Stop and Smell the Cookies

DSC_0006

We have been baking for Christmas for the past few weeks. At last count we made sixteen different kinds of sweet treats – mostly cookies, but also toffee bars, marshmallows and fudge. And we came up with a few new recipes that I will be sharing with you soon, after a few more test batches to tweak them a bit.

I am done with the Christmas baking for this year. At least I think I am. We have enough cookies for gifts. We have enough cookies for holiday parties. We have enough cookies to set out when family comes over. And I don’t have any more time to bake – the schedule is full until after New Year’s Day. But I keep thinking of new cookies I want to bake – maybe just one more batch of almond shortbreads or cocoa snowflakes. I need to stop.

Along with reining in my compulsion to bake, I am also trying to rein in my need for perfection. Several batches didn’t turn out like I wanted this year – even the ones that I didn’t royally mess up with obvious mistakes. The gingersnaps tasted fabulous this year, but about half of them were flat, flat, flat. And the cocoa snowflakes spread out too much and were flatter and crunchier than I would have liked. And I messed up the Russian teacakes. And…

DSC_0012

All through the baking, and the packaging, and the gifting I have to talk to myself. I know no one will look at the cookies with my critical eye. I tend to forget that I am making the cookies for family and friends, as a gift of love and time. That is all they see, and that is all I should be giving. Not the worries that they aren’t perfect, or that last year’s were better, or that someone else could do better than I could.

I know I’m not alone in doing this. Maybe not about baking, but about finding gifts for our families and friends. We worry that we won’t have enough presents for people, or that we spent too much, or too little. Or that it’s the wrong color, the wrong size or just the wrong thing. I know it’s cliché to talk about finding the reason for the season, but sometimes the clichés are spot on. We all need to take a deep breath, step back a bit and relax about the whole thing – the to do lists, the parties, the gifts, the wrapping. It will all come together in the end and it will all be wonderful.

DSC_1442

The whirlwind of fun starts tomorrow for us, and it goes pretty much until after New Year’s Day. My brother and sister-in-law are visiting for Christmas week. Then we leave for Florida to spend a week with Rich’s parents. We are in for two weeks of family game nights, way too much food and plenty of visiting time. And you know they’ll be plenty of cooking and baking going on, just maybe no cookies.

In the spirit of letting go and enjoying the season, I’m taking a couple of weeks off from writing blog posts. Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!

Advertisements

Get the Scoop on Chilling Your Dough

DSC_0058

The weeks leading up to Christmas are cookie-baking time around our house. We give cookies for presents, take them as our contribution to potluck holiday parties and package them up for hostess gifts. We have done this since the first year we were married, and I don’t see us ending the tradition any time soon.

We make about twelve different kinds of cookies every year. Most of them are drop cookies, or the kind you roll into balls before baking. Some of them require a little more effort, but none of them are complicated or time consuming. As I write this, I realize many of our favorites are the roll-into-balls recipes – gingersnaps, Russian teacakes, chocolate chip doodles and snickerdoodles. The recipes instruct, “chill the dough before forming into balls for baking.” This often ends up with me using my forearm muscles of steel to scoop rock hard, chilled cookie dough.

The other day, when I was fiddling around, fixing my Russian teacake mistake, I had a revelation. If I scooped the dough balls first and then chilled the dough I would be getting the best of the process. I could scoop soft, creamy dough with ease and then chill the balls. Then, when I was ready to bake, the heavy lifting (so to speak) would be done and I could just place the balls on the pans and bake.

It works beautifully. Mistakes lead to innovation. And no, I’m not comparing myself to an inventor of say, rubber or the Slinky. It did kind of rock my cookie-baking world, though.

Try the method with any dough that calls for an hour or two of chilling. Portion out the dough right after you mix it and then chill the balls in an airtight container for up to a week. You can freeze them if you want to make them further ahead.

Oh, and in the free time that you will have if you use my revelatory method, you can kill some time on the internet. Try typing, “mistakes that led to inventions,” into any search engine and you will get some interesting reading.

How Not to Make Russian Teacakes

Kitchen mishaps happen to us all, but I seem to be having a rash of them lately. Thanksgiving week it was the turkey and the oven. Last week it was the half recipe of the chocolate olive oil cookies. This week it was Russian teacakes.

Rich and Calvin help with all the other cookies we bake for Christmas gifts, but Russian teacakes are mine. I make the dough by myself, and I do the baking and powdered sugar coating by myself. I have a system and it is my alone time in the kitchen every Christmas season.

It is both calm and restful to me as I work my way through my tried and true system. I make the dough one day and leave it to chill until I have a block of uninterrupted time. On baking day, I get into a rhythm of baking and coating hot cookies in powdered sugar. In about an hour I have a double of batch of snowy, powdered sugar covered, buttery cookie balls.

DSC_0024

This year the process was not so calm and restful. I looked into the oven while the first batch was baking to find the pan full of flat, buttery puddles. I guess I didn’t put enough flour in the dough. The cookies usually start out as balls, and they bake up into slightly bigger balls. Not these. I had mixed up the dough almost a week before, so I had no idea if I had put all the flour in. I doubled the recipe, which meant I needed four cups of flour. I guess I lost count.

I should have used the mise en place method, which is French for “put everything in bowls that you will have to wash later since you don’t have a staff of apprentice chefs to wash them for you.” Or, if you want to be particular, it means measure everything out before you start. I don’t usually do this, but I do get all the ingredients out that I need, and I put them back in the cabinet as I use them. Obviously that didn’t help me keep track of my cups of flour.

To save the dough I added a cup of flour. Then I baked one cookie to see if that was the answer. It seemed to be, but the dough was too warm for the ball to retain its shape as well as it should have. I really wanted to get the cookies done that day, so I portioned out all of the dough into balls and chilled them for a few minutes. That was so much easier than chipping off hard blocks of chilled dough that I may do it that way all of the time. Not the forgetting a cup of flour part, but the chilling the dough balls instead of the big batch of dough part.

DSC_0044

I now have most of a double batch of Russian teacakes, ready for gifting. And I have twenty cookies’ worth of buttery crumbs that will be delicious on ice cream. With the crumbs from the failed batch of chocolate olive oil cookies we should be set to have an ice cream sundae party when the family is here at Christmas. It’s the baker’s version of making lemonade out of lemons.

Buttery Cream Wafers

DSC_0012

I first had these cookies several years ago. I was teaching a bread baking class to friends from church and their friends. While we were waiting for the bread to rise we snacked on some of the cookies one of the women had brought to share.

The cookies were rich and buttery, but not very sweet. Most of the sweetness came from the filling sandwiched between the shortbread-like cookies. I immediately asked for the recipe. And then I didn’t make them until now. That is how baking goes sometimes.

I did change the original directions just a bit. They were cut-out cookies, which I really don’t like making. I just don’t have the patience for the process. And the re-rolled scraps are never as good as the rest of the cookies. I prefer to make logs and slice off the cookies – faster and easier.

Just one note: if you follow my directions, the edges of the cookies aren’t quite as neat as  cut-out cookies would be. I’ll take a few ragged edges for the ease of slicing the logs. We sliced and baked the cookies in about twenty minutes. If you really want perfect edges, you can certainly roll out the dough.

DSC_0006

The original recipe has a simple butter and sugar combination for the filling. I added cinnamon to half the filling mixture. I liked the subtle spiciness next to the delicate buttery flavor of the cookies. I included the cinnamon variation in the recipe.

I also like the cookies unfilled. They are a nice contrast to sweeter cookies on a cookie platter. Sometimes butter and cream can do the job all by themselves.

Print the recipe here.

 Buttery Cream Wafers
From the Cook’s Life
Makes about 25 sandwich cookies

You can fill these your favorite icing if you prefer.

Dough:
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, room temperature
⅓ cup heavy cream
2¼ cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup granulated sugar, approximately

Filling:
¼ cup (½ stick) butter, room temperature
¾ cup powdered sugar
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract

Cinnamon Filling Variation:
Add ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon to the filling. Beat until it is uniformly mixed, with no streaks of cinnamon.

Don’t preheat the oven. The dough needs to chill before baking.

Beat the butter until creamy. Mix in cream and flour.

Divide the dough in half and place each half on a sheet of plastic wrap. The dough should be relatively easy to handle, though greasy. Shape each half into a log about 1 inch in diameter. You don’t have to be exact. Try to keep the logs uniform so your cookies will all be about the same size.

Wrap the dough logs in the plastic wrap and refrigerate for several hours until dough is firm. You can refrigerate the dough for several days, or freeze for up to a month. If you are storing for the longer period of time, slip the plastic covered logs in a plastic bag or airtight container to keep them from drying out.

When ready to bake preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Place granulated sugar on a large plate or piece of waxed paper or parchment. Slice the logs into ⅜ to ½-inch thick rounds. Press each flat side into the sugar and place on ungreased baking sheets. Prick the top of each with a fork a few times.

Bake 7-9 minutes, or until firm, but not browned. Cookies are fragile. Let them cool a few minutes on the pans before transferring them to wire racks.

While cookies are cooling, beat filling ingredients together until light and creamy. Spread filling in a thin layer on half of the cookies and top with the remaining cookies.

Store in an airtight container for several days. Freeze for longer storage.

Cookies for Later

DSC_0023

I spent a lot of Friday working on various kitchen projects, which is pretty much my idea of an ideal day. I planned to make cookies, but I only got as far as mixing up the dough and sticking it in the fridge to deal with later. By the time I remembered it I was out of energy and the inclination to bake the cookies was gone. I left the dough in the fridge for the next day.

Between one thing and another, baking cookies wasn’t going to be part of Saturday’s plan either. I decided to freeze the cookie dough balls to bake another day.

The concept is simple – portion out cookie dough (this works with any drop cookie recipe) as if you were going to bake the cookies. You can put them as close together as possible, just try not to let them touch or they will freeze together. Instead of baking the cookies right then, freeze the dough balls on a cookie sheet. Once they are hard, which only takes about half an hour, put them in a ziplock bag. The frozen dough balls will keep in the freezer for several months. Label the bag with the name of the cookie recipe, since the dough balls can be hard to identify later. And you won’t remember what they are. Trust me.

DSC_0007

When you want to bake cookies, preheat the oven according to the cookie recipe directions, pull out as many dough balls as you like, place them on greased cookie sheets and bake them frozen. They might need an extra minute or two in the oven, but that is the only adjustment you need to make. You can bake any number of cookies – the whole batch, a dozen for a quick after-dinner treat for the whole family, or just a couple for you to eat by yourself, whenever you need a quick pick-me-up.

Family Reunion Baking

DSC_0015

Everyone bakes when they are getting ready for a family reunion, right? I know the first thing I think of, even before deciding what to pack, is what I am going to bake. I suspect I might be blackballed if I showed up without at least some baked treats. In fact, this year, one of my aunts called me last weekend to ask what I was bringing. One of my cousins (grown, mind you) wanted to know what I was baking so he could start anticipating. High praise, in any book.

When I was in high school I started baking cookies a week ahead of time so we would have enough for the long reunion weekend. Everyone loved the cookies, but they moaned about all the calories, usually as they were eating another one. I only baked a few the next year, so everyone wouldn’t be tempted. And I was greeted with a chorus of disappointment when I showed up without the cookies. You just can’t win sometimes!

DSC_0001

This year I am taking chocolate oat bars and oatmeal chocolate chip cookie bars. At least the oatmeal chocolate chip bars are semi-healthy – or a little less unhealthy. I am also taking a lemon variation of my whole wheat zucchini muffins (recipe coming soon). I needed to use up some of last year’s frozen produce to make room for this year’s and a double batch of muffins took care of two bags of grated zucchini. On that same note I am taking some of last year’s frozen peaches to make into peach cobbler after we get there. Nothing beats warm peach cobbler, and it isn’t exactly a good traveler.

DSC_0051

I am skipping the huge batch of bread this year – the one that popped the top off its container while it was rising and then baked up into four huge loaves of bread. I figured I could do without a repeat of that adventure. Instead I am taking a homemade mix for hamburger buns. We are arriving a couple of days before the big reunion dinner, so I am waiting to bake the buns there to make sure they will be as fresh as possible.

Now that the baking is done and everything is in the freezer, waiting to go in the car at the last minute, I can think about packing. Priorities, you know.

Almond Tuile Cookies

DSC_0021

Tuile recipes have intrigued me for awhile, but I have never gotten around to making any. I had the perfect opportunity last week when we were on spring break. Calvin had requested almond crème brûlée when we gave him the choice of what to make for dessert. I wanted something crunchy to go with the custards – tuiles fit the bill. And with my mother-in-law, Mary, visiting I would have extra help to shape the hot cookies.

DSC_0027

The cookies aren’t hard to make, and they are truly impressive. They would be beautiful turned upside down and filled with ice cream – a nice dinner party dessert that would knock the socks off your guests for sure. They are crispy, fragrant with almond and a subtle hint of vanilla. I preferred the sesame seed tuiles, though the sliced almonds were a close second. The chocolate-topped ones were good, but I thought the chocolate overpowered the almond just a bit.

The original recipe called for a vanilla bean, which I didn’t have and didn’t want to go out and buy for an experimental recipe. I used vanilla extract, and threw in almond extract to go with the flavor of the crème brûlée.

DSC_0033

Be sure to watch the cookies like a hawk. I left the kitchen, trusting the baking time in the original recipe. Mary’s nose just saved that pan – we were able to snatch them out of the oven before they burned. I shaved over five minutes off the original baking time when I tweaked the recipe. Your oven may vary from mine, so be vigilant until you see how long each pan takes to bake.

It was easy to get all the cookies shaped before they cooled, with two of us working. Calvin said he was going to help, but the lure of the computer pulled harder than baking on this particular afternoon.

DSC_0024

If you are by yourself, you might have trouble getting them shaped fast enough. You can either do fewer per pan, or leave some of them flat. Flat ones would be pretty tucked into the top of a scoop of ice cream. Next time I think I might make them smaller, especially if I leave them flat. I expected them to be about the size of a Pringle potato chip, but they were twice that size. The cookies are on a standard sized dinner plate, to give you an idea of how big they are.

No matter what size or shape you make, your tuiles will be crunchy, crispy goodness packaged in a cookie. Add a little ice cream, custard, crème brûlée and you will be in dessert heaven.

Download or print just the recipe here.

Almond Tuiles
Adapted by The Cook’s Life from Everyday Magazine
Makes 24 large cookies

⅔ cup granulated sugar
7 tablespoons flour
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ cup butter, melted
3 egg whites
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
½ cup sliced almonds, chopped chocolate or sesame seeds (or a combination of all three)

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking liners. You can grease the baking sheets instead of using parchment, but it might be hard to get the cookies off without wrinkling them.

Mix sugar flour and salt in a medium bowl. Add butter, eggs whites and extracts and mix until smooth.

Use about a teaspoon of batter for each cookie. Do no more than 6 cookies on a sheet, leaving plenty of room between them. Use a wet finger to spread cookies into large circles, about 4 inches in diameter. Use a ruler – 4 inches might be bigger than you think. Sprinkle each cookie with your topping of choice.

Bake only one pan at a time. Bake until cookies turn golden around the edges, about 9 minutes, depending on your oven.

While cookies are baking, set up your area so you will be ready. Have a rolling pin, or two, if you have them, on a folded towel to keep it from rolling. You could also use a glass bottle or smooth glass if you don’t have a rolling pin. Set these up next to a rack or trivet for the hot pan. You will also need a thin metal spatula (I used an offset icing spatula and it worked beautifully).

When the first pan is baked, move it immediately to your work area. Quickly, but gently remove each cookie from the pan and place it on the rolling pin. Press it gently around the curve of the rolling pin and then move on to the next cookie. By the time you get two cookies done, the first should be cool enough to remove from the rolling pin, if you need the space. As the cookies start to cool they won’t be pliable enough to curve.

Note: If you don’t want to mess with the curved cookies, use you can also just leave them flat. I would recommend smaller cookies if you are doing this, with maybe a ½ teaspoon of batter for each.

Cool cookies to room temperature before eating. Store in an airtight container for several days, or freeze for longer storage.