Pretzel-Crusted Sugar Cookie Toffee Brownie Bars

These triple-layer brownie bars are absolutely divine! It begins with a crunchy, salty pretzel base. Next comes a buttery sugar cookie filling infused with heath bar bits. Finally, an indulgent fudge brownie tops the bar off. The combination of textures and flavors makes for a unique dessert that is perfect for any chocolate lover.

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I recently made this for a friend’s birthday, and she loved them. It is easy to make because it uses mixes, but feel free to make it completely from scratch as well! Here is the recipe, adapted from Baby Gizmo Blog.

Ingredients:

  • 2 1/2 cups crushed butter pretzels (I recommend Snyder’s Butter Snaps, although any pretzel will do)
  • 1 cup melted butter
  • 5 tbsp sugar
  • Betty Crocker Sugar Cookie Mix including all the ingredients recipe calls for, or equivalent sugar cookie batter
  • 1 cup Heath bits
  • Brownie Mix for a 13×9 pan, including all the ingredients the recipe calls for

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Crush the pretzels using a food processor. Take care to leave chunks of pretzel, rather than processing them to dust, so that the crust will have a crunchy texture.
  3. Melt the butter in the microwave, and mix with the pretzel crumbs and sugar. Press the crust into a greased 13×9 pan, and set aside.
  4. Make the sugar cookie according to the package, and then add the Heath bits. Mix well. Next, pat the dough onto the pretzel crust so that it makes an even layer.
  5. Finally, make the brownie mix according to package and pour evenly over the sugar cookie layer.
  6. Bake the bars for 50 minutes, or until toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
  7. Let the bars cool, and enjoy!WP_20130308_001

Blackberry Squares

This dessert is cute, refreshing and simple to make! The fruity accent makes it perfect for for a midday snack or a summer picnic, while the dense, cake-like base is satisfying without being too heavy.

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This recipe is adapted from the Magnolia Bakery Cookbook, which originally calls for cherry filling. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Magnolia, it is a famous chain in New York that specializes in baked goods and cupcakes. Whenever I visit, there are always long lines of hungry customers. However, the wait is definitely worth it, as I always find something that satisfies my cravings, whether it is a Blueberry Fruit Crisp or a Caramel Pecan Cheesecake.

Without further ado, below is the recipe:

Blackberry Squares

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 4 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup canned blackberry pie filling (I used the Wilderness Premium brand)
  • Powdered sugar for dusting
  • Oil or Butter for greasing pan

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Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. Grease a 13×9 baking pan with either oil or butter
  3. In a large bowl, cream together the sugar and butter until smooth, which will take about two minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Next, add the vanilla and the flour and mix thoroughly.
  4. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan, and spread evenly so that there is a smooth surface. Then, using a toothpick, lightly draw a 3×4 grid into the pan. This should create 12 2-inch squares.
  5. Finally, dollop approximately a teaspoon of blackberry pie filling into the center of each square.WP_20130303_006
  6. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the edges have browned and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.V__6A31
  7. Allow the squares to cool completely, and then sprinkle the powdered sugar over the squares using a sieve. Cut, serve, and enjoy!

Ice Cream Substitutes and Frozen Desserts

Ice cream is my biggest guilty pleasure. I am cursed with a considerable sweet tooth and so I love pies, tarts, cakes, and other desserts. That being said, ice cream is definitely my go-to choice. I’m lucky that it usually accompanies other desserts, but I find that nothing can really replace the joy that frozen desserts give me.

My favorite ice cream is anything of  the Häagen-Dazs® variety, while coffee, butter pecan, cookies & cream, and mint chocolate chip reign at the top of my list. Häagen-Dazs® is so deliciously creamy, thick, and smooth, and also offers a large range of options. However, with each flavor giving around a whooping 300 calories per serving (and 4 servings per pint), indulging is not the healthiest habit. Even Vanilla, which is typically the lightest flavor, contains 250 calories, 50% DV saturated fat, 26% DV total fat, and 19g of sugar. Furthermore, when I eat ice cream, a serving is more like the whole pint rather than half a cup–and so began my search for healthier substitutes to my favorite dessert. Below are my findings, in order from least favorite to preferred.

1. Modified ice cream

For those who do not want to give up traditional, dairy ice cream, many brands have come up with lighter versions of the original thing. Slow-churned ice cream is made using a different process and requires less freezing than the original version. Thus, it becomes unnecessary to add high-fat dairy products to eliminate the ice crystals that form. Dreyer’s advertises that its varieties contain 1/2 the fat and 2/3 the calories of traditional ice cream. In addition, Dreyer’s offers over 30 flavors, making it easy and enjoyable to make the switch. You can check out Dreyer’s flavors and nutrition facts here. Typically, they contain a little more than 100 calories per serving.

Similarly, some companies have ventured to create fat-free ice cream. Breyer’s offers three flavors of this, including chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla. Each serving contains merely 90 calories, which is a huge improvement to the 300 of Häagen-Dazs®.

Although modified ice cream reduces caloric intake and makes enjoying ice cream slightly less harmful, there are also drawbacks. Many of these varieties simply don’t taste satisfying. For example, Skinny Cow ice cream is so airy and fluffy that it tastes more like marshmallow cream than ice cream. The caramel swirls in the Caramel Cone flavor simply taste like corn syrup. I have had the most success with the two types that I mentioned above, slow-churned and fat-free, simply because they are most natural. However, beware of the “no sugar added” flavors that have sprung up with almost all major brands. Although sugar intake should be watched, I prefer to avoid artificial sweeteners and the like, as they come with other side effects.

2. Sorbet, Sherbet, and Almond/Rice/Soy/Coconut Frozen Dessert

In the ice cream and “frozen novelties” section of a grocery store, you’ll often find various replacements for ice cream. Sorbet cuts back the calories by not having any dairy in it, and thus having little to no fat. Sherbet has less dairy than ice cream as well, and mostly exists in fruity flavors. Finally, Almond/Rice/Soy/Coconut frozen desserts are also dairy-free, but they use other sources of fat to get the creamy texture. They can have high caloric content, but the fats used are healthier than dairy fat. This is one reason that many people have chosen to switch from cow’s milk to almond, rice, soy, or hemp milk.

3. Frozen Fruit

The only reason that frozen fruit is not further down in my list is that it has neither the variety nor the same feeling as ice cream. However, that being said, I love frozen fruit and it effectively curbs my cravings. In addition, it is accessible; whereas not all grocery stores stock other ice cream substitutes, fruit is always available. I prefer buying my own fresh fruit and freezing it, but if you want a quick fix, most grocery stores sell frozen fruits as well.

I have tried freezing many fruits from mangoes to peaches to berries. However, my all-time favorite is frozen grapes. It may sound strange, but frozen grapes are absolutely delicious. When frozen, they stay exactly the same shape, whereas many other fruits shrivel or morph. They have a satisfying texture, one that is firm but not as ice-hard as many other frozen fruits. I typically buy black grapes, as they are the sweetest and I prefer them to green, and stick them in a freezer bag. It takes around half a day for them to freeze completely, and you get a perfect snack that leaves no mess!

I also know many people who rave about frozen bananas. They are good as well, especially because they have a creamy texture–one that is more reminiscent of ice cream. So if you want to obtain a closer substitute, just stick a frozen banana in a blender with some milk and nut butter.

4. Arctic Zone

Arctic Zone probably belongs to the earlier frozen dessert category, but it is so amazing that it deserves its own number. It truly is a miracle dessert. Whereas most ice creams average at about 1200 calories a pint, Arctic Zone gives only 150 calories per pint. That’s fewer calories than others have per serving! When one of my friends first told me about this, I was dubious. Firstly, how is 150 calories per serving possible, and secondly, how many harmful chemicals must have been used to obtain that number? However, upon researching the brand a little more and trying it out for myself, my mind was blown.

How does Arctic Zone work? It uses whey protein powder for its creamy texture, making the dessert more like a protein shake. This tidbit of knowledge made me regard it even higher; not only was I getting a low-calorie ice cream fix, but I was also getting in some protein!

Arctic Zone isn’t quite as rich and creamy as  traditional ice cream, but the nutritional content makes up for it. My favorite flavor is mint chocolate chip, as it has the most authentic taste. You can find it at most QFC and Whole Foods stores, but the website also has a store locator here.

5. Frozen Greek Yogurt

Finally, my favorite ice cream substitute: frozen greek yogurt. It may not have as few calories as Arctic Zone, but it has the closest texture to traditional ice cream. The right texture is the most important quality for me, and frozen greek yogurt is thick and creamy (with low fat content due to its straining process!). Furthermore, it contains protein and calcium.

My favorite brand at the moment is Healthy Choice Frozen Greek Yogurt. It has all the richness of normal ice cream, and is made up of healthy ingredients. The best part of Healthy Choice is that it is in serving-sized cups. It helps me with portion control, giving just 100 calories per cup, but is also simply convenient. When I compared it to a normal low-fat yogurt in my refrigerator, I found that Healthy Choice had fewer calories, less sugar, and more protein.

Healthy Choice comes in strawberry, blueberry, raspberry, dark fudge, honey, and vanilla. I prefer plain vanilla(boring, but yummy!), but the fruit flavors are satisfying as well. The website contains a store locator as well here, and they are available at most Safeways. Stonyfield Organics also makes frozen greek yogurt, and the taste is comparable.

One cannot thin…

One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.-Virginia Woolf

Food is a basic necessity, and thus occupies a large portion of daily life. But more importantly, it is a means to explore, express oneself, and enjoy life.

Boston–The North End, Little Italy, and Superb Cuisine

I have always been an avid fan of Italian food, even before I knew what Italian food really entailed. Pasta, pizza, tiramisu, I would eat it all. However, living in a city without a large Italian population deprived me from a larger variety of the cuisine. I didn’t know what I was  missing until recently, when I traveled across the country and visited the North End of Boston.

Boston, MA is a historical city, and the North End alone contains many of the city’s historical sites. Also known as Little Italy, the North End boasts attractions from Paul Revere’s house and the Old North Church to the burial grounds of John Hancock. The Freedom Trail passes through the neighborhood, bringing tourists and locals alike to wander its cobblestone streets and enjoy its bustling activity. In the mid-1800s, Italian immigrants first began to immigrate to the area, and the Italian population steadily grew through the 20th century. Now, the neighborhood is laden with Italian barbershops, tailors, and to my delight, food shops.

Walking through Little Italy, I was overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of restaurants. Almost every door led to either a restaurant or bakery, and through the windows, I saw that each restaurant was filled with happy customers enjoying lunch. The menus outside the restaurants looked delicious, and it’s a mystery to me how anyone within a 50 mile radius would be able to resist coming everyday.

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My cousin, a native to the Boston area, was showing me around and recommended Pomodoro. Although she had never personally dined there, it was reputed to be the best Italian restaurant by her friends, so we decided to give it a shot. I am so glad we did; completely unassuming from the outside, the few dishes that we ordered were incredible.

The restaurant was comprised of a small room with only a few tables. Cozy and comfortable, it gave off a casual yet refined vibe. Upon arriving, we were warmly greeted by the single waitress, who brought us bread to start off–it was the first sign of an amazing meal. The rolls were warm and light, and instead of the usual butter, we received a bowl of olives soaked in olive oil. The replacement was both healthier and more memorable than what I was accustomed to.

BreadNext, we ordered arugula salad, seafood linguine, and baked cod–my cousin, mom, and I were all about the balance between vegetables, meat, and carbs, and cod is so quintessentially Bostonian. None of us were particularly hungry, so we decided to share the appetizer and two entrees. That way, we would also have more variety.

The salad came first, and to our surprise, the waitress brought out two plates of it. The kitchen had made extra, she explained. Wow. I would not expect a restaurant to give out extra food arbitrarily, but it was delicious and I couldn’t complain.

The linguine and cod arrived soon afterwards, and they were absolutely divine. The linguine was tossed with shellfish, shrimp, squid, and tomatoes. With a cup of Parmesan cheese on the side to sprinkle over the pasta, the dish was both flavorful and satisfying. However, the true surprise came with the cod. Dare I say it was the best cod I have ever tasted? The meat was tender and juicy without any fishy aftertaste. It sat on a bed of tomatoes and vegetable filling, and we quickly devoured it.

After finishing the last vestiges of both entrees, we sat musing over the quality of our lunch. We were ready to ask for the check, when the waitress brought out tiramisu for each of us, compliments of the kitchen. We were already impressed by the friendliness of the staff, the comfortable ambiance, and the flavorful food, and this was the cherry on top. Authentic Italian tiramisu: one of my favorite desserts. Yum.

Seafood Linguine Baked Cod  Tiramisu

Although we were completely stuffed after lunch, we decided to grab a quick snack for later from a nearby Italian pastry shop. There were many to choose from, but we decided on one of the better-known shops: Mike’s Pastry. Conveniently, it was directly across the street from Pomorodo, and we slowly sauntered over. Inside, there was a huge hoard of people yearning to get to the front of the line. Not accustomed to pastry shops being so populated, I wondered if there was a special promotion going on. But apparently, Mike’s Pastry is so well known that it always attracts crowds of hungry customers.

Mike’s Pastry specializes in cannoli, which is an Italian pastry I had never previously tried. It is composed of a pastry shell filled with flavored ricotta cheese. The sides are then dipped in anything from nuts to chocolate chips. We purchased an original yellow cream cannoli, in addition to an amaretto one. The people at Mike’s pastry sprinkled powdered sugar on the cannolis before packaging them with their signature Mike’s Pastry packing method–they placed them in a cardboard box and tied the box with string dangling from the ceiling.

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The cannolis were delicious, albeit messy to eat. I attempted to break off a piece of the pastry, but the shell gave way and I ended up with fingers smeared with cheese. I found it easier to eat with a spoon, but I’ll admit that I’m usually a messy-eater.

Back home in Seattle, I don’t think I will be able to find any places that offer cannoli as good as the ones I had in Boston. However, I just discovered that Mike’s Pastry has an online store here. They ship!

I’m going to have to scout out all the Italian restaurants nearby sometime soon!