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A few weeks ago, a debate was struck up between myself and a friend on a highly sensitive topic. Cookies. That’s right.

I had perhaps crossed a line in making the bold statement: “It was the best cookie I’ve ever had.” I find cookies to be one of those things that people are very loyal about. Whether your favorite is a gooey chocolate chip, a Girl Scout Samoa, or a crisp shortbread, you’re likely to defend that cookie to any and all naysayers, while guarding the last few cookies in a secret stash for late night consumption. Doesn’t everyone do this?

It’s no secret that cookies have a special place in my heart. For years, cookie baking has been the quintessential mother-daughter bonding experience in my family (shopping holds a close second, obviously); cookies symbolize Christmas and Thanksgiving; a sweet edible way to dry my childhood tears and the most straightforward sign to show someone that you care. Given all that, I’ve baked a lot of cookies in my lifetime. A lot of really great, moist, crumbly, sweet, melt-in-your-mouth epic cookies that would disappear at family parties while my back was turned, or be the topic of conversation in mid-november, when the holiday season’s cookie plates were on the horizon. Yes, I’ve made raspberry bars, gingerbread men, chocolate chocolate chip and cherry, mint chip, candy cane toffee bars, rum balls, maple nut cups, roll-up cookies, and rugelach. And I thought I knew my favorite of them all – the sugary, doughy, just barely citrusy Lemon Drop cookies.

So when this cookie walked into my life one day and changed everything, it was something I had to talk about.

Don’t let the just-okay photo, which I hastily snapped with my iPhone as soon as I realized what a “big deal” this was, fool you. This Ginger Snap cookie from Ground Support in SoHo, which I stumbled across on a mid-afternoon coffee break one summer day, was so soft, so moist, so earthy and rich with mystical hints of clove and ginger, that I had no choice. It was, and is, the best cookie I’ve ever had.

This statement shocked and appalled my cookie-loving friend. He had grown up on the classic chocolate chip ooey-gooey cookies, and in his mind, nothing could top the sweet sugary dough encasing melting milk-chocolate morsels. The idea of a “Ginger Snap” cookie (though I explained that it didn’t really have much “snap” to it) being the best cookie anyone had ever eaten was so farfetched, it was outrageous.

But I wasn’t deterred. And a few days later, when I headed to Long Island for a brief staycation, I entered my mother’s kitchen – the cookie-baking-kitchen of my youth – on a mission to recreate the Ground Support Ginger cookie. Or rather, twenty four of them.

One sticky battle with a jar of molasses later, and they were done. I took the first bite, and was instantly disappointed. They just weren’t the same – they lacked something of the pillowy, slightly underdone moistness of the inspiration cookie I’d been so desperately craving. But then, I took another bite, because how can you not?

And then I saw things clearly – how the cloves broke through the sugar and cinnamon to give a suggestion of Autumn, of richness, that just-can’t-put-your-finger-on-it quality that bakers strive for. The molasses took a traditional ginger snap, and made it chewy and soft and unique, providing a slightly more elevated flavor profile than your Grandmother’s ginger cookie. And when the cookies were taste tested by a jury of other cookie experts (i.e., my family), they were frankly blow away, throwing out statements equally strong as my original claim, like “best cookie you’ve ever made,” and “if we sold these, we’d be rich!”

But because I know how important these cookies are, despite their chocolate chip free make-up, I thought it best to share them rather than sell them. Plus, what better way to celebrate the start of the fall season than with a cookie that celebrates the flavors of Autumn.

Soft Ginger Cookies

Makes 24 – Adapted from All-Recipes.com

Ingredients

  • 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup butter, softened
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tablespoon water
  • 1/4 cup robust molasses
  • 2 tablespoons white sugar

Method

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Sift together the flour, ginger, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves, and salt. Set aside.

In a large bowl, cream together the margarine and 1 cup sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg, then stir in the water and molasses. Gradually stir the sifted ingredients into the molasses mixture. Shape dough into walnut sized balls, and roll them in the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar. Place the cookies 2 inches apart onto an ungreased cookie sheet, and flatten slightly.

Bake for 8 to 10 minutes in the preheated oven. Allow cookies to cool on baking sheet for 5 minutes before removing to a wire rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container.

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Call me crazy, but for about two weeks now, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about muffins.


 
I know. I’m sure there are more productive ways to use your brain power, but for some reasons, muffins just wouldn’t quit.
 
It all started when I received a Women’s Health Daily email newsletter that touted six healthy muffin recipes after the jump. Muffins – healthy? Maybe I have a hard time wrapping my head around this because whenever I think about muffins, I picture those giant blueberry crumb muffins that always fix me with their minxy, seductive stares from within the Starbucks pastry case, just beyond the sign that reads 400 calories and infinity grams of fat. Getting the occasional free Starbucks muffin was one of the greatest perks of the month I spent working there, and forever more will they be the decadent standard to which all other muffins must live up to.
 
So you see, this whole healthy muffin madness didn’t make all that much sense to me. I didn’t really buy that these Women’s Health muffins could taste like anything more than glorified packing peanuts, and so I went about my life and forgot all about them.
 

But then, whilst perusing some springtime menus on Epicurious, I once again came face to face with a healthy muffin recipe. Twice in one week? This time, I stopped dead in my tracks. Epicurious, in my mind, is a fairly reliable source. It’s recipes come from well-regarded food magazines, where professional recipe developers spend painstaking hours perfecting their recipes until they are just right and nearly impossible for any home cook to mess up (at least, that’s how my fantasy goes). And when Epicurious told me that a delicious ginger-pumpkin muffin could be all mine for just 200 calories, and 41 other readers had corroborated this via their own review, well, it was on.

This is probably a good time to mention that I don’t actually own a muffin tin.

For those who are shocked, appalled, and disappointed, let me reassure you this is a solvable problem. Sure, muffins are great. Phenomenal, even. As everyone who’s ever seen a Seinfeld episode or eaten a muffin can vouch, muffin tops are quite frankly one of the best damn members of the carb family.

But, you know, bread isn’t too bad either.

What I do own (read: Cara owns) is a loaf pan. A 9″ x 5″ tin that gets the job done. So when I saw this recipe and immediately fell head over heels for it, there was no need to turn back. I plowed full steam ahead into the wonderful world of “un-muffins”!

In essence, it’s the difference between going out on a date with a boy in a three-piece suit, or one in jeans and a button down. As we all know, looks aren’t everything, and at the end of the night it’s all going to come down to enjoyment and personality.

Joy + personality = Pumpkin Ginger “Un-Muffins.” Let’s do this.

Pumpkin-Ginger “Un-Muffins” – makes 16 muffins or one 5″ x 9″ loaf

Adapted from Epicurious.com

Ingredients:

  • 5 1/2 tablespoons minced crystallized ginger
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 1/2 tablespoon of grated or minced ginger
  • 2 tablespoons brandy
  • 1 cup sifted unbleached all purpose flour
  • 1 cup sifted whole wheat flour
  • 1 tablespoon ground ginger
  • 2 teaspoons pumpkin pie or cake spice
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons canned pumpkin
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons skim milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 large egg whites
  • 1 large egg
  • 3/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons (packed) golden brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup light golden honey
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil

Start by preheating your oven (set to 325°F for a loaf, and 375°F for muffins). If you’re opting to make muffins, god bless you, and line sixteen 1/3-cup muffin cups with paper liners. Then mix 2 1/2 tablespoons crystallized ginger, raisins, grated ginger and brandy in small bowl.

Combine your dry ingredients by sifting the whole wheat and AP flour, ground ginger, pumpkin pie spice, baking soda and salt into medium bowl. In another small bowl, whisk pumpkin puree, milk and vanilla together. In a much larger bowl (this will be used to combine everything) beat egg whites and egg until foamy using an electic mixer. To the beaten eggs, add 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons brown sugar; beat until light and frothy, about 2 minutes. Beat in the honey and oil until well combined.

Then add in the dry ingredients and pumpkin mixture, alternating back and forth between each type in 3 additions each. Mix until smooth, and then stir in the raisin-brandy mixture.

If making muffins, divide batter among prepared muffin cups. If not, grease your 9″ x 5″ loaf pan with butter or cooking spray, and pour batter in. Mix 3 tablespoons crystallized ginger and 1 tablespoon brown sugar in small bowl. Sprinkle evenly over the muffins or loaf.

Bake until tester inserted into center comes out clean; for muffins, about 25 minutes; for a loaf, about 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes. Cool on rack. Then stuff your face.

And the best part? 1 muffin (or a 1/16th-sized slice of the loaf, which is a 4″ x 2.5″ x 1.25″ slice) is only 195 calories, 4 grams of fat, and 2 grams of fiber. While that was enough to satisfy me, I got this rave review from my roommate, Cara:

“I had one of your slices of muffin bread for breakfast. Sooooo good… It was definitely really hearty and lasted in my belly for a while!”

S0 there ya have it – a non-empty calorie, actually filling and nutritious muffin (bread)! Great as part of a perfectly balanced breakfast, or to replace your daily on-the-go granola bar. Take that, Starbucks!

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Some will argue that summer is the pinnacle of pie season. All that fresh fruit… blueberries, raspberries, rhubarb – you could make pies galore! But for many, autumn will always spell the beginning of a pie time of year, when the weather is cold and a rich, flaky pastry crust filled with a creamy, sweet confection finally feels just right.

Pumpkin Pie epitomizes this sentiment, from the moment it is conceived in the weeks leading up to Halloween when the deep orange pumpkins of fall just start to ripen. Then, as November arrives and Jack-O-Lanterns are discarded, pumpkins find a new purpose in our meals, as they are pureed into soups, mashes, breads, muffins, and pies. Hundreds of years ago, Native Americans brought the finest pumpkins of their harvest as gifts to the New World settlers, and in the present-day now, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a pumpkin pie missing from your table on Thanksgiving. But after trying this Pumpkin-Ginger pie recipe from Locanda Verde’s pastry chef Karen DeMasco, you’ll want this pie front and center of your dessert buffet for every holiday party, Christmas dinner, and New Year’s celebration that’s to come this year. Because nothing says decadence quite like a classic pastry with a modern twist – and that is what this pie is all about.

To start, you’ll need to spend a little time at your local grocery store, gathering all sorts of magical ingredients. You’ll need:

INGREDIENTS for the Crust:

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp. sugar
  • 3/4 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
  • 1/4 cup lard, cold

INGREDIENT for the Filling:

  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup maple syrup
  • 1/4 cup dark-brown sugar
  • 1 tbs. finely grated ginger
  • 1 3/4 cups fresh pumpkin (or 15-oz. canned pumpkin purée)
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. cloves
  • 1/2 tsp. fresh nutmeg
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt

Then, get to work making your own pie crust. Sure, you could go store-bought, but why? I promise, this takes less than 20 minutes to make, and is way easier than any pastry-making trials and tribulations you may have heard in the past.

To start, place the flour, sugar, and salt into a large mixing bowl. Add the butter and lard, and mix with a pastry blender or fork (or even cut the butter into small pieces with two knives – trust me, you can work with what you’ve got!) until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add 1/4-cup ice water, using your hands to mix the dough together. Then, on a clean surface, shape the dough into a flattened disk. Wrap the disk in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

Once the dough has chilled in the fridge (and feel free to leave it in the fridge as long as overnight – I did, and it worked out great), roll out the dough into an 11-inch round on a floured surface. Center the dough on a 9-inch pie plate, pressing into the edges, and trim the dough to the rim. Then, stick the dough-covered pie plate back in the fridge and chill for 10 more minutes. In the meantime you can shape the remaining scraps of dough into a disk, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate those too. They’ll come in handy later ;) Oh, and go preheat your oven to 375 degrees.

Once your pie crust has chilled out in the fridge, bring it back front and center, and get ready to bake! Line the pie shell with a round of parchment paper or foil, leaving a 1-inch overhang. Then, fill with pie weights. Or, if you are a normal home cook and are saying to yourself, “Pie-weights, what-now?” go get some dried beans or lentils out of your pantry and fill the parchment-lined pie shell with those. Us home cooks are nothing if not resourceful.

Bake the crust for 15 to 20 minutes until the edges begin to turn golden. Remove the parchment and pie weights, er, lentils… And return the crust to the oven to continue baking for about 10 more minutes until it appears to be flaky and golden. You know, like a pastry… Right… Now the crust is done, so set the whole pie plate on the table or a wire rack  and let it cool completely. There’s still a bit to do, so you’ll have plenty to keep you busy while the crust cools.

Now, it’s time to make the filling! This filling is what makes this pie phenomenal – it has a few secret (well, not any more…), irresistibly scrumptious ingredients that kick it up a few (thousand…) notches and make it the most unique pumpkin pie you’ve ever had.

Now look. By now you’re probably thinking, “This seems like wayyyy to much work on to of everything else I have to cook for this holiday dinner party. Costco’s got a great pumpkin pie and no one has ever complained about a Costco dessert.” I know it’s easy to go out to the store and buy a pumpkin pie. Maybe even a gourmet, special, different pumpkin pie. But, humor me  while I give you a short scenario. A certain family member of mine dug the last, slightly smushed, left over slice of this pie out of the fridge last night, five days after Thanksgiving, the day on which it was made and served, and after a week of hanging out in the not-always-friendly-fridge, the pie was still able to elicit the following response:

“So I finished the last ample slice of pumpkin pie last night, and after the sensory overload subsided, it knocked my socks off! The ginger came fizzing through!”

That’s right – GINGER. Also, maple syrup. Ready to venture onward? Okay – let’s go!

First, reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees. Gather your filling ingredients, measuring cups, measuring spoons, and whisk around a large bowl. Whisk the eggs, cream, maple syrup, brown sugar, and ginger together until well combined and smooth. In a second bowl, mix the pumpkin, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and salt until that’s smooth, too; then add the egg mixture in, and whisk to combine.

That’s it! Pour filling into cooled pie shell, and give yourself a pat on the back! The hard part is done.

Now, if you want to get decorative, DeMasco recommends the following: Roll out the refrigerated disk of dough to about 1/4-inch thick. Using a 1/2-inch cookie cutter, cut out 40 pieces of dough. Once the crust is cool, fan and press the cutouts to form a lip around the edge of the crust. Chill the cooked crust lined with cutouts for 10 minutes.

I went with a festive leaf cookie cutter to make the rim. Despite the aroma and taste of this pie, let’s face it – we’re all visual creatures, so I definitely recommend taking the extra 15 minutes to cut out some holiday pastry shapes and dressing your pie up a bit.

Bake the pie on the center rack of the oven for about 60 minutes (rotating after 30 minutes) or until the center has a slight jiggle. Serve each slice with some freshly whipped cream, such as DeMasco’s brandy whipped cream, which includes 2 cups heavy cream, 2 tbs. sugar, and 1/4 cup brandy, or something simpler, like heavy cream, a dash of confectioner’s sugar, and some vanilla extract.

So, there you have it! A quick and easy (okay, so not really at all, but really, what good things in life are?) Pumpkin-Ginger-Maple-Brandy-Heaven-like-presents-under-a-fresh-pine-tree-Christma-hannuk-kwanza-practically-perfect-in-every-way Pie (in the sky). But who needs superlatives? The proof is in the pudding (read: pie filling), and in the smiles of pure bliss that will surely overcome your guests’ faces when they dig into a slice of this goodness this holiday season.

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