Saturday, December 25, 2010

Never Too Late For Christmas Cookies

Hello December, goodbye December.  Well, maybe not goodbye just yet, but wow, only a week left?  That went fast!  Here's what I've been doing this December: Not cooking.  Packing.  Moving.  Unpacking.  Eating catered food.  Way too much of it.  More not cooking.  Unwrapping a ridiculous number of new cookbooks(!!!).  Here's what I'll be doing very soon: Cooking!  And blogging again!  And joining a gym.  I need that right about now. 

Probably a number of you know this, but I'll fill in those who don't.  I finished my gardening job, left Nantucket (*tear) last Monday.  Moved back in with the 'rents in Boston.  Why? you ask.  Well, I'll tell you: Starting culinary school in January!  Blogging has fallen by the wayside these past three weeks due to the packing and moving and holiday parties, not to mention many late-night Christmas hat knitting sessions/Jane Austen movie marathons that often occur for me right before the holidays.  And even if I had had time to write, I didn't think you'd care to hear about the multiple nights of scrambled eggs and salsa for dinner, or any of the other bizarre food combos I came up while attempting to only eat out of my pantry to minimize the amount of stuff I had to move.

Then I got home, and even thought I left about 5/6ths of my stuff in boxes in my parents' garage, it took a full 2 days to unpack the remaining 1/6, with ample breaks for Christmas cookie baking.  Which, let's be honest: was a lot more fun that the unpacking part. 

Every year I bake the cookies for my family's Christmas party.  I've tried different kinds of cookies over the years, which have mostly been good, but generally too plentiful.  So this year I decided to go minimal (only 3 kinds instead of 4 or 5), and I actually returned to 2 favorite cookies that I had made in years past, in part because they are good enough to warrant revisiting, but mostly because I've been too busy justify spending time searching out new recipes.  Incidentally, the 2 cookies that I returned to were 2 that I had made the first year my parents lived in their new condo, aka, the year that everything I attempted to bake was a disaster.  I remember sending my friend Liz of Baked By Liz an email that year, detailing all of my frustrations with the new kitchen, which basically went something like this:

....The ovens are tiny, I had to buy all new mini cookie sheets, I can only bake one batch of cookies at a time, and if I try to use both ovens at once (they are double ovens), all hell breaks loose.  One runs way hot, the other runs way cold, and everything either turns out rock hard, or else never bakes.  I had to throw out dozens and dozens of cookies, and a cake, and start again from scratch, this time with oven thermometers....which have helped, slightly.

Luckily, this being the 3rd holiday season in the not-as-new-anymore condo, I have gotten slightly better at the ovens.  Here's the trick: OVEN THERMOMETERS!  Have I sung their praises lately?  Also, accepting the fact that the ovens misbehave terribly when both are on at the same time, accepting that you can only reliably use one at a time, and since they are the smallest ovens you will ever see, realizing you can only bake about 10 cookies at once.  Which, when you're baking for a party of 60 people...can take a while.  So never try to do anything quickly.  My game plan was to make the three cookies doughs at night, and then roll and bake the cookies the following day, when I had ample time to do so.  Incidentally all 3 cookies that I chose were ones with doughs that took well to refrigeration (and in the case of one, actually required it).  They all get rolled into shape, dipped into sugars, and then baked, although I didn't even notice the similarities in their methods until I was well underway.  A few cookies in I decided that it would be more efficient to weigh out each cookie, which sounds completely compulsive, and probably is, but actually was a lot easier than trying to eyeball their sizes.  I set my electric scale to grams, which is the smallest increment, and decided, after weighing a few dough balls, that 20 grams was an ideal weight for each cookie.  After a few, I was actually scooping out pieces of dough that were nearly perfect, but it was nice not to have to even them out at the end, taking a little pinch of dough off one and adding it to another.  I liked the peace of mind, knowing they were all identical so that they would all look the same, and bake up perfectly; in the future I will always use this technique.

So now that I've told you at length about how the cookies were make and weighed and baked, perhaps I should tell you what they actually are, before Christmas is over (2 hours, I can do this!). 

In perceived order of popularity (based on how many of each were left after the party):

3rd place:  Molasses Gingerbread Cookies

2nd place: Espresso Crinkles

1st place: Mexican Wedding Cookies

Incidentally, the fewer the ingredients, the more popular the cookie.  Although I suspect my completely unscientific observations were thrown off by the fact that the gingerbread ones were in the room where fewer guests were mingling, whereas the other two were in the room where about 90% of the guests were mingling.  Just a guess.  But in my opinion, all were delicious and all will be made again.  And so, without further ado, the recipes. 

Molasses Gingerbread Cookies (Adapted, only slightly, from the Whole Foods website)
Makes about 30 cookies

* 2 1/4 cups all purpose flour
* 2 teaspoons baking soda
* 1/2 teaspoon salt
* 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
* 1 teaspoon ground ginger
* 3/4 teaspoon ground cloves
* 3/4 teaspoon allspice
* 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
* 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
* 1/2 cup plus 1/3 cup granulated sugar 
* 1 egg
* 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
* 1/3 cup unsulphured molasses
* Zest of 1 orange

1. Preheat oven to 375°F. In medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and allspice; set aside.

2. In a large bowl, cream together butter, brown sugar and 1/2 cup of the granulated sugar with an electric mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy, scraping down sides of bowl with a rubber spatula. Add egg, vanilla and molasses and beat until combined. While continuing to beat on low speed, add flour mixture and beat just until combined. 

Ali creams the butter and sugar together in style

3. Combine the remaining 1/3 cup granulated sugar and orange zest in a shallow bowl. To form each cookie, roll a scant 2 tablespoons of the dough into a 1 1/4-inch ball, (If you have an electronic scale, 20 grams is an ideal weight for each cookie).  Then roll in sugar mixture and transfer to ungreased baking sheets (lined with parchment paper, if you have it) spacing cookies about 2 inches apart. 

4. Bake until outer edges begin to set and centers are soft and puffy, 9 to 11 minutes. Cool for 2 to 3 minutes, then transfer to cooling racks and set aside to let cool completely.  Store in airtight containers if you're not serving these right away, to maintain softness.  

Espresso Crinkles (Adapted, only slightly, from Cooking Light, December 2008)
Makes about 24 cookies

My only real change to these cookies is to melt the chocolate in a mixing bowl over a double boiler instead of in a sauce pan and then transferring it to a bowl, thereby saving one dirty dish.  I also used a whole egg instead of 2 egg whiles--a little fattier, but less waste.  Either way is fine, though.  My only other tip is to make sure you don't over-bake them--at their best they are soft and chewy inside, just like a dense, fudge-y brownie.  Delish!

* 4.5 ounces all-purpose flour (about 1 cup)
* 1 1/4 cups powdered sugar, divided
* 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
* 1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
* 1/8 teaspoon salt
* 5 1/4 teaspoons canola oil
* 1 1/2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped
* 1 teaspoon instant espresso granules
* 3/4 cup packed brown sugar
* 3 tablespoons light-colored corn syrup
* 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
* 1 large egg or 2 large egg whites

1. Weigh or lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife.  Sift together flour, 3/4 of a cup of powdered sugar, cocoa, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl.

2. Combine oil and chocolate in a glass or metal bowl and set up a double boiler over a small saucepan over low heat; heat until chocolate melts, stirring constantly. Add espresso granules to pan; stir until blended. Remove from heat and allow chocolate mixture to cool 5 minutes. Stir in brown sugar, syrup, and vanilla. Add egg or egg whites, stirring with a whisk. Add flour mixture to egg mixture, stirring gently just until combined. Cover; chill at least 2 hours or overnight.

3. Preheat oven to 350° F.

Arranging the Espresso Crinkles...not in style.

 \4. Roll dough into 1-inch balls (If you have an electronic scale, 20 grams is an ideal weight for the dough balls).  Dredge balls in remaining 1/2 cup powdered sugar; place balls 2 inches apart on 2 baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Bake at 350° for 10 minutes or until tops are cracked and almost set. Cool cookies on pan 2 minutes or until set; remove from pan. Cool cookies on a wire rack.

Espresso Crinkles, waiting to go into the oven


Mexican Wedding Cookies (From Paula Deen, of the Food Network)
Makes about 3 dozen cookies

These incredibly simple cookies are divine as they crumble gently when you bite into them then melt on your tongue.  Five ingredients have never come together so beautifully before, let me assure you!  A mini Cuisinart is an ideal tool for chopping the pecans, but you can also do it with a nice big knife if that's all you have. 

* 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
* 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar, plus more for coating baked cookies
* 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
* 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting hands
* 1 cup pecans, finely chopped

1. Preheat the oven to 275 degrees F. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.

2. Using an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar together at low speed until it is smooth. Beat in the vanilla. At low speed gradually add the flour. Mix in the pecans with a spatula.

3. With floured hands, take out about 1 tablespoon of dough, roll it into a short log with slightly tapered ends, then shape into a crescent. Continue to dust hands with flour as you make more cookies. Place onto prepared cookie sheets. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until very lightly browned. When cool enough to handle but still warm, roll in additional confectioners' sugar, until completely coated.  (I found that my first layer of sugar melted and formed almost a sugar frosting on the cookies, so I dredged them again when they were cooler to get a nice (albeit messy!) powdery finish on them.  Cool on wire racks.

 Mexican Wedding Cookies and Molasses Gingerbread Cookies 
plated, just waiting on the Espresso Crinkles

Enjoy these cookies any time of the year, but for now let me wish you a very Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 4, 2010


I wasn't planning on writing anything tonight, but then I made dinner, and it was just so darn good that I felt a little selfish keeping it to myself, even though the recipe is really rough, and I just kinda made it up, and I can't even tell you exactly what I did.  But bear with me, and I'll give it my best shot. 

So, I had some pre-cut butternut squash sitting around from before Thanksgiving, and it has been getting moldy and squishy all week, because I haven't had the time/energy to use it.  And I also had a few apples from the bottom of one of those supermarket bags of apples that were totally bruised and not much good for eating.  A promising start, no? 

A few weeks ago I made this fantastic Barefoot Contessa salad (again from Back to Basics, a.k.a., my new favorite book).  The recipe is here if you want to make it, and. quite honestly, you should.  But back to tonight.  I decided to roast the squash exactly like I did for that salad, which is to say, with EVOO, a touch of maple syrup, salt and pepper.  Once I picked through my squash and got rid of all the bad bits, I probably had about 2 cups of diced pieces.  I peeled and cut the apples into eights, and then tossed it all together, then roasted them until the squash was soft, and the apples were very soft but SO AMAZING.  (I'm going to have to look further into this roasted apple thing, because holy cow people, they were sooooooo good.  I probably would have had more soup if I hadn't eaten so many apple pieces right out of the roasting pan!)  I then pureed the roasted stuff with just enough vegetable stock to help them move around, and then I stirred in a little more, to make it the ideal consistency, and presto, dinner is served.  It was earthy, sweet, tart, and just a tiny bit spicy, and woweeee.  When this idea formulated in my mind I thought that it would need a dash of half and half to give it a little richness, but honestly the roasted vegetables came out like silk in the blender, and when I tried adding the half and half it ended up masking the tangy tartness of the apples, which I think really made the dish.  And without it the dish is Vegan, which I think is pretty cool.  Not that I'm a Vegan, or even a strict vegetarian, but I like to challenge myself to cook with restrictions sometimes, just to see if I can do it.  And in this case, I can, and I will be making it again, and soon--I won't even wait until my ingredients are so-close-to-rotten-that-I-have-no-other-option-than-to-roast-and-puree-them-to-hide-their-flaws.

P.S.  Fruits and veggies, people!  I nearly forgot to mention, I ate 4 apples and several cups of squash for dinner and it was so good I felt like singing!  Got all my servings today!  And, only 5 ingredients; Claire Robinson, eat your heart out!

Butternut Squash and Apple Bisque
Serves as many as you want

As mentioned above, I basically used what I had around, which was 4 small/medium apples and about 2 cups, diced, of squash (although I probably ate about 1 apple's worth of pieces before making the soup, so more like 3 apples.  This made one large dinner serving, so you can use this ratio to make your desired quantity. 

For each serving:

* 3 smallish/2 larger apples, peeled/cored and cut into eight wedges (As it so happened, I had Cortlands, which are excellent cooking apples, because they hold their shape and have a bit of tartness, which really came through in this soup, so I would highly recommend Cortlands if you can get your hands on them) 
* 2 cups of butternut squash, diced into 3/4-inch pieces
* A few swirls of extra virgin olive oil, enough to coat ingredients lightly
* A few tablespoons of pure maple syrup
* Salt and pepper
* Vegetable stock, about a 1/4 to 1/2 a cup per serving

1. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F.  Line a cookie sheet (or 2, if you have a lot of apple/squash), with aluminum foil (for easy cleanup).  In large bowl, toss the squash, apples, olive oil, and maple syrup, until the veg/fruit is evenly coated.  Pour out in a single layer on your cookie sheet(s).  Sprinkle with kosher or sea salt and freshly ground pepper

2.  Roast veg/fruit until the squash is quite soft and apples begin to get nice brown bits, about 20-25 minutes. 

3.  Allow to cool for a few minutes, then put veg/fruit in a blender (in batches, if necessary), with just a few splashes of vegetable stock.  Puree until smooth; use a spoon to move things around if necessary.  Add additional vegetable stock until soup reaches the desired consistency.  Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper, if you need to.  Transfer into a saucepan to reheat if necessary, or just pour into bowls and serve.

As you can see, I like my soup thick.  I'm getting hungry again just thinking about it.