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Fresh Homemade Strawberry Jell-O


Jell-O always seems a bit like magic to me. Add water to the brightly colored, sugary powder and in no time it’s solid and jiggles like a good belly laugh. The problem is, the stuff in the box tastes like congealed, watered-down kool-aid. There is no actual fruit involved, just artificial color and flavor. But, it is so easy and fun to create a fresh fruit version. There really is nothing better (or more summery) than the taste of fresh strawberries. Take those gorgeous berries, puree them and add just enough gelatin to set the fruit in a fancy mold. Knowing how to work with unflavored gelatin properly means you can set a liquid, without having it bounce like a rubber ball. You want to use just enough to keep its shape, but still have a smooth, luscious feel. It’s a fun, all-natural and festive treat for any summer gathering.

Fresh Homemade Strawberry Jell-O Recipe

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July 4th Red, White and Blue Cheesecake

While drops of food coloring will enhance the layers of this patriotic July 4th cheesecake, its stripes are tinted naturally with seasonal flavors: red raspberry, white vanilla bean and blue blueberry. The fresh blueberry topping is held together with just enough gelatin to give it a gorgeous, glossy look and to make it easy to cut. In order to achieve the clean layers you’ll need to have some time to let each one set, so plan in advance. It is super easy and completely worth the extra time to present such a fun dessert at your holiday party.

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Fundamentals: How to Make Crème Fraîche

Crème fraîche is the sophisticated French cousin of sour cream.  Its texture is smoother and the flavor subtler, not quite so sour, but still a bit sharp. It is simple to make and requires only two ingredients, so it is no wonder it is a staple in most French kitchens and a must have for pastry chefs. Fresh, heavy cream is blended with just a splash of buttermilk and then left to sit; it does all the work on its own, and the result is luscious. I like to finish sweet desserts with the cultured cream — a thin layer on my butterscotch pot de crème, a dollop on top of a berry pie or stirred into chocolate ganache. It can be used in place of sour cream or most places you might use heavy cream.

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The Most Basic of Breakfast Sweets: Blueberry Muffins

Blueberry Muffins

I had a forehead thumping moment recently when a friend asked me for a blueberry muffin recipe. In all the years I’ve been running zoebakes.com, I’ve never posted the most basic of breakfast treats. How did I get away with this, especially when they are one of my favorites?

For me the perfect blueberry muffin is light, fluffy and bursting with blueberries. I add a touch of ginger because it perks up the flavor of the berries, but not so much that it’s overpowering. The topping is buttery, sweet and bakes into a lacy crust.

I like to bake them in large “Texas-sized” muffin cups, so there is lots of muffin top and just as much of the berry center. They are great small, but I am always left wanting more and for some reason, I feel less guilty eating one big one, instead of two little ones.

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Seven Layer Cake for Passover

Monday is the beginning of Passover. I love this holiday for the ritual, the gathering of wonderful people and the challenge to come up with new desserts worthy of the day. This cake was inspired by a conversation I had with Deb Perelman about Dobos Tortes, which is a cake made up of many layers (7 to be exact) of sponge cake, separated with chocolate buttercream and topped with a layer of caramel. It is a style of cake that is claimed by many cultures, each with a different name depending on heritage or the state you are standing in. Dobos Torte (Hungarian), Doberge Cake (New Orleans), and Seven-Layer (which I think of as a Jewish cake from New York, but as soon as I write this, I’m sure I’ll hear from folks who will correct me).

My cake is a bit of a twist on the theme, because I thought the poppy seeds would be a fantastic match for the layers of orange scented sponge cake and chocolate buttercream. It is also stunning to cut into the cake and see the speckled icing. I replaced the caramel with curls of chocolate on top of the cake.

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Thin Mint Cupcakes for St. Patrick’s Day

Thin Mint Cupcakes

These cupcakes are inspired by Thin Mints, my favorite Girl Scout cookies. The recipe manages to be light, fluffy and moist, all at the same time. It starts with a true all-American white birthday cake. The recipe is made with whipped egg whites and no yolks, so the color is bright white. It’s perfect for adding color, but this time I left that to the mint icing. A thin layer of ganache between the cake and icing makes these just a touch more sophisticated, in case you are looking for a St. Patrick’s Day treat to bring to work. The super creamy icing is one that I made from Vintage Cakes, an adorable addition to my cookbook collection. Thickening milk and flour together into a smooth paste, then adding it to creamed, sweetened butter gives the icing a luxurious texture. Despite the extra step, it is an easy recipe — my 11-year-old made it start to finish with perfect results. Add a touch of mint extract and a few caps full of Crème de menthe and these cupcakes taste just like a thin mint.

Thin Mint Cupcakes

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PB&J for Grown-Ups

Peanut butter and jelly is a staple in most children’s diets. In fact, the average American kid will eat 1,500 PB&J sandwiches. I can believe it, since I’ve gone through what must be 100’s of pounds of peanut butter and even more jelly for my kids’ sandwiches. The combination is the perfect blend of rich peanut butter and sweet jelly. This cheesecake has all the fond memories of those childhood sandwiches, but it’s way more decadent and sophisticated.

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One Quick Bread Recipe, Two Versions

Pear Bread

As bosc pears ripen the texture is as soft as a ripe banana, so I got the idea of making my banana bread recipe with chunks of pear. I added a bit of homemade granola, instead of the toasted coconut I usually put in the banana bread. It is essentially the same recipe, but the result is completely and wonderfully different, with a sweet spice flavor.

The trick to this recipe is using the pears when they are very ripe. This means they are at their sweetest and will breakdown when baking. Unlike other banana recipes, this one calls for chunks of fruit, instead of a puree. Try both the banana and the pear versions and let me know which is your favorite. See the banana bread at the bottom of the post.

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How to Make Fondue

Traditionally, fondue was nothing more than melted chocolate kept warm in a pot called a Caquelon, which was set over a sterno or other source of fire. This version is a ganache, which is thick enough to cling to the treats dipped into it, but thin enough to stay liquid without the fire. I’ve poured the chocolate into individual ramekins, so each person has their own “pot” of  warm chocolate to dip into. Set out an assortment of fruits, cake, cookies, meringues and/or dried fruit. It is a fast, simple, fun dessert for a larger party or a romantic way to celebrate Valentine’s Day with someone special.

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Easy Gift Idea: Chocolate-Covered Toffee

Chocolate-covered toffee is one of my favorite candies and it’s easy to make. All you need is a candy thermometer and some time. The result is a buttery caramel, with a slightly toasty flavor. I added a bit of coffee to the toffee, giving them a slight bitter edge, which is a perfect complement to the sweet candy. To finish them off, dip some of them in milk chocolate or drizzle in dark chocolate and sprinkle with toasted almonds and sea salt. They make a lovely Valentine’s gift.

Chocolate-Covered Toffee

1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter
2 cup granulated sugar
¾ cup brown sugar
¾ cup water
2 tablespoon molasses
2 tablespoons instant coffee powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 pound bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, melted
toasted nuts, optional
Sea salt, optional

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