Friday, 31 May 2013

2012 - Lemon Cookies Popping With Flavor

I always like to have a citrus cookie to balance out the Christmas cookie tray, so I decided to try Lemon Poppy Seed Cookies from Martha Stewart's "Cookies" book this year. These were great to make today because they can go straight into the oven (unlike cookies that need refrigerating first). So while I was baking these, I made the doughs for Grandma Baker's Overnight Cookies and Martha's Cinnamon Swirls. The Overnights are roll cookies that will be sliced and baked; and the Swirls dough is a rectangle that will be filled, rolled and sliced tomorrow.

Naturally, there are poppy seeds in the dough of the Lemon Poppy Seed Cookies. But you also sprinkle poppy seeds on the top of each cookie. However, once they came out of the oven and cooled, the seeds didn't really stay put. So, when I make these again, I will have to remember to gently press down on the seeds. Otherwise, they're tangy and sweet and the seeds provide a nice crunch.

After mixing up the buttery, lemony dough, I combined sugar with loads of lemon zest to make a luscious coating for the dough balls to roll around in. Then the balls go on a cookie sheet, where they're flattened with a glass.

I haven't made the Cinnamon Swirls yet but I have high hopes. A Snickerdoodle just doesn't cut it with me — they're too mild. I've complained here before about not getting enough cinnamon taste and I've tried about a dozen variations (including another pinwheel sort and a crescent-shaped variety). We'll see tomorrow.

I decided to go with just a half-batch of Grandma Baker's Overnight Cookies too — they make SO many. "That's why your grandma liked them," Mom said. My dad was one of six kids and they lived (and worked) on a farm, so you could never have too many cookies. But even though I give them away and can eat my fair share, six dozen Overnights will be plenty!

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

2012 - Spill the Beans (or the Dragées)

I've been really busy putting Our Cookie Journal online for the past month or so but I managed to get going (in real time!) again today with Vanilla-Bean Butter Cookies. I've made them once before and they were delicious and they're so complementary to the many chocolate varieties that I usually wind up baking.
Vanilla beans can be costly — but worth it!
The recipe calls for three vanilla beans (which can cost a lotta beans!). Charlie helped by taking photos of me scraping the seeds from the beans. I drive him crazy because I always want several photos from which to choose.

Use the back edge of a knife to scrape out the seeds.

The dough had to chill, so I waited until the next day to bake them (after I made a blog entry!). The last time I made these, I used a snowflake cookie cutter, which was too intricate for this delicate dough. It's so precious, you have to keep re-freezing it — after you roll it out, and again after you cut it out.

But since I used a simple star cutter this time, I skipped the second freezing and popped them straight into the oven. They were fiiiiiine! In fact, I've just eaten two!! It also knocked the baking time down to 10 minutes. So, keep an eye on these until you figure out how long they should bake (when the edges are golden). The recipe yielded 4 1/2 dozen sumptuous stars.

I also spilled about a million dragées and the sound of them cascading all over the kitchen floor was absolutely sublime!

Don't worry about putting these back in the freezer.

Vanilla-Bean Butter Cookies
1 c butter, softened
1 1/2 c powdered sugar
3 vanilla beans, split lengthwise
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
2  1/2 c flour, sifted
1/4 tsp salt
colored dragées
sanding sugar

In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine butter and sugar. Scrape in vanilla seeds. Beat on high until fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes.

Add egg and vanilla; beat to combine.

Add flour and salt, beat on low till incorporated.

Divide dough into half; flatten into disks. Wrap in plastic and chill at least 1 hour or overnight.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. On lightly floured surface, roll out disks to 1/4-inch thickness. Place dough on separate baking sheets and chill in freezer for 20 minutes.

Line baking sheets with parchment. Using 2-inch star-shaped cutter, cut out stars. Place a dragée in center of each star; sprinkle generously with sanding sugar. Freeze until firm, 10 to 20 minutes.

Bake until golden, rotating sheets halfway through, 18 to 22 minutes. Transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

2012 - National Brownie Day

Six dozen Choc-Oat-Chip in the front and
six dozen Toll House in the back.

 Oh boy! As if I need another excuse to bake! 

I celebrated National Cookie Day on Dec. 4 by baking Choc-Oat Chip Cookies and Nestle's Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies. I marked St. Nicholas Day on Dec. 6 by making a batch of Dutch Spice Cookies. And now we have National Brownie Day, which I commemorated in my kitchen in my usual cookie fashion.

The origins of brownies are uncertain and the stories are varied. Some sources credit a Bangor, Maine, housewife who forgot to add leavening to her cake but served the gooey squares anyway to her guests' delight. Wikipedia credits a chef at Chicago's Palmer House Hotel as the creator of modern-day brownies. They featured walnuts and an apricot glaze and are still being made at the hotel, using the original recipe. Still others say that Fannie Merritt Farmer is responsible for the first brownie, which appeared in the 1896 version of her cookbook. However, these were not true brownies, as they were molasses cakes baked individually in tin molds. Whoever is responsible, I thank you!

There are many varieties of brownies - not to be confused with blondies, which omit the chocolate and use brown sugar. (National Blondies Day is celebrated on Jan. 22.) Popular mix-ins include walnuts, pecans, chocolate chips, coconut and caramel — and the ever-controversial (and illegal) cannabis.

Brownies, whether they be cakey or fudgy, are classed as cookies — of the bar variety. I have had some difficulties with brownies in my illustrious cookie-baking past, simply because it can be hard to judge when they are done. Over-bake them and they become cracked and hard, losing their aroma and flavor. If they're under-baked, though, they are not chewy and fudgy, they're just icky!

Dunkable Brownies are yummy and foolproof.

I have written here about two varieties with which I fared better - Barb's Brownies and Brownies Cockaigne. But my favorite "brownie" is Baker's One Bowl Chocolate Brownie Cookies, which we call Dunkable Brownies.

I also tried a new version today from a recipe I found at epicurious.comBrownie Thins are definitely worth a bash. They are described as tasting like the very top layer of a brownie. They take only 30 minutes and the flavor is outstanding. I like them for Christmas because the recipe calls for chopped pistachios to be sprinkled on top. My only disappointment — they made a measly 18 cookies! The recipe said I would get two dozen. (A personal pet peeve of mine is 'yields' in recipes - they ALWAYS lie!)

But for frosted, traditional brownies, today I'm using Betty Crocker's boxed mix and I'm not too proud or vain to admit it. They're easy and delicious and my son, Charlie, likes them because they are plain.

I hope you'll bake some brownies today and I urge you to try one of my cookie versions for fuss-free, perfect brownies. Don't forget the glass of milk!

Brownie Thins

6 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut into pieces
2 oz unsweetened chocolate, chopped
1/2 c sugar
1 large egg
3 Tbsp plus 1 tsp all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp almond extract
Pinch of coarse kosher salt
Nonstick vegetable oil spray
1/4 c chopped pistachios
Brownie Thins

Position rack in lowest third of oven; preheat to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter 2 baking sheets. Place butter and chocolate in medium microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on medium-high until almost completely melted, about 1 minute. Whisk until smooth. Add sugar and egg; whisk until smooth, about 1 minute. Add flour, both extracts, and salt; stir just to blend. Let batter stand 10 minutes.

Scoop rounded teaspoonfuls batter onto prepared baking sheets, spacing apart. Spray sheet of plastic wrap lightly with nonstick spray. Place, sprayed side down, over cookies. Using fingers, press each mound into 2 1/2-inch round. Remove plastic wrap. Sprinkle pistachios over rounds. Bake cookies, 1 sheet at a time, until slightly darker at edges and firm in center, about 7 minutes. Cool on sheet 2 minutes. Transfer cookies to rack; cool completely.

NOTES: I toasted my pistachios in a skillet for about 5 minutes, stirring them often. Feel free to use walnuts or pecans (or omit nuts altogether).

I hate fooling with greased cookie sheets, so I did a practice cookie on parchment paper. Thank goodness it worked just fine. I suggest you do the same, or use a Silpat (non-stick silicone baking mat).

I also skipped the shenanigans with the plastic wrap, using the back of my spoon to smooth out the rounds sufficiently. (The plain one is for Charlie to sample).

I didn't use the almond extract but doubled the vanilla instead. Just a personal preference.

Unsweetened chocolate is not easy to come by in England unless I order it from (or Mom sends it to me). However, Waitrose recently started stocking Willie's Cacao, made by the Chocolate Man, Willie Harcourt-Cooze. These barrels of solid artisan chocolate come in several varieties, but I chose Venezuelan Black (100% Rio Caribe Cacao) for its complex nut and coffee notes.

During a break from baking, I talked to my cousin, Janet, and she promised to send pictures of her Christmas cookies. I can't wait to see them! When I called Mom, she said she couldn't sleep so she wound up making Chocolate Cookies, Chocolate Chip Cookies and something else.

Janet and Rob's Christmas cookies!

We got a care package yesterday from Mom, Aunt Catherine and Danielle! It was filled with all kinds of goodies: pickles, noodles, Velveeta Mexican, Lifesavers Story Book, more Chex cereals, Christmas candy, Nestle's Quik, albacore tuna and more! Aunt Catherine also sent an ornament for each of us: a dog for Charlie and a taxi for me! How funny! Thanks guys!!!

Now I'm off to make another (double) batch of Brownie Thins. Mmmmm!

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

2012 - 'She Bakes Cookies and Hands Them Out'

I've been busy baking brownies today because tomorrow (Dec. 8) is National Brownie Day! I'm going to blog about it for Our Cookie Journal and I wholeheartedly approve of this national day of observance!

A mound of Dunkable Brownies.

I started with one batch of Dunkable Brownies — boy, is that dough good! I toasted the walnuts this time, just for a richer flavor. And I rotated the trays midway, so I could inhale all that chocolate air in there! I yielded 4 1/2 dozen cookies, not counting the irresistible one that I ate.

Toasted walnuts add depth of flavor.

I want to make Brownie Thins too, so I had to walk to town for more supplies, including pistachio nuts for the Brownie Thins. 

I keep cookies and other treats ready to hand out.

On the way, I saw Mark, who usually delivers our care packages via Parcel Force. I gave him a bit of schtick over not having my package yet and he said he'd be around later with it. YAY! I told him he would get his annual package of cookies from me then. I was expecting him about a week ago, when I got my last care package from Mom but another guy brought it, so I gave him the cookies I had ready at the door for Mark. I told Mark about his loss and he laughed and said he told the guy, "You might like going there — she bakes cookies and hands them out!"

Mark knows he gets cookies at my house!

Saturday, 11 May 2013

2012 - St Nicholas Day

Speculaas Koekjes can be sliced and baked if you
don't have a St. Nicholas mold.

With a nod to my German heritage and in honor of St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6), I made Speculaas Koekjes (Dutch Spice Cookies) today. While they are traditionally made in the shape of Sinterklaas, I don't have a proper mold yet, so I improvised with a slice 'n' bake version.

St. Nicholas, as you probably know, is the legendary forerunner of our modern-day Santa Claus. He was the Bishop of Myra (now part of Turkey) and had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him. He is the patron saint of children (but also students, sailors, archers, pawnbrokers and thieves!).

I found a recipe at the St. Nicholas Center website, where you can learn more about St. Nicholas and find other recipes for German baked goods associated with this traditionally European holiday.

The cookies had a lovely, spicy aroma that was dominated by cloves. It was a nice Christmas-y smell and they were quick to make and called for simple ingredients that I had on hand. 

Paper towel tubes help slice 'n' bake cookies
retain a circular shape.
I rolled the crumbly dough into logs, which I placed in paper towel tubes to help retain a circular shape (instead of a flat-sided loaf shape). 

After being refrigerated for one hour, the logs were ready for slicing and baking. The recipe yielded 5 1/2 dozen cookies, which I sampled right away. They're crunchy and tasty, more like a tea biscuit than what I would call a classic cookie. Great for dunking, I would think. They're worth a try today - or any day you need a cookie fix! 

If you're interested in a St. Nicholas cookie stamp from Rycraft ($9.95, including free recipe booklet), follow this link:

The finished product is crispy and delicious.
St. Nick Cookies
2 cups brown sugar
1 ½ cups butter or hard margarine
3 ½ cups flour
1 egg, beaten
1 tsp salt, scant
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¾ teaspoon cloves
½ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon allspice
½ teaspoon ginger

Cream butter and sugar. Add remaining ingredients and mix. Press well-chilled dough into cookie boards (flour mold well, press dough in with fingers, level it off, then turn the board over and bang one end on the counter so the cookie drops out).* Place on cookie sheet and bake at 350º F. for 10 to 12 minutes. Store in sealed container to retain crispness.

*Or shape into cylinder of desired size and chill thoroughly in plastic wrap or waxed paper. Slice and bake, as above.

St. Nicholas fills shoes with coins and treats on Dec. 6. 

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

2012 - Decisions, Decisions

As usual, I don't have a plan. You'd think with this journal I would have everything mapped out and that I would know what I want to bake each Christmas season but life rarely works out that way. 

So, I wasn't quite sure what to make. Ever since I started transcribing Our Cookie Journal, I have had a hankering for Whoopie Pies. I haven't made them in years and a chocolate sandwich filled with cream sounds pretty good right now. Those call for buttermilk, though, and I really don't feel like walking to town for that. 

Then I decided to make some scrumptious Dunkable Brownies — one of my perennial favorites. Another inventory check found my cupboard lacking again! I need walnuts. I have some, but they expired in May. Of 2011!! 

I knew that if I made Hedgehog Cookies I would be sure to have all the ingredients because they are Charlie's yearlong favorite. What's more, since I was flush with chocolate chips and pecans, I decided to make Nestle's Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies too. I like Charlie's cookies, but I insist on my favorites at Christmas. 

I wound up with 6 1/2 dozen for me and 6 3/4 dozen for him. That should hold us for a while!

Monday, 6 May 2013

2012 - Muffin Madness

I walked into town yesterday (Dec. 2) because I needed some baking supplies — flour, fresh baking powder, etc. I also bought a small poinsettia, white hyacinths and a chocolate advent calendar for Charlie from Thornton's. I don't even have to say his name; they know us!

Today, I decided to make some Pumpkin Bread muffins. Mom sent me two aluminum pans for making mini-muffins! I tested six in Christmas liners because I wasn't sure if they'd stick or not. I usually don't use them but I didn't want to have to keep washing the pans between every batch. They didn't stick, thankfully, so I've forged ahead with the liners. They take only 15 minutes this way too.

Meanwhile, I've been listing CDs on eBay so I'll have some extra cash for Christmas presents. And, of course, I've been busy posting entries to Our Cookie Journal on my blog.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

2012 - The Icing on the Cookie

Charlie's snowman sweater that I ordered on eBay came today! It's so cute on him. I bought myself some one-piece Christmas jammies too — covered in Santas! 

I made a giant batch of Royal Icing for the Sugar Cookies at about 10:30 a.m. I didn't use the one from Martha Stewart this time because she weighs the powdered sugar and I wanted to measure it in cups. I get so weary with conversions. I just copied something off the Internet — it's a fairly common recipe. 

Before I started, I hauled out all of my decorations and supplies. Then I made a list of each cookie shape and matched them to the colors I wanted to use on them. That way, I can do all of one color in one go, and not waste time or icing. 

So I started with white, obviously. Then did all the red. I outlined first, then did the flooding. I made a bit of a mess with the colored sugars too, as usual! I had to take a break at 4:30 to go to the post office and mail out some eBay stuff (and another Christmas book for my nephew, James). Then I met Charlie on his walk home from school. Once we got home, I made pizzas and called it a day with the cookies. I'll finish up tomorrow.

It's the last day of November and I spent most of it frosting Sugar Cookies. I started at 10:30 and just finished at 4:30 (it's like a job, with banker's hours!). I finished them all though and now my back is aching a bit. It was worth it though and I'm glad I started with these (technically). I took lots of photos throughout and I hope I can remember to review before I start next year!

I made snowmen with gold buttons and melted chocolate chip eyes; blue, red and green ornaments with edible sugar flakes; red-and-white candy canes; Christmas trees with with sprinkles and dragées; blue stars with edible glitter; yellow stars with edible gold stars; and my favorites: red, white and green JOYs with coordinating sugars. They're all really cute and I'm so proud of them! I can't wait to share them!!