Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Quest Continues

One of my sisters lives in another state. On the all-too-rare occasions when we get together, we do goofy things. Do we go out for dinner? Go out for drinks? Go out to a movie? No, we bake together, go to thrift stores, and maybe a restaurant supply store. On my last visit she took me to her top secret chocolate supplier, where she buys bricks of chocolate. I didn't have a pressing need for chocolate, so I toured the aisles, chuckling at the cake toppers, wondering what those curlycue gadgets were for, and ending up with a bag of lollipop sticks and a 5 lb bag of macaroon coconut.

Macaroon coconut is much finer than regular shredded coconut, the kind you buy at the grocery store. With my dream macaroon cookie in mind, this seemed like a sensible purchase. 5 lbs to experiment with.

I received many helpful suggestions after my previous macaroon post (thank you so much, all who wrote!), but I found a recipe that looked just right in my new Cookies by Fine Cooking magazine. Beautiful little domes, slightly crunchy on the outside, moist and tender on the inside, and using the finer coconut gave them a better texture. I know the "chewing woodpulp" sensation is one of the big reasons that a lot of people avoid coconut. With the finer coconut, that's not an issue.

The macaroons were also less cloyingly sweet than most coconut macaroons. Even my non-coconut loving husband said they were pretty good. And, trust me, that is quite an endorsement from him for something with coconut in it.

This post is going to have to be a two-parter. Today you get the macaroons with a variation, and next time you get....well, you'll just have to wait and see. Yes, I'm a tease, but it'll be worth the wait, I promise. To take the cookies up a notch, you can drizzle them with chocolate ganache. I had some leftover chocolate filling from these cookies , so I warmed it up and poured it over the top. Plain or chocolate? Tough call. I think....both.

Coconut Macaroons
- adapted from Cookies by Fine Cooking magazine

3/4 cup egg whites (about 5 large eggs)
1-1/2 cups plus 1 Tbsp granulated sugar
12 oz. unsweetened finely shredded coconut

1- Position racks in the center and upper portions of the oven and heat the oven to 350 deg F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

2- In a large bowl, thoroughly whisk the egg whites and sugar. Work the coconut into the egg mixture with a wooden spoon until it is completely incorporated.

3- Using a small cookie scoop (about a level Tbsp of dough), scoop the coconut mixture onto the baking sheets. The cookies don't spread much so they can be spaced fairly close together. To retain the round shape, bake them right away.

5- Bake until the cookies are an even golden color and look dry (not at all sticky or wet looking), about 20 to 25 minutes. Halfway through baking, switch the pans from top to bottom and rotate them from back to front for even baking.

6- Let the cookies sit on the baking pan for 2 minutes then transfer to a cooling rack. They will keep well stored airtight at room temperature.

Makes about 4 dozen macaroons.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Wreathed In Bread

This month I have the honor and privilege of being the host kitchen for this month's bread baking adventure with the intrepid Bread Baking Babes. When I found out I was assigned to December I knew immediately what I wanted to do - a wreath. The recipe I chose has a sweet, almond filling, but I know that not everyone tilts toward sweet on the sweet/ savory scale, so I gave the Babes free reign to do whatever they wanted in terms of dough and filling, so long as it was in the shape of a wreath. I made the recipe as I found it in the cookbook, but be sure to check out what all the other fabulous Babes have made (their websites are on the side bar). Their creativity knows no bounds!

And if you are inspired to make a wreath for your own celebration, make one, post it and send me a link by the 31st (as lynncraigATcomcastDOTnet) and I will send you a Baking Buddy badge to proudly display on your website.

Yule Wreath
- adapted from Betty Crocker's International Cookbook

1 package active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water (105 to 115 deg. F)
3/4 cup lukewarm milk
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup butter, softened
1 egg
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/2 tsp salt
3-1/4 to 3-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
Almond Filling (below)*
Glaze (also below)

1-Dissolve yeast in warm water in large bowl. Stir in milk, sugar, butter, egg, cardamom, salt and 2 cups of the flour. Beat until smooth. Stir in enough remaining flour to make dough easy to handle.

2-Turn dough onto lightly floured surface: knead until smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Place in greased bowl; trun greased side up. Cover and let rise in warm place until double, 1 to 1-1/2 hours.

3-Prepare Almond Filling-

Mix together until smooth:
1/2 cup almond paste
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup softened butter

4- Punch down the dough. Roll into rectangle, 15 x 9-inches, on a lightly floured surface. Spread with the filling to within 1/4-inch of the edges. (I don't think my butter was soft enough as my filling didn't spread. I took bits of it, flattened it between my fingers and pressed that onto the dough.) Roll up tightly, beginning at the wide side. Pinch edge of dough into roll to seal well. Stretch roll to make even. With sealed edge down, shape into ring on lightly greased cookie sheet. Pinch ends together.

5- With scissors or kitchen shears, make cuts 2/3 of the way through the ring at 1-inch intervals. Turn each section on it's side (90 degree turn), to show off the pretty swirled filling. Cover loosely with plastic wrap sprayed with cooking spray. Let rise until double, about 40 to 50 minutes.

6- Heat oven to 350 deg. F. Bake until golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes. (If it browns too quickly, cover loosely with aluminum foil.)

7 - Make Glaze-
Mix until smooth:
1 cup powdered sugar
1 Tbsp water
1/2 tsp vanilla
(add additional water 1/2 tsp at a time, if necessary)

8- Spread Glaze over the wreath. You can decorate your wreath with nuts, dried fruit, marzipan fruit, or whatever strikes your fancy.

* If almond paste is not available, or if you fall down in the aisle at the grocery store when you see the price, you can make your own. In a food processor finely grind 8 oz blanched almonds. Process in 8 oz powdered sugar. Then knead in 1 egg white. Store in the refrigerator.

So, there you have it. A lovely, tasty, festive wreath!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Let It Snow, My Oven Is Warm

Sometimes people just don't get me. Am I that different? Is it that abnormal to plan your day around what you bake? Am I the only one who thinks, "It's cold and snowing. What can I bake to warm up the kitchen?" I may be abnormal, but that's the way I am and my family is OK with that.

My latest excuse to turn on the oven is another addition to my embarrassingly long list of peanut butter and chocolate combinations. When I saw these in the Cookies edition of Fine Cooking I knew they were going to be in top five of cookies baked from the magazine. Surprisingly easy to put together, they have a delicate texture and adult flavor that would fool any lucky recipient into thinking you put major effort into these cookies.

So, if you're buried in a snow drift and still have power, embrace the excuse and turn on the oven. So many cookies to bake, so little time!

Peanut Butter and Chocolate Sandwiches
- adapted from Cookies from Fine Cooking

for the cookies:
2-1/2 cups smooth peanut butter, at room temperature
1-1/2 cups firmly packed light brown sugar
1 tsp baking soda
2 large eggs
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
All-purpose flour for shaping

for the filling:
10 oz. bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped (about 2 cups)
1/4 lb (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces

1- Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 350 deg. F. Line four cookies sheets with parchment paper or a nonstick liner.

2- In a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat the peanut butter, brown sugar, and baking soda on medium speed until well blended, about 1 minute. Add the eggs and vanilla and mix on low speed until just blended, about 25 seconds.

3- Shape level Tbsp of the dough into 1-inch balls. Arrange the balls 1-1/2 inches apart on a prepared baking sheet.

4- Using a lightly floured glass or measuring cup, press down lightly on the balls. (I forgot this step and my cookies ended up with a crackly rather than smooth surface. Not much difference other than that, though.)

5- Bake one sheet at a time until the cookies are puffed and crackled but still moist looking, about 11 minutes. Transfer the sheet to a rack to cool about 10 minutes. Using a spatula, move the cookies to the rack and let cool completely. Repeat with the remaining cookies.

6- Melt the chocolate and butter in the microwave on high for 1 minute. Stir. Microwave in bursts of 30 seconds, stirring in between till chocolate is melted and smooth. Set aside and cool, stirring occasionally, until cool and slightly thickened, 20 to 30 minutes.

7- To assemble the sandwiches, turn half of the cooled cookies over so they're flat side up. Spoon 2 tsp of the chocolate filling onto the center of each cookie. Top with the remaining cookies, flat side down. Press gently on each cookie to spread the filling almost to the edge. Set on the rack until the filling is firm, 20 to 30 minutes.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Cherries To The Rescue

Sometimes I think I should change the name of this blog from Cookie Baker Lynn to Rescue Baker Lynn. It seems like three quarters of my posts are about how I manage to pull a flaming disaster out of the fire, never mind that I'm the one that set it on fire in the first place.

Yet another instance of this took place this week. When cranberries first hit the stores I snagged a bag, knowing that I'd find a perfect use for them. I put them in my fridge and was rewarded when my husband brought home the Cookies edition of Fine Cooking. There is a gorgeous looking recipe for cranberry bars in there. Yesssss!

But, as so often happens, life got in the way of my best laid baking plans. First Thanksgiving took over my kitchen, then the fridge was so stuffed with leftovers that I wasn't allowed to bake anything new, then the cookie exchange...... So, when a snow flurry brought on a baking day, I was more than ready to make the cranberry bars. But, the cranberries had gotten tired of waiting for me. As I picked through them I realized that only about half of them were useable, the rest were sad, withered, blackened and mushy. Rats! And the crust was already in the oven. What to do, what to do?

What flavor goes well with cranberries? One of my standards for Thanksgiving is a cran-cherry salad, so I grabbed my bag of dried cherries and threw in a couple of handfuls with the cranberries that were still useable. Did it work? Oh, yeah. The cherry flavored mellowed the tartness of the cranberries and gave it an interesting complexity and the streusel topping and shortbread crust rounded out the combination to make them irresistible. Really. After the third (or was it fourth?) bar, my husband begged me to take them away. "I can't stop eating them!" he moaned.

If you have a bag of cranberries lurking in the fridge, haul it out now and make these. You'll be so glad you did. It's better they go to waist than to waste.

Crancherry Streusel Bars
- adapted from Cookies by Fine Cooking

Crust & Streusel:
10-1/2 oz. (1 cup plus 5 Tbsp) unsalted butter, melted and cooled to just warm
1 cup granulated sugar
3/4 tsp kosher salt
2 large egg yolks*
14-1/2 oz. (3 cups plus 3 Tbsp) unbleached all-purpose flour

Crancherry topping:
1/2 bag (6 oz) fresh or frozen cranberries, picked over, rinsed, and drained
about 1-1/4 cups dried cherries
1 cup granulated sugar

1- Line a straight-sided metal 9x13-inch baking pan with foil, leaving an overhanging edge.

2- In a medium bowl, stir the butter, 3/4 cup of the sugar, and the salt. Whisk in the egg yolks. Stir in the flour to make a stiff dough. Transfer about 2 cups of the dough to the prepared pan, and press the mixture evenly into the bottom. Prick the dough all over with a fork. Refrigerate the pan for 30 minutes (or freeze for 5 to 7 minutes) until the dough is firm.

3- Position a rack in the center of the oven and another near the top. Heat the oven to 325 deg. F.

4- Bake the dough on the center rack until the crust begins to set but does not brown at all on the edges (the center will not be firm yet), about 20 minutes.

5- While the crust bakes prepare the filling and topping. With your fingers, combine the remaining 1/4 cup sugar with the reserved dough until crumbly. The mixture should hold together when pressed, but readily break into smaller pieces.

6- In a medium saucepan, bring the cranberries, cherries, sugar and 1/4 cup water to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium high and continue to boil until the liquid is reduced to a thick syrup, about 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let the mixture cool for 5 to 10 minutes - the syrup will continue to thicken as the mixture cools.

7 - Spread the crancherry mixture evenly over the hot crust. Scatter the streusel over the cranberries. Increase the oven temperature to 350 deg. F and bake the bars near the top of the oven until the streusel is golden and set, about 25-30 minutes.

8- Set the pan on a cooling rack. Cool at least 1 hour, until the crust is completely firm. (If it's chilly outside, you can set the bars outside to speed cooling.)

9- When the bottom of the pan is cool, carefully lift the bars from the pan using the foil sides and transfer them to a cutting board. Slide a spatula between the foil and the bars to separate them and slide the bars off the foil. Cut the bars into 1-3/4-inch squares. They will keep at room temperature for one week. (As if they'd last that long!)

* This leaves you with two egg whites, perfect for making divinity, if your humidity is below 60%.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Christmas Cookies, Just For Fun

I once read a magazine article about a huge annual cookie exchange that featured prizes and fiercely competitive baking. That is my nightmare. What I have, that makes me smile every year, is a small group of friends who use our cookie exchange as an excuse to get together, hang out, eat cookies, and maybe, if we're feeling especially energized and organized, we'll work on addressing our Christmas cards.

This year, as the exchange was approaching, my wonderful husband picked up the Cookies edition of Fine Cooking magazine for me. Oh, drool! I wanted to cancel everything and just bake my way through the magazine. It all looked so good! It was tough picking which to make for our low-stress, non-competitive event. So many delectable choices! But with the help of a friend, I settled on the Caramel Turtle Bars. It was a good choice. Caramel is always good, but you throw in pecans, shortbread, and a hint of chocolate, and it's out of this world.

I'd recommend making these for gifting, exchanging, or just for treating your family if they've been really good this year. If you have someone special who deserves a care package, be sure to read the shipping tips that follow the recipe.

This is also my submission for Eat Christmas Cookies 2, the showcase of Christmas cookies from around the world. Check out the round-up to get inspiration for your cookie exchange!

Caramel Turtle Bars

- adapted from Cookies - Fine Cooking

Shortbread Crust:
7 oz (14 Tbsp) unsalted butter, melted and cooled to just warm
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 tsp table salt
9 oz (2 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour

Caramel Topping:
2 cups pecan halves, toasted and coarsely chopped
1 cup packed light brown sugar
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 lb (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/4 tsp kosher salt

2 oz good-quality bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
6 Tbsp heavy cream

1- Line a 9 x 13-inch metal pan with foil. To do this easily, form the foil over the bottom of the pan, then turn the pan right side up and press the foil in place. Be sure the ends hang over the edges to make handles for easy removal. Lightly coat the sides, but not the bottom, of the foil with cooking spray or melted butter to prevent the caramel from sticking.

2- In a medium bowl, stir the butter, brown sugar, and salt. Stir in the flour to make a stiff dough. Press the mixture evenly into the bottom of the prepared pan. Prick the dough all over with a fork. Refrigerate the pan for 30 minutes, or if you're rushed for time, pop it in the freezer for 5 to 7 minutes, until the dough is firm.

3- Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 325 deg. F.

4- Bake the dough for 20 minutes, decrease the oven temp to 300 deg. F, and bake until the crust is golden all over and completely set, about another 15 minutes.

5- Sprinkle the pecans evenly over the crust.

6- In a heavy medium saucepan, bring the brown sugar, cream, butter, corn syrup, and salt to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring until all the ingredients are melted and smooth. Let the mixture continue to boil, without stirring, until a candy thermometer registers 240 deg. F, about 6 more minutes. Turn off the heat and immediately (and carefully) pour the caramel evenly over the prepared crust. Let the bars cool completely, about 2 hours before garnishing with the ganache.

7- When the bars are cooled, put the chopped chocolate in a small heatproof bowl. In a small saucepan, bring the heavy cream to a boil. Remove from the heat and pour over the chocolate. Let sit for 3 minutes. Stir gently with a rubber spatula until combined and smooth.

8- Fill a zip-lock plastic bag with the ganache, snip a tiny piece off a corner, and drizzle the ganache decoratively over the caramel bars. You don't have to use all the ganache and can store the extra in the fridge for up to five days.

9- Let the ganache set for 30 minutes to an hour. Carefully lift the bars from the pan using the foil sidea and transfer them to a cutting board. Separate the foil from the bars by sliding a spatula between them. Cut the bars into 1-1/2-inch squares. They will keep at room temperature for 1 week, if they're not devoured right away.

Shipping tips from FedEx:

Directions for a Crumble-Free Sweet Treat
  • Place the baked goods in a sturdy container and layer wax paper between the baked goods, using crumpled paper to fill in any void spaces
  • Secure the lid of the container to the body with tape, to keep it from accidentally popping off
  • Place the container in a sturdy corrugated cardboard box and use newspaper or plastic grocery bags to cushion the container tightly in place
  • Shake the box – if you can feel or hear any movement, add more cushioning!
  • Ship before Dec. 16, 2008 and use FedEx Ground and FedEx Home Delivery Services for the most cost effective delivery in time for Christmas
  • For a last-minute gift idea, you can send your homemade treats as late as Dec. 23, 2008 for overnight delivery in time for Christmas

Saturday, December 6, 2008

A Peck of Pears - Part 3

My first Thanksgiving away from home was when I was at college. My sister, who lived in the area, invited me to come over and break turkey with her. For the two of us we had an enormous turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and two pumpkin pies. We got so hungry waiting for the turkey to cook, that before it was out of the oven we'd eaten one whole pumpkin pie.

When we sat down to our plates of turkey and fixings I decided what it needed was gravy. My sister said that she didn't know how to make gravy, but I said, no problem, I'd make it, gravy is easy. Well, not so much if you've never actually made gravy and don't have a recipe to follow. What I ended up with was a glutinous white sauce. Not really tasty as a gravy substitute. It was years before my sister stopped teasing me about my mad, hot gravy-making skills.

In the intervening years I've learned how to make gravy and also learned how to time the prep work of all the dishes so you don't have rolls, pies, and a 20 lb turnkey all jockeying for position in the oven. This year, though, things changed. My newly married daughter, her husband, and her in-laws would be joining us for Thanksgiving. She offered to bring the rolls and 2 other dishes, so that cleared a big space on my Thanksgiving day to-do list.

So when I walked into the kitchen Thursday morning and saw the last of the bag of pears sitting on the counter, I had a risky thought. Should I try something new? Very risky, indeed. But I had possibly enough leftover pie dough in the refrigerator and all the ingredients for a new pie recipe that I'd been eyeing for two weeks. Putting aside common sense, I went for it.

With my helper peeling pears, it went together quickly and easily. I didn't have enough crust to make a lattice top and I put on a crumbly streusel topping instead. It went perfectly with the flavors of the pie - sweet, tangy, gently spicy, and altogether wonderful. The only thing I'd do differently next time would be to add a bit of instant tapioca to the fruit mixture to keep it from turning into pie soup.

Cranberry-Pecan-Pear Streusel Pie

1 unbaked pie shell
4 cups sliced, peeled fresh pears (about 5 medium)
1/2 cup chopped dried cranberries
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/2 cup honey
1/4 cup butter, melted
3 tbsp cornstarch
2 tbsp grated lemon peel
1 tsp ground cinnamon
Instant tapioca - 1 to 2 Tbsp (optional)

Streusel topping:

1/2 cup quick oats
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 cup unsalted butter, cold

1- Preheat oven to 400 deg. F.

2- In a bowl, combine the pears, cranberries, pecans, honey, butter, cornstarch, lemon peel and cinnamon; pour into crust. If mixture looks very juicy, stir in 1 to 2 Tbsp of instant tapioca.

3- Mix streusel ingredients in a small bowl and cut butter into dry ingredients until it’s crumbly. Sprinkle streusel over the pie.

4- Bake at 400 deg. F for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 deg. F and bake for an additional 40 to 50 minutes or until the filling is bubbly. Cool on a wire rack.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Selfless Spread

I love making chocolate chip cookies. I love eating chocolate chip cookies. My husband knows this, so it's hard to win good wifey points by saying, "Look, honey, I made you cookies!" Especially when I've eaten five of them before he sees them. He might suspect that it was my greedy tummy more than my selfless love which prompted the cookie baking.

There are some things which I make just for him, though, that he knows without a doubt that it's an act of love for me to make. Marmalade is one of those. I think it's nasty. I'd rather have my toast plain than have to eat marmalade. There are a lot of things I'd rather do than have to eat marmalade. But for some reason, my husband appreciates the bitter taste of orange peel and marmalade is like ambrosia to him. Each to his own. But because I love him, I made marmalade.

I'm not very accomplished at making jams. I'm terrified of ending up with syrup, so I usually cook a bit too long, to be on the safe side, and end up with chunky jam. With marmalade, since it's all chunks anyway, that didn't matter. This recipe was easy and made quite a bit of jam - enough to make my husband happy and even give a few jars away as gifts. Plus, even if I don't want to eat it, I always get a little burst of pride when I look in the pantry and see homemade jam jars lined up.

Orange Marmalade
- adapted from Barefoot Contessa At Home by Ina Garten

If you have it available to you, I'd say splurge on organic produce here. Since you're using the whole peel, you'd probably prefer to not have pesticides in your marmalade.

4 large seedless oranges
2 lemons
8 cups water
8 cups of sugar

Cut the oranges and lemons in half crosswise, then into very thin half-moon slices. Discard any seeds. Place the fruit and their juices into a large, stainless steel pot. Add the water and bring the mixture to a boil, stirring often. Remove from the heat and stir in the sugar till it is dissolved. Cover and allow the mixture to stand overnight at room temperature.

The next day, put the pot back over heat and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer uncovered for 2 hours. Turn the heat up to medium and boil gently, stirring often, for another 30 minutes. Skim off any foam that forms on the top. Cook the marmalade until it reaches 220 degrees. The marmalade will be golden orange.

Pour the marmalade into clean, hot jam jars. Wipe the rims thoroughly to remove any jam overflow and seal with clean, hot lids. Label and store in the pantry for up to a year.