Dessert Made Simple: Mini Apple Pies and Mini Peach Pies

Recently, at a friend's BBQ, someone made these incredible mini apple pies. They were comforting, homey, crunchy, sweet -- everything a good pie is. Even though I was full, I scarfed down a few of these suckers, unable to contain myself. Between mouthfuls of pie, I vowed I was going to make these at home. But then I recalled watching my friend make them. Dough, eggwash, pie filling, apples, spices and flour were spread all over the counter as she hurriedly filled and pressed together pieces of dough. It looked like... So. Much. Work. Don't get me wrong -- the pies came out perfect. They were little, golden, crusty pockets of heaven. But between working full-time and going to school every evening, I wouldn't be able to justify spending several hours on pie, particularly when much of the labor is in the assembly process. So I cut a few corners, partially working off the back of my Pillsbury pie crust box and this recipe from Smitten Kitchen. My recipe includes both an apple pie filling and a peach pie filling. Read on and you'll learn how to make these mini pie cookies in no time.

Serves: About 6 Prep time: About 45 minutes Cook time: About 25-30 minutes

Ingredients: 1 9-inch roll of Pillsbury Refrigerated Pie Crust 1 egg, beaten 1 teaspoon water

For apple filling (for 6 mini pies): 1-1.5 Golden Delicious or Granny Smith apples 1/4 cup white sugar 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg Small pinch of kosher salt (less than 1/4 teaspoon) A few squirts lemon juice, optional (to prevent apples from browning)

For peach filling (for 6 mini pies): 1 8-ounce can peaches 3 tablespoons white sugar 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Prepare pie dough: Roll out the pie crust to about 1/4 inch thick. Get two differently sized cookie cutters (or drinking glasses) and cut out little circles. Cut out six 3" circles and six 3.75" circles.

3. Prepare eggwash: Beat the egg in a small bowl. Add 1 teaspoon water and mix.

4. Create apple filling: Mix sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt in a bowl. Peel and chop apples into little squares (about 1/8" thick, 1/4" squares). If they start to turn brown, squirt with some lemon. Toss apples into the sugar-spice mixture.

4. Or create peach filling: Drain the peaches. In a bowl, combine with sugar and cinnamon.

5. Assemble the mini pies: Put some water in another small bowl. Roll up a paper towel and dip it in the water. Moisten a 3" circle of pie crust with the paper towel. Spoon a small amount of filling onto the circle. Cover with a 3.75" circle of pie crust and press the sides to close. Crimp the edges with a fork. If desired, cut three little slits on the surface of the mini pie (refer to picture.) Repeat on all the dough.

6. Brush each mini pie with egg wash. Place pies on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or silicon baking mat. Bake in oven until light golden brown, about 20-25 minutes.

My Notes: Why Golden Delicious or Granny Smith apples? These apples are pretty sturdy, so their firm texture holds up during the baking process. Plus, they both have a crisply tart taste. Golden Delicious apples tend to be a bit sweeter, while Granny Smith ones tend to be more on the sour side. Simply choose the variety you prefer.

Why canned peaches? Aside from requiring less preparation time and effort, canned peaches are much softer and sweeter than the fresh kind. As a result, you'll have a gooey, sweet filling for your mini pies.

But the Pillsbury Pie Crust box says to use a baking time of about 425 degrees: Baking these tiny pies at a lower temperature ensures they get cooked through and reach a lovely golden brown before getting a chance to burn.

Why use egg wash? This egg-water mixture provides a glossy finish to the pies, and helps keep them from burning.

Can I use different filling? Of course! You can use whatever filling you'd normally use in a pie.

What do I do with any extra filling? Um... eat it!

A Guaranteed Show-Stopper: Red Velvet Pancakes

Red velvet pancakes. Need I say more? Whenever I hear the words "red velvet" my ears instantly perk up. Cake? Cookies? And this time, pancakes? A friend of mine linked me to this recipe not too long ago and just by glancing at the ingredient list, I could tell this was a must-eat. So I zipped over to the grocery store and stocked up on the necessities. Even though many of the ingredients weren't already lurking in my kitchen, it was well worth it. It was easy to make and difficult to screw up. The end result is moist, fluffy and absolutely irresistible. I wish I could brag that I made all sorts of changes to the recipe, but I didn't change much at all. The full credit goes to a food blog called From Portland to Peonies.

Serves: About 6 Prep time: 20 minutes Cook time: About 10 minutes

Ingredients: 1 cup all-purpose flour 1 teaspoon baking powder 1/2 teaspoon baking soda 1/4 teaspoon salt 3 tablespoons white sugar 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder 1 large egg, lightly beaten 3/4 buttermilk 1/4 cup sour cream 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted 1 tablespoon red food coloring 2 teaspoons vanilla extract Maple syrup or whipped cream (optional)

1. In a large bowl whisk together the dry ingredients first. Add in the egg, buttermilk, sour cream, melted butter, red food coloring, and vanilla extract. Mix until combined.

2. Heat a frying pan or griddle over medium high heat. When hot add non-stick cooking spray, followed by a small scoop of the batter. Wait for the pancakes to bubble, about 2 minutes, flip and cook for a minute or two more. Top with a pat of butter and maple syrup, or whipped cream.

My Notes: Creme fraiche or sour cream? If you're like me, you probably frequent grocery store chains like Ralph's or even Whole Foods. Creme fraiche can be hard to find, so I made these pancakes with sour cream -- and I wouldn't change a thing.

More vanilla and baking soda: I love the fragrant, floral sweetness of vanilla, so in this recipe, I added a little dash extra. I also used extra baking powder to ensure a fluffy yet dense pancake.

Make it dessert: A friend of mine declined the butter and decided to take this treat to the next level. Instead, he added a generous scoop of vanilla bean ice cream. Ice cream makes just about any food better, and these red velvet pancakes are definitely no exception. If you decided to go with ice cream topping, you may want to make your pancakes a tad smaller. The portions will be less filling and ultimately, less guilt-inducing!

A Light, Easy, No-Cook Dessert: Strawberry-Ricotta Mousse

I’m actually not the biggest fan of mousse. It’s usually too chocolate-y or too bland, too soft or too sweet. Too something. But this recipe, taken straight from the Food Network’s Giada De Laurentiis herself, has just the right consistency – and with a few of my own tweaks, just the right level of sweetness. It’s super easy and best of all, it doesn’t require any cooking.

Serves: about 10 Prep time: 20-25 minutes

Ingredients: 2 cups whole milk ricotta (or 1 15-ounce container) 3/4 cup of strawberry preserves or jam (can be substituted for your favorite preserves or jam) 1 cup heavy whipping cream 1/4 cup powdered sugar

1. 1 cup of strawberries (or the same kind of fresh fruit as your jam) Either in a food processor or mixer, blend the room temperature ricotta cheese until it’s smooth and fluffy (usually about 30 seconds in a food processor, or 1 minute in the mixer). Add the jam and blend until combined, about several seconds until you get that nice, light pink color. Transfer to a large mixing bowl.

If you’re like me and your kitchen appliances are both small and limited, you’ll probably need to wash and dry your mixer. You’re going to whip the cream, so you’ll want to make sure you have a clean mixer to make sure the cream becomes the right consistency.

2. Beat the cream on medium-high speed until thick, about 5 minutes. Add the powdered sugar and crank up the speed. Blend until the cream holds stiff peaks, about 5-7 minutes longer.

3. Fold (or gently mix) the whipped cream into your ricotta-jam mixture in small batches.

4. Refrigerate 1 hour prior to serving. When ready, use an ice cream scoop to plop a generous portion onto your serving bowls. I use one hefty scoop per serving. Garnish with your fresh fruit and enjoy!

My notes: Mine vs. Giada’s. When I first whipped up this dessert, I followed Giada’s recipe down to the last measurement. While I was happy with the texture, I felt the end result was a bit too ricotta-y and not quite sweet enough. I like a little extra jam and powdered sugar.

Which jam? Giada’s original recipe actually calls for raspberry jam. I’ve also seen this made with blueberries! Feel free to use whichever preserves or jam you like – it’s probably a good idea (for your wallet!) to choose one that’s on sale. Just don’t use jelly! You want the full-bodied taste of real fruit, and that’s a taste you get only from preserves or jam.

Why whole milk ricotta? For a more calorie-friendly treat, you could go with skim milk ricotta. I just prefer using whole milk to get a richer flavor and that perfect mousse-y texture. Also, when you’re making recipes with so few ingredients, it’s important to make sure they’re good quality. Using fewer ingredients means you can’t hide the tastes of cheap items!

Why powdered sugar? Powdered sugar is much lighter than granulated, so it incorporates into the cream much more smoothly. It also gives the cream a tiny bit of weight that lets it puff up. That way, you get a fluffy whipped cream that’s perfectly smooth.