Saturday, December 1, 2007

Holiday Baking Journal

The cookie factory is back in business!
Every year for the past 15 years or so, I have made an assortment of cookies and goodies for the Holidays. Some years I have gone just crazy and made like 15 different kinds, spread out over the month. Whenever I make a batch of cookies I freeze half of it, so that on Christmas eve I can take out the frozen cookies and have a beautiful assorted platter to serve guests. You can also make lovely gift bags this way with one or two of each kind per person.

I like to choose an assortment of recipes each year that will make a pleasing diverse platter. For example, as much as I love chocolate, it's kind of boring to have 10 kinds of chocolate cookies on a plate. I like to make sure there are different colors, different shapes and different flavors in my assortment.
I keep lists of everything I have made each year, but this year I'm going to keep the list in blog form. I'll try to include photos and recipes for each batch.
I will be adding to this blog article with edits or comments when I have a new entry, rather than adding a new article for each thing. So keep checking back to this article every few days for the latest goodie!

I kicked off my holiday baking today with two old favorites:
Bright-Eyed Susans
Black-eyed Susans

and Glazed Pecans
Glazed Pecans

For all of my recipes, unless otherwise specified:
flour means all-purpose white flour. I will specify cake flour or whole wheat flour if you need it.
sugar means granulated white sugar. I will specify brown or powdered sugar if you need it.
butter means real sweet cream unsalted butter, do not substitute margarine or butter-favored crisco! I will specify shortening if you need it. I NEVER use margarine for baking because it has too high of water content and the texture will be soggy instead of crisp.
egg means whole egg. I will specify white or yolk if you need to separate the egg.
Yes, some of these things are not the healthiest foods for you. But in my opinion when it comes to baking you have to use the real stuff. No fake fat, fake sugar, chemical polymers or mystery goo.
Bright-Eyed Susans
I forget where I originally got this recipe but I think it was a Southern cookbook.

* 3/4 cup butter, softened
* 1/2 cup sugar
* 1 egg
* 1 teaspoon vanilla
* 1/4 teaspoon salt
* 1 3/4 cups flour
* about 24 chocolate non-pareils

Cream together butter and sugar until well mixed.
Add egg, vanilla and salt until blended.
Sift in the flour and mix until blended.
Wrap dough in plastic wrap and chill for 1 hour in refrigerator. (not freezer)
Shape cookie dough into 1-inch balls; place about 2 inches apart onto an ungreased baking sheet.*
Place a chocolate non-pareil on each cookie, flattening the cookie.
Bake at 400°(F) for 8 to 10 minutes. Bake until set but not brown.
Makes about 2 dozen cookies

*Tip: I always use parchament paper for baking cookies, whether the recipe calls for greased or ungreased cookie sheet. You never have to grease the pan when you use parchament paper and you don't have to wash it either!

option: you can use Chocolate Stars or even Hershey Kisses if you can't find non pareils.
Glazed Nuts
I got this recipe about 7 or 8 years ago from a Victorian-themed Christmas magazine. I am not sure the recipe is historically accurate but candied nuts were very popular Christmas treats in Victorian times, and they are just as delicious now. You can use almost any kind of nuts, I like using pecans, almonds, or walnuts. This candy glaze is similar to peanut brittle, but the proportion is more nuts and less "brittle"
1 cup whole raw nuts
1/2 cup granulated sugar (*see note)
2 tablespoons butter
Combine nuts, sugar and butter in heavy skillet. I use a cast iron skillet. Do not use a teflon-coated pan. Some candy-makers believe that sugar melts better in a copper pot, but I've never cooked with copper pots!
Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with wooden spoon, until nuts are toasted and sugar is golden brown and the consistency of a thick syrup. (about 15 minutes)Sugar should not be grainy.
If you want to test with a water glass, the syrup should be in the hard crack stage.
Remove from heat and stir in 1/2 teaspoon vanilla.
Spray a piece of aluminum foil with non-stick spray (like Pam).
Spread the nuts onto the foil in an even layer, and immediately sprinkle lightly with salt. (if you wait too long the salt won't stick)

BE CAREFUL AND USE OVEN MITTS, and wear long sleeves. This molten sugar syrup is HOT and sticky so if some gets on you it is like napalm. It will burn you and take some skin off with it when you peel it off.

Let the candy cool, then break into 2 or 3 nut clusters. This makes a great gift in pretty glass jam jars with their labels soaked off. I like to spray-paint the jar lids silver or gold so you can't see the jam logo.

* Use pure cane sugar only for this recipe. I used to think all sugar is the same and for most baked goods it is, but whenever I used cheaper store brand sugar for this recipe, it just wouldn't caramelize properly. I later read that most store brand sugar is beet sugar which doesn't caramelize as well as cane sugar. So you can use beet sugar for cookies and cakes but I recommend cane sugar for candy making.
Also I recommend not making these on a rainy or humid day. The weather can seem to interfere with caramelizing too. Crisp dry days are the best.

*If sugar crystalizes and won't get syrupy, add a few tablespoons of corn syrup or maple syrup to get it liquidized. DO NOT ADD WATER! (or any water-based liquid) It will vaporize instantly on hitting the hot syrup and can give you nasty steam burns.

*option: you can use raw sunflower seed kernels for this recipe, that comes out really yummy! But if you use them, do not add them until you've cooked the sugar to the syrupy stage. They are so small they will burn if you cook them 15 minutes. Just cook the syrup alone and then add seeds when the syrup is 3-4 minutes from being done.

*option: Substitute other flavorings for vanilla. I have used cinnamon oil and a drop of red food coloring to make delicious cinnamon glazed almonds. It's like the coating on candy apples! Oils based flavorings work best, while alcohol based favorings like vanilla extract will sizzle a bit when you first stir them in. Stir fast before it all evaporates.

Ok, that's it for now but I'll make more goodies tomorrow!
Update Dec 3, 2007
Today's cookie is Cuban Wedding Cakes
mexican wedding cookies

otherwise known as Mexican Wedding Cookies or Russian Tea Cakes.
I have tried a couple different recipes for these and this one is my favorite.

2 cups flour
1 cup hazelnut meal *
1/2 cup powdered sugar
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup butter, softened and cut into pieces
extra powdered sugar for coating

preheat oven to 325 (F)
Mix together the first 4 ingredients.
Stir in the vanilla.
With a pastry blender, cut in the butter.
Mix until dough looks line fine crumbs and holds together. All dry ingredients should be incorporated.
Knead dough with your hands a few times gently. Just squish it together to make sure all the dry stuff is mixed in.
Roll dough into 1-inch balls, and bake on ungreased cookie sheet at 325 (F) for 25 minutes. The lower temperature and slower baking time keeps the balls in their shape, so they don't spread out.
Cool 5 minutes, then roll cookies in powdered sugar. I use Snow White Non-melting Sugar because it won't dissolve or go invisible on a moist or oily cookie.
If you use regular powdered sugar and it does soak up the oil and melt, cool cookies completely and roll them in powdered sugar a second time.

* Nut meal is very finely chopped nuts. You may use hazelnut meal, almond meal, or pecan meal. You can also make your own by putting toasted unsalted nuts in a blender but be careful not to make nut butter.
update Dec 6, 2007
Today's cookie of the day, which I actually baked yesterday but decorated today, is:
Christmas Spice Cookies
polar bear cookies
I made these in polar bear shapes in honor of Cute Knut's birthday, about which I will make a separate blog post. This recipe is so nostalgic for me. My mom used to bake these cookies every Christmas, and my sisters and I would decorate them. Now, my mom was not a June Cleaver cookie-baking mom! She has a PhD and worked full time her whole life. Christmas was the only time of year she baked cookies from scratch, and as my sisters and I got old enough, we took over the baking. But I have very fond memories of all of us sitting around the table with colored icings, colored sugars, jimmies, and those little silver balls that break your teeth if you eat them. I also still have the cookie cutters my mom used all those years ago, but I have increased the collection quite a bit.
Most people make simple sugar cookies to decorate, but I think this spice cookie recipe makes a much more interesting cookie.

1/2 cup shortening, I use Crisco sticks because it's so easy to measure
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg
1 1/4 cup flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder (not soda)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

Cream together shortening and sugar until well mixed and fluffy.
mix in egg.
sift together all the dry ingredients, then add to shortening mixture.
mix until all dry ingredients are incorporated and dough holds together
wrap dough in waxed paper and chill at least 30 minutes.
Flour a smooth surface and flour your rolling pin. I use a rolling pin cover which is like a thin knitted sock, and a rolling cloth which is like thick cotton canvas. They make rolling a little easier but you don't need them, you just may have to use a little more flour.
Divide the dough in half and roll out half at a time, until it's about 1/8 inch thick.
Cut out shapes with your favorite cookie cutters. I recommend polar bears!
Bake on a greased cookie sheet in a preheated 350 (F) oven for 10 minutes.
Cookies should be lightly brown at edges but not too dark.
cool completely before decorating.

To decorate:
I make a simple icing with powdered sugar and milk. I don't measure, just pour a cup or two of powdered sugar in a bowl and add milk a tiny bit at a time, stirring after each addition. Don't add too much milk to begin with! You can always add a few more drops to thin the icing but if you make it too runny, it takes a LOT of sugar to thicken it. You want it thin enough to spread but thick enough that it won't run off the sides of the cookie. You can divide he icing into smaller bowls now, and color them different colors with a drop or two of food coloring. I usually need a bowl of green for the tree cookies, a bowl of white for the snowflakes and polar bears, and some red for the stockings and ornaments.

Spread the icing on a few cookies at a time and then decorate with your choice of sprinkles, jimmies, colored sugars, edible glitter like I used on the bears, or fancy sugar decors.
But if you're in California like me, the days of little silver balls are over. apparently someone thinks those little silver balls will kill you. Go figure! I am still alive!
Check it out, I can't even buy them online.
Please note* Dragees have been banned in the state of California and it is illegal for us to ship them there. If you place an order to be shipped to California, the dragees will be omitted from your order and you will not be charged for the dragees.

The decors and sprinkles stick best when the icing is wet so just decorate a few cookies at a time. If you are really patient and fancy yourself the next Martha Stewart, you can use a cake decorating bag and really get fancy!
Have fun and if you have kids, let them help decorate the cookies. Make some sweet memories!
December 9 update!
Today's cookie is Peppermint Meltaways
Peppermint Meltaways

I first made these cookies in 3rd grade, I think, with my dad. Our school was having some kind of bake sale and there was a cookie cookbook in the school library that I loved because of the gorgeous photos. I checked the book out and picked a cookie for us to make together. We made these mint meltaways, but in pale green instead of pink.
They were quite delicious and I remembered their melt-in-your-mouth quality. Then I returned the book to the library and that was that.

When I got older and started baking on my own, I looked for that cookbook in several libraries and could never find it. I remembered some of the photos so vividly from childhood but I didn't remember the name and I thought I'd never see them again. Then I was in a bookstore 2 years ago and I saw the cookbook! It was an updated version but I recognized it instantly. I almost bought it, but then had the idea to look for the original version used on Ebay, now that I knew the title. And HALLELUJAH, I found it! So now I try to bake something every year from this vintage 1973 cookbook and I still love looking at the photos I used to love so much as a child.
These mint meltaways are from page 113 of "The Betty Crocker Cooky Book".

1 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup sifted powdered sugar
1 teaspoon peppermint extract
2 drops red food coloring
2 1/4 cups cake flour*
1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 400F.
Cream butter, sugar, peppermint extract and food coloring thoroughly.
Measure flour and salt into a bowl, blend into butter mixture.
Drop by teaspoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheet.
Bake for 8 minutes at 400 (F). Cookies should be set but not brown.
While warm, sift a light dusting of powdered sugar over cookies.

* cake flour is important to this recipe. Cake flour has less gluten than all-purpose flour so it makes a tender, melt-in-your-mouth cookie.
Update December 12, 2007

Today's goodie is Lemon Bread, it's a quickbread (non-yeasted), but it has a light, tender texture like a cake, thank to the cake flour and beaten egg whites.
I LUUUURVE me some lemons. I love lemon anything- cookies, cake, candy, drinks, etc. And when I have something lemon, I want it to be REALLY lemony. I don't like wimpy lemon stuff. So whenever I bake something lemon, I usually double or triple the lemon juice or zest from what the recipe says. It's also handy that I have a lemon tree out back, although it is the lemon tree from hell with 3-inch thorns, stiff razor-sharp thorns like needles tipped with acid, so that if you get stuck it will sting and burn so bad.
But I digress! Lemon bread! Yummmmm!
As much as I love lemon, I loathe traditional fruitcake. But I make this bread with candied lemon peel, so it is my spin on a fruitcake.

lemon bread

This recipe is from this cookbook, but I've made some modifications. (amped up the lemon! and omitted walnuts)

1/2 cup butter, at room temp
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs, at room temp, separated
grated rind of 2 lemons.
1/4 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
1 1/2 cups cake flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 cup milk
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup candied lemon peel

Preheat oven to 350F
Grease a 9"x5" loaf pan, (I used 3 mini loaf pans to make small loaves for gifting)
Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
Beat in the egg YOLKS only. (reserve whites for later)
Add lemon rind and lemon juice and mix them in, then set this bowl aside.
Sift the cake flour and baking powder together.
Fold flour into the butter mixture, alternating with the milk.
Fold in the candied lemon peel.
set aside.
In another bowl, beat egg whites and salt with electric mixer until stiff peaks form.
Fold the egg whites gently into the dough, just until mixed.
Pour the batter into the greased loaf pans and bake in a 350F oven until a cake tester inserted in the middle comes out clean.
baking time for a 9x5 loaf will be about 45-50 minutes.
Baking time for my 3 mini-loaves was about 35 minutes.
Let cool 5 minutes in pan, then remove from pan and let cool on a cooling rack.
Enjoy with tea, if you are a true lemon FREAK like me you can spread some lemon curd on a toasted slice for triple-lemon overload!!

now playing: Led Zeppelin- The Lemon Song


Ben Can Dance said...

Mmmmmmmmm, those cookies look so good! I will definitely try that recipe when I start my Holiday baking (which is not as early as you, haha).

Btw, I agree that parchament paper is the greatest invention EVA. Don't leave home without it.

eclipse said...

I LURRRVE parchament paper! I use it for all my baking and for lots of crafts.

Sandra Eileen - Artisan Jewelry For Your Good Life said...

mmmm... cookies.

Ben Can Dance said...

I love the polar bear cookies!! I want one NOW. Edible glitter? I need to look for that. It really adds sparkle to them. Like snow.

eclipse said...

The edible glitter is awesome! I got white and silver (which honestly are not that different looking), but now I want more colors.