Thursday, December 23, 2010

Gingerbread cookies

You'd think we'd be finished by now, but we're still making cookies here.  Some kinds just take longer (those kolacky deserve a blog post of their very own).  Some I had to break down into smaller batches just so I didn't eat them all at once (World Peace cookies, I'm looking at you.)  Today we finished the gingerbread cookies, which the kids have enjoyed decorating.  I mixed up the dough on Monday morning, let it chill, and then rolled, cut and baked the cookies on Wednesday.  Today we made the icing and piped decorations.

Children love these cookies.  They like the fun shapes and the simple texture.  They have a warm spiciness, and because they're not too sweet, they are perfect canvas for icing.

You can get the cookie recipe--another winner from Dorie Greenspan--right here at Epicurious.  Most people would recommend using royal icing for piping designs, but I don't like eating it very much, and you have to either use eggwhites or go buy meringue powder at a specialty store. This recipe for Glacé Icing from Our Best Bites is a lovely alternative.  You probably have the ingredients in the pantry already:  confectioner's sugar, milk, light corn syrup and vanilla.  We piped it straight out of a zippered freezer bag with the corner snipped off.  Like royal icing, it hardens enough to stack the cookies without marring the designs, although it may take longer to dry.

The kids added all sorts of sprinkles to their creations, but I prefer simple white outlines on the spicy cookies. Not to mention, the process moves along more quickly if you're not switching between several colors.  That's good for short attention spans!

I hope you're having a festive holiday, filled with the warmth of family, friends and at least a few homemade cookies.  Thanks so much for visiting my kitchen this year!  I'm looking forward to sharing more baking adventures with you in 2011!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Orange Delight cookies

Don't these cookies just sound festive?

A long time ago (back in the '90s!), we stayed at a cozy farmhouse bed and breakfast in Cambridge, Wisconsin, not far from Madison.  The room was comfortable, the surroundings were peaceful, the owners were friendly, and the breakfasts were tasty.  But by far the best amenity was the well-stocked tin of freshly baked cookies in our room (the basket of warm muffins and thermos of hot coffee at the door each morning was a close second).

These cookies were so memorable--I have never had any like them before or since--that we wrote and asked for the recipe.  They are soft, almost cake-like, with a delicate orange flavor contrasted by the crunchy pecans.  The glaze soaks in and keeps these cookies moist and tender for days.

Orange Delight Cookies
from Marian Korth

3/4 cup butter
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
1 1/2 tsp. grated orange rind
1/2 cup sour milk or buttermilk
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
3/4 cup pecans, coarsely chopped

1 1/2 tsp. grated orange rind
1/3 cup orange juice
1 cup sugar

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Grate orange rind from one orange (or two tangerines, as I did, but an orange gives a more pronounced flavor), divide into two 1 1/2 tsp. portions, and set aside.  Squeeze the juice of the orange, add water if necessary to make 1/3 cup, and set aside.

In large mixing bowl, cream butter and sugars until fluffy.  Mix in eggs, vanilla, orange rind and sour milk.  Add flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt.  Mix well.  Stir in pecans.

Drop by teaspoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheets.  (Chilling the dough for 30 minutes makes scooping these a little easier, because the batter is sticky.  Again, you can scoop these out onto the baking sheet, freeze them until solid, and transfer them to a freezer bag to bake another day.  You can freeze or refrigerate the glaze, too.)

Bake for 10-12 minutes.  Meanwhile, stir together all three ingredients for the glaze.  Put baked cookies on a rack over a sheet pan or piece of foil and drizzle glaze over the cookies while they're still hot.

Makes about 5 dozen (Marian said it makes 3 dozen, but her teaspoons must be bigger than mine!)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Behind the baking

Even people who bake nothing but brownies from a mix the whole year through may wish to do some holiday baking.  You might be the parent of a small person or three, which gives you exactly seven minutes and 42 seconds to yourself on any given day.  Or you might trudge to the office, day in and day out, barely making it home in time to heat up some dinner and spend 60 mindless minutes watching Glee.  Whatever your salt mine, you probably don't have endless hours to churn out 15 dozen Christmas cookies (really, just one batch isn't even worth the effort, is it?).  The holidays are supposed to be relaxing!  (Quit your laughing.)

The strategy we need in this situation is divide and conquer, friends.  I have six different kinds of cookies on my list this year (hopefully enough to see us through New Year's, plus enough for some tasty gifts for our children's many wonderful teachers).  So yesterday, after a morning of errands, including the post office, the grocery, the dry cleaner, the customer service desk at Kohl's, and a local funeral home (to drop off Seven and Five's holiday coloring contest entries), I finally mixed up the first two batches of cookie dough while Three ate his lunch with Dora the Explorer.

The beauty of so many cookie recipes is that the dough requires some chilling time.  Make it work to your benefit! It's just like time-shifting your shows by recording them on your DVR.  I mixed up Mexican Wedding Cakes and World Peace cookies, and then put the doughs in the fridge until I had another 30 minutes or so to bake them up.  In fact, I might freeze some of the dough and bake it several weeks from now.  

Mexican Wedding Cakes are a holiday staple in my family (some people call them Russian Tea Cakes or Almond Crescents), but I haven't made them in at least five years because the kids had nut allergies.  Now that they've been given a clean bill of health from the allergist, I'm going crazy with the nuts!  (Though I've been informed that some people still don't LIKE nuts, and what are THEY going to eat?)  Our family traditionally uses walnuts, but this year I tried toasted hazelnuts.  Pecans or almonds are also delicious.  We roll them into balls, but you could shape them into crescents if you wish.

World Peace cookies are a new addition to my Christmas cookie repertoire.  I was looking for something chocolatey to round out the list, and I remembered that I've been meaning to try this recipe from Dorie Greenspan.  After all, isn't Christmas a time to wish for world peace?  These are chocolate sablés with bits of bittersweet chocolate, and you can find an easy-to-print recipe here at Smitten Kitchen.  In the spirit of world peace, I used bittersweet chocolate with cocoa nibs from the Czech Republic.  Today I took one log of frozen dough and sliced and baked a dozen cookies.  I have to admit, they brought an unusual peace to the after-school hour, which so often devolves into tears and time outs.

Later this week I'll be featuring cookies from Poland, Italy and Wisconsin....Kolacky (my mother-in-law's recipe), chocolate hazelnut biscotti, Orange Delight cookies (from a lovely B&B in Cambridge, Wisconsin), and some gingerbread cookies for the kids to decorate.  If I had a cookie press, I might make Spritz cookies, but I guess I have to draw the line somewhere.  I already crossed Linzer Heart cookies off the list.  Maybe for Valentine's Day?

Mexican Wedding Cakes

1 cup (2 sticks) softened butter
1/2 cup sifted powdered sugar
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
2 1/4 cups flour
1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 cup finely chopped nuts

Cream butter in stand mixer until fluffy.  Add powdered sugar and vanilla and beat together.  Add flour and salt and mix just until the dough comes together.  Add the nuts and mix just until incorporated.  Chill the dough for at least 30 minutes, well wrapped in plastic wrap or a sealed container.  If it chills for longer (a couple days, in my case), you'll need to let the dough warm up just so it's soft enough to work.

Heat the oven to 400 degrees.  Roll the dough into one-inch balls.  (You can flash freeze the balls of dough on a sheet pan, and then transfer them to a freezer bag to bake later.) A small cookie/ice cream scoop makes this step go much faster.  Place on an ungreased baking sheet and bake until set, but not brown, 10-12 minutes.  While still warm, roll cookies in powdered sugar.  Makes 3 dozen cookies.

Tell me, what's on your cookie list this year?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A little cake for a little boy

Little Master Two just turned Three, and while he was singing to Corduroy (anything but napping) in his soon-to-be-outgrown crib, I stirred up a little birthday cake for him.

We've had an awful lot of sweets lately, from Thanksgiving pies to Advent calendar treats to kindergarten gingerbread houses, with a few birthday cakes sprinkled in the mix.  In fact, I just put the last chunk of the chocolate stout cake in the freezer (yes, after eating a piece with my lunch).  We'll dig it out again one of those nights when the kids are tucked in bed and we need a little something to accompany our tea and television.

But today, Little Boy Three needed his very own birthday cake.  So I dug out my 6-inch cake pans and halved Maida Heatter's recipe for Old-Fashioned Fudge Cake.  This cake has a mild chocolatey flavor, and would be happy with a fudge frosting to go with it.  But since I--dare I say it?--am getting a little tired of chocolate, I went a different direction.  It made a sweet little two-layer cake covered with whipped cream, a scattering of rainbow sprinkles and topped with candles.

And I'm hoping there won't be much left over.  Because it's time to start baking Christmas cookies!

A Little Old-Fashioned Fudge Cake
adapted from Maida Heatter's Book of Great Chocolate Desserts

1 1/2 ounces (1 1/2 squares) unsweetened chocolate
1 scant cup of cake flour (I measured out a cup and then scooped out a couple Tbsp.)
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
4 Tbsp. unsalted butter
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg
1 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. white vinegar
1/2 cup milk

Line two 6-inch cake pans with parchment, wax paper or foil.  Grease and flour pans and set aside.  Heat oven to 350 degrees.
Melt the chocolate in the microwave (about 2 minutes on high); stir until smooth.  In a small bowl, whisk together cake flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

In the large bowl of the mixer, cream the butter.  Add the sugar and beat well.  Add the egg and beat well.  Mix in the vinegar; it will look curdled.  Add the melted chocolate and beat only until smooth.

With the mixer on low speed, add half the dry ingredients. Scrape the bowl with a spatula, then mix in the milk.  Scrape again and add the rest of the dry ingredients.  Beat only until smooth.

Divide the batter into the prepared pans and smooth the tops.  Bake for 25-30 minutes, until the layers begin to come away from the sides of the pan and the tops spring back when lightly pressed with a finger.  Run a sharp knife or small icing spatula around the edges of the pan to release the cake from the sides.  Let cool in the pan for 5 minutes and then turn the layers out onto a rack.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The many (happy) faces of chocolate cake

Chocolate stout cake
The past couple of weeks have been filled with chocolate cake.  I know, oh woe is me.  Alas, I don't have pictures of the first cake, a two-layer devil's food cake with fudge frosting, but I will share the recipe (see the end of this post).  It's not difficult to bake, and the recipe doesn't ask you to blow your week's grocery budget on expensive chocolate.  I frosted it with a quick buttercream with melted, unsweetened chocolate added.  Some other delicious choices would be a Seven-Minute Frosting (we call this the marshmallow frosting at our house) or a vanilla or orange-flavored buttercream.  I made it for a Thanksgiving birthday, so I actually baked the cake layers a few days in advance, wrapped them well, and froze them.  It didn't take too long to frost the cake in the midst of the rest of the Thanksgiving preparations.

Flour, sugar, baking powder, salt
The major players
Next up: Chocolate stout cake.  I've seen this recipe all over the place, but hadn't tried it.  I needed a dessert for a women's club meeting last week, so boozy cupcakes sounded like just the thing.  The cake, baked with a cup of Guinness, butter, sour cream and cocoa, has a fine crumb, but stays moist with a deep, dark chocolate flavor.  I'm assuming most of the alcohol from the Guinness bakes out, but add a little buttercream spiked with Bailey's Irish Cream, and it's a party!  (The bottle of wine in my purse may have added to the festive feeling.)

Fluffy buttercream
Eggs and sour cream
But what about the children, you ask?  (Oh, wait--that was them I heard whining, "Where's MY cupcake?")  Lucky for them, we celebrated another birthday on Saturday.  This time I made the cake in a bundt pan and poured some ganache on top.  I resisted the temptation to spike the ganache, but there's always next time.
Go get the recipe here (Smitten Kitchen again), but be assured that you can pick and choose what frosting you use (buttercream? ganache? both? none?).  I didn't adapt the recipes in any way but to reduce the amount of confectioner's sugar in the buttercream.  But the instructions for that are in the Smitten Kitchen recipe, too.  If you need cake for a big crowd, you can double the recipe and make a three-layer cake.

As luck would have it, tomorrow we have yet another occasion that calls for chocolate cake:  the little cherub, Two, is turning Three.  He told Grandma that his favorite flavor was "chocklit."

I'll see what I can do.

Chocolate stout cupcakes with Bailey's buttercream

Devilish Cake
from Maida Heatter's Book of Great Chocolate Desserts

1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder (preferably Dutch process, but I used regular this time)
3/4 cup boiling water
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. baking soda
1 cup sour cream (light is fine)
2 cups all-purpose flour

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Line the bottom of two 9-inch round pans with a circle of parchment, wax paper or foil; grease and flour the pans and set aside.

In a small bowl, whisk the cocoa and boiling water until smooth.  In the large bowl of the mixer, cream the butter.  Add vanilla, salt and sugar and beat well.  Add the eggs one at a time, beating until smooth.

In a small bowl, stir the baking soda into the sour cream.  (It will get foamy!)  With the mixer on low speed, add the flour to the bowl in three additions, alternating with the sour cream mixture.  Scrape the sides of the bowl with a spatula and beat just until smooth.  Then add the cocoa and beat just until smooth.

Pour the batter into the prepared pans.  Shake the pans a little to even out the batter.  Bake for 30 minutes, until the layers barely begin to come away from the sides of the pan.

Cool in the pans for 15 minutes.  Invert the layers onto a rack and cool completely.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Oatmeal bread, no-knead style

Let me begin by apologizing to the aunts and uncles who received bread from me on Thanksgiving.  You got my first attempt at this recipe.  Yesterday's loaves were much prettier.  I do hope it still tasted good!  I should have used smaller pans the first time to get taller loaves.

This oatmeal bread is my latest attempt at everyday sandwich bread.  The basic recipe is from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, and it was definitely less work than the cracked wheat bread I've been baking.  Get this recipe started on Sunday, and you will have a couple nice loaves ready for Monday morning's toast and school lunches.  After being away for several days over Thanksgiving, we needed the smell of freshly baked bread to replace the stale air that had taken over the house while we were gone.

I adapted this recipe, though not all of my changes were intentional.  I used wheat germ, thinking it was wheat bran (even though I do have wheat bran in the pantry!).  In any case, switching the grains in this recipe doesn't seem to do any harm.  Use what you have, as long as you keep the proportions of wet and dry ingredients the same.  I also think this amount of dough makes only two 9"x4" loaves, not three (unless you use smaller loaf pans).  You may need to adjust for the size and shape of your pans.

Oatmeal Bread
adapted from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day

1 3/4 cups lukewarm water
1 cup milk (skim works fine)
1/2 cup molasses, honey or maple syrup
1 1/2 Tbsp. granulated yeast (2 packets)
1 Tbsp. Kosher salt
1/4 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup wheat germ OR wheat or oat bran
1 1/2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
4 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

Mix the yeast and salt with the water, milk, molasses and oil in a large bowl or lidded food container.  Mix in the remaining dry ingredients with a wooden spoon.  You may need to use wet hands to mix in the last bit of flour.

Cover the bowl with a lid or a plate (not airtight) and allow to rest at room temperature for about 2 hours, or until the dough rises and collapses (flattens on top).  In my cold house, this can be closer to 3 hours.

You can shape and bake the loaves now, or refrigerate the dough and use over the next 8 days.  I like to go ahead and bake it all, and put my extra loaf in the freezer for later in the week.

Grease two 9"x4" nonstick loaf pans.  (I have a well-seasoned Pampered Chef stoneware pan that is essentially nonstick, but a regular loaf pan lined with greased parchment or foil works just fine, too.)  Dust the surface of the dough with flour and scrape out half with a sturdy spatula.  Dust the piece of dough with more flour and quickly shape into a ball by gently stretching the surface of the dough around to the bottom, rotating the ball in your hands as you go.  (This is much easier than it sounds.  See this video if you need a visual.)

Stretch the ball into an oval and place it in the pan.  Let rise for 40 minutes (for fresh dough) or 1 hour and 20 minutes (for refrigerated dough).

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Put one rack in the center of the oven, and place an empty broiler tray or metal pan on the lowest rack.

Put the loaf pans in the center of the oven.  Pour 1 cup of hot water into the broiler tray and quickly close the oven door.  Bake for 50 minutes, or until deeply browned and firm.  Cool on a rack before slicing.

One cheese sandwich on a Winnie the Pooh plate, coming right up!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sunday afternoon in the kitchen with Dorie

Spurred by the Dinner at 8 challenge over at Chez Pim, we spent this Sunday afternoon in the kitchen with our kids and three lovely recipes from Dorie Greenspan's New York Times bestselling cookbook, Around My French Table.

A roast loin of pork, an autumnal fruit and vegetable mélange, and a buttery apple cake ("Heaven on a plate," declared the 7-year-old sous-chef).  None of these recipes is difficult, and either of us adults, working alone, probably could have gotten them all to the table in a little under the three hour timeline.  But with the step-by-step instructions laid out in lavish detail on Dinner at 8, I thought this would be a great opportunity to involve the kids in making a real meal, from start to finish.  The meal preparation also became a substantial challenge for us:  to keep the kids engaged throughout the entire preparation, without shooing them out of the kitchen so we could get dinner on the table more efficiently.

Stirring the melted butter for the cake.
Seven, our proficient reader, was in charge of navigating the recipes on dad's iPhone and comparing our progress to the photos on the website.  Five, who always loves to help in the kitchen, stayed right at our elbows demanding a new task no sooner than she finished the last.  (Two was taking his afternoon nap for most of the proceedings--a crucial element to our success.)

The kids learned new skills:  peeling apples, folding cake batter, crushing spices.  They measured, they counted, they whisked and they stirred.  They even paid attention to a short lecture on knife skills.  They discovered endives, leeks and swiss chard, and we discussed why Greek yogurt made a good substitute for crème fraîche.

And I never once heard, "I'm bored!"

Whisking the flour and baking powder.

Apple Peeling 101

Introducing the apples to the batter.

Filling the cake pan.

Prepping the acorn squash for the soup.

Chopping the leeks.

Filling the soup pot.

Preparing the soup garnishes.

How to slice Swiss chard

Starting the stuffing for the pork loin.

Smashing the spices

Two is awake and would like to play with the kitchen twine!

Endive, apples and grapes

After about three hours and 20 minutes (our pork loin was super-sized, and needed to spend some extra time in the oven), dinner was served.  Despite some raised eyebrows and wrinkled noses, everybody tried everything without complaint.  And though they weren't sold on the endive, they ate--even enjoyed!--some of everything else on their plates.  They were so invested in the meal that they set and cleared the table together without their usual squabbles over fork placement and whose turn it was to set the glasses.

Acorn squash soup garnished with toasted hazelnuts and apples

Endives, apples and grapes

Sunday dinner


I probably don't need to mention that the cake was devoured in mere minutes.  Two (who ate his soup with some encouragement from the choo choo train spoon, left the table during the main course, only to return the second he heard the word "cake" from two rooms away) had to be escorted from the table in tears when his cake plate was empty.

We send a huge thank you to Dorie Greenspan for sharing these recipes with us.  I am certain that all three will reappear on our table for many years to come.  And many thanks to Pim Techamuanvivit, whose Dinner at 8 plan inspired us to bring our children into the kitchen to share an afternoon of food and family.