Thursday, December 23, 2010

Tis the Season for Easy, Last-Minute Gingerbread

photo by Anthony Palatta

If you're in need of an easy and pretty cookie to bake for the holidays, look no further. I recently tried out this recipe from Everyday Food for gingerbread Christmas trees, and it was a winner. It also makes a TON of cookies.

You start by mixing together flour, salt, and baking soda with spices: ginger, cinnamon, and a surprising amount of cloves for a nice kick.

Next, mix the batter, which has butter, sugar, an egg, and just a quarter cup of unsulfured molasses, which was perfect. I've made other gingerbread that has more molasses than that, and I found it way too much. Stir in your flour, refrigerate for an hour, and you're good to roll.

I found the trickiest part of the recipe was figuring out how to cut the dough into triangle shapes. I decided to first cut the dough into long rectangular strips, about three inches wide, and then cut from there. Also, the recipe said to add sprinkles after the cookies were bakes and cooled, which made no sense to me. How would they adhere? I added mine before baking.

Watch your cookies. Mine cooked faster than the time suggested in the recipe, but then I have a rogue oven. When they're completely cool, set them on sheets of parchment or wax paper and drizzle with stripes of lemon icing. I found the icing in the recipe a bit tart, even for me, a lemon lover. I might look for another recipe there.

Also, if you want more even stripes, fill a plastic bag with the icing, cut off the tip, and carefully apply it to each tree. I found it easier to dip a spoon into the icing and sweep it across several cookies at once, like drizzling melted chocolate.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Chocolate Snowfall Cookies: For Your Holiday Cookie Tray

photo by Anthony Palatta

Last night, I taught my second baking class at Whole Foods, Holiday Cookies Made Easy. The chocolate snowfall cookies in the picture were just one of the four recipes we made. The others were my mother's sugar cookies with easy icing (which I'll profile at another time), lemon/lime/pink grapefruit tassies, and jam-filled cookie windows.

From my experience I’ve found there are three key elements to achieve the perfect mix of cookies for your holiday gift box or dessert tray:  flavor, texture, and color.

Flavor:  Try to choose a variety of cookies that feature different flavors.  Some typical cookie flavors to choose from include:  chocolate, vanilla, butter or sugar, nut, mint, citrus, berry fruit, or spice.

Texture: Also go for cookies that have different kinds of mouth-feel, for example, crunchy, soft, creamy, chewy, crispy, or fluffy.

Color: Go for contrasting colors.  Use icing and sprinkles to add color if necessary.

Arrange your finished cookies on a nice tray.  To give as gifts, buy a flat shirt box at a 99-cent store, wrap the outside in holiday paper, and line the inside with colored tissue paper.  You could also clean out an empty potato chip canister and cover it in wrapping paper.  Another option is an empty box of parchment paper, wrapped and filled with cupcake liners for the cookies.  Finally, buy a baking pan, line with colored tissue, and fill with cookies, and maybe even a recipe or two.  

One last suggestion:  Keep a few extra go-to, easy recipes in case you need to fill in gaps at the last minute.  Bake your favorite chocolate chip cookies, or whip up a batch of peanut butter blossoms, always popular and easy.

Here's the recipe for those chocolate cookies in the picture:

Chocolate Snowfall Cookies
(adapted from Williams-Sonoma’s Essentials of Baking)

Makes about 30 cookies

These easy-to-make cookies look very impressive and taste like a rich brownie with a sweet crunchy crust.  TIP:  Do not let them rest on baking sheets too long after they come out of the oven or they’ll get burned on the bottoms.

4 ounces good-quality unsweetened chocolate, chopped (I like Ghirardelli)
¼ cup unsalted butter
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup cocoa powder (Dutch-processed is recommended, but I’ve used regular)
2 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
4 large eggs
2 cups sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 ½ cups mini semisweet chocolate chips
½ cup confectioner’s sugar

1.     Melt the chocolate and butter, while stirring, on top of a double boiler placed over simmering water.  Once melted, remove and set aside to cool.  In a medium bowl, stir together flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt.

2.     In a stand mixer, beat eggs, sugar, and vanilla on medium speed about 3 minutes, until light in color and thick.  Beat in melted chocolate-butter on low until blended.  Add dry ingredients just to combine.  Fold in chocolate chips.  (NOTE:  this process can be done by hand with a wire whisk.)

3.     Wrap dough in plastic wrap and chill in freezer for about 1 hour, until dough is firm enough to roll into balls.

4.     Preheat oven to 325.  Line baking sheets with parchment paper.  Place confectioner’s sugar in a bowl.

5.     Roll a rounded tablespoon of dough into a ball between your palms, then roll in confectioner’s sugar until completely covered.  (It should look like a powdered-sugar covered Munchkin from Dunkin Donuts.)  Place the cookies 3 inches apart on baking sheets.  Make sure to set them firmly on the sheet so they stay in place.

6.     Bake the cookies, 1 sheet at a time, until tops are puffed and crinkled and feel firm when lightly touched, 13-17 minutes.  Let the cookies cool on the baking sheets, but NO MORE THAN 5 MINUTES, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.  Freeze, or store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Stick to Your Buns

My friend Karen and I have been talking for a while about baking sticky buns together. The other weekend, I went over to her place and we finally went to work.

Baked goods that involve yeast are often not that hard to make--if you have a good bit of time on your hands. You mix up some stuff with the yeast, then wait an hour for the dough to "proof," or rise. Then you do some more stuff to it and wait another hour. Then you do some more stuff and--guess what? You get the picture.

Today, however, I learned a little trick to make the proofing go faster.  Place your dough in a bowl, then place the bowl in a bowl of warm water.

Whichever way you do it, when you're finally ready to bake, the smell of fresh bread in the oven makes it all worth it.

Click here for a link to the recipe Karen and I used. A few notes:

1. Make extra sour cream filling and spread the inside of the dough with plenty of it.

2. Our dough didn't come together as smoothly as we'd expected, but we went ahead and baked it anyway. Absolutely delicious.

3. I bet these would have been great drizzled with some white icing!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A Pretty Addition to Your Holiday Cookie Plate

photo by Anthony Palatta

Thursday, December 16, I'm going to be teaching my second baking class at Whole Foods, Holiday Cookies Made Easy, so I've been practicing a few of the recipes recently, including this one for jam-filled cream cheese dough cookies.  (Click the link above to get the exact recipe, but be sure to read the notes below, as I've modified the process somewhat.)

Last year, when I was making my holiday cookies, I realized that though I'd made a variety of flavors, they'd all turned out the same color: brown! So at the last minute, I made these, to add a bit of color and to add a fruit theme to my chocolate/butter heavy mix.

They were a hit. The cookie tastes rich, yet not too sweet, complimented by a raspberry or apricot filling.

I also love the fact that with one recipe, you can get several different flavors and two different shapes, the square and then the round one with stripes of jam showing through.

And though they look fancy, they're actually quite easy to make, with only a few ingredients. After you've assembled the dough, rolled it out, and chilled it, cut out circles or star-shaped cookies.

Dollop the centers with just the right amount of jam, not too much or it'll overflow, but not too little, or all you'll taste is the cookie. It's somewhere in the neighborhood of 1/2 a teaspoon, but you'll see as you start forming the cookies. You want them to be just bursting with jam, but not exploding.

Next, brush the edges with egg wash. I learned from the blog Culinary Covers (which tries out recipes on the covers of cooking magazines) that this step is crucial, or your cookies will burst open while baking.

For circles, pinch at opposite egg-washed ends of the circle, then pinch again at the other ends, and you get a square. For stars, fold in all the egg-washed points of the star to the center to get the striped effect.

A few other things to keep in mind. The Culinary Covers post recommends rolling the extremely sticky dough in flour rather than on parchment, as recommended by the recipe.

I tried a compromise. After mixing the dough, I rolled it between parchment and chilled in the fridge as directed by the recipe. Then I peeled off the parchment and dusted the dough in flour, and after cutting out shapes, continued to re-roll the dough in flour.

And though the recipe called for baking at 375, I found that way too hot. 350 was just fine for me. I also increased the amount of sugar in the dough from 1/3 cup to a heaping 1/2.

Do NOT brush the tops with egg wash as recommended by the recipe. You'll end up with a cookie that has a weird pale yellow splotch on top. Yuck!

Options: You may want to mix mini chocolate chips into the dough. Also, you might want to dust the top with sanding sugar. I happened to have yellow in the house, so I used that this time. But clear might be pretty, or maybe green?