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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!

 

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Browned Butter and Smoked Cinnamon Snickerdoodle Cookies

13 Dec

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.

Perks of Working in a Test Kitchen – Part 1

14 Feb

Sometimes the homemade pates de fruits you make for your boyfriend turn out more like dark, amorphous sugar-coated blobs than the gem-toned, sparkling squares of gummy perfection they were meant to be. Shit. Valentine’s Day is ruined!

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Slouchy. Super slouchy.

It’s times like these (and lots of other times, really) that I am thankful for my job. In the Wilton Test Kitchen, there’s always extra cake batter or cookie dough. In just a few minutes, I can go from candy failure to cookie savior and still bring something sweet to my sweetie on Valentine’s Day.

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Never too old for sprinkles. Ever.

I love, love, love Wilton’s Roll Out Cookie recipe, and I’m not just saying that because I work there. It doesn’t have to be chilled before rolling, which is a huge time saver, but if they are rolled, cut, and chilled for just a few minutes, the cookies hold on to their shape really well. It’s flavored with vanilla and almond extracts and a healthy pinch of salt. The cookies are crisp at the edges, and as a crunchy cookie person, I can appreciate that.

Thank you Test Kitchen job, for saving Valentine’s Day!

I’ll be back for those pathetic pates de fruits soon.

The Chemistry of Cookies

20 Jan

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Baking is the tastiest form of science.

Check out this great Ted-Ed video for a fun and informative rundown of the chemical changes that happen as cookie dough changes to cookies. Pretty sweet! (pun intended)

Snow Day In Chicago

5 Jan

Digging out his parking space in the back of the gingerbread condo.

This is what Chicago looks like, but with more sludge and yellow snow.

I’ve shoveled twice today, but other than that, I’ve been hunkered down in the house for over 24 hours, giving me ample time to clean both bathrooms, watch too many episodes of Dexter on Netflix, and mess with the tiny gingerbread houses that went untouched on Christmas day. No candy. No decoration. Just snow, and lots of it.

Tomorrow morning, I’ll be digging out my car to get to the test kitchen, just like the poor guy in the photos. The holidays are officially over, and it’s back to work we go!

And speaking of holidays, and work, and gingerbread, I played with some Gingerbread Houses on ABC7 in Chicago just before Christmas. They were much prettier than this one, so you should check it out! Stay warm and dry!

Making A Gingerbread House.

Coconut Macaroons

18 Dec

Coconut, particularly of the sweetened and flaked variety, is an all-or-nothing flavor. Either you love it, or you loathe it. Me? I fall hard into the “love it” camp. Next time you open up a fresh bag of shredded coconut, take a walloping teaspoon’s worth (see what I did there?) and place it between your gums and lower lip, Skoal style. Let it hang out there until you’ve sucked all of the sugar and taste out of it. Just a pinch gives you long lasting flavor, without the repulsive spitting or chance of mouth cancer!

Several years back, I worked at a bakery that made tiny coconut macaroons at the holidays. Still warm out of the oven, they were like crack to me, somehow chewy and dissolving at the same time. If that bakery had a dollar for every mini coconut mac that ended up in my mouth…they’d have a lot more dollars. And that is what is known in the industry as “shrinkage.” See how I’ve left the name of this bakery out of this post? That’s because I probably owe them some cash.

Coconut Macacoons with Dark Chocolate Drizzle

Coconut Macacoons with Dark Chocolate Drizzle

Once in a while, when I have a spare egg white kicking it in the fridge, I make up a batch of coconut macaroons. They’re deceptively simple little confections, requiring only a few ingredients, all of which are pantry staples, minus the coconut. You don’t even need to bust out your stand mixer for these. And hey – if you make them for a party like I did, and most of your guests end up in the “loathe it” camp, you get to snack on the the macs for days. Win!

Coconut Macaroons

3 large egg whites
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 bag (14 oz.) sweetened shredded coconut
1 oz. dark chocolate, melted

Preheat your oven to 325° F. Line 3  baking sheets with parchment paper.

Vigorously whisk together the egg whites, sugar, vanilla, and salt in a medium bowl until foamy and well combined, and the sugar is nearly dissolved. Fold in the coconut, making sure that it is evenly moistened.

Drop rounded tablespoons about 1 inch apart  onto  the parchment-lined sheets. A small cookie or ice cream scoop works great for this, and makes perfectly rounded mounds.. Using a small ice cream scoop, drop the batter in mounds.. Bake the macaroons 1 or 2 pans a time for 15 to 20 minutes, or until macaroons are slightly golden. If you bake more than 1 pan at a time, rotate them halfway through for more even baking. For a toastier coconut flavor and a more golden appearance overall (like mine), add an additional 1-2 minutes to the bake time. Cool the macaroons completely and drizzle with melted dark chocolate.

Makes about 3-½ dozen mini macroons.

Aside

Brown Butter and Sage Squeezed Sables

18 Nov

It’s mid-November, and somehow my herb garden is still kicking, despite a few days of near-freezing temps in Chicago. My sage in particular is simultaneously taking over the herb pot and giving mother nature the middle finger.

Every year when the weather turns cold, I start scheming up ways to use up the last of the growth, but truthfully, most of the greenery perishes in the pots before I get around to making 27-herb medley pesto, or to freezing small amounts in ice cubes trays for later use. Hey, we can’t all be Martha Stewart.  But it’s really not a big deal. I get a lot of use out of those plants during the warmer months. At $2-3 per herb plant, I get more than my money’s worth, so I don’t feel guilty when I leave perfectly fresh herbs to die in nature’s freezer. But every November I do try to use up small amounts of the bounty.

These Brown Butter and Sage Squeezed Sables are one of those ideas. So much sage, so little time!

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There’s a lot more where that came from!

Don’t know what a sable is? It’s a simple French butter cookie, pronounced sah-bleh, with emphasis on the first syllable. It’s named for it’s delicate, sandy texture, similar to shortbread. Sable dough is usually rolled out and cut into shapes before baking, but rolling out sandy cookie dough can be a mess. There’s no clean way to lightly-flour a counter top. It gets everywhere, and sometimes that fine, but other times you just don’t want to deal with that chaos and clean up. Enter the squeezed sable. No rolling, no cutting, no mess. If you’re super brave and don’t mind finding random bits of cookie dough in the tiny crevices around your kitchen for the next month, you could even do the squeeze-shaping with your kids. Doesn’t that sound like a great time?

These sables are a direct take off of Clothilde Dusoulier’s Roasted Flour Squeeze Cookies. Her brilliant recipe riffs off of a traditional sable by roasting the flour, which imparts an unbelievably rich, nutty quality to the finished cookie. If you haven’t tried baking with roasted flour, make haste to your kitchen. You’ll be amazed at how easily it amplifies the flavor of cookies and cakes.

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Unroasted All Purpose Flour

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Roasted All Purpose Flour

When I think of sage, my mind immediately jumps to browned butter. Those two simple ingredients make a hell of a flavor statement, so I started wondering how they would translate into something sweet. These sables already have a nutty back note from the roasted flour, but browning the butter took it to a whole new level. This cookie dough smelled of toasty pecans, walnuts, and cashews with nary a nut in site. Do people develop nut allergies later on in life? Because if you know a nut-lover with a life-threatening nut allergy, these cookies could fill that nutless-void in a beautiful way.

And as for the backyard-harvested sage? I sprinkled a tablespoon of the chopped leaves into the butter and let them infuse into the butter as it browned. All of the roasting and browning, along with the fresh sage and a hefty pinch of crushed sea salt puts these cookies in that gorgeous gray area, where sweet and savory meld together. This is a really delicious cookie/biscuit hybrid to be eaten on it’s own, but could also easily round out a cheese plate. And if you squint a little bit these rustic beauties kind of look like seahorses. Just a little added bonus!

It’s  worth noting that you don’t need an electric mixer or food processor for this cookie recipe, as all of the mixing can be done by hand with  pastry cutter. Double bonus!

Brown Butter and Sage Squeezed Sables

Brown Butter and Sage Squeezed Sables (not fried seahorses)

Brown Butter and Sage Squeezed Sables

adapted from Clotilde Dusoulier’s Squeeze Cookies, originally from Chocolate & Zucchini

 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 tablespoon minced fresh sage leaves
1-1/3 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon crushed sea salt
1 egg yolk
3-4 tablespoons milk

Preheat oven to 300°F.

Fill a large bowl with ice cubes and 1-2 cups of cold water, so that the ice cubes float. In a small saucepan, cook butter and sage over a medium-low flame until the butter browns and there are small dark brown flecks at the bottom of the pan. It will smell very nutty. Submerge the hot pan in the bowl of ice to stop the butter from cooking. Stir butter occassionally while it is still fluid to speed up the cooling process. Chill until the butter is completely solid.

Spread flour into a thin layer on a rimmed cookie sheet. Roast in the oven without stirring, until the flour has gone from white to a sandy color all over, about 30-35 minutes. Cool the flour completely. You won’t use the oven again for a while, so decide if you want to keep it on or turn it off until the cookies are ready to bake.

Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, stir together the roasted flour, sugar, and salt until they are thoroughly incorporated. Cut the cold butter into 1/4 inch chunks and add to the dry ingredients. Use a pastry cutter to incorporate the butter and dry ingredients, until the mixture is coarse and the butter chunks are smaller than peas. Shaking the bowl gently from time to time will force any remaining large chunks of butter to the top so that you can cut them into smaller bits. Add the egg yold and 3 tablespoons of milk and stir the mixture together until everything is well combined. Squeeze a bit of dough in your hand. If it holds together easily, you are ready to form the sables. If it crumbles instead of holding together, add an additional tablespoon of milk and stir until just combined.

Squeeze 1-2 tablespoons of dough in your fingers to form 2-1/2 inch long cookies. Place the cookies about 1-1/2 inches apart on the parchment-lined cookie sheet. Refrigerate the sheet for 1 hour, or until the cookie dough is chilled and firm.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Bake the sables for 16-18 minutes, or until the edges of the cookies are golden brown. Cool the cookies on the cookie sheet for 5 minutes. Gently transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

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