Monday, November 28, 2016

Getting Ready for the Cookie Extravaganza


Every year around holiday time, I go crazy for cookies.

My holiday cookie baking obsession began several years ago, when I met the poet Jeanne-Marie Beaumont, who's a wonderful baker, and I asked if I could join her while she made her holiday cookies. As her two beloved cats slinked between our legs, we filled her Manhattan kitchen with dozens of cookies, some rolled, some baked as bars and then cut when cooled, some shaped, and some pushed through a special cookie dough extruder known as a "spritz" cookie press. Jeanne-Marie had an antique metal press she'd found at a garage sale, I believe, and it was fun to fit in the various disks and push out different shapes of cookies.

We had so much fun that our holiday cookie baking became an annual ritual. We'd scour cookbooks and magazines for new recipes to try, and learned to balance out flavors, colors, textures, and even processes. For example, it's no fun to make dozens of cookies that are all brown, or several doughs that all have to be rolled out.

I'd then share the results of our labors with friends, family, co-workers, doormen, dry cleaners, anyone in the neighborhood I knew and wanted to reach out to once a year, just to say, hey, I see you. I appreciate you.  I hope you have a great holiday.

When I moved to Washington, DC, four years ago, I couldn't let go of this beloved tradition, so I began baking on my own. The trouble was, I was making more cookies than I knew what to do with, so we decided to throw a small party and invite a few people over to share them.

Four years later, the party and the number of cookies I make have grown by quite a bit. I'm actually trying to cut back, but it's hard, with so many great new recipes to try. It's fun to see the trends in cookie-making from year to year, ranging from the whoopee pie craze, to green tea flavored cookies, to this year's craze:  funfetti. All three will be represented at my cookie table this year, alongside classics like gingerbread and sugar cookies.

Among the many lessons I've learned along the way:

1.  PLAN AHEAD!  It's not fun crashing through a whole bunch of recipes at the last minute. I divide my cookies into three categories:  A) cookies that can be made entirely and frozen until you need them B) cookies with dough that can be made ahead, frozen, and then baked off when you need them, and C) cookies that have to be made from scratch at the last minute.

In fact, almost all cookies freeze pretty well, but I do tend to find that some, like whoopee pies, just taste better when freshly made.

2.  BALANCE.  Different flavors, different textures (I have to remind myself to make a few crispy cookies like biscotti because my natural tendency is to soft-bake cookies), different colors, different shapes and sizes, different processes of cookie making.

3.  CONTROL.  This is something I'm still learning.  No cookie table needs four lemon-flavored or four  strawberry-flavored cookies. One of each, two max, is probably enough.

Pictured above are my spritz cookies, delicious buttery bite-sized morsels that can be decorated in a variety of ways including with sprinkles, melted chocolate, and candy melts. (I officially hate candy melts now—they harden up and clog your piping bag in the blink of an eye.) Though my spritz cookie press is a plastic version that I found at Michael's, not a lovely metal antique, as I use it, I think back to those early days when my friend Jeanne-Marie and I baked together in Manhattan, with plumes of flour rising from our hands and the mewing of cats resounding about our feet.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Leftover Halloween candy. Do you freeze it? Donate it? Throw it away?

What I like to do is re-purpose it, specifically for this leftover Halloween candy shortbread recipe. You start by making a shortbread crust in an 8 x 8 pan, baking for about a half hour. Then you melt chocolate chips on top, which acts as a glue. Finally, you scatter various candies across the top. In the picture, I've got a mix of M&Ms, Kit Kats, Twix Bars, and Reeses Pieces.

The original recipe calls for cutting the results into 16 squares. I cut those into half again, resulting in 32 "fingers." As you can imagine, this is a rich dessert, best savored in small portions! 

Leftover Halloween Candy Bars
(adapted from Everyday Food)


INGREDIENTS

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup packed light-brown sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons coarse salt
2 cups all-purpose flour (spooned and leveled)
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
2 cups assorted chocolate candies or roughly chopped candy bars (12 ounces)

DIRECTIONS


1.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat butter, brown sugar, and salt on medium-high until light and fluffy, 3 minutes. With mixer on low, add flour in three additions and beat until combined (dough will be crumbly). Press dough evenly into an 8-inch square baking dish. Bake until golden brown and firm, 30 to 35 minutes.


2.  Scatter chocolate chips on top of shortbread. Bake until soft, 1 minute. With the back of a spoon, spread chocolate evenly over shortbread. Scatter candies over top. Let cool on a wire rack 30 minutes. Refrigerate briefly to set chocolate, then cut into 16 bars, then cut again into 32 fingers.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Pumpkin Creme Brûlée


It's that time of year again:  Everything seems to be flavored with pumpkin, at grocery stores, coffee shops, restaurants. Yes, we have the ubiquitous pumpkin spice latte (which doesn't taste very much like pumpkin to me), but there's also pumpkin flavored cookies, pasta sauce, cereal, sandwich cookies, on and on.

So it's a good thing I happen to love pumpkin, especially in desserts. Which is why I'm going to add to the craze by sharing this recipe for pumpkin creme brûlée. It's easy and a great make-ahead dessert, especially for Thanksgiving. 

You'll need some special equipment, starting with ramekins, which are the little white ceramic cups like the one in the picture above, and are cheap and easy to find at any kitchen supply store. You'll also want a mini torch, just because they are super cool and fun to use--though if you don't have one, you can just put these custardy treats under the broiler.

At the end of the process, you'll have leftover egg whites, which you can save for healthy egg white omelets (to offset the creme brûlée), or for meringues or macarons. Put them in a plastic container with a label of how many egg whites are in there. Though if you forget, usually an egg white measures out to be 1 liquid ounce, so you could measure it out that way.

Enjoy!

Pumpkin Creme Brûlée
(adapted from Thanksgiving 101)

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

2 cups heavy cream
2/3 cup packet light brown sugar
5 large egg yolks
1 15-ounce can solid pack pumpkin (NOT pumpkin pie filling)
1 tsp ground cinnamon (I use a heaping teaspoon because I like cinnamon)
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
1/8 tsp salt

To caramelize the top of custard:
1/3 cup of brown sugar or white sugar, depending on your preference

Directions

Place a rack in the center of the over and preheat to 350 degrees.

In a medium saucepan, heat cream over medium, stirring often, until simmering. Remove from heat and stir in brown sugar until it's dissolved. Boil about 3 cups of water.

In a medium bowl, whisk egg yolks, pumpkin, spices, and salt. Gradually whisk in the hot cream mixture. Pour equal amounts (about 1/2 cup) of pumpkin custard into 8 6-ounce ramekins. Place ramekins into large roasting pan and place in the oven. Pour enough boiling water around the cups to come 1/2 inch up the sides. (Be careful not to get the water into the custard.) Bake until the custards are set but jiggle a little when gently shaken, or until a knife inserted into the center of custard comes out almost clean. Custards will continue to cook when removed for oven. This takes about 1 hour and 15 minutes.

Remove custards (carefully) from water and cool completely on a wire rack. Cover each custard with plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled, at least 4 hours or preferably overnight. (Custards can be made 2 days ahead.)

To caramelize the tops, either use a hand-held propane torch or position a broiler rack 6 inches from heating element and preheat the broiler. Dust the tops of the custards with white sugar or rub 1/3 cup of brown sugar through a wire sieve over each custard. If using torch, simply burn away.  If using broiler, put the custards on a baking sheet and broil, watching carefully to avoid scorching until sugar caramelizes, 1 to 2 minutes. Serve immediately.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Holiday Cookies, 2015 Edition



After last year's holiday cookie fest, I decided to cut the number of cookie flavors I'd make by a third. Instead, this year I ended up with two more.

I began the process this fall, going through magazines, cookbooks, and websites, trying to find the right balance of flavors, colors, and textures for my table. Then, in mid-November, I began making doughs and stuffing them into my freezer. Last week and this week, I've been steadily baking them off, ending with a frenzied day of decorating before the party.


There's no time for actual baking on the day of the party. It takes two hours to simply place all these different cookies on plates!

Here are a few closer up shots of the cookies:


The brownie-stuffed chocolate chip cookies were the hands-down most popular cookie--all gone by the party's end.


My favorite are the gingerbread (far left).  Also pictured here are (on the first tiered stand, top to bottom), lime beltways, dark chocolate stars, caramel crumb bars, orange cookies, black forest (cherry-chocolate) cookies, and oatmeal lace.


On the glass tiered stand, you can see girl scout thin mints, jam-filled pinwheels and windows, and rose sandwich cookies, so difficult to make, but beautiful. On the silver stand are some banana bars with cream cheese frosting, peanut butter blossoms, and extremely delicious coconut macaroons.



At the top of the picture are some key lime pie cookies (my adaptation in miniature of a key lime pie cupcake sized version) and black and white cookies. In the center of the picture are almond crescents dipped in powdered sugar and chocolate cookie cups with milk chocolate ganache filling. In front are cinnamon espresso cookies (filled with chocolate covered espresso beans), candy cane cookies (so fragile, I prayed they'd make it to the party without breaking too much!), and gluten-free plus dairy-free peanut butter chocolate chip cookies (no flour or butter, pretty much peanut butter and sugar!).



At the bottom of this picture, you can see a great shot of a plate of assorted thumbprints. Using two types of dough, you can make an amazing number of different flavored cookies. My favorite was a vanilla dough, rolled in non-pareil sprinkles, and filled with white buttercream frosting--an insanely rich guilty pleasure. Next to that are lemon bars, which were a sticky favorite that I had to keep refilling during the party.  At the top right is a tiered stand with pecan tastes, lemon cardamom crinkles (one of my favorites), and cranberry bliss cookies, an inspired riff on the Starbucks cranberry bliss bar.



Behind the lemon bars are Mexican hot chocolate cookies, drizzled with cajeta, a goat's milk dulce de leche. Next to those are a trifle dish filled with pumpkin macarons sandwiched with pumpkin ganache--a very difficult cookie to make, but very popular as well. Up front is a tray of Italian-themed cookies:  pignoli, or pine nut cookies, dipped in powdered sugar; milano sandwich cookies, some flavored with mint (pink) and others with almond (blond); a ring of pistachio and chocolate checkerboard cookies--absolutely buttery and delicious, from the cookbook The Good Cookie by Tish Boyle.



On the top left, we have my mom's Hannukah cookies, decorated in pink, yellow, green, blue, and purple buttercream frosting. On the raised plate in back are linzer cookies, almond-vanilla dough filled with raspberry jam and topped with powdered sugar. Finally, in front are red velvet whoopie pies with cream cheese filling, a perennial favorite. I can never make enough of them!



Here's a complete list of the cookies below, as well as links to some of the recipes if you want to try them at home!  The recipes without links were not available online, but I may be adding them over time...

1.  Gingerbread with lemon icing
2.  Lime meltaways
3.  Dark chocolate stars
4.  Caramel crumb bars
5.  Orange cookies
6.  Black forest (chocolate cherry) cookies
7.  Oatmeal lace cookies (bake these on silicon mats for the best results)
8.  Chocolate covered thin mints
9.  Jam-filled pinwheels and windows (bake these at 350, not 375 as the recipe directs and PINCH HARD or the cookies will explode in the oven)
10. Rose sandwiches with fluff buttercream
11. Brownie-stuffed chocolate chip cookies
12. Banana bars with cream cheese frosting
13. Peanut butter blossoms
14. Coconut macaroons
15. Almond crescents (from Joy of Cooking)
16. Cinnamon espresso cookies
17. Candy cane cookies
18. Key lime pie cookies (make these in mini muffin tins, bake the crust for 5 minutes only)
19. Black and white cookies
20. Chocolate cookie cups with milk chocolate ganache filling
21. Gluten-free/Dairy-free peanut butter chocolate chip cookies
22. Pecan tassies
23. Lemon cardamom crinkles
24. Cranberry bliss cookies
25. Assorted thumbprints
26. Mexican hot chocolate cookies
27. Lemon bars (the best lemon bars ever, hands down)
28. Pumpkin macarons with pumpkin ganache (this recipe has several mistakes in it and is difficult to make. Only attempt if you're an experienced baker with a lot of patience and time on your hands)
29. Frosted sugar cookies
30. Milano sandwich cookies
31. Chocolate pistachio checkerboard cookies
32. Pignoli cookies
33. Linzer cookies (a tough dough to work with out of the fridge, but it gets easier as it goes along and is so wonderful to taste!)
34. Red velvet whoopie pies (I omit the peppermint in the recipe, replace it with vanilla in the filling)



Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Jumping on the Pumpkin Bandwagon

It's that time of year when everything's pumpkin flavored. Let's set aside the fact that most "pumpkin" offerings (pumpkin-flavored coffee, oatmeal, sandwich cookies), including canned pumpkin, contain no actual pumpkin. For a longtime pumpkin lover like me, I enjoy seeing the rest of the world catch up to my gourd preferences.

This recipe for pumpkin scones studded with cranberries and served with cinnamon butter is an instant fall classic, and not too difficult to make--provided you have a box grater. More on that in a minute.

There are a few tricks to serving up a good scone. Only serve scones the day you bake them. Don't overmix the ingredients. And above all, keep big chunks of butter in your dough so they puff up your scone in a hot oven.

I've read all kinds of ways to accomplish the latter, but until I tried this recipe (designed by folks at Beauty & Essex Restaurant in Manhattan and published in Bon Appetit) I had never heard of grating cold butter as if it were cheese. In fact, as I was preparing these scones, family members kept asking me what kind of cheese I was adding to the dough.

Once you've prepared the scone dough, you have to freeze it before baking--which means the scones can be made well in advance and stored in your freezer until the day you want to bake them. I cut mine into bite-sized portions, though interestingly, they take just as long to bake as the larger sized versions.

The final result is a cakey scone spiced with a nice gingery kick and an occasional burst of cranberry. Top yours with some of that rich homemade cinnamon butter.


Pumpkin Scones With Cinnamon Butter
(adapted from Bon Appetit)

Ingredients

Cinnamon Butter
¼ cup (½ stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 teaspoon pure maple syrup
¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon kosher salt

Scones
½ cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon baking soda
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for surface
¾ cup (1½ sticks) chilled unsalted butter
½ cup chopped fresh (or frozen, thawed) cranberries
1 large egg
½ cup canned pure pumpkin
¼ cup buttermilk, plus more for brushing
2 tablespoons raw sugar


Directions
1.  Make Cinnamon Butter.  Mix butter, maple syrup, cinnamon, and salt in a small bowl. Cinnamon butter can be made 4 days ahead. Cover and chill.

2.  Whisk granulated sugar, baking powder, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, salt, cloves, baking soda, and 2 cups flour in a large bowl. Using the large holes on a box grater, grate in butter, tossing to coat in dry ingredients as you go; toss in cranberries. Mix in egg, pumpkin, and ¼ cup buttermilk.
3. Transfer dough to a lightly floured surface and pat into a 1½”-thick disk. Cut into 8 wedges for large scones, or 24 bite-sized wedges; transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Freeze until firm, 25–30 minutes. Can stay frozen up to three months until the day you want to serve them.

4.  Preheat oven to 400°. Brush scones with buttermilk and sprinkle with raw sugar. Bake until golden brown, 25–30 minutes. Serve with cinnamon butter.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Brownies With a Surprise Green Ingredient--No, Not that One

One of the pleasures of making zucchini brownies is asking people to taste them, without saying what they are, and asking for guesses about the mystery ingredient. Yes, it's something green. No, not what you're thinking...

So how do you turn this:


into this?:

And won't you taste something green and stringy and nasty?

Not if you're using this recipe from the nice folks at King Arthur. They have you puree the zucchini in a food processor, so that it keeps the brownies moist during the baking process, and allows you to skimp on butter, which sounds kind of healthy, doesn't it? In fact, the entire batter is made in the food processor in about five minutes--couldn't be easier.

The first time I made these, I followed the directions and greased the brownie pan rather than lined it with parchment. Mistake! These brownies are loaded with sticky chocolate chips that make brownie removal a pain. The next time, I used trusty parchment, and the brownies came right out.

Also, whenever I make anything with chocolate, I always use a little of King Arthur's black cocoa--this is the stuff Oreos are made from. It gives an extra boost of chocolate richness to the results.

The brownies themselves are dense and fudgy, with a thin coat of ganache on top just to gild that lily. I can't decide which zucchini dessert I like better these days:  zucchini cupcakes with cream cheese frosting or these brownies.

Oh, well, I guess I just have to make them both!

Zucchini Brownies
(adapted from King Arthur Flour)

Ingredients:

Brownies:
8 ounces zucchini (about one 8" fresh zucchini, trimmed), cut into chunks*
3 tablespoons butter, melted
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup sugar
2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder. (I like to do half black cocoa and half regular cocoa)
1/2 teaspoon espresso powered optional; for enhanced chocolate flavor
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
heaping 1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips
*If you don't have a scale, 8 ounces is about 1 1/2 cups shredded zucchini, lightly tamped down.

Frosting:
3/4 cup semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips
1/4 cup heavy cream or 3 tablespoons milk


1) Preheat your oven to 350°F. Lightly grease a 9" square pan and line with parchment.  (I cut two sheets of parchment and line the pan like a plus sign, grease with Pam to glue them down, then use binder clips to keep them in place.)

2) To make the brownies: Combine the zucchini, melted butter, eggs, and vanilla in the work bowl of a food processor, and process until smooth.

3) Add the sugar, cocoa powder, espresso powder, baking powder, salt, and flour; process briefly, just until well combined.

4) Add the chips, and pulse several times, to break up the chips just a bit.

5) Pour the batter into the prepared pan.

6) Bake the brownies for 25 to 30 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, or with a few moist crumbs clinging to it; you shouldn't see any sign of wet batter. Remove the brownies from the oven, and allow them to cool completely before frosting.

7) To make the frosting: Combine the chocolate chips and milk or cream in a microwave-safe bowl or small saucepan. Heat until the milk is steaming, and the chips are soft. Remove from the heat, and stir until smooth.

8) Spread the frosting atop the brownies. Place them in the refrigerator for an hour or so, to set; then store them at room temperature, covered, for several days.  If you want to freeze the brownies, do not frost them before freezing.

Yield: 16 brownies.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Ice Cream Without Machines

When I was a kid, my father brought home a massive white metal box, the size of a large television. It took up almost half of our kitchen counter and was almost impossible to move. This monstrosity, he promised, would make us ice cream.

After a few attempts that resulted in tiny messy batches of rubbery ice cream that failed to evoke whatever of the various exotic flavors that Dad had been attempting to impart, we gave up on the machine, which collected dust for about a decade before finally meeting some ignominious end. (Either we junked it or my father gave it away to some worthy charity so he could get a tax deduction. Knowing my father, I'd probably wager on the tax deduction.)

In the years since, whenever I've considered buying an ice cream maker, I've thought back to that ill-fated machine of my youth. Those scars, it seems, have not fully healed. And so, it seemed that ice cream making would never be a part of my dessert repertoire.

But then I came across this recipe from Everyday Food for a truly no-churn coconut ice cream. I'm still a bit unclear as to why a recipe this easy works so well and why more people don't do it this way. Yet there's no arguing with the results:  a creamy, luscious, velvety ice cream that I'd choose over anything in the supermarket, and certainly over any of that waxen stuff I see people licking when they come out of Baskin Robbins.

Did I mention there are only six ingredients? And that it takes about six minutes to put together?

Give this a try. Even if you think you don't like coconut. Even if you think you don't like ice cream. Even if like me, you've been scarred by ice cream makers past.

No-Churn Coconut Ice Cream
(adapted from Everyday Food)

Ingredients:

1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
1/4 cup unfiltered coconut oil, melted
3 tablespoons Malibu Original rum
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt
2 cups heavy cream
Coconut flakes, for serving

Directions:

1. In a large bowl, whisk together sweetened condensed milk, coconut oil, rum, and salt. In a separate bowl, beat cream on high until stiff peaks form, about 1 1/2 minutes.
2. Whisk half the cream into milk mixture. Fold in remaining cream. Transfer to a 4 1/2-by 8 1/2-inch loaf pan. Cover with plastic wrap and freeze until firm, at least 6 hours, and up to 1 week.