Get the Scoop on Chilling Your Dough

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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.

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Nutmeg – Freshly Grated Makes all the Difference

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Do yourself a favor in the flavor department and buy some whole nutmeg. A small jar of whole nutmeg will last for years and really will keep its flavor that long, in its unground state. Freshly ground nutmeg tastes stronger and fuller than already ground nutmeg and will give your recipes that extra “something” that everyone will love, but no one will be able to identify.

Now some people really dislike nutmeg, and I can’t help you with that. I’m talking to both my dad and my father-in-law here. Skip the rest of this post and try reading this one on cinnamon French toast instead. For the rest of you, read on.

If you have never seen whole nutmeg, it looks a little like a smooth peach pit or a small pecan in the shell.  The spice is actually the seed of a fruit. As an aside, the spice mace is the dried outer covering of the nutmeg seed. Pull that fact out at your next party and amaze and delight your friends.

Freshly ground nutmeg sounds so fancy and snobby, but it makes such a difference in your recipes. The flavor boost is like the difference between already ground black pepper and freshly ground from a pepper mill. Do you feel snobby when you grind pepper onto your baked potato? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t, but try freshly grated nutmeg and you will never go back.

Freshly ground nutmeg is stronger than already ground nutmeg – you might want to use slightly less than the recipe calls for. You can always use more, but you can’t really take it out, obviously.

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You need a microplane grater or the finest side of a box grater (the rough side that you are always scraping yourself on) to grate nutmeg. I need to write a separate post on microplanes – I use mine so much it hardly has time to dry between washings, but that is another day. To grate nutmeg, you simply rub the end of the nutmeg against the microplane or grater. Tiny shavings of nutmeg will fall away. You don’t need to use much pressure, and you get enough nutmeg for most recipes in just a few seconds. I like to put the measuring spoon flat on its back under the microplane, resting on a plate since you can’t aim with precision. Then I grate away until the spoon is mostly full. Scrape the surrounding grindings into the spoon and proceed with the recipe.

Get a microplane, if you don’t already have one, buy some whole nutmeg and start grating. A host of pies, muffinscakes and cream sauces awaits you.

Sharpen your Knives

DSC_0025Every time I sharpen my knives I wonder why I waited so long. My dad is a careful steward of my parents’ knives and I know he sometimes bites his tongue at the state of the knives in my kitchen. I was watching a cooking show the other day and saw the chef cut raw meat like it was soft butter. I need to get my knives as sharp as that.

Any job, from trimming raw meat to slicing vegetables is so much easier if your knife is sharp ­– you can let the knife do the work for you. If you find you have to put some muscle into it, your knife is dull.

You don’t need to pay an arm and a leg to have your knives sharpened. You can do it yourself in just minutes, and it isn’t hard. A simple sharpening stone is easy to use and costs less than ten dollars. You can also get a sharpener that you draw the blade of the knife through, sharpening both sides of the blade at the same time.  As with anything, sharpeners come in a range of prices, but you don’t have to break the bank.

What are you waiting for? Go sharpen your knives.

Thanksgiving Dinner Hints – Part Two

I hope I didn’t come off as a know-it-all in my post on Monday. I am the last one to claim that I am the expert on hosting large groups of people, but I do know what makes it easier for me. So, with proper humility, I give you the rest of my tips for making Thanksgiving dinner (or any other big dinner party) a little easier.

Everyone knows the party always ends up in the kitchen. I love it and think it is great. If you are someone who doesn’t like to share the cooking, or you have a tiny kitchen, plan for that. Have appetizers and drinks in the living room or dining room to encourage people to stay there. If you don’t mind company, or want the help, plan what tasks you can delegate, and then do it. Lesson 4 for Turkey Day: Put your guests to work, or give them something else to do while you happily work alone.

I am a planner. I do not do well with change or surprises, generally. I do find that if I have the time to make plans, build in extra cooking time and have back-ups available, I am much better at going with the flow. Whether you like order as much as I do, or you would rather fly by the seat of your pants – get organized for Thanksgiving. Lesson 5: Make a plan. I write out a list, complete with menu, shopping list, cooking times and a plan for when different things go in the oven. It helps to avoid those last minute realizations that the turkey will never be done in time or that no one remembered to buy cranberries.

Lesson 6: Do as much ahead of time as possible. I do as much cooking as I can on Wednesday, including dessert (always pies for our Thanksgiving). I make as many side dishes as possible, ready to bake when the turkey comes out, or to serve cold. I even set the table and bring up the extra chairs from the basement the day before. I want to be able to enjoy the party too, so the more prep work I can do, the better.

Finally, a tip for the guests – help your host. Offer to bring a dish, ask if you can help with prep work or wash the dishes. Better yet, just pitch in. There really are very few people who don’t welcome help with the dishes after a big meal. Or do like my mother does, and start washing dishes while the prep work is going on. She loves to have as many dishes washed as possible before we ever sit down at the table. Thank you, Mom!

What tips do you have for making the day go a little more smoothly?

Thanksgiving Dinner Hints

I can’t believe it is almost Thanksgiving. I know we have been moving through fall, but somehow I still think it is August. I spent all summer wishing for cooler fall weather, and now that it is here, I can’t seem to fully accept it.

We are hosting Thanksgiving this year, and I sat down to write a few thoughts about my preparations. I ended up with a long treatise full of tips I have figured out over the years. I am sharing a few today, and I will post the rest later in the week. I could go on and on about hosting a big meal, but I’ll try to restrain myself.

We hosted our first Thanksgiving the first year we were in our house, which is almost fifteen years ago now. Hard to believe it has been that long. We have hosted about half the time since then, some years we had almost twenty for dinner, and other years we had less than ten. The year we had twenty people I stopped up the kitchen sink with potato peels about an hour before we were going to eat. We managed to have a lovely dinner, off of paper plates, but the cleanup process was greatly complicated by the sink clog. And we still had to fix the clog after the party was over. Lesson 1 for Turkey Day: compost or throw away your potato peels. Don’t put them down the disposal. Really, just don’t. You will thank yourself later.

I got lots of advice from my mom that first year on cooking the turkey, and it turned out beautifully. I realized then that the turkey is almost the easiest part of the whole meal, as long as you leave the oven door closed. Opening the oven to baste the turkey lets out all the heat and lengthens the cooking time. Skip the basting and use the roasting time to work on the rest of the meal. Lesson 2: Leave the turkey alone – let the oven do its work.

Among our extended family, we share the cooking duties for holiday meals. I love to cook and bake, and I probably do more than I have to for holiday meals, but I do know when to ask for help. When someone asks what they can bring, I tell them. Unless they have something already in mind, I look at my meal plan and give them an assignment. Lesson 3: Let others share the cooking chores – you don’t have to do it all.

What are your top tips to ease the stress of hosting a big dinner party?

Homemade Mixes to the Rescue

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that I don’t keep cake mixes or Bisquick in the house. I prefer to bake from scratch so I know exactly what is in my food, and because I like the results better. That is not to say that I don’t need the convenience of a mix sometimes.

Last Thursday evening I realized I had just set myself up for two days worth of baking on Friday. Of course, Friday is still only one day, so I was up a little creek without a paddle. I needed to bake Vanilla Shortbreads and Chocolate Oat Bars for church coffee hour treats on Sunday, make brownies and peach cobbler for a family gathering on Saturday and make something for a quick breakfast on Saturday, along with the biscuits I wanted to have with dinner on Friday.

I could have bought treats for church, made only one dessert for Saturday and changed the menu for dinner and breakfast, but I didn’t. I’m not sure if it has come through in my posts, but I can be just a tiny bit stubborn sometimes. I needed a plan to make it all work, with a minimum of stress.

Solution: homemade mixes. Thursday night I mixed up the dry ingredients for my muffins, the biscuits and the cobbler topping (basically biscuits with a bit of sugar). I cut the butter into the biscuit mix and cobbler topping and put those in the fridge. The muffin mix was fine to stay on the counter.

On Friday I mixed up my muffins in five minutes. The biscuits took even less time than that. I decided to take the cobbler mix and the peaches with me on Saturday, so we could have fresh, warm cobbler. And so I would have help peeling and slicing the peaches. I may be stubborn, but I never pass up extra helping hands. With three of my projects out of the way, I got my other baking done in no time.

Take a look at your favorite recipes and see which ones you can use to make your own mixes. The dry ingredients for muffins, quick breads and cakes can be mixed together and stored at room temperature almost indefinitely. Just be sure to label the container or bag, and list what is in it. Trust me, you think you will remember, but you won’t. Store biscuit mix in the fridge or freezer, since there is a chance that the added fat could go rancid if you leave them at room temperature.

What tricks do you have for saving time in the kitchen?