Friday, 20 December 2013

Chocolate Reindeer Delight Children

Have I mentioned that Charlie, my one and only child, is not a fan of Sugar Cookies? Crazy, isn't it? They're the cutest cookies on the tray and he doesn't want any part of them (more for me!). That's why I decided to make Chocolate Cutout Cookies for him this year. 

I started with a Martha Stewart recipe but I didn't have much luck with the dough. I made it on the same night that I made the dough for the Lime Meltaways and the Lemon Crinkle Cookies and it was extremely crumbly, more like what I'd get with a shortbread rather than a sugar cookie dough. I had to toss it out — I couldn't roll it or gather it or do anything cookie-related.

There might have been a problem measuring the unsweetened chocolate, I admit.  It's not sold in Baker's squares here. In fact, I was hard-pressed to find unsweetened chocolate at all in my local shops. I usually get it from Mom or Skyco but I found Willie's Cacao in Waitrose last year and it's very good artisan cooking chocolate (but a bear to measure because it comes in two 90-gram disks).

I found a versatile recipe for Chocolate Cutout Cookies at King Arthur Flour's website that was infinitely better all around. First of all, King Arthur's site is so user-friendly. Recipes can be adapted to grams, volume or ounces (making it easier if you're using 90-gram disks of chocolate and 250-gram blocks of butter). This recipe was originally published to make haunted houses for Halloween and calls for "black cocoa" but works equally well with all Dutch-processed cocoa (which suited me). It's made in one bowl and you don't need a stand mixer — I made my dough in a large measuring jug.

I used only one cutter: a reindeer. The decorations were simple too. I either used a red dragée for a Rudolph-type nose, or three white dragées to dapple the deers' backs. Some had both because Charlie liked them that way. He even helped! They turned out really cute and their simple chocolate flavor pleased my boy — a win-win result.

So, if you're looking for a tasty alternative to Sugar Cookie Cutouts, try these yummy and easy Chocolate Cutout Cookies, Cookie No. 7 of 20 cookies to celebrate 20 years of Our Cookie Journal.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Merry Citrus!

I'm an admitted chocoholic when it comes to cookies (well, why stop there?) but I am a sucker for a pucker too!

Lime-Glazed Cookies
For the past few years, I've been obsessed with Lime-Glazed Cookies. It's another Martha Stewart recipe that I find dependable and delicious. I love how the cookies and the icing boast green flecks of zest. It's another slice and bake cookie too — perfect at this busy time of year — but they're shaped rectangularly, so that adds a nice twist too.

Lime Meltaways
Because I'm celebrating 20 years of Our Cookie Journal this year with 20 types of cookies, I decided to make another lime favorite, Lime Meltaways — again from Martha! — that always reminds me of my eldest niece, Michelle, back home.

I can remember squeezing more lime juice than the recipe calls for and making her a limeade with the leftovers before we started making the cookies. She always favored them (I've even mailed them to her from abroad), so I made them in her honor and thought fondly of her and the lovely times we shared when she was a girl. (The next day, I called her and we had a nice long-distance chat!)

Logs o' Lime

Fortunately, Lime Meltaways are another easy slice and bake cookie too. I made the dough the day before and rolled it into logs, which I wrapped in parchment and paper towel tubes and stashed in the fridge overnight.

Look at all that zest!

The delicate, zest-studded coins produced are cooled on wire racks, then — while still warm — coated in confectioner's sugar. They're so light and airy (there's cornstarch in the dough) that they literally melt in your mouth. Take care shaking them in the powdered sugar though — there can be casualties (which, of course, must be eaten immediately!).

Lime Meltaways
I always tend to make one lime-flavored cookie for the Christmas cookie tray but one year tried Citrus Slice 'n Bake Cookies from a recipe that Mom shared with me from Land O' Lakes. They're easy to make and the logs are rolled into colored sugars. They look very pretty and taste yummy.

Citrus Slice 'n Bake Cookies

But I saw an interesting recipe for Lemon Crinkle Cookies at Lauren's Latest blog that looked very appealing. Again, confectioner's sugar is used but these are coated before baking.

Roll Lemon Crinkles in powdered sugar

Crinkles can be baked right away, as the dough is rolled into balls, like Peanut Butter Cookies. I was mixing doughs together after dinner, though, so I wanted only to clean up, stow the doughs, and get to bed. The next day, I was raring to go and cranked out four dozen Lime Meltaways and four and a half dozen Lemon Crinkles. The kitchen was fragrant and fresh and I couldn't wait to sample both types!

I tend to heap in the zest...

The Lime Meltaways were just as glorious as ever — tangy little clouds of lime that went down a treat with a cup of tea. And the Lemon Crinkles surpassed my expectations. The sugar created a crisp exterior and the centers were lovely and chewy. The heaping tablespoon of lemon zest made them zingy and satisfying. It was impossible to have only one — but I froze the rest!

In the freezer they go...
Either of these cookies would make a perfect addition to your cookie tray — or repertoire, if you can't squeeze them into your busy schedule at Christmastime (even thought they are a snap to make). So I have a classic and a contemporary making the cut, with Lime Meltaways as Cookie No. 5 and Lemon Crinkles as Cookie No. 6 on my list of 20 Christmas cookies to celebrate 20 years of Our Cookie Journal.

Lemon Crinkle Cookies

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Sugar Cookies Are a Joy to Make

Last weekend I made Sugar Cookie Cutouts, which brings me only to Cookie No. 4 of 20! These cookies are kicking my butt this year. Especially since I decided to make 20 different kinds to mark 20 years of Our Cookie Journal

Sugar Cookie Cutouts are always a huge process anyway because they normally take two to three days to finish completely, especially if you're trying to be organized. First I had to select my cutters from a huge collection. I decided to take it easy on myself this year and chose only four (JOY, holly, tree and snowflake) and three colors (red, white and green). I used Martha Stewart's recipes for Sugar Cookies and Royal Icing because they're foolproof and very familiar. I usually do a few more shapes and also make blue and yellow icing but I'm trying to rein it in a bit. HA!

I made the dough the day before, so it was nice and chilled, as it should be, when I rolled it out. I try to cut the cookies as close together as possible because this dough can get tough if you re-use it too many times. I always squeeze the scraps together, flatten out the dough, cover it in plastic wrap, and stick it back in the fridge before using it again too. Once the cookies are cut out, I transfer them to parchment paper-lined baking trays, then put them in the fridge to set. This helps the cookies retain their shape, with nice sharp edges (making them easier to decorate later). If you don't use your fridge and these steps for your sugar cookies, they're going to melt as you go and they'll look a bit wonky.

It's best to keep the same shapes on the same trays, too — that way the smaller ones won't get over-baked. And don't worry if some of them become too golden brown on the edges — icing is going to cover a myriad of mistakes! Remove the cookies from the oven as soon as they start to brown on the edges and are set— even before they seem ready — because they continue to bake on the sheets. Then put them cool on wire racks to cool completely. I put the cooled cookies into covered cake pans until they're ready to ice (later that day or the next day). 

Meringue powder might be expensive but it's worth it. I haven't used egg whites in Royal Icing for over a decade. It's just too easy to use and safe for anyone with whom you share your cookies (raw egg whites can be dangerous for some folks!). I separate the icing into bowls (matching the amount of colors to be used) and add gel paste food coloring (this is important: liquid is out, OK? It changes the consistency of the icing if you add too much and the colors aren't as vibrant). Use skewers or toothpicks to remove the gel paste; then use spoons to mix to the desired color.

Keep the icing covered when you aren't using it or it will dry and harden. That's a good reason to keep a wet cloth handy to wipe up any spills too. Before I mix my icing, I get out all the things I might need, including piping bags and tips; clips or rubber bands to securely close the piping bags; a toothpick or two for tweaking mistakes; a few small plates, to keep sprinkles at bay when decorating cookies; a tall glass with a wet paper towel in the bottom of it to hold the icing bag when it's not in use (the paper towel keeps the tip from drying up); and trays to corral the decorated cookies that need to dry.

I also get out a tray and sort out the decorations that I'm likely to use (sometimes I don't know what will work or appeal to me until I try it). There are so many choices now: dragées, nonpareils, colored sugars, sanding sugars, edible glitter, edible spray, colored pens, etc.). 

Always outline Sugar Cookies first with icing as it is. This gives the icing a border and it won't run all over the place. After you've outlined the cookies, thin out the icing so that when you drizzle it onto itself (in the bowl) the ribbon of icing sinks in almost immediately. This consistency will be perfect for flooding the outlined cookies. Do three or four at a time, then add decorations while the icing is still wet. 

In the vein of giving myself a break, I decided to do my snowflakes differently. I simply decorated with lines of outline-consistency icing, then topped in a variety of ways. (As you can see, some of mine over-baked; those will be eaten by me and NO I did not do it on purpose so I could have more to myself.)

I was equally carefree about my candy canes this year. I reckoned that as long as they were red and white, they were suitable and I created my "interpretation" of candy canes.

I put the most effort into my JOY cookies because it's one of my favorite cutters. These take planning because you have to outline, fill and decorate x 3 (one for each letter in JOY). They are so cute though that it was worth it. If I weren't making 20 different cookies this year, I would have spent more time on all of these to be sure (like last year's Sugar Cookies). 

I wound up with 9 1/2 dozen Sugar Cookie Cutouts. I let them dry completely (usually overnight because I don't normally finish till the wee hours) before stacking them between layers of parchment paper in a tin or similar container. Then they go into the freezer with the rest of the cookies until it's time to tray or box them up for giving/sharing/eating. 

Remember, Sugar Cookies are so very versatile. There are people out there who can make cookies that look too good to eat. Yours can be works of art, too, if you enjoy this kind of activity. But they can be fun to make with children if you aren't so picky about the results. Just cover the table and let them go nuts! Icing isn't mandatory either; sugar cookies can be sprinkled with decorations before they bake and go straight into the cookie jar or lunchbox.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Happy St. Nicholas Day!

As is tradition in many European countries, St. Nicholas leaves coins and treats for children on Dec. 6. He 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!).

Last year on this date, I made Speculaas Koekjes (Dutch Spice Cookies) but I had to make a slice-and-bake version because I didn't have a cookie mold in the shape of Sinterklaas. 

I still don't. I really thought I'd find one in my shoe this morning, or even in my stocking for Christmas last year but the only shoes that were filled last night were Charlie's! Even though my family has never celebrated St. Nicholas Day, my love for cookies led me to this holiday and its traditions (and my son was more than happy to join). 

I guess I will have to get a mold or stamp myself. They are making a comeback, from the searches I've done. There are many on eBay, vintage and new, made of everything from wood or ceramic to metal or even silicone. I much prefer the look of the old ones; but the new ones might be easier to use. This calls for more research. The mold/stamp above is from Rycraft, a family-owened business that produces terra cotta stamps in a variety of designs. Again, I'm going with traditional — St. Nicholas all the way!

Between decorating the tree for another upcoming holiday, and baking 5 dozen Cinnamon Swirl Cookies Tuesday, I didn't have much energy left for cookie baking Wednesday but I managed to get two doughs made and stashed in the fridge. I'm going to make Sugar Cookie Cutouts this weekend (it's a looooong process) and I baked Grandma Baker's Overnight Cookies yesterday.

Overnights are SO easy. It only takes a few minutes to whip up the dough, which is made from simple ingredients everyone is bound to have on hand (brown sugar, eggs, butter, flour, baking soda). They also call for cream of tartar, a funny spice that usually winds up near the back of my spice cabinet because it's not that much in demand. Technically known as potassium hydrogen tartrate, its a white owner that is most commonly used to add stability to egg whites. In this recipe, it keeps the sugar from crystallizing and gives the dough a creamy texture.

I added pecans to half the dough because Charlie really likes these cookies but he doesn't like nuts. I shaped the dough into logs, sealed them in plastic wrap, and put them in my trusty paper towel tubes before placing them in the fridge — overnight. Since I was finished for the evening, Charlie and I had a Christmas video marathon: "Frosty the Snowman," "Frosty Returns" and "It's Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown."

The next morning was a breeze — just slice, bake, slice, bake — it was all very assembly-line-ish. I topped both varieties with sugar crystals to make them a bit more special for the holidays.

This year I halved the recipe and still wound up with 3 dozen of each type! That is one family-sized recipe Grandma Baker used. Since I'm shooting for 20 different cookies this year to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Our Cookie Journal, I'm mostly sticking to single batches. Naturally, there will be exceptions (Chocolate Chip Cookies, for sure!).

So, I hope you will have a Happy St. Nicholas Day and bake some Speculaas, or try my Grandma Baker's Overnight Cookies, which I have named Cookie No. 3 of 20 in the 20-cookie celebration of the cookie diary's anniversary.

His and hers: Mine have pecans (left) and his don't.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Celebrate National Cookie Day!

It's National Cookie Day, so I'm celebrating with a batch of Cookie No. 2 of 20 cookies to celebrate 20 years of Our Cookie Journal: Cinnamon Swirl Cookies. It's Martha Stewart's recipe but I've made a few tweaks to suit my own taste — naturally! To wit: the recipe calls for walnuts and I used pecans instead; I didn't put orange zest in the dough this year either. Don't get me wrong — they're good her way. In fact, I followed the recipe exactly last year. But I was looking for a Snickerdoodle replacement because I'm never happy with the cinnamon-to-cookie ratio and these looked like they would do the job nicely. And they did — but this year without the orange zest.

I've always found recipes to be quite stingy with fillings and toppings too. They never seem to provide enough. I wish I had noted this last year (maybe I did; I forgot to review) but I will definitely be doubling the filling portion of this recipe next time I bake them. They still turned out nice but I am greedy for that cinnamon-pecan-brown sugar filling!

Get started early with these (or the night before) because the dough has to go in the fridge (or freezer) a few times.

The dough for Cinnamon Swirls is sticky, so be sure you have your plastic wrap ready on the countertop. Go ahead and shape it into a rectangle, since that's the ultimate shape you're going for when you roll the dough. First, it needs to go in the fridge for at least an hour.

When you bring it out, place it on a floured piece of parchment or plastic wrap, so it can be transferred to a baking tray and returned to the fridge to firm up again. After you get both rectangles in the fridge, you can concentrate on the filling.

Not only do I prefer pecans to walnuts (in baked goods), I decided to toast them too. I toast them first, then chop them. I make the filling in a large liquid measuring cup, so I can divide it equally between the two rectangles. The filling is spread onto each chilled rectangle, then rolled from the long side, to create a spiral. I found it infinitely easier to use plastic wrap than parchment paper (which Martha advises); it made rolling the dough a snap.

I always keep paper towel tubes on hand with my cookie supplies. I cut a slit lengthwise, then place the cookie dough log inside and stash in the fridge or freezer. The tube helps the roll hold its shape (so you don't wind up with one flat side). You must work quickly, though, slicing the cookies into 1/4-inch-thick coins, and returning the logs to the fridge whenever you aren't slicing. I also store sliced cookies that have been trayed in the refrigerator as they're queuing to go into the oven.

Cinnamon Swirl Cookies make a delicious choice for National Cookie Day but they're even better for Christmas. If you find yourself too busy to bake today, you can always make No Bake Cookies, which we used to call School Fudge, and save the pinwheels for the weekend. They are one of the easiest cookies in the world to make.

Cinnamon Swirls are definitely worth a try though! They're so great because you can make the dough (and filling) ahead of time and either refrigerate or freeze until you have a bit of time to bake. They are delicate, fragrant and delicious every time. I love the chewiness the filling provides between each tender cookie swirl.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Happy Anniversary, Our Cookie Journal!

Cookie No. 1: Hedgehog Cookies

As I've said in previous posts, I'm marking 20 years of keeping a journal about baking Christmas cookies this December. My sister gave me the blank diary and I've tried to make entries every year — some were better than others (years, entries and cookies!).

To celebrate, I decided I would make 20 different types of cookies this Christmas. I will make a few standards that we cannot live without, add a few winners from last year, and I hope to discover a few yummy new treats to add to my recipe repertoire. I'm re-reading the journal (as I do every year), collecting ingredients and new recipes, and getting ready for Christmas cookie baking!

Ever since Charlie has been able to voice his preference, I have started the Christmas cookie season with his favorite: Choc-Oat-Chip Cookies. If you read this blog, you already know that we call thoseHedgehog Cookies because our standard cookie jar is Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle jar and I try keep her stocked with his faves off-season. This time of year, I suppose we could call them Snowman Cookies, but Charlie's nickname has stuck.

They're so easy to make because I don't have to chill the dough, most of the ingredients are quotidian, and I have a KitchenAid stand mixer! I love looking back on the early journal entries, when we made all these goodies by hand! I nearly always make a double batch and stash half in the freezer.

We found the recipe in our old edition of "Joy of Cooking" by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker (1975, The Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc.).  It's a classic and I've never altered it.

I usually read a recipe over before I start (except these, because I know them by heart after all these years!). But it's a good idea to plan the steps of the recipe before throwing ingredients into the bowl. Most people get their ingredients assembled, at the very least, along with any tools needed, such as a bowl for the dry ingredients, a rubber scraper or measuring cups and spoons.

Butter might need to be softened; nuts chopped; dough chilled. If a recipe calls for sifted dry ingredients in a bowl, though, I put them in a large measuring cup and use a whisk. So easy. And if I forget to soften the butter or leave eggs out to get room temperature, I can nuke the butter for about 10 seconds at a time until my thumbprint makes an indent; and leave eggs in warm water for 10 minutes.

I get the cooling racks and a cookie turner at the ready on the table. I line the baking trays with parchment paper, which I reuse for the whole yield, turning the paper after each use. Works a charm! If I'm baking a lot of cookies or I can't get many on a tray, I add more sheets to the rotation so the trays are cool whenever I'm dispensing cookie dough from my trusty scoop. If I'm making dough that needs to be refrigerated, I put the squares of plastic wrap on the counter before I get dough all over my hands.

So please read over the recipe, get everything together, and try Hedgehog Cookies (or Choc-Oat-Chip Cookies), the 1st cookie of 20 to celebrate 20 years of Our Cookie Journal.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
1/2 c butter
Add and cream well:
1/2 c firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 c granulated sugar
Combine and beat until smooth:
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
1 Tbsp milk
Sift together and add to the above ingredients: 
1 c sifted all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp double-acting baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
When beaten smooth, add:
1 c uncooked quick rolled oats
3/4 c chocolate chips
Beat the mixture well. Drop cookies 2 inches apart on a well-greased cookie sheet and bake 10 to 12 minutes or until light brown.

Yield: about 3 dozen