The Hottest Gingerbread Boy

21 Dec

D.J.’s favorite Christmas cookie is gingerbread, and I thought that we could have a little holiday fun with it. Can you guess who’s is who’s?

Beth and DJ as Gingerbread People

I baked out a couple of giant gingerbread cookies using Wilton’s Grandma’s Gingerbread Cookies recipe.

Nudie Gingerbread Peeps

The regular-sized gingerbread boy is there for size reference, and as a snack to bolster our energy and merriment during the decorating process. They were made from the same gingerbread dough, which rolls out like a dream and has a great blend of spicy flavor with a strong molasses background.

I pulled out my aresnal of icings, gels, and chocolate, and we got busy. Sprinkles were spilled. Tongues stained blue.  For a few minutes, we got to be kids, except for the bourbon that was mixed into my eggnog. We laughed a lot, and it was fun.

Check out that sparkly grill!

D.J. nailed it, don’t you think? The resemblance is uncanny, right down to the rainbow-starred shirt and unfortunate sixth toe. Ok, maybe the extra toes are not true-to-life, but they are good for a chuckle. Either way, that is the hottest gingerbread boy I’ve ever seen.

Twin Blondes!

Wishing you and yours a joyous Christmas with lots of opportunities to reconnect with your inner child!

 

Browned Butter and Smoked Cinnamon Snickerdoodle Cookies

13 Dec IMG_0972

I’ve been invited to a cookie exchange this weekend, and I’m fantastically excited because:

  1. It’s being held in a bar that doubles as an arcade. You’ll find me by the pinball machines,  cocktail in hand.
  2. There are hundreds of people invited, which means thousands of cookies. If the words “thousands of cookies” don’t get you excited, you might be reading the wrong blog.

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It takes me forever to decide what foods to bring to share at parties. As a professional baker and an overly-competitive person, I feel a weird, self-inflicted pressure to over-perform. Mediocre cookies will not be tolerated. My struggle is real.

This holiday cookie exchange is no different. I waffled for too long, sifting through tried-and-true recipes only to shun even the best ones. I racked my brain trying to invent brand new cookies with never-heard-before flavor combinations.

And then I realized that I was trying way too hard.

You’ve heard it a million times before, and it’s true: The best food is made from a few great ingredients and really simple techniques. Christmas cookies are no different. So why not take a classic cookie and up its “cool factor” with a couple of easy tweaks?

Helloooooooo, Browned Butter and Smoked Cinnamon Snickerdoodles. You are the current apple of my eye.

Who doesn’t love a snickerdoodle cookie with its crisped edges leading to  crackled, chewy centers, all encrusted in a fragrant coat of cinnamon and glimmering sugar? They are beloved and delicious just as they are. But browning the butter first gives a toasty complexity, and using smoked cinnamon enforces that.  The traditional vanilla is purposefully omitted to let the caramelized, nutty, and smokey notes shine on their own.  These changes are subtle but worthwhile, taking the humble snickerdoodles of your youth and classing them up a notch. Yup, these cookies are totally “exchangable.”

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Browned Butter and Smoked Cinnamon Snickerdoodle Cookies

2 sticks unsalted butter
2-3/4 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup solid vegetable shortening*
1-3/4 cups granulated sugar, divided
2 eggs at room temperature
2 teaspoons smoked cinnamon**

Fill a large bowl with ice cubes and place a smaller bowl inside, resting on the ice. In a small saucepan, cook butter over medium heat until it is very brown and smells like roasted nuts. Expect the butter to bubble and spatter audibly for a while as it cooks. When it quiets down, start watching the pot so that it doesn’t burn, but the butter should get quiet dark, like really good caramel. Pour the butter into the small bowl over the ice, stirring every few minutes to cool it to room temperature. Don’t let the butter get so cold that it hardens completely. It needs to be soft, but not liquid, to make the cookies.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line a couple of cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Sift together the flour, cream of tartar, baking soda, and salt.

Measure out 3/4 cup of browned butter; reserve the rest for another use.***

In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to beat the browned butter and shortening until it is smooth and creamy. Add 1-1/2 cups of granulated sugar and beat on medium speed until it is light in color and very fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, scraping the bottom and sides of the bowl very well after each egg to get everything well combined.

Add the dry flour mixture in 2 parts, beating on low speed and scraping the bottom and sides of the bowl often. Beat just until a dough is formed.

In a bowl, combine the remaining 1/4 cup of granulated sugar with the smoked cinnamon Roll cookie dough into 1-1/2 inch balls and roll in the cinnamon sugar mixture to coat completely on all sides. Place on parchment-lined cookies sheets 2 inches apart.

Bake for 8-10 minutes until until centers of cookies are set. Remove from the hot pan to the cooling grid immediately.

Makes about 3 dozen cookies.
*Oh, you’re opposed to vegetable shortening, huh? Well, good for you. Feel free to substitute for all browned butter, but you need to know that your cookies will be much crunchier as a result. The shortening keep the cookies moist and soft, especially at days 2 and 3, if they last that long.

**Looking for smoked cinnamon, or any other delicious spices in the Chicago area? Check out Epic Spices at 1725 W. Chicago Ave. You’ll never meet a more friendly, knowledgable, or accomodating spice guy than Stephen, the shop owner.

***Awesome on pasta, fish, chicken, bread…Actually, I can’t think of a single thing that wouldn’t be better with a little bit of browned butter. Make it your new refrigerator staple.

Advice to my 25-Year-Old Self

15 Nov

I’m 35 years old today*.

Yeesh, that sounds old. I’m usually not affected by birthdays or adding another year, not even when the big 3-0 hit. But this year feels different. 35 seems significant. It’s a new box to check on surveys when you’re asked for you age…18-24, 25-34, 35-(the end).

Yesterday I could say that I was in my early-30s, but today there’s no getting around it. I’m firmly planted in my mid-30s.

I’ve been reflective over the past week. I got the urge to look back to where my life was 10 years ago, in 2004, when I turned 25. I was living alone in an apartment in the Andersonville neighborhood, just one month away from finishing my pastry degree at CHIC (now Le Cordon Bleu Chicago), dating a total d-bag, and going out most nights of the week.

If my 35-year-old self could give advice to my 25-year-old self, this is what it would be:

1. Good job busting through the pastry degree while working full-time, but there’s no time to pat yourself on the back. Keep working hard. Getting that degree is the best decision you’ve ever made, and it’s going to enable you to work towards a fun and fulfilling career with loads of opportunities that you can’t even imagine yet. Keep working hard. It pays off. You get to be a part of a small group of people who really love their profession, and that is very special.

2. About that douche bag...He broke up with you on your birthday. On the actual day of your birth. Who does that? He’s not worth your heartache. It’s going to take you a little longer to find the right guy, but it happens. And on that note…

3. Be open to dating blonde guys. Yes, seriously. Let go of the notion you’ve had since childhood that blondes only look good with other blondes. So what if Barbie and Ken were both blonde, and you’re not? It’s a weird and irrational thought.  There’s a tall towhead coming your your way that you don’t want to pass on.

4. Speaking of hair, for the love of all holy things, DO NOT EVER cut your hair into a pixie cut with blonde highlights again. That one “friend” who told you it looked great? She turned out to be a bitch, and you looked ridiculous. For a long time, ridiculous. Keep growing that shit out. It looks better long.

5. A Short Poem About Sunscreen:
Slather it on,
Every Day,
Just little dab,
Keeps wrinkles at bay.
Embrace the paste (of your skin)!

5. You enjoy living alone. You enjoy silence once in a while. You’re doing it right now, but it’s going to be a long time until you can afford it again. The next time you do it, you’ll have a huge sense of pride because you’ve bought your very own space in the city that you love. Tom Hanks’ place will have nothing on this money pit, so start saving.

6. You’re going out. A lot. You’re staying out late, dancing until you’re sweaty, and probably spending too much cash. Keep doing that for as long as you can, because this time doesn’t last forever. Friends are getting married. They’re getting really involved with their careers. Soon they’re going to start families. Slowly, as time goes by, you just don’t see each other as much. Reality is a beast. Take full advantage of this time now. Say yes to every invitation. Enjoy the people in your life. They’re amazing.

7. The migraines are coming! The migraines are coming! There’s not a whole lot you can do about this, but enjoy your 25-year-old so-called “hangovers” while they last. You won’t know real day-after pain until you hit 30 and are forced to swear off the booze for a bit until you can get those headaches in check.

8. Get a personal trainer. You don’t know it yet, but you love it. It feels good to work out really hard. The soreness that comes the day after a session actually feels great. Plus, you can eat a ton and not gain weight which is a total bonus, as your burgeoning cake career is going to involve copious amounts of buttercream frosting.

25Beth

Me at 25.

Beth35

Me at 35. Wrinkle-free, thanks to the magic of candlelight. Pie beats cake!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Written on my actual birthday, but held for digestion for a few weeks before posting.

The Gluten Free Diet – Part 4

28 Jul

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Check out the innermost green jug! It’s almost empty, nearly flourless! I’m down 3 more pounds this week, bringing the total to 5.5 pounds in 3 weeks. I’m halfway to my original goal, and feeling energetic and happy. My pants are fitting a little better, too.

My tip for the week is to track your food intake and own it! Writing down everything that you consume keeps you present and accountable, and it’s also a great tool for figuring out when, why, and how you’ve gotten of track. Sometimes it is easier than others. Logging a salad with grilled chicken breast is easy…logging a fist full of Cheetos is a bit more difficult. But Cheetos happen, and that’s okay. Keeping a food and exercise diary helps me to be mindful of everything I put in my mouth, so I can balance the junk with more healthy options throughout the day and week. It can be time consuming, but for me there is no better way to keep tabs on myself.

Technology makes calorie tracking  a bit easier. MyFitnessPal is my tracker of choice. I use it on my computer and have the app installed on my smartphone, so there is no excuse to not log on. Interested in joining me? Look for Bethylou10 and friend me. We can keep each other motivated!

The Gluten Free Diet – Part 3

21 Jul

 

20140708_203258I didn’t even bother to take a new photo of my flour canisters today. My weight has stayed exactly the same since last Monday.

I was thrilled to see the number on the scale read the same today as it did last Monday. This week was very unordinary in the best way. I traveled to London for work, touring the fabulous food halls of lux department stores like Marks and Spencer and Selfridges and sampling cakes from Peggy Porschen’s Parlour.  I didn’t see a single vegetable that wasn’t fried other than peas, and I’m not entirely sure that peas, in all of their starchy glory, count as veg.

On my trip, I also realized something very important. My croissant consumption goes up exponentially the closer I get to France. Who knew? 

In short, I ate a lot and really enjoyed myself, which is what I set out to do. 

So how did I combat a bump up in weight? I got physical.

I spent 2 straight days working on my feet, and it didn’t hurt that the bake shop we were using was very hot, teetering on the edge of sweatshop. That has to count as some kind of low-impact cardio. 

Outside of the kitchen, I walked. And I walked. And then I walked some more. I’m not much of a planner when I travel, preferring to amble aimlessly, discovering things as I happen upon them. I could walk for hours in Chicago, just taking in the scenery. Put me in a new place, and I could walk for days. I wish that I had a FitBit so that I knew exactly how far I went. I’m betting that I did somewhere between 8-10 miles on Friday alone. 

The morning after I ate a Cornish pasty and chips for dinner, I woke up early to use the hotel gym. The display showed Imperial measurements. I’m not great at math, so I’m just assuming that 2 kilometers is about 12 miles, and that i ran it in less than 30 minutes, making it my longest and fastest run of all time! (Just let me have my delusions. I’m not hurting anyone.)

As soon as I got home, I made trips to the farmers market and grocery store to stock up on fresh produce, lean proteins, and all of the good, healthy foods I need to make fast, easy, healthy meals during the work week. 

Life is too short to deny ourselves all of the time, which is why I thoroughly enjoyed my trip. And now, it’s right back on track. I’m looking forward to losing a little more this week! 

 

The Gluten Free Diet – Part 2

15 Jul

Time zones are stupid. Why can’t we all just live on the same clock? 

I realize that that is not a rational question, but I’m not a rational person right now. 

I’ve been awake for nearly 32  straight hours, on an overnight flight to London. I made good use of my time on the plane, writing a great motivational post centered around the first week of my new commitment to weight loss and a healthy lifestyle, only to accidentally delete the damn thing in a fatigued delirium. I’m at my wits end.

I dropped 2.5 pounds last week! 

2.5 pounds is a good amount of flour. It was very validating to weight it out and transfer it from the green jug to the red. (Read The Gluten Free Diet – Part 1 if you’re confused.)That validation carried me straight through the day, giving me enough motivation to skip all of the candies, chips, and other assorted crap for sale at the airport. Flying out of O’Hare without a calorie-heavy snack is akin to a small miracle for me. 

I stayed on track of my diet last week by constantly reminding myself of my impending travel plans. It’s tough to eat healthfully on the road, especially when a significant chunk of your time is to be spent sampling cakes and puddings. Knowing that the upcoming week would be difficult made it easier to be conscious of my decisions in the present moment. I ate tons of fresh fruits and vegetables. I went out to dinner and instead of overdoing it, I split a burger with a friend. I snuck in 4 workouts throughout the week. 

This week, I’m going to enjoy London. It’s my first time in The U.K. and I’m here with the purpose of getting to know the local cake and dessert customs. There will be lots of eating, and lots of baking. I’ll have my first marzipan-covered fruit cake, stop into Peggy Porschen’s parlor, and wander the food halls of Marks & Spencer. But I packed my running shoes. My hotel has a gym. It will all balance out if I am mindful. 

But first, a nap. 

 

The Gluten Free Diet – Part 1

8 Jul 20140708_203258

Unbleached Whole Wheat Flour

 

Here we have 2 empty red jugs and 2 green jugs filled with unbleached whole wheat flour. They’re filled with 11.5 pounds of flour, to be exact. I’m not entirely sure that I am comfortable with the word “jugs,” but it really seems to be the most fitting noun in this scenario. Onward!

One of the coolest things about working in a test kitchen (and there are loads of cool things) is watching people’s reactions when I describe my job. Some people get glassy-eyed with hunger when I talk about developing recipes for new cookies, pies, and cakes. Some people (mostly guys who idealize the stunt man profession) get a kick out of the product testing procedures, which on any given day may include some or all of the following:

intentional burning 
slow smoldering
audible sizzling
dripping and/or oozing from places that shouldn’t drip or ooze
popping sounds mere decibels shy of ruptured eardrums
microwave sparking to rival an Independence Day fireworks display

Yes, people’s reactions are pretty great, and they give me joy and a renewed sense of gratitude for my awesome job.

And then, it comes – the question to end all questions about my chosen profession as a pastry chef. 

“How do you stay so skinny?”

In fairness, men don’t ask me this question, because seriously, how creepy would that be? But the ladies just can’t seem to resist. They always ask. If I had to estimate how many women have asked me how I stay skinny/thin/trim/fit, or some other such synonym, I’d guess 11 million, conservatively.

Seriously, It just happened a few days ago during an interview with a local Chicago magazine. After 5 years at my current job, and with 5 years of bakery work before that, I should have seen it coming. But no matter how many times I’m asked, it still makes me slightly uncomfortable.

I mean, who really wants to talk about their weight? It’s a pretty personal matter. Even right now, as I’m typing this, I’m having reservations about publishing something like this. My discomfort stems from that fact that I’ve never, ever thought of myself as thin. Even as a kid, when I was very fit from running around playing basketball, I wasn’t stick-skinny. My weight hovered within the size medium range. There were hip-less girls, all angles and length, there were softer girls, and there was me, right in between them. I wasn’t the biggest, and I wasn’t the smallest, and I’m still there today.

Yes, I have easy access to a variety of desserts and pastries all day, every day, so it wouldn’t be crazy to think that I would gain weight, and I kind of have. But I also haven’t. The truth is that I’ve been gaining and losing the same 15 pounds over and over since college. I hover in this weight range, and when the waistbands of my pants start to feel snug, there are certain things I do to nudge the scale back downwards. It usually comes off pretty slowly, since sampling cakes and cookies is basically written into my job description. Abstaining is not an option.

At present, I’m hovering a little too high and I’ve known it for a while. I’ve been letting myself indulge a little too often, both at work and outside of it. I’m at 11.5 pounds on that 15 pound fluctuating range.

11.5 pounds is a whole lot of flour. Those are some heavy jugs.

I’m a visual person, so I’m using the flour to remind myself of my commitment to a healthy weight. and healthy lifestyle. As the number on the scale gradually decreases, I’ll transfer the corresponding amount of flour from the green jugs to the red jugs. Over time, the green jugs will be flourless. It’s the “gluten-free diet.” Get it?!?

Wait…did you really think I was giving my my test kitchen job and going gluten-free?

Every Monday, I’ll share an updated photo of my flour experiment and give a weight management trick that I use in my personal life. This week, my suggestion is to find your own personal motivation. I personally can’t wait to transfer all of that flour from the green to red jars so that I can reclaim all of the precious counter space they’re taking up in my teeny tiny kitchen! Would something like this motivate you? If not, find a way to relate to yourself. What motivates you and how can you keep that motivation top of mind so that you can call upon it when you’re face-to-face with a big piece of delicious pizza? Find your motivations! Share your plans with others to make yourself accountable! Share here – I’d love to hear it!

I’m feeling a little lighter already…

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