Your Top 10 of 2011 {Most-Viewed Recipes of the Year}

December 29, 2011
Well, here they are!  Your top 10 of 2011 ... as 'voted for' by your clicks.  And I must say, you all have great taste.  Hee, hee.

1.  Funfetti Cake Balls - By farrrrrrr your most clicked post.  This post was viewed a whopping 7 times more than the #2 post.  Boy, who would have thought that one of my biggest 'oops' of the year would turn into such a fabulous-little-favorite treat.  One reader even called me "the MacGuyver of the kitchen" for this recovery of a flop ... I'm so flattered!

2.  Salted Chocolate Cake Pops - Oooohh, this one brings back such a wonderful memory ... an entire day this summer spent making cake pops and cake ball truffles with my friend Jenny.  Thanks so much for giving me this walk down memory lane!

3.  Nutella French Toast with Maple Syrup, Bananas, & Strawberries - I've definitely been on a Nutella kick this year.  Yum.

4.  The BEST Vanilla Cupcake + the BEST Coffee Buttercream - Thank you for coming along on my quest for the BEST vanilla cupcake!  It was surprisingly difficult to find a vanilla cupcake that I was truly happy with.

5.  Stovetop Smoked Gouda Mac & Cheese - This one holds a special place in my heart, because it was created for the first ever Crazy Cooking Challenge, the brain child of and hosted by Tina of Mom's Crazy Cooking.  I love participating in the Challenge with Tina and the other 80-or-so participating bloggers!  (Hey, check us out on January 7th when we'll be going live with a Chicken Noodle Soup Crazy Cooking Challenge ... I know, I know, shameless plug.)

6.  Margarita Cupcakes - a.k.a Top Shelf Margarita Cupcakes.  These were a July creation that were just perfect for summer.

7.  German Chocolate Chip Cookies - These tasty little beauties were also made for a Crazy Cooking Challenge ... the 2nd one, featuring chocolate chip cookies.  I decided not to submit these as my entry though, going instead with Nutella Chocolate Chip Cookies (which also made the top 10 list at #9).  Looks like you all liked these even better than the Nutella Chocolate Chippers ... maybe I should have gone with these for the Challenge!

8.  Black Bottom Cupcakes - Chocolate & cheesecake together in a two-or-maybe-three-bite-sized cupcake.  What more could we ask for?  This is the post in which I included a blast from the past ... Animal of the Muppets singing "mnah-mnum" ... love that little puppet guy.  This is also the sweet treat I featured in my personal cancer story post for 'Frosting for the Cause' in support of breast cancer research.

9.  Nutella Chocolate Chip Cookies - My 2nd Nutella-based treat to make your top 10.  These little tasties were baked up for the Crazy Cooking Challenge.  Delish.

10.  Margarita Cake Ball Truffles - Margarita Cupcakes' little sister!  This post even features a visit from Elvis.

And I would like to include my favorite find from 2011 in blogland ... S'More Pralines, adapted from Bakergirl's Graham Cracker S'mores Candy.  Incidentally, these made Bakergirl's 2011 Top Ten!  Believe me, these are absolutely scrumptious.

Thank you to everyone who has stopped by my little spot in blogland this year!  I truly appreciate you reading, your comments, your support, and your encouragement.  Happy New Year to you!!

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Classic Gingerbread Cookies: What's Your 'Perfect' Gingerbread Man?

December 21, 2011
The best classic Gingerbread Cookies recipe for soft cookies!  It just wouldn't be Christmas without a batch of these beauties.

Classic Gingerbread Cookies image ~ The best classic Gingerbread Cookies recipe for soft cookies!  It just wouldn't be Christmas without a batch of these beauties.

Each year at Christmas time, I do the tradition of gingerbread with my little 1st graders as we're learning about different holiday traditions.  I'm always surprised to see how many of the students have never tried gingerbread before.

This year was no different ... over half my class had never tried it.  I love to introduce my students to new things!

I've discovered that my idea of the perfect gingerbread man is drastically different than a 1st grader's idea of the perfect gingerbread man.  Take a look at the photographs below and you'll see what I mean.

Here's my perfect gingerbread man ... just plain.  No frosting.  No icing.  No decorations.  Just 'nekked,' some might say.

I like to taste the wonderful spicy gingerbread flavor without any competition from sweet icings or embellishments.

Classic Gingerbread Cookies picture
My idea of the perfect gingerbread man ... just 'nekked!'

Here's 1st graders' idea of the perfect gingerbread man ... their philosophy = the more frosting the better!  It's so fun to watch them having a big ol' time decorating their gingerbread.  (I especially love the cookie on the bottom right with the long red hair.)

1st graders' idea of the perfect gingerbread man

On 'Gingerbread Afternoon,' I set up three stations in the room that the students rotate through.  At two of the stations, students work on the gift we make for their parents - a gingerbread ornament with a photograph of the student as the gingerbread "man's" face, and a gingerbread house gift bag made with a brown paper lunch sack.

At the third station ... they get to decorate and eat their gingerbread cookie.  And they love it!

What made this year's gingerbread stations extra fun was that my Mom and Dad came to help out.  I loved having them there!  My Mom facilitated the ornament station.  My Dad helped me with the cookie station.

It was my Dad's first time volunteering in my classroom, and he was so sweet with the kids.  We worked together to demonstrate decorating a cookie for each group, and then we'd let them have at it themselves.  Fun, fun, fun.  It might be one of my favorite 1st grade days each year.

The recipe I use for my gingerbread cookies is adapted from Muster Day Gingerbread in Valerie Barrett's The Complete Book of Gingerbread.  The recipe gets its name from the military Muster Day held in New England each year.  According to the recipe note:

"In New England before the Civil War, the first Tuesday of every June was Muster or Training Day.  All men from 18 to 45 were required to go for military training and many of them took their families along.  It became a festive occasion and gingerbread was an essential part of the day's menu," (p. 18).

So, whether you prefer gingerbread 'just nekked' or the 1st-grade-way, enjoy creating your perfect gingerbread man! 

I wish you a very merry Christmas filled with tasty treats and wonderful times with family and friends.

Classic Gingerbread Cookies photo

Classic Gingerbread Cookies
Adapted from: Muster Day Gingerbread in The Complete Book of Gingerbread by Valerie Barrett
(Printable recipe)
  • 1/4 c. brown sugar
  • generous 1/3 c. molasses
  • 2 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cloves
  • 2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 c. unsalted butter, cut into chunks
  • 1 egg
  • 2 ½ to 3 c. all-purpose flour
  1. Place butter chunks in a large mixing bowl. Set aside.
  2. Put brown sugar, molasses, ginger, cinnamon, and cloves in a pan* and heat to boiling point. Stir in baking soda. Take off heat and pour mixture over the butter in the mixing bowl.
  3. Stir until the butter has melted. Break egg into the mixture and stir to combine; then work in 2 ½ cups flour. Mix gently together until it becomes a smooth dough, adding up to ½ cup more flour if needed.
  4. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for about an hour.
  5. When chilled and stiffened slightly, roll out and cut out cookies with cookie cutters (I roll mine a bit thick ... probably about 1/4" thick. I like thick, soft cookies).
  6. Place cookies on a lightly greased cookie sheet. Bake at 325 degrees for 8-10 minutes.
  7. Once cooled, decorate with icing, if desired.
(*Note - Place your brown sugar, molasses, and spices in a saucepan larger than you think you'll need.  When you stir in the baking soda, the mixture foams up on you!)


Classic Gingerbread Cookies image


Christmas White Chocolate-Dipped Pretzel Rods

December 18, 2011
White Chocolate-Dipped Pretzel Rods get all dressed up for Christmas with the help of beautiful holiday sprinkles!  Or, change the sprinkle colors to match any occasion.

White Chocolate-Dipped Pretzel Rods image ~ Pretzels get all dressed up for Christmas with the help of beautiful holiday sprinkles!  Or, change the sprinkle colors to match any occasion.

Need a quick-and-easy Christmas treat?  Here's an idea for you!  These White Chocolate-Dipped Pretzel Rods are perfect for little treat gifts, or for get-together nibbles.  Not to mention, they're just plain fun... both to make and to eat.

And, again, I'm realizing that I've been on a total pretzel kick this Christmas baking season.  So far,  four out of my five posts for December have included pretzels!  That was not at all intentional.

First there was Dark Chocolate Pretzel Fudge for the December Crazy Cooking Challenge, followed by Pretzel Cookies with Chocolate & Peanut Butter Chips, and then Yuppy Chow with ... you guessed it ... pretzels!

These White Chocolate-Dipped Pretzel Rods are perfect for little treat gifts, or for get-together nibbles.  Not to mention, they're just plain fun... both to make and to eat.

Now I've moved on to simply dipping pretzel rods in chocolate.  White chocolate.  With colorful sprinkles.  You know, to deck them out for Christmas and all.

I whipped these up at the last minute one night.  I was asked to make a batch of cake pops (like these Salted Chocolate ones) to include as a little "giftie" with the gift cards our teacher staff was giving the office staff for Christmas.

Now, I love to make cake pops ... but any of you out there who've made them know they aren't the quickest things to make.  They happen to be just a teeny tiny bit tedious and time-consuming.  So, I quickly said that wasn't going to happen at this point in the busy Christmas season.  But ... I did have another idea for a cute tasty treat.

And that's how these white chocolate-dipped pretzel rods came to be.

Christmas White Chocolate-Dipped Pretzel Rods ~ An easy, beautiful, and delicious little Christmas treat. #Christmas #easyChristmasideas #Christmasgifts #giftsfromthekitchen

I think I whipped up (or dipped up!) an entire bag of pretzel rods in less than 30 minutes.  So quick.  So easy.

Then I put five of them in a cellophane pretzel baggy, tied it with a colorful ribbon, and voila! ... Christmas white chocolate-dipped pretzel rod bouquets!

All you need to make these beauties is a bag of pretzel rods, some white chocolate bark coating, a tiny bit of shortening, and an assortment of colorful Christmas sprinkles.

I think I whipped up (or dipped up!) an entire bag of pretzel rods in less than 30 minutes.  So quick.  So easy.

Melt some bark coating together with a tiny bit of shortening.  The shortening thins the coating out a bit and makes it so you get a nice, smooth layer of white chocolate.  Use a tall, skinny container that is tall enough to fit most of the length of the pretzel rod in it.  I had a hard time finding something in my kitchen tall and skinny enough, and ended up using a pottery cup.

Once you've melted your coating, dip a pretzel rod in.  Tilt the container a bit if you need to to get the coating as far down the pretzel as you can.

How to Make White Chocolate Dipped Pretzel Rods image

Take the pretzel out of the coating, gently shake off the excess, letting it drip back into your container.  Then, sprinkle with your chosen sprinkles.

I started off with my sprinkles laid out in shallow platters, thinking it would be best to roll the pretzel rods in the sprinkles.  Not the case.

It turned out to be easiest just to grab a pinch of sprinkles and sprinkle it over the pretzel rod with my fingers.  Just make sure to do this over a bowl or something with a bit of a side ... not the flat platters like I did.

It turned out to be easiest just to grab a pinch of sprinkles and sprinkle it over the pretzel rod with my fingers.


Because the sprinkles tend to bounce when they land back on whatever dish you're sprinkling over.  I've swept my kitchen floor three times since making these pretzels, and I'm still finding little sprinkle balls hiding around my linoleum!

See my finger marks in the green sugar sprinkles below?  Yup, much better way to go than rolling.

Lay your dipped-and-sprinkled pretzels out on a sheet of waxed paper or parchment, let the coating set up, and then ... there you have it!  A beautiful, festive platter of White Chocolate-Dipped Pretzel Rods.

Christmas White Chocolate Pretzel Rods image

Tie a few up with a bow for a cute and tasty little give-away treat.

White Chocolate-Dipped Pretzel Rods gets all dressed up for Christmas with the help of beautiful holiday sprinkles!  Or, change the sprinkle colors to match any occasion.
Ribbon makes everything just that much more fun!

Christmas White Chocolate-Dipped Pretzel Rods
(Printable recipe)
  1. In a tall skinny container (such as a pottery cup or perhaps even a small glass vase), melt bark coating or candy melts and shortening together in the microwave per package directions (typically in 30 second intervals, stirring in between).
  2. Dip a pretzel rod in the candy coating, letting excess coating drip off back into the container. Sprinkle immediately with desired sprinkles.
  3. Place on waxed paper and let stand for white chocolate coating to set up.
  4. Store in a sealed container at room temperature.

I pour the leftover white chocolate coating into a plastic storage container and save it for another use later.  All you have to do is heat it back up in the microwave, omitting the shortening (since it's already in there).


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Nutella Yuppy (or Puppy) Chow

December 14, 2011
Yuppy Chow.  Puppy Chow.  White Trash.  Whatever you call it, the bottom line is this stuff is good!  But this Nutella Yuppy Chow is not just good.  It's addictively good.

Nutella Yuppy Chow ~ Yuppy Chow.  Puppy Chow.  White Trash.  Whatever you call it, this stuff is good!  But this Nutella Yuppy Chow is not just good.  It's addictively good.

My family was introduced to this delectable sweet treat years ago by my brother's mother-in-law.  And ever since, my Father has been in love with Yuppy Chow.  To him, it's just not Christmas without it.  Of course, the rest of us like it pretty good too.  

Crunchy cereal, pretzels, chocolate, ... all coated in powdered sugar ... what's not to love?

Pretzel Cookies with Chocolate & Peanut Butter Chips

December 11, 2011
I'm on a pretzel kick! - First, Dark Chocolate Pretzel Fudge, and now these Pretzel Cookies with Chocolate & Peanut Butter Chips.  There's just something about the classic sweet-and-salty combination that I love.

When I found this recipe on Sugar Cooking's blog, I just knew I had to make them.  And what better time than now - Christmastime!?  So these little confections are going into my holiday goodie bags this year.

Now, if you pop over and check out Sugar Cooking's version (and I hope you will), you'll notice that hers and mine look a bit different.  That's because Sarah of Sugar Cooking suggested changing the base cookie batter  ... which I did.  Taking her advice, I went ahead and just whipped up the classic Nestle Tollhouse chocolate chip cookie dough as my base batter.  There it is below - all ooey-gooey and ready to go!

Classic Nestle Tollhouse chocolate chip cookie dough base

Then, per Sarah's original recipe, I crushed up some pretzels into pieces (hitting them gently with a meat mallet worked great) ...

Tap pretzels gently with a meat mallet ... or you'll end up with just pretzel dust!

... and tossed them into my cookie batter along with some chocolate chips and peanut butter chips.  Yum!  I could stop right now and just eat the batter.  Really, I could.  (And I might have.  Just a little bit.  Maybe.)


Next, drop the dough by spoonfuls onto a cookie sheet and sprinkle each dough ball with sea salt or fleur de sel.  Oh my! 

Sprinkling with fleur de sel

Pop 'em in the oven and bake 'em up.  The Tollhouse cookie base worked beautifully.  The cookies spread out the perfect amount, and stayed nice and soft - just the way I like them.  As suggested by Sarah of Sugar Cooking, if you have a favorite base cookie dough, go ahead and use it.  I think this combination of add-ins will make any delicious cookie base just that much better!  (I think it would also be wonderful with just the chocolate chips, too ... ya know, if you've got something against peanut butter.)  Enjoy!

Pretzel Cookies with Chocolate & Peanut Butter Chips
Source:  Adapted from Sugar Cooking and Nestle Tollhouse Chocolate Chip Cookies
(Printable recipe)
2 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 c. butter, softened
3/4 c. granulated sugar
3/4 c. brown sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
2 eggs
1 1/2 c. (about 9 oz.) semi-sweet or milk chocolate chips
1 c. (about 6 oz.) peanut butter chips
1 c. pretzel pieces
Sea salt or fleur de sel (for sprinkling)

1. Combine flour, baking soda, and salt; set aside.  In a large bowl, combine butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar, and vanilla; beat until creamy.  Beat in eggs.  Gradually add flour mixture; mix well.

2.  Stir in chocolate chips, peanut butter chips, and pretzel pieces.

3.  Drop by rounded teaspoonful onto a cookie sheet.  Sprinkle the top of each cookie with sea salt or fleur de sel.

4.  Bake at 375 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes.  Let stand on the pan for about a minute or two before removing.

Dark Chocolate Pretzel Fudge

December 7, 2011

Well, hello there, Crazy Cooking Challenge time!  The challenge presented for December by our hostess, Tina of Mom's Crazy Cooking, was  FUDGE!  Gloriously decadent and totally indulgent fudge.

I'm new to making fudge ... I made my first fudge just last month, when I put two family recipes to a head-to-head taste and texture challenge.  (My mother-in-law's recipe beat my sister-in-law's!)  I always thought fudge was difficult to make, but ya know, it's not.  It's really pretty simple.

So, with just one batch of fudge under my belt, I set out to find a fudge flavor to play with for the Crazy Cooking Challenge.  I came across many interesting and intriguing flavors ... like eggnog, mocha, and cappuccino ... but being a choc-a-holic, I went with a good ol' chocolate variation ~ Dark Chocolate Pretzel Fudge, adapted from Beantown Baker's Oreo Pretzel Fudge.  When I saw the combination of fudge and pretzels, I just couldn't resist!  I left off Beantown Baker's Oreo cookies 'n cream layer, and went with just straight chocolate and pretzels.  Oh my.

This fudge is incredibly intense and rich, so just a little dab will do ya.  But my oh my, it's a choc-a-holic's dream.

To make it, start by preparing an 8"x8" pan with an aluminum foil or parchment paper sling.  This will make it easy to lift the finished fudge from the pan for cutting, and will make clean-up of your pan a breeze.

Melt some dark chocolate and combine it with sweetened condensed milk.  I used Baker's semi-sweet chocolate squares.

Then stir in about a cup of crushed pretzels.

Pour half of this mixture into your prepared pan and top it with a layer of whole pretzels.

Pour the remainder of the fudge mixture on top and smooth it out.

Now, Beantown Baker suggested sprinkling the top with sea salt.  And I agree.  I wish I had taken her advice and done that.  And next time I make this fudge, I will give it a little sprinkling.  While you indeed do get the beautiful chocolate-and-salt flavor from the dark chocolate and pretzels, I think another little kick of salt on the top would be totally fabulous.

Cool the completed fudge and cut it into small squares.  Pop it in your mouth and enjoy the salty goodness!

Dark Chocolate Pretzel Fudge
Source:  Adapted from The Beantown Baker
(Printable recipe)
1 (8 oz.) package semi-sweet chocolate squares (I used Baker's brand)
1 (14 oz.) can sweetened condensed milk
1 c. crushed pretzel pieces (approximately 25 small twist pretzels)
Additional whole small twist pretzels (approximately 20 additional pretzels)
Fleur de sel or sea salt (optional)

1.  Line an 8"x8" pan with an aluminum foil or parchment paper sling.

2.  Melt the chocolate and condensed milk together in a small saucepan over low heat.  Remove from heat and stir in pretzel pieces.

3.  Spread 1/2 of the chocolate mixture in the prepared pan; top with a layer of whole pretzels.  Pour remaining chocolate mixture on top and spread it evenly.  Top with a sprinkling of fleur de sel or sea salt (optional).

4.  Refrigerate for about two hours or until firm; cut into small squares.

(Note - The pretzels do begin to soften after a couple of days.  It's still tasty after they soften, but just be aware that the pretzel 'crunch' fades.  So ... if you want to 'keep the crunch,' eat up within a day or two!)


Rum Balls {with Spiced Rum}

December 4, 2011
Chocolate Rum Balls with spiced rum ~ a Christmas classic in our home.

Chocolate rum truffles image. Spiked with spiced rum ~ a classic family favorite Christmas treat.

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas! ... And in our family, it's not Christmas without Rum Balls with Spiced Rum!!  My Mom has made Rum Balls at Christmastime ever since I can remember.  I have happily continued the tradition.  

Of course, once I got my hands on the recipe, I "Tracey-ified" it, as I like to do.  Isn't it so fun to tinker with a recipe to make it your own?  To me, that's what cooking and baking is all about!  So, I changed the regular white rum in the original recipe to dark spiced rum, and added some extra ~ ya know, just for good measure.

I make these Rum Balls with Spiced Rum each year to include in the Christmas treat bags I give to friends.  At this point, I don't think I would get away with not  putting them in there without some form of a riot.  

Chocolate Rum Balls photo

The extra beauty of these?  They're so easy.  

A bit time consuming if you're making several batches, like I do ... but easy.  And hey, you can just turn on your favorite Christmas movies and roll away to your heart's content while getting in the holiday 'spirit' (pun intended! ... I know, it was a bit of a weak one).

But do be warned, I love my Rum Balls with Spiced Rum quite  'spirited' (aka: I make 'em a wee bit strong).  You can adjust the amount of spiced rum to taste, if you'd like.

Happy holidays!!

Rum Balls {with Spiced Rum} image
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Rum Balls {with Spiced Rum}
Source: My Mom
(Printable recipe)
  • 1 c. crushed vanilla wafers
  • 1 c. confectioner's sugar
  • 1 1/2 c. finely chopped walnuts
  • 2 T. cocoa
  • 2 T. honey
  • 1/4 c. + an extra splash of dark spiced rum
  1. Mix all ingredients together until well combined. Cover and chill one hour in the refrigerator.
  2. Form into small smalls (I use a small cookie scoop to measure out each one). Roll each ball in additional confectioner's sugar.
  3. Store in an airtight container. These can be made in advance and stored in the freezer until needed.

Note:  Each batch makes about 3 dozen Rum Balls, give-or-take a few depending on the size you make each one.  I usually make at least a double or triple batch.


Please enjoy these other Christmas favorites from The Kitchen is My Playground ...

Chocolate Rum Balls image
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