Cookies!

A few weeks ago I went to a cookie decorating class with one of my good friends held at Flour Box Bakery. I’d ordered cookies from her previously, but was excited to learn how she decorated them. I feel like I’m a pretty decent baker, but sugar cookies are my nemesis and decorating them has always been frustrating and that’s without ever really trying royal icing at all.

The class was so much fun and I loved every second of it, so I decided that I’d try making and decorating some cookies for Thanksgiving. The cookie baking went really well and the cookies were done perfectly so I gained some self-confidence that was basically destroyed the next day when I tried making royal icing.

Royal Icing is my new nemesis, but I’ll conquer it at some point. I persevered and managed to come up with some workable icing, but to do the cookies properly with three colors, I had to have six different icings. Two of each color – one stiffer for piping and one more fluid for flooding. I now understand why cookies decorated like this cost so much.

Cookie recipe:
1 cup of butter – softened
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 1/2 tsp flavoring
2 3/4 cup flour (plus a little extra for rolling)
1/2 tsp salt (omit if using salted butter)

Cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
Add 1 egg, the salt, and the flavoring and incorporate.
Add flour one cup at a time until just incorporated.
Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for at least two hours.

Roll cookies to 1/4″ thick and cut with cookie cutter in super cute shapes. Or boring ones – your choice.
If you want the cookies to keep their shape, put the cookie sheet back into the fridge for 10-20 minutes before baking.
Oven should be at 350 degrees.
Bake for 11-13 minutes until just light brown on the edges.
Cool before decorating.

We’ll tackle royal icing another time. I’m still not on speaking terms with the icing.

Homemade Vanilla Extract

Last year, after a conversation with some co-workers, I decided to try making my own vanilla extract at home. How hard could it be? From the research I did – not hard at all. In fact, pretty darn simple.

I ordered some vanilla beans from amazon. You can buy them in bulk there and it’s a pretty great deal when you consider that two vanilla beans at the grocery store can cost anywhere from $10-$15. ¬†Once you have your vanilla beans, then you just need some alcohol. I used bourbon and vodka. Not together.

Get a bottle of whichever you choose and put a bunch of beans in it. You can split the beans open before you do that if you’d like, or not. I did some each way and I’m not sure I noticed any difference. After you have a bunch of beans in there, put that bottle somewhere cool and dark and forget about it for a few months. You should occasionally slosh it around, swirl it around, mix it up, etc. Get that vanilla mixed all through.

A few months later, you have vanilla extract. That’s it.

You can put it in pretty bottles if you’re giving it away or just want it to be in pretty bottles. Otherwise, you can just keep it in that big bottle of alcohol and use it from there. If you’re picky you might want to strain it out before you use it. I’m picky. I strained it using coffee filters before I put it into the pretty bottles (that I also ordered from amazon).

I found that I liked the vodka extract better than the bourbon. The vodka was really smooth and subtle, but the bourbon extract kind of punches you in the face a bit. I bought vodka from a local distillery so that felt good too. Definitely my favorite.

Once you’re done bottling, you can also save and dry out those beans and then grind them up in sugar to make vanilla sugar. Vanilla sugar is delicious in tea, or in recipes, or even sprinkled over those pre-made croissants you buy in the tube.

Make things. It’s fun.

Grilled Panzanella Salad

I was watching my favorite food network chef (Ina Garten) the other night and she was making a gorgeous grilled vegetable salad. The salad is a panzanella which means (in very basic terms) a vegetable salad with bread and dressing.

I’m almost slightly embarrassed to say that I’d never made a panzanella salad before but if I was going to make one for the first time, you can bet your ass it would be Ina’s. I trust very few people in this world, but damnit Ina Garten is one of those people. She’s a little pretentious and her laugh makes me crazy, but the woman knows what she’s doing.

This was pretty easy to put together although I did have to go to three different stores to find champagne vinegar that I will likely only ever use again in another panzanella salad.

This is the perfect time of year to make this with gardens full of tomatoes and peppers. Grill up some bread, whip up a dressing, and enjoy.

 

Ina Garten Grilled Panzanella Salad

 

Cucumber and Onion Salad

When I was younger, my grandmother made a cucumber and onion salad that I absolutely loved. At the time, I never thought to ask her for the recipe – maybe because it seemed so simple, or maybe because I took her and all of those recipes for granted. If I had a chance to go back to those days, knowing what I know and how I feel now – I’d spend weeks and maybe months just talking with her and getting all of those recipes. I miss her more than I ever thought possible some days.

I’ve been searching trying to find a similar recipe lately and I found what I think is as close as I will ever get without knowing the “real” recipe. After speaking with my mom and learning that my grandmother always used canned (evaporated) milk in her recipe, I was sure the one I discovered would taste nothing like what I remembered but I’m happy to say that it tasted exactly like I hoped it would. It was like having my grandmother here for just a moment.

Cucumber and Onion Salad with Sour Cream
– Two cucumbers, thinly sliced and peeled
– Half a vidalia onion, sliced thinly
– 8 ounces of sour cream
– 1/4 cup distilled white vinegar
– 1/3 cup white granulated sugar
– Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Whisk the sour cream, vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper together in a medium mixing bowl. Add the cucumbers and onions and stir to coat. Refrigerate at least overnight, and up to 2 days. Serve cold.

Chicken and Dumplings

We’ve had some record-breaking cold weather here in the northeast this past week and with another winter storm today I decided I really needed some comfort food. Something that would take hours to cook. Something delicious.

I decided on chicken and dumplings even though I’d never actually made it before. I’ve made chicken soup, chicken and biscuits, chicken and waffles… but never chicken and dumplings. Until today.

I bought chicken broth at the store this morning, but decided that since I had to cook the chicken anyway, I may as well make some homemade chicken stock too. If you use premade, this will go much faster for you. You could even use premade stock and a rotisserie chicken to whip this up pretty quickly. My process was long but that’s exactly what I needed today.

Chicken stock:
4 chicken breasts (with bone)
1 head of garlic, sliced in half
1 1/2 yellow onions, quartered
6 carrots, chopped in large chunks
4 stalks of celery, chopped
A handful of kosher salt

Chicken Stew:
4 carrots, sliced thinly
4 stalks of celery, chopped
1/2 yellow onion, chopped into small pieces
5 tablespoons of butter
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup flour
4 cups chicken stock
1/3 cup half and half

Dumplings:
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup shortening
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup half and half

Make the chicken stock:
Put all chicken stock ingredients into a big stock pot/dutch oven/whatever big pot you have. Bring it to a boil and then cook it on medium heat for 1.5 – 2 hours until it smells amazing and the chicken is tender and almost falling off the bone. Take out the chicken breasts and drain the stock.

Make the stew:
In a dutch oven, place the carrots, celery, onion, salt, pepper, and butter. Saute on medium heat until onions are translucent and carrots and celery are starting to become tender. Sprinkle flour over vegetables in dutch oven and stir, cooking for 1-2 minutes. Add 4 cups of chicken stock and simmer while you remove the chicken from the bone and shred it with a fork to be placed back into the stew.

Make the dumplings:
Put flour, baking powder, and salt into a bowl and mix gently with a fork. Cube shorting and mix in with flour mixture using your hands to mix together until shortening is in tiny pieces throughout the flour. Beat one egg and add to flour, then the half and half. Again, mix with your hands until combined. Dough will be very sticky.

Finish:
Add shredded chicken back into stew, and add the 1/3 cup of half and half. Then, using a spoon, drop small balls of dough into the stew. Dumplings will cook fairly quickly and will rise to the top as they cook so just spread them out over the top of the stew. Place lid on dutch oven and simmer for 3 minutes.

Like I said, it’s kind of a long process but that’s what I did today. Tomorrow or next week I might decide to use premade chicken broth and a rotisserie chicken and that would be fine too. Today it was perfect and exactly what I needed on this snowy Saturday.

Chocolate Pudding with Whipped Cream and Sweet Brioche Croutons

Last weekend I purchased the “Gramercy Tavern Cookbook”. I was enchanted from the moment I picked it up and decided this weekend I had to make at least one thing from the book. It’s no surprise that the desserts appealed to me more than most anything else so I decided to start there.

You really should buy the cookbook if you like good straightforward dishes with fresh simple ingredients. I can’t wait to cook my way through it.

My impressions on this recipe:
– Simple to make and straightforward. Didn’t take too much time.
– I loved the combination of cocoa and finely chopped semisweet chocolate melted in as the last step
– It’s way better cold than it is warm even though it was pretty delicious warm
– You definitely need the whipped cream to cut through the richness of this
– Holy crap, sweet brioche croutons are AMAZING. (Cubes of brioche sauteed in butter with confectioners sugar sprinkled over them cooked slowly, until they get crisp and carmelized. Completely amazing and perfect with this.

 

Chocolate Pudding

– 4 cups whole milk
– 1 cup sugar
– 1/4 cup cornstarch
– 3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
– 1/4 teaspoon salt
– 4 large egg yolks
– 4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
– 2 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, finely chopped
– 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
– 2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste

In a medium saucepan, bring 3 1/2 cups of the milk and 3/4 cup of the sugar to a boil over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk together the remaining 1/4 cup sugar, the cornstarch, cocoa and salt. Whisk in the remaining 1/2 cup milk, then whisk in the yolks.

When the milk mixture comes to a boil, remove it from the heat and slowly pour about a cup of the hot liquid into the egg mixture, whisking constantly to temper it. Pour the contents of the bowl back into the saucepan and bring it to a boil over medium heat, whisking constantly; be sure to get into the edges of the pan to keep the mixture from sticking or burning. Boil for a full minute, whisking constantly, then pass the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer into a large bowl.

Whisk in the chocolate, butter, and vanilla until smooth. Transfer the pudding to a large bowl, cover the surface with plastic wrap placed in direct contact with the pudding and refrigerate until cold. Serve the pudding topped with the whipped cream and brioche croutons, and a pinch of sea salt.

 

Brioche Croutons

– 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
– 1/4 pound Brioche or other bread (Challah works really well), crusts removed and cut into 1 inch cubes (about 2 cups)
– 1/4 cup confectioners sugar

In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium low heat. Add the bread, stir to coat, and sprinkle with the sugar. Stir gently and constantly with a spatula until the sugar melts and the croutons are caramelized on all sides. Transfer to a baking sheet and let cool completely.

(Modified recipes from the Gramercy Tavern Cookbook)

Cinnamon Sugar Baked Doughnuts

Ina Garten, I love you.

I love making doughnuts. I have really wonderful memories of my Dad making yeast doughnuts when we were younger and I have never in my life tasted a doughnut as good as those were, but I’m not patient enough to make yeast doughnuts and when you wake up on a weekend and NEED a doughnut ASAP, yeast isn’t your friend.

These doughnuts, however, come together really quickly and easily. And they are DELICIOUS. I used my actual real, printed COOKBOOK to make these, but the recipe’s online too.

 

Chocolate Peppermint Cookies

 

I absolutely love the combination of chocolate and peppermint and this time of year you can find it everywhere. I even had a “Peppermint Patty” latte a few weeks ago at the cutest little coffee shop in my hometown. It was absolutely delicious. I wish I could have one every day.

I saw these cookies posted by Bakerella the other day and decided to give them a shot. It’s snowing outside, it’s Sunday, and it’s just a few weeks before Christmas so that means it’s the PERFECT day to bake. These were pretty easy even if they were kind of messy having to roll balls before putting them on a cookie sheet – but they were definitely worth it.

Things I might do differently next time:
1. Maybe try to chop/crush some of the m&ms before putting them in the cookie mix. Not necessary, but it might be interesting.

You can find the recipe on Bakerella’s blog.

Italian Sprinkle Cookies

 

I haven’t been doing much baking lately because I’ve been focused on other things, but it’s that time of year! I made these cookies for the first time last year and really loved them. My ex-husband’s grandmother used to make these and I think I found a recipe that’s pretty close to how she made them. I do think that I’d tone down the almond/lemon extracts just a smidge the next time I make them (note to self: tone down the extracts next time – maybe a SMIDGE less almond). Still delicious, though, just as written! Oh – side note, I also didn’t dip the ENTIRE cookie in the glaze. I just turned the cookies upside down and dipped the tops into the glaze. It runs down all over the tops anyway and I didn’t want the entire cookie glazed. Also, you can slightly tint the glaze with food coloring if you so desire. I did a light pink on some other cookies, but I honestly think the white glaze looks prettier.

Here’s the recipe.

Mille-Feuille

I made puff pastry! From scratch! And it was awesome!

There’s something about dough that makes me happy. Bread dough, pie dough, and especially pastry dough. It does my heart good.

A mille-feuille is basically layers of puff pastry, pastry cream, and then icing on top. Apparently the recipe provided by the Daring Bakers group had the measurements wrong for pastry cream so that ended up a little bit thicker than I had anticipated but it worked out. The combination of the icing and pastry cream was definitely not my favorite, but it was something new for me and I loved that I learned how to make puff pastry!