Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Cookie Tips, The Second ...

My cookie stash is dwindling.

Which is the point. I gave most of them away to friends last week, kept a few for dessert for Christmas Eve, made a cookie plate for my brother and his family, and now have a few stragglers in the freezer, which are being eaten a few at a time, a treat for me who doesn't usually keep cookies in the house.

But as I was baking and wrapping and packing, I jotted down ideas as they came to me. Here, then, is the latest batch.

To bake or not to bake
Some recipes have large yields. Maybe you don't want six dozen cookies lying around the house, waiting to take up residence on your hips. Maybe you want to mete out the fresh-baked goodness a half-dozen at a time. Maybe you're tired and want to stop baking and go to bed. So line a baking sheet with some waxed paper (or parchment), roll the cookie dough into balls (or measure with a cookie scoop), place on the lined baking sheet, pop it into the freezer until the balls are solid, then plop six or 12 each into Ziploc bags and stash in the freezer. Unexpected guests? Bake off a dozen cookies and be a snack-time rock star. Having a crummy day? Bake off a few cookies in your toaster oven. It's hard to be pissed with a warm Toll House cookie in your hand. Bake the cookie dough, right from the freezer, for a few minutes longer than the regular number of minutes.

Don't take it or leavening it
Funny things, ingredients. In the democracy that is cookie baking, every ingredient contributes to the outcome. If a recipe calls for baking soda or baking powder, it's there for a reason. No, you cannot omit them. Nor can you necessarily sub one for the other. And take special note: self-rising flour has leaveners built in. It is not the same as all-purpose flour. You cannot use them interchangably.

Get cracking
If your recipes call for eggs, don't crack them directly into the ingredients already in the bowl, crack them, one at a time, into a small dish, and add to the larger bowl before cracking the next egg. Eggs are relatively cheap. Cheaper, certainly, than the butter your recipe likely starts with. If you crack a crummy egg into a bowl of creamed butter and sugar, the whole mess will need to go into the garbage. Eggs. Separate dish. Always.

More is better
When I'm in a baking zone, I don't want to break my rhythm to wash utensils. Buy several sets of measuring spoons and cups so you can keep on goin'. For that matter, it's a fine idea to have more than one mixer bowl for your KitchenAid (or mixer of choice) and paddle attachment so you don't have to wash them between uses.

Sheet safety
Cookie sheets might not look like they're in need of washing, but if you're baking cookies with nuts and then cookies without nuts, wash the sheets in between batches. Most people with nut allergies simply steer cleaer of baked goods if they're unsure of the source, but even traces of nut oils can cause reactions to those allergic to nuts. Play it safe. Better yet, bake the nut-free cookies first.

Packaging productivity
This year, I made seven collections of cookies, so I got into a serious assembly-line mindset. I cut all my cellophane at once, then, in a rare moment of brilliance, created index cards on which I wrote each recipient's name and number of each cookie variety they'd receive. Then I made tape loops for the back of each card and stuck each card to the counter, on top of which I placed a square of cellophane. Like a landing site for the cookies. As I took each variety out of the freezer, I was able to quickly dole out the cookies among all the cellophane, then tie each bundle with a ribbon and tag. I made stations on my dining table for each recipient and grouped the cookies around each person's name until I was ready to fill their boxes.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Rosemary Lemon ...

This is a cookie conundrum. It's a shaped like a cookie. It's made with butter and sugar and other cookie things. It's lemony to be sure. But rosemary? Yes, rosemary.

I made some as a trial, one of this year's cookie contenders. And I really like them, but not in a cookie kind of way. It's a grown-up cookie, a cookie you'd have with champagne, I'm thinking, not a tall glass of milk. The lemon flavor is very sharp, owing to four tablespoons of lemon juice and the zest of an entire lemon. And the rosemary is unmistakable.

The recipe had a typo in it. When I first read it, I thought, "Ten teaspoons of butter? Huh?" So I tried it with 3 1/3 tablespoons of butter (three teaspoons to a tablespoon, for those scoring at home) and wow, it didn't turn into a workable dough. So I tossed in the rest of the stick and two more tablespoons to boot and voila!, dough that could be chilled then rolled.

I bought fluted oval cutters especially for this cookie. I don't think they're flutey enough, The edge isn't as defined as I'd like it to be. But I like the oval shape in a landscape of round cookies. Always good to get more geometric.

Here, then, the recipe for the oddest cookie on this year's plate.

Rosemary Cookies
(From Complete Baking: Cakes, Puddings, and Pastries, Published by Dempsey Parr, 2000)

10 T. butter, softened
4 T. superfine sugar
Grated rind of 1 lemon
4 T. lemon juice
1 egg, separated
2 T. finely chopped fresh rosemary
1 3/4 C. all-purpose flour, sifted
Superfine sugar, for sprinkling (optional)

Lightly grease two baking sheets. In a large mixing bowl, cream together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Add the lemon rind and juice, then the egg yolk and beat until they are thoroughly combined. Stir in the chopped fresh rosemary. Add the sifted flour, mixing well until a soft dough is formed. Wrap and leave to chill for 30 minutes. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough thinly and stamp about 25 circles with a 2 1/2-inch cookie cutter. Arrange the dough circles on the prepared baking sheets. In a bowl, lightly whisk the egg white. Gently brush the egg white over the surface of each biscuit [the cookbook is British], then sprinkle wiht a little superfine sugar. Bake in a preheated oven, 350 for 15 minutes. Transfer the cookies to a wire race and leave to cool before serving.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Beth Kujawski, Cookie Elf ...

Cookies are packaged! I'm ready to make deliveries! I LOVE this part!

Toffee Squares ...

Damn if these don't taste an awful lot like toffee. Happily, though, you don't run the risk of cracking a tooth by biting into them. This is the penultimate holiday cookie post, but I have a long running list of cookie tips yet to share, and I'm going to keep baking and photographing whatever I bake, so you can keep reading. If you're so inclined.

These are pretty straightforward as cookies go. None of those pesky cookie-forming chores. Just pat the dough in a pan and bake. When I cut these, I like to trim the edges first so that all the cookies will be uniform. The edges bake up a bit higher than the field, so edge pieces have a raised edge. I don't like the inconsistency, but then, I'm funny that way.

Toffee Squares
(From Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book, Published by General Mills, 1963)

1 C. butter or margarine (You know my feelings about margarine ...)
1 C. brown sugar, packed
1 egg yolk
1 t. vanilla
2 C. flour
1/4 t. salt
3 to 4 chocolate bars (Like Hershey's, eh?)
1/2 C. chopped nuts (I use walnuts, and I grind them; if you chop them, chop them fine)

Heat oven to 350. Mix butter, sugar, yolk, and vanilla. measure flour by dipping method*. Stir in flour and salt until blended. Pat into a 9x13 baking pan. Bake 25-30 minutes. Crust will appear soft. Remove pan from oven and immediately place chocolate on top of crust. When melted, spread with the back of the spoon to cover the crust. Sprinkle with chopped nuts. Cut while warm.

* Dipping method: Slightly fluff up flour with a spoon or measuring cup. Dip measuring cup into flour and overfill. Level off measuring cup.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Shortbread ...

You can't get any easier than this. Three ingredients and some time in the oven. My friend Gemma once asked, "Can't we just eat a stick of butter dipped in flour?" Yes, these have a lot of butter in them, but they're never greasy. They're delightful. Shortbread - and variations on shortbread, like the Russian Teacakes - are my favorite cookie. I love simple flavors. The Girl Scout shortbread was my favorite when I was a kid, but the recipe's changed and they're not the same, no longer worth eating.

When you make this recipe, you might look in the bowl after you've cut in the butter and think you've done something wrong. Nope, you haven't. It's supposed to look that dusty. Dump it onto a clean counter and start smooshing it together, kneading not like for bread dough but pressing your palm into the dough in a linear movement away from you, smearing it as you go, then gather it back into a ball and start over again. Think of a stone-skipping motion. That's what you're doing. Not the throwing of the stone, but the action of the stone skipping across the water. Keep at it for a few minutes and the next thing you know, you'll have gorgeous, smooth dough.

(From Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book, Published Meredith Corporation, 1989)

1 1/4 C. all-purpose flour
3 T. sugar
1/2 C. butter

In a mixing bowl, combine flour and sugar. Cut in butter till mixture resembles fine crumbs and starts to cling. Form mixture into a ball and knead till smooth. To make wedges, on an ungreased cookie sheet pat or roll dough into an 8-inch circle. Using your fingers, press to make a scalloped edge. With a knife, cut circle into 16 pie-shape wedges. Leave wedges in the circle shape. Bake in a 325 oven for 25 to 30 minutes or till bottom just starts to brown and center is set. Cut circle into wedges again while warm. Cool on the cookie sheet for five minutes. Remove from cookie sheet; cool on a wire rack.

Mint Surprises ...

Gee, I wonder what the surprise could be? The name of the cookie kinda gives it away. But this year, I made things slightly more surprising by using both dark mint chocolate and ... white mint chocolate! Ha! So those biting into my cookies won't know which they're getting. Finally, some mystery returns to the cookie experience.

I buy my chocolate for these cookies at a local store that sells candy-making supplies. This chocolate is meant to be melted down and used in molds, but the pieces work perfectly for this application.

Walnut halves may be a little harder to come by for commoners such as ourselves. I went through four bags of mom's Diamond walnuts and pulled out all the halves. There were a lot of them. Sometimes, you just hit a walnut-half mother lode.

Mint Surprises
(Presented as written in my late Aunt Stana's anal-retentively neat recipe notebook - seriously, the pages are typed out and the holes are reinforced)

3 1/4 C. sifted flour
1 t. soda
1/2 t. salt

1/2 C. butter
1/2 C. shortening

1 C. sugar
1/2 C. firmly packed brown sugar


2 eggs, unbeaten
2 T. water
1 t. vanilla; beat well.

Blend in dry ingredients. Mix well.

Enclose a chocolate wafer (I use the discs you buy at a candy-making-supply store) in about 1 T. of dough. Place on greased baking sheet about 2 inches apart. Top each with a walnut half. Bake at 375 for 10 to 12 minutes.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Cookie Gift ...

OK, kids:

I just put together my first cookie gift of the season and as I was composing it, I wondered what I'd sell this for if I wasn't giving it away.

This particular collection has 12 varieties of cookies, 6 dozen all together, presented in a fetching tissue-lined, paper-covered hat box. Each variety is wrapped in cellophane (in case you couldn't see it in the pictures!), tied with ribbon, and tagged.

The first shot is of the cookies out of the box, to give you a sense of the volume. The second shot, with its profusion of cellophane, is the box full of cookie bundles.

What price will the holiday cookie market pay? I ask for your input.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Side Note ...

While it's hard to see because it's black, the base for my biscotti shot is a Fiestaware platter.

I mention it because Judi Noble, the art director for the Homer Laughlin China Company, found my blog and sent a note to me earlier this month, offering to send a piece. She has her Google set to catch any site that mentions Fiestaware (which I mentioned in a story that I wrote for a client a couple years ago and which I posted on the blog) and ran across my blog that way.

When I worked for the Tribune, we had to sign ethics policies every year, and it was stipulated that we were not allowed to accept any gift whose value was greater than that of a keychain. (It was expected that we understood that the keychains weren't from Tiffany.) Graft is a no-no.

So my immediate reaction to her offer was, "Oh, I couldn't." But then I realized that 1) I don't work for a newspaper directly anymore, and 2) She wasn't offering to send something to me in exchange for press. I'd already written the story and made the mention.

I replied to her and thanked her for the offer, suggesting that I'd love to receive a piece of Fiestaware and in exchange for her kindness, I'd use the piece in a photo shoot for the blog. Well, the biscotti shot doesn't show it off to very good effect, but I'll be doing a shot of all the cookies when I compose a cookie plate, and you'll be able to better see it then. Except that it will be covered by cookies.

But it's black and round and shiny and heavier than you'd expect it to be. And it was very kind of her to see to it that I received it.

So thank you, Judi.

Coconut Chocolate Almond Biscotti ...

So here's the thing: This recipe is actually for coconut pecan biscotti. I could have used pecans, but I like almonds. And then, because I was using almonds with the coconut, I thought it would be fun to add chocolate chips. Plus, I had some mini chips left over from the chocolate raspberry thumbprints.

Coconut, almond, and chocolate. Dig it: They're like Almond Joy biscotti! I rock!

I've made biscotti in the past and have been mostly unhappy with the results. Biscotti advice often conflicts or is incomplete. Here's what I've learned about making biscotti: You have to let the loaves cool before you cut them. Cutting a loaf into slices when it's hot out of the oven will yield misshapen biscotti, especially if there's anything in them. Here's what else I've learned: A serrated knife is the better bet, every time. Some will tell you to use a sharp chef's knife and to make swift, clean cuts. I don't think that's the best advice. You can try both kinds of knives on your biscotti recipe, as the first cut at the very end of the loaf yields a little heal of biscotti loaf that you're just going to eat right then and there anyway. And the second slice will be pretty tiny, too. Decide which knife is best for your recipe. But I think it's hard to go wrong with the serrated. Just hold the sides of the loaf as you cut to minimize messing up the ends of the slices.

To toast almonds, place them in a single layer on a baking sheet and stick 'em in the oven for about 10 minutes at 350. Let cool and then chop.

Coconut Chocolate Almond Biscotti
(No idea of the original recipe source—I jotted it down on an index card—but basic biscotti recipes don't vary much. The combo of coconut, chocolate, and toasted almond was my contribution.)

1/2 C. unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 C. firmly packed brown sugar
2 eggs
1/2 C. + 2 T. sweetened shredded coconut
2 1/4 C. flour
1 1/2 t. baking powder
1/4 t. salt
1 C. chopped toasted almonds
1 C. chocolate mini chips

Cream butter and sugar. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in coconut. Mix flour, baking powder, and salt. Gradually stir dry ingredients into butter. Mix in almonds. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Heat oven to 350. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. Shape half of dough into 2-inch-wide log. (Beth Note: When forming the loaves, they should be about 2 inches wide, about 3/4-inch high, maybe 10 inches long.) Put on sheet. Bake until golden and firm, about 35 minutes. Cool 20 minutes on cookie sheets. Reduce oven to 325. On work surface, cut logs diagonally into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Place cut sides down on cookie sheets and bake until crisp and golden, turning once (about 15 minutes total). Cool completely on racks.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Gingerbread Drops ...

Every year, I try to add a new cookie or two into the mix. Sometimes, the cookies become perennials. Other times, they're voted off the cookie island.

I like gingerbread. I like the combination of spices and the earthy flavor. What I don't like is molasses. But I've overcome my distaste of it enough to bake with it.

This recipe uses shortening for the fat, and by now, we all know how I feel about the stuff. So this may be a one-off recipe, unless I can figure out another way to make it (maybe part butter and part applesauce; I'll play around).

A few notes about this one: I used golden raisins and walnuts. I used tablespoons of dough, not teaspoons, and I rolled the dough balls in sugar before baking, which adds just a bit of extra sweetness, but also a pretty frosty effect to the baked cookie. Bake them on baking sheets lined with parchment or a Sil-Pat to ensure a stick-free experience. Also, because I made the cookies bigger, I baked them a bit longer, about 11 minutes. And if you've read the recipe and said, "One tablespoon of milk? What the heck?", I have no idea either. I can't imagine it makes that much of a difference to the finished product, but I included it.

Gingerbread Drop Cookies
(From Better Homes and Gardens web site)

1 cup shortening
1 1/2 cups packed brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/3 cup molasses
2 eggs
1 tablespoon milk
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
In a large mixing bowl beat shortening with an electric mixer on medium to high speed for 30 seconds. Add brown sugar, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, and cloves. Beat until well combined. Beat in molasses, eggs, and milk until combined. Beat in as much flour as you can with the mixer. Stir in any remaining flour with a wooden spoon. Stir in raisins and nuts. Drop dough by rounded teaspoons onto an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake in a 375 oven about 8 minutes or until bottoms are lightly browned. Cool on wire racks. Makes about 90.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Oatmeal Raisin ...

Ah, the venerable oatmeal raisin, cookie stalwart.

Who among us does not love the oatmeal raisin, full of earthy, whole-grain goodness?

As I mentioned in this post, Bill Kurtis is all about these cookies. I make two recipes of them every year because Bill gets almost a whole batch to himself.

I use Quaker old-fashioned oats, not the quick-cooking variety. Quick-cook oats are just rolled oats that have been chopped up into smaller bits. I like the chewiness of the whole rolled oats. But that's just me. Do whatever floats your oaty boat.

I also use golden raisins instead of the darker variety. Golden raisins seem more plump to me, and they keep people guessing. One day, Bill, munching on a cookie in his office, looked at me and said, "Apple?" No, I told him, golden raisins. "Ah," he said, as only Bill can.

Oatmeal Raisin
(Quaker Oats Co. recipe)

1 C. butter or margarine, softened
1 C. firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 C. granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 t. vanilla
1 1/2 C. all-purpose flour
1 t. baking soda
1 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. salt (optional)
3 C. Quaker Oats (uncooked)
1 C. raisins
(I add chopped toasted walnuts, too)

Heat oven to 350. Beat together butter and sugars until creamy. Add eggs and vanilla; beat well. Add combined flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt; mix well. Stir in oats and raisins; mix well. Drop by rounded tablespoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheets. Bake 10 to 12 minutes or until golden brown. Cool one minute on cookie sheet; remove to wire rack.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Chocolate Raspberry Thumbprints ...

This is not the sexiest cookie. It doesn't photograph particularly well. But what it lacks in flash, it more than makes up for in flavor. Chocolate and raspberry? Fugghedaboutit. A match made in heaven.

A few tips: 1) Seeded raspberry preserves have more flavor than seedless, it's true, but you really don't want seeds in your cookie, do you? No, you don't. I use Polaner seedless raspberry preserves, but it would be worth trying these with another brand. I've just never gotten around to it. 2) I use a tomato shark to make the indentation. I like the perfect rounded bowl shape of it. I smoosh it into the dough to grease it, then dip it into a little dish of flour, tapping off the excess before indenting each cookie. If you have a set of stainless measuring spoons, the kind with the very round bowls, the 1/4 teaspoon will work nicely, too.

This recipe, you'll note, was given to me by Betty, a cashier at my local Jewel. You never know where a great recipe will come from.

Chocolate Raspberry Thumbprints
(From Betty, the Cashier at Jewel)

1 1/2 C. butter
1 C. sugar
1 egg
1 t. vanilla
3 C. flour
1/4 C. unsweetened cocoa
1 C. semi-sweet mini chocolate chips
2/3 C. raspberry preserves

Heat oven to 350. Beat butter and sugar together. Add other ingredients. Stir in chocolate chips. Roll level tablespoonfuls into balls. Place 2 inches apart on baking sheets. Indent and fill with preserves. Bake 12-15 minutes or until set.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Peanut Butter ...

No cookie reminds me of my childhood more than a peanut butter cookie. Maybe it's the flavor, maybe it's the tell-tale criss-cross, but these cookies make me happy.

I always double this recipe, so I use one stick of butter and a half-cup of shortening. I'm going to look for a new peanut butter cookie recipe, but I fear the flavor will not be the same. I don't eat Jif peanut butter anymore (trans fats, you know; I'm a Skippy Natural girl now), but I bought Jif for these cookies, because Jif is the peanut butter we always ate as kids, and Jif is the peanut butter with which we made these cookies. So they're the one-two punch of trans fats this Christmas, but I try to tell myself that a few cookies won't do irreparable harm. They're cookies, for God's sake. Who wants to consider their health when eating cookies?!

Oh, and while it's up to you, I use creamy peanut butter in these cookies, not crunchy. These are one of the few cookies in which I don't put nuts. Go figure.

Peanut Butter
(From Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book, Published by General Mills, 1963)

1/2 C. shortening (part butter or margarine)
1/2 C. peanut butter
1/2 C. granulated sugar
1/2 C. brown sugar, packed
1 egg
1 1/4 C. flour
1/2 t. baking powder
3/4 t. baking soda
1/4 t. salt

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Mix shortening, peanut butter, sugars, and egg thoroughly. Blend all dry ingredients. Stir into the shortening mixture. Roll dough into 1-inch balls. Place 3 inches apart on baking sheet. Flatten criss-cross style with fork dipped in flour. Bake 10 to 12 minutes.

Chocolate Crinkles ...

These are my brother Paul's favorite cookie. These are my friend Dave's favorite cookie. Paul and Dave share the same birthday. Hmm. Maybe I should write an astrology book about cookies!

Some call these Brownie Drops, and with good reason. The cookie itself is very brownie-like, rich and fudgy. Therefore, because I put walnuts in my brownies, I put walnuts in these cookies, even though they're not called for in the recipe. You can certainly make these walnut-free, but I think they lose something without the extra, nutty texture.

These are a bit of a mess to make. Some cookie recipes instruct you to chill the dough, but you can get away with baking them right away. Not these. Chilling is essential. And the next day, when you're forming the cookies, put the bowl of dough back in the fridge between batches. Once this dough gets soft, it's pretty difficult to handle. Keep it chilled.

The recipe says to drop spoonfuls of dough into the powdered sugar and then roll those into balls. I reverse it, rolling the dough into balls and then in the powdered sugar. It's a bit messier that way, but the cookies bake into more perfect rounds. As with the Russian Teacake recipe, I use a Pyrex pie plate for my powdered-sugar rolling, and keep the sugar fluffed up with a fork as I roll the cookies. More sugar adheres to the dough that way, and when you bake these, the contrast is more stark. Contrast is the key to appearance of these cookies.

Chocolate Crinkles
(From Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book, Published by General Mills, 1963)

1/2 C. vegetable oil
4 oz. unsweetened chocolate, melted
2 C. granulated sugar
4 eggs
2 t. vanilla
2 C. flour
2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. salt
Powdered sugar

Mix oil, chocolate, and granulated sugar. Blend in one egg at a time until well mixed. Add vanilla. Measure flour by dipping method* and stir together with baking powder and salt. Add to oil mixture and stir. Chill overnight. Heat oven to 350. Drop teaspoonfuls of dough into powdered sugar. Roll into balls. Place 2 inches apart on greased baking sheets. Bake 10 to 12 minutes. Do not overbake. Cool 1 minute on baking sheet then transfer to wire racks.

* Dipping method: Slightly fluff up flour with a spoon or measuring cup. Dip measuring cup into flour and overfill. Level off measuring cup.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Russian Teacakes ...

Some might know these as Mexican Wedding Cakes. I like Russian Teacakes better. The name conjures up images of Tsarist Russia, fine clothes, Fabergé eggs. I don't much like tea, but I'd drink it if it was served with these cookies.

They're simple to make, they're not too sweet, and they don't spread, which means you can fit a lot of them on a cookie sheet and get on with your other cookie-baking business.

There are a number of ways you can roll these in powdered sugar right after they come out of the oven. My mom dumps some powdered sugar into a Ziploc bag, tosses in a half dozen cookies, gathers the top closed in her hand and shakes them gently. Me, I dump some powdered sugar into a Pyrex pie plate and roll 'em around. I use one hand for rolling and moving the cookies to a cooling rack, and use the other hand, armed with a fork, to fluff the powdered sugar from time to time. It gets compacted (like snow) when you roll the cookies in it, and then the sugar doesn't stick to them as well. So fluff and roll, people. Fluff and roll.

Russian Teacakes
(From Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book, Published by General Mills, 1963)

1 C. butter or margarine (I copy these recipes exactly, but margarine is Crisco's evil twin; use butter; the flavor's better, anyway)
1/2 C. sifted powdered sugar
1 t. vanilla
2 1/4 C. flour
1/4 t. salt
3/4 C. finely chopped nuts

Mix butter, sugar, and vanilla thoroughly. Stir in flour and salt. Mix in nuts. Chill dough. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Roll dough in 1-inch balls. Place on ungreased baking sheet. Bake 10 to 12 minutes or until set but not brown. (These cookies do not spread.) While still warm, roll in powdered sugar. Cool. Roll in sugar again.

(A note on sifted ingredients: If a recipe calls for, as this one does, an amount of sifted something, you sift, then measure. If a recipe calls for an amount of something, sifted, you measure the ingredient, then sift it.)

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Snickerdoodles ...

This might just be the best cookie name in the history of cookie names. It's just so silly.

And these cookies are a total delight. Simple, simple, simple, but professional-looking as all get out. And while they're baking, the most lovely cinnamon-sugar aroma wafts out of the oven.

The recipe is from Betty Crocker's Cooky Book, a childhood favorite. Thinking back, it was the first cookbook I ever read. Bakers and cooks love to skim cookbooks, but the Cooky Book is chock full of pictures of cookies, and when you're a kid, well, what could be better reading?

Mom's copy is a wreck but clearly well-loved. The covers are torn off. The pages are stained. The book was republished recently, so she could have a brand-spankin'-new copy, but where's the nostalgia in that?

I'm conflicted about making this recipe, because it calls for shortening, evil, evil trans fat. After the holidays, I'll try a batch of these using all butter, but I suspect the texture will markedly change. Frankly, I wonder if the Crisco people will continue to market this stuff, seeing as how it's like Satan in a can. But hey, I bought the stuff today, so I guess they'll keep making it as long as people keep buying it. Next year, though, I plan to eliminate any recipes that call for Crisco, or develop alternative recipes. I'll test 'em in the off-season. I'm sure I'll find willing tasters.

The only thing I do differently than the recipe suggests is to make more cinnamon sugar in which to roll the cookie balls before baking. Today I used a 4-to-4 ratio (tablespoons of sugar to teaspoons of cinnamon).

(Side note: I am totally geeked about creating the photos to go with these blog posts! I have unleashed my inner food stylist and photographer!)

2008 Update: 1) Crisco is now trans fat-free, so I continue to use it and I simply don't question what potentially evil method is being employed now to turn a liquid into a solid; and 2) a 3:3 ratio of tablespoons of sugar to teaspoons of cinnamon is just about perfect. You'll have a little left over, but better to toss a tiny amount than to just eke by with the 2:2 as written in the recipe.

(From Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book, Published by General Mills, 1963)

1 C. shortening (part butter or margarine; I use a half-cup of shortening and a stick of butter)
1 1/2 C. granulated sugar
2 eggs
2 3/4 C. flour
2 t. cream of tartar
1 t. soda
1/4 t. salt
2 T. sugar
2 t. cinnamon

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Mix shortening, 1 1/2 C. sugar and eggs. Measure flour by dipping method*. Blend flour, cream of tartar, soda and salt. Blend into shortening mixture. Shape dough into 1-inch balls. Roll in combined 2 T. sugar and 2 t. cinnamon. Place 2 inches apart on baking sheets. Bake 8 to 10 minutes.

* Dipping method: Slightly fluff up flour with a spoon or measuring cup. Dip measuring cup into flour and overfill. Level off measuring cup.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Presentation Points ...

Last Christmas, I was dating a guy who lived in a highrise. Someone on his floor decided that it would be nice for all the "neighbors" to leave little gifts for each other. There were only eight tenants on the floor. And so, every day, he would come home and find something by his door: a bottle of champagne, a box of swizzle sticks from Pottery Barn. Sometimes, there was a little bag hanging on his door handle with treats tucked inside.

It was a very sweet gesture. But as someone who takes great pride not only in the cookies she gives as gifts but also in the way those cookies are presented, I couldn't help but think that the giver could have been a bit more creative with her packaging, which was a Ziploc sandwich bag.

Now, granted, the Ziploc was inside a cute little handle bag. But in my world, if you're going to give cookies as gifts, you have to go the extra mile. Or at least an extra few steps.

I use cellophane. I arrange the cookies in the middle of a big piece of cellophane and gather it up around the cookies and tie it with a piece of ribbon. And I tie on a tag with the name of the cookie. Takes a few seconds. Makes a big impression. When you give many kinds of cookies, people like to riffle through their cookie bundles.

For a freelance client a few years ago, I did a story on cookie presentation, both what kinds of cookies make for good presentation, as well as tips on the presentation itself. (My friend Jeff Phillips shot the photo for the story. He is a much better photographer than this shot allows. I didn't give him very optimal conditions in which to shoot.) Here it is:

"Some might debate me, but I believe it truly is better to give than to receive. And I believe it’s even better to give when what you’re giving clearly demonstrates the time and thoughtfulness you put into the gift.

Baking is part of my holiday tradition. I love making cookies to serve throughut the season and to give as gifts. And my friends and neighbors, especially the ones who aren’t very good friends with their ovens, are happy to be the recipients.

Some cookies are perennial, others rotate through the list, still others have made a single appearance never to be repeated again. One key is to select cookies that are easy to make, bake, and store. Also, I try to create my annual cookie list based not only on flavor (unless you’re giving cookies to a lone chocoholic, for example, you probably don’t want to proffer a plate of nothing but chocolate-flavored cookies), but also appearance and shape. A plate of nothing but drop cookies can end up looking lumpy.

With that in mind, a possible cookie offering might contain:

Russian Teacakes: Easy to make, these powdered-sugar covered cookies melt in your mouth and look like tiny snowballs that can fill in spaces in your cookie offering, making them a nice accent cookie.

Toffee Squares: These square cookies look and taste just like real toffee, without all sugary stickiness, and add another shape to the cookie collection.

Shortbread: Perfect for purists. Flour, butter, and sugar. Cookie simplicity at its finest. You can form these cookies into any shape you like. I prefer traditional wedges for yet another geometric shape. But you could use holiday-themed or even leaf cookie cutters to add a bit of drama.

Oatmeal Raisin: It’s always nice to include a comfort cookie. I can’t think of a single person who doesn’t like oatmeal raisin cookies.

Chocolate Crinkles: Deep, rich chocolate color and flavor (every cookie plate needs a solid chocolate offering), with a powdered-sugar, cracked-top contrast. Small brownies, basically.

Lemon Pistachio Biscotti: A not-too-sweet alternative that’s relatively healthy, to boot. The lemon flavor is nice with coffee, but these biscotti don’t require dunking. Lemon zest in the icing lends tang.

Once the cookies are prepared (all of them freeze well – store them in tins or plastic containers, separating layers with waxed paper, and put a piece of plastic wrap across the top of the container before putting on the lid to help them stay even fresher), you get to take your creativity even further in thinking about how to present them, both at home and when giving them as gifts.

At home, consider the event. If you’re entertaining a crowd, a platter overflowing with cookies will look great on your buffet. If you’re just having a few friends over for a quiet dinner, dessert can be individual plates of treats with a plateful of more cookies in the middle of the table for those who’d like a few extra of their favorites. For my birthday last year, my cousin Patty gave me two beautiful antique plates specifically for displaying my baked goods.

You can also send cookies home with your guests. Find fun little holiday gift bags, wrap a selection of cookies in a piece of cellophane, gather it at the top, tie it with a ribbon, tuck it in the bag, and have a tray of bags waiting by the door to hand to your guests as they leave.

If you’re taking cookies to someone’s home as a hostess gift (let’s face it – there are only so many bottles of wine one party needs), you can take cookies on something as simple as a sturdy clear plastic plate covered with a grease-proof doily. Place the plate in the center of two crossed pieces of cellophane, gather up around the cookies, tie with some ribbon and you’re good to go.

If you have a little more time beforehand, you can scour stores for interesting, inexpensive plates (holiday-themed – buy after the holidays this year to give away next year, when prices are slashed; or open-stock from a dish pattern that you like; maybe a Fiestaware plate in a fun, bold color) or antique stores – a pretty, lone china plate can be had for next to nothing.

I try to vary the presentation from year to year when giving cookies to the same people. One of my favorite things to do is to wrap bundles of cookies in cellophane (like the gift-bag idea above) and tie on small tag, identifying the type of cookie (also a good way to identify cookies with nuts, for those who might be allergic), and pile those bundles into a container, which is often another gift in itself. Almost anything will do.

One year, I bought a large hat box and wrapped the entire thing in a beautiful paper, including the lid, which I pleated from the edge to the center all the way around. Having proved to myself that anyone who pleats wrapping paper on a hat-box lid is insane, I’ve reprised the hatbox idea in later years, but opted for pretty, precovered boxes or plain brown boxes made to be decoupaged or painted, but which I simply dressed up with a lining of crisp white tissue paper and some organza ribbon.

Another year, I bought large serving trays with a crackle finish, lined them with pretty, inexpensive placemats and piled cookie bundles on those, then gathered cellophane around the trays and tied with ribbon again.

But you don’t have to buy special plates or containers or trays. I’ve used the cardboard half-boxes that hold four six-packs of soda as cookie trays. I wrap the outside of the box with a nice paper, line the inside with lots of tissue paper, pile in cookie bundles and call it a day. After all, it’s the thought that counts, and your friends and family will be touched by your effort."

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Cookie Tips, The First ...

The story for which I baked these cookies is entitled "Anatomy of a Cookie Plate." But beyond the recipes for the cookies, my editor wanted some tips that bakers could use to get a lot of visual punch out of just a few kinds of cookies. These are the tips I wrote for her.

Get into shapes
Create visual interest on the plate by including cookies of various shapes, like these long-and-lean biscotti and traditional shortbread wedges. Think beyond round, flat cookies to cookie balls that can be rolled in sugars, ground nuts, or crushed candies. And don’t forget cookie cutters.

Double (and triple) duty
When it comes to cookies, basic isn’t boring, it’s adaptable. Start with a simple recipe, then create a signature biscotti with the addition of nuts, dried fruit, or coconut. Or dress up your favorite butter cookie by rolling it in nuts and filling it with jewel-tone jam. Tired of oatmeal raisin? Try ruby-hued dried cranberries instead for a sweet-tart taste and bit of color.

Top this
Melt chocolate chips (or butterscotch chips or white chocolate chips) and drizzle it over cookies off the end of a fork, or use a zip-top plastic bag as a quick and easy pastry bag: cuff the top around a glass to hold it open, fill with melted chocolate, snip off the corner, and decorate! Make a powdered-sugar glaze more fun by using flavored coffee creamer instead of milk. (I really love this idea! I made it up! The oatmeal cookies have a hazelnut glaze on them.)

Break it up
There’s no law that says cookie plates have to flat as a pancake. Gather biscotti in a pretty glass and compose other cookies around it in piles to create levels.

I Am Not Alone ...

Today, I searched for "cookie queen" on Google and oh, the things I found.

Many women fancy themselves "cookie queens." And why not? Shy of the Kennedys, Americans have no royalty. I also found cookie queens in Canada and Scotland. And I'm sure there are more. (At some point, I had to stop surfing and do some work actually related to my job.)

Interestingly, a search for "cookie king" does not yield appreciably fewer results. Wally Amos seems to be the undisputed Cookie King. Hard to argue with that. If you're worthy of an episode of "Biography," you're on the cookie map. While searching for "cookie" on Google Images, I found this "Cookie King." He's quite a looker. He reminds me of "American Dad." His T-shirt says, "Don't Eat My Food."

My Cookie Queen rendering is certainly less colorful, but she's infinitely cuter. I tried to make her my profile photo here, but Blogger doesn't seem to allow posting different photos on separate blogs, and she doesn't make much sense as the mascot for Finding My Voice. Giving inspiration where it's due, I'll reveal that my little Cookie Queen was inspired by a doodle that my friend Jennifer Kovacs used to draw in high school. Jen had hair much like Cookie Queen, but Jen didn't wear a crown. At least, not to school.

But hands down, the most exciting "cookie queen" discovery of the day was this: Harlequin American Romance No. 992, "The C.E.O. & The Cookie Queen." Aren't you just dying to know the story? I thought you might be. Here's a review (unedited by moi) from (though if you want to purchase a copy, you have to link to Amazon, which charges $4.75):

"When his baking company gets into trouble with the nutrition police, C.E.O. Greg Rafferty decides that the best defense is to show that cookies are a critical part of being an American. To do this, though, he needs a spokesperson. Since his company's top brand is that based on recipies by Carole Jacks, it seems that she would be the perfect spokesperson. So Greg heads from Chicago to Ranger Springs, Texas to meet the low profile genius behind the top cookies. He's expecting something between Betty Crocker and Julia Child. Instead, he finds a beautiful blonde single mom who is insistent on her privacy and anything but willing to go along with what he knows is essential to save his company. Worst, Greg's hormones spring into instant action. He wants Carole, and for a lot more than just his corporatre spokesman.

Ten years ago, Carole had run off, gotten married and pregnant, only to find that her husband wanted his career, his drugs, and his alcohol more than he wanted a wife and child. She returned home to Ranger Springs determined to protect her daughter from her mistakes. Although she can't deny the sexual attraction that Greg exudes, becoming corporate spokesman is a nightmare to her, but Greg won't take no for an answer. Without her understanding quite how he is doing it, Greg moves into her life--he even buys her daughter's prize steer when he sees how miserable Jennifer is about the upcoming barbeque where that steer is scheduled to become guest of honor.

Greg is almost happy when Carole turns him down--it gives him a chance to woo her without the complexities of a employee relationship, but he can't understand her determination to keep herself from the public eye. She is exactly what his company needs and Greg can't think of any other alternative to saving the company."

Well, all righty then. Is your oven preheating or is it just hot in here?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Fresh From The Oven ...

Where have I been all my life?

On the heels of today's post on Finding My Voice, my very good friend Jay sent a comment about doing what you truly love to do and not working a day in your life.

Well, I've done the not-working thing. Trouble was, I truly wasn't working. Which is bad for one's bank account.

No, what Jay was talking about was loving what you do so that it doesn't feel like work, of course.

That, we all know, is the dream.

I replied to his note, and an idea started to build. I was saying how the trouble with my writing is that what I write isn't the kind of writing that people get paid for, but that someday, I'd figure out how to combine the baking and the writing and, and, and I had this idea, see?

The blogs that seem to garner the most attention are well-focused. Blogs on a single topic. Not that I don't love Finding My Voice. I do. I love having a place to prattle on about goings-on.

But I need a single-topic blog, and given that cookie-baking season is upon us, and given that Mary, one of my editors, has dubbed me The Cookie Queen, well, it wasn't a long trip to connect the dots between baking and blogging: blogging about baking. A cookie a day. Cookie tips. Cookie photos. Links to my cookie stories or postings of the stories from my files.

I tried creating The Cookie Queen, but that blog is owned by a woman in Minnesota. Her bio says, "I work in healthcare, but my dream is to open a bakery."

Hey, me too!

Well, it's one of my dreams. It's just good sense to have more than one.

And while I feel rather possessive of my Cookie Queen moniker, the midwest is big enough for two of us, so she can own her Cookie Queen blog, and me, bein' a writer 'n all, am now the owner of The Cookie Queen's English. The cookies pictured above, for those who missed my post about it, were baked by me for a photo shoot for a story I did entitled, "Anatomy of a Cookie Plate." (It was an art-driven feature, hence the stunning photo by William Zbaren, who is brilliant, but in the coming days, I'll post the tips that made up the text of the story.)

Likewise, other cookie postings will commence forthwith.

So, welcome, cookie-loving friends. Stay awhile. I'll make cocoa.