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!

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