Impressive Challenge

Cinnamon Rolls with Louisiana Pecans

cinnamon rolls with cream cheese icing I'm wrapping up my 25 days of Christmas with the cinnamon rolls I prepared for yesterday's Christmas breakfast. We had both Christmas breakfast and dinner in an attempt to accommodate numerous family members with their varied holiday plans! We didn't want to miss out on sharing special moments with anyone, so both our breakfast and dinner menus were curated to highlight family specialty dishes and also new dishes and desserts that we had never made before. I think that's how I approach life--a blend of the familiar and comforting with the riskier new and adventurous. 

Day 25: Homemade Cinnamon Rolls with Louisiana Pecans and Cream Cheese Icing

Difficulty: Impressive Challenge

These cinnamon rolls are a challenge because they involve making bread from scratch.  It is actually more difficult than making typical yeast dinner rolls. Instead of cutting out the rolls, you sprinkle the dough with butter, spices, sugar and pecans, then roll it up and cut it into rounds before letting the cinnamon rolls rise for a second time. Also, there is an additional step because you have to prepare the icing and ice the cinnamon rolls.



homemade cinnamon rolls

But, this dish is certainly worth the extra steps and challenge. Like, seriously.  We had several other things on our breakfast menu--cheese souffle a la Julia Childe, fresh strawberries and oranges, and a grits and sausage casserole, but I found myself munching on these addictive cinnamon rolls throughout the day.  In fact, I ate so many of them that I was hardly hungry by the time we finally sat down for Christmas dinner.

I mixed a few different recipes, including my Great-Great Aunt Hester's yeast rolls recipes, but I'm sharing a superb recipe with you in case you want to try it (which you totally should!)

yeast cinnamon rolls recipe

cream cheese icing recipe

homemade cinnamon rolls recipe

homemade cinnamon rolls with cream cheese icing

Cinnamon Rolls with Louisiana Pecans and Cream Cheese Icing
Author: Vallery
  • 1 (1/4-oz.) envelope active dry yeast
  • 1/4 cup warm water (105° to 115°)
  • 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter, softened
  • 1 cup granulated sugar, divided
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 4 1/2 cups bread flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup bread flour
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • 1/2 cup very soft butter
  • 1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 8 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  1. Combine first 3 ingredients in a 1-cup glass measuring cup; let stand 5 minutes.
  2. Beat 1/2 cup softened butter at medium speed with a heavy-duty electric stand mixer until creamy. Gradually add 1/2 cup granulated sugar and 1 tsp. salt, beating at medium speed until light and fluffy. Add eggs and next 2 ingredients, beating until blended. Stir in yeast mixture.
  3. Combine 4 1/2 cups bread flour and 1/4 tsp. nutmeg. Gradually add flour mixture to butter mixture, beating at low speed 1 to 2 minutes or until well blended.
  4. Sprinkle about 1/4 cup bread flour onto a flat surface; turn dough out, and knead until smooth and elastic (about 5 minutes), adding up to 1/4 cup bread flour as needed to prevent dough from sticking to hands and surface. Place dough in a lightly greased large bowl, turning to grease top. Cover and let rise in a warm place (85°), free from drafts, 1 1/2 to 2 hours or until doubled in bulk.
  5. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350°. Bake pecans in a single layer in a shallow pan 8 to 10 minutes or until toasted and fragrant, stirring halfway through.
  6. Punch dough down; turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll into a 16- x 12-inch rectangle. Spread with 1/2 cup very soft butter, leaving a 1-inch border around edges. Stir together brown sugar, cinnamon, and remaining 1/2 cup granulated sugar, and sprinkle sugar mixture over butter.
  7. Top with pecans. Roll up dough, jelly-roll fashion, starting at 1 long side; cut into 16 slices (about 1 inch thick).
  8. Place rolls, cut sides down, in 2 lightly greased 10-inch round pans. Cover and let rise in a warm place (85º), free from drafts, 1 hour or until doubled in bulk.
  9. Bake at 350° for 20 to 22 minutes or until rolls are golden brown. Cool in pans 5 minutes. Brush rolls with Cream Cheese Icing. Serve immediately.
  11. Mix softened cream cheese with powdered sugar with a mixer until thoroughly combined. Add one teaspoon vanilla and continue to mix. Transfer the icing to a pastry bag, or use a spatula to spread over the cinnamon rolls. Enjoy!


Red Velvet-White Chocolate Cheesecake

Red Velvet White Chocolate Cheesecake Day 21 of my “25 Days of Baking” is the ultimate showstopper—a centerpiece-worthy dessert for your Christmas table. This five-layer cake, alternating between red velvet cake and cheesecake and enrobed in white-chocolate buttercream, is the most elegant Christmas cake I’ve ever made. This dazzling cake will leave you and your dinner guests in awe.

Day 21: Red Velvet-White Chocolate Cheesecake

Difficulty:  Impressive Challenge!

This special cake is certainly a “project,” but I enjoy challenging myself with creative, beautiful dishes.  Plus, the cheesecake is a natural pair to red velvet cake, and the white-chocolate buttercream ties everything together.  A dollop of whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream is an absolute must to accompany this intense cake.  The whipped cream adds a light and airy texture to contrast the dense cheesecake and red velvet cake layers.  The red velvet cake layers are denser than typical cake, because they have to be heavy enough to support the weighty cheesecake layers.



I made this cake over the course of two days.  The first day, I baked the cheesecake layers, which was relatively simple.  The second day, I baked the red velvet cake layers, made the white chocolate buttercream, and assembled the cake. This recipe is adapted from SL Mag.



Red Velvet-White Chocolate Cheesecake
  • 2 (8-inch) round cake pans (disposable OK)
  • 12 ounces white chocolate
  • 5 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
  • 1 c. granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 3 (8-inch) round cake pans (disposable OK)
  • 1 c. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 1/2 c. granulated sugar
  • 6 large eggs
  • 3 c. all purpose flour
  • 3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
  • 1/4 tsp. baking soda
  • 8 ounces sour cream
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 (1-ounce) bottles red liquid food coloring
  • 8 ounces white chocolate, chopped
  • 1/2 c. boiling water
  • 1 c. (2 sticks) butter, softened
  • 32 ounces powdered sugar, sifted
  • 1/8 teaspoon dash of salt
  1. Prepare Cheesecake Layers: Preheat oven to 300 F. Line bottom and sides of 2 cake pans with aluminum foil, allowing 2 to 3 inches to extend over sides; lightly grease foil.
  2. Microwave white chocolate morsels in a microwave-safe bowl according to package directions; cool 10 minutes.
  3. Beat cream cheese and melted chocolate at medium speed with an electric mixer until creamy; gradually add 1 cup sugar, beating well. Add 2 eggs, 1 at a time, beating just until yellow disappears after each addition. Stir in 1 Tbsp. vanilla. Pour into prepared pans.
  4. Bake at 300 F for 30 to 35 minutes or until almost set. Turn oven off. Let cheesecakes stand in oven, with door closed, 30 minutes. Remove from oven to wire racks; cool completely (about 1 1/2 hours). Cover and chill 8 hours, or freeze 24 hours to 2 days.
  5. Prepare Red Velvet Layers: Preheat oven to 350°. Beat 1 cup butter at medium speed with a heavy-duty electric stand mixer until creamy. Gradually add 2 1/2 cups sugar, beating until light and fluffy. Add 6 eggs, 1 at a time, beating just until blended after each addition.
  6. Stir together flour and next 2 ingredients; add to butter mixture alternately with sour cream, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Beat at low speed just until blended after each addition. Stir in 2 tsp. vanilla; stir in food coloring. Spoon batter into 3 greased and floured 8-inch disposable cake pans.
  7. Bake at 350° for 20 to 24 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pans on wire racks 10 minutes. Remove from pans to wire racks; cool completely (about 1 hour).
  8. Prepare Frosting: Whisk together chocolate and 1/2 cup boiling water until chocolate melts. Cool 20 minutes; chill 30 minutes.
  9. Beat 1 cup butter and chilled chocolate mixture at low speed until blended. Beat at medium speed 1 minute. Increase speed to high; beat 2 to 3 minutes or until fluffy. Gradually add powdered sugar and salt, beating at low speed until blended. Increase speed to high; beat 1 to 2 minutes or until smooth and fluffy.
  10. Assemble Cake: Place 1 layer Red Velvet on a serving platter. Top with 1 layer Cheesecake. Repeat with remaining layers of Red Velvet and Cheesecake, alternating and ending with Red Velvet on top. Spread top and sides of cake with White Chocolate Frosting. Store in refrigerator.


Homemade Chocolate Biscotti

homemade italian biscotti Homemade Chocolate Biscotti marks day 14 of my Advent holiday delights.  This isn’t a traditional “Christmas cookie,” but it’s certainly festive and cookie-like, and the perfect accompaniment to your morning cappuccino or post-dinner expresso.

Day 14: Chocolate Biscotti

Difficulty: Impressive Challenge

When I saw this recipe on NYTFood, I knew it would be perfect to bring into the office to make everyone’s Monday morning a little more cheery and bright. What I wasn’t planning on was for this little activity to make my Monday morning a chaotic competition of me against the clock. Giving myself an hour and a half to make biscotti and make it out of the house on time was not my brightest idea since this cookie gets baked twice—and needs to cool off in between each round of baking! I ended up scrambling in my attempt to finish and photograph them, so I left a few for me to enjoy leisurely tomorrow morning with a freshly-brewed, piping-hot cup of java.

I’ve labeled these treats as a “challenge” since there are a number of places where things can go wrong. I found the dough a little too wet and sticky to properly shape. I stuck it in the refrigerator for about 20 minutes to firm up. It was still sticky, but at least I was able to mold it into the shape I wanted. The second tricky part is baking it. It’s always a little difficult for me to gauge when cookies are done baking. And since this was basically a giant cookie at this step, I wasn’t quite sure when they were finished. I used the clock and my kitchen senses. I found the test of lightly pressing it and waiting until it sprung back to be the best indicator.

making chocolate biscotti

You roll the dough into a log, then gently flatten it out with your hands and bake it. You are essentially baking one giant cookie!

Once it has cooled completely, slice it with a serrated knife. Then, bake it again.

Homemade chocolate biscotti

Homemade Chocolate Biscotti
Author: Vallery
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • ¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 ¾ cups lightly packed dark brown sugar
  • ⅓ cup granulated sugar
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon strong coffee
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 cup small semi-sweet chocolate chips
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Sift together the flour, cocoa, salt and baking soda; set aside.
  2. Using a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, cream together the brown sugar, granulated sugar and butter for 3 to 5 minutes at medium speed. Add vanilla extract and espresso. Mix for 10 seconds. Add eggs one at a time, mixing for 10 seconds at medium-low speed after each addition. Add sifted flour mixture and mix at low speed until dough comes together, 1 to 2 minutes. Add chocolate chips and mix just until chips are evenly incorporated, 15 to 20 seconds.
  3. Transfer dough to a work surface and divide in two, shaping into balls (If the dough is too sticky to handle, refrigerate until it is cool enough to work with). Form each ball into a log 1 1/2 to 2 inches wide. Transfer logs to prepared baking sheet and flatten slightly. Bake until biscotti have spread, have a few cracks and bounce back slightly when pressed with fingertips, 30 to 40 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool completely, about 1 1/2 hours.
  4. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Using a sharp serrated knife, cut logs into 1/4-inch to 1/2-inch slices. Place each slice with a cut side down on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or nonstick liner. Bake until firm, crisp and slightly dry, about 15 minutes. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to three days, or freeze for up to three months.


Gingerbread House Mug Toppers

mini gingerbread houses These adorable, edible mug toppers are as fragile as they are cute, which brings me to Day 12 of my Advent Holiday Delights! I had the bright idea of making these for my secret santa who requested a tea kettle. I have made my fair share of gingerbread houses, and I know how difficult constructing them can be.  The pieces have to actually fit together.

Day 12: Gingerbread House Mug Toppers

Difficulty: Impressive Challenge

Unlike pie dough, you can't just pinch a piece from here or pull a piece from there so that it comes together. Constructing the house must be the focal point for each step. So, when I saw that these mini-gingerbread houses were gaining popularity, I thought about how precise and patient one would have to be to successfully make them. I also decided not to try.

But, ambition got the best of me. So yesterday, I made half a batch of my most delicious gingerbread dough and and got to work. I tried to follow directions from a blog, but it really wasn't working out. At all. I decided to roll the gingerbread dough out as thin as possible, then bake it, then quickly cut the pieces before they cooled. Well, this actually worked! Until it didn't...

I cut out the squares and rectangles first, leaving the most intricate parts of the house (the front and back doors) for last. This meant that the cookies were nearly cooled by the time I got to the most intricate part, so many a front house crumbled as I cut it. If that wasn't bad enough, some pieces broke as I picked them up to move them. Others broke as I started to glue them together. Never the roof or walls, just the pieces with the doors! During this process, I learned a few tips that will guide me for the next time I make these!


gingerbread house pieces

constructing gingerbread houses

mini gingerbread houses

mini gingerbread houses

homemade gingerbread house mug topper

For example, the dough needs to be thin--but it can't be too thin. If it is too thin, it is more prone to break. Also, if the roof pieces are too thick, they will be too heavy. So, next time, I will make some pieces thicker than others. Also, I will cut out the most intricate pieces first. Those are the only pieces who crumbled as I attempted to construct the houses.

Once the houses were constructed and had set (I stored them in the refrigerator overnight), their durability greatly increased.  I still have a ton of gingerbread dough left even though I only made half of a batch. I think I'll save it for gingerbread cookies.

Challah with Poppy Seeds

  challah with poppy seeds

The slightly sweet, cake-like challah's braided shape makes it look as sophisticated as it tastes.  When I realized it was Chanukah, I knew I wanted to try baking a loaf.

Day 9: Challah with Poppy Seeds

Difficulty: Impressive Challenge

Baking bread requires focus and patience. If you've got both of those, this challenging recipe becomes rather simple. There are no fancy ingredients, and the Kitchen Aid stand mixer does the kneading.

This bread is more cake-like than other breads I've made due to the relatively high quantity of eggs and sugar.  If you stick to the recipe I'm sharing, that's adapted from one of my most trusted Williams Sonoma baking books, you'll have success. But, here are a few potential culprits to watch out for.

  1. The yeast. Make sure you use the right kind, and make sure it's alive.  It is also important that the water it's dissolved in is hot enough to activate the yeast.
  2. Make sure the dough rests in warm enough place, free from any drafts, and for enough time.
  3. Technique in braiding the dough. Lucky for me, I made two braids (with this recipe, you can make one giant one, or two smaller ones).  I messed up the first one, but got the hang of it for the second one.
  4. Bake it for the right length of time. This bread will brown before it is ready to be taken from the oven, so you will have to watch the clock, as well as do the other suggestions in the recipe. Otherwise, you bread will be cooked on top and not inside!

The dough should not be too sticky.

Divide the dough into four parts (or 8 if you make two), and roll each part as long as the length of the pan you use to bake the challah.

Tuck the top and bottom parts under. Then carefully place the dough in the prepared pan to rest again.

Brush the dough with egg wash, then top with the poppy seeds.

Remove from the oven and allow it to cool completely on a wire rack.

challah bread


Challah with Poppy Seeds
Author: Vallery
  • 2 packages (5 tsp.) active dry yeast
  • 1 cup warm water (105° to 115°F)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3 eggs, plus 1 egg, beaten, for glaze
  • 5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 8 Tbs. (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room
  • temperature
  • 1 Tbs. poppy seeds or sesame seeds (optional)
  1. In the bowl of your stand mixer, dissolve the yeast in the warm water and let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. Add the sugar, 3 eggs, 4 1/2 cups of the flour, the salt and butter. Place the bowl on the mixer, attach the dough hook and knead on low speed, working in the remaining flour as necessary to keep the dough from being too sticky, until the dough is smooth and elastic, 5 to 7 minutes. Do not be tempted to add too much flour. The dough should stay soft and will become less sticky with kneading. Remove the dough from the bowl.
  2. Form the dough into a ball and transfer it to a lightly oiled bowl. Cover the bowl with a damp kitchen towel and let the dough rise in a warm, draft-free spot until it doubles in bulk, about 2 hours.
  3. Line a half-sheet pan or rimless baking sheet with parchment paper. Punch down the dough. Using a plastic pastry scraper, scrape the dough out onto a clean work surface. To make a 4-strand braid, cut the dough into 4 equal pieces with a sharp knife or a bench scraper. Using your palms, and starting in the center and working outward, elongate 1 piece by rolling it gently against the work surface with even pressure until you have formed a rope as long as the prepared pan. Repeat with the remaining 3 pieces.
  4. Line up the 4 strands in front of you horizontally. Cross the strand farthest from you across the other 3 strands so that it is nearest you. Cross the strand that is now next to it across the other 2 strands away from you. Position the outside strands so that they are away from the center ones, and position the center 2 strands perfectly horizontal. Bring the strand nearest you down between the 2 horizontal strands. Bring the strand farthest from you up and across to the opposite side. Again, bring the strand farthest from you down between the 2 straight strands. Bring the strand nearest you up and across to the opposite side. Starting from the strand nearest you, repeat the braiding until you reach the ends of the ropes. Pinch them together at the top and at the bottom, and tuck the strands under at the ends.
  5. Place the braided loaf on the prepared pan, cover with a dry kitchen towel, and let rise again in a warm, draft-free spot until the loaf doubles in size and is spongy to the touch, 45 to 60 minutes.
  6. Position a rack in the lower third of an oven and preheat to 350°F.
  7. Brush the braid gently with the beaten egg and sprinkle with the seeds. Bake the braid until it is nicely browned and sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom, 30 to 35 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely. Makes 1 large braided loaf.


Vanilla Bean Macarons

  vanilla bean macarons

Day five of my Advent holiday delights is the ever-elusive French macaron.  I have made my fair share of macarons--enough to last more than a lifetime, surely.  But something about these little pastries is whimsical, and the vanilla bean macaron recipe I'm sharing below is packed with the flavors of potent, fresh vanilla beans from the world's highest quality producers--Madagascar, Tahiti, and Mexico.

Day 5: Vanilla Bean Macarons

Difficulty: Impressive Challenge

Anyone can make macarons.  Like most things in life, the more you do it, the better you become at it. It helps if you have a steady hand, as you'll need that steadiness when you are piping the macaron shells.  Using a piping bag can be tricky and takes practice, but eventually, you'll get the hang of it.

I was inspired to make these somewhat daunting desserts back in 2011 when I was living in France.  My roommate came home with a macaron cookbook, and even though she had practically no baking experience, she was able to successfully follow the recipe and make some decent-looking, excellent-tasting macarons.  I made up my mind then that if she could do it, I could too.

After much trial and error, and using a book completely in French and the metric system (including strange oven settings such as, "mark 1"), eventually, I mastered these. There is more than one way to make a macron--such as which type of meringue to use for the shells. But, they all contain the same ingredients: pulverized almonds, sugar, egg whites, and a filling.

If you are a perfectionist who is devastated by mistakes, this recipe is not for you!  If you aren't afraid to try new things and enjoy spending half a day in the kitchen, then step out of your comfort zone, challenge yourself, and try this recipe!

vanilla macarons

Vanilla Bean Macarons, inspired by Pierre Herme's Vanilla Macarons
Author: Vallery
Serves: 6 dozen macarons
Inspired by my time in France and the all-time great macaronier, Pierre Herme. Absolute precision is so important in this recipe that I'm only using grams, as any conversions to the English system would be less precise.
  • 300 grams of almond flour (finely ground almonds)
  • 300 grams powdered sugar
  • 110 grams + 110 grams egg whites (for a total of 220 grams)
  • 300 grams granulated sugar
  • 75 grams water
  • 350 grams heavy whipping cream
  • 6 vanilla whole vanilla bean pods
  • 440 grams highest quality white chocolate, finely chopped
  2. Place the finely chopped chocolate in a medium bowl. Add the heaving whipping cream to a small pot. Cut the vanilla bean pods in half. With a spoon, carefully scrape out the vanilla beans, and add to the heavy whipping cream, along with the vanilla bean pods. Heat the whipping cream on low heat. Bring to just a boil, then remove from heat. Carefully "wring out" the vanilla bean pods. Then, pour the hot whipping cream over the finely chopped chocolate. Allow to sit for 30 seconds. Then, using a rubber spatula, mix it until the chocolate has melted completely. Then, cover with plastic.
  4. Sift the almond flour with the powdered sugar into a large bowl. Add 110 grams of egg whites, and using a rubber spatula, fold until the egg whites are completely incorporated.
  5. Place the remaining 110 grams of egg white into the bowl of a stand mixer. Using the whisk attachment, whisk on low. Here is the tricky part: You want to gradually increase the speed on the stand mixer so that the egg whites are forming between medium and stiff peaks just as the next step reaches 235F.
  6. While the egg whites are whisking, place the water and granulated sugar in small pot. Bring to a boil. Using a candy thermometer, heat until it reaches the "soft ball" candy stage (235F).
  7. Once it reaches 235F, remove from the heat, and slowly pour it into egg whites as the stand mixer is vigorously whisking, at it's highest or near-highest speed. [CAUTION: SLOWLY pour the hot sugar water. Otherwise, it will splatter and burn you, while simultaneously cooking the egg whites!]
  8. Continue whisking a high speed until the mixture has cooled to 122F. Don't worry about over-mixing at this point. Unlike egg whites, it is impossible to "overmix" a meringue (which is what you have just created!)
  9. Now, you must work quickly. Remove the meringue from the bowl, and fold it into the almond flour/powdered sugar/egg white mixture. Be careful not to overmix, but make sure the meringue is completely and thoroughly incorporated.
  10. Then, transfer the mixture to a pastry bag with an 11 pt tip, and pipe into equal-sized rounds on a parchment paper or silplat-lined baking sheet, of 1.5-2 inches in size.
  11. Then, allow the macaron shells to sit for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 325F. Pick up the cookie sheet about two inches off of the table, and then drop it. This step assists in the formation of the "feet" of the macaron shells. Then, transfer the cookie sheet to the center rack of the oven and bake for about 12 minutes. They should be completely dry, but not yet brown. Remove from the oven and immediately remove the parchment paper or silplat and place it on a cooling rack. Allow the shells to cool completely. Then, remove from the paper and group the like sizes together in pairs.
  12. Check your ganache to make sure it isn't runny. If it is, stick it in the refrigerator for 20 minutes. Then, add the ganache to a piping bag with an 11-pt tip. Pipe the ganache onto half of the macaron shells. Then, place the other half on top of the ganache.
  13. Store the macarons in an air-tight container in the refrigerator for up to three days. When ready to eat, allow them to sit until they reach room temperature.