Chinese food at Pagoda Noodle Café in Old City.

We’ve been to Pagoda a bunch of times before because it’s right next door to one of the Ritz movie theaters. Chinese food is actually not my favorite thing in the world, but when I do have an odd craving for it, I don’t mind going to Pagoda. The dishes are not laden with salt and all of the other things that invariably make me feel a bit ill after eating Chinese food (I’ve never fully recovered from my experiences with the now closed Happy Dragon in South Philly’s Whitman plaza. Ugh).

We always order steamed dumplings at Pagoda. They include a generous helping of pork, vegetable or chicken and can also be ordered fried. On this visit, I ordered the pagoda noodle soup, which included an ample amount of shitake mushrooms and chicken. It was the perfect meal for such a chilly day. Some other dishes I’ve tried and liked include the Mango Chicken and Thai Style Grilled Salmon Filet. Chester’s favorite dish is General Tso’s Chicken, and he gives Pagoda’s version pretty high marks.

There are two floors in the restaurant, but it never seems really busy. It has been open for more than ten years though, so I’m guessing that they must do a decent business with take-out and deliveries. If you read some of the reviews online, you’ll probably notice that many people complain about poor service, but I don’t think we’ve ever had a problem. The servers do seem a little cold, but they are attentive to guests and the food comes out promptly.

The portions are really huge, so I had plenty to take to work with me for lunch on Monday. Most importantly, it was a much more enjoyable experience than if we had to wait for an hour or more for a table at a restaurant at the mall.

Do you have any favorite Christmas traditions and/or places to go after a long day of Christmas shopping that you’ll be hitting up this weekend?  Only ten days left until the big day (and three days left of work until 2012! Not that I’m counting).

Recipe: Chocolate Espresso Sugar Cookies

As I’ve mentioned before, Chester’s preferences for desserts are not as wide ranging as mine. But, he’ll never turn down a cookie. So, instead of a birthday cake, I offered to make cookies instead.

He browsed through some of my cookbooks and came across a recipe for mocha shortbread cookies. They sounded great, but as I reviewed the contents my baking cabinet, I realized that I didn’t have all of the ingredients on hand. All was not lost, however, as I had everything I needed for sugar cookies.

I added cocoa powder and espresso powder to a really simple sugar cookie recipe that I discovered around the holidays last year. The end product was pretty amazing. The coffee and chocolate combo provided a rich flavor and the texture was somewhere between a cookie and a brownie—crisp around the edges and chewy in the middle. I sprinkled the tops with extra espresso powder while the cookies where still warm for a bit of an extra kick, but you could skip this is you don’t want the espresso flavor to be too strong.

Baking a practice batch of cookies really got me in the mood for holiday baking. I’ve got four types of cookies on my list to make this year: chocolate with white chocolate chips, peanut butter sandwich with chocolate ganache, roll-out butter, and lemon. Hopefully, they’ll all turn out well and I can share the results! What’s on your list to bake this year?

Chocolate Espresso Sugar Cookies

Adapted from McCormick’s Vanilla Sugar Cookie Recipe

Yield: About 3 dozen (note: I used a medium size cookie scoop, which holds about a 1 ½ tablespoon of dough)

What you will need

  • 2 3/4 cups flour
  • 2 teaspoons Cream of Tartar
  • 1 ½ teaspoons espresso powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup of unsweetened, Dutch process cocoa powder
  • 1 ½ cups sugar
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • Additional sugar, for rolling
  • Additional espresso powder, for sprinkling

What to do

  1. Mix first six ingredients (flour through cocoa powder) together in a medium bowl.
  2. Using an electric mixer, cream sugar and butter on medium speed until fluffy. Add eggs one at a time and vanilla. Mix well. Gradually add flour mixture on low speed until all ingredients are incorporated.
  3. Refrigerate dough until firm (at least two hours).
  4. Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. Use a cookie scoop to shape dough and roll in additional sugar before placing on cookie sheet.
  5. Bake approximately 10 minutes, until cookies are just set. Sprinkle with additional espresso and cool on baking sheet for one minute.
  6. Move to wire racks to finish cooling.

Restaurant Review: Birthday Festivities at Philly Chocolate & Cochon

Chester officially hit his mid-thirties this weekend. All of a sudden, my turning 29 doesn’t seem all that bad.

We headed to Center City on Saturday afternoon to celebrate. Our first stop was Philly Chocolate for birthday treats. This lounge style café is the sister store to Philly Cupcake (where I had the best Pumpkin cupcake ever earlier this fall), and specializes in artisanal chocolates, gourmet baked goods, and chocolate drinks. It took over the space that was vacated several months ago by Naked Chocolate Café, which was one of my favorite places in the city for satisfying my sweet tooth.

While I think Philly Chocolate has a bigger selection than Naked—everything from basic truffles to chocolate covered Twizzlers to old fashioned lollipops to towering layer cakes—something was missing in the quality of the ingredients. We shared a brownie drizzled with milk chocolate, which was giant, but pretty average in terms of flavor. We also ordered hot chocolates. They were similar to what you would get at Starbucks and I was pretty disappointed that they used canned whipped cream (I know. I’m a snob. But seriously, how hard is it to get one of those cans with the nitrous oxide chargers to class things up a bit with homemade whipped cream?).

Birthday Boy!

I would probably go back if I needed a quick chocolate fix, but I think it’s pretty safe to say that I’m still searching for something to fill the void left by Naked Chocolate. They promised that they were going to re-open soon, but so far, that hasn’t happened yet.

We made our way over to Macy’s to see the Holiday Light Show. Like most Philadelphians, I’ve been going to the light show since I was little (I’ve even got some of it memorized. “Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Marie who was given a Nutcracker for Christmas. She loved him very much because he could crack nuts between his teeth.” Impressive, right?) and it’s still one of my favorite things about the holiday season.

Then, we made our way down Walnut Street to Rittenhouse Square Park.

Our final stop was Williams-Sonoma, where Chester picked out his birthday gift—one of those fancy Boos butcher block cutting boards that he’s had his eye on for awhile. I know it kind of takes all the fun out of birthdays when you know what you are getting, but I know next to nothing about knives and all the stuff that goes with them and Chester is kind of the expert. Plus, I’ve got a lot of holiday cookies on my list that require chopping nuts and/or chocolate, and I hope that he’ll be enticed to lend me his chopping skills if he’s got cool new equipment.

Finally, it was time for dinner. While we were waiting in line at Morning Glory a couple of months back, we heard another group of people raving about a meal that they had recently had at Cochon, a French-inspired BYOB in Queen Village that specializes in pork. Chester later checked out Cochon’s menu and decided it was the perfect place for him to celebrate hitting the big 3-5 (and enjoying the fact that he can still enjoy rich foods for at least a few more years with minimal side effects).

All of Cochon’s pork products are house made, so while you can find a couple of beef, fish, and chicken dishes on the menu, the pig is the real reason to go there.  Chester was in charge of the wine, and he picked a really good French Pinot Noir (which I even remembered to ask him for the name of: Joseph Drouhin Chorey les Beanue). It was really smooth and fruity, and paired well with all of the pork-centric dishes.

Chester picked two of the evening’s specials as his first and second courses. For an appetizer, he had the blood sausage, pig cheek and pig’s feet croquette. He described it as eating “really good, flavorful lard.” It was fatty and rich, but because it was served warm, it melted in your mouth rather than being chewy. For an entrée, he had the pork loin, topped with fried egg and Roquefort cheese sauce. All of the flavors worked so well together. Lentils accompanied the dish. They aren’t Chester’s favorite starch, but they were a nice, light alternative to potatoes or a heavier starch, since the dish was already pretty rich.

For my appetizer, I had the potato herb gnocchi, with pig cheek. I’ve had a streak of good luck with melt-in-your-mouth gnocchi dishes lately (for example, at Le Castagne and Talula’s Garden), and Cochon’s version continued this trend. The pig cheek gave the dish some additional saltiness and substance. Then, I had the pork chop. It was fried in bacon fat (yes, bacon does make everything better), which gave the dish an extra crunch and richness and kept the moisture sealed into the meat. It was served with rice, with bits of sausage mixed in. It was probably the best pork chop I’ve ever had in my life.

We saved room to share two desserts, if you can believe it. One was a banana walnut bread pudding, topped with brown sugar ice cream. The streak of bacon-caramel sauce on the plate made an excellent drizzle for the ice cream, but the bread pudding was actually more like a mini-bundt cake. It was pretty tasty, but the second dish–the poor man’s pudding—was outstanding. This dish features a shortbread dough, which is baked in a deep dish and topped with bacon maple caramel sauce and a scoop of bacon ice cream. The whole dish is served warm so all of the salty-sweet flavors melt together. It might be up there with Barbuzzo’s salted caramel budino for my favorite dessert of 2011.

All in all, Cochon is pretty freaking amazing. The food was outstanding, the meal was paced just right and our server could not have been nicer or more helpful as we tried to narrow down the options.

A couple of caveats: the menu is pretty small and the emphasis on pork dishes might not please every palate, so be sure you know your group before you make a reservation (or just leave the picky eaters at home). In addition, parking is a bitch in the area. The neighborhood is mostly residential, and on a weekend evening when more people were home, street parking was impossible to come by. We ended up parking at a lot on Bainbridge, a couple of blocks away, which was $20 (so much for the savings you usually can count on by going to a BYOB). Finally, the restaurant is cash-only so swing by an ATM on your way there.

All in all, I think we ushered in the second half of Chester’s 30s on a good note (no, I can’t resist the references to his age).

On a sentimental note—Checkter, I love you very much. I’m glad that I’ve had you by my side for the last (almost) seven years so that I haven’t had to eat, travel, and watch bad television all alone. I’m looking forward to many more.