Monday, December 22, 2008

How to Decorate Cupcakes: Christmas

Cupcakes are one of the easiest things to whip up for an impromptu get-together, which is exactly why I made these Friday night. I invited my friends over and needed something quick, so I threw a box of cake mix in the oven and just used store bought cream cheese frosting.
To decorate these cupcakes, simple fill a piping bag (or Ziploc) with your frosting of choice. Cut a hole at the bottom (you want it kind of wide, maybe the diameter of a dime) and start at the edge of the cupcake. Go in a circular motion around the cupcake, working the spiral inward until you reach the top. Release the pressure on the piping bag and pull it away. I sprinkled these with my new faves (glitter sprinkles) for a snowy look (except for that one on the end, that was Brad's and he went with Christmas sprinkles).
To make them even more festive you could put red and green frosting in the piping bag for a nice swirl effect when you pipe.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Baking Basics: Butter

Here's a link to a helpful recent NYT article all about some important basics of butter!

Butter Holds the Secret to Cookies that Sing

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Dough Temperature: Chocolate Sugarsnaps

Baking cookbooks frequently extol the importance of proper temperature ingredients- very cold butter, room temperature shortening, etc. As any baker knows, those are critical. Butter that's too soft creates thin, greasy cookies, butter that's too cold doesn't whip enough air in, warm egg whites whip more volume, and so on. Knowing these types of things is what helps a recipe succeed, when it may not have worked for others.

But what about dough temperature? Is that as critical as the ingredient temperature? At some point or another I'm sure we've all been racing through a recipe we plan to serve later that day only to be confronted with the words "Chill dough overnight." Ahh! Guess we didn't read through the recipe carefully enough. Now what?

I've always wondered how important chilling overnight really was. Can I do it for two hours and call it a day, especially if i split the dough into smaller chunks? Do I really have to chill at all?

So I did a little experiment. This is by no means scientifically sound or even remotly exhaustive. But I thought it was interesting and so I'm sharing my results. This recipe for Chocolate Sugarsnaps called for 30 minutes chilling time. I said to myself, how can that possibly do anything? So I prepared two baking sheets full of cookies. One batch went in the oven and and one was chilled as required.

And you know what? It made a big difference! Check out the picture at the top of this post. The cookies on the left are the ones that weren't chilled. They came out flatter and spread more, while the other cookies had a better, more visually appealing puffier shape. The taste was similar, save for a slightly more greasy feel on the unchilled batch.

I shared these results with my best friend Jenn and she told me she always chills her dough or cookies before baking them, even if the recipe doesn't call for it. So I think I'll be doing that in my next few recipes.

And of course I'll post the recipe here that I used for the sugarsnaps. It's a chewy sugar cookie dough flavored with quality chocolate and rolled in a coating of granulated sugar. I found these delicious (and I am not really a chocolate person), but I'll warn you of something I've noticed over the years: people just don't seem to gravitate towards chocolate colored cookies. I've made these, sables (which were AMAZING), and chocolate white chocolate chip cookies, and I always am greeted with the same reaction: "Those cookies don't really look that good. Yeah they taste good, but I don't know. The look is kind of unappetizing." Maybe that's just my group of friends though. Anyway the point there is, know your audience! They're really delicious but if you have a group that's picky on looks, well, you might want to stick to regular sugar cookies!

Chocolate Sugarsnaps, adapted from Carole Walter's Great Cookies

1 cup flour, spooned in and leveled
2 tbsp Dutch processed cocoa powder
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, slightly firm
1 cup granulated sugar, divided into 2/3 and 1/3
1/2 lightly packed brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
10 oz fine-quality bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, melted

Strain together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter on medium speed until creamy and lightened in color. Add 2/3 cup of the granulated sugar in a steady stream, mixing to combine. Add brown sugar and mix until smooth. Reduce mixer speed to low and add the eggs one at a time, mixing to blend and scraping the bowl as needed. Blend in the vanilla and chocolate.

Add the dry ingredients in two additions, and mix just until blended. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for 30-40 mins.

Position shelves to divide oven in thirds. Preheat to 375 and line baking pans with parchment.

Put the remain 1/3 cup of sugar in a plate. Shape the dough into walnut-sized balls and roll in sugar to coat. Place on sheets, 1 1/2 in apart. Bake for 8-9 minutes if you want your cookies chewy, 10-11 for crisper cookies.

Remove from oven and let rest for ten minutes, then use a metal spatula to transfer to cooling racks.

Stored airtight, these cookies will keep for 2 weeks.

Sour Cream Coffee Cake

One of the best parts of baking is the people who appreciate what you make. I think for a lot of us, that's why we do it- it's nice to make other people happy. My mom's office knows that I love to bake, and they constantly bug her about when I'll send in something for all of them. So I decided to bake something for my mom to bring in right before she took her Christmas vacation.

I went with an old favorite recipe from Ina, one of my favorite cooks. It's her sour cream coffee cake- a moist, sweet, and delicious cake that reveals a hidden layer of streusel inside, and a streusel and maple glaze on top.

The cake is extremely straightforward, and very easy to assemble, despite its impressive looking presentation. However, be warned- it's not for dieters! (It is coming from Ina, after all). It's got two sticks of butter and more than a cup of sour cream in it (no wonder it tastes so good...). I promise if you try this cake, you'll love it. It's the perfect thing to bring to a casual gathering or for the office- it's simple, delicious, and who doesn't like coffee cake?

The recipe is as follows. I haven't altered anything, so I just pasted it verbatim from the Food Network. You can find that page here: http://http//

12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
3 extra-large eggs at room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups sour cream
2 1/2 cups cake flour (not self-rising)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

For the streusel:
1/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
3/4 cup chopped walnuts, optional

For the glaze:

1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
2 tablespoons real maple syrup

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour a 10-inch tube pan.
Cream the butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment for 4 to 5 minutes, until light. Add the eggs 1 at a time, then add the vanilla and sour cream. In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. With the mixer on low, add the flour mixture to the batter until just combined. Finish stirring with a spatula to be sure the batter is completely mixed.
For the streusel, place the brown sugar, flour, cinnamon, salt, and butter in a bowl and pinch together with your fingers until it forms a crumble. Mix in the walnuts, if desired.
Spoon half the batter into the pan and spread it out with a knife. Sprinkle with 3/4 cup streusel. Spoon the rest of the batter in the pan, spread it out, and scatter the remaining streusel on top. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean.
Let cool on a wire rack for at least 30 minutes. Carefully transfer the cake, streusel side up, onto a serving plate. Whisk the confectioners' sugar and maple syrup together, adding a few drops of water if necessary, to make the glaze runny. Drizzle as much as you like over the cake with a fork or spoon.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Book Review: Great Cookies

Carole Walter's Great Cookies stands out as a perfect example of what a cookbook should be: highly well researched and tested, clear directions, and extremely successful recipes. Anyone looking for a great volume on cookies needs to look no further.

The book is broken out into chapters based on cookie type, beginning with your simplest drop cookies, and ending with a chapter on more complicated meringue confections. Chapters cover cookie varieties including icebox cookies, piped cookies, rolled cookies, bars, and biscotti. There is also a wonderful chapter on cookies from around the world, which provides a great introduction to a lot of new types of cookies (for me, Sicilian Wine Cookies), or just top quality recipes for classics (like Linzer Tarts).

Following the all the recipe chapters is a critical section left out of many cookbooks: technique and ingredients!!! In so many cookbooks, (like the mass-produced Food Network star cookbooks), big, gorgeous photos take the place of what you really need a recipe for: instruction. Great Cookies provides recipes for classic cookie buttercreams, glazes, and fillings, as well as pages of ingredient explanation. Each ingredient gets its own paragraph that details how to choose a quality product, how temperature and other factors affect the ingredient, and the role it serves in your baking. Understanding, for example, the different properties and functions of butter really serve to improve your results. I can't stress the importance of this, and Walter goes beyond what's necessary, including wonderful extras that compare the quality of different chocolate brands, or tell you where to find obscure ingredients.

The book is explicitly clear every step of a recipe, almost to the point of tedium (but better that than not enough!). Walter goes as far as to tell you exactly how many minutes to mix, how many long to spend pouring sugar in, and gives details on exactly what the batter or dough will look like every step of the way. It's critical for a novice baker, and great for an experienced one too, because if you follow these exacting instructions, your cookies really will come out perfect. The only downside of this is that I find if you're just starting out baking, it will hinder your creativity a little (all those exacting instructions can make you a little nervous to play around!)

The photographs in the book are also wonderful. There is a photo provided for nearly every recipe, helping you see how your cookies should look. The book may not use photos to substitute for quality, but it doesn't neglect the importance of visuals when it comes to food. Think about it: would online blogs be so successful if the author didn't provide pictures? It's important not to neglect the aesthetics.

But lastly, the cookbook succeeds in the most important of ways: the recipes are a success. So many cookbooks provide recipes that are decent but really don't blow you away. Ninety five percent of the cookies in this book will make you discard your old favorite recipes. You can trust that if you're making it for guests, even if it's your first time trying the recipe, it'll come out good. And that, to me, is the ultimate sign of a great cookbook.

Cookie Decorating

I dragged my boyfriend (from now on we'll just call him by his name, which is Brad) to Michael's with me the other day to pick up some last minute needs for my sugar cookie decorating. He was absentmindedly killing time in the aisles when he spied a bottle of white glitter sprinkles. Like a little kid, his eyes lit up and he said "Those would be really awesome on your cookies! You should get those." So I did.
And it completely streamlined my cookie decorating!

I'll explain. I tend to plan these really elaborate decorations for my sugar cookies. This year the game plan was snowmen with black hats, striped scarves, orange noses, and stocking cookies, decorated in a red and green plaid design. I plan the way to decorate these way in advance, and I always think they will come out as amazingly as the professional ones I find when image searching Google. I envision myself spending all day expertly and effortlessly piping decorations and impressing everyone who gets my cookie baskets...and I inevitably get frustrated after an hour, begin to thoroughly hate royal icing, and consequently scale way back on the intricacy of my designs, offering up plainer cookies or "accidentally" letting my dog get to a few.
And obviously, that happened again this year. Until I remembered the glitter sprinkles. Instead of making elaborate plaid designs on the stockings, I just covered them with my new stuff. So the cookies were easy to do, but since it was a cooler, more unusual type of sprinkle, they still looked better than a homemade piece of crap. I even scaled back the snowmen, but used sprinkles to add color to the hat and interest to the cookie's edge. So now it doesn't look so plain despite the fact that I skipped left out both the nose AND scarf.

So here's what I did:

1. Make a batch of royal icing (recipe follows).
2. Put it in a piping bag fitted with a plain tip.
3. Outline the tops of the stockings and the edges of the snowmen (stop underneath where the hat would be).
4. Press the snowmen into the white edible glitter.
5. Make a batch of glossy cookie icing (recipe follows). Fill in the snowmen and the top of the stockings. Press the stocking tops into the white edible glitter. Redip snowmen edges if need be.
6. Make a batch of glossy cookie icing and tint it red. Paint the bottoms of the stockings and sprinkle with red sanding sugar.
7. Make one last batch of very stiff black glossy cookie icing. Paint the snowmen's hats and pipe their eyes, nose, mouth, and buttons.
8. Use sprinkles to decorate the hats. (I used Christmas tree shaped ones turned sideways and little red ball sprinkles to create holly).

I use the two different types of icing because the meringue powder gives the royal icing a funny taste. So I use it only for piping or detail work.

Royal Icing:
1.5 tbsp meringue powder
3 tbsp hot water
2 cups powdered sugar.

Combine ingredients and beat with mixer until stiff peaks form, about 3 minutes. Can be doubled, tripled, etc.

Glossy Cookie Icing
1 tbsp corn syrup
1 tbsp water
2 cups powdered sugar

Combine all ingredients. To make stiffer icing, use more sugar and less water. To make thinner icing, add more water. Always err on the side of stiff, if icing is too watery it will run off cookie as it dries.
*To make whiter icing, substitute milk for water.
*Can also be flavored w/extracts
*If using food coloring, bear in mind that liquid coloring will dilute the icing. Paste or gel is preferable.

Enjoy your decorating!

Difficulty: 3

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

This is just one of those recipes that people love. And I mean love. No matter where I have taken them, whether it's work, friends' parties, etc, people always give me the same response: "Wow, these are really good." They always say in a surprised tone, as if they didn't know something as basic as an oatmeal raisin cookie could be so good.

Anyway, this mega-hit comes from, and it's called Beth's Spicy Oatmeal Raisin cookies. The recipe below is my adaptation, which removes the cloves from the original and also messes with the raisins a bit.

Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup shortening (do not substitute butter for shortening, they aren't the same)
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup white sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 cups rolled oats
1 cup raisins

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).

Plump the raisins: Place raisins in a bowl. Boil some water in a tea kettle and pour over the raisins. Drain right before use.

In a large bowl, cream together the butter, shortening, brown sugar, white sugar, eggs, and vanilla until smooth. Combine the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt; stir into the sugar mixture. Stir in the oats and raisins.

Drop by rounded teaspoonfuls onto ungreased cookie sheets. Bake 10 to 12 minutes until light and golden. Don't let them overbake!

To cool, I let sit on the baking sheet for a minute, then pull the foil and cookies off the hot sheet. When they're completely cool I store them in a tin for up to a week.

Two Options to Jazz Them Up:
1. Drizzle a brown butter frosting over the cookies. Melt butter in a saucepan until slightly golden, then add in a tsp of vanilla and enough confectioner's sugar to create an icing like consistency (sorry, I make all diff amounts of this so I don't really have an official recipe!)
2. Swap Craisins for raisins, and add white chocolate chips. Festive and yummy!

Difficulty Rating: 1