buttermilk cake with blood orange frosting | the vanilla bean blog
If you follow along on my instagram account, you may have noticed I’ve been baking quite a bit since September (well, quite a bit more than usual, if that’s possible). The reason is that I have been recipe testing like a mad woman, working on my first book.

I’m still pinching myself about the whole thing. I spent all middle school and junior high writing short stories, novellas, and poems in the free time I had, dreaming that maybe one day my work would make its way to book form. So while ‘cookbook’ was never in my plans (I was always working on some Nancy Drew enters Narnia with Sweet Valley High make-out scenes type book), I am so excited to have this opportunity.

I still have a lot more work to do, but my cookbook will be coming out Fall 2016, and is being published by Avery in the US and Penguin in Canada. It will be a book focused on baking with a handful of favorites from this space, but will mostly contain new recipes. I will also be photographing the entire book.
buttermilk cake with blood orange frosting | the vanilla bean blog

buttermilk cake with blood orange frosting | the vanilla bean blog

buttermilk cake with blood orange frosting | the vanilla bean blog
So, how about cake to celebrate? I’m enamored with blood oranges, and decided to top a buttermilk cake with some blood orange frosting. The bright purple juice naturally dyed the icing a light shade of pink, and I couldn’t be happier. Gold sprinkles never hurt anything, either (and the color combination was inspired by these plates, which I have fallen so hard for). Hip Hip Hooray!

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Grand Marnier Orange Cake | the vanilla bean blog
“Gathering around the dinner table has been and still is the highlight of our day… We believe that eating together is more than just everyone sitting down at the table; it’s about the communal meal, which at its best is the ritual of sharing food, of cooking together, eating together, and laughing together. Our recipes return families to the idea of a common pot.”

A few weeks ago I was sent a copy of The Pollan Family Table, a cookbook celebrating good, simple food for the family table. I always appreciate cookbooks of this variety – as someone who tries to cook a dinner meal five times a week, I often find myself running out of ideas that my whole family will enjoy. This cookbook does just that. It inspires with healthy ingredients and seasonal recipes.

Of course I was drawn immediately to the dessert section, and so made Grandma Mary’s Grand Marnier Orange Cake. This cake! I must admit I usually go for chocolate-y things, but I had a bag of blood oranges and decided to try out the Bundt cake. This cake! It’s crazy good.
Grand Marnier Orange Cake | the vanilla bean blog

Grand Marnier Orange Cake | the vanilla bean blog

Grand Marnier Orange Cake | the vanilla bean blog
Leave a comment below (along with an email address) for your chance to win a copy of The Pollan Family Table!

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peanut butter-banana-coffee shake
A few months back I took part in With Food + Love‘s “21 Days to Lean and Green” program. It’s a three week mind and body reboot, focusing on slowing down and putting yourself, and your health, first. It was a great experience – Sherrie is a constant and thoughtful encouragement, and in that short time she gave a lot of great tools to help me stop and think about not only what I am eating, but why I am eating it. If you are looking for a little New Year motivation to work on healthy eating habits, this is a great place to start. The course consists of a 45 minute coaching session, 100+ plant-based seasonal recipes, unlimited email support, great handouts and resources, plus much more (which you can read about here). While my healthy eating is constantly in flux, I’ve found myself going back to recipes and handouts from this program when I need to refocus. There are also a few things Sherrie spoke to me over the phone that were so helpful to my personal food struggles, and they have really inspired me make better choices in my daily life.(Sherrie’s next session is starting soon, and if you sign up now and mention this post, you can take 10% the Lean and Green program.)
peanut butter shake | the vanilla bean blog

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chocolate magic shell
“But the kitchen will not come into its own again until it ceases to be a status symbol and becomes again a workshop. It may be pastel. It may be ginghamed as to curtains and shining with copper like a picture in a woman’s magazine. But you and I will know it chiefly by its fragrances and its clutter. At the back of the stove will sit a soup kettle, gently bubbling, one into which every day are popped leftover bones and vegetables to make stock for sauces or soup for the family. Carrots and leeks will sprawl on counters, greens in a basket. There will be something sweet-smelling twirling in a bowl and something savory baking in the oven. Cabinet doors will gape ajar and colored surfaces are likely to be littered with salt and pepper and flour and herbs and cheesecloth and pot holders and long-handled forks. It won’t be neat. It won’t even look efficient. But, when you enter it you will feel the pulse of life throbbing from every corner. The heart of the home will have begun once again to beat.” — Phyllis McGinley
sarah kieffer
My theme for this New Year is kitchen-as-workshop; I love the picture painted above: you and I will know it chiefly by its fragrances and its clutter…the pulse of life throbbing from every corner. Too often I find myself daydreaming about how to make my kitchen space bigger and better, ignoring the simple beauty in what my hands have put together on well-worn counter tops and aged appliances. The memory I hold to from my Grandmother’s kitchen is not of her posh center island or one-of-a-kind dishware, but of her long, wrinkled hands gracefully kneading bread dough on an old, wooden cutting board. There was soul in that wood, soul that just can’t be bought. The heart of the home will have begun once again to beat.
Almond Ring

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Holiday Cut-Out Cookies | the vanilla bean blog
This past weekend the kids and I headed to my sister’s house for a cookie decorating party. It was really a few hours to eat cookie dough and spill sprinkles all over Auntie’s floor, but we all sure had fun anyway. This December has been rather odd for me; our house troubles are still ongoing (we are now currently gutting our entire basement and can’t run our furnace in freezing Minneapolis) and my father-in-law has temporarily moved in with us for a bit (to help with said basement and spend time with the kids). All those things combined make me feel slightly displaced – our home still doesn’t feel like ‘home’ to us as we struggle with trying to find root problems and share space. My facebook feed has also been filled with tragedy this past week, adding another layer of sadness. I’ve been listening to a lot of holiday music, finding solace in lyrics of Christmas cheer and hidden thoughtfulness.

The table is set
And all glasses are full
The pieces go missing
May we still feel whole
We’ll build new traditions in place of the old
Cause life without revision will silence our souls

 So we sing carols softly
As sweet as we know
A prayer that our burdens will lift as we go
Like young love still waiting under mistletoe
We’ll welcome December with tireless hope
-Sleeping At Last, Snow

Speaking of Holiday music, my Best of Christmas vol. 3 is now up on 8tracks! You can find Best of Christmas vol. 1 and vol. 2 there also. (Check out Eustace the Dragon’s cover of Justice Delivers Its Gift on vol. 3 – I’m in love with their version. Also! they have a holiday EP out now. It’s worth every dollar.)

And this made me chuckle: James Thurber pens “A Visit from Saint Nicholas IN THE ERNEST HEMINGWAY MANNER” for The New Yorker, December 24, 1927.

Also: 51 Of The Most Beautiful Sentences in Literature to cure a bad day.
holiday cut-out cookies | the vanilla bean blog

holiday cut-out cookies | the vanilla bean blog

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maple oatmeal scones | the vanilla bean blog

Pure Green Magazine’s latest issue (volume 9) is themed family life, and I’m very happy to have a piece about life in the kitchen with my children tucked away in its pages. If you haven’t heard of Pure Green, I highly recommend heading over and taking a peek. Each issue contains thoughtful articles and beautiful photography, and there is also a blog and podcast to check out.
maple oatmeal scones | the vanilla bean blog

maple oatmeal scones | the vanilla bean blog

maple oatmeal scones | the vanilla bean blog

maple oatmeal scones | the vanilla bean blog

maple oatmeal scones | the vanilla bean blog

maple oatmeal scones | the vanilla bean blog

Winter and I had a lot of fun making these scones. It was one of the last recipes photographed in our previous house, so we were a bit teary-eyed when the article came out; all those memories we weren’t quite ready to recall yet. The recipe for these scones can be found here, although I used the folding technique found here to put them together. They are tasty made either way.

And, I’ve slowly been putting together some Holiday Guides over on Pinterest. There is a Gift Guide, a Gift Guide for Children, and a Baking Guide, if you’d like to follow along. I’ll be adding a lot more to them as the season progresses. And, the gorgeous bowl featured in the photographs is from Wind and Willow Home.
maple oatmeal scones | the vanilla bean blog

maple oatmeal scones | the vanilla bean blog

crème fraîche | the vanilla bean blog
I’ve been making crème fraîche the same way for years: heavy cream and a little bit of buttermilk shaken in a jar, then left on the counter for 24 hours. I’ve changed my method, however, after coming across Renee Erickson’s version in her book A Boat, A Whale, & A Walrus. Here larger amounts of cream and buttermilk are whisked together, then covered in cheesecloth and left on the counter for 2-3 days. It may seem like a subtle difference, but 72 hours later I was greeted with the creamiest, dreamiest crème fraîche that I had ever made. It was rich and slightly tangy, and I was ready to dollop and smear it on everything within reaching distance.

Ms. Erickson’s book is quite beautiful, and I respected it even more after reading the introduction. “I’m…not a classically trained chef – actually, I’m not trained at all – so there aren’t a lot of rules about cooking in my kitchens. It’s more important to me that people are happy and comfortable than that they can crack an egg with one hand or slice a case of shallots in a minute flat. If I don’t want to do something, I don’t want to make someone else do it. I want my staff to have healthy lives and dynamic, interesting jobs that don’t entail someone hovering over them.” After working 15+ years in retail, coffeeshops, and kitchens I may have uttered a ‘thank you!’ upon reading those words.

Leave a comment below for a chance to win a copy of A Boat, A Whale, & A Walrus!

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chocolate chip cookies (wheat free) | the vanilla bean blog
It is nap time. The little ones are quiet, and I am hoping they are asleep. I sit down to breathe, to take time to be still. Almost simultaneously it comes – the near audible whisper, a voice from within, from above. It is time for chocolate. I feel amused when I hear the call, but still give in to my afternoon addiction. My feet find the floor and my hands the highest cupboard. There it lays, nestled behind looming bottles of olive oil and vermouth, out of sight to a quick observer. I stand on tip-toe, grabbing for the shiny silver tinfoil. Two pieces of dark bittersweet break into my hands; the brown-black squares stand out against my pale freckled skin. I seat myself again, quietly biting into the segments.

There, finally, is the silence I was searching for; precious moments are spiritualized as the chocolate washes over me. I reach back into my memory, and the past is quickly present as the chocolate calls out to the sweet. My husband and I are still; his arms wrapped around me. Some call it afterglow, but I see black cocoa blooming in steaming coffee, waiting to cool slightly before being whisked completely smooth. My mind finds another moment, and there is an old wooden church pew, well-worn with sincere hearts. I sit quietly in its comfort, resting in the torn pink cushions, and my questions are silenced for one flitting moment. I recall my first bite of chocolate pudding cake: the velvety silk silences me instantly.

But as quickly as the sweet came it is gone, my hands are empty as the squares sink inside me. I am not satisfied; I remember there are more pieces, whispering to me again from the cupboard. I try to ignore them, but the bitter flavor is now center stage, and its aftertaste lingering. My mind is  racing while my husband sleeps, and I am longing for what I can’t put words to, trying to keep doors inside me safely locked. I am seated in the pew again, but now I am lamenting and questioning: a dear friend left this earth too soon, her body unable to keep her here any longer. There are no answers, just clanging voices calling out to the sky.

But my chocolate-inspired daze is cut short. My daughter is calling to me. I walk the stairs to her room, open the door and lean in close to her face. She recognizes the scent on my breath, and to her it only brings to mind scenes of sweetness. Her innocent eyes ask me the question, and we smile at each other as I gather her in my arms. We climb down the stairs and settle in on the couch. I break off two more pieces and we eat them together.
chocolate chip cookies (wheat free) | the vanilla bean blog
(Whatever we’ve lost
I think we’re gonna let it go
Let it fall
Like snow

‘Cause rain and leaves
And snow and tears and stars
And that’s not all my friend
They all fall with confidence and grace
So let it fall,

let it fall.

-over the rhine)

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s'more cake | the vanilla bean blog
I spent an afternoon looking through cookbooks with my daughter, and she immediately gravitated toward this s’more cake. So we made it. I used my favorite chocolate layer cake, then coated it in marshmallow-like frosting and crushed graham crackers. It was a sticky mess, as the delicate chocolate cake crumbled all over the frosting, the meringue did not streak into beautiful tall peaks as I had imagined, and then the top scorched under the broiler. I was just about to shelve the recipe when I tasted a small  piece that had broken off at the edge. Instantly my mind wandered to junior high sleepovers where there was always a boxed mix and a can of frosting for midnight cake baking; summer camp nights with friends, singing around the fire and scorching our fingers while we gobbled down burnt marshmallows and melty chocolate, and that Friday afternoon in 10th grade when I started an epic cake fight in my American history class. There was confetti and smashed bits of cake covering everyone and everything and I was grounded from the car for weeks, but I never regretted throwing that first piece. In other words, this cake was amazing.
s'more cake | the vanilla bean blog
s'more cake | the vanilla bean blog
smore cake4 (1 of 1)blogsize
s'more cake | the vanilla bean blog
Imperfection has an important place in the kitchen. I had forgotten the beauty of hands, shirts, and dishtowels covered in frosting, lopsided cake layers, and chocolate crumbs scattered all over my counter in a delicious mess.

“Try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless and above all have fun.” – Julia Child

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