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banana cinnamon muffins

February 24, 2020

Portland, OR, USA
These banana cinnamon muffins have a soft and moist crumb, complete with an incredible banana flavor. But their distinctive quality is definitely their crunchy muffin top—each has a super tall and wide dome, all thanks to a generous sprinkling of cinnamon sugar on every muffin. Jump to the recipe! 


My Quest to Find the Best Banana Muffin Recipe

A few years ago, when I was researching recipes for my cookbook, Weeknight Baking, I noticed that while there were a TON of popular and very beloved recipes for banana bread. But there just didn't seem to be as many for banana muffins! It's weird because the the two baked goods are practically identical twins—I mean, they certainly share the same ingredients and overall spirit, lol. But I'm guilty of this too: while my blog has a ton of recipes for banana bread, there are hardly any for banana muffins (I literally only have this one, and while it's pretty good, it's a little too healthy-ish for me to really call it my "best banana muffin recipe"; ditto with the muffin recipe in my book, which uses whole wheat flour and Greek yogurt). And even despite my apparent undying love for banana bread, I could easily make the argument that banana muffins are the superior baked good of the two. They're easier to eat on the go, and of course, you get the delightful, crunchy top with every muffin.

Crunchy Top Banana Muffins

Because yes, I'm firmly in the camp that a good muffin recipe is defined by its top. The top should be crispy and crunchy with cake crust and lots of sugar. And there's one muffin recipe that does this really, really well: my copycat Levain Bakery blueberry muffins.

If you've followed my blog or my Instagram for a while now, you'll know that sometime last year, I became obsessed with trying to recreate Levain Bakery's blueberry muffin recipe at home. Their muffins are known for their sky-high domes and sugared tops that spread far and wide. After stalking their Instagram feed for behind-the-scenes secrets and attempting eight recipe trials, I nailed it! The secret was to use sprinkle a generous amount of sugar over each muffin to produce a crispy, crackly top. I wondered if I could try this same technique on a banana muffin recipe, too.

But even with these extra-crispy tops, a bite into the muffin itself should reveal a soft, moist, and almost pillowy crumb. Which leads us to my next point.

Banana Cinnamon Muffins

It should also go without saying that the muffin needs to be extremely flavorful. Especially because, let's be honest: muffins are basically cupcakes without frosting. There, I said it, we can all breathe now (lol). But what that means is that your muffin batter is gonna need to do a lot of heavy lifting to compensate for that lack of flavor from the frosting. And as much as I love bananas, bananas in baked goods can taste a little flat and bland on their own. Bananas need some spice to help bring out their full depth of flavor. And one of my favorite spices to pair with bananas is cinnamon—it gives it just the right amount of heat and complexity to take it to the next level. I figured the best way to incorporate the cinnamon would be to add it to the sugar topping, Cinnamon Toast Crunch-style. Game freakin' on.


Ingredients in Banana Cinnamon Muffin Recipe

Now that I've convinced you to make these banana cinnamon muffins, let's talk about some key ingredients you're going to need for this recipe:

Really, REALLY Ripe Bananas

This recipe works best if you use incredibly ripe, spotted, and almost black bananas. The riper they are, the more banana-flavored your muffins will be. If you bought muffins specifically for this recipe, check out my technique below on how to get bananas to ripen faster!

Sour Cream

I LOVE using sour cream in baked goods like cake loaves and muffins—it just keeps them incredibly moist and flavorful for so much longer! Sour cream also adds a nice tang that complements the banana and helps keep the muffins from being too sweet (especially with all that cinnamon sugar!). In a pinch, you can substitute the sour cream in the recipe with any unflavored full-fat yogurt or crème fraîche (like I did in my Instagram Stories).

Brown Sugar

Brown sugar is granulated white sugar with a touch of molasses to give it its signature color and flavor. I love pairing it with anything banana because it almost tastes like the bananas have been caramelized. Mmm. 

Cinnamon Sugar

Okay, cinnamon sugar is not actually a recipe you can buy in a store (I think). But don't fret—it's something you can easily make at home by whisking together granulated white sugar and a generous amount of ground cinnamon. You're going to need a surprisingly large amount for this recipe since each muffin will be sprinkled with 1 teaspoon of the stuff!


Essential Banana Cinnamon Muffin Recipe Techniques

The following techniques will help answer any questions or troubleshoot any issues you may have with my banana cinnamon muffin recipe:

How to Quickly Ripen Bananas

Like I said before, the best banana baked goods are made with super ripe bananas. There are a ton of tips available online about how to ripen your bananas faster; below are the ones that work best for me:
  1. Separate the Bananas from the Stem
    Separating a bunch of bananas from their stem will help them ripen faster because doing so encourages the fruit to release ethylene gas. Ethylene gas is a byproduct of ripening fruit, and more of it will encourage the fruit to ripen and age faster.

  2. Place the Separated Bananas in a Paper Bag and Seal
    Placing all the individual bananas in a sealed paper bag will trap the ethylene gas, concentrating its quantity and increasing the fruit's ripening process. But please note that you need to use a paper bag—a plastic bag will trap moisture and could potentially cause the fruit to mold.

  3. Store in a Warm Spot
    Warm temperatures can speed up the production of ethylene gas; I like to place the sealed bag near a "hot spot" in my kitchen (like on top of the fridge, or by the oven or range) and let it sit for a day or two.

  4. Use an Internet Hack (though I will side-eye you)
    If all of the the above still sounds too slow for you, you can always try the popular Internet hack of baking the bananas in the oven to get them to ripen immediately. While it's fine in a pinch, it's not really the same thing as ripening the fruit—in fact, Food52 interviewed a scientist who explains why. I know it's a pain, sometimes the real thing is simply worth the wait!  

How to Store Overly Ripened Bananas

Okay, you went through all the hard work (and wait!) to ripen your bananas the proper way. But now you have TOO many overripe bananas for this recipe. Don't fret—you can freeze them! I put any extra overripe bananas, skin and all, in a gallon-size zip-top bag (to make sure they don't impart their flavor and smell to anything else in the freezer) and freeze them. Don't panic if the peel turns entirely black—that's totally normal, and the fruit inside remains edible and unaffected.

When using frozen bananas in any recipe, transfer them to the fridge, still in their bag, and thaw them overnight. Alternatively, you can thaw them on a plate on your counter at room temperature for a few hours. Once they've thawed, they'll look a little grim. It's likely they'll be super soggy, wrinkly, and possibly even leached some juice out into the bag or onto the plate (you can see what thawed frozen bananas look like on my Instagram Story series about this recipe). Try not to fret—the fruit inside will still be perfect for baking, and don't you dare throw that banana juice out! Use it along with the fruit for extra flavor and moisture in your baked good. 

How to Make High Domed Muffins

A high-domed muffin top is always a sign of a good muffin. But believe it or not, even perfectly reliable and incredibly tasty recipes will turn out small and lackluster muffin tops. Why? It's all about technique, baby. The following tricks below always ensure that any muffin recipe I make will come out with sky-high domes:
  1. Make Sure All Your Ingredients are at Room Temperature
    Room temperature (which, for baking, is usually defined as between 65 and 70℉) will cook faster in the oven, encouraging a good rise and height throughout the muffins' bake time in the oven. And to get room temperature batter, it's important that you use ingredients that are at room temperature! While you'll still end up with pretty tasty muffins when using eggs and sour cream that are straight from the fridge, it's likely that your muffin tops will also be shorter and squatter (since the ingredients' cooler temperatures will cool down the overall temperature of the batter). 

  2. Rest The Muffin Batter
    Resting the muffin batter allows the flour to "hydrate" by absorbing the liquids in the batter more fully, enabling the development of gluten. It's almost like proofing bread—after the rest time, you'll end up with a thicker, more viscous batter that sets faster in the oven and gives you taller domes. 

  3. Overfill The Muffin Tin
    Most muffin recipes are conservative and instruct you to fill each cavity two-thirds of the way full with batter. I encourage you to ignore this conventional wisdom and fill each cavity so that the batter is actually TALLER than the cavity itself. I mean, think about it—more batter equals a bigger baked good, right? If you're worried about the muffin cavities overflowing, rest assured that most muffin batters, especially those filled with fruit, are fairly thick (especially if the batter's been rested per my tip above!) and will hold their shape before and during baking. 

  4. Bake the Muffins at a High Temperature
    Baking powder is activated by heat; the faster it warms up, the more quickly it works. You want to activate the baking powder as quickly as possible so that it starts releasing the gas that leavens the baked goods as early as possible—preferably within the 5 minutes of the Bake Time. As a result, I always bake my muffins at temperatures of 375℉ and higher. 

How to Make Wide and Crunchy Muffin Tops

These banana cinnamon muffins are distinct because of their super wide muffin tops. How do I get them to spread so much? The answer: granulated sugar. Sprinkle sugar on top of each muffin and be careful not to incorporate it into the batter itself. The unincorporated sugar will cook faster than the rest of the dough, melting and encouraging the muffin tops to spread far and wide. But be sure to use a generous amount of sugar—if you use too little, you'll only get the spread and NOT the crunch! The key is to use enough so that some of the sugar doesn't have time to melt, giving your muffin tops that desirable crunchy texture. 

I've also seen other recipes that instruct you to do the same with other kinds of sugar: different types of brown sugar, sanding sugar, etc. While brown sugar is plenty tasty, it doesn't quite contrast with the muffin top in the same way as white sugar does. While sanding sugar is actually even more visible than regular old white sugar, it's difficult to get it to melt in the oven. That means if you opt for sanding sugar in this recipe, your muffin tops definitely won't spread as wide as mine (but they'll still be perfectly crunchy). 


Best Banana Cinnamon Muffin Recipe Tips

  • {Ingredient Tip} Bananas are listed in the recipe by weight, not volume or size. Why? It's risky not to include exact measurements for banana baked goods. Too little banana and your baked good will turn out too dry, but too much will cause it to collapse in the center if underbaked. For best results, use a digital scale! First peel the bananas, then use the scale to weigh the naked fruit. But fine—for those who need volume measurements, this recipe needs approximately 1 ¼ cups mashed bananas, from around 2 ½ large bananas. 

  • {Equipment Tip} For this recipe, tools are important. You'll need two muffin tins, a 1-tablespoon OR a 3-tablespoon cookie dough scoop, and an offset spatula (preferably with a short, metal blade). The cookie dough scoops are for filling each cavity with muffin batter—to get tall domes, you'll need to fill each one with SIX tablespoons of batter. It works best if you're precise. Anything more will cause the muffins to overflow, and anything less will result in squat muffins. You'll then need the offset spatula to "unstick" the wide muffin tops from the pan.

  • {Muffin Making Tip} Use cooking spray to spray the muffin tin in order to turn the muffins out of the pan easily and quickly. To make it work, you'll need to spray the inside of each cavity with a GENEROUS amount of cooking spray—and when I say generous, I mean generous. You should be uncomfortable with the amount of spray you used, lol. You'll also need to spray the outer border around the cavities. And FYI—butter won't work, and will cause the muffins to stick to the pan. Use cooking spray!!! 

  • {Muffin Making Tip} The recipe instructs you to rest the batter for one hour at room temperature; technically, this step is optional. You can bake the batter immediately after making and end up with some pretty damn good muffins. But if you want super domed muffins with seriously tall tops, rest the batter for an hour! This will allow the flour to hydrate and absorb the liquids in the batter more fully, leading to taller domes. Don't stick the batter in the fridge—chilled batter will cause the muffins to stick in their cavities. In fact, make sure ALL your ingredients are at room temperature before using in the recipe. Again, this is one of the secrets to super tall muffin tops. 

  • {Muffin Making Tip} Because each muffin requires so much batter, the recipe produces an odd number of muffins: 9 total. You'll need to bake 6 in one muffin tin, and the remaining 3 in another muffin tin. When baking the remaining three, you'll need to pour water into every other cavity to mimic the placement of the batter in the first muffin tin. Don't skip this step! Skipping this step will cause the remaining three muffins to spread too much and potentially overflow into other cavities. 

Other Banana Recipes

atlantic beach pie recipe

February 18, 2020

Portland, OR, USA
This post has been sponsored by Nonni’s. I received product and compensation, but all opinions are my own.

Atlantic Beach Pie is similar to key lime pie, but made with lemon juice instead of limes. Both have creamy, tangy citrusy fillings that are baked in a crumb pie crust—jump to the recipe! My recipe, however, is a modern twist on the vintage recipe. Traditional Atlantic Beach pie recipes instruct you to make a pie crust out of saltine crackers, but I substituted the crackers out for Nonni’s Limone Biscotti crumbs for even more lemon flavor.


Atlantic Beach Pie

Many years ago, I was running late for work at my job at a tech start-up. As mundane as it was, I still remember because it was actually A Notable Event for me. I’m the kind of person who is hardly ever late; in fact, I’m almost always ten minutes early to everything because I’m one of those Very Type-A people who believe that “on time is late.”

That day, however, I was late enough that I grumpily hopped into my car, with every intention of speeding to work. But something happened. Usually when I get in my car, my first priority is always to fiddle around with the radio or my iPod to find the perfect playlist for the drive. But in my rush to get to work, I’d left it set to its last setting: NPR. And on All Things Considered, a woman was describing a recipe for Atlantic Beach pie. Her description of the pie was enough to make me forget that I was in a mad rush to get to my office: a “dense, crispy, thick crust”, a filling of “tanginess and sweetness”, and a taste so delicious that the pie almost put her in a fugue state where all she could say about the pie was “oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.”

I knew I HAD to try it. I filed a mental note to look up her recipe and bake one for myself. And almost eight years later, here I am finally following up on that note, lol.

Why You Should Make Atlantic Beach Pie

Recently, my sponsor Nonni’s asked if I would be interested in hosting a Dip and Donate Party to benefit Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, a non-profit that helps fund research to find a cure for childhood cancer. All I needed to do was invite friends and family over for lemony drinks and nibbles, all in exchange for a small donation to Alex’s Lemonade Stand.

I was stoked; I’m always down to entertain for a good cause! I immediately started planning the menu with all my best lemon recipes. I decided to focus on drinks and desserts you could eat by hand like cookies and cakelets, all centered around one big lemony showstopper. Spoiler alert— it’s Atlantic Beach pie, haha:

  1. {Drinks} Sparkling Cucumber Basil Lemonade
  2. {Drinks} Thyme Lemonade
  3. {Cakelets} Lemon, Lavender and Earl Grey Mini Cakes and Petit Fours
  4. {Cakelets} Mini Sour Cream Lemon Cakes with Beet Glaze
  5. {Cookies} Raspberry Lemon Lofthouse Cookies
  6. {Cookies} Tangy Meyer Lemon Sugar Cookies
  7. {Showstopper} Atlantic Beach Pie!!!

I hosted my party this past Saturday, February 15—just in time for International Childhood Cancer Day. But you can participate anytime you want, too! Plus, for every social post with the tags @NonnisFoods, @AlexsLemonade, and #DipandDonate between now and the end of the year, Nonni’s will donate $1 per social share to Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation. Be sure to tag me on Instagram too if you make any of my lemon recipes above!

Another Dip and Donate party tip: If you don’t have time to bake the Atlantic Pie, Nonni’s Limone Biscotti is delicious on its own and dipped in your favorite drink, like lemonade or coffee.


What is Atlantic Beach Pie?

So what exactly is Atlantic Beach pie, anyway?

I mentioned this earlier, but Atlantic Beach pie is basically a key lime pie, but made with lemon juice (instead of key lime juice) and saltine cracker (instead of graham cracker) crumbs for the crust. Most citrus curds get their sweetness from granulated sugar, but both key lime pie and Atlantic Beach pie are solely sweetened with condensed milk. That sweetened condensed milk is also responsible for giving the filling a creamy, melt-in-your-mouth texture that’s hard to replicate with more traditional curds.


Atlantic Beach Pie History

The origin of Atlantic Beach pie can be found in North Carolina, where it’s traditional for seafood restaurants along the state’s coast to serve a lemony dessert after an epic seafood feast. Apparently in the 1950s, many folks believed that eating dessert after a seafood meal could actually kill you. But there was one exception to this rule—lemon desserts were somehow okay? Something to do with digestion? I really don’t know, lol. What happens next is also unclear, but I’m assuming an enterprising chef swapped out the lime juice for lemon juice in a key lime pie recipe. From there, Atlantic Beach pie was officially born.

Early iterations of Atlantic Beach pie were also different to the Atlantic Beach pie that’s popular today. Instead of salty and umami saltine crackers, recipes called for sweeter ones. The pie was also topped with a meringue topping, similar to more traditional lemon meringue pie.


Bill Smith’s Atlantic Beach Pie

However, Bill Smith, the executive chef at the landmark Chapel Hill seafood restaurant Crook’s Corner, can be credited for the version of Atlantic Beach pie that most folks know and love today. It was he who first used saltine crackers in the Atlantic Beach pie crust and also substituted out the meringue topping for fresh whipped cream instead. And while those changes were initially controversial, his twist makes an Atlantic Beach pie SO good that his recipe went viral multiple times! In 2014, Food52 featured his recipe in their “Genius Recipes” column, and in 2018, the New York Times featured the exact same recipe as well. Oh, and in 2013, too! It was actually his recipe that the woman on the radio was gushing on about many, many years ago—yes, the very same radio program that actually inspired me to research and write this post!!! I’ve officially come full circle.


Atlantic Beach Pie Ingredients

Now that I’ve convinced you to make Atlantic Beach pie, here are the key ingredients in the recipe worth chatting about:

Nonni’s Limone Biscotti

Although traditional Atlantic Beach pie is made with a cracker or saltine crust, I found those crusts to be salty and distracting from the Atlantic Beach pie’s filling. I decided instead to swap out the saltines for a more delicate-flavored cookie like biscotti. But between you and me, I hate making biscotti at home since it’s a bit of a time-consuming process: not only do you need to make the cookie dough and shape it into biscotti, you then need to bake the cookies TWICE to get biscotti’s signature crunch and texture. It’s one of the few baked goods I’d rather buy at the store. My favorite brand is Nonni’s; their biscotti is rich in flavor, crunchy in texture, relatively low calorie (only 110 calories per biscotti!), and made with real, wholesome ingredients like eggs, butter, and sugar. They also come in different varieties like Salted Caramel, Turtle Pecan, and Toffee Almond. For my Atlantic Beach pie recipe, I used Nonni’s Limone Biscotti to complement the Atlantic Beach pie’s lemon filling.

Lemons

Traditional Atlantic Beach pie recipes can vary in the citrus they use in the recipe—some exclusively use lemon juice, while others use a mix of lemon and lime juice. While I tried the mix, I found that it wasn’t that different from key lime pie (it was pretty tasty though). I wanted my Atlantic Beach pie recipe to be a distinctly “Atlantic Beach pie,” so I decided to stick with all lemon juice in my recipe.

As a result, this recipe uses both fresh lemon zest AND fresh lemon juice to make the filling. Although it’s much easier to buy pre-squeezed lemon juice at the store (which, in a pinch, I definitely won’t judge you for because I know how time consuming it can be to prep fruit), the freshly squeezed stuff will ultimately make your pie taste more fresh and flavorful. While it’s important to strain out the seeds from the juice, don’t worry too much about straining out the pulp from your juice—that’ll give the pie more flavor, too.

Fresh Whipped Cream

As I mentioned before, traditional Atlantic Beach pie recipes were made with a meringue topping. However, I found that the meringue and lemon filling together were too sweet; I much preferred Bill Smith’s variation with whipped cream instead.

Although you can use whipped cream from a can, the pie will last a lot longer in the fridge if you whip the cream at home yourself. Canned whipped cream tends to deflate after an hour or so, dissolving into a weird white puddle in the middle of your pie. Homemade whipped cream, on the other hand, takes only about 5 minutes to make and can actually stay whipped for more than 48 hours if done right. In later iterations of Bill Smith’s Atlantic Beach pie, he even recommends whipping in some cream cheese or mascarpone into the cream to help stabilize it.


Best Atlantic Beach Pie Recipe Tips

  • {Timing Tip} Although this pie comes together fairly quickly, you’ll need to plan ahead and make it the day before you’re planning on serving it—the filling needs to chill for at least 4 hours, but preferably overnight. Make the whipped cream and garnish the pie right before serving to ensure that the whipped cream is at its fluffiest and the biscotti cookies are at their crunchiest, too.

  • {Ingredient Tip} To make Nonni’s Limone Biscotti crumbs, use a digital scale to weigh out as many biscotti cookies as needed to match the weight listed in the recipe (if you don’t have a digital scale, the you’ll need approximately 6 ½ Nonni’s Limone Biscotti cookies—don’t discard the remaining ½ cookie, you can use it to garnish the pie like I did!). Use a food processor to pulse the crackers into fine crumbs.

  • {Pie Making Tip} Use a glass or ceramic bowl to make the lemon filling. A metal bowl will react with the lemon juice, giving the filling a noticeable metallic taste.

  • {Pie Making Tip} When making whipped cream, recipes often instruct you to whip the cream to specific textures like “soft peaks” and “firm peaks.” The best way to determine the cream’s texture is to do a test with a whisk: Dip the tip of the whisk (or the whisk attachment) into the whipped cream, remove it, and completely turn it upside down. If the cream is too soft, it will slide off the whisk, and you’ll need to keep whisking. If the cream has a cloudlike structure, with peaks that lose their shape, you’re at the “soft peaks” stage. Stop here—this is where you want to be for my Atlantic Beach pie recipe!

  • {Styling Tip} If you follow me on Instagram and saw my Instagram Stories on how to make this recipe, you’ll notice that after chilling the pie, I decorated the pie’s edges with more cookie crumbs. This is NOT a requirement and is just to make the pie look extra pretty; the recipe below does not include the step. But if you’re interested in styling your pie in the same way I did, you’ll need to make an extra half-batch of cookie crumbs by halving the recipe for the crust below. Instead of pressing the crumbs down into a pie plate, simply spread them evenly over a parchment-lined sheet pan and bake for 10 minutes at 350°F to toast them.

king cake recipe

February 11, 2020

Portland, OR, USA
King cake is a celebration cake traditionally served at Mardi Gras. Contrary to its name, king cake is actually more similar to a sweet bread than traditional layer or sheet cakes; in fact, most king cakes are actually made with yeasted dough! My recipe for king cake dough is also enriched with eggs and sugar, resulting in a light and cakey brioche. Finally, I add a swirl of brown sugar cream cheese filling throughout the cake to make it truly worthy of a Mardi Gras party—jump to the recipe.


King Cake

Growing up in Houston meant that, at a relatively early age, I was exposed to a lot of foods that are distinctly unique to the Gulf Coast states of Texas and Louisiana: Vietnamese-Cajun crawfish boils, Texas-Czech kolaches, Shipley Do-Nuts (y'all know what I'm talking about), and of course, king cakes. Although king cakes are definitely more of a Louisianan thing, Houston was close enough to New Orleans that king cakes would appear everywhere in the city at the start of every year. High school teachers would bring king cakes as a Friday afternoon treat, soccer coaches would celebrate winning games with king cake, and almost every backyard barbecue or casual gathering would have a giant king cake as its centerpiece.

You'd think that, as a sweets fiend and 110lb high schooler with the metabolism of a hummingbird, I was thrilled about the easy access to what was apparently one of the most Googled recipes in 2019. But between you and me, the king cakes of my childhood were all pretty unremarkable—almost all had dry dough, skimped on the fillings, and were topped with goopy icing that easily melted into a sticky, garish puddle. I wanted to see if I could create a king cake that my high school self would have been impressed with: a king cake made with a moist but light and fluffy dough, with lots of creamy filling and an icing that didn't make too much of a mess.

And friends, this is that perfect king cake recipe.

What is a king cake?

But when I set out to develop the best king cake recipe, I learned a LOT of things about king cakes. Like how the king cake you see in this post is actually just one example of many different varieties of king cake!

The tradition of king cake actually goes way back to the Middle Ages (crazy, right?), where the French and Spanish celebrated Epiphany (also known as Three Kings' Day or Kings' Day) with king cake. Back then, king cakes were more like almond-filled puff pastry pies (similar to the gallete des rois pastries today). But at some point, the tradition was brought over to the French colony of Louisiana, whose residents embraced it heartily and gave us the Mardi Gras-style king cake that you see in this post today.

What does king cake taste like?

While traditional king cakes look and taste more like breakfast danishes, Mardi Gras style king cake tastes more like cinnamon rolls (in fact, several "quick and easy" recipe hacks for king cake actually instruct you to use canned cinnamon roll dough, lol). King cake recipes typically start with a sweet dough recipe. Similar to the process of making cinnamon rolls, the dough is then rolled out, filled with either cinnamon sugar, praline, or a cream cheese filling, then rolled back up again. However, instead of slicing the log into individual cinnamon rolls, the ends are sealed together to create an oval-shaped loaf. A slice of king cake will resemble a slice of cinnamon swirl bread.


Mardi Gras King Cake

King Cake Season

Although king cake is most traditionally associated with Mardi Gras, this is actually the last day it's appropriate to eat king cake! The season officially starts on January 6th, the date of Epiphany. But many people bring out king cakes on Mardi Gras, too. That's because Mardi Gras is always held the day before Ash Wednesday, the start of the Christian Lent season. During Lent, many Christians fast—therefore, Mardi Gras is the last official day folks can let loose and indulge on richer foods like king cake until Easter. Fun fact: this is why Mardi Gras is actually French for "Fat Tuesday."

King Cake Symbolism

When developing this recipe, I joked on my Instagram account that the king cake I'd made "wasn't really my aesthetic." But I didn't dare to switch up the king cake's signature colors for anything else—those bright purple, green, and gold colors actually have historical meaning and religious significance! In fact, most of king cake's look is driven by symbolism:
  1. King cake's shape represents the three kings.
  2. I mentioned earlier that the Christian holiday of Epiphany is celebrated with king cake. That's because Epiphany commemorates the story of the three kings visiting baby Jesus and bearing gifts. Some sources argue that the shape of the cake represents their crowns; other sources say that it represents the unity of faith between the kings since all three came from different parts of the world. If you look online, you'll notice that, despite almost all king cakes having a hole in the middle, most vary in shape: some are round, while others are oval. Most homemade recipes make round king cakes, while professional bakeries make oval shaped ones. Let me clear the air: it's more traditional for king cakes to be oval. That being said, it's MUCH harder to achieve that oval shape at home, lol—be sure to check out my baker's notes to read all about how I got my homemade king cake to bake in its oval shape.

  3. The purple, green, and gold colors of king cake represent justice, faith, and power.
  4. The purple, green, and yellow gold colors of the king cake match the traditional colors of Mardi Gras. According to my research, these colors were chosen in 1892, when Rex, one of the most most prominent Mardi Gras parade organizers to this very day, declared the colors and their subsequent meanings for their parade theme that year.

  5. A small plastic baby is frequently hidden in the king cake; this baby symbolizes Jesus. But also, not really.
  6. Because king cake has such religious roots, it's generally accepted that the baby hidden inside the cake represents Jesus. But that's not 100% true. The tradition of hiding a small plastic baby inside a king cake was started by McKenzie's, a New Orleans-based bakery. And according to the bakery's late owner, they didn't pick the baby to symbolize Jesus; instead, they mostly picked it because it was cute and it wouldn't get as easily lost in the dough like a fava bean or pecan nut. Also, these days, it's more common for the purchaser of any commercially made king cake to actually hide the baby—that is, a person buying a king cake actually receives the baby on the side to hide in the cake after purchase. From my research, it honestly sounds like many bakeries were concerned about getting sued for including a choking hazard in their cakes (not to mention the potential food-safety issues that comes from baking a pastry with a plastic baby that could potentially melt and leech harmful chemicals into the cake...). Fair enough.

    King Cake Traditions

    While we're on that subject of the plastic baby, it's tradition that whoever ends up with it in their slice of king cake is considered "lucky" and designated the "king" (or "queen"!) of the evening. The finder then has to host the next party—or, at the very least, provide the king cake for the next party. Cute, I'm into it.


    Ingredients to Make a King Cake

    Now that I've hopefully convinced you to participate in the fun tradition of making (or at least, buying—more on that in a hot second) a king cake for Mardi Gras, let's talk about the ingredients you need for this king cake recipe:

    Brioche Dough

    I mentioned before that, despite its name, king cake is actually more of a bread than an actual cake. But because it's still technically a "cake" (or at least it's a cake by name), it's worth using a really sweet, enriched dough to make it as cakey as possible. For my recipe, I used a tried and true brioche recipe that I've used to make babkas and Christmas wreath breads in the past. The dough has lots of eggs, butter, and sugar to make it as light and fluffy as possible.

    Cream Cheese

    When researching king cake recipes, I found that most were either filled with a traditional cinnamon sugar filling, or a more modern cream cheese filling. While I love cinnamon sugar, I worried that using it in my recipe would make my king cake TOO similar to a cinnamon roll. So for my recipe, I decided to do a combination of BOTH fillings: I've mixed cream cheese, brown sugar, and cinnamon. Delicious.

    Cinnamon

    That being said, I really want to stress how important it is to NOT overpower your king cake with cinnamon. You want it to be noticeable, but not so noticeable that the king cake is more "cinnamon roll" and less "king cake". Just a teaspoon of cinnamon should do the trick.

    Sanding Sugar and Food Coloring

    Sanding sugar is NOT necessary to decorate your king cake; I simply went for the option because I have a giant bag of sanding sugar that I'm struggling to get through, and the king cakes of my childhood were often decorated with the stuff. But these days, many king cakes are actually decorated with sprinkles, nonpareils, and regular ol' granulated sugar instead. Whatever topping you decide, he more important thing is to get the colors right: you're going to need purple, green, and gold yellow colors.

    You can easily buy sprinkles and sanding sugar in those colors online, but you're likely going to end up with a massive bag of each color that you probably won't use for anything else. So instead, I like to dye my own: I buy a bag of clear sanding sugar (or white sprinkles, if you've gone the sprinkles route) and put 1/4 cup of the sugar/sprinkles into a Ziploc bag. I then add a few drops of food coloring (all found in this food coloring kit that I will be using forever and ever until I dye because it's massive and expensive), seal the bag, and shake the sugar/sprinkles until the food coloring disperses and the sugar/sprinkles are now dyed. If you follow me on Instagram, you can see some stories from a few weeks ago where I demo'd this—pretty cool, right?

    Plastic Baby

    These days, a king cake ain't a king cake unless you've hidden that damn baby in it. You can get plastic babies online at Amazon. Portlanders—I found mine at Lippman Company, where they were selling them for 20 cents a pop. In a pinch, you can hide another type of trinket, too! Before the babies came along, other hidden trinkets included fava beans, porcelain crowns, plastic rings, pecan nuts, and gold coins.


    Best King Cake Recipe Tips

    • {Timing Tip} One of my biggest pet peeves is waiting for dough to rise. Most doughs, especially ones molded into rolls or shapes like this one, usually need to rise twice: once after making the dough, and another time after shaping the dough. Each rise usually takes between an hour to two hours. That's a LOT of time sitting around waiting and doing nothing. As a result, I tend to break these recipes up over 2 days—on the first day, I'll make the dough in the evening and let it rise overnight in the fridge. The cooler temperature helps slow down the rise, and after about eight hours (hey, the amount of time I usually sleep for), it's perfect for molding. In the morning on the second day, I'll punch down the dough and shape it. I've written the recipe below to reflect this schedule (for more of this type of recipe hacking to make them work within your schedule, check out my cookbook, Weeknight Baking). But if you don't want to wait overnight for your king cake, you can make it in one day too: follow the instructions to make the dough. Let the dough rise in the covered bowl as instructed, but instead of placing it in the fridge, place it in a warm, draft-free spot for about 1 to 2 hours or until the dough looks puffy and has doubled in volume. Proceed with the recipe as instructed.

    • {Ingredient Tip}  For this recipe, it's especially important to use the ingredients at the temperature they are listed in the recipe. Instant yeast needs to be activated at a specific temperature—specifically, with ingredients that are 120° and 130°F. Anything cooler won't be hot enough to get the yeast going, and anything warmer will kill the yeast, leaving you with a sad and flat king cake. Use an instant read thermometer to prep your ingredients; if you don't have one, you can guesstimate it (but I can't guarantee the results). Dip your finger in the warm butter and water; aim to heat them to a temperature that's similar to a "just barely too warm" bath. 

    • {Styling Tip} After spreading the filling on the rolled out dough, you'll need to roll it back up again and then pinch the edges together to make a round shape. I'm not going to lie—this part of the recipe gave me a WHALE of a time. You'll need to make sure that, when rolling the dough, you do it as evenly as possible—if your log ends up thicker in some parts, the king cake will bake up unevenly! I also found that the sealed edges always left a seam in the cake. While that's not the biggest deal (especially since you end up covering the cake in frosting anyway), the sealed edges never rose as well as the rest of the cake. My first few king cakes came out looking like a giant croissant, with the seam side never rising as high as the seamless side. To remedy this, I started leaving out filling towards the edges of the rectangle that make the seam (this'll make more sense once you start making the king cake—come back and read this tip once you're at this step, lol). The lack of filling helped the seam rise almost as quickly as the seamless side of the cake.

    • {Styling Tip} One of the most challenging things about making a king cake at home is getting the dough to bake in its oval shape. I still haven't quite figured out how professional bakeries do it (though some of their king cakes definitely look more rectangular than oval—I suspect many use a pan). My first attempts at homemade definitely ended up more round and circular than oval. For this cake, I ended up wrapping the dough log around a small, oval ramekin—I even baked it that way too! In the oven, the dough rose around the ramekin, helping keep its oval shape. That being said, I know most folks don't own an oval ramekin (I specifically bought one for this recipe myself). But don't let that stop you! Follow the recipe as instructed and shape your king cake by pinching the ends together; at this point, you'll notice that the cake looks more like a circle than an oval. You can either place a small bowl in the center, or just let it bake up without one. Both will result in perfectly round king cakes (though the one with the ramekin will likely have a more defined hole in the middle). Either way, it'll still be just as tasty.

    Where to Buy King Cake

    Okay, so you got this far but decided that making a king cake sounds like too much of a bother and you want to just buy one instead. Although I live far from both Texas and Louisiana now and don't have a recent recommendation for any king cake bakeries, I found several of my trusted sources had recommendations.

    Where to buy king cake for those who live in New Orleans (or are in town for Mardi Gras 😉

    Where to buy king cake online

    geode cake tutorial

    February 4, 2020

    Portland, OR, USA
    Geode cakes are one of the most popular wedding cake designs to emerge in the last few years. The cakes mimic the natural rock structure's crystals with colorful rock candy jutting out of carvings within the cake. Despite their elaborate look, they're surprisingly easy to make at home! Jump to the tutorial.


    What is a Geode Cake?

    Now that I've started seriously researching wedding cake ideas on both Instagram and Pinterest, one of the designs that keeps coming up over and over again is the geode cake. Geode cakes are meant to mimic the natural rock formation, with the baker typically carving out chunks from the cake and filling the cut-outs with "edible crystals" made out of rock candy or isomalt shards. The crystals are then painted multiple colors to emulate the look of real geodes themselves.

    Geode Wedding Cake

    Geode cakes are a bit of an internet phenomenon on both Instagram and Pinterest (seriously, look up #geodecake); it was easy to feel inspired by photos of epic centerpieces that towered way over my head, with veins of edible gold running through the cake (like this one!). After scrolling through all those photos, all I wanted to do was try making one myself! I had this crazy idea to make a geode cake that looked like the non-traditional engagement ring I chose—a cornflower blue sapphire haloed by diamonds on a platinum band. I was so excited that I forgot about two very important issues with geode cakes:

    1. A lot of geode cakes look like vaginas.

    There, I said it. Let's get that elephant out the room early, lol. Granted, there are some cakes that worst offenders than others—pink geode cakes are notorious for looking like vaginas (there's actually a famous bakery that sells pink ones they call "vageode cakes"... yikes!). I also think that ones that are painted ombre (where the center of the geode cutout is a darker color that gradates to a lighter version of that same color) look vaginal, too. I don't know if I just have a dirty mind, but according to the response to my Instagram Stories, I don't think I'm alone in my opinion. In any case, it's weird that something so phallic (er... what's the opposite of phallic? vaginal?) became the edible centerpiece in what's often dubbed as "the most important day in a woman's life". But maybe that's on purpose, lol.

    2. Geode cakes are actually terrible to eat.

    I don't know if anybody saw my Instagram Stories last week, in which I made my very first geode cake ever (this one!) and taste-tested it, too. But spoiler alert: it turns out all those large chunks of rock crystals ruin the texture of a very soft, pillowy cake covered in even silkier buttercream. Plus, you could potentially chip your teeth on one of the sugar chunks!!! Many of you guys DM'ed me that, similar to most fondant wedding cakes, you're not actually supposed to eat the crystals. That is, most people peel off/pick off/eat around the fondant parts of a wedding cake—you're supposed to do the same with the crystals and not sit there and eat the entire thing like I was doing. Oops.

    While this makes sense to me on a theoretical level, it also low key offends me. I want all parts of my wedding cake to be tasty—I don't want to be picking around the gross/inedible parts of a colorful cake while wearing a very expensive white dress! Besides, there are so many good cake recipes (and designs!) out there that don't require you to even do this kind of work to eat it. I quickly came to the consensus that a geode cake is NOT what I'm going to be making and serving at our wedding. Womp.

    That being said, I still think that making a geode cake at home is a fun and creative way to spend your time. Besides—these cakes usually cost an arm and a leg to have custom made, and it turns out they're actually quite easy to make at home! Here's how:


    Ingredients To Make A Geode Cake

    Here are the key ingredients you need to make a geode cake design:

    A Really Good Cake Recipe

    This should go without saying, but a good cake design should start off with a good cake recipe. One that's tasty and comes together quickly because you're going to be spending so much time on assembling the cake itself. For our cake today, I went with the chocolate cake recipe in my cookbook, Weeknight Baking. It's ALMOST one bowl (technically you need two bowls: one for the dry ingredients, the other for the wet ones), and you don't even need to pull out your stand mixer—you can just mix everything by hand!

    A Really Good Frosting Recipe

    Good frosting recipes are silky and easy to smooth, but will hold its shape when applied to the cake. For this reason, most decorators choose a meringue-based buttercream like Swiss meringue or Italian meringue buttercream frosting. But these buttercream frostings are time-consuming to make, and between you and me, I like the taste of classic American buttercream—which is made with just confectioners' sugar, butter, and vanilla—much better. The key is to find a good buttercream frosting that "crusts" and hardens slightly when applied. For this cake, we're going with a classic birthday cake type frosting from this awesome recipe in the Hummingbird High archive. Unlike most traditional American buttercream frostings, this recipe also has cream cheese (making it more of a cream cheese frosting tbh), giving it a wonderful tang that pairs well with the chocolate cake.

    Rock Candy

    Remember those rock candy lollipops you could buy at science museums and boardwalk shops? You're basically going to be buying that for this cake, but with the candy in chunks in a bag instead of wrapped around a lollipop stick. I was an idiot and paid a premium for a bag off Amazon. I'd completely forgotten that rock sugar—which are basically bigger granules of rock candy, and unflavored to boot—is available for purchase at most Asian supermarkets at a third of the price. But be warned: rock sugar comes in MUCH bigger granules than the candy. It's harder to eat (but maybe that doesn't matter, since you're not going to be eating it anyway per my rambling above?), but easier to work with when making your cake.

    Food Coloring

    You'll need food coloring to paint the rock candy colors to mimic a geode. I used two different types of blues from this Americolor food coloring kit. In a pinch, you can get away with using just one color—you'll still need to make two batches of food coloring for the full effect, but dye one with a higher quantity of the same food coloring to get it a darker shade than the other. Alternatively, if you're feeling lazy and/or don't want to deal with buying a paintbrush (see next section), you can just buy different shades of rock candy on Amazon (in addition to the clear rock candy I got fleeced on, I briefly considered buying this dark blue shade and this light blue one of rock candy).

    Vodka

    If you're using a food coloring gel like I am, you'll need to thin the gel out with some vodka. The vodka also helps apply and adhere the color onto the rock candy without dissolving it completely like water would.

    Edible Gold or Silver Leaf

    Most geode cakes usually incorporate some sort of metallic, glittery patterning (see this cake as an example) to really bring life to the rock formation design. The best way to do this is with edible gold leaf, which is easily purchasable through Amazon. For this cake, I used edible silver leaf I bought on my last trip to Japan—I thought that silver leaf was a rarity in the US, but it turns out you can also purchase it quite easily on Amazon. Good thing I lugged it back all that way, ha.

    Tools to Make a Geode Cake

    You need a handful of tools to make a geode cake:

    A Rotating Cake Stand

    Most geode cakes start with a perfectly smooth frosted cake. The best way to frost a perfectly smooth cake is with a rotating cake stand. I use a heavy-duty metal one that I got from a restaurant supply store; it's very similar to this one by Ateco. The metal ones are great because they won't move at all even if you accidentally knock it with your elbow (which I've done many times). But in a pinch, you can also use lighter weight plastic ones—I like this one by Wilton, which allows you to tilt the cake side by side to help with decorating.

    Offset Spatulas

    You'll need a large offset spatula to smooth the cake's sides, and a smaller one to cover the cake's cut-outs with frosting. I know I sound like an ad for Amazon, but they actually sell reasonably priced sets of different sized offset spatulas that are perfect for this recipe.

    A Serrated Knife

    A sharp serrated knife is the best way to slice out the cut-outs for geode cake's rock candy crevices. Try to get a smaller/shorter one, like this 5-inch one by Wusthof—the shorter length will make it easier to carve your cut-outs more accurately. In a pinch, a sharp paring knife will do, but a serrated knife will work better against the chilled cake crumb (more on that in a second).

    A Small Paintbrush

    If you didn't buy colored rock candy, you'll need a small paintbrush to paint food coloring onto your rock candy. I actually didn't have a paintbrush on hand (I tried to buy one specifically for this project, but after biking to Fred Meyer's in the pouring rain, I discovered I left my wallet at home and let out a roar of frustration so loud that the person in line behind me jumped lol), so I used a brush meant for  for brushing egg wash onto pies. Because it's much larger than the kind of paintbrush I wanted (which was something like these brushes), my coloring is more all over the place and less of the ombre coloring that's traditional in geode cakes. But I actually ended up liking it more since it looked a lot less vaginal, so there's that.

    Tweezers

    Finally, you'll need some tweezers to apply the edible gold (or silver) leaf onto the cake.


    How To Make A Geode Cake

    Once you've frosted a perfectly smooth cake, it's time to make your geode cake design!

    1. Use a small serrated knife to carve out cut-outs in the cake:



    Don't worry too much about the shape and size of the cut-outs—just do what feels easiest! I literally just sliced out a chunk without thinking too much about it. You can do one giant cutout (which is traditional for geode wedding cakes), or do multiple ones like I did to make it look less vagina-y.

    2. Use a small offset spatula to cover the cut-outs with frosting:



    After you make your frosting, be sure to set aside at least ¼ cup to ⅓ cup of the frosting to use for this purpose. Unlike the rest of the cake, you don't need to perfectly smooth the frosting on the cut-outs—after all, you'll be covering it with rock candy! Also, don't worry if any cake crumbs get into the frosting in the cut-outs. Again, you're going to be covering that area anyway.

    3. Use tweezers or your fingers to cover the cut-outs with rock candy:



    The rock candy will be held in place with the frosting. You want to press firm enough so that the rock candy holds its place, but not so hard that you end up denting or destroying the cake inside. You'll also want to cover any crumbs or exposed parts of cake with rock candy to hide them.

    4. Use a paint brush to paint the centers of the rock candy-covered cut-outs with a darker color, then paint the cut-outs' outer edges with a lighter color:



    To make your "paint", mix as many drops of food coloring as necessary to achieve the color of your choice with 1 teaspoon of vodka.

    5. Tweeze gold or silver leaf onto the cake to finish the design:



    Bakers making traditional geode wedding cake designs typically create a gold leaf border around the cut-outs. Again, I avoiding doing so because I thought this enhanced the vagina effect of the design, lol. So instead, I just placed silver leaf at random throughout the cake. But you do you!

    Make It Weeknight Baking

    Although I broke this down fairly easily, it can be time-consuming to make a geode cake—in fact, it took me almost the entire afternoon just to assemble, frost, and make the geode design. It would have taken all day if I'd made the cake in the same day, too.

    Because I don't like to spend eight consecutive hours in the kitchen all at once, I divided the recipe over a few days. I actually do this for many of the cake recipes in my cookbook, Weeknight Baking. Here's how it went down:

    1. Day One: Make the Cake! (around 1 hour, including Bake Time)
      Follow the instructions in the recipe below to cool the cakes to room temperature, then turn each layer out into its own individual sheet of plastic wrap. Cover tightly with the plastic wrap and freeze overnight—do NOT refrigerate! Refrigerating cakes dries them out, while freezing the cakes locks the moisture in. In a pinch, I'd rather you leave the cakes wrapped at room temperature. However, I don't recommend doing so; the cake has such a soft crumb that it's much easier to carve when it has frozen overnight. So freeze the cakes!

    2. Day Two: Make the Frosting and Frost the Cake (around 1 to 1 ½ hours)
      In general, it will take about 10 minutes to make the frosting and then the rest of the time to assemble the layer cake and frost it perfectly smooth. Depending on your experience with frosting cakes, it could take far less (or far more!) time to do so—I'm a bit of a perfectionist, so it always takes me at least an hour to smoothen out my cake. Don't forget to save at least ¼ cup to ⅓ cup of the frosting for your cut-outs the next day; you can place this frosting in an airtight container and refrigerate overnight. 

    3. Day Three: Make the Geode Cake Design (around 1 ½ hours) and Serve! 
      Follow the instructions above to complete your geode cake. You may want to warm your frosting before using on the cake—simply scoop it into a heatproof bowl and microwave it on low in 10 to 20 second bursts until creamy, using a rubber spatula to mix it up. 


    Best Geode Cake Tutorial Tips

    • {Ingredient Tip} I'm not usually one to harp on sifting ingredients (see: this article in Bon Appetit, where I talk about why you don't really ever need to sift your flour), but for the frosting recipe, it's especially important that you sift your confectioners' sugar. The recipe uses a LOT of it, and you don't want any lumps showing (especially when you're trying to perfectly smooth a cake!).

    • {Cake Making Tip} For this cake recipe, it's especially important to add the coffee while it's still hot (almost boiling, if possible!). The hot coffee will bloom the cocoa powder in the recipe, giving it a deeper flavor and an extra-dark color that's signature to this cake.

    • {Cake Making Tip} For even cake layers, I like to actually weigh out the layers with a digital scale to make sure they're even. The easiest way to do this is to set a prepared cake pan on a digital scale and tare it to "0". Pour batter into the pan until the scale registers the weight listed in the recipe (because yes, I've included the approximate weight of the batter needed for each pan!). Repeat with the second and third cake pan. 

    • {Decorating Tip} In general, chilled cake is easier to carve; even if you don't follow the weeknight baking schedule above (I get it, three days is a long time to wait for a cake!), I recommend baking the cakes the day before and freezing them overnight. Before making the frosting, set the cakes out on the counter and let them thaw slightly while making the frosting. Assemble and frost the cake as instructed above—at this point, the cake will be the perfect temperature (not rock hard, but still pretty chilled) for carving the cut-outs.

    • {Decorating Tip} When filling your cut-outs the rock candy, start by placing the candy on the outside of the cut-outs and work your way in. The outer rock candy will help protect your hands from the frosting (though you'll definitely still need to wipe them off as you go—this is a messy job!).

    speculoos cheesecake bars

    January 29, 2020

    Portland, OR, USA
    Take these easy cheesecake bars to the next level with a swirl of speculoos, the utterly addicting cookie butter from Trader Joe's—jump to the recipe! The cheesecake bars are also made with a speculoos cookie crumb crust, giving these cheesecake bars extra flavor and crunch. For more cheesecake recipes, check out Hummingbird High's cheesecake archive! 


    What is speculoos?

    Today I'm super excited to share this recipe for speculoos cheesecake bars! I've been meaning to develop my own recipe for a homemade version ever since discovering Trader Joe's frozen ones many years ago and confirmed that yes, the addition of speculoos cookie butter to cheesecake bars is absolutely amazzzing.

    But hold the phone—what exactly is speculoos, anyway?

    Okay, so not a lot of people know this about me, but I actually spent a part of my childhood in the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, speculoos is spelled with As instead of Os (that is, speculAAs instead of speculOOs ) and are spiced shortbread-like cookies shaped like windmills and served during Sinterklaas, a Dutch children's holiday similar to Christmas. Between you and me, I was never speculaas' biggest fan. That's because on Sinterklaas day, children usually got a number of gifts, including an edible letter (usually the letter of your first name) made out of SOLID CHOCOLATE. I was always much more interested in these chocolate letters than the boring ol' speculaas cookies.

    A Note on Trader Joe's speculoos

    But truthfully, there's actually a difference between speculaas and speculoos. According to my trusty friend Google, speculoos cookies are traditionally made with just one spice (cassia, a cheap knock-off of cinnamon), whereas speculaas cookies are made with more spices like real cinnamon, cardamom, clove, coriander, ginger, nutmeg, and pepper. 

    And when looking at the ingredients of Trader Joe's speculoos, which is arguably the most popular/accessible speculoos cookies you can get in the United States, I can confirm this is true: the cookies are only spiced with cinnamon. 

    I credit Trader Joe's for popularizing speculoos in the United States. In addition to selling boxes of speculoos cookies, Trader Joe's has made a ton of popular speculoos products like speculoos cookie butter (a Nutella-like spread flavored with speculoos cookies and spices), speculoos ice cream, speculoos cookie butter cups (where speculoos cookie butter has replaced peanut butter—I die!), and finally, the speculoos cheesecake bars we're making today.


    Speculoos Cheesecake Bar Ingredients

    Here are the key ingredients in the recipe worth chatting about:

    Speculoos Cookies

    A good cheesecake recipe always starts with its cookie crumb base. While most traditional cheesecake recipes start with a graham cracker crust, I'm partial to ones made with Oreo cookie crumbs. But for speculoos cheesecake bars, I thought that the most appropriate cookie base would obviously be... speculoos cookies. Duh. 

    Sour Cream

    I love my cheesecakes to have a hint of tangyness; usually this is achieved by adding something like sour cream (or, if you're feeling fancy, crème fraîche) to the cheesecake batter. When making speculoos cheesecake bars, however, I find the addition of sour cream to be EXTREMELY necessary. That's because cookie butter on its own is so freaking sweet—it needs that tanginess to help balance it out! 

    Speculoos Cookie Butter

    To get that picturesque swirl that is also the trademark of Trader Joe's speculoos cheesecake bars, we're going to need some speculoos cookie butter! Similar to nut butter, speculoos cookie butter can come "crunchy" or "smooth". I've always baked with the "smooth" variety since I've found that it leads to more consistent results and textures in baked goods.

    Okay, but... Where to buy speculoos cookie butter?

    So, obviously since this recipe is based on a Trader Joe's dessert and uses a ton of Trader Joe's products, my recommendation is to buy your speculoos cookie butter and speculoos cookies at Trader Joe's! But here's the thing: Trader Joe's only has locations in select states (I went to high school in Houston, for instance, and only found out about Trader Joe's when I moved to Portland for college—back when I lived in Houston, there were no Trader Joe's locations in Texas!). So what do you do if you live somewhere where Trader Joe's just isn't a thing?

    You can buy Trader Joe's speculoos cookies and cookie butter online via Amazon, where it can be delivered to your door step in two days. But let me warn you, they come at premium prices and are sold at much higher prices than what you would find at an actual Trader Joe's. You can also buy non-Trader Joe's speculoos too—Biscoff cookies are Belgian speculoos cookies, and they also make a Biscoff cookie butter spread, both of which are available on Amazon and most major supermarkets in the United States (I saw Biscoff cookies at my local Target!). There are also other, cheaper cookie butter brands on Amazon: this one by Great Value and this one by Roland looks like it could be worth checking out? 

    What to Eat With Speculoos Cookie Butter

    Now that you've invested in a jar of speculoos cookie butter for this recipe, you're probably wondering what on earth do do with the rest of it. Because like, what are you actually supposed to eat with speculoos cookie butter?

    In my household, a jar of cookie butter never lasts too long. We tend to use it as a substitute for nut butters, slathering it on morning toasts, waffles, and pancakes, pairing it with fruit like strawberries and bananas, adding spoonfuls to bowls of granola and oatmeal, and so on. Sometimes, when I'm craving something sweet at night, I'll even just dip a spoon in the jar and have a small spoonful as a treat. Is that gross? Sorrynotsorry.


    Why This Is The Best Speculoos Cheesecake Bar Recipe

    Alright, you've read this far. But maybe you're still wondering why you should bother making these cheesecake bars at home, especially since you can just buy them at Trader Joe's instead (where you're going to be heading to buy most of this recipe's ingredients, anyway!)? Here's why:

    No Weird Ingredients and Preservatives

    Looking at the ingredients list of a box of Trader Joe's Speculoos Cheesecake Bites was a little dismaying. Sure, there were the usual suspects like cream cheese, eggs, and speculoos cookies, but then also weird stabilizers and thickeners like soy leicithin, xanathan, and guar gums. Also, carob bean (although I detected no coffee or chocolate flavors in the bars whatsoever)? Like... why? You don't need any of that junk! Spare yourself from the weird chemicals by making these at home instead.

    The Best Flavors

    Since you're making these at home, you'll be able to modify the cheesecake bars to your taste.  I already mentioned that I added sour cream to the cheesecake base to help balance out the sweetness of the speculoos cookie butter swirl. But if you find that there's still too much speculoos cookie butter, you can absolutely reduce the amount used in the recipe to your tastes. Conversely, if you think I didn't go hard enough, increase the amount, too (but definitely check out the baker's notes below, since increasing the cookie butter has a little bit of an effect).

    Weeknight Baking Friendly

    The best part? It's actually incredibly easy to make these bars at home. The recipe is based on the cheesecake bars recipe in Weeknight Baking, my cookbook about baking efficiently on weeknights. That means that the recipe comes together really quickly and easily, thanks to these few tricks:
    1. You can pour the cheesecake filling into the crust while it's still warm.
      Most cheesecake recipes will first instruct you to make, bake, and cool the crust completely to room temperature before filling it with cheesecake filling. With my recipe, there's no need to cool the crust—you can pour the filling over it while it's still warm! You can work efficiently by making the filling while the crust is baking in the oven; while it takes about 10 minutes to bake the crust, it only takes about 5 minutes to make the filling. By the time the crust is done baking, your filling will be more than ready to go!

    2. Unlike with other cheesecake recipes, there's no need to use a water bath.
      Most cheesecake recipes ask you to bake the cheesecake in a water bath (or bain-marie, if you're feeling fancy and want to use the culinary school term). The theory behind this is that, because water only boils up to a certain temperature, it will prevent the cheesecake from overcooking by keeping the batter at that same lower temperature too. But because we're making cheesecake bars, there's not as much risk for overcooking the cheesecake since the bars don't need to be in the oven that long to bake completely. That means you can skip the water bath! 

    3. These are make-ahead friendly, too!
      Okay, so the biggest bummer about making these speculoos cheesecake bars is that they'll need to chill for at least 4 hours before serving (but preferably even be chilled overnight). Now if that made you blanch and decide to just buy the Trader Joe's version instead, KNOW THIS—you also need to thaw the Trader Joe's version for at least 4 hours before you can even sink your teeth into them, too! There's no win-win here. Except maybe this: make these bars the night before you're planning on serving them! Once you do, they'll keep in the fridge for up to 3 days—honestly, 5 days if we're not being conservative—and even longer in the freezer. Because the recipe only takes about 20 minutes or so, I just whip them together after a weeknight dinner and place them in the fridge to forget about them. The next day, I'm greeted with slices of cheesecake bars to snack on for the next few days.


    Best Speculoos Cheesecake Recipe Tips

    • To make speculoos cookie crumbs, use a digital scale to weigh out as many crackers as needed to match the weight in the recipe. Use a food processor to pulse the cookies into fine crumbs. There is no need to scrape off the icing in between each cookie!

    • It's especially important that your cream cheese, eggs, and sour cream are warmed to room temperature—the filling will be lumpy if the ingredients are cold. To ensure that my cream cheese has softened to the perfect temperature, I chop it into blocks and pop it in the microwave for 15 to 20 seconds.

    • Similarly, this recipe works best if you warm the speculoos cookie butter up beforehand—doing so will allow it to easily swirl into the cheesecake batter without overmixing! Measure out the amount of cookie butter needed into a small, microwaveable bowl and blitz on low in the microwave in 15- to 20- second intervals until runny. Follow the instructions to swirl the speculoos into the cheesecake batter; be careful not to overmix or the speculoos will sink to the bottom of the bars! I mean, it'll still be tasty, just not as Instagram friendly. 😜I also realize that 1 tablespoon of cookie butter seems a little on the conservative side, but trust me on this one—any more and the cookie butter will sink and fall to the bottom of the bars. 1 tablespoon of the stuff will do the trick, I promise. 

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