Valentine’s Day Cookies — Reprise

vday cookies

First, a Hamilton update:

They’ve extended the run at the Public a third time (or is the fourth?) to May 3, and even before it’s opened, the show is the talk of the town.  Check out last Sunday’s NY Times article in the Arts and Leisure section.  If you still remember hard copy newspapers, this article was on the first page of the section and above the fold, which is a big deal in theater press agent land:

Above the fold

And since I’m on the topic, check out this New Yorker cartoon  (you know you’ve made it when the New Yorker mentions you in a cartoon!!):



But now for the cookies:  I blogged this recipe back in February of 2013, and I’ve been making these treats for years, ever since James shared the recipe with me.  James tells me he too is making a batch of these for Valentine’s Day this year, so I figured I might as well re-blog it for the holiday.  (James, I must mention, has these nifty little cookie presses that put the words in his cookies.  No idea where he got them from (Sur la Table?  Broadway Panhandler?) and I have never seen them anywhere, but I love them!)

With a recipe this simple, using the best quality ingredients you can find/afford really makes a difference.  For example, I like to use Kerrygold Irish Butter, 100% pure vanilla extract, Ghirardelli baking cocoa, and Nestle’s chips.  But don’t let this list deter you from making these cookies — it’s always better to choose to bake no matter what ingredients you have on hand!  (And, full disclosure, I never have all those ingredients on hand anyway.  Someday, though, I will.  And the cookie presses!)

Valentine’s Day Cookies


1 1/4 cup butter softened
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup unsweetened baking cocoa
1 cup vanilla chips
2 Tablespoons shortening
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips


1.            Cream butter and sugar, beat in vanilla.  Combine flour and cocoa in a separate bowl and gradually add to creamed mixture.

2.            On lightly floured surface roll out dough to 1/4 inch thickness. Cut with heart cookie cutter. Place on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 375 for 8-10 minutes.

3.            For icing, melt vanilla chips and 1 tablespoon of shortening.  (I do this in the microwave in short, 10 second bursts, stirring between each zap.)  Dip both end of cookies into melted mixture. Heat chocolate chips and remaining shortening and drizzle over dipped cookies.  (I find the best way to drizzle is to scrape the slightly cooled, melted chocolate into a zip top bag, seal it, snip off a tiny corner and squeeze.)

Salted Caramel Brownies

Okay, before we get down to the recipe promised above, let’s talk HAMILTON!   (For those of you just joining the blog, that is the name of James’ current show, playing at the Public Theater.)    Now, I don’t think it’s appropriate to share theater reviews on a baking blog, (mostly just because Hamilton has not  officially opened,) so this is not me doing that.  But just allow me to say that this was just about the most life-changing show I’ve ever seen.  (And I’m more cynical than Ben Brantley, John Simon and Michael Riedel all rolled into one.  For those of you unfamiliar with Michael Riedel, check out his latest column here.  MeOW!)

And, oh, while I’m at it, check out the Wall Street Journal on Hamilton here and this New Yorker article here. Read ’em and weep, friends, because the whole run is sold out.  But maybe Michael Riedel is right and you’ll be able to catch the show on Broadway soon!

But enough not reviewing Hamilton — there’s a Salted Caramel Brownie recipe to share.

James managed to send me the following in the midst of tech rehearsals, so I’ll just share his story in its entirety:

“My friend Harriet Weil, a production manager, who I first met working at the Shakespeare Theatre in DC, always finds time to send brownies to my tech rehearsals when she knows I am too busy to bake. This year, she sent up two kinds:  Salted Caramel Brownies and Cream Cheese Brownies. There was a line of cast and crew at my tech table on our break. They were all gone so fast that I could not even get  one photo!  I decided to try Harriet’s recipe the next week for our first Wine and Unwind, and the results were wonderful. Here is the recipe and a photo of my attempt at the Salted Caramel Brownies”:

The recipe called for a brownie mix. Below is a variation of my fudgy brownie recipe, but any brownie recipe should work.


1½ cups (3 sticks) butter
12 oz. unsweetened chocolate
3¾ cups sugar
6 large eggs
1½ cups all-purpose flour
20 caramels, unwrapped
2 tablespoons milk
Sea Salt — flaky type, like Maldon, is most desirable
Caramel filled chocolate candies, like Dove. (Optional. I added this to the recipe.)


1.  Preheat oven to 350°.  Grease a 9″ x 13″ pan using oil or non-stick spray

2.  Melt butter and chocolate in a saucepan over low heat.  Remove from heat and whisk in sugar.  Add eggs one at a time, blending well after each addition.  Stir in flour until it is is just blended.  (Note, if you use a brownie mix, just make the mix according to the package directions and ignore this step.)

3.  Spread half the batter into prepared oiled pan.  Add caramel filled chocolate candies on top of batter. Use as many or as few as you desire.   Spread remaining half of the batter on top of the candies.

4.  Caramel sauce:  Place 20 unwrapped caramels and milk in a microsafe bowl and heat on high for 1 minute.  If the caramels are still stiff,  heat for an additional 20-30 seconds until the mixture is smooth and creamy.  Spread caramel sauce over brownie batter and swirl using a butter knife.

5.  You may add a little sea salt on top before baking. Bake about 30-35 minutes, until a toothpick plunged into the center comes out clean.   Sprinkle sea salt on top as soon as they come out of the oven for an additional salty/sweet taste.

6.  Cool completely before attempting to cut into squares.

Chocolate Stout Peanut Butter Cups

Chocolate Stout PB cups

Just in time for Super Bowl Sunday — Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups with Stout!! This is one of those three-ingredient wonders — you know, those curious little recipes that crop up on Facebook from time to time and sound way too easy to work.

I made this test batch because I wanted try them out before I bring them to Hamilton  for Sunday’s Wine and Unwind.   If I do say so myself, they are pretty freaking good.  (My 13 year year old thinks they need more textural refuge, though, and suggests I use crunchy peanut butter next time.  It’s a fair critique.  I’ll try that and let you what the cast thinks.)

Oh, and one other little backstage-related detail — the peanut butter I used was “The Bees Knees” from Peanut Butter & Co.  The partner of one of the producers of Kinky Boots owns the company, and sometimes he sends a case or two to the theater for everyone to enjoy.  So I did.

Peanut Butter

Chocolate Stout Peanut Butter Cups


3 cups of dark chocolate chips (60% cocoa content)
1 cup creamy peanut butter
1/3 cup stout or porter (espresso or smoked flavor would be divine!)


1.  Line mini-muffin tins with mini-muffin paper cups.  (should need about 24)

2.  Place chocolate chips in a glass bowl and microwave on high for 30 seconds at a time, stirring each time until melted.

3.  Spoon melted chocolate into muffin cups (about 2/3rds full).  Don’t use all the chocolate, as you will need a little bit to smooth off the tops after you’ve piped in your peanut butter.

4.  In a small bowl, beat peanut butter and stout until well combined.  Scrape peanut butter into a Ziploc bag, and cut off one corner to use as a make-shift pastry bag.  Insert cut-off corner into chocolate and squeeze out a good sized dollop.

5.  Top each cup with a small amount of the remaining chocolate to cover the peanut butter and create a smooth top.

6.  Chill until set, about 10 minutes.

I will confess that I used a couple of specialized tools to make this easier and the candies sleeker — a mini-cookie dough scoop really helps get the melted chocolate into the cups cleanly, and a pastry bag makes the peanut butter look very professional.  But really, a spoon and a Ziploc work just fine.  And how can you go wrong with these three ingredients?

Peanut Butter/Nutella Brownies

The Cast and Crew of Hamilton
The cast and crew of Hamilton (photo by Joan Marcus)


Hamilton had its first preview on January 20, and the packed house went wild!  (The Public has a “First Performance Free for All” where the first row of every new show this season is given out by lottery.   Over 9,000 people signed up online to try to get those tickets!)  They’ve already extended the run at the Public through April 5, but I hear that even that new block of tickets is mostly sold out.  But still, give it a try here.

So the following degenerate recipe was featured at last week’s Wine and Unwind.  (I call them degenerate because I needed to find a synonym for decadent, which is highly overused in this blog.  A brownie batter featuring peanut butter AND Nutella?  If that’s not degenerate, I don’t know what is!)

Peanut Butter/Nutella Brownies


1 cup butter (2 sticks), melted
2 cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
4 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup cocoa
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup Nutella
1/2 cup peanut butter


Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. and grease a 9″ x 13″ glass pan

1.  In a medium bowl combine all-purpose flour, cocoa (sift this in to get rid of lumps), baking powder and salt. Set aside.

2.  Over low heat, melt butter and stir in sugar until well combined.  Remove from heat and and vanilla extract.

3.  To the butter-sugar mixture add eggs, one at a time. With a wooden spoon vigorously mix in each egg until well combined.  Then whisk in the cocoa mixture until fully combined.

4.  In a microwave-safe bowl, add Nutella and peanut butter. Heat in the microwave in 20 second intervals until it just reaches a runny consistency.  (Be careful!  This mixture is so high in fat that it can scorch easily)   Stir into the batter.

5.  Pour the batter into your prepared 9 x 13 pan.  Bake for 30 minutes in a 350 degree oven.

Let brownies cool completely before cutting.  Makes approximately 20 brownies.

Chris Jackson (who plays George Washington) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (who plays Alexander Hamilton)


Nina Jacobs from wardrobe enjoying a Sunday treat

Nina Jacobs from wardrobe enjoying a Sunday treat


Thayne Jasperson, a member of the ensemble

 Thayne Jasperson, a member of the ensemble

Better than Crack Oatmeal Cookies


It’s tech time for Hamilton, and James miraculously has found time to bake!

What exactly does tech time entail?  I’ve often mentioned it before, but I realize I’ve never really explained it thoroughly.  So, here goes:

During the two-week period consisting of the workweek preceding and the workweek including the first paid public performance, rehearsal may include no more than a total of 5 days of not more than 10 out of 11 1⁄2 hours; any other rehearsal days in this period shall be no longer than 7 out of 8 1⁄2 hours except that rehearsal on any performance day may not exceed 4 hours. [Actors’ Equity Association Rulebook, Off-Broadway, 54 (c) (5)]

In plain English, it means that James and the entire cast and crew of the show are spending at least 12 (and for many, probably more like 15) hours per day at the theater.  As the production stage manager, James is the one keeping everyone — actors, directors, designers, crew, musicians – on track and focused at the task at hand.  (The task being, of course, to marry all the different aspects of the production into a finished product.)

Here’s a photo of James’ calling script — twelve more songs to tech and he’s already on light cue 1002!  For those of you who aren’t stage managers, that is A LOT!

Lts 1002

So, it puts his ability to bake 5 dozen cookies during this time into sharp perspective, don’t you think?

There’s always time to bake . . .

Better than Crack Oatmeal Cookies


2 sticks margarine
2 sticks butter
2 cups brown sugar
2 cups white sugar
4 eggs
4 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
2 tsp baking soda
1 T vanilla
4 cups Rice Krispies
4 cups oatmeal
1- 12 oz pkgs chocolate chips
12 oz of flaked coconut
2 cups dried cranberries


Preheat oven to 350*F.

1.  Cream the margarine, butter and sugars well.  Then add eggs and vanilla.  Mix thoroughly.  (I use a standing mixer for this.)
2.  In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and baking soda.  Add to wet ingredients.  Mix just until combined.
3.  Using a spatula or a wooden spoon, mix in Rice Krispies, oatmeal, chocolate chips, coconut and cranberries .
4.  Drop by tablespoonful on parchment-lined pans and bake in a 350 degree oven for 10 – 15 minutes (I usually only bake them 11 minutes.)

NOTE FROM JAMES:  This makes a huge batch. I usually cut it in half and still get 5 dozen!!! I originally got the recipe from my mom and did some modifications.


Almond Happiness Brownies

The BB has taken a bit of a hiatus lately, what with the holidays and rehearsals for his new show, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton at the Public Theatre.  (I’d say get your tickets now, but I understand it’s already sold out!  And it doesn’t open until January 20!)  Of course, this doesn’t mean James hasn’t been baking (and cooking), it just means he hasn’t been taking pictures of everything.

But that stops now with a very decadent recipe that does NOT fit into my New Years’ diet.  Maybe it fits into yours.   (Aw heck, who am I kidding?  I’ll be making these ASAP!)

Lin-Manuel MirandaLin-Manuel Miranda, the composer-lyricist and lead pouring Coquito for the Hamilton cast at Sunday’s Wine and Unwind.



*For the brownie layer:
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup boiling water
2 cups white sugar
2 eggs
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt

*If you’re rushed for time, you can also just use 1 box of family size Chocolate Fudge brownie mix.  No one’s judging you!

For filling:
1 (14 oz.) can sweetened condensed milk
1 (14 oz.) bag coconut
1/4 C milk

For topping:
1 C chocolate chips, melted
1/4 C almonds (or other nuts), crushed


1.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line (regular size, not mini) cupcake pan with paper liners. (Don’t skip the paper liners as these will stick).

2.  Make brownies: In a large bowl, stir together the cocoa and baking soda. Add 1/3 cup vegetable oil and boiling water. Mix until well blended and thickened. Stir in the sugar, eggs, and remaining 1/3 cup oil. Finally, add the flour, vanilla and salt; mix just until all of the flour is absorbed. Pour batter only half way up the liners.

3.  Bake in preheated oven for 12 minutes. While they are baking, mix the coconut, sweetened condensed milk and milk together.

4.  Remove brownies from oven and spoon on some sweetened coconut.  Place back in oven and continue to bake an additional 14-16 minutes.

5.  Remove from oven and allow to cool completely before removing them from the pan. Drizzle on the chocolate then sprinkle on the almonds.


Carleigh Bettiol and Sasha HutchingsCarleigh Bettiol and Sasha Hutchings enjoying some wine and goodies. Notice the prop table!

Jasmine Cephas JonesJasmine Cephas Jones and a nice shot of the Almond Happiness Brownies

No-bake Peanut Butter Bars

PB bars

I just got back from a delightful 24 hours in Red Bank, New Jersey, where James is stage managing Moliere’s “School For Wives” at the Two River Theater.

Two River

The show runs through October 5 and I highly recommend getting out there if you can —  Robert Stanton is wonderful as always (I worked with him on my very first Equity show, A.R. Gurney’s “A Cheever Evening” back at the old Playwright’s Horizon theater.  He is one funny, funny man and a very fine actor!)   The rest of the cast is terrific too, director Mark Wing-Davy is inventive and irreverent as always, and the production values at this theater are truly first-rate.  (Plus, the theater is within walking distance of the train and Jon Bon Jovi’s community restaurant Soul Kitchen.)

Not to arrive empty-handed (yes, I always bring treats to every show I see) I brought a batch of these No-Bake Peanut Butter bars, having found the recipe on Facebook.  (No idea other than that who came up with this.)  These are so delicious and more-ish that I just had to get them out of the house.  The cast and crew seemed to agree, since they were all gone by the end of the show.

CArson Elrod
Carson Elrod, who plays Alain,  enjoying a pre-show sugar fix.

No-bake Peanut Butter Bars


1 cup salted butter (melted)
2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 cup peanut butter — natural, non-sweetened kind is best
1/2 tsp.vanilla extract
1 (12 oz) bag milk chocolate chips


1. Combine all ingredients, except chocolate chips, in a medium-sized bowl. Stir until the mixture is smooth and creamy.
2. Pour peanut butter mixture into a 9 x 13 pan.
3. Melt chocolate chips in the microwave for 1-2 minutes in 30 second increments until almost melted. Stir chocolate and pour over the peanut butter mixture. Spread chocolate with a spatula. To even out chocolate, tap pan on the counter.
4. Refrigerate bars for one hour. Cut while bars are still cool. Enjoy


Julia Kulaya Wardrobe
Julia Kulaya, Wardrobe

Rustic French Peach Tart

Peach TartRustic French Peach Tart

You just can’t keep a baker from baking . . .  James bought some delectably ripe peaches at the Farmer’s Market in Red Bank and began dreaming of peach tart.  


However, the kitchen at the theatre housing is not equipped for a serious baker (thought they did buy a set of measuring cups and spoons just for James!) so he decided to do a rustic-style tart that would not need a tart pan.

Now stage managers are nothing if not resourceful.  James has a go-to Pate Brisee recipe that he usually makes in seconds in the food processor.   But with no food processor in sight, he started thinking like a pioneer baker.  (You know, the kind of pioneer baker that made pate brisee in his log cabin on the frontier!)

First, he cut up the butter into 1/4″ cubes and froze it overnight.

Frozen butter

No pastry cutter?  No problem!  James just used his trusty Bowie knife — uh, butcher knife —  to cut the butter into the flour mixture on the cutting board.

Then it came time to roll out the pastry.  No rolling pin, of course, but a wine bottle worked nicely.

Wine bottle rolling

James reports that the crust was one of the flakiest, most delicious he’s ever made and the dessert was a hit.

Phillippa Soo

Here is actress Phillipa Soo trying the Rustic French Peach Tart. She is playing Agnes in the production of  THE SCHOOL FOR WIVES.

Rustic French Peach Tart

Pate Brisee (aka the crust)


1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for rolling
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
8 Tbsp (1 stick) unsalted butter, very-cold, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
3 to 4 Tbsp ice water, very cold


1.  Place the flour, salt, and sugar into a food processor and pulse until well combined. Add half of the butter cubes and pulse 6 to 8 times. Then add the other half of the butter cubes and pulse 6 to 8 more times. You should have a mixture that resembles a coarse meal, with many butter pieces the size of peas.

2.  Add a couple tablespoons of ice cold water (leave the ice in the glass!) to the food processor bowl and pulse a couple of times. Then add more ice water, slowly, about a tablespoon at a time, pulsing after each addition, until the mixture just barely begins to clump together. If you pinch some of the crumbly dough and it holds together, it’s ready, if not, add a little more water and pulse again. Try to keep the water to a minimum. Too much water will make your crust tough.

(If you are in a frontier log cabin with no access to electricity or a food processor, place ingredients on a cutting board and literally cut them together.  Sprinkle in the ice water as needed to make the ingredients into a dough.)

3.  Remove the mixture from the food processor and place on a very clean, smooth surface. If you want an extra flaky crust, you can press the heel of your palm into the crumbly mixture, pressing down and shmooshing the mixture into the table top. This is a French technique called “fraisage.” Do this a few times, maybe 4 to 6 times, and it will help your crust be extra flaky. Then, use your hands to press the crumbly dough together and shape into a disc. Work the dough only enough just to bring the dough together. Do not over-knead or your crust will end up tough. You should be able to see little bits of butter speckling the dough. When these bits of butter melt as the crust cooks, the butter will help separate the dough into flaky layers. So, visible pieces of butter are a good thing, what you are aiming for, in the dough. Sprinkle the disc with a little flour on all sides. Wrap the disc in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 1 hour. (At this point you can freeze the dough disk for several months until ready to use. Defrost overnight in the refrigerator before proceeding.)

4.  When you are ready to roll out the dough, remove the disk from the refrigerator and place on a clean, smooth, lightly floured surface. Let it sit for 5 to 10 minutes to take just enough of a chill off of it so that it becomes easier to roll out. Sprinkle some flour on top of the disk. Using a rolling pin, roll out the dough to a 12-14 inch circle, to a thickness of about 1/8 of an inch thick. As you roll out the dough, check if the dough is sticking to the surface below. Add a few sprinkles of flour if necessary to keep the dough from sticking. Place on a cookie sheet or jelly roll pan.

The Rustic French Peach Tart


4-5 ripe peaches, washed, pit removed
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 Tablespoons sugar
1 Tablespoon flour
1/4 teaspoon Herbs de Provence
1/4 cup almond meal
1 egg
2 teaspoons water
sugar for sprinkling
2 Tablespoons peach jam, warmed


1.  Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

2.  Slice peaches in half, then cut each half into π inch slices. Place peaches in a medium bowl and drizzle with lemon juice.

3.  Add sugar, flour and Herbs de Provence to the peaches. Toss to combine. James leaves the skin on the peaches for the final look of the tart.

4.  Sprinkle almond meal over the rolled out dough. This will absorb the juice of the peaches and also give it a wonderful flavor.

5.  Place peaches in a single layer over dough, leaving a 1 1/2 inch border around the edge.

6.  Fold the edge of the dough to cover the outermost peaches.

7.  Combine egg and water and whisk with a fork. Brush crust with egg mixture and sprinkle with sugar. Bake tart in the lowest part of the oven for 50 minutes or until crust is crisp and browned. Let tart cool slightly.

8.  Brush peaches with peach jam. Dust edges with powdered sugar.



Basil-Nectarine Recipes!

Two recipes here:  Basil-Nectarine Lemonade and Easy Basil-Nectarine Cake.

Sometimes, in the hottest summers months, our Backstage Baker takes a break from baking (hence our summer hiatus from posting recipes.)  Also, James has been working out of town this summer on short but intense projects, with little time off.  Right now, he’s out in Red Bank, New Jersey at the Two River Theater, working on a production of Moliere’s “School for Wives” directed by Mark Wing-Davy.  (Check out the link here for more information.)

James has done several shows with Mark Wing-Davy:  The SkrikerTroilus and Cressida and now School for Wives.  During Troilus, A Shakespeare in the Park production one hot summer many years ago, the Tony award-winning actor Stephen Spinella was in the cast and shared the recipe for Basil Nectarine Lemonade. That drink became a summer favorite and inspired our Backstage Baker to grow basil on his balcony ever since.   It also served as the inspiration for the Basil-Nectarine Cake below.

Basil Lemonade

1 cup fresh basil
2 cups water
3/4 cup sugar
1 nectarine, sliced

Combine in sauce pan and simmer for 5 minutes, remove from heat and let stand for 1 hour. Strain.

1 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 1/2 cup water

Add to strained basil mixture, stir and chill.

From there, you can see how James cobbled together the recipe below — even in a limited kitchen, you can’t stop a baker from baking.  After a trip to the local farmer’s market, James was inspired to make the following cake for his lucky cast:

Easy Nectarine Basil Cake


3 eggs
1 3/4 cups sugar ( and more for sprinkling)
2 Tablespoons finely chopped basil leaves
1/2 cup butter melted (I may get daring and substitute olive oil next time)
6 medium nectarines cubed. I left the skin of for color
2 cups all-purpose flour or gluten-free flour mix (Bob’s Red Mill is a good one)
2 teaspoons baking soda


1.  Preheat oven to 350°. In a large bowl, mix the eggs, sugar, basil and melted butter. Add the cubed nectarines to mixture in bowl (coating as you go to keep them from turning brown.)

2. Mix together the baking soda and flour and add to the ingredients in the bowl. Mix well (best with a fork) until all of the flour is absorbed by the wet ingredients.

3. Pour mixture into one greased 9×13 pan or two 9″ round pans. Bake for approximately 55 minutes. At about 20 minutes into the baking, sprinkle additional sugar on the top for a crispier topping.

Easy Nectarine Basil Cake

Happy (belated) 4th!

IMG_1709The Backstage Baker outdid himself this year, with an absolutely stupendous creation.  Please to enjoy! (Directions and the recipe to follow shortly.)