Friday, February 13, 2015

Adventures In Food Coloring ...

I had this idea, see?

Given my grown-up disgust yet nostalgia for conversation hearts – I loved them as a kid, but now I'm convinced they're dried bits of toothpaste – I thought I'd put together a batch of shortbread dough, divide it, color each portion with just enough food coloring to be pleasant, not garish, and be pleased with myself for my minimal yet edible homage to the toothpaste bits. (OK, maybe they're antacids.)

I rummaged through the drawer through which I rarely rummage, in search of my heart cookie cutters. Found them.

Then I spun my spice-rack carousel until I arrived at the box of food coloring. Checked them. Still liquid. Good. (I have no idea when I last bought food coloring. I know it hasn't been recently.)

I made the dough.

I cut it into fourths.

I plopped one quarter in a Ziploc sandwich bag and added two drops of red. (I figured it would be better to knead the dough in plastic than get red dye all over my hands that I might then transfer to other blobs of dough intended to be other colors.)

I knew I wanted pink hearts. Two drops seemed like the right amount. Really, I could have stopped at one. Those are the pink hearts, above. Is it me or do they look a bit like tongue? But I was going to mix other colors, a drop each, so I figured I should use two drops per blob.

I also knew that I wanted to purple hearts, so another blob went into another bag and drop of blue and drop of red and smoosh.

Uh oh.

The blue didn't look much like blue. It looked like, um, black. Had the blue gotten bluer over time? Does blue food coloring eventually turn black? I guess so. But then I thought, "Maybe I just need to distribute the color." So I set about kneading it through the dough.

Now, admittedly, the light in my kitchen wasn't ideal at the moment and it has been a very grey day, but I wasn't seeing purple. I wasn't seeing lavender. I was seeing, um, grey. Purplish grey. But not so much with the purple.

At which point, I thought this (and then tweeted it):

The more I looked at the dough, the more the purple seemed to recede. Yeah, it was pretty damn grey. Which was not really part of my cute-cookie plan. (Though, come to think of it, I think Necco makes a grey wafer that's licorice-flavored. But I digress.)

I looked at the remaining quarters of dough. Should I leave them alone? Should I just let them be shortbread in hue?

Nope. Drop, drop. Green. Wow. Green does not degrade. Green stays green. Briefly, I pondered a shamrock, but I don't have a shamrock cutter.

And so I patted out the colored blobs of dough on parchment and cut out hearts and rolled the extra bits of dough that I flattened into cute rounded buttons.

And I put the baking sheet into the oven.

And I was pleased that the Tim Burton hearts purpled up a bit while they baked. They came out looking much less bleak than when they went in.

But the combination of tongue pink and nearly shamrock green and ashen-Grimace purple wasn't the most photogenic gang. So I opted to just shoot the pink.

I'm not really the food-coloring type. I'll stick to my usual cookie palette of white, off-white, and browns.

Unless Tim Burton calls.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Absence Makes The Heart Grow Fonder ...

I miss this place.

I've gotten away from blogging but I shall be getting back to it directly.

In the meantime, yesterday, I was putting away dishes and as I nested some mixing bowls, I thought, "Huh. That'd make an interesting photo."

So this morning, I snapped a few. I like the colors.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

What Could Have Been The World's Shortest E-Book ...

The day I published How to Bake a Better Cookie, a review appeared that ended with this: "Now I need one for breads!"

Yesterday, I was standing in front of the whiteboard in my office, jotting ideas for upcoming projects. I jotted: "Bread e-book? Do I have enough to say?"

Nope, I really don't.

I don't bake a lot of varieties of bread. (My one atttempt at rye was memorably leaden.)

I don't use starters.

I don't use a baking stone.

I don't mist my oven to encourage the crust.

I've made Greek bread in the past with reasonable success because Greek bread is really just white bread, pulled into a wreath shape and smothered with sesame seeds.

Mostly – almost exclusively – I make the bread you see at the top of this post. The Serbs in my family call it pogacha. It's a basic white bread but it only raises once, so it's slightly more dense than typical white bread. (The recipe's here.)

And it makes spectacular toast. I mean, it's good as bread, but it's sublime as toast.

A lot of people are scared to attempt bread, but it's not as daunting as people make it out to be.

Just before Christmas, one of my cousins mentioned that they tried making pogacha and it didn't rise. He presumed his yeast was bad.

Nope, probably not, I said.

And that brings me to the first – and possibly – only rule you need to know about baking bread:

Don't kill the yeast.

That's it. So long as you don't kill the yeast, odds are that you and your oven will produce something fairly edible.

See what I mean? It would have been a really short e-book. Even 99 cents would have been too much to charge.

If you proof your yeast in warm water, make sure it's warm. Not hot. Warm. Years ago, my Aunt Chick said, "Think of a baby's bath water."

The water needs to be warm enough to encourage the yeast but not so warm that it dies.

So hold the inside of your wrist under warm water and when it feels plesantly warm but not hot, you're good to go.

Likewise, if you're adding the yeast to an existing hot liquid, let it cool down to a pleasantly warm temperature first.

Don't be impatient. Swirl the bowl around to expose the mixture to more air to hasten the cooling process.

Or, as I often do, stick the bowl in the freezer for a minute or two or three.

Too-cool liquid will always be preferable to too-hot liquid.

Also, you can add a smidgen of sugar to your yeast to give it some food and make it happy from the get-go.

There you have it: the one piece of advice you need to get you started on your bread-baking way.

Baking bread is enormously gratifying.

And your family and friends will think you a genius.

Don't kill the yeast.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Cookie Tips, Past And Present ...

I've been baking through my list of holiday cookies.

I also keep adding to the list.

Which has reminded me of a very key cookie tip:

— Make a list and (try to) stick to it

This was the year I was going to bake only two varieties, but lots of them: Peppermint Sablés* and Snickerdoodles.

But then I thought, "Oh, but I should make Oatmeal Raisin for Bill. And if I take cookies to Bill, I should make Peanut Butter for Donna ... ."

And just like that, the list had doubled.

And then I thought, "But Mom really likes Russian Teacakes. And Paul really likes Toffee Squares."

And presto! The list had tripled.

And then Mom reported that my niece looked crestfallen upon learning that Chocolate Crinkles would not be baked this year.

Well, that won't do.

Chocolate Crinkle dough is in the fridge.

And then I thought of a cookie-as-gift idea for someone for whom I do not usually bake, so, for those of you keeping score at home, that brings the tally to eight varieties.

From two to eight. Just like that.

So, that should be plenty, right? Except that I've made what I thought was a sufficient quantity of each type of cookie and then realized, no, I really should make another batch of each.

So this year's baking has spiraled slightly out of control.

But hey, butter's on sale.

Speaking of having a lot of cookies on hand, though, one of the other tips I shared on Twitter this week was:

— Enjoy a couple (or a few) with your morning coffee, pre-holidays

We deserve wee rewards for our efforts.

Others that came to mind to share:

– While warm, roll Russian teacakes in powdered sugar to create a "skim coat"; the initial coat will enable powdered sugar to cling when you roll them in more before serving

– Toast walnuts – or other nuts – before using them in cookies; grind for better distribution, chop for better texture

– Baking two sheets of cookies? Rotate them halfway through the baking time, top to bottom, front to back; also, tack 30 seconds onto the second half of baking time to accommodate your oven coming back up to temp

– A stick of butter that's softened enough for baking should bend but not be too soft or greas

Find more tips in my ebook(let) How to Bake a Better Cookie on Amazon.

* Swap in peppermint extract for vanilla

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Ohmygosh! ...

Oh! In the intro of my ebook(let), I cite the vintage edition of Betty Crocker's Cooky Book as an influence!

What a trip to see myself in the same row with it on Amazon! (This is the Books > Cookbooks, Food & Wine > Baking > Cookies ranking.)

The modern-day reissue is No. 4, as it should be. It's a fab book.

I shall aspire to move up to that neighborhood and appear alongside the new version, but in the meantime, this picture delights me!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

It's A Book(let)! ...

Historically speaking, I completed this project in record time.

I had the idea in July. I started jotting down thoughts on a piece of scrap paper in my wallet in a waiting room.

And then, as with most ideas I have, I let it stall.

I noodled around with it a bit, but not in any meaningful way.

Until last week.

And then, in earnest, on Monday afternoon. And into Monday evening.

And then as soon as I got up Tuesday morning.

And by Tuesday afternoon, it was a thing.

Available on Amazon.

What a trip.

Most publishing cycles take a couple of years.

This one took about 20 hours.

It's a good first step for me, the publishing equivalent of wading into the shallow end of the pool and putting my face in the water before heading into the deep end.

It's also terribly exciting and fun!

On to the next! Whatever that may be.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Destiny ...

I had enough milk.

Whether or not I had enough milk was to determine whether or not I baked bread today.

I had enough milk. With a bit to spare.

So I made bread, the bread my Great Aunt Anne taught me to bake so many years ago. I was 8 then. Today, I am teetering on the fulcrum of my 40s.

It's second nature to me, this bread. I breeze through making it and shaping it.

The waiting truly is the hardest part.

But I waited for the dough to rise. And when it didn't look risen quite enough, I waited a little longer.

And then I fired up the oven and later, out came two lovely loaves, with more depth the the crust than the loaves I baked the other day. So I took a picture.


And then I waited for it to cool and then I cut a slice and the crust was indeed lovely. So I took a picture.


And then I set thin slices of butter on it to soften, because it was still warm. And then I smeard the butter into a mostly even layer and marveled at the chewy texture of the crust. These might be the best loaves I've ever baked.

And then I cut another slice – OK, two slices – and put them in the toaster and stood by, waiting for them to take on just the right amount of color, and then I set more thin slices of butter on them and let them mostly melt and I had already taken the two other pictures so I took a picture.


The happiest incarnation of bread is toast.