My Cousin’s Favorite (Healthy) Dessert

I have a very close family.  It almost borderlines on too close.  Everyone knows everyone else’s business and everyone has an opinion about one thing or another.  That’s why I love it so much.  We are a big, loud family: slightly quirky and very charming.

On my dad’s side(the Italians), there is a perfect progression of granddaughters.  I am the oldest at 22, my cousin Sam is 21, my sister Melissa is 20, cousin Ali is 19 and my cousin Gabrielle will be 17.  We have a lot in common, especially a love of good food.

What’s sad is that we’ve never all lived in the same place at the same time.  My 3 cousins grew up traveling and living all over the world while my sister and I lived in the same house in Massachusetts our whole lives.  Summers were the months we looked forward to because the girls would come to visit.

Years later, I am back in the same house I grew up in after finishing my Bachelor’s Degree, my sister is south of Boston working on hers, Sam & Ali are in opposite ends of Virginia getting their BAs and Gabs is in high school in England.  This is when the saying “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” really means something.

Nevertheless, each one of us has a passion and love for food.  Over the summers, I have tested my recipes on them (and them on me!) but one has consistently been Sam’s favorite.  It’s easy, healthy and she wants it desperately.  I considered not telling her, but hey, family is family… and she could probably beat me up.

(Healthy) Creamy Vanilla Fruit Dip
Recipe from Hungry Girl

3/4 cup Cool Whip Free
3 TB fat-free cream cheese, softened
3 TB Splenda granulated
1/2 TB sugar-free, fat-free jell-o instant pudding mix, vanilla

Mix all ingredients together until smooth.  Chill 30 minutes.   Serve with apple slices, strawberries, graham crackers or eat it straight with a spoon. 

Make a lot if the family is coming over.

Red Velvet Cheesecake Swirl Brownies

Red is rapidly becoming my new favorite color.  I don’t know what’s wrong with me exactly.  Maybe it’s because Valentine’s Day was last week.  Maybe I can’t resist the decadent aroma of red lusciousness baking in the oven.  Or maybe it’s the simple fact that I almost always have the standard ingredients on hand.

Coincidence?  I think not.

My thought process went as such: I had an extra 8-ounce package of low-fat cream cheese in my fridge and nothing to do the other day after work (besides spend some quality time on my abs at the gym) until 9 o’clock.   That left me a substantial amount of time to make something special for the blog and the boyfriend.

In my search for cream cheese recipes, I clicked through fellow food blogs for ideas.  Cakes with cream cheese glazes, nah.  Banana bread with a cream cheese filling?  Intriguing, but no.  Red velvet swirl brownies? Ding, ding, ding.. We have a winner!

I modified the recipe – big shock, right? I’ve never been a big fan of “real” butter to begin with so, as usual, I used my Brummel and Brown margarine spread.  It’s made from natural yogurt (hey, don’t knock it till you try it.) and has significantly better nutritional stats than butter.  I also used a sugar-Splenda mix to cut back on the amount of real sugar in the recipe.  Oh, and of course, I substituted low-fat cream cheese for regular. 

The results: Well, there aren’t any left if that’s what your asking.  I took the entire batch, minus 4, to my boyfriend’s house that night and they were gone within a day.  And for good reason…

Red Velvet Cheesecake Swirl Brownies
Adapted from Baked Perfection

1/2 cup Brummel & Brown, melted
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup Splenda
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
Pinch salt
3/4 tablespoon red food coloring
1/2 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
2 eggs
3/4 cup all-purpose flour

Cream Cheese Layer:
8 ounces reduced-fat cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup sugar
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Lightly spray an 8 by 8-inch baking pan with non-stick cooking spray, and set aside.

To make the brownies:  Pour melted “butter” to a large bowl and add the sugar, Splenda, vanilla, cocoa powder, salt, food coloring, and vinegar (in that order), mixing between additions.

Whisk the eggs in a small bowl and stir it into the cocoa mixture. Fold in the flour with a spatula until lightly combined. Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan, saving 1/4 cup of the batter for the top.

Cream cheese topping:  Beat the cream cheese, sugar, egg, and vanilla in a medium bowl with an electric hand mixer.  Gently spread the cream cheese layer on top of the brownie batter in the pan.  Dollop the remaining brownie batter over the cream cheese layer. Using tip of a knife, drag the tip through the cream cheese mixture to create a swirl pattern. (PS – don’t you love my brand new gold William Sonoma brownie pan?  Christmas gift from my auntie!)

Bake the brownies for 30 minutes. Remove to a cooling rack and try not to cut or touch them until they cool completely (the hardest part of baking in my opinion…)

A Very Special Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day .. a day of love, happiness and…. chocolate.  Oh yeah, massive quantities of chocolate.  Of just sugar in general.  Simple deliciousness.

This year, I joined a dance company for college graduates called DanceWorks Boston.  You might be asking why this is relevant to my Valentine’s Day but I have a point, I promise.  After one of my best friends and fellow dancer got a job offer in Connecticut that she could not refuse, the director of the company was down a choreographer.  Long story short, I now have my own contemporary piece and 20 talented dancers who spent Valentine’s night from 7-8pm with me sweating in a dance studio.   Dying to make some delicious love-themed sweets, I decided to make small treat packages for each of the girls.  Hence, the inspiration for this post (and some amazing desserts.)

I searched for days trying to figure out what to make.  I just couldn’t decide… brownies, cupcakes, cookies, mini parfaits… the list of possibilities were endless.  I went back and forth, debating between red velvet and dark chocolate, maybe a big chocolate chip cookie we could all share?  I almost gave up completely.

Then, it hit me – dur, Marie, just make more than one thing and share the wealth.  Tie with some pretty ribbon, attach a (cough, Disney Princess, cough) Valentine.  Oreo Truffles, Red Velvet Cakeballs, White Chocolate-Peanut-Pretzel Bark … Perfection.

The recipes… well, I must give credit where credit is due.  I found the Oreo Truffles and the Red Velvet Cakeballs courtesy of the lovely Bakerella herself.  I may have tweaked the recipe to fit my needs, but hey… dancers don’t usually eat full-fat cream cheese.  The bark recipe came straight from Ms. Paula Deen herself and despite the fact that I NEVER make her recipes, (do I even need to explain why?), I found that this combination was the perfect amount of sweet and salty together.

First, I made the Oreo Truffles.  Pretty straight forward.  I whipped out my 14-cup food processor and pulverized a whole package (minus 7 oreos) to nothing but fine crumbs (cream filling and all).  I transferred it to a bowl and mixed it (more like mashed with the back of a large spoon) until it turned into a big ball of soft, oreo goodness.  I rolled 1-inch nuggets, let them harden in the freezer and dipped them in melted light cocoa candy melts (that I made a special trip to Joanne Fabrics for.)

Once the chocolate hardened around the oreo mixture, it was like biting into a little piece of heaven.  Out of all three things I made, I may be a little biased towards these.

Next up: White Chocolate-Peanut-Pretzel Bark.  3 steps: I melted some white chocolate chips and stirred in broken skinny pretzel pieces and lightly salted peanuts and voila! I spread it on a baking sheet lined with wax paper and stuck in the fridge for 20 minutes.  The chocolate mixture hardened and I was able to break it up like a brittle.  If you have a salty-sweet tooth like me, this is the easiest and most perfect snack with the exception of maybe dipping pretzels directly into melted chocolate.

Finally, I attempted the cakeballs.  Funny enough to say, these balls are both simple, yet time consuming.  Even though the foundation is a red velvet cake mix and cream cheese frosting, I ran into difficulty when I was supposed to roll them into 1-inch balls.  The batter was simply too sticky.  Instead, I took a cookie scoop and divided the batter onto cookie sheets.  I then stuck the balls in the freezer to firm up.

Consequently, I ran into a second problem.  When attempting to roll the cake balls in melted white chocolate, the balls were so gooey they were falling apart.  I rectified the situation by spooning the melted white chocolate on top of each cakeball.  They may not have looked as pretty as Bakerella’s, but they definitely tasted great. (The ones in the picture aren’t frosted but simply covered with a thin coating of sugar.)

When it came time to pack them up, I slid a truffle, a cakeball and a few broken pieces of bark into a cellophane baggie, tied it with a red ribbon and attached the Valentines.  The girls in my rehearsal loved the treats.  I think I may try more blog-worthy recipes out on them more often!

Aren’t my dance friends pretty?

Oh – but how could I forget my amazing boyfriend?  This was our fourth Valentine’s Day together (!!!)  He is the most incredible guy I could have ever asked for.  And not to get all mushy on you, but it’s the real deal….

My gift to him: a L.L. Bean (his favorite store) rugby shirt, love dice (joke present) and a 6-pack of Reese’s Peanut Butter Eggs.  I wrapped them with a big red bow and a very funny card.  He loved it and the shirt fits him perfectly!

His present to me?  Something I have been wanting for practically a year; something he has taunted me with for about that long (let’s just say my Christmas present was wrapped in one of these bags but no bracelet was to be found in it…)

An “oxydized silver” Pandora … I screamed when I saw it.  He done good.

Oreo Truffles
Recipe courtesy of Bakerella

1 package Oreos
1 8oz package cream cheese, softened (I used low-fat)
White or Cocoa Candy Melts (can be found at specialty craft stores/bake shops)

Pulverize all but 7 oreos in a food processor (cream part included.)  Pour crumbs in large mixing bowl.

Add softened cream cheese and combine thoroughly.  (I used the back of a big wooden spoon until it was mostly combined, then dove in with my hands.)

Roll into individual balls at desired size.  Place on cookie sheet lined with parchment paper and freeze until hardened.

Melt candy melts in the microwave according to package directions.  (Only melt a little at a time; the melted chocolate will thicken the longer it’s out.)  Drop oreo balls one at a time into chocolate and cover completely using a spoon.  Lift covered truffle out of chocolate, tap off excess against the side of the bowl and let dry completely on parchment-lined cookie sheet.  Keep refrigerated or in a cool, dry place.