Snow day = banana bread

IMG_0873BSMbanner_baked-150It’s a snow day!

As the non-profit I work for is a learning center, and typically closes when the public schools close in inclement weather, it wasn’t a tremendous surprise after the snow came sweeping in gusts last night, straight on into this morning with a vengeance, that we would be enjoying a ‘snow day’ here in Milwaukee.  I detest winter weather, but always welcome a day bundled up warm inside, knowing I do not have to venture out any time soon.  Snow days to me always mean one glorious thing:  I am home all day, so I can brew up some coffee, stay in my pj’s and wear my glasses instead of popping in my contacts, and BAKE.

The snowy view outside my kitchen window this afternoon!

The snowy view outside my kitchen window this afternoon!

I’m doing my best on this snug and cozy day in to beat the winter blues by doing just that – more specifically, I’m baking up a loaf of Baked’s Honey Banana Poppy Seed Bread, from the banana chapter of their newest book, Baked Elements (also this weekend’s Baked Sunday Mornings assignment).  Of course, in my attempts to make this day off incredibly productive, I’m also aiming to get a big chunk of lines memorized (I’m playing the lead role in a production of The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer, this spring) and get my taxes done and submitted online… we’ll see how that goes!

IMG_0864Now, I’m not a huge fan of bananas, to be honest.  Eaten raw, I’ve always felt that the taste of bananas gets into your nose and sticks there (does anyone out there get what I mean by that?  I hope so…).  It’s a strong, musky, pungent taste.  However, I’m a big fan of banana breads, cakes, and muffins – or, basically anything where that heavy, cloying banana taste is intermingled with sugars, spice, and all things nice.  That being said, banana bread is always a welcome enterprise for me, as long as you keep out any nasty walnuts (or nuts of any kind; adding nuts to banana bread, like adding nuts to brownies, is shameful in my book).

With the nasty weather just beginning to calm down outside, today struck me as the perfect day to perfume our apartment with that warming aroma of freshly-baked banana bread, and I’ve been excited to try this recipe since I got the book.  I have fond childhood memories of my mother making banana bread quite a few times, and that smell instantly transports me back.  It was usually accompanied by a nice clean house, windows open in the spring to let in the fresh air, and just an overall feeling of subtle accomplishment that “all was right in the world”.  The aroma itself had to suffice with me, as my mom’s banana bread was always studded with icky walnuts!  Yuck!  Nuts aside, I love that memory, and the fact that banana bread baking in the oven returns me to it.

IMG_0865This particular recipe is wonderfully simple.  Simply combine your dry ingredients in one large bowl, your wet ingredients (including some good ripe bananas – use those brown ones aging on your counter – and some glorious, golden honey) in another.  Pour the wet ingredients into a well made in the center of the sifted dry ingredients, and fold all ingredients together gently while scattering in a couple tablespoons of nutty, crunchy poppy seeds.  You’re done!  Pour the mixture into a larger bread pan (9″ x 5″) and bake in an oven for an hour and 15 minutes… and be prepared for your abode to smell pleasant and wonderful.   No need for a mixer, and the dishes used to mix this bread together involve very minimal clean-up!  A winner all around, right?

IMG_0872As with most quick breads of this ilk, take precaution and keep an eye on your bread while it’s baking.  Most quick breads rise up slightly and form a gorgeous crack or crater in the center and sadly, the edges typically over-bake while the middle can run the risk of under-baking.  I try and rotate my pan throughout the baking, and even tent the bread with aluminum foil to keep it from over-browning too much.  It’s largely trial and error, and you may need to experiment with a couple loaves before you arrive at the perfect loaf in your particular oven.  The timing for this recipe seemed to work just fine for me, but it may not work the same for everyone… so keep your eyes on it and maybe tap the top from time to time to gauge whether the bread has set and baked sufficiently.  If it’s still a little jiggly, it needs to keep baking, and if it’s already rather brown, get that foil out!

Typically, I do not butter quick breads when I eat them – I feel that the ingredients in quick breads are substantial enough to provide good flavor without butter helping them out.  I make an exception with banana bread (and usually zucchini bread as well).  For some crazy reason – which I cannot properly explain – I love banana bread with a thick layer of cold, salted butter slathered across the slice.  BEST way to eat banana bread, trust me – it’s a pleasing texture contrast between the cool butter and room temperature bread.

IMG_0879 IMG_0885With this Honey Banana Poppy Seed Bread, however, I had to try a piece shortly after it cooled from the oven, so my butter melted a bit.  At first taste, I worried that the inclusion of honey with the sugar may have made the bread a touch *too* sweet, and my total verdict is still out on that, but believe me – this is one tasty banana bread.  You can definitely taste the honey, but it’s not overpowering.  If anything, it rounds out the flavor of the banana harmoniously, and the tiny pop and crunch of those poppy seeds provide a nice, pleasing texture to the moist density of the bread.  This is indeed the perfect bread to savor on a snowy afternoon… or gift to a friend!  Thanks to Matt and Renato for another fabulous recipe!

Make your friends and family happy on a snowy day and bake up your own delicious, unique banana bread by following this link:

Honey Banana Poppy Seed Bread

Now… on to those taxes… and yikes, all those LINES!…

Next Week: Malted Milk Sandwich Cookies (it’s the dreaded malt again…)

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Proof is in the pudding… er, budino!

IMG_0845BSMbanner_baked-150I love pudding.  Just adore it.  It’s one of those comfort food-ish types of desserts, and perhaps surprisingly, it’s not that hard to make and can take just as much time as, well… making pudding from a Jello pudding mix.  Really!  Sure, I have memories of being an experimental baker as a teen and pretty near burning out the bottom of one of my mother’s pots because I didn’t know how far to take the ‘boiling’ of the milk mixture while cooking it, so there is a little trial-and-error.  Once you ace it, however, you shouldn’t have much trouble making it again – and you can toss those little Jello mixes away (not that I am dissing Jello pudding mix, mind you – it has its purpose from time to time!).

IMG_0853All of that being said, I was pretty delighted with this week’s Baked Sunday Mornings assignment – a luxurious double-layered (pudding) treat called Vanilla Bean and Milk Chocolate Budino.  I parenthesize the word “pudding” as, according to (what I assume is) Matt Lewis’s preface to this recipe, “budino” is a very Italian and somewhat fancier way of saying “pudding”.  Out of deference to certain members of Matt’s family, he refers to this dessert as a ‘budino’ and as a *wink wink nudge nudge* suggestion, mentions that “if anybody asks, this is a budino, not a pudding”.

While many puddings (er, budino) are typically made with a mixture of milk and eggs and/or egg yolks, this recipe bumps things up a little notch and also incorporates both eggs and egg yolks with cornstarch for thickening, and some heavy cream for richness and denseness.  I would strongly suggest removing that yucky chalazae attached to your egg yolks when making this, as the last thing you want are any lumps of chewy cooked egg in your smooth budino (see my thoughts on this in prior blogs).

IMG_0850Splitting the cooked custard up into two flavors is a wonderful idea.  While I know many of you out there may be hesitant to use the bourbon in the vanilla bean portion, I would suggest you give it a try.  Even if you do not like booze too much, the bourbon heightens the toasty vanilla notes in the vanilla bean.  Milk chocolate is definitely the idea companion here; like Matt, while I am a huge dark chocolate aficionado and think it may work just as well for the chocolate pudding (errrr…. budino) portion of this recipe, the milk chocolate is a nice, smooth pairing for the vanilla portion.

One suggestion I have when making this particular recipe is to have all of your ingredients measured and ready to go before you start.  While this is a good rule of thumb for most baking, you will find with this recipe that you’ll be using many heatproof bowls and many spatulas and whisks to cook and put it all together, and having these utensils at the ready will put you greatly ahead of the game.  Be careful and gentle when streaming your hot milk/cornstarch/sugar mixture into your eggs/cream mixture, whisking vigorously as you pour, so you quickly temper and do not scramble your eggs.  I find pouring from a somewhat higher angle sometimes produces a nice thin stream into the eggs.

IMG_0839I was happy to use the cute little glass dessert dishes I inherited from my grandmother to serve up this budino.  There is no great trick to the layering of the puddings (Drat! Budino!), as the vanilla sets up rather quickly after 20 minutes in the fridge.  Carefully spoon the chocolate layer over.  If you like a thick skin to develop on top – some folks do! – tightly cover the budino with plastic wrap, not touching the surface.  If you’re in the no-skin camp like yours truly, simple loosen the plastic enough to press it lightly onto the surface of the budino.  Don’t worry about ruining the ‘design’ of the top… if you cover it with a decorative piping or dollop of lightly sweetened whipped like I have, no worries!

Relish the smooth, creamy, delicious comfort of your own budino today by following this link:

Vanilla Bean and Milk Chocolate Budino

You’ll find this a wonderful dessert for a small dinner party or gathering.  It makes 8 perfect portions that are visually appealing and most importantly, they satisfy fans of vanilla and chocolate in a pleasing combination.  The lovely ‘surprise’ of the vanilla speckled budino tucked beneath the smooth chocolate may just provide a nice ‘a-ha!’ moment among your guests – or even just yourself.  Enjoy it.

Next week: Honey Banana Poppy Seed Bread

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Whiskey sour

IMG_0817BSMbanner_baked-150I was hoping with this week’s Baked Sunday Mornings recipe to offer up something new, exciting, and slightly tinged with the erotic and risqué.  The recipe is called Lacy Panty Cakes with Whiskey Sauce, after all.  And, it being Valentine’s Day, I suppose no other time like the present would be perfect for making such a recipe, correct? (cue the music: bow chicka bow wow…)

While even the guys from Baked couldn’t completely explain the origin of this funny name in their preface to this recipe, the ‘panty’ referred to may actually be a diminutive for ‘pan’ in ‘pancake’.  These (somewhat little) pancakes are made with unusual pancake ingredient additions such as sour cream, brown sugar, graham cracker crumbs, and whiskey.  The ‘lacy’ effect may allude to the lace-like pattern made on the pancakes’ surface as they fry in the pan.

IMG_0807Sadly, despite the intriguing name, I found this to be one of the most uninteresting recipes we have made so far.  The ‘panty cakes’ were rather uninspired, humdrum graham cracker pancakes bordering on the too-thin side.  I personally prefer my pancakes a little thicker and heartier.  I also don’t possess a proper skillet to make pancakes in, so these turned out a bit ragged and pathetic.  The whiskey sauce is truly what ‘makes’ the recipe – dark, slightly buttery, rich, thick and strong with good whiskey flavor, it will definitely wake you up with the alcoholic kick (if you’re not big into whiskey, you may not be a fan).  Instead of elaborating further on my disaster, I offer you these few photos of the results, and then will move on.

IMG_0809 IMG_0810Anyhow… when you have a ton of lemons, what do you do?  Make lemonade, of course.  Or ice cream, in this case.

I decided to make good use of the delectable whiskey sauce from this recipe by whipping up a batch of Alice Medrich’s tangy, creamy sour cream ice cream.  Even though we are in the chill of a typical February winter here in Milwaukee, I still consider ice cream to be a year-round thing – I’m that hopelessly addicted to it – and making your own homemade ice cream is actually pretty darn satisfying and surprisingly simple.  I have several of Alice Medrich’s books and consider her just as much an important baking mentor as the Baked boys, and this sour cream ice cream recipe itself is what inspired me to purchase the book in which it is published, Medrich’s Pure Dessert.  I haven’t had the opportunity to make it yet – and this whiskey sauce from Baked seemed like a perfect accompaniment to it.

IMG_0811Honestly, I could eat sour cream with a spoon directly out of the container.  I love that piquant, sharp, tangy flavor – especially if it’s a good, locally-produced, organic sour cream. For this ice cream, I used Westby’s sour cream, from Wisconsin, as well as whole milk from the local Sassy Cow Creamery.  The recipe is not egg custard-based.  Instead, to allow the clean flavor of the sour cream to be the star of this ice cream, Medrich uses a small bit of cornstarch, which she advises you let properly boil up and cook in the milk and sugar mixture to remove any raw cornstarch flavor.

As Medrich herself notes, this ice cream is amazing on its own, right out of the ice cream freezer, or paired with grilled fruit.  However, I will say that it was simply amazing with Baked’s Whiskey Sauce from the Lacy Panty Cakes recipe.  One spoonful of the warm, smoky whiskey sauce, drizzled over the smooth, silky, rich sour cream ice cream – and I was immensely satisfied that I had made the right decision as an alternate to the somewhat failed Lacy Panty Cakes for this week…and let me say that this combination is just as ‘sexy’.  What a delicious treat.

Make your own Lacy Panty Cakes by following this link:

Lacy Panty Cakes with Whiskey Sauce

Or, skip the panty cakes, make the sauce, and pull out your ice cream maker for the following recipe.  It’s a definite keeper.  Best of all, it seems like it can be amazingly versatile.  Next time I make it, I may swirl some homemade lemon curd through it after churning…or, pour a blackberry or raspberry sauce over the top.  Delicious!

IMG_0819Alice Medrich’s Sour Cream Ice Cream

From Pure Dessert by Alice Medrich

Yield : Makes about 3 cups

Alice Medrich’s note: Here is an irresistible new ice cream, gently sweetened so that you can savor the rich nutty flavor and pleasant edge of the sour cream. Nothing more, not even a whisper of vanilla, is needed. A traditional egg-custard ice cream base would have blurred the pristine flavor of the sour cream, so I chose a base of milk with a little (very little) cornstarch instead–like true Sicilian gelato. I adore this ice cream right out of the machine, with nothing but a spoon.

2 cups sour cream

2/3 cup sugar

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon cornstarch

1/8 teaspoon salt

1 cup whole milk

Put the sour cream in a medium bowl and set aside.

In a small saucepan, combine the sugar, cornstarch, and salt. Whisk in a little of the milk until smooth, then whisk in the remaining milk. Whisk constantly over medium heat until the mixture is warm and foamy. Continue to whisk as the foam subsides and the mixture thickens and begins to boil. Whisking and scraping the bottom and sides of the pan constantly to prevent scorching, boil steadily but not furiously for 1½ to 2 minutes, or until the mixture thins slightly and becomes a bit more translucent.

It is important to cook the base adequately, or you will taste and feel the raw cornstarch on your palate and the flavor of the sour cream in the finished ice cream will not be clear and bright.

Remove the pan from the stove and whisk for a few seconds to release some heat. A little at a time, whisk the hot mixture into the sour cream. Let cool, then cover tightly and refrigerate, covered, until thoroughly chilled, at least 4 but preferably 12 hours.

For an extra-cold start, put the mixture in the freezer for 20 minutes, stirring once or twice to prevent freezing.

Freeze the ice cream according to the instructions for your ice cream machine. Serve, or pack into an airtight container and freeze. If the ice cream sits in the freezer for several hours, it will be too hard to scoop. Soften it slightly by transferring the container to the refrigerator for a few minutes before serving; or microwave on low or on the defrost setting for a few seconds at a time until scoopable.

Next week: Vanilla Bean & Milk Chocolate Budino (don’t know what ‘budino’ is?  Stay tuned and find out.  I’m excited about this next one!)

The way the cookie crumbles

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BSMbanner_baked-150I have a confession to make.  The photo above is two years old.  So are the other photos in this week’s blog.  Allow me to explain myself… I did not skip out on making the recipe for this week!

I enjoyed fairly good, yummy success making this week’s Baked Sunday Mornings recipe, the Chocolate Ginger Molasses Cookie, two years ago – around Christmas time.  I’m sharing these older photos with you now because… well… I don’t know what happened, but this time, they just were not good.  They tasted pretty bad (dry and bitter) and weren’t even pretty enough for me to muster up the energy to whip together the icing to decorate them.  Every baker has bad times in the kitchen, and never is it more frustrating than when you know you had some measure of success on the first go-round!

My Chocolate Ginger Molasses Cookie looking fancy in the drawing room at Ten Chimneys in Genesee Depot, WI (where I used to work). (Photo credit: Amanda Shilling)

I absolutely adore the idea behind these festive cookies.  Who doesn’t enjoy the comforting smell of molasses cookies – tinged with spicy notes of ginger, cinnamon, and cloves – baking in the oven?  They’re a perfect roll-out cookie for a snowy day or for the holiday season.  The special touch Baked has added to this traditional cookie is the addition of dark cocoa powder and a couple ounces of melted bittersweet chocolate, blended right into the batter with the dark molasses.  It’s a subtle finish that pays off handsomely.  Perhaps surprisingly, chocolate, spice, and molasses are a trio made in heaven.

Let’s get the bad news and results out of the way first…

If memory serves me right, I was somewhat impressed with the workability of the dough the first time I made these.  This time around, I found that it was – for lack of a better word – just obnoxious.  First of all, it was far too dry and crumbly, and took forever to shape into a ball for wrapping and chilling.  Even later on, when I attempted rolling it out, it kept breaking and shattering into crumbs.  Very frustrating.  Secondly, I don’t think that I should have chilled the dough as the recipe suggests.  After melding all of the dough crumbles together into a ball straight out of the mixing bowl, I could have rolled and baked the cookies off fairly well.  I made my dough two nights before baking the cookies, and chilled the discs of dough, wrapped in plastic, in the fridge.  Even after letting them sit on the counter for almost two hours, they were still too cold and brittle, and kept cracking and breaking up as I rolled them out.  Warming one disc in the microwave for a few seconds, while perhaps not advisable, helped loosen the dough a touch.  No matter if the dough was chilled or slightly warmed, there still were ugly cracks across the surface of the cookies which were even more unattractive when the cookies were baked.

I also wondered if a slight cut-back on the baking soda measurement would make a huge amount of difference.  A tablespoon is quite a lot, and the edgy, bitter baking soda flavor definitely overpowered the spices in this batch.  With a cookie like this, you want the subtle warmth of chocolate, heightened with the kick of the spices and smokiness of the molasses.

100_1332And now, the good news…

You should, definitely, try making this cookie – especially if you are a fan of any of the ingredients in the cookie’s name.  I promise you that it is not an unworthy endeavor.  I loved these the first time I made them, and they can be truly beautiful cookies to decorate with the slightly lemony icing  (I used a small plastic baggie to decorate the cookies in the photos – simply fill the baggie with the icing and snip off a tiny bit of the baggie’s corner.  Easy!).  As any good baker will tell you, there are good days in the kitchen, and there are bad.  This just wasn’t a good baking week for yours truly – but I take comfort in knowing I had one successful attempt with them and snapped some fabulous photos at the time to share with you now!  And that’s the way the Chocolate Ginger Molasses Cookie crumbles, folks.  At least, this time.  Next time, they will be fabulous!

The recipe and blogs by my fellow bakers can be found at Baked Sunday Mornings:

Chocolate Ginger Molasses Cookie

Have a wonderful week, everyone! Oh, and Happy Valentine’s Day… if you go in for that sort of thing!  Ha!  I’m pretty well-known among my friends and acquaintances for dressing in black and making Martha Stewart’s recipe for Broken Heart Chocolate Cookies – an amazing dark chocolate cut-out, heart-shaped cookie spiced with cinnamon, cayenne pepper, and black pepper and spattered with dark chocolate.  The ‘broken heart’ effect is created by cutting a slight zig-zag pattern into the cookies before baking them.  They’re incredible.  The recipe can be found in The Martha Stewart Cookbook (Clarkson Potter Publishers, 1995).  Jake and I are hitting Chicago this weekend to celebrate our 3rd anniversary on Monday, so I’m not sure if I will get to them this week or not.  And I no longer wear black on Valentine’s Day, of course!

Next week: Lacy Panty Cakes with Whiskey Sauce (Oh!  Eww.  This could be interesting…?)

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Fantastic focaccia

BSMbanner_baked-150As much as I adore baking, it’s not often that I bake a lot of bread.  Once in a while, it’s fun to get my hands exercised by kneading some honest-to-goodness bread dough, and I was thankful for this week’s Baked Sunday Mornings assignment to do just that… well, kind of.  I didn’t have to do too much kneading, which really isn’t much of a bad thing at all!

The recipe is Baked’s Cheesy Focaccia with Caramelized Onions and Sautéed Spinach, from Baked Elements.  Truly, nothing warms a frost-bitten soul in winter more than the smell of fresh bread baking up in the oven… and it’s even better with lots of melty cheeses, tangy caramelized red onions, and bright green, hearty speckles of spinach on top.

IMG_0692Though this is by no means an especially difficult recipe, as with any kind of homemade bread dough, you will want to allow yourself plenty of time for the dough to rest and rise.  The dough for this focaccia mixes up in a jiffy, particularly if you have a Kitchen Aid with a dough hook attachment – mine only took a few minutes to beat together and was barely wet or sticky in the mixing bowl (I didn’t need to add more flour like they suggested). I think the combination of all-purpose and bread flours called for in the recipe is what keeps the dough tender and almost pillowy when the focaccia bakes up.  The process for prepping the dough for baking doesn’t required a lot of kneading – simply stretch the beaten dough out on a lightly-floured board, fold it threefold like a letter, then sort of tuck the whole piece together into a comfy, cozy ball.  Place in an oiled bowl, set aside, and let rise slightly.  Repeat this process after a half hour, rest, then repeat after another half hour.  I actually left my apartment and ran some errands after the third stretch/fold/rest-in-bowl period, and when I came back, had quite a chuckle at how high my dough rose up over the top of the bowl!

I next lined a large metal sheet pan with a piece of parchment, smeared with a nice dose of olive oil and scattered with corn meal.  I patted the dough out into a rectangle and let it rest a while longer as I cooked some thinly-sliced red onion until lusciously fragrant, translucent, and tinged with some golden caramelization.  After the onions, I tossed some baby spinach greens into the sauté pan and let them cook and wilt down before setting them aside to cool slightly.

Prior to baking, I used my fingertips to do a final stretching-out of the dough to the corners of the pan.  I followed this by gently dimpling the top of dough with my fingers, then generously brushing the top of the dough with olive oil mixed with chopped fresh rosemary.  I finished with a scattering of salt and pepper, chopped fresh thyme, and dried oregano.  The focaccia was baked in a high-heat oven (450 degrees) for only about 10 minutes, with a pan of heated water underneath to create steam, which made the crust of the focaccia crisp and the interior soft and light.

IMG_0699 IMG_0700The recipe calls for topping the focaccia, immediately after being pulled out of the oven, with 2 cups of mozzarella cheese.  I opted for a generous cup each – you can never have too much cheese, I figure – of mozzarella and Swiss, to create a little contrast between the smoothness of the mozzarella and the nuttiness of the Swiss (Swiss cheese always complements caramelized onion wonderfully, I find).  For the harder cheese, I used Parmesano Reggiano, which provided just the right sharpness.  I combined a healthy dash of red pepper flakes with my cheeses, then sprinkled about half the cheese mixture over the baked focaccia, followed by the onions and the spinach (which I gently squeezed some of the moisture out of on a paper towel).  I topped the onions and spinach with the remaining cheese, popped it all back in the oven, and baked it off, until the cheeses started to turn golden and bubbly.

Let me tell you – this focaccia smelled fantastic coming out of the oven.  It’s also a beautiful, festive sight – with the purple of the onion and the bright green of the spinach peeking through the melted, golden cheese.  I’m a huge onion fan – raw, cooked, caramelized, any which way you can make them – and this recipe is an onion lover’s dream.  The sweetness of the onion, paired with the earthiness of the spinach (which crisps slightly in the oven under the high heat), mingling with the saltiness and creaminess of the cheese, accented by the spicy red pepper flakes and pungent herbs and olive oil… WOW.  We ate this for dinner.  It was almost like a fancy pizza in itself.  My focaccia, as you can see from the pictures, was especially thick and pillowy-soft – a nice texture, indeed, though I hoped for it to be a little more golden on the bottom and the edges.  I couldn’t complain much about how this focaccia came out, however… as soon as I snapped my photos for this blog, I ate about 3 pieces in a row!  It was delicious!

It’s easy to see why the owners and staff at Baked like to take an occasional break from sweets by making this exceptionally good savory treat.  It would be the perfect snack for a party – perhaps a Super Bowl party?  (I can’t comment too much on that, sorry – NOT a football watcher; I celebrate the Super Bowl more because it’s the END of football season!)  Make this marvelous foccacia yourself by following this link:

Cheesy Focaccia with Caramelized Onions and Sautéed Spinach at Baked Sunday Mornings

…and please be sure to visit the blogs of my fellow bakers and friends on Baked Sunday Mornings (see their blogs listed in the “Leave Your Links” page for the focaccia).  Enjoy your focaccia, and please come back to visit Neufangled Desserts next week!

Next week: Chocolate Ginger Molasses Cookies

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