Cranberry Cheesecake Pastry Braid

This post is sponsored by Philadelphia Cream Cheese.

Cranberry Cheesecake Pastry Braid
Cranberry Cheesecake Pastry Braid

Honey-Drizzled Cranberry Brie Pastry Braid

Honey-Drizzled Cranberry Brie Pastry Braid
Honey-Drizzled Cranberry Brie Pastry Braid

Hot Cranberry Orange Cake

Hot Cranberry Orange Cake recipe
Hot Cranberry Orange Cake

Brown Butter Gooey Butter Spice Cake with Sparkling Cranberries and Cream

Well. It’s hard to know what to say.

As a teacher, I can tell you that we all have our private plans. Schools have bigger, more systemic plans, but we have private plans. Plans about throwing furniture, plans about overturning tables, plans about barring windows, plans about protecting. “What would I do if–?” has crossed all of our minds. To know that on Friday, some teachers had to put their own plans into action, the strategies they’d woven in the private depths of their imagination —

Well. It’s hard to know what to say. It’s hard to know how to say thank you, I’m sorry, I can’t believe it, what can I do?, and why?, and all of the other things we can’t put language to.

Since I don’t know how to say all of that, I’ll do what I do know how to do. I’ll tell you a story.

* * *

My first experience with teaching was as a student teacher in a summer school in inner-city Atlanta. To say that that was a rough way to start would be an understatement. My students came from home environments in which abuse and poverty were everyday realities. I had a class full of 8th grade girls whose personalities and needs varied considerably.

One girl inexplicably hated me with her entire being and made this clear during most of our interactions.

One girl vacillated between quiet anger and reluctant compliance.

One was realistic, practical, and blunt — qualities she had perhaps honed after having her own baby. She was ready to get on with getting educated and had no time to waste with silliness.

One girl, Marion, was a quiet preacher’s daughter. She barely said a thing throughout the month I taught the class.

Here I was, a middle-class white girl straight out of college. Sure, I could barely afford a suitable teaching outfit at the time, but standing in that classroom, I knew that my students knew hardship in a way that I didn’t understand.

There are many stories I want to tell you about what transpired — about the day the girl touched my hair wistfully, about the day I left my classroom in tears, about the day I bought the girls the wrong kind of cookies, about the day an administrator yelled at me and an entire bevy of those sweet girls unexpectedly stood up for me. But today I want to skip right to the end: the day they took the reading test that would determine whether or not they could continue on to high school.

We had been through a lot together to get to that moment, so I felt very close to the girls. But I saw something in them that day I hadn’t seen before: straight-up fear. It surprised me to see them huddling in the classroom, nervous about the test that they felt was deciding their future. I set to the task of encouraging, supporting, calming. I didn’t know it at the time, but I see now that I was already a teacher in my heart.

I’ll never forget the moment that my co-teachers and I looked over and saw every girl — even the one who hated my guts and, ostensibly, the guts of the world — standing around Marion. She had brought in her father’s absolutely enormous, worn Bible and was holding it in the center of the circle. Every girl had her hand resting on one edge of the well-loved book, her head bowed, and her eyes closed. Some lips moved along with Marion as she prayed aloud over them all. The overarching theme of her plea was, “God, please, please let us pass this test.”

You’re going to hate this, but despite the prayers, the extra #2 pencils, and the most heartfelt teaching I could muster, Marion didn’t pass her test. She came to me upon receiving her scores and asked if I would please write the school system and ask them to promote her, something I gladly did. She had more trouble with tests and test anxiety than she did with reading — a problem many students around the country face each year. But I’m not sure what they ultimately decided.

What Marion and her sweet classmates showed me that day — and really every day they showed up to class and earnestly put their pencils to paper — is faith. Can we have faith after things have gone wrong (tragically, devastatingly wrong)? I know one thing: it won’t be a reasonable faith. It will have to be the unreasoning, innocent faith of a child. One who just believes things can be okay again somehow, some way.

One year ago: Gingersnap Cheesecake Stuffed Snickerdoodles
Two years ago: Magic Bars
Three years ago: Oreo Truffle Snowmen

And another Gooey Butter Cake adaptation you might love: Gooey Butter Strawberry Shortcake

Brown Butter Gooey Butter Spice Cake with Sparkling Cranberries and Cream

Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking with sparkling cranberries adapted from Bakers Royale
Yield: serves 4-6

If you love Gooey Butter Cake, here’s a delicious holiday adaptation (with apologies to St. Louis). This Gooey Butter SPICE cake has the wonderful, warm flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, brown butter, dates, and toasted pecans. It’s adorned with spiked cream and pretty sparkling cranberries. Enjoy it straight out of the skillet by a big fire, please!

Crust Ingredients:
1 cup cake flour
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/3 cup butter, cold

Filling Ingredients:
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter, softened
1 egg
1 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup minus 2 tablespoons evaporated milk
2 tablespoons brandy
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 cup chopped dates
1 cup chopped toasted pecans (to toast, bake at 350 degrees F, tossing occasionally, for 4-6 minutes)
powdered sugar

Sparkling Cranberry Topping Ingredients:
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup water
2 cups fresh cranberries, room temperature
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar (some coarse sugar if you have it, and some regular, for rolling)
2 cups heavy whipping cream (with a glug of brandy mixed in, optional)

NOTE: If you don’t have a skillet, I believe you can bake this in a greased 9-inch square baking dish (I’d use a glass one if you have it, and check it early and often. Remove when there’s some jiggle left.) Let us know how it goes if you try it this way for all the other skilletless people!

Prepare the sparkling cranberries: Cook the 1/3 cup granulated sugar and 1/3 cup water together over medium-high heat until simmering (not boiling). Remove from the heat and let cool a couple of minutes so cranberries won’t burst. Pour in cranberries and mix to coat them. Spread the cranberries out on a cooling rack using a slotted spoon and let them dry for an hour, spreading them out as much as possible. Roll the cranberries in small batches in the coarse sugar first, and then in the regular granulated sugar to finish coating. Allow the cranberries to dry in a clean area at least 1 more hour. I prepared these the night before and let them dry, very lightly covered, overnight.

Brown the butter for your gooey butter cake filling: Put the 1 1/2 sticks of butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Melt it and heat until the butter begins to brown. Begin swirling so it will cook evenly. Brown it to a dark amber and then pour it out into a shallow dish. Stick this in the freezer to firm up a bit. When firm, set it out to soften slightly while you make the gooey butter cake crust.

Make the crust: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Whisk together cake flour and sugar in a medium bowl. Cut in the 1/3 cup butter with a pastry cutter or two knives until the mixture resembles fine crumbs and starts to cling together. Press the mixture into the bottom (this step is a lot harder than it sounds, but be patient and use the back of a spoon to help spread/press the mixture down. I also stuck mine in the fridge for a bit to make the butter less sticky) and up the sides of a 10-inch cast iron skillet.

Make the filling: In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. In a separate large bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy and pale yellow (about 2-3 minutes). Mix in the egg until just combined. Alternate adding the flour mixture and evaporated milk, mixing after each addition. Mix in the corn syrup, brandy, pecans, dates, and vanilla. Pour the filling into the crust and sprinkle the top with powdered sugar.

Bake and assemble the cake: Bake for 25 to 35 minutes or until cake is nearly set (mine was probably ready around 30). Some jiggle is fine — do not overcook! It’ll finish setting up as it cools. Let it cool in pan for 2 hours. In the meantime, beat heavy cream to stiff peaks (with a glug of brandy if you’d like). Pile heaps of freshly whipped cream into the center of your cooled, set gooey butter cake, garnish with a few sparkling cranberries, and serve.

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Thyme Orange Cranberry Shortbread Cookies

“But I also wondered if he wasn’t right, that we were designed to live through something rather than to attain something, and the thing we were meant to live through was designed to change us.”
A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, Donald Miller

I don’t know about you, but I generally feel like I’m right about things. I don’t mean that I’m always right, and I’m not a know-it-all; I’ve just spent a lot of time forming my beliefs and I’m a thoughtful person, so I usually don’t feel like my worldview is too far off base.

I think most people probably feel this way. There aren’t very many of us, I’ll wager, who walk through life feeling totally insecure in our ideas and worldview. We believe what we believe for reasons — sometimes good reasons, sometimes misguided ones — and we walk through life feeling pretty certain. Open to change, we hope, and open to learning, but pretty settled.

Every now and then, though, you hit a wall that sends your worldview reeling. Firm ideas you had about your life’s purpose, how to weather different circumstances, and how the world works suddenly seem a lot more fluid. In my own life, I feel like I’ve recently run into the Great Wall of China, not to be melodramatic or anything, and I’m scrambling to find confirmation or revision of my worldview. I won’t bore you with the gory details, but I’d like to share some of my revelations with you over the coming weeks.

The first one is that life is not about checking off boxes. Donald Miller, a writer who had to “edit” his life into a screenplay and discusses the process in his book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, realized that inasmuch as life is a story, there are certain elements that are necessary to make it a meaningful one. One of those elements is character transformation.

We sometimes imagine that attaining our goals in life is what makes us successful: finding a husband, having kids, finding a house, finding a job. Have you ever wondered why we never seem to arrive? If we never seem to be finished with achieving, maybe it’s because the achievement itself isn’t the goal, but how we change during the pursuit.

Everyone always says, “the journey is the destination,” but then when we’re faced with health crises, relationship problems, job frustrations, and uncertainty about our future, that ideology falters. We want solutions. We want to be on the other side. It’s hard to rest in the storm, knowing God is using every strong wind and bolt of lightning to transform us in the exact way we need to be transformed. That idea can even evoke hostility in people in the midst of their greatest trials — the idea that God would, even while holding us and loving us in the ultimate sacrificial way, allow us to endure seemingly insurmountable trials is difficult to swallow.

Moreso even than others, I can have trouble resting in a trial. I don’t fault God for letting me go through the hard times, but I do inadvertently try to make myself my own savior, scrambling to fix it fix it fix it! My anxiety gets the better of me, and I flail through all different “solutions,” some of which do more harm than good. Lately I’ve been practicing, instead, letting the trouble wash through me like waves. Maybe they’re strong waves, and maybe they’ll move me. Maybe they’ll even knock me off my feet for a bit. But ultimately they’ll flow past and disappear against the shore.

If you’re in the middle of a trial, practice thinking of each new difficulty like a wave and let it come. Then let it go. And in the meantime, maybe make some cookies. Cookies never hurt.

One year ago: Straw-Raspberry Basil Fruit Leather
Two years ago: Homemade Buttery Croissants and Pains-au-Chocolats

Thyme Orange Cranberry Shortbread Cookies

Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking
Yield: two logs of about 15 cookies each

These are some amazing cookies. Buttery, delicate shortbread is already delicious, but the addition of orange zest, cranberries, and thyme make these shortbreads particularly special. They’re not too sweet, but a drizzle of white chocolate sweetens them up. They’d be perfect for tea, snacking, or a dessert. It’s also easy to bake a log of them and keep the second log in the freezer for unexpected company!

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 teaspoons crushed dried thyme
3/8 cup powdered sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 tablespoons finely grated orange zest (about the zest from one orange)
1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1/2 cup dried cranberries, finely chopped
about 1/2 cup white chocolate chips

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, and dried thyme. In a separate large bowl, cream together the butter, orange zest, and powdered sugar 2-3 minutes or until pale, light, and fluffy. Mix in the orange juice. Beat in the flour mixture and then stir in the cranberries by hand to be sure everything is combined.

Use a sheet of wax paper to roll the dough into a 1 1/2-inch wide log (if you’re having trouble, chill the dough for a bit in the fridge before rolling it). Wrap plastic wrap or foil around the logs and freeze them for 20 minutes until firm (you can also double-wrap them and leave them frozen for up to 3 weeks at this point. When you’re ready to bake, just use a serrated knife to cut the cookies and bake as usual. It make take a few minutes longer since they’ll be baking from frozen, but just keep an eye on them.) While they cookies are freezing, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and place the rack in the center. Prepare a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.

Use a serrated knife to slice each log into 1/4-inch slices and place these about 1 inch apart on the prepared baking sheet. Bake until golden, about 8-10 minutes, rotating once halfway through baking. Let the cookies cool for a couple of minutes on the pan before transferring them to a cooling rack to cool completely. In the meantime, melt white chocolate according to package instructions (usually half-power, in small increments, stirring often) and spoon it into a plastic zip-top bag with a tiny corner cut off. Set cookies on wax or parchment paper and squeeze the melted chocolate from the zip-top bag over them in a zig zag design. Let them dry. Store them in an airtight container separated by leaves of parchment or wax paper for up to a week.

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