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Velvet Banana Bread – my blue ribbon winner!


It all started in 2009 when I entered the foods competitions at the Kansas State Fair for the first time, and met a wonderful & talented woman named Colleen Woker.  We met while watching the pie judging and I asked her if she’d won any ribbons in the other competitions. She listed off approximately 241 things she’d placed in, including getting “Best in Show” for her banana bread, which as far as I understand means that her banana bread was so good, that the judges deemed it better than anything else submitted for judging in the foods competitions. I mean, it beat cakes!  CAKES! I was so impressed by her and in that moment, knew that some day I had to get myself a blue ribbon in the banana bread competition.  Little did I know it would become nearly an obsession.

In my quest to win a blue ribbon, I’ve made over fifty different banana bread recipes, and no matter how hard I tried to find the best, most perfect banana bread, the highest I ever placed was 3rd.  I really thought I was doomed to never get my blue ribbon, or even a red one.  This year I had no idea what recipe I was going to make until the day before the competition.  In fact, I had even forgotten to buy bananas in advance to let them get super duper ripe, and all I had was bananas that were still green at the stems.  Not acceptable!

I posted a last minute plea on Facebook for rotten bananas and was given some by two wonderful women (thank you Lacey & Lisa!), enough to make a practice loaf or two if I could find the time.  I decided to take my best good friend, Jackie‘s, advice and replace the pumpkin in my most favoritest pumpkin bread recipe with bananas, which she has been doing for a year.  That recipe has 1/2 cup of water in it, which I’d never ever seen in all the banana bread recipes I’ve read in my search for the perfect one, and I was so scared to try it.  I asked her probably five times, “Do you really put the water in it when you make it? REALLY?” She assured me she did, and that it wasn’t wet or gummy, but really similar in texture to the pumpkin bread.  That sold me, because that soft texture is the ultimate for me in a quick bread.

Despite my deep fears of including the water, and the temptation to replace it with something more exciting like milk or pineapple juice, I gave her idea a go, adding a touch of cardamom, and was absolutely floored by the result.  I had never in my life had such tender, soft banana bread.  And so delicious, sweet & perfectly banana-y with a the perfect balance of spices to set it off.  Unfortunately, it was one of the uglier loaves I’d ever made, and since 25% of the judging score was based on appearance, I lost all hope right there.  Because I knew it was too good not to submit, but also knew it was too ugly to win a blue ribbon. I just hoped it was good enough to win a red.

So many things went wrong in making the official loaf and my spirits sunk deeper and deeper with each obstacle. I kept questioning why I was even bothering.  This wasn’t the regular little banana bread competition, this one was sponsored by King Arthur Flour and the first place prize was a $150 gift card to their catalog, which is much bigger than the usual $9 prize.  This was a big deal, and more people would be entering than usual.  I didn’t have a chance! I was exhausted, would have loved to sleep in the next morning, didn’t want to waste the gas or the effort when I knew it was hopeless, but I’d been in the paper about the being the Banana Bread Queen Wannabe, and everyone on Facebook knew about it.  I had to go.

When I arrived to submit my bread, I noticed that everyone around me had loaves that were the same dark shiny brown, which I found unattractive.  That made me feel a little better, until I looked to see if any of my other three baked goods I’d already turned in had placed, and they hadn’t.  I knew it was going to be my very first no-ribbon year, and I went home defeated, knowing my quest might never end.

But when we returned to the fair as a family two days later, there it was. My ugly brown banana bread sitting front and center.  Next to a blue ribbon.

I squealed. I hopped around.  I squealed and hopped some more.  I think there was a lot of, “I can’t believe it!!”  I gushed my entire banana bread story to the poor couple standing nearby when my freak out started.  They were so happy for me, but everyone else looked pretty perturbed & disturbed by my antics.  I stopped myself several times from running up to random people to tell them I won.  Joshua was grinning and giggling, clearly trying to figure out what had Mom so excited.  I took his hands and we did a little celebration dance together.  When Dennis approached us (he’d been in the bathroom), I wanted to let him discover it on his own but I just couldn’t contain myself and as soon as I saw him I beamed and jumped up and down and waved him over, pointing wildly at the display case where my winning bread resided. He knew instantly of course what that meant, and he hopped up and down with me a little in celebration.  Joshua was so happy to see all the happiness and I was so happy, and Dennis was so happy, I thought all our heads might explode.

It took six years and countless loaves of banana bread, but I did it. The blue ribbon is MINE! Thanks be to God, to Jackie, Lisa, Lacey, and to Colleen for not entering the banana bread competition this year and giving me a chance.  And to everyone who has rooted for me all these years, thank you!!  My quest is complete and I couldn’t be happier to have found my very favorite recipe for banana bread and gotten the blue for it so that I never have to try another recipe again.  I’m so DONE with new banana bread recipes.  This one is definitely my new favorite, and I truly may never make another recipe again.

Velvet Banana Bread

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1 cup (8 oz) mashed overripe banana
1 1/2 cups (10 1/2 oz) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (4 1/8 oz) vegetable oil
1/2 cup (4 oz) water
2 large eggs
1 3/4 cups (7 1/2 oz) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon cardamom

Preheat oven to 350F. In a large mixing bowl, combine banana, sugar, vegetable oil, water, and eggs. Whisk until well mixed. Measure the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, salt, baking powder, nutmeg, and cloves into a separate bowl and stir until combined. Slowly add the dry ingredients to the banana mixture, beating until smooth. Mixture will be very very thin and it’s OK to mix until no flour streaks remain, but if you see little lumps of flour that won’t mix out, don’t sweat it, they will dissolve while baking and overmixing will make this tender loaf tough and dry.

Spray the bottom of a 9×5 loaf pan and pour batter in (if your pan sticks, go ahead and grease the whole thing). Bake for 60-70 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Immediately remove from pan, and cool at least 15 minutes before slicing. Remove from pan immediately and allow to cool at least 15 minutes on a wire rack before slicing. Cool completely before wrapping leftovers in plastic wrap.

Veronica’s notes: If you aren’t measuring your ingredients on a scale, please use a very light hand when measuring the flour, spooning it gently into the cup and not packing it at all before leveling it.

Also, I only left the sides of my pan ungreased because the state fair judges have disqualified me in the past for greasing the whole pan. According to them, this is a baking sin and the sides of your bread will be much more tender if you grease only the bottom. This works fine with my new nifty galifty USA Loaf Pan because it’s crazy nonstick, but if you have any other not fabulously non-stick pan, you’d better go ahead and grease the sides. I honestly can’t tell a difference in the finished loaf whether the sides have been greased or not, the judges need to chill.

Speaking of loaf pans, be sure to use a large 9×5 as this is too much batter for an 8×4 loaf pan.  If you only have a small loaf pan, make some muffins with the extra batter, but don’t fill your pan more than 3/4 full.

Lastly, if you overbake your loaf a bit (I did on the one photographed, by a couple minutes because I was busy when the timer went off), don’t forget my water trick. It works on quick breads as well as cakes! Spray the sides and bottom well with water, don’t be shy with it, and it will all absorb while cooling and soften those hardened edges right up.

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Classic Cherry Pie

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If you had trouble accessing the Preacher Tuna Salad recipe yesterday, I apologize. I accidentally posted it twice and deleted the original, making the link most everyone got lead to nowhere.  You can click here to view the recipe.With the 4th of July holiday quickly approaching, I thought it was about time I shared my favorite cherry pie recipe.  Maybe it’s all the red, but it just seems very festive to me! :)  There’s nothing fancy about it, unless you consider a lattice top crust fancy, but it’s a very good pie and excellent with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.  I love the flavor the almond extract adds, to me it is the essential key to a good cherry pie.

I love my Perfect Pie Crust above all others, and is the crust pictured here.  I highly recommend it for any and all pies, but truth be told, I just as often use a box of Pillsbury refrigerated pie crusts.  Judge me if you must, but it saves so much time!  If you buy pre-made crusts, don’t bother with generic/off-brands, they are awful. Pillsbury is pretty good if you don’t have time to make your own.

Classic Cherry Pie

Printable recipe
Printable recipe with picture

Pastry for a two-crust pie
1 cup granulated sugar
¼ cup cornstarch
2 (14.5 oz) cans tart cherries in water
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon almond extract
½ teaspoon red food coloring (optional)
Milk & coarse sugar for top crust

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Roll out one pie crust and line a 9” pie plate; place in refrigerator. In a large saucepan, combine the sugar & cornstarch and mix well. Drain the juice from the cherries into the pan with the sugar & cornstarch; set the cherries aside. Stirring constantly, cook the juice mixture over medium heat, until bubbling and thickened. Remove from heat and stir in butter, almond extract, and food coloring, if desired, until butter is melted. Stir in the cherries. Spoon into prepared pie plate. Roll out second disc of dough and cut into strips with a pastry wheel or pizza cutter. Arrange strips on top of filling to make a lattice design. Seal and flute edges. Brush milk over crust and sprinkle with sugar. Place on middle oven rack and put a cookie sheet below to catch any spillover. Bake 30 minutes, then put a pie shield on the pie to protect the crust from over-browning. Bake another 15 minutes, or until crust is golden brown and filling is bubbling. Cool at least two hours or overnight before serving.

Veronica’s note: I tend to cook my fruit pie filling until extremely thick, as I prefer my pies not to run at all when cut, as you can see in the photos. If you like yours to run a little, just follow the directions and you’ll be fine. My weirdness for cooking it until nearly cement is not included in them. :)  Also, I have a step-by-step video tutorial on another pie that includes how to make a lattice design here.

**Be sure to visit my “Current Favorites” in the sidebar at the right for other recipes that would be a great addition to your July 4th menu.**

Pecan Praline Cake with Butter Sauce

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It’s been a while since I made this cake, but it was so incredibly good that I still remember the feel and taste of it in my mouth. You know a recipe is good when the end result leaves that kind of impression. Soft, warm, gooey, sweet, rich, nutty, crunchy, creamy, pillowy – basically, everything good. A whole lotta yum.  There is frosting mixed into the cake. And then it’s topped with even more goodness. Need I say more?

Pecan Praline Cake with Butter Sauce

Printable recipe
Printable recipe with picture

Cake:
1 (15 oz) box Butter Pecan Cake Mix
1 (16 oz) tub Coconut Pecan Frosting
4 large eggs
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 cup water
1/2 cup chopped pecans

Sauce:
1 (14 oz) can sweetened condensed milk
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup chopped pecans (optional)

Preheat oven to 350F. Spray a 9×13 pan with oil and set aside.

Combine all cake ingredients except the pecans and beat together until well combined, a minute or two, then stir in the pecans.  Pour into prepared pan and bake for 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  Rest on a cooling rack while you make the sauce.

In a saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter and stir in the sweetened condensed milk.  Continue to stir until heated through, then stir in the pecans.  Pour over the whole cake, or individual slices.

Recipe source: The Country Cook

More cake mix favorites:

Chocolate Italian Love Cake – perfect for Valentine’s Day.

Easy Italian Cream Cake – chock full of pecans, coconut, and maraschino cherries, topped with cream cheese frosting. To die for.

Cookies ‘n Cream Cake/Cupcakes. I didn’t like Oreos until this cake.

Cranberry Bliss Cookies & Cookie Swap Recap

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Happy new year!  While most food bloggers are recapping 2012 with their top recipes, I’m totally disorganized and sharing an unseasonal recipe instead, weeks after I’d intended to.  Hey, give me a break, I still don’t have my head on straight after the hectic holiday season and still have one holiday party to go to before I’ll feel truly like I can settle back into a normal routine.

It’s been a while since I shared a recipe, and I wanted to share the yummy cookie recipe I used for  my cookie swap. I know most people are probably drinking green smoothies and training for marathons to attain lofty new year’s resolutions, but I’m going to share this cookie recipe anyway because I really don’t want to wait until next December to do it.  You can save it for next year, but if you have some dried cranberries left over from your holiday baking, why not use them up in these cookies?  I promise those you share them with won’t complain about cookie season being over.  But they might blame you for not making their goal weight loss this week.  :)

This recipe is for a super ginormous batch that makes about 9 dozen cookies, which is great if you are planning on sharing lots of cookies.  If you’d like a more moderate single batch (wuss), you can refer to That Skinny Chick Can Bake‘s recipe, which is what I used to make my ginormous recipe.

Cranberry Bliss Cookies (large batch)

*Note: the pecans need to be toasted so do this step first to avoid frustration.

Printable recipe
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1 ½ cups (3 sticks / 12 oz) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 ½ cups (10 ¼ oz) vegetable shortening
2 ¼ cups (1 lb) sugar
2 cups (1 lb) brown sugar, packed
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon baking soda
3 large eggs
6 cups (1 lb 9 ½ oz) all-purpose flour
2 ¾ cups dried cranberries, chopped
1 1/2 cups chopped pecans, toasted
1 cup crystallized ginger, finely chopped
1 ½ lbs Ghirardelli white chips or chopped white chocolate

Preheat oven to 350ºF. Line baking sheets with parchment (I used foil this time) and set aside.

Cream butter, shortening and sugars. Add vanilla, salt, and baking soda and mix well. Add the eggs in while the mixer is running and continue to beat until well combined. Add flour and beat on low to combine. The mixer will be very full at this point so be careful to keep the flour from going over the edge before it is mixed in. Transfer the batter to a very large bowl and stir in the remaining ingredients until incorporated.

Scoop out tablespoonfuls of dough and place 2 inches apart on baking sheets. Bake for 12-14 minutes or till golden. Cool for a few minutes on baking sheet then remove to wire rack to finish cooling.

Makes about 9 dozen.

*To toast the pecans, place on a rimmed baking sheet and bake at 350F for about 4 minutes, or until fragrant and toasted. Remove and cool completely.

Recipe source: adapted from That Skinny Chick Can Bake!

***

Cookies from Kristin Moya to Devangi Raval; photo by Devangi.

I know I’m all kinds of evil, but I soon will be announcing a Postcard Project Candy Swap for February.  Don’t blame me, the people have spoken and have begged for more swapping throughout the year.  We’ll see how many actually sign up once they realize it could interfere with resolution number 1: lose weight!  lol

Red Velvet Pinwheel Cookies made by Paula Hartson; photo by Carmel Hodge.

As for the cookie swap, it was so much fun this year (OK, last year–I’m still not adjusted to this being a new year)! I added a Facebook page where we could all connect and gush about the cookies we were baking and receiving, and share pictures, and we just had a blast.

Cookies from Carmel Hodge to Paula Hartson; photo by Paula.

I toughened up and was pretty in-your-face about coming through with the cookies, whereas last year I tried to keep it totally positive. Well sometimes you gotta be tough or people will walk all over you!  Last year six people flaked out and I didn’t know what to do beyond apologize to the those who were left in the cold as I couldn’t afford to make and mail that many cookies (6×3 dozen would be 18 dozen! Yikes.).  Because of my new zero tolerance policy for flakes that I stated in the sign-up form (all flakes are blocked from future swaps), we only had 3 this year, though there were more participants.  I also clued in this year and when those three people didn’t come through with their cookies, I asked for “cookie angels”–volunteers to fill in and send extra cookies to the cookie orphans.  That worked great as there were so many who were eager to share more cookies and no one was left in the cold this year.  Apologies to those who didn’t get all their cookies last year!  I’m a better hostess now so please give me a second chance. :)

Cookies from Marlo Edwards to Paula Hartson; photo by Paula.

All in all the cookie swap was a roaring success, the highlight being raising money for kids cancer and the mixer I got as a reward (see this post if you missed all that).

Cookies from Paula Hartson who volunteered as a cookie angel for Shania Ortiz; photo by Shania.

Cookie Swap Stats:

Participants 2011: 52 2012: 72

Number of packages sent 2011: 162, 2012: 216

Number of cookies swapped 2011: 1,944 2012: 3,574

Money raised for kids cancer: $3,574 (2012 only)

Number of smiles created 2011 & 2012: countless :)

Easy Pumpkin-Chocolate Chip Cookies/Muffin Tops {3 Ingredients}


This is one of those super easy recipes that many people seem to know about, but no one knows where it originated.  While there are many online sources for the recipe, I got mine from my friend Teri, who just spouted off the short list of ingredients during a conversation about holiday baking, and I decided I had to try them myself.

Teri calls these cookies but I call them muffin tops because they truly are the texture of a muffin, not a cookie.  In fact, I’ve seen people (hi, Jorie!) use this same recipe (with and without the chocolate chips) to make full-blown muffins, so there you go.  Bake them whichever way you like and no matter what you call them, they’re delicious, and a great last minute treat to add to your holiday spread.

Easy Pumpkin-Chocolate Chip Cookies

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Printable recipe with picture

1 (18.25 oz) box spice cake mix
1 (15 oz) can pumpkin puree
1 (12 oz) bag semisweet chocolate chips (I used mini because I made small cookies)

Preheat oven to 350F and line cookie sheets with parchment or silpat mats.

Empty cake mix into a mixing bowl and whisk well until there are no lumps. Mix in the puree, then stir in the chocolate chips. Use a cookie scoop to portion the dough out onto the prepared baking sheets. Bake for 10-12 minutes until just firm. Remove to cool on a wire rack and repeat with remaining dough.

Recipe source: Teri B.

*******

I hope you guys have a happy Thanksgiving and if you are traveling for the holiday, travel safe!  I don’t think I’ve mentioned it before, but this is the first year since meeting my husband that we are not going to his parent’s house for Thanksgiving.  His cousin Mike (who was his best man at our wedding) got married in Jamaica and their wedding reception is this Saturday…and I’m making the cake!  It’s been crazy trying to get it baked without taking time off but I will have all Thursday and Friday to finish it so it’s all good…still…please pray for me!! lol!  If you know my track record, you know I need every bit of help I can get. :)  (If you don’t know my track record, you can see both my wedding cake failures here.)

One last note, I’m ending the fundraiser for Suzie on Saturday because she now has her hospital & doctor bills from her first hospital stay ($9,600 total) and not all of them are accepting payments–some are threatening to send her account to collections if she doesn’t pay in full.  So I’m ending it a little earlier than I planned so she can get at least enough to cover those that are threatening her.   If you wanted to help but forgot or weren’t able to before, if you are able to give even a few dollars before the fundraiser ends, I would so greatly appreciate it.  I would love it if we could reach $2,000 by Friday night!  And my offer for the carrot cake recipe still stands–I will email everyone who makes a minimum $5 donations my top-secret blue ribbon carrot cake recipe!  You can click here to make a donation.

Again, happy Thanksgiving! Have an extra bite of stuffing for me…and pecan pie too. :)

Christmas Card Outtakes & an announcement

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Happy new year!  I hope everyone enjoyed their holiday break and is geared up to make 2012 a great year!

To get my own year off to a great start, I am going to take a break from blogging this month, though I might stop in from time to time with a recipe or a Thankful Thursday.  I have been going strong on posting 5 or more days a week since last May, and it got to the point where I had to let other things go in my life in order to do so, so I’m going to just take a break to catch up on life and then when I come back, I most likely will be posting less frequently.  I really love my blog and my readers, but I don’t want to have to give it up completely so I’m going to have to ease off a bit in order to keep it going without letting other things slide.

When I told my husband my plan to take a break, he offered to fill in for me and I immediately took him up on his offer.  He has a great sense of humor and I have a feeling you’ll enjoy his craziness.  He won’t be posting daily, but at least weekly, and I can almost guarantee you at least a few belly laughs.  If anyone else would like to guest post for me during January, shoot me an email at vraklis@yahoo.com with your idea and I will consider it.  I would especially love to feature another person’s (blogger or not) “thankful Thursday” write-up!

Before I start my break, I thought I’d leave you with a few outtakes from our Christmas photo shoot.  My sister met us at the baseball diamond practice fields near our home because they have lots of evergreens there, and we wanted to pose in front of one.  I told Danielle to just keep snapping photos until her finger was numb because when you have an ADD dog and a husband that has a knack for closing his eyes right when the shutter snaps, you know that you need at least a million and one shots to find one that might work.  And of course, the first shot of the day was no surprise.

And it didn’t get much better after that.

Jessie: “Yawn. Can we play now?”

Dennis gave us this “natural smile” after many pleas for him to keep his eyes open.

I figure since the universe seems to be balanced, such as the ratio of men to women, for example, somewhere out there is a dog with an unnaturally short tongue to make up for Jessie’s unusually long one.  She likes to let it flop to the side to give the impression that she’s an idiot so people are impressed when she understands a simple command.  It seems a bigger feat for a dog with its tongue flopped over on the side to sit when told than when an alert, bright-eyed dog shakes hands, and she probably gets more treats because of it.  She’s an evil genius.

The odds of us all not being ready when the camera snaps is always greater than us all being ready. I call this my glazed drunk-eyes smile and Dennis is giving us his usual closed-eyes, “I’m too busy talking to actually smile” look. Jessie looks like this, her mouth closed on her tongue, when her attention is suddenly drawn away. Think “squirrel!!” from the movie Up. Makes her look REALLY smart. ;)

This is what she was looking at:

A field of geese!

Of course Dennis had his eyes open when I had another drunk smile and Jessie and I were both looking away from the camera.  It’s just the way things work with us.

Jessie: “I’m not listening. lalalalala.”

I’m pretty sure I qualify for the role of Alphaba (wicked witch of the west) in Wicked for my chin length alone!  You know you’re jealous.

Had to share the outtake of our photographer, It. ;)

There she is! :)  You remember Danielle, right?  She was ready to give up and go home at this point, but I was sure that the million photos she’d taken weren’t sufficient, and convinced her to keep snapping them.  Thanks for your patience, Dani!

Jessie: “Look at mah throat! I could swallow you in one gulp. Bwahahahahaha!”

Dennis’ face.  Priceless.

After a million and two shots (you can thank me for not including them all here!), we finally have a winner!  Eyes are all open and on the camera, smiles all around. YES!

I uploaded the photo to picnik.com and did some tweaking to come up with the photo that I used for our card:

And I’m sorry but I just have to share this photo I snapped of Jessie chewing on a stick during the shoot.  I thought it was just too cute!

Hope you enjoyed the shoot! Enjoy my husband while I’m away (come on now, you know what I mean!) and I’ll see you again soon. :)

Cream Cheese Chocolate Truffles


Here’s another easy-peasy recipe that you can add to your holiday spread, or package up for gifts!  And it makes a ton, so there really is plenty for a crowd.  And did I mention they’re delicious?  Because they are.

The original recipe instructs you to refrigerate the truffle mixture for an hour, but I take a shortcut and roll them into balls immediately.  This is particularly beneficial if you decide to roll them in nuts,* because they adhere much easier to the softer truffles than when they’re hard after refrigerating.

*I like to use ice cream nut topping because the nuts are chopped nice and fine, salted, and have a little sugar added.

As a last note, if you like the look of truffles rolled in cocoa powder but don’t like the bitter edge to them, you can add powdered sugar to your cocoa to sweeten it before rolling.  It’s been a while since I made these, but I’m 95% certain this is what I did, and that little white spot on one the truffle in the back on the right most likely confirms it.  (Might want to sift your powdered sugar so it blends perfectly!)  I think I remember remarking that they seemed more likely to be approved by the general public, but I do like the bitterness of pure cocoa to contrast the sweet truffle.  Whatever floats your boat!

Cream Cheese Chocolate Truffles

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1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese, softened
3 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
3 cups semisweet chocolate chips, melted
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

In a large bowl, beat cream cheese until smooth. Gradually beat in confectioners’ sugar until well blended. Stir in melted chocolate and vanilla until no streaks remain.  Shape into 1 inch balls, then roll in cocoa powder, finely chopped nuts, or powdered sugar.  Store in an airtight container and serve at room temperature. You may refrigerate the truffles if you won’t be serving them for several days, but remove them at least ½ hour before serving.

Makes about 60 truffles.

Recipe source: Allrecipes

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