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.