Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Perfect Gingerbread: two ways

I discovered this wonderful recipe about fifteen years ago, and it makes just about the best gingerbread around. I always get raves from people when I serve it, and folks are always asking for the recipe. This can be made as a cake/bread or, with a few slight changes, as muffins [Recipes for both versions are at the end of this post].

I nearly always make this in an 8" square pan, but this year I bought these cute star-shaped bake-and-give pans that hold an equivalent amount of batter. My biggest problem is that with this pan there wasn't a high enough percentage of soft insides and a too high percentage of edge.

If you use one of these pans, I'd recommend that you be a bit careful with it; keeping the pan on another, rigid, pan, and cut the pan away to remove it. My cake broke into pieces because I handled it a bit too cavalierly, so I just served the cake straight out of the pan.

Our usual accompaniment is lemon curd, but this year I whipped up some cream. Yummy!

from the Dairy Hollow House Cookbook

1 ½ cup flour
1 cup sugar
2tsp ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
½ cup butter
1 egg, well beaten
3 Tablespoons molasses
1 tsp baking soda
1 scant tsp salt
1 cup buttermilk

1. Combine flour, sugar, ginger, and cinnamon. Cut in butter.

2. Reserve ¼ cup crumbled mixture for topping.

3. Add egg to remaining mixture. Stir in molasses.

4. Dissolve baking soda and salt in buttermilk, and add to flour/spice/egg/molasses mixture.

5. Pour into greased 9 inches square pan; sprinkle with topping.

6. Bake 30 minutes at 350 degrees.

Serve with lemon curd, or whipped cream, or both!

The muffin variation has the same fantastic flavor:

Gingerbread Muffins
from the Dairy Hollow House Cookbook

1 ½ cup flour
3/4 cup sugar
2 tsp ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
½ cup butter (4 oz)
3/4 cup chopped walnuts (or rolled oats)
1 egg, well beaten
3 Tablespoons molasses
1 tsp baking soda
1 scant tsp salt
1 cup buttermilk
handful raisins (optional)

1. Combine flour, sugar, ginger, and cinnamon.

2. Cut in butter with pastry cutter or two knives.

3. Reserve ¼ of the crumbled mixture in a small bowl for topping. Stir in chopped walnuts or rolled oats to reserved crumbled mixture and set aside. (I left the nuts and oats out of the topping this time, because I was baking them for my mom who has lots of food sensitivities).

4. Add egg to remaining mixture. Stir in molasses.

5. Dissolve baking soda and salt in buttermilk. Add to the flour/egg/molasses mixture.

6. Fill muffin cups half full; sprinkle with topping.

Bake 20 minutes at 350 degrees.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

{TWD} Real Butterscotch Pudding

Hello, both a.l.e. and j.d.e. here, taking over the Tuesdays With Dorie post because our mom was busy grappling with our Christmas tree.

When our mom approached us individually about cooking one of the Tuesdays With Dorie recipes together, we both separately picked this one. Fate! I [j.d.e.] am a notorious fan of butter, and my sister is a notorious fan of scotch, so this post is, one could say, the perfect mix.

a.l.e and j.d.e., keeping a watchful eye on the simmering scotch
While j. and Mom fiddled around with various ingredients, I (a.l.e.) got down to the very serious business of ascertaining the most optimal Scotch for the occasion. Cautionary tales of boozy grown-ups-only-style puddings ringing in my head, I began the taste testing. Now, we have a pretty prodigious liquor cabinet going, and that is especially true in terms of Scotch Whisky:

After DQing several (including the 3 unopened bottles) - Laphroaig was way too smoky, Edradour was too wonderful to use up in a pudding, Tallisker made me go "Phroooowargh" - it was down to the Macallan 12 yo and the Glenfiddich Special Reserve 12yo. The latter took the prize. A word to the wise: it would probably be best to aim for a mellow single malt rather than the strong variety as suggested by the recipe. Even a blend would work - Cutty Sark and J&B were close runners up in butterscotchy flavor potential.

I, however, don't like Scotch, so I was happy to absent-mindedly stir bowls of ingredients (unnecessarily) and provide for the music (alternating between singing David Bowie and the music from Les Miserables). We decided to make two variations of the pudding: one for the girl who thinks that Scotch tastes like burned jet fuel, and one for the other, who has instituted a cocktail hour in our household. We decided to make my version (1/3 recipe) using none of the scotch, double the vanilla, and a tablespoon of eggnog, and my sister's (2/3 recipe) was made using the technique whereby the scotch is added while the milk mixture is heating, so that we didn't get that "I'm eating cold, mushy congealed raw scotch" sensation.

Despite several mishaps, which luckily all happened to my sister's (non-alcoholic) batch, the puddings tasted fantastic. Besides forgetting to set aside some milk for the sugar/egg mix rather than dumping it all into the hot sugar, I started making the next batch in the Cuisinart before the first batch had been through its final mixing. We made do with a whisk and Mom's whisking talent and arm-power, and though slightly lumpier than the next batch, it was v. good. Having learned from our mistakes, the Scotchy batch came out picture-perfect, and tasting just like butterscotch should.

here's the real boozehound in the family.
the verdict:

Hi, Nancy here! This pudding was our dessert for Christmas dinner. We found it absolutely delicious. All of us preferred the "with scotch" version - even the scotch-hating j.d.e. It was silky smooth (from the food processor) and subtly butterscotch-y (from the scotch).

We had such fun cooking this together - I'm so thankful that my girls are such competent hands in the kitchen and also that they're great at writing guest posts! I'm going to cry when they leave home this weekend, going 950 miles and 4,700 miles away, but in the meantime we're doing lots of cooking... and talking, and laughing!

I've had fun baking all 5 of December's recipes. Luckily we were given leeway on which order we could bake and post our creations; this was a huge help during the busy holiday season!

The pudding was technically last week's Tuesdays with Dorie assignment, and was chosen by Donna of Spatulas, Corkscrews & Suitcases, who made an incredible butterscotch pie with it (you can find the pudding recipe on that post or on page 386 of Dorie Greenspan's book Baking From My Home to Yours. )

This week Anne of Anne Strawberry chose the Tall and Creamy Cheesecake (which I posted last week!). Go to her post to see an incredible peppermint bark cheesecake and find the recipe. Or you can pick up your very own copy of Dorie's book (cheesecake recipe on page 235-237 ).

Monday, December 29, 2008

Doggie Cookies

S-dog, our blue merle Australian Shepherd, was born on Christmas Day, 1996. In honor of his 12th birthday, my daughter J.D.E. baked him some doggie cookies. (Actually she baked half a recipe for our dogs and half for a Christmas present for her boyfriend's dog). She found the recipe in an old cookbook put out by the Australian Shepherd Rescue and Placement Helpline (ARPH) - [recipe at end of this post]

I own two copper cookie cutters; both are for dog cookies!
About 10 years ago I made dog cookies that involved pureeing raw liver. All I'm going to say about that experience is that those dog treats were the WORST smelling thing I've ever put into my oven. The dogs have wondered ever since why they never had those cookies again.

In contrast these cookies were a snap to put together, had a lovely peanut butter smell, and would have been fairly tasty as people cookies if not for the garlic powder!

Reid Aussie Tribe Biscuits
From AuSSome Recipes, by the ARPH Team

3 c. whole wheat flour
¾ cup rolled oats
2 tsp. baking powder
1 ½ c. milk
1 ½ c. peanut butter
1 ½ T molasses
1 T honey
1 tsp garlic powder

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Combine dry ingredients.
3. Mix wet ingredients; add to the dry mixture. Dough will be stiff.
4. Roll out dough and cut into cute shapes with cookie cutter.
5. Bake for 20 minutes. Cool completely on rack.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Eggnog Scones

When we baked scones in Berlin, my daughter J.D.E. wondered, "how would these taste made with eggnog?" Eureka! We had a plan for Christmas morning breakfast. The scones couldn't have been easier to throw together. And they were delicious, accompanied by scrambled eggs with Benton bacon lardons!

Eggnog Scones

2 c. all purpose flour (I used 2/3 c. white whole wheat, and 1 1/3 c. all purpose)
1/8 cup plus 1 T sugar (I used golden bakers sugar)
1 T. baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
generous pinch of fresh grated nutmeg (depending on how spiced your eggnog is)
1 1/4 c purchased eggnog

To brush on top:
1 T melted butter
1 T sugar

1. Preheat oven to 375.

2. Mix flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in large bowl.

3. Add eggnog and stir just until dough forms.

4. Turn dough out onto lightly floured surface. Knead gently just until dough holds together, adding a bit more flour if dough is too sticky.

5. Form dough into flat round disk, about 3/4 inch thick. Cut into 8 wedges.

6. Transfer wedges to baking sheet lined with silicone mat or parchment. Brush wedges with melted butter and sprinkle with sugar.

7. Bake until light golden brown, about 12 minutes (?)

8. Transfer to rack and cool slightly. Enjoy!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Gingerbread Wishes!

This little reindeer sends his Christmas greetings!

Nothing says "Christmas" around here louder than gingerbread. Our holiday simply would not be complete without some lovely - plain - gingerbread cookies, made from my trusty 1975 Joy of Cooking. The recipe produces a cookie that's perfectly spicy and dark, from a sturdy, workable dough that puffs just a bit when it cooks. I've made these cookies every year for at least 25 years, and this is one recipe I have not the slightest urge to replace. (recipe at end of this post)

One thing I love is that this dough doesn't need refrigeration. Just mix, roll, bake. But if you have to wait before you bake your cookies, or if you want to be ahead of the game, you can refrigerate or freeze the dough and bake the cookies at a later time.

This year I needed to think ahead to ensure that we would have our favorite cookies. I was in Germany until just 3 days before Christmas, so I made my dough early. To make things even easier, I tried something new, and this is the best trick:

I divided the dough in half, and put each into a gallon-sized zippered plastic bag. Then I rolled the dough inside the bag until it filled the bag to the edges and into the corners. It turned out beautifully even and ended up the perfect thickness. Then I popped it in the freezer.

When I got back from my trip, I pulled the bags from the freezer, cut them open, and voila! The dough was ready for the cookie cutters. The best part? There was no floury mess when I made the dough or when I cut the cookies!

Here are some of the cookies I made using cookie cutters I bought at the German Christmas markets:

Gingerbread cookies
from The Joy of Cooking

¼ c butter
½ c white or brown sugar
½ c dark molasses
3 ½ c all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
¼ tsp cloves
½ tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ginger
½ tsp salt

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Blend butter and sugar until creamy. Beat in molasses.
3. Sift together flour, baking soda, spices and salt.
4. Add the sifted ingredients to the butter mixture in about three parts, alternately with the water. You may have to work in the last of the flour mixture with your hands if you are not using an electric mixer.
5. Roll the dough to any thickness and cut with a floured cookie cutter or by making a pattern of your own.
6. Decorate before baking with small raisins, bits of candied fruits, red-hots, marshmallows and citron, indicating features or buttons. (we're cookie purists. Those decorations detract from the straight gingerbread goodness, in our opinions.)
7. Bake the cookies 8 minutes or longer, according to their thickness. Test for doneness by pressing the dough with your finger. If it springs back after pressing, they are ready to be cooled on a rack.
8. Stir in a small bowl, to make a paste: ¼ cup confectioners’ sugar and a few drops water. Apply the icing with a wooden pick or a small knife for additional garnishes – caps, hair, mustaches, belts or shoes. (yep, we skip this too.)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

{TWD} Tall and Creamy Cheesecake: the bain(marie) of my existence

Historically, my dealings with bain-marie, or water bath, cookery have not been happy ones. I knew that it would only be a matter of time until TWD brought me face to face with this watery technique. We successfully dodged the bain-marie bullet when making Crème Brûlée, but with the Tall and Creamy Cheesecake, the Water Bath Powers-That-Be had me directly in their crosshairs. With an inherently leaky pan (removable bottom), no less.

But I was optimistically buoyed by my recent success with another longtime nemesis (yeast), so I cleaned my freezer to make sufficient room for this fabulous cheesecake that I planned to freeze whole and pull out with a flourish for a big finish to a big dinner over the holidays.

Because this was my very first cheesecake, and because I was going to have to freeze it right away, I decided to stay with a mostly plain and simple cheesecake. I wanted to be able to taste the basic recipe before I branched out flavor-wise on future cheesecakes.

I was, however, captivated by the idea of using a gingersnap crust. Then I happened to read in Cook's Illustrated that "no matter the brand or the amount of butter and sugar I added - and despite prebaking - [ginger snaps] refused to form a crust that retained its crispness." Well. I certainly didn't want to start my first adventure in cheesecake-making with a recalcitrant crust, so I adopted CI's suggestion to add ground ginger, ground cinnamon and ground cloves to a basic graham cracker crust. The result was a very lightly spiced crust, which I decided to pair with just a touch of lemon in the plain filling, because lemon goes so well with gingersnaps and gingerbread.

cook's notes:

- My 9" springform pans are not deep. I do have an 8" springform with deep sides. I checked the cylinder-volume calculator and realized that my pan would be perfect for a 3/4 scaled recipe. This 3/4 conversion for this recipe is easy: 3 bricks cream cheese, 1 cup sugar, 3/8 tsp salt, 1 1/2 tsp vanilla, 3 large eggs, 1 cup heavy cream/sour cream (I used half cup of each).

- I added 1 1/4 tsp fresh lemon juice. I wanted to hint at lemon, just as the crust hinted at gingersnap.

- I used 4 oz Philadelphia regular, 8 oz Philadelphia 1/3 reduced fat, 12 oz Fresh Market cream cheese. The Fresh Market cheese was not as white nor as creamy as either of the Philadelphia varieties. After buying the cream cheese, I read in Cook's Illustrated that their testing of 5 different cream cheeses left Philadelphia Original as the clear leader for eating and cheesecake. I can see why.

-My advice: read the directions before you start making the recipe. Read the directions again. Read the directions as many times as it takes for you to realize that you should be boiling the water for the water bath while you are beating the filling for 10+ minutes. Otherwise you will have to wait for the water to boil while everything is otherwise ready to go. And it might be late at night (with lots more time required to bake, rest, cool, etc.)

- [Edit: I wrapped my pan in a double layer of heavy duty aluminum foil]

- I baked my (smaller than Dorie's) cheesecake 1 hr 15 min, then left it for 1 hour in its water bath in the oven.

- Although the bain-marie is meant to prevent cracks in the surface of a cheesecake, mine developed a significant fissure.

- When I removed the pan from the bath, I found there was water inside each of the foil layers. Uh oh. That didn't look good. I don't have any idea how I could have prevented that.

- When I un-molded the cake, sure enough there was a band of soggy crust at the bottom. My grand plans of freezing a whole cheesecake went out the window. So I decided to cut, photograph, and taste the thing.

Maybe that "v" in the foil over on the right is where the water got in? But the water level was below that (see how the lower part of the foil is darker?) There weren't any holes in the foil.
- Once I cut into it, I found that the seepage was more or less confined to a ring around the bottom outside edge. I knocked that edge off all the way around, saved a few pieces for tasting, and froze the rest. I didn't have a great strategy for freezing it, however, and it kind of broke up as I removed it from the bottom of the springform pan. I'm pretty sure it will end up being served in bowls and consumed with spoons.

Note the soggy crust at the bottom :(
the verdict:

The cheesecake was tall, creamy, and delicious. My, oh my, it was good! The pictures make it look crumbly and dry but it wasn't (I think that was my shoddy cutting-with-warm-knife technique) It wasn't dense; rather, very smooth and even a bit on the fluffy side. I loved the taste hints of gingersnap and lemon. My husband was wild over this.

Overall, it was frustrating to be so careful (I thought) and still manage to ruin the finished product. I'm not sure I will make another cheesecake - at least until the next one comes up as a Tuesdays With Dorie choice.

Bains-marie = the bane of my existence!

The Tall and Creamy Cheesecake was chosen by Anne of AnneStrawberry. You can find the recipe on pages 235-237 of of Dorie Greenspan's book Baking From My Home to Yours. The recipe will also be in Anne's post on December 30. I have no doubt that most of the Tuesdays With Dorie bakers hit this one out of the park. To see some amazing flavor combinations and otherwise delicious, un-soggy cheesecakes, as well as some more holiday goodies, head over to the TWD blogroll and see what they're all baking up.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Green Bean Drama!

Mollie Katzen (author of the Moosewood Cookbook and others) was featured on NPR in the run-up to Thanksgiving. The story was titled "Making Those Thanksgiving Green Beans Exciting", and I lucked upon it while I was driving. Mollie talked about two different recipes; one of them, Dramatically Seared Green Beans with Garlic and Chile, made it to the final round of our Thanksgiving recipe selection, but ultimately lost out. The recipe continued to intrigue me, and I've cooked them recently.

cook's notes:

- This is a simple, straightforward recipe.

- You can control how tender or crunchy to cook the beans, and can also control the spiciness by adding more, or less, pepper flakes.

the verdict:

These were a huge hit! Not only was the recipe delicious as written, I love the technique of cooking the beans on the stovetop in a skillet over high heat. I'm already thinking of lots of different flavors could be added (tomatoes, citrus, herbs, etc) to beans prepared with this method.

Very quick, very pretty and very tasty.

Friday, December 19, 2008


Greetings from Germanland! This is younger daughter here, j.d.e., with a guest post.

I am spending the year in Berlin, taking classes at the Freie Universität Berlin, and since it’s close to Christmas, my Portuguese class is having a giant breakfast before we get out for break. When my professor first suggested the idea of brunch during class, I immediately thought: “SCONES!” Actually, I said it out loud. Twelve or thirteen confused faces turned my way.

It turns out that apparently no German students have any idea what scones are, so I got a lot of blank stares. But out of the darkness came a bright light… "Yesssss!” I heard (in German, of course, so this was more like “Jaaaaaaaa!”) from the front of the room. Now everyone was staring at Maria João. We spent the next five minutes or so doing a tag-team explanation of what scones are. (All we really said, however, was, "They're bread, kind of, but not really. But kind of.")

Yes, my Portuguese professor loves scones. I like scones, but I haven’t had them in a while, so maybe that’s why I yelled out “SCONES!”.—my subconscious wants me to know that it just can’t get enough of English breakfast food. So scones it is. My subconscious also really likes making me say "Stone of Scone" in a cheesy Scottish accent (not to mention making me talk to my roommate's cat in a Russian gangster voice), so I was kind of taking a big chance here, trusting my subconscious and everything.

My mom is visiting me in Berlin, so I thought that it would be fun to bake these bad boys, as we say in my family, with her. Maria João requested that I leave out raisins, which I am happy to comply with, so I decided on two kinds of scones, one savory and one sweet. The former is a recipe from Farmgirl Fare, one of the many food blogs I stalk, and the other is from that bastion of culinary steadfastness, Epicurious.

So I present to you:
The dog that eats the crumbs around my apartment. Look at those eyes. How could you not give her crumbs?

Lemon Cream Scones
Instead of dried apricots, I put in candied ginger. Apricots, Schmapricots--Ginger wins out any day for me. The oven temperature was a bit awry, so these cooked a lot faster than we expected and didn't really get a chance to fluff up.

As a kid, I was always in charge of mixing together the dry ingredients. This time was no different. I guess the dry ingredients are kind of boring to look at, but my mom was so amused at the tiny spoon I had grabbed to mix with that we had to take a picture.

There, that's a bit more interesting, isn't it? All ready to cut into slices and bake.

The finished my messy kitchen in the background. I'm a student though, so I cut myself some slack as far as cleaning up goes.

Cheese and Scallion Scones
I ended up having to use the full three cups of flour on these, but they ended up having the best, fluffiest texture! The dough, however, smelled like old feet, which had me worried until they came out of the oven, looking and tasting perfect.

Due to the scallions, these dry ingredients were a bit more interesting to look at. Since I know that we all bake for looks, don't we? (This couldn't be any further from the truth for me, actually. I'm about as rustic as it gets in terms of presentation.)

[This is Nancy, just breaking in for a minute to say that we subbed goat cheese for the feta in these yummy scones.]

Here are the scones right out of the oven. They look kind of like small forest animals, gathering together in some sort of clan formation (which makes sense because scones are Scottish).

The Verdict:


...oh, wrong case. Both recipes delivered strong results, I'd say. I wish there were more lemon flavor in the sweet scones. And although the savory dough definitely smelled like foot odor,* I'd make them again in a heartbeat. My fellow students loved both kinds, and actually clamored to take home the leftovers. I gave a lot of them to Maria João, though, because I know which side my bread [scone] is buttered on, and the end of the semester is approaching...

* If you search "foot odor" on YouTube, you get some pretty great results. Including a video of a band of shady looking youths playing guitar in the church hall of some Portuguese speaking land. Perhaps I can get some extra credit.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

{Simple Soup Supper} Union Square White Bean and Broccoli Soup

Last January I enjoyed a lovely meal at the Union Square Cafe in NYC, including a bowl of their fabulous Black Bean Soup. I intend to try making that soup sometime soon using Benton's bacon!

A few weeks ago I was delighted to spy a copy of The Union Square Cafe Cookbook on my mother's bookshelves and this recipe for White Bean and Broccoli Soup with Parmigiano and Prosciutto (recipe at end of this post) jumped out at me. It has all of my favorite flavors, and I had some lovely little heads of broccoli that came in my farm box.

cook's notes:

- This was a fairly easy soup; most of the time is waiting for the beans to soak or cook.

- I couldn't find coriander seeds anywhere local, so I just added a pinch of ground coriander.

- for added flavor, you can add Parmigiano rinds into the soup at the same time you add the salt.

- I froze half of the soup after step 4

the verdict:

Although my husband was deeply suspicious while this soup was cooking, we both loved it and it has earned "keeper" status.

White Bean and Broccoli Soup with Parmigiano and Prosciutto

serves 4

3.4 cup dries cannellini or Great Northern Beans
1 tsp coriander seeds
¼ tsp black peppercorns
1 fresh thyme sprig
4 parsley sprigs
1 bay leaf
1 T. butter
¾ cup sliced onions
¾ cup sliced celery
¾ cup slices leeks, white and light green parts only, washed
1 tsp minced garlic
1 tsp kosher salt
2 oz prosciutto, finely diced (1.2 c.)
4 c. broccoli florets (1/2 lb)
2 tsp balsamic vinegar
freshly ground black pepper
¼ c. shredded or coarsely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

1. Soak the beans in water overnight or for at least 6 hours.

2. Make an herb bundle: In a small piece of clean cheesecloth, place te coriander seeds, peppercorns, thyme, parsley, and bay leaf. Close the bundle by tying with a piece of kitchen twine.

3. Melt the butter over a medium flame in a 3 quart saucepan; add the onions, celery, leeks, and garlic. Cook for 10 minutes, until the vegetables are softened but not browned. Add the herb bundle, beans, and 8 cups water.

4. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and gently simmer, covered, for 1 ½ hours. Season with the salt and cook for an additional 30 minutes, or until the beans are tender.

5. Discard the herb bundle, add the prosciutto and the broccoli, and simmer 3 to 5 minutes, until cooked. Just before serving, stir in the balsamic vinegar and season with freshly ground black pepper to taste. Pour the soup into warm bowls and garnish with the grated Parmigiano.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

{TWD} Butter Jam Cookies

[I'm currently away from home, and am posting this automatically. I will try to catch up with reading and commenting about everyone's baking when I return next week. Hmm, or after Christmas!]

At several points in recent weeks, TWD has obliged me to delve into jam. More specifically, into my jam collection. (see the Linzer cookie post, or scroll down for another angle of my jam assemblage)

As an aside on ingredient accumulations, I've previously displayed part of my tea assortment, and at some point I'm sure I'll divulge the details of my sugar stash and flour drawer, both of which have grown exponentially as a result of my recent baking activities. It's come to my attention, however, that I'm woefully lacking in the Pam spray department. I have but one half-empty can of original Pam, whereas it is possible, as Cathy of The Tortefeasor has proven, to have a well-stocked selection of Pam varieties. I'll need to get on that at some point! But for now, it's back to jam.

And after I took this photo I found four more jars of new jam in a drawer! Not to mention the two jars of cider jelly I made for Thanksgiving.

For the rugelach and the linzer sables I had to substitute for the apricot and raspberry jam that I somehow do not own. But for this week's recipe, the Butter Jam Cookies, Dorie has given us free rein to use jam of our choosing.

How to pick a jam? Find one that tastes great and has approximately 1/4 cup remaining! The winner:
The sign of a successful week of baking: an empty jam jar!
cook's notes:

- because my jam was thick, there were a few little clumps of jam after the dough was mixed. These became bits of jam surprise in the cookies.

- I used a small disher that I found in J.D.E.'s baking drawer. I also used her pastry bag tips, bench scraper, and silpat mat. Hmm, the Dorie book that I bake from is hers as well. Thanks, kid! I'm not sure which number disher it is, but I leveled the dough and got exactly 45 cookies. The dough was a little thick and sticky.

- I meant to put the last cookie sheet-full in the fridge before baking, to see if baking chilled cookies would keep them more spherical, but I forgot.

the verdict:

Straight from the oven, they were pillow-y little balls of buttery goodness, reminiscent of snowball cookies, but with a jammy edge instead of a nutty one. I bet they'd be nice dusted with powdered sugar. They were also good at room temperature and after being frozen (and thawed!).

They're not a "sexy" cookie, but appealing and attractive in their own right. Every time I put them out they just disappeared from the plate. There are the cookies you date and the ones you bring home to Mother. These would pass the Mom test!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Cider Sage Jelly

Cider Jelly

My younger daughter, J.D.E., does not think it's worth gracing the Thanksgiving table with her presence unless cider jelly is on the menu. I found our long-favorite Cider Jelly recipe in Gourmet a long, long time ago, (it's so ancient I can't find an online cite for it) and we have been making it for years. It has become one of J.D.E.'s Thanksgiving specialties (she also makes a killer apple pie). It's gelatin-based and molded, and can be just a bit frustrating if/when all the spices drift to the bottom as the gelatin sets in the refrigerator. But we love it just the same. I'll have to say that last year we had a good deal of holiday drama because I forgot to buy cider for making the jelly. (recipe at end of this post)

This Thanksgiving, with J.D.E. safely ensconced on another continent (I jest; we missed her terribly for the holiday), I thought it would be safe to experiment with - dare I say it? - a new cider jelly recipe. Somehow I'd stumbled upon a recipe for Sage Cider Jelly, and given my general obsession with All Things Sage, I just had to try it. This recipe is a true jelly, made with pectin and everything. Now, I have never done any canning; in fact I'm pretty much freaked by the whole sterilizing concept. So I decided that instead of sterilizing and processing the jars, I'd make a half recipe, put the jelly in the fridge, and eat it in a reasonable amount of time.

cook's notes:

- This recipe was pretty straightforward. I made it pretty much as written, except I skipped the food coloring (and the canning/sterilizing aspect). Luckily my sage infusion was a nice *sage* green and my cider was a pretty yellow, the final jelly is a lovely greenish golden color.

- A half recipe filled two jelly jars.

- I capped the jelly loosely and put the jars in the fridge to finish cooling and to set. It worked! The jelly has a perfect jelly texture!

the verdict:

We liked the jelly a LOT, and will definitely make it again. The lemon combined with the cider gave a nice fresh apple flavor, while the sage's contribution was very, very subtle. Too subtle, actually. Next time I will try to boost the sage quotient. I'd also like to make our regular cider jelly recipe with this infusion/pectin approach rather than the molded gelatin approach.

Here's the recipe for our usual Cider Jelly:

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Green Beans with Shallots and Clementine Zest

I came across several tempting green bean recipes as I did my Thanksgiving menu planning. This recipe for Green Beans with Shallots and Clementines proved to be the most appealing to my daughter A.L.E., who had the final choice, and who prepared the dish.

cook's notes:

- You can find the recipe here.

- The recipe is fast and easy, which is a boon on Thanksgiving, or indeed, any day I'm cooking dinner! A really organized cook could prepare and blanch the beans in advance and just saute them at serving time.

- We had some fabulous fresh green onions from the farm box, so we substituted them for the shallots. (The beans were from the box also!)

- We used Satsuma clementines. They were pretty soft and difficult to zest, but tasty.

the verdict:

These beans were delicious - crisp and green with a great fresh flavor from the zest and the scallions. They were just the right clean note on the Thanksgiving plate and would be equally at home with many other main courses. I'll make these again!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

{TWD} Grandma's Sugar Cookies, the German connection

Dorie named this recipe Grandma's Sugar Cookies because it is a combination of recipes from her two grandmothers. When I think of my grandmothers, I think of Germany. One of mine came to America from a small village in Germany, and the other was of German descent.

There are other reasons that Germany came my mind for this week's baking:
1. Our TWD host this week is Ulrike of Küchenlatein, a wonderful baker who lives in Germany.

2. I had some cool cookie cutters that I bought on a 2007 trip to Germany (that I couldn't wait to use).

and finally, and most exciting (to me!):

3. In two days I'm heading to Germany to poke around Northern Germany and visit with my daughter J.D.E., who's studying in Berlin for a year. I'm looking forward to the German Christmas Markets, as well as enjoying torte, grillhaxe, and lebkuchen!!! We'll return home together in time for Christmas.

The cookie cutters I used for this recipe are (1) a church shaped cutter that I bought at the Cologne cathedral shop, and (2) two cutters that replicate the little man (called "Ampelmann") who is featured on traffic crossing signals found in the former East part of Berlin.

Here's a little history of the figural traffic signals, from the Ampelmann shop's website:
The East German pedestrian traffic light symbols, or‚ 'ampel men’ are Berlin born and bred. They came into being on October 13th 1961 when, in response to the growing threat of road traffic accidents, the traffic psychologist, Karl Peglau , introduced the first pedestrian signals to the GDR capital. And so the vehicle traffic light, which had directed traffic alone up to that point, was joined by the pedestrian traffic light. Its design was psychologically conceived, because road-users react more quickly to appealing symbols.

He is appealing, isn't he? No visit to Berlin would be complete without stopping at the very appealing shops filled with a dizzying array of Ampelmann-logo wares, including some specially for Christmas. When we were in Berlin last year I picked up some felt Ampelmann ornaments (red and green, of course) and some Ampelmann cookie cutters.

Cologne Cathedral

The cathedral, or "Dom" in Cologne, Germany is a stunning example of Gothic church architecture. It sits on a broad plaza in the center of the city and is home to many artistic and spiritual treasures.

Although Cologne was heavily bombed in the second World War, the cathedral survived relatively intact. There has been some reconstruction, however, and one of the most stunning modern features is the new "pixel" stained-glass window (2007) by German artist Gerhard Richter.

The Cologne cathedral is huge. The cookie cutter of the cathedral is not.

cook's notes:

- I didn't weigh my flour this time, and I think I ended up using less. I try to use 4 3/4 oz/cup for Dorie's recipes. A tiny bit more flour might have made these easier to work with.

- The dough is really tasty -- buttery, not too sweet.

- I froze a little over half of the dough for making Christmas cookies later.

- I rolled the dough fairly thin, pretty much out of habit - I'm always trying to squeeze maximum quantity out of my rolled cookies. Mine were closer to 1/8" than 1/4". They cooked in 8 minutes.

- The dough is very soft. I had to keep popping the cookie sheet and the dough back into the fridge. It took me forever to get one filled cookie sheet. Even with lots of extra chilling I had trouble transferring the cookies to the baking sheet. The cathedral's towers kept bending and Ampelmann got pulled out of shape.

- I sprinkled colored sugar and sparkly sugar on the cookies before baking. For the cathedral portal, I used cocoa roast almonds (these are delicious as a snack, btw). On some of the cathedral cookies I tried to suggest stained glass windows with multicolored chocolate covered sunflower seeds. When I pushed in the almonds and little sunflower seeds, the cookies smooshed a bit.

- The cookies were delicate after baking also, which made them a bit difficult to remove from cookie sheet. In particular, the Red Ampelmann kept trying to lose his head.

the verdict:

Warm from the oven, the cookies were soft and chewy, rich and just a bit of vanilla-y sweetness. Yum!! The next day, they were crisper but still with great flavor.

When I roll the rest of these, I think I'll refrigerate/freeze the dough even more than I did for this set. My plan: roll the chilled dough between wax paper, then freeze it flat before cutting the cookies, to see if the cookies kept their shape better when cut. I will also roll the cookies thicker, and undercook them a bit, so they will be chewy rather than crisp.

For years our go-to plain roll cookie was the Rich Roll Cookie from the 1975 Joy of Cooking. Last year we tried a new recipe: the Cook's Illustrated Glazed Butter Cookies (from the 2007 Holiday Baking issue). In typical CI fashion, the test kitchen worked out a dough, with a bit of cream cheese and no leaven, that would be nice and flat (for decorating) when baked and tasty but sturdy enough for rolling. We ended up loving the CI recipe. This year, I plan to do a taste test of Dorie's recipe with the CI recipe. Stay tuned!

I put the cookies in the freezer, (along with the disk of uncooked dough). When I get back from Germany, we'll have some cookies waiting for us, and they will be a good reminder of the trip! Thanks, Ulrike, for choosing this recipe. We all got a chance to add to our holiday cookie supply! If you'd like to bake these, you can find the recipe on Ulrike's post (you can read her post in German or English - just click on the little flag!), or on page 146-147 of Dorie Greenspan's book Baking From My Home to Yours.

This would be a good week to go to the TWD blogroll and click on blogs of some of the 370+ TWD bakers, as I'm sure they've baked some amazing decorated cookies and tasty flavor combinations.

I've baked up most of the December recipes for TWD (with just a few battle scars), and will set up next week's recipe (Buttery Jam Cookies) to post on the correct day (I hope) in my absence. I'll also try to set up a few other posts from my backlog of drafts, so you'll have something to read. You won't be seeing as many (any?) comments from me for the next few weeks, as my time and internet capability will be quite limited. I'll be back in time for Christmas. Wishing you much joy in your holiday preparations!