Saturday, May 28, 2011

Sparkling sugar cookies

It's Memorial Day weekend, and I have the perfect cookie recipe for you, whether you're having a backyard BBQ, hitting the pool or beach for the first time this year, or just staying home doing laundry and watching the rain fall. (Yes, that last option is mine. But if the weather turns by Monday, we'll have some cookies to take to the pool!)

I know, I know...there are a million sugar cookie recipes. Why should you try this one? It's soft and chewy in the middle, with crispy edges and a crackled sugar top. It's not brittle or crumbly, so it's a perfect candidate for a picnic basket or a lunchbox. It does take three bowls, but you don't need a mixer. The recipe was developed by the test cooks at Cooks' Illustrated, so you know it's been engineered for success. I did adapt the instructions slightly, because my first batch did not turn out very pretty; the cookies all ran together and I had to cut them apart. By reducing the number of cookies on the baking sheet, they turned out perfectly round. And we loved the festive addition of crunchy sparkling sugar instead of regular sugar as a topping.

I was a little skeptical about the yield of this recipe--only two dozen? That's not going to last more than 48 hours in my house! But these cookies bake up into 3-inch rounds, so everyone was content with just one cookie at a time. We should have enough to get us through the weekend, whatever the weather, and maybe a couple left over for lunches on Tuesday.

Sparkling Sugar Cookies
adapted from Cooks' Illustrated

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp table salt
1 1/2 cups sugar, plus 1/4 cup for rolling
2 ounces cream cheese, cut into pieces
6 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 large egg
1 Tbsp. milk
2 tsp vanilla extract

sparkling sugar for topping

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line baking trays with parchment paper or silicone baking mats. Whisk flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt together in a medium bowl. Place 1/4 cup sugar in a shallow dish and set aside.

In a large bowl, add 1 1/2 cups sugar and cream cheese, and then pour the warm butter over and whisk to combine. Whisk in oil, and then add egg, milk and vanilla. Whisk until smooth. Add the flour mixture and mix with a rubber spatula until the dough comes together.

Scoop the dough, about 2 tablespoons for each cookie, and roll into balls. (The dough will be very soft. Handle it quickly and gently, and don't worry about getting them perfectly round until after you've tossed them in the sugar.) Roll the balls in the reserved sugar,  and place on baking tray in staggered rows, no more than 8 per tray. Flatten balls with the bottom of a glass until 2 inches in diameter. Sprinkle tops with sparkling sugar.

Bake, one tray at a time, until edges are set and golden, 11 to 13 minutes, rotating the tray after 7 minutes. Cool cookies on the tray 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Chocolate cake with white chocolate cream cheese buttercream

Almost 11 years ago, I went and made my own wedding cake, and dug myself into a hole that I will never be able to climb out of. If I can make a wedding cake, what's my excuse for not making a cake for every other occasion? Every birthday, anniversary, baby shower, graduation and First Communion. Is a homemade cake better? Absolutely. Cheaper? Positively. And when I'm piping stars on a cake at 10 o'clock at night, I remind myself that this cake is made with love to celebrate another Very Important Family Milestone, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Still, things have changed in the Home Baked kitchen since I made that wedding cake. I can't remember the last time I made an Italian meringue buttercream or soaked my cake layers in simple syrup. My current favorite cake is anything from The Cake Bible that involves reverse creaming. You get a flavorful, tender cake with a fine crumb, but it's sturdy enough that you don't need to use extraordinary measures (cardboard rounds and sessions in the freezer) to assemble the cake without disaster. Quick buttercreams or cream cheese frostings are easy and foolproof, and don't require the candy thermometer or another dozen eggs.

This past weekend we celebrated Eight's First Communion with family and friends, so I made the Perfect All-American Chocolate Butter Cake. I like that it's a cocoa cake--a whole lot cheaper than chocolate bars--and that even though it calls for cake flour, you can easily substitute all-purpose flour plus corn starch. I frosted it with White Chocolate Cream Cheese buttercream, which is rich, tangy, silky and very easy to make. I usually avoid anything with white chocolate--too sweet!--but mixed with cream cheese it achieves the perfect balance. I love the contrast of the tangy sweet buttercream with the chocolate cake, but it would be delicious on almost any cake I can imagine (mmm...carrot cake, I'm thinking of you).

I kept the decoration simple (and fast!), setting aside about a cup of buttercream to tint for piping. I used a small star tip to create the cross (which I first outlined with a toothpick so it would be centered), and continued with the same tip to make a shell border.

All-American Chocolate Butter Cake
from The Cake Bible

1/2 cup plus 3 Tbsp. unsweetened Dutch process cocoa
1 cup boiling water
3 large eggs
2 1/4 tsp. vanilla
2 cups all-purpose flour
5 Tbsp. cornstarch
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 Tbsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. salt
1 cup (8 ounces) unsalted butter, softened

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two 9-inch cake pans with wax or parchment paper, then grease and flour (or use baking spray).

In a medium bowl, whisk together the cocoa and boiling water. Cool to room temperature. In another bowl, combine the eggs, 1/4 of the cocoa mixture, and vanilla.

In the large bowl of the mixer, combine the remaining dry ingredients and mix on low speed for 30 seconds. Add the butter and remaining cocoa mixture. Mix on low until moistened, and then beat on medium speed (high on a hand mixer) for 1 1/2 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the egg mixture in three batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition.

Pour the batter into the prepared cake pans and smooth the surface with a spatula. Bake about 30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool the cakes on a rack for 10 minutes before loosening the sides with a small knife and inverting them onto the cooling rack. When the cake layers are completely cool, wrap them airtight in plastic wrap until you are ready to frost them.

White Chocolate Cream Cheese Buttercream

9 ounces white chocolate (bars, NOT chips, which do not have cocoa butter)
12 ounces cream cheese, softened
6 ounces unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice

Melt the white chocolate in the top of a double boiler on low heat, stirring frequently, or in the microwave. (My microwave has a "Melt" setting, which works perfectly. Otherwise, use short bursts on low power and remove before all the chocolate is melted--just continue to stir it until it is completely smooth.) Let cool to room temperature.

In the mixer with the paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese until smooth and creamy. Gradually add the cooled chocolate, and then beat in the butter and lemon juice.

This buttercream becomes solid when chilled, so you can refrigerate it and use it later, but you will have to let it warm to room temperature and beat it smooth again. If it seems too warm to pipe, I prefer to set the bowl in another bowl of ice water and whisk until it stiffens slightly.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Best salted brown butter shortbread

I had a little shortbread craving the other day, but my brain linked "brown butter" to the shortbread idea, probably courtesy of this post from Smitten Kitchen. I almost made that shortbread recipe, but for the many comments from readers whose attempts were less than stellar. So I did some research, which led me down a path from Epicurious to King Arthur Flour, and finally to a Cooks' Illustrated recipe for Best Shortbread. Well, that's what I wanted, the BEST shortbread, but made with brown butter and sea salt. So I mixed the Smitten Kitchen recipe with the CI technique of reverse creaming the butter, and this mash up is the result. It's a recipe with a few more steps than I'm usually willing to take, but I found it more than worth the effort. As with many things in life, being the best takes a little more work.

Brown butter
The brown butter and brown sugar give this shortbread a caramel perfume and the sea salt is a delicate--and addictive--contrast. I've been hiding the cookie tin from the kids. How could I waste all that time, effort, subtle sophistication and butter on such undiscriminating palates?

A couple of notes: Don't leave your butter as it's browning. If you're a better planner than I am, you'll take 10 minutes to brown the butter the day before and chill it overnight. I just stick the bowl in the freezer. So be forewarned that you need to do that step at least an hour before you're ready to mix and bake. And before you start, set out a bowl to pour the butter in, and perhaps a fine mesh strainer to strain out the too-dark butter solids. Finally, stir, stir, stir.
Ground oats

12 Tbsp. butter
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 tsp. coarsely ground sea salt

Set out a medium bowl and a fine mesh strainer. Cut butter into chunks and heat in a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Once the butter is melted, stir continually until the flecks on the bottom of the pan turn brown and the butter is the color of tea. Pour the brown butter through the strainer into the bowl. Chill until very firm, about two hours in the refrigerator.

Grind the oats in a coffee or spice grinder (or food processor) until they become a fine powder. Pour the ground oats and the rest of the dry ingredients into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on low for 30 seconds or until the dry ingredients are completely mixed. With a metal spoon, scoop the hardened butter into the mixing bowl. Mix on low for 5 minutes, or until the dough begins to come together and pull away from the sides of the bowl.
Cold brown butter added to dry ingredients

Press the dough together on a sheet of wax or parchment paper and roll it into a log about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Roll the log up in the paper and chill until firm, at least 30 minutes.
Heat the oven to 400 degrees. With a very sharp knife, slice the dough into 1/2-in thick cookies and bake on a parchment or Silpat-lined baking sheet for 5 minutes. Turn the oven down to 250 degrees and bake 6 minutes more, or until just golden around the edges. Remove the baking sheet from the oven and poke holes in each cookie with a skewer or a fork. Turn the oven off, but return the cookies to the oven and prop the door open with the handle of a wooden spoon. Leave in the oven for 30 minutes to dry out.

Remove the baking sheet from the oven and cool the cookies completely on a wire rack. Yields 2 doz. cookies.