Happen Bakers: Nicole Barens



I'm sorry, that was unnecessary and embarrassing.  It's just that I'm excited for the next young, ambitious and creative baker to join the Happen Bakers club, and this girl is all of that and more.

Meet Nicole Barens: a 16 year-old self-taught baker from Cleveland, Ohio.  Not only does Nicole whip up stunning desserts for fun (as seen on her Instagram page), but this teenager has a 2 year-old thriving business in her town.  A business!  (When I was her age, I sold beanie babies at a gift shop for money.)  Through word-of-mouth and social media, she works on 4-5 orders a month, and that's on top of being a normal 16 year-old... hanging out with friends, working on calligraphy (her favorite hobby) and attending high school (biology being her favorite subject... talk about well-rounded!).  Relatively new to the craft, she started learning through observation and experimentation.  Once it was apparent that her creations were more than just yummy treats (check out that cake below), the logical next step was to sell her cakes.  As much as she loves the artistic side of baking, the business aspect has always fascinated her... and after learning more about her in the interview below, I'm sure you'll agree that a successfully bakery is in her future :)

When did you start baking?

I started baking when I was about 14.  I grew up watching shows like Cake Boss and Cake Wars, and I was always so intrigued.

How did you learn?

I learned mostly from YouTube tutorials and baker's blogs.  It took a lot of practice and trial and error!

What do you love most about it?

I think I love it so much because I'm so creative and I've also always been interested in business...

What's the most challenging thing you've attempted?

I'd have to say the hardest cake I made was a Cassata cake because it had so many elements and it was one of the first times I had worked with fondant, which was really hard at first, but I've gotten better at it.

What's your dream dessert?

My dream dessert is probably anything with chocolate and peanut butter (that's why I chose to make a Reese's cake for this post, haha).

Name 3 celebrities you'd love to bake with...

If I could bake with 3 famous people they would be Taylor Swift, Emma Chamberlain and Jenna Joseph.

Most epic kitchen fail?

Through my learning process, I've had so many fails, but one of the worst has to be my macaron fail. They did not turn out at ALL, it was so bad.  Now that I've had a lot more experience with baking I think it would come out better.  My family still jokes about it three years later!

Any favorite songs you listen to in the kitchen?

I love to listen to music!  Some of my favorite artists recently have been Billie Eilish, The 1975 and Halsey.

Favorite food site or YouTube channel?

I've been watching a few of Chelsweet's videos on YouTube recently.  I also get a lot of inspiration from people on Instagram, such as @brittanymaycakes, @whiteflowercakeshoppe, and @treatsbytay.

When you're not baking, you are...

When I'm not baking I'm at school.  Most of my free time is taken up by my business!

Where do you see yourself in 10 years? 

Hopefully I'll have my own bakery because not only do I love baking as a creative outlet, I also like the business aspect of it.

Nicole would rather not reveal her *top secret* recipe (and I don't blame her!), but she did give us a step-by-step tutorial on how she created this fabulous Reese's Chocolate Cake...

To make the Reese's cake, I baked three 6" round layers of chocolate cake.  I then made a peanut butter buttercream and frosted the whole cake.  Before adding the ganache drips, I chilled the cakes in the fridge.  While it was in the fridge, I heated some heavy cream on the stove, turned off the heat, then added some bittersweet chocolate chips.  I then added the ganache drips to the cake and put in back in the fridge to set.  Once the ganache was set, I added the top border with a Wilton 1M tip.  I also added some chopped up Reese's cups around the border, and put some halved Reese's cups in between each swirl.

Thank you Nicole, you're an inspiration to us all!
And let me know when you start shipping across country :)

*All photos shot by Nicole's friend @photogenikate

TODAY tonight: Crunchy Mustard Chicken Bake


It's been a long time since I've done a TODAY: tonight post on my blog.  Heck, it's been a long time since I've blogged!  Is blogging still a thing?  Do people do it?  Am I even a person?  Is existence real?  What are these deranged words I'm writing?  Clearly I'm out of practice.  Let's stick to food.

My "TODAY: tonight" series is made up of the recipes Carson can't stop talking about when he comes home from work.  Even though I haven't been documenting all of them, I've actually made quite a few lately, but this one... this one deserved a post!  There is so much going on in this recipe, I'm not sure what I should discuss first.  Should I start with the flavorful, mustard-based marinade that soaks through the chicken thighs for hours, or should I talk about the bed of roasted vegetables that perfect each bite?  I MUST tell you about the method of draining the solids from the liquids in the marinade and using them both to create this rich, sublime glaze.  And, there's obviously the crunchy, homemade topping that I could write a song about, IF I was the type of person to write songs about food (I am).  My favorite part of the recipe, however?  How adaptable it is.

The first time I made it, I followed it to a T.  It was divine.  The second time?  I used what I had on hand.  It was also divine.  Here's what I did differently... 

I used boneless, skinless chicken thighs.  Totally doable.  I didn't have leeks or potatoes for my roasted veggies, so instead I used red onion, mushrooms, broccoli and cauliflower.  Yum.  I didn't have tarragon so I used fresh parsley... didn't matter.  It was so, so good.  You see, people??  Recipes are just blueprints.  Trust your instincts and your own creativity.  Trust what you have in your fridge and pantry... it rarely steers you wrong.  Mostly, trust your husband when he comes home from work and begs you to make what he just ate.  He knows things.  (Most of the time.)  

Recipe HERE.

Happen Bakers: Jordan Pavia


New year, new Happen Bakers time!  In case you're unfamiliar with this series, check out what I just linked, and you'll see the other young ladies I've featured so far, all of whom share a passion for baking and a desire to use their talents in a positive way.  It's been such a pleasure for me to get to know these girls via their emails, recipes and photos... and the latest Happen Baker is no exception.

Meet Jordan... an almost 24 year-old nursing student living in the DC area.  She grew up in New York and majored in Exercise Science and Nutrition at George Washington University.  Cooking and baking has always been a love of hers, but as soon as she had her own kitchen and space to create, that passion grew and inspired her to start this beautiful Instagram account (follow, follow!).  With a focus on plant-based foods, her dishes are fresh and vibrant, and she strives to make her healthy sweets as delicious as they can be (just wait until you see the recipe below).

What I love most about Jordan is her outlook on baking, and how that translates to a positive frame of mind.  She finds every dessert "worth celebrating" and loves how even the simplest treat can brighten someone's day.  If we all transferred that thought process to kind acts, what a world this would be!  The icing on the cake?  She's pursuing her dream as a Labor and Delivery nurse, and that fact almost makes me want to have another baby (but I'd have to give birth in DC so she could be there).  That profession is a pretty selfless one...and Jordan sure does fit the profile.

Keep reading below to learn more about her, and for her delicious Almond Joy Macaroon recipe!        

When did you start baking?

Ever since I was little, I remember my mom whipping up a batch of ooey, gooey chocolatey brownies for every event we celebrated - holidays, birthday parties, getting our braces off.  Even though they were derived from a box of brownie mix rather than from scratch, she added a special ingredient (marshmallows! plus lots of love, of course) that turned those squares of goodness from simple to scrumptious and memorable for any crowd.  It showed me early on that making something sweet and delicious did not have to be difficult, and I was inspired to make every dessert worth celebrating.  I began baking independently in high school for teachers and friends, then in college and nursing school while experimenting with recipes for my Instagram, @littleveggielady.

How did you learn?

While many of my friends were watching their favorite shows on the Disney Channel, I was tuning into the Food Network!  Since I was young, I have been fascinated by cooking shows and reading cooking blogs to more fully understand how things are made, what flavors work well together, how to make it all look pretty.  If you lose me in a book store, chances are you will find me in the cookbook section!  

What do you love most about it?

Most of my baking has been done while away from home in NY for friends in college or nursing school.  What I love most about baking is the idea that my kitchen is always there - no matter how unfortunate the day might have been, how stressed out I am feeling, or how much I need an activity to take my mind off of something.  And that no matter what went wrong that day or how uncertain I am about something, following the steps of a recipe - mixing flour with sugar and oil - will lead to something delicious.  Some of my best creations have been after my worst days!  

What's the most challenging thing you've attempted?

I have recently chosen to consume more plant-based dairy products in my diet, and a lot of my friends have gluten and lactose sensitivities.  This has inspired me to bake with different flours (almond, coconut, oat) and replacements for milk and eggs in order to make sure the special people in my life could try the recipes.  Taking this into account while also making sure everything I was baking was still delicious for all has been a challenge and something I am continuing to focus on in my kitchen.  

What's your dream dessert?

My favorite dessert has always been a big, fat chocolate chip cookie.  And if it turned into bookends for a creamy scoop of ice cream - even dreamier!  

Name 3 celebrities you'd love to bake with...

I would choose Giada de Laurentiis, Martha Stewart, and Kate Middleton (not sure if Kate bakes, but if she took care of the tea, I would bring the treats!).  

Most epic kitchen fail?

Boy, I have had many burnt cookies and cakes that have fallen flat in my short baking career.  This spring, I was making homemade whipped cream to pair with strawberries for the last hospital clinical day of nursing school.  I was using a Kitchenaid mixer for the first time ever (the most beautiful kitchen gadget, in my opinion), and I think I was so excited I got distracted...the next thing I know my whipped cream had whipped to butter!  Oops!

Any favorite songs you listen to in the kitchen?

Embarrassingly enough, I tend not to listen to music; instead, I talk to myself and pretend I am filming my own cooking show by narrating the steps of each recipe I am experimenting with.  However, I would probably choose songs from my favorite artists (Zac Brown Band, Taylor Swift) to make time spent in my "happy place" a little happier.  

Favorite food site or YouTube channel?

Most of the accounts I follow on social media are food bloggers or food content related, however my favorite is tuning into the Today Show each morning and watching my favorite cooks and bakers (like Siri!) before starting my day.  My dream is to be in that kitchen one day!  

When you're not baking, you are...

Teaching or practicing yoga (to balance out all my baking), exploring the evolving food scene in Washington DC, or living out my dream of delivering babies as a Labor and Delivery nurse.  

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

One of my resolutions for 2019 is to live in the moment and stay present, however I am naturally a dreamer and a planner in every aspect of my life.  If I could see myself in 10 years, I would picture a happy, healthy girl who has spent the decade learning, traveling, and surrounding myself with loving people and good food - the perfect recipe for the best kind of life!  

Almond Joy Macaroons by Jordan Pavia

1 1/2 cups almond or coconut flour
3 cups shredded, unsweetened coconut flakes
1/2 cup slivered, unsalted almonds
1/2 teaspoon salt (I like Himalayan pink salt)
3/4 cup maple syrup
4 egg whites (or 3/4 cup + 1 tbsp of liquid egg whites)
2 tablespoons melted coconut oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Chocolate Coating:
2/3 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1 tablespoon melted coconut oil

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Combine all macaroon ingredients in a bowl and mix well.  Using a small ice cream scooper (or your own two hands!), scoop batter and form balls to place onto a cookie sheet.  

Bake about 10-12 minutes or until edges are a crispy, golden brown.  Set aside to cool.

When macaroons are almost fully cooled, prepare the chocolate sauce: melt coconut oil first in the microwave, then place chocolate chips in same bowl.  Temper the chocolate (or melt in the microwave in 30 second increments) until smooth and creamy.  

Once completely cooled, dip bottom of macaroons in chocolate sauce and drizzle remaining sauce over the tops.  Let them set at room temperature for at least 10 minutes or place in the fridge to allow chocolate to harden.  Enjoy!  

Thank you, Jordan, for brightening our day!    

Spiced Chickpea Stew


You may or may not have heard of this recipe that practically broke the internet, most familiarly referred to as "The Stew," but if you haven't...well then LISTEN UP!  Ugh, Siri, you're so bossy.  But really, listen up.  This.  Stew.  Is.  MAGICAL.  I will try to explain why...

It's a warm, comforting dish that leaves you completely satisfied without feeling heavy.  The chickpeas are perfectly seasoned with a spicy kick (I cut the red pepper flakes in half, however, because I'm a wuss).  The fresh ginger is a must, as it brightens up the stew and adds flavor.  And the coconut milk...oh the coconut milk.  Apparently there's a controversy over how many cans to use: 1 or 2.  I followed the recipe and used 2 cans and I wouldn't change a thing.  It smooths out the soup and adds a lovely depth.  Finally, the kale thickens the soup and makes you feel super healthy!  I topped mine with crispy chickpeas and greek yogurt - which I highly recommend.     

Recipe HERE.

Alison Roman, the cookbook author, Bon Appetit contributor and NY Times columnist responsible for the recipe, also went viral with this recipe for her Salted Chocolate Chunk Shortbread Cookies.  Try those as well, you won't be sorry. 

Baked Polenta with Roasted Veggies


Is January over yet?  No, it's only halfway through, you say?  WHAT IS HAPPENING.  Christmas was 79 years ago.  How is it only January 17th.  I suppose it's a good thing that January lasts an eternity, because it takes me 79 years to get back into a decent routine.   I finally feel like I've recovered from the madness of the holidays and am capable of cooking, working out and returning emails.  Just in time for a 3-day weekend and blizzard... yeesh.  But, will it be a blizzard?  The weather people are like, we'll get somewhere between 0 and 9 feet of snow.  Enjoy.  I guess I should rush off to the market to buy 29 gallons of milk as people tend to do before "possible" snow storms.  

Or, I could stick to buying vegetables and polenta so I can make this delicious side dish again.! Carson and I loved the combination of sweet, roasted vegetables and buttery polenta, all topped with a bright, salty vinaigrette.  We served it alongside salmon, but you could also add beans for protein (this recipe does that, which I loosely based the dish on) and make it a Meatless Monday dinner.  I hope you enjoy it, and stay safe and warm this weekend with your gallons of milk.        

Baked Polenta with Roasted Veggies
Serves: 4-6

4 tbsp olive oil, divided
2 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp capers
1 small shallot, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
1 pre-packaged tube cooked polenta, sliced into 2-inch pieces
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 red bell pepper, cut into 2-inch chunks
1 yellow red bell pepper, cut into 2-inch chunks
1 zucchini, cut into 2-inch chunks
4 roma tomatoes, quartered

Mix 2 tablespoons oil, lemon juice, capers, shallots, garlic and salt and pepper in a small bowl.  Set aside.  Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  On a buttered baking dish, lay out polenta.  Slice the 2 tablespoons of butter and place a sliver on top of each piece of polenta.  On a baking sheet, arrange the vegetables.  Add the remaining two tablespoons of oil, season with salt and pepper, and toss to combine.  Place both vegetables and polenta into the oven, and cook for 20 minutes, flipping the polenta and tossing the vegetables halfway through baking process.  Once cooked, arrange polenta and veggies on a platter and drizzle with lemon caper vinaigrette.  

Chewy Ginger Molasses Cookies


There's something about the countdown to Christmas that makes me want to bake something every single day.  I literally have pounds of butter in my fridge and 12 different kinds of chocolate chips in my pantry to fuel this desire, but life keeps getting in the way which is super annoying.  If I could, I would cancel all plans and permanently affix holiday pajamas to my body and eat butter.  I mean, bake with butter, and then eat what I bake.  Alas, I have to be a mom and a wife and buy presents and work and attend parties and concerts and exercise so I can eat said amounts of copious butter.  

This is why I appreciate SIMPLE recipes!  These Chewy Ginger Molasses Cookies are very simple, and ridiculously delicious.  That's probably because the recipe comes from my friend and Pastry Chef, Chelsea Kravitz.  It's good to have friends who are Pastry Chefs, by the way.  She works at a local restaurant, Schout Bay, which is a 'must' on its own if you're on Long Island... and if you ever do go, her desserts are a MUST must.  Also, check out her website The Bakery Lady and again, if you're local, she makes the most divine baked goods to order.  That's right, I said 'divine' because I'm proper and what not.  If you're not a Long Islander, just drool along with her Instagram posts.  Aaaaaand, make these amazing cookies!  Recipe below...

The Bakery Lady's Chewy Ginger Molasses Cookies
Makes 2 1/2 dozen

2 cups flour
2 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, melted
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/3 cup molasses
1 large egg
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tbsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cardamom
1 tbsp fresh grated ginger
1 tsp salt
Raw sugar for rolling

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Whisk together flour and baking soda, set aside.  Mix melted butter, both sugars and molasses.  Add egg and beat 1-2 minutes.  Add spices, salt and fresh ginger.  Fold flour mixture into wet, just to combine.   

Place raw sugar in a shallow bowl.  Scoop tablespoon sized gobs of cookie dough and roll into balls.  If the dough is sticky, throw it in the fridge for a half hour.  Roll the balls in sugar and place on lined baking sheets 2" apart.  

Bake, rotating halfway through, for 7-10 minutes.  They should be puffed and a little cracked on top, slightly set around edges.  With the back of a ladle or spoon, press gently into the top of each baked cookie fresh out of the oven to encourage a chewy center.      

Pattie's Snowballs


Is there anything better than a handwritten recipe, all worn and smudged with buttery fingerprints?  When I posted my late mother-in-law's recipe on Instagram, so many of you wrote that the writing looked identical to one of your own loved ones.  Why is that?!  It seems there was something so universally elegant about the cursive back in the day... it just seemed to dance on the page.  I don't think I could replicate it if I tried!  Also, how do you write a cursive 'Z'?  I have no clue. 

During the holidays, I always look forward to pulling out these passed-down recipes because, after all, traditions are what makes everything so merry!  And I try to cling to the 'merry' as much as possible, because, you know... there's also the S T R E S S.  But for that, there are cookies!  Am I talking in circles?  You know what I'm saying.

These Snowballs were my mother-in-law's favorite.  She would make batch after batch and freeze them - enough to last long after the new year.  Baking these sugary, buttery treats reminds us that she's always with us...  

Speaking of moms, I had the opportunity to be a guest on the Mom Enough podcast recently, so please check it out here!  Marti, her daughter Erin and I chatted about picky eaters, healthy meals, holiday traditions and how all of us moms have to sneak away to eat a dessert from time to time.  It's a really fun show led by some brilliant women who keep it real.  My kind of people :)  

Pattie's Snowballs
Makes 2 dozen

1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temp (1 stick)
3 Tbsp powdered sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup finely chopped nuts (pecans or walnuts)

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.  Cream butter until light and fluffy.  Add sugar and blend well.  Add flour, then vanilla and fold in nuts.  (Mixture will be crumbly but will come together with your hands.)  Roll into small balls (about golf-ball sized) and place on greased baking sheet (I simply line mine with parchment paper).  Bake for 20-30 minutes (I do 20).  Roll in powdered sugar while warm, and then once more when they cool off.


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