Belly up to the bars (cookie bars, that is)

It’s the weekend before Labor Day, and time to think about what to make for dessert for the annual block party (not that I really need an excuse).  For an informal party, cookies make a good choice for dessert, as the ease of eating a cookie, and having different flavors to choose works well.  In this blog, I’ve talked about cookies and blondies, so today, let’s look at other bar cookies.

I don’t know about you, but I love turtles, the candy of caramel and pecans covered with chocolate.  Here in Chicago, if you go to Fanny May’s Candy, they call them Pixies, but it is the same thing.  I prefer them coated in dark chocolate, but you can find them with milk chocolate as well.  The flavor combination is a classic.

Now, I readably admit that I am a food and cooking snob, and I do not apologize for this.  I like to control what I eat, and I refuse to use any recipe that utilizes prepared food products.  I do make a few exceptions; one of which is the Ghirardelli Triple Brownie mix (which I can only find at Costco as I’m not talking about the double chocolate Ghirardelli Brownie mix found at the supermarket).  My brownie gold standard is the Ina Garten Outrageous Brownie (made from scratch, not from the outrageously priced box), but the Ghirardelli Brownie is an excellent choice.

Many of the recipes on the Web for turtle bars use store bought caramels.  I recently bought a new cookie cookbook, The All-American Cookie Book by Nancy Baggett (copyright 2001 Houghton Mufflin) and in the chapter on bar cookies is a recipe for Turtle Bars.  I figured that I had to try it, as it calls for making everything from scratch.  Basically, it is a turtle candy on a shortbread cookie base.  The caramel is created from butter, cream, sugars, and heat.  As long as you have a candy thermometer, it is no problem to make.

Turtle Bars

Turtle Bars (modified from Nancy Baggett)


2 1/2 cups pecans

1 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons granulated sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup unsalted butter, cold, cut in small dice

4 tablespoons whole milk

For the caramel:

1 cup heavy cream

1/3 cup light corn syrup

1/4 cup unsalted butter

2/3 cup light brown sugar, tightly packed

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

12 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips


1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Butter the inside of a 9×13 inch baking pan.  Using heavy aluminum foil, create a sling the width of the pan and overhang the length of the pan by 2 inches.  Place in the pan and butter the inside of the foil.  It is not necessary to flour the pan.

2. Toast the pecan pieces in the oven on a baking sheet for 7 to 10 minutes, being careful not to burn them.  Let cool in a small bowl.  Take 1 3/4 cups and coarsely chop, and finely chop the remaining 3/4 cup.

3.  In a large bowl, mix together the flour, sugar and salt.  Cut in the stick of butter using a pastry blender or your fingers.  Sprinkle the milk over the mixture and combine to create a dough that just holds together, but is not too wet.  It might take anywhere from 1 1/2 tbs to 5 tbs of the whole milk to accomplish this.  Do not overwork the dough.  Press the dough into the baking pan to create an even layer of dough all the way to the edges.  Refrigerate the pan for at least 30 minutes.

Chill the dough in the fridge

Chill the dough in the fridge

4. Bake in the center of the oven for 21 to 25 minutes, until the center is firm, and the edges are slightly brown.  Do not overcook.

5.  In a large saucepan, combine the cream, corn syrup, 1/2 stick (1/8 lb) butter, the brown and white sugars, and salt.

Combine the sugars, salt and cream in a heavy saucepan and mix together.

Combine the sugars, salt and cream in a heavy saucepan and mix together.


Bring to a boil and reduce heat to keep at a mild boil.  This will boil out much of the water.  Put a candy thermometer in the pot and you will see the temperature remain at boiling for several minutes.

Use a candy thermometer to take to a hard boil, 245 degrees F

Use a candy thermometer to take to a hard boil, 245 degrees F


Stir with a heat proof spatula occasionally.  As with any candy making, be careful not to splash any of the very hot mixture anywhere!  Carefully control the heat under the saucepan, and stir the caramel as the temperature rises above boiling.  As soon as the temperature reaches 245 degrees F, remove from heat, and add the coarsely chopped pecans and the vanilla.  Stir thoroughly, and pour onto the prepared shortbread, using a spatula to even the layer out to the edges.

Pecan caramel layer spread on top of cookie dough

Pecan caramel layer spread on top of cookie dough

Immediately, sprinkle the chocolate morsels evenly over the hot caramel.  After a couple of minutes, the chocolate will be melted.  Using an offset spatula, even the chocolate layer to the edges.

Melted chocolate spread evenly over caramel layer

Melted chocolate spread evenly over caramel layer

Sprinkle the finely chopped pecans on the warm chocolate as evenly as possible.  Refrigerate until completely cooled.

6.  Lift the foil sling to remove the slab.  Cut with a sharp knife into small squares.  Serve either at room temperature or slightly cooled.

The turtle cookie--shortbread dough, caramel pecan layer, chocolate top with finely chopped pecans

The turtle cookie–shortbread dough, caramel pecan layer, chocolate top with finely chopped pecans

Another winner of a bar is the black and white bar, a lovely combination of brownie base and coconut top.

Brownie Coconut Bars

From the show Everyday Food on PBS

Recipe Type: Cookies, Desserts, American

For the chocolate base:
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 large egg
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, dutch process
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
For the coconut topping
2 large eggs
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
7 oz sweetened shredded coconut, (1 package) reserve 1/2 cup for sprinkling

1. For chocolate base: Preheat oven to 375°. Line a 9-inch square baking pan with aluminum foil, leaving a slight overhang; butter bottom and sides of foil (not overhang).

2. Place butter in a large microwave-safe bowl; melt in microwave. Add sugar and salt; whisk to combine. Whisk in egg, then cocoa and flour until smooth. Spread batter in prepared pan.

3. Bake just until sides begin to pull away from edges of pan, 10 to 15 minutes (do not overbake). Let cool slightly while preparing coconut topping. Keep oven on for topping.

4. For coconut topping: In a medium bowl, whisk eggs with sugar and vanilla. Gently mix in flour and coconut (except ½ cup reserved for sprinkling).

5. Drop mounds of mixture over chocolate base; spread and pat in gently and evenly with moistened fingers. Sprinkle with reserved ½ cup coconut.

6. Bake until golden and a toothpick inserted in center comes out with moist crumbs attached, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool completely in pan. Lift cake from pan, peel off foil, and cut into 24 bars. Store in an airtight container 3 to 4 days.

Yield: 24 cookies

Try these, they are both winners!

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Making the best Chicken Parmesan better!

I watched America’s Test Kitchen show on classic Italian fare, and thought that their preparation of Chicken Parmesan solved many of the problems of this dish.

However, I thought it through and realized that by eliminating one step, it makes it even better.  The process is very similar to my Chicken Pesto Milanese, with removing the 1st step of dusting in flour, and using panko as bread crumbs.  ATK recommends a 20 minute salting of the chicken breasts to ensure a moist cutlet, but I think that is completely unnecessary and adds too much sodium.

Here is my take on an even better Chicken Parmesan:

A better Chicken Parmesan


  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tablespoon each Kosher salt and pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes or whole tomatoes mashed by hand
  • 1/4 teaspoon sugar
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste


  • 3 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 3/4 cup panko bread crumbs
  • 1 tablespoon flat leaf parsley
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme
  • 2 tablespoons fresh tarragon
  • 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup coarsely grated whole milk mozzarella cheese
  • 3/4 cup coarsely grated fontina cheese
  • 1/3 cup vegetable oil (grapeseed oil is best because of its high smoke point)


  1. Making the sauce is better than a store bought marinara.  Heat the olive oil with medium high heat in a large sauté pan, and add the finely minced garlic and stir for 30 seconds.  Then add the red pepper flakes, and the oregano, stir for another 30 seconds to bloom the herbs.  Take a large can of crushed tomatoes of good quality and add to the pot.  If using whole tomatoes, crush them slowly in a bowl with your hands before adding them to the pot.  Add the sugar and enough tomato paste to balance the acidity of the tomatoes.  Cook over low heat for 15 minutes.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Set aside.
  2. Finely chop the parsley, thyme and tarragon.  Add them to the panko.  Add the parmesan or romano cheese to the bread crumbs.  Mix 2 tbs  of flour with 2 eggs to create a batter.
  3. With a sharp chef’s knife, slice the chicken breasts horizontally.  Remove any tendons from the tenderloin portion. Take a plastic freezer bag (Ziploc or similar) and place the sliced portion in the bag, and pound to a uniform ½ inch thickness.  See my comments relating to this in the Chicken Pesto Milanese post
  4. Dredge the chicken in the egg batter, and transfer to the plate with the herbed/cheese panko crumbs, pressing the mixture onto the breast portion.
  5. Heat the canola or grapeseed oil to near smoking point (about 365 degrees) in a skillet.  Add the chicken breast portions without crowding the pan (cook in batches) for 2 minutes per side, and transfer the cooked breasts to a tray lined with paper towels.  Finish all the portions and arrange them on a half sheet pan lined with heavy foil.  Combine the mozzarella and fontina together.  Cover the top of each piece with the mixture of mozzarella and fontina.  Turn the broiler on high.  Place the tray 4 inches from the broiler element of the oven, and brown (not burn) the cheese onto the chicken pieces.  This will take about 4 minutes.
  6. Plate the chicken with the tomato sauce on the top and/or on the side.

This recipe is nice and simple, and the results are spectacular.  The use of herbs in the panko crumbs elevates the taste and elegance of the dish, and the cooking method prevents soggy chicken portions.

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In the pursuit of caramel uses, take 3

As promised, I’m still looking at uses for the excellent caramel sauce (the recipe is in a prior post 3/3/14).  Today, I took the lessons learned from the less than perfect caramel chocolate cookie and applied it to a bar cookie, the coconut blondie from the 1992 Gourmet recipe (see 1/23/14).  If you don’t want to look back at what happened to the chocolate chip caramel cookie; basically I mixed the caramel into the cookie batter, and created a cookie that spread excessively and cooked too fast.

Today I took the coconut blondie recipe with no alterations until the spreading of the batter in the 9” X 13’’’ X 2 ½” inch pan.  I put ½ of the dough in the bottom of the pan, plus just enough more dough to ensure complete coverage of the bottom of the pan.  I then took cold caramel sauce from the refrigerator, and spread ribbons of caramel on to but not mixed in the dough.  I used the remaining dough to create a top layer, and spread it evenly.  I was careful not to have exposed caramel.  It might have been easier to have warmed the caramel sauce, but by using it directly from the refrigerator, it is probable that this prevents the caramel from mixing directly into the batter before cooking.

Into a preheated 350 degree oven, checked at 20 minutes, removed at 25 minutes when the edges got brown and pulled away from the sides of the pan.  Here is a picture at removal:


Let the blondies cool completely in the baking pan on a wire rack before cutting into squares.  This picture shows the cut bar cookie:


I’ve learned the lesson.  The secret is not directly exposing the caramel to direct heat.  The blondie cooked normally, but the caramel adds a layer of complexity to the already excellent taste of the bars, and is a notable improvement.  Of course, it helps to have already made caramel sauce in the refrigerator!

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Caramel and toffee, take 2, or building a better cookie

I promised a further investigation into the use of the caramel recipe of a prior post on this site.  Here’s what I discovered so far:

Mixing the caramel into a toll house type chocolate chip cookie dough was interesting in taste but doesn’t have a good appearance, at least not the way I tried to make it.  Putting toffee into the cookie dough worked much better.

First things first:  the cookie recipe.  1st, the original Toll House Chocolate Chip recipe (yup, that’s the one printed on every bag of Nestle’s Toll House Chocolate Chips, the recipe the Ruth Wakefield sold for a lifetime supply of chocolate chips!), and 2nd, America’s Test Kitchen’s “improved” version.

Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies (half recipe)

Recipe Type: American Classics, Chocolate, Cookies, American

1 1/8 cups all-purpose flour, (1 cup + 2 tbs)
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 lb unsalted butter, softened ( 1 stick)
3/8 cup granulated sugar, 1/4 cup + 2 tbs
3/8 cup light brown sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 large egg
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips, (6 ounces)
1/2 cup chopped nuts, optional

1. Preheat oven to 375° F. In a separate bowl combine flour, baking soda and salt. Mix softened butter, sugars and vanilla until creamy. Add in eggs, one at a time, beting well after each addition. Gradually beat in flour mixture. Stir in the chocolate chips (plus the 1/2 cup of optional chopped nuts).

2. Spoon cookie dough (rounded tablespoon) onto ungreased baking sheet and bake 9 to 11 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool for 2 minutes on the baking sheet, then transfer cookies to cooling rack.

Yield: 2.5 dozen

Now, as much as the original recipe is the “gold” standard, I think the ATK version is the platinum standard.cookie 3

Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies Redux

Author Notes
Why this recipe works: Rich and buttery, with their soft cores and crispy edges, chocolate chip cookies are the American cookie-jar standard. Since Nestlé first began printing the recipe for Toll House cookies on the back of chocolate chip bags in 1939, generations of bakers have packed them into lunches and taken them to potlucks. But after a few samples, we wondered if this was really the best that a chocolate chip cookie could be. We wanted to refine this recipe to create a moist and chewy chocolate chip cookie with crisp edges and deep notes of toffee and butterscotch to balance its sweetness?in short, a more sophisticated cookie than the standard bake sale offering.
Melting a generous amount of butter before combining it with other ingredients gave us the chewy texture we wanted. Since we were melting butter, we browned a portion of it to add nutty flavor. Using a bit more brown sugar than white sugar enhanced chewiness, while a combination of one egg and one egg yolk gave us supremely moist cookies. For the crisp edges and deep toffee flavor, we allowed the sugar to dissolve and rest in the melted butter. We baked the cookies until golden brown and just set, but still soft in the center. The resulting cookies were crisp and chewy and gooey with chocolate, and boasted a complex medley of sweet, buttery, caramel, and toffee flavors.
Avoid using a nonstick skillet to brown the butter; as the dark color of the nonstick coating makes it difficult to gauge when the butter is browned. Use fresh, moist brown sugar instead of hardened brown sugar, which will make the cookies dry. This recipe works with light brown sugar, but the cookies will be less full-flavored. Our winning brand of chocolate chips was the Ghirarelli 60% cacao bitterswett chocolate chips, for a better flavor and more complex taste.

Author: America’s Test Kitchen
Source: Season 10 “The Cookie Jar”

a “perfect” chocolate chip cookie

Recipe Type: America’s Test Kitchen (PBS), American Classics, Chocolate, Cookies, Desserts, American

1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, 8 3/4 ounces
1/2 tsp baking soda
14 Tbs unsalted butter, 1 3/4 sticks
1/2 cup granulated sugar, 3 1/2 ounces
3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar, 5 1/4 ounces
1 tsp salt
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1 1/4 cups semisweet chocolate chips, or chunks
3/4 cup chopped pecans, or walnuts (optional)

1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 375 degrees. Line 2 large (18- by 12-inch) baking sheets with parchment paper. Whisk flour and baking soda together in medium bowl; set aside.

2. Heat 10 tablespoons butter in 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat until melted, about 2 minutes. Continue cooking, swirling pan constantly until butter is dark golden brown and has nutty aroma, 1 to 3 minutes. Remove skillet from heat and, using heatproof spatula, transfer browned butter to large heatproof bowl. Stir remaining 4 tablespoons butter into hot butter until completely melted.

3. Add both sugars, salt, and vanilla to bowl with butter and whisk until fully incorporated. Add egg and yolk and whisk until mixture is smooth with no sugar lumps remaining, about 30 seconds. Let mixture stand 3 minutes, then whisk for 30 seconds. Repeat process of resting and whisking 2 more times until mixture is thick, smooth, and shiny. Using rubber spatula or wooden spoon, stir in flour mixture until just combined, about 1 minute. Stir in chocolate chips and nuts (if using), giving dough final stir to ensure no flour pockets remain.

4. Divide dough into 16 portions, each about 3 tablespoons (or use #24 cookie scoop). Arrange 2 inches apart on prepared baking sheets, 8 dough balls per sheet. (Smaller baking sheets can be used, but will require 3 batches.)

5. Bake cookies 1 tray at a time until cookies are golden brown and still puffy, and edges have begun to set but centers are still soft, 10 to 14 minutes, rotating baking sheet halfway through baking. Transfer baking sheet to wire rack; cool cookies completely before serving.

Servings: 1
Yield: 16 cookies

So, I used the ATK cookie and tried taking the caramel sauce and mixing it into the batter.  Big mistake, as it dilutes the batter, and the cookie spreads too much and cooks much faster.  The result was a flat sheet of dark brown cookies joined to each other.toffee cookie


Another use of a form of caramel is english toffee, and I tried a recipe from Arizona.  This recipe is not without hazards, as I will describe.  The idea of putting toffee into a cookie is a nice touch, as the toffee has nuts, you get the crunch of the nuts and buttery goodness of the toffee in one bite.

English Toffee

Author Notes

There are recipes that call for roasted nuts. The toffee is cooked to 290 degrees and the roasted nuts are layered on a sheet pan. Next, the toffee is poured over the nuts. We prefer to use raw almonds and roast them in the butter-sugar mixture, which infuses the nutty flavor into the toffee and creates a toffee that isn’t overly sweet.

We add a dose of “Vitamin L-O-V-E” which translates to a lot of stirring – absolutely key to a successful batch of toffee.

We use a combination of both milk chocolate and dark chocolate. Our favorites are Belcolade and Callebaut. Callebaut milk chocolate has caramel undertones and marries nicely with the toffee.

Author: Donna Gabrilson, Goodytwo’s Toffee Company
Web Page:

1 lb unsalted butter
1 lb granulated sugar
1 Tbs water
8 oz raw almonds, chopped
1 tsp vanilla extract
Melted milk and dark chocolates (recommended: combination Belcolade and Callebaut)

1. In a saucepan, melt the butter and then add the granulated sugar and 1 tablespoon water. Bring the mixture to a rolling boil and cook to 260 degrees F.

2. Stir in the raw almonds and continue cooking to 290 to 300 degrees F. Remove from the heat and add 1 teaspoon vanilla.

3. Immediately, pour the mixture onto a sheet pan that is upside down and covered with heavy aluminum foil.  Spread to an even thickness.   Cool and cover with melted chocolate with additional crushed almonds as an option added after the chocolate.

I tried making this toffee, and it didn’t work.  I think I know the reasons for the failure.  The 1st thing to be sure all the sugar is dissolved into the butter, and to do this on lower heat.  Then, stirring continuously, gradually increase the temperature of the mixture to 260 degrees F, add the raw nuts, and take the temperature of the mixture to 290 degrees F.  Immediately remove from the heat, and add the vanilla, let the vanilla steam for 1 minute (mix well), then pour out on the prepared surface.  Let cool and set up overnight, then covered with the mixed chocolate followed by the finely chopped nuts, first the top side, and when set, flip over to coat the other side.

The failure is that the mixture can separate out the butter oils and turn into a hard mass of crystalized rock!  If it is poured out before it sets up as a rock in the pan, it still is a tasty mix of sugar/nuts with toffee crunch!  I used some of this (without coating with chocolate) in the cookie dough, and got a nice toffee cookie.cookie 2

In a final note about the above toffee recipe, the source of the recipe, the shop “GoodyTwo Toffee,” in Scottsdale, has closed (although they are apparently still selling toffee online).

So, what have we learned?  Caramel sauce and cookie dough should be mixed by creating a standard size cookie, and taking a ½ teaspoon of caramel sauce on the top and press into the dough but not all the way down!  I need to experiment with a thicker dough to make a chewy cookie that can withstand the caramel addition.  The toffee cookie works well, but again, I will try a different batter and might try the chocolate coated toffee (which will prevent the toffee itself from melting as the cookie bakes).  I might try some other toffee recipes to find a more fool-proof recipe as well.  More results to come!

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Chicken Pesto Milanesa

Pesto, especially freshly made pesto, is a wonderful addition to many different dishes.  It works well as a top coating for baked fish.  It makes a great appetizer using squares of puff pastry, onto which is placed a layer of pesto, topped with a slice of Roma tomato, and finished with an herbed goat cheese.  It is excellent on pasta.  There are many uses for this excellent ingredient.

Our previous version of chicken de pesto is a chicken salad that we first had from the Café at Spiaggia in Chicago back in 1985, and have duplicated at home for years.  It consists of cooked chicken breasts (usually grilled), pesto, golden raisins and roasted pine nuts.  Great the year round, but a wonderful picnic dish in the summer.

Now, first, let us be specific.  I don’t mean pesto variations that use spinach or walnuts, or other less expensive options.  I define true pesto to be the Liguria pesto genovese—a combination of fresh basil leaves, extra virgin olive oil, garlic, pine nuts, and parmesan (Parmigiano-Reggiano please, no substitute allowed).  If you can get some Fiore Sardo (a cheese made from sheep’s milk) to add, even better, but to my mind not necessary.  Some Pecorino Romano is not misplaced, but again, not fundamental.

The first mention of pesto is from a book by Giovanni Battista Ratto, La Cucinera Genovese, written in 1863.  In southern France, they use pistou, a mix of basil, parsley, garlic and optional grated cheese but no nuts.  Pesto became very popular in the US in the 1980’s.

Freshly made pesto is great, but there are alternatives.  Most markets sell pesto in their refrigerator sections, but many of them are not great (remember what I said about walnuts and spinach).  We found a true Genovese pesto at Costco, and it tastes almost as good as freshly made.


So, a new use for this superb combination is my new Chicken Pesto Milanesa

chicken de pesto

Instead of a typical pounded chicken breast schnitzel style (3 dips:  flour, beaten egg, and seasoned bread crumbs), I used a 2 dip method with a wonderful result.

Chicken Pesto Milanesa

  • 1 ½ pounds boneless skinless chicken breasts, tendons removed from the tenderloins, the larger portions cut into smaller pieces, pounded thin and even
  • 2 large eggs
  • 3 tablespoons fresh flat leaf parsley
  • 3 tablespoons fresh tarragon
  • 3 tablespoons fresh watercress
  • 1 cup Panko bread crumbs
  • 4 large cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 large clove garlic, sliced
  • olive oil as needed for sauté
  • ½ cup pesto
  • optional:  sliced almonds and 3 tbs unsalted butter
  1. Beat the eggs with a fork and beat in the pesto sauce.
  2. Mix the Panko with the finely minced herbs and minced garlic.
  3. Pound the chicken breast portions to an even 3/8 inch thickness.  The best way is to take a ziploc gallon size bag, put a sprinkle of water on the chicken piece to be pounded, place the piece in the bag and flatten with your favorite implement (flat meat pounder, frying pan, rolling pin, whatever).  The ziploc works better than 2 pieces of plastic wrap (the old way).  I find cutting the chicken breast in half horizontally first, then pounding the pieces gives more uniform size pieces.  This is important so that the cooking time of sauté gets consistent results.
  4. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a non-stick skillet, and when hot, add the garlic slices to flavor the oil.  Turn the slices so both sides are evenly golden brown, and remove before the olive oil burns the garlic.
  5. Dip each piece of chicken in the pesto/egg batter, then coat with the seasoned Panko.  Be sure to press the Panko into the battered chicken evenly.
  6. Sauté each chicken piece for 2 minutes a side, putting no more than 4 pieces in the pan at a time for even cooking.  Transfer the cooked pieces to a heated platter.
  7. A nice addition is the use of thinly sliced raw almonds sautéed in butter (use the same skillet after the chicken pieces have been cooked) until golden brown and served on top of the chicken.

Try it, it is easy and tastes great, with predictable success every time.

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A Perfect Caramel Sauce

I am on a search to make a wonderful toffee chocolate chip cookie, and of course, it has to be made from scratch (no Heath bars or equivalent).  So I figure the first step is to make a great caramel sauce and go on from there.  This post just relates to the caramel, subsequent posts will relate to trying to find cookie nirvana.

So, got on the handy Google search and found lots of caramel recipes.  I decided to try one from Michelle Norris, aka The Brown Eyed Baker.  Her recipe is for a salted caramel sauce:

Now, I altered the recipe by not using salt, and the result was just perfect.  There are some tricks to making this, but it is not difficult.


Caramel Sauce

2 cups pure cane sugar

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut in 12 pieces

1 cup heavy whipping cream, at room temperature

Use a heavy large saucepan (do not use nonstick as the temperature needed gets too high).  Cast iron would be fine for the heat, but you can’t visualize the caramel development properly.  I have the perfect pan, which is a large heavy nickel lined copper sautesuse (a 4.5 quart pan with slightly sloped sides).  You need a pan with a stainless steel or equivalent lining  with good heat distribution to allow for even cooking and so you can see the bottom of the pan easily as you are cooking, and judge the change in color of the cooking sugar properly.  I like the All-Clad d5 series for this purpose for its even heat distribution (and, although it is expensive, it is still a lot cheaper than nickel lined heavy French copper), but there are less expensive and similar pots available from Cuisinart and other manufacturers.  The important thing to look for in the construction of the pot is the aluminum core needs to completely cover the pan’s bottom and extend up the sides of the pan.  The older designs which just used a sandwich of stainless exterior and interior with a core of aluminum only across the bottom of the pan will often cause burning at the edges of the pan’s interior due to poor spreading of heat at the sides of the pan (they can be used with a lot of extra whisking!).

So, now that you got the right pan, put 2 cups of white cane sugar in the pan and place the pan on medium high heat.  Use a heavy stainless steel whisk and stir the sugar.  Nothing will happen at first, but be patient.  It takes a while for the internal temperature to build.  While this heat buildup is occurring, cut the 1 ½ sticks of unsalted butter into 12 pieces, and pour the cream into a 1 cup measure.  You will start to smell the caramelization before you see any changes, and then the sugar will form small clumps, and then melt.  Don’t whisk at this point, just keep a close eye on the color of the melted sugar.  It goes from a mild almond color to red-brown quickly, and if untended, goes on to burn, and you have to stop and start over.  Use an instant read thermometer or a candy thermometer clipped to the side of the pan.  The temperature will go quickly from 330 degrees to 350, so watch carefully.  As soon as it reaches 350 degrees, remove from heat and add the butter all at once.  It will bubble up (which is the reason for a big pan).  Whisk carefully (the sauce is very hot) to incorporate the butter completely, and then add the cream.  It will bubble up again.  Whisk thoroughly again, and you’re done!  Let the caramel cool at least 15 minutes before use or transfer to a jar for refrigerator storage.  It will last for 2 weeks in the fridge.

Makes 2 cups of caramel sauce.


Over ice cream (yum)


We tried mixing ½ cup into the Ghirardelli double chocolate brownie mix, and I liked it, but Jori did not.  I think it would work better if we had used ½ of the brownie mix into the 8×8 pan, poured the ½ cup of caramel sauce on it, and then covered the sauce with the rest of the brownie mix.  (We tried swirling the caramel sauce into the pan after the brownie mix had been placed, and the texture that resulted was a little too chewy).  So I will try the layer approach next.

I have to experiment with the sauce and cookies.  The sauce itself is great, so I have high hopes for these trials.  If anyone has done things with the sauce, please let me know.

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Crazy for Coconut Oil?

A lot of people have been on the coconut oil bandwagon lately.  As an alternative to other oils and butter, coconut oil has medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) in the saturated fat lauric acid, which increases the good high density lipids in the blood to improve cholesterol levels.  In addition, coconut oil promotes the conversion of cholesterol to pregnenolone, a precursor to hormones that the body needs.  It help thyroid function as well.  Coconut oil is also reputed to help handle blood sugar by improved insulin use within the body.  Because of the fact that 90% of the fat in coconut oil is saturated, it had been deplored in the past, but new studies show the “artery clogging” is a myth.  The MCTs are much better to consume than long-chain fatty acids, as they are metabolized differently.

In cooking, coconut oil has the same caloric impact—120 calories per tablespoon—as butter, olive oil, or soybean oil.  Now, the reason that I’m even talking about this now as that my lovely spouse saw something on the internet that peaked her interest—the use of coconut oil in brownies.  A potentially healthier brownie?  Had to try it.

She took the regular Ghirardelli double chocolate brownie mix and used coconut oil instead of vegetable oil, with a layer of sweetened coconut flakes in the middle and on the top.  Ok, it’s a mix, I know, but it is a damn good one.  The brownies came out more fudgy in the middle than normally, but tasted great.  I’m going to have to try coconut oil with my personal favorite, Ina Garten’s outrageous brownies and see what happens.  I will try to replace half the butter with coconut oil.  Just remember, the full recipe makes a half sheet pan of brownies, so I cut the recipe in half for a 9”x13”x1” pan.  Here’s the recipe:

Barefoot Contessa Outrageous Brownies scaled for 9″X13″X1″ pan

Author Notes
Flouring the chips and walnuts keeps them for sinking to the bottom. It is very important to allow the batter to cool well before adding the chocolate chips, or the chips will melt and ruin the brownies. This recipe can be baked up to a week in advance, wrapped in plastic, and refrigerated.
Inspiration for this recipe came from the Chocolate Glob in the SoHo Charcuterie Cookbook published by William Morrow in 1982. In its heyday, the SoHo Charcuterie was the cutting edge of New York restaurants. The giant confection was a blob of chocolate dough filled with chocolate chips and nuts. I though I could make a brownie with almost the same formula. They’ve been flying out the door for fifteen years!

Author: Ina Garten
Source: The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook
Copyright: 1999

Recipe Type: American Classics, Cakes, Chocolate, Food Tv, American

1/2 pound unsalted butter
14 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
3 ounces bitter chocolate
3 extra-large eggs
1 1/2 tablespoon instant coffee granules
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/8 cups sugar
5/8 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts
if using bittersweet instead of bitter chocolate, reduce sugar to 1 cup minus 1 tbs sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

2. Butter and flour a 9 x 13 x 1-inch baking pan.

3. Melt together the butter, 1/2 pound of the chocolate chips, and the bitter chocolate in a medium bowl over simmering water. Allow to cool slightly. In a large bowl, stir (do not beat) together the eggs, coffee granules, vanilla, and sugar. Stir the warm chocolate mixture into the egg mixture and allow to cool to room temperature.

4. In a medium bowl, sift together 1/2 cup of flour, the baking powder, and salt. Add to the cooled chocolate mixture. Toss the walnuts and 6 ounces of chocolate chips in a medium bowl with 1/8 cup flour, then add them to the chocolate batter. Pour onto the baking sheet.

5. Bake for 20 minutes, then rap the baking sheet against the oven shelf to force the air to escape from between the pan and the brownie dough. Bake for about 15 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean. Do not overbake! Allow to cool thoroughly, refrigerate, and cut into 20 large squares.

Servings: 10-16

So, if I’m going to replace half the butter (16 tablespoons total), I’d use 1 stick (8 tbs) of butter and 8 tablespoons of coconut oil.  I’d change the cooking time to a total of 30 minutes, as you want the center to be a little gooey.  I will update this post as soon as I try it with the definitive results!

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Attack of the Blondies

I’ve been struck by the baking bug again.  This time, I’ve been working on the “yes, it’s not a brownie, but almost” route.  That is to say, a cookie in the form of a bar, a blondie.  There are many blondie recipes out there, and I’ve made a few, but I think these 3 are some of the best.

I altered the first 2 recipes with the use of chunks of bittersweet chocolate instead of semi-sweet morsels.  I think it is a more interesting chocolate flavor.

The first recipe is from Ina Garten.

Barefoot Contessa Chocolate Chunk Blondies

Author: Ina Garten
Source: Barefoot Contessa Foolproof
Copyright: 2012

Blondies have a tendency to be dry but there are two solutions:  underbake them a little and store them in the fridge wrapped tightly with plastic wrap.  Chocolate chunks have a more intense chocolate flavor than chips.

Recipe Type: chocolate, Cookies and Bars, Dessert

1/2 pound unsalted butter (2 sticks)
1 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 extra-large Eggs (room temp)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1.5 cups chopped walnuts
1.25 pounds semisweet chocolate chunks

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Grease and flour an 8½X12X2-inch baking pan.

2. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter, brown sugar and granulated sugar on high speed for 3 minutes, until light and fluffy.  With the mixer on low, add the vanilla.  Add the eggs, one at a time, and mix well, scraping down the bowl after each addition. In a small bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt.  With the mixer still on low, slowly add the flour mixture to the butter mixture.  Fold in the walnuts and chocolate chunks with a rubber spatula.

3. Spread the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.  Bake for 30 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean.  Don’t overbake!  The toothpick may have melted chocolate on it but it shouldn’t have wet batter.  Cool completely in the pan and cut in 12 bars.

The next 2 are from the epicurious site.

Coconut Blondie Take 1

Gourmet  | March 1992 blondie

Makes about 32 blondies


  • 1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 1/2 cups firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons double-acting baking powder
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
  • 2 cups sweetened flaked coconut, toasted and cooled


In a bowl with an electric mixer cream together the butter and the brown sugar, beating the mixture until it is light and fluffy, add the eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition, and beat in the vanilla. In a small bowl whisk together the salt, the baking powder, and the flour, add the flour mixture to the butter mixture, and beat the batter until it is just combined. Stir in the chocolate chips and the coconut, spread the batter evenly in a buttered and floured 13- by 9-inch baking pan, and bake it in the middle of a preheated 350°F. oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until it begins to pull away from the sides of the pan and crumbs adhere to a tester. Let the mixture cool completely in the pan on a rack and cut it into squares.

Note:  oven timing is important, as you need to remove from the oven when it pulls away from the sides, as cooking will continue in the cooling pan.  Check at 20 minutes.  Baking is done when the top is just set, and the sides a darker color and slightly retracted from the sides.

Coconut Blondie Take 2

Very similar to take 1, but with pecans and no chocolate.

Source Gourmet magazine 2008
Author: Ruth Cousineau

2 sticks (1/2 pound) unsalted butter
2 cups packed light brown sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups pecans (6 ounces), toasted and cooled
2 cups sweetened flaked coconut, divided

1. Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle. Butter and flour a 13- by 9-inch baking pan.

2. Melt butter in a 3-qt heavy saucepan over low heat, stirring, until smooth. Remove from heat and cool to lukewarm. Whisk in brown sugar and vanilla. Whisk in eggs 1 at a time until mixture is glossy and smooth.

3. Whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt, then whisk into butter mixture. Stir in pecans and 1 1/2 cups coconut.

4. Spread in pan and sprinkle with remaining 1/2 cup coconut. Bake until a pick inserted in center comes out clean, about 35 minutes. Cool completely.

Servings: 32

Now, to take any of these recipes over the top, make a chocolate ganache with equal parts cream and bittersweet chocolate (8 ounces cream heated to near boiling, removed from heat, and 8 ounces chocolate added and whisked together).  Make any pattern of drizzle or even better, use a star tip and bag to create a criss-cross pattern of chocolate on the top of the bars.  Yum.

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The Mini-hot dog conundrum

Are you a fan of mini hot dogs rolled up in biscuit dough and baked in the oven?  I’m not talking about “bagel dogs” or variants (too doughy).  I’m talking about little Vienna hot dogs (or Boar’s Head or Hebrew National), wrapped in a thin perfect coat of buttermilk biscuit and baked just right.

So, what’s the problem.  It is not the hot dog, as they are still readily available.  Nope, it is the biscuit.  No little tube of prepared biscuit dough was to be found at two of my local markets  (Sunset or Garden Fresh, didn’t look at Jewel), just crescent dough or Pillsbury “Grand” and it is not the same.  What to do, what to do!

Well, the answer is to be found on the internet, of course!  Any number of recipes for fresh buttermilk biscuits can be discovered at the click of the mouse.

We tried the following recipe with excellent results (and by we, I mean that my lovely spouse made the dough, I just rolled it around the hot dogs!):

Here it is if you don’t want to click to it:

Southern Buttermilk Biscuits

  • Servings: 12 biscuits or dough to wrap 36+ mini-hotdogs
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Southern Buttermilk Biscuits

By P4 on April 22, 2002


Photo by Dine & Dish

487 Reviews

  • timer
  • Prep Time: 10 mins
  • Total Time: 22 mins
  • Yield: 10 biscuits

About This Recipe

“These buttermilk biscuits are authentic. This recipe came from my great-great-grandmother, and was handed down to all the women in my family, and we are all Southern. I am the first one to commit the sin of using a food processor (lol) but I find it works very well. I would put these biscuits up against anyone’s – they are perfect in every single way. I hope you all enjoy them.”


    • 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the board ( if you can get White Lily flour, your biscuits will be even better)
    • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
    • 1 tablespoon baking powder ( use one without aluminum)
    • 1 teaspoon kosher salt or 1 teaspoon salt
    • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, very cold
    • 1 cup buttermilk ( approx)


  1. Preheat your oven to 450°F.
  2. Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl, or in the bowl of a food processor.
  3. Cut the butter into chunks and cut into the flour until it resembles course meal.
  4. If using a food processor, just pulse a few times until this consistency is achieved.
  5. Add the buttermilk and mix JUST until combined.
  6. If it appears on the dry side, add a bit more buttermilk. It should be very wet.
  7. Turn the dough out onto a floured board.
  8. Gently, gently PAT (do NOT roll with a rolling pin) the dough out until it’s about 1/2″ thick. Fold the dough about 5 times, gently press the dough down to a 1 inch thick.
  9. Use a round cutter to cut into rounds.
  10. You can gently knead the scraps together and make a few more, but they will not be anywhere near as good as the first ones.
  11. Place the biscuits on a cookie sheet- if you like soft sides, put them touching each other.
  12. If you like”crusty” sides, put them about 1 inch apart- these will not rise as high as the biscuits put close together.
  13. Bake for about 10-12 minutes- the biscuits will be a beautiful light golden brown on top and bottom.
  14. Do not overbake.
  15. Note: The key to real biscuits is not in the ingredients, but in the handling of the dough.
  16. The dough must be handled as little as possible or you will have tough biscuits.
  17. I have found that a food processor produces superior biscuits, because the ingredients stay colder and there’s less chance of overmixing.
  18. You also must pat the dough out with your hands, lightly.
  19. Rolling with a rolling pin is a guaranteed way to overstimulate the gluten, resulting in a tougher biscuit.
  20. Note 2: You can make these biscuits, cut them, put them on cookie sheets and freeze them for up to a month.
  21. When you want fresh biscuits, simply place them frozen on the cookie sheet and bake at 450°F for about 20 minutes.

These biscuits are excellent with good taste and texture.  Even better, they did a great job for  wrapping the mini hotdogs as well.


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A Tale of Two Restaurants, and a comment on Tru

Chez Moi

2100 N. Halsted

Chicago, IL

Chez Moi is in the old Café Bernard space, but I am sorry to say that I disagree with the high praises Chez Moi gets.  I was expecting to be impressed as this place was recommended by ex Parisians, and I had read some good reviews as well.  I can’t fault the service, or the home made Lemoncello, but the food was surprisingly pedestrian.   My escargot were small and rather tasteless with not enough parsley garlic butter (which is the whole point in ordering the escargot in the first place), the trio of asparagus purée, ratatouille and olive tapenade were uninspired and under seasoned for the first two and over seasoned for the tapenade.  My beurre blanc trout was perfectly cooked, but no flash of brilliance here either.

Now, I must admit to a pet peeve here.  When I order diver scallops, I get really offended when served obviously cut horizontally in half  scallops, no matter how well prepared.  Especially when I’m charged nearly $30 for 3 half scallops.

I guess that I was disappointed as my expectation had been set so high, and I was so underwhelmed.  I have no plans to return.

Magnolia Cafe

1224 W Wilson Ave
Chicago, IL 60640
(773) 728-8785

Category: American (New)
Neighborhood: Uptown


We had dinner at the Magnolia Cafe Saturday night, and it was wonderful.  Just a couple of blocks from the tackiness of Wilson and Broadway, the restaurant reflects the gentrified ambience of the area west of Racine (the next block has that indicator of upward shift, a Starbucks).  A double storefront, with a pleasant bar and tables not on top of each other, the aspect of the place is pleasing.  Prices are much higher than what one would expect from the location (entrees in the $20-$30 range), but value for the money is provided with the quality of the food, the competent care in its preparation, and the excellent service.
We were four for dinner, and started with 2 orders of crab cakes, served on a bed of sautéed sweet corn with a delightful caper aioli.  The crab cakes were full of crab without a lot of binder and tasted great.  I had the beef tenderloin, served on a bed of sautéed spinach with fingerling potatoes and roasted Brussels sprouts, with wild mushrooms and a red wine reduction.  The beef was a generous portion of perfectly tender steak, cooked to the requested medium rare.  Yum!  My wife had the fresh fish special, swordfish prepared in the same sauce and accompaniments as the tenderloin, and it was equally excellent.  D*** had the short ribs, juicy and melt in your mouth, served with a side of bacon mac ‘n cheese plus onion rings.  J*** had the hanger steak with fries, the cafe’s version of steak frites, with a topping of blue cheese.  We also had a side of the onion rings for the table, cooked just right in a light and crunchy beer batter.

For dessert, we split one order of the excellent bread pudding with vanilla ice cream and drizzles of dark and milk chocolate.

When a restaurant can satisfy four customers so well, they are obviously doing everything right.  I highly recommend Magnolia Cafe, and hope that they continue to exceed expectations.

On a note about wine, we had a bottle of Eruption, a California red wine meritage from Brassfield (2011).  Wonderfully rich and full of fruit, it almost makes up for the fact that the restaurant gets $42.00 for a $15.00 bottle of wine.


676 N. St. Clair

Chicago, IL

I was at Tru for an ophthalmology event, and while it is probably not fair to judge the restaurant on a “catering” menu of 3 courses, I think it is fair to make some comments.  For the prices charged by Tru, there is no way I could rhapsodize about a wonderful meal.  It also calls to question how places like Tru can survive in the current economy.  Admittedly, it was a Wednesday night, but the main dining room was fairly empty.  With all the staff standing around, one has to wonder if they did enough business to pay expenses.  My menu consisted of a citrus “amuse bouche,” a salad of 4 romaine leaves dressed in a balsamic vinaigrette with 2 small figs cut in half and a couple of small pieces of baked prosciutto.  My entrée was a small piece of tender grass fed tenderloin, served medium, not medium rare as requested.  The sauce was over salted, which I think is inexcusable for a restaurant of this caliber.  Dessert was a piece of chocolate flourless cake with cocoa nibs and served with raspberries. Gale Gand, I am sorry, but this doesn’t reflect your talents well.  What happened to the “wow” factor that Tru had offered in the past?  It was not evident Wednesday!  Without that extra power, what is the incentive to pay these prices?


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