If these Soft Sugar Cookie bars are around, which usually only lasts a total of 30 minutes, I do not have one, tiny, little iota of willpower. I can only stop eating them if I start to feel ill or completely physically remove myself from the premises. Since they were adapted from one on my all-time favorite cookbook authors, Sally McKenney, I thought I’d share my criteria of what I look for in a great cookbook:
- I don’t have to dip into the kids college fund to make a recipe. I’m all about trying out a new ingredient here and there, but my weekly grocery bill is absurd enough. I don’t want to have to buy a bunch of speciality items to try out one dish. Side note, I also live in a smallish town in Indiana. I don’t ride my hip cargo bike down a Brooklyn street to the local food co-op. It must be actually feasible to acquire the ingredients needed. So, I am game for putting meat, fresh veggies, and maybe a token speciality item on the grocery list, but more than that…I’m out.
- I need to sincerely like, trust, and respect the author. With so many recipes online now, it takes a lot for me to actually purchase a cookbook anymore. I only buy ones I can see myself regularly combing through when I need to come up with a recipe for weeknight dinners, special desserts, or entertaining. Thumbing through cookbooks can save you so much time and money too because you don’t accidentally click over to Zulily to see what bargains you can’t live without.
- They must be actually used and coveted. I live in tight quarters and if I haven’t opened a certain cookbook in years, it gets donated. So my cookbooks need to really bring their “A” game or they will be voted off the island.
With those being my criteria, the top five I-can’t-live-without cookbooks I pull from regularly are…
Sally’s Baking Addiction: Irresistible Cookies, Cupcakes, and Desserts for Your Sweet Tooth – Every time Sally posts something on her blog, or I look through her cookbook recipes, I feel as if we are kindred spirits. She and I are wired the same way when it comes to desserts. They have to be slightly over-the-top ridiculous, have a tinge of childhood nostalgia, and you may even want to giggle out loud while you are eating it. My Gigantic Little Debbie’s Oatmeal Cream Pie Cake, as well as these yummy Soft Sugar Cookie Bars, were inspired by her, but literally any recipe you pick by Sally will not disappoint.
America’s Test Kitchen: The How Can it Be Gluten Free cookbook – I love this book because it has taught me so much about baking and cooking gluten free. Going gluten free can be a huge upheaval in everything you’ve ever learned and are familiar with, when it comes to baking and cooking. America’s Test Kitchen has done a ton of leg work figuring out how gluten free recipes turn out best, so you can use their tips on the great recipes they’ve published or turning any of your beloved recipes gluten free. This cookbook also introduced me to a lot ethnic foods that are naturally gluten free and amazing, like socca flatbread. My favorite recipes in the book are for the fresh pasta and pizza crust. They aren’t just gluten free and edible versions of pizza and pasta, but just as good as the homemade versions my Italian mother raised me on.
The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes from an Accidental Country Girl– I never really turned to blogs for recipes before Pioneer Woman, and Ree Drummond’s was the first I started following years ago. The amazing thing about her food is EVERYTHING IS TO DIE FOR. I do have to throw a little disclaimer in here, though. I do not cook from her books or blog recipes on a daily basis. Sadly, I don’t work as a ranch hand, so it would be nearly impossible for me to burn as many calories to not gain 50 pounds cooking her food everyday. I do turn to her cookbooks anytime I’m contributing to a party, celebrating something, or hosting my own get togethers. On those occasions, I fully lean into being eating and drinking with great abandon and don’t give it a second thought. My cheesy loaded potatoes hasselback recipe was inspired by Pioneer Woman, and you can pretty much guarantee any of her recipes require copious amounts of cheese and butter.
The Skinnytaste Cookbook: Light on Calories, Big on Taste – On the flip side there is Gina Homolka. Her book is something I do use to come up with weeknight dinners. I’m generally not a fan of food that has been robbed of all it’s calories, taste, and good stuff, but Gina does it right. Her recipes are lighter, easy to make, and they still taste amazing. If you do follow a speciality diet, like gluten free, no dairy, or Weight Watchers, she makes it so easy for you because all those modifications and information are in every recipe. Even though her food is light, it is extremely flavorful, and if you are still in doubt, you can always slap on more cheese.
Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics: Fabulous Flavor From Simple Ingredients – Oh Ina. How I want to be you…in another life…without kids. I would go to the farmers market everyday with my gay interior designer BFF (who’s also in the process of freshening up my Hampton’s farmhouse), and come home to whip up a feast with $40 olive oil we can spontaneously enjoy al fresco on the beach. Or, I can just live vicariously through you, keep all my precious kids, and cook your phenomenal food. Her recipes are simple, seasoned perfectly, not fussy at all, and anyone call pull them off. I promise. You pretty much can’t go wrong with any of her cookbooks, so pick blindly. My Fresh Strawberry Coeur a la Creme recipe was inspired by her, and it is a great example of how impressive, yet simple her recipes are.
- 1/2 cup butter, softened
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1 egg + 1 egg yolk, room temperature
- 2 tsp. vanilla extract
- 1 1/2 cups flour or gluten free all-purpose flour (I always use Cup 4 Cup gluten free flour)
- 1/4 tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. baking powder
- 1/2 tsp. baking soda
- 1 1/2 tsp. cornstarch
- 1/2 cup rainbow sprinkles - not nonpareils little ball kind because the color will bleed into the dough
- 3/4 cup butter, softened
- 2 1/4 cup powdered sugar
- 3 tbsp. heavy cream
- 1 tsp. vanilla extract
- pinch of salt
- food coloring, optional
- extra sprinkles for decorating top
Preheat oven to 350ºF. Spray a 8 X 8 baking pan with cooking spray and set aside.
Using the paddle attachment on a stand mixer, or in a large bowl using a hand-held mixer, cream the butter for about 1 minute on medium speed. Add the sugar and beat until pale, light, and fluffy, about 3 minutes longer. Beat in egg, yolk, and vanilla until mixed throughly.
In a separate bowl whisk together flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, and cornstarch. Gradually add the flour mixture to the butter / sugar mixture with speed on low until just combined. The dough will be very thick. Gently stir in sprinkles.
Press into the prepared baking pan and bake for 25 minutes (about 5 minutes longer if using gluten free flour) until bars are just cooked through and lightly browned on top. Be careful to not overcook so they will be soft. Allow the bars to cool completely on wire rack before frosting. They will sink slightly in the middle as they cool.
This makes a very thick layer of frosting (which I have no problem with!), but if you'd prefer a thinner layer, half the recipe. In a mixer beat the butter until light and creamy. Add the powder sugar, heavy cream, vanilla, and pinch of salt gradually on low speed until mixed in. Increase mixer to high and beat until very light and fluffy, about 7-8 minutes. Beat in food coloring, if using.
Gluten Free Adaption: I couldn't have been happier how great these turned out with the Cup 4 Cup gluten free flour, but you can sub in whatever gluten free flour is your favorite.