December 24, 2011

Holiday Cookie Decorating (Gingerbread)

This past Sunday was my annual holiday cookie decorating party. This year was number six, and I decided it was high time I get some professional training, so Madison and I headed over to Mrs. Wheelbarrow's Kitchen where we took a fabulous class with Gail Dosik from One Tough Cookie. We learned the basics of piping straight lines, corners, and circles. We learned how to decorate by forming a border with a thicker royal icing and then flooding with a thinner icing. Gail also shared some great advice on preparing cookies that I immediately incorporated into my process (see below for photo of rolling out dough between two sheets of parchment paper).

Here is a shot of the cookies I decorated during the class:

In planning for the party, I decided I needed at least five cookies per guest, and I was expecting about twenty-five people, so I figured 150 was a nice round number of cookies to aim for. I prefer to decorate with gingerbread cookies, and I have used the same recipe every year. It isn't a very sweet cookie, which is good since royal icing is basically just sugar. And it has a nice peppery kick. If you prefer a milder gingerbread, you can leave out or cut volume of black pepper. While baking, I started to get nervous there wouldn't be enough, so instead of making three batches of dough I went for five. I have about a batch worth of dough left in the freezer. After baking four of the five, I realized I had better stop. I had hit a grand total of 294 cookies.

Here is the final inventory:
11 Sailboats
15 Mittens
13 Puzzle Pieces
9 Half Moons
18 Chicks
8 Penguins
11 Capitol Buildings
16 Sharks
16 Pigs
15 Elephants
13 Squirrels
15 Houses
18 Stars
10 Massachusetts
13 Goats
14 Birds
9 Dogs
13 Leaves
8 Rabbits
14 Piglets
17 Snowflakes
18 Thought Bubbles

In addition, Madison brought over two plates of traditional sugar cookies: ten christmas trees, 13 stars, and 11 men.

Inspired by the professionals from the class, I decided I would make two separate consistencies of icing. A thicker icing, to be piped into borders. And a thinner icing, to be dyed poured into squeeze bottles, and used for flooding. I had a bit of trouble getting the consistencies right at first, but we were eventually able to get down to it. I made a large batch of white and poured it into the squeeze bottles before adding the dye. It was harder to mix the colors in this way, but I saved the hassle of making many separate batches.

The cookies my friends decorated were incredible. Some were quite abstract. Others literal. Some used the cookie as a palette for a narrative. Others went sculptural. Here some shots of some of the best cookies (at least the ones that weren't eaten before the afternoon was over!).

This year I also brought back the paint brushes, which I hadn't used since year one. They are a fun addition. This year I didn't buy any new sugar sprinkles, because I had so many left over from next year. This may also be the final year for the dragee. Which are very fun to decorate with, but aren't so fun to eat. One note about other decorations: I have a stash of different types of sanding sugars and sprinkles. Most supermarkets will sell a few varieties in the baking aisle. Sur la Table also has a good selection, but if you want to get serious about sprinkles, look for specialty store in your area. In New York City, the New York Cake and Baking Supply on 22nd and 5th is incredible. In Washington, I go either to Fran's Cake and Candy Supply in Fairfax, VA, or the Little Bitts Shoppe in Wheaton, MD.

- Franklin

Gingerbread Cookies
Adapted from Martha Stewart
Total Time (not including decorating): 3 hours
Sweetness Factor (not including decorations): 4; Indulgence Factor: 6; Difficulty Factor: 7: Chance I'll Make Them Again: 10.

For the cookies:
6 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
4 teaspoons ground ginger
4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cloves
1 teaspoon (or more) ground pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt
2 large eggs
1 cup unsulfured molasses (not blackstrap)

For the royal icing:
1 pound confectioner's sugar (vary depending on desire consistency)
2 tablespoons powdered egg whites (vary depending on desired consistency)
6 tablespoons warm water (vary depending on desired consistency)
1/4 teaspoon lemon juice
gel dyes

To prepare the cookies: whisk together the flour, baking soda, and baking powdered and set aside. In an electric mixer, cream the butter and the sugar. Beat for 2-3 minutes. Add all spices. Add the eggs one at a time. Then add the molasses. Mix until combined (if your butter wasn't totally room temperature, the mix may look globby here, if it doesn't come together go ahead and add flour). Gradually add the flour. Mix until combined.

Divide the dough into three. One third at time, put the dough between two sheets of parchment paper, and roll it out to 1/4 inch thick. Stack the parchment flats in the freezer for an hour or so. More is fine too. Even over night.

Preheat the oven to 350. One at a time, take the parchment flats out of the freezer, cut out cookies with your favorite cookie cutter, and set them on cookie sheets lined with parchment paper (note: if you are making multiple batches, you can reuse both the parchment sheets for freezing, and the ones for lining the cookie sheet, just make sure to remove any crumbs before putting the same parchment sheet back in the over). Bake for 12 minutes. Let cool on tray for a minute or so, then finish cooling on rack. The cookies store very well undecorated for a few days (or more) in an air-tight container.

To prepare the royal icing. Dissolve the powdered egg whites in the water and lemon juice, and with a hand mixer or in a stand mixer combine with the powdered sugar. Beat until well combined. If the mix is too runny, add more sugar. If it is too stiff, add more liquid! Divide into small containers and add dye. If you want really consistent colors, you might want to add dye in a larger mixing bowl before moving to squeeze bottles. If you care less about that, you can add the dye once in the squeeze bottles and stir with a skewer or some such, the colors may end up a little bit marbled.

December 19, 2011

Chocolate-Dipped Ginger Creme Sandwiches

When Newman's Own first started copying popular cookies, I was skeptical. I'd had Hydrox, and they are just not as good as Oreos. But I decided to give them a go anyway. I started with the Fig Newman. Turns out, it puts the Fig Newton to shame. It is more flavorful and doesn't have that I-was-made-with-crisco chewiness of the Fig Newton. Next stop, Newman-Os. I skipped the traditional chocolate and went for the ginger: the Ginger-O's. Well, folks, they're delicious. The are great to gobble up plain. They are ideal for dipping in hot chocolate. They open up nicely for a homemade double-stuffed. Best of all, they are fantastic crumbled with a mortar and pestle, sprinkled on raspberry sorbet, and drenched with chocolate sauce. You may notice a pattern here. Many baked goods that enter my house, suffer a similar fate.

If anything was ever trendy right now in the cooking/baking world it is making from scratch something that is much easier to buy at the store. Pop tarts. Yogurt. Pasta. Ricotta. Marshmallows. And, of course, Oreos. I'm totally on board with this trend. I like the challenge. "You have an industrial kitchen (a factory even) and hundreds of employees? Ha. I have a kitchen aid mixer and a stubborn streak. I can do anything you can do!"

I can make Ginger-O's. Okay, well, it turns out I can't. But, I can make gingersnap sandwich cookies, that, if I do say so myself, are pretty damn good. To start, I turned to one of my favorite food bloggers, who had recently adapted the Oreo for the home kitchen. I used her gingersnap recipe and an adaptation of her oreo creme recipe. And then I adlibbed. Why stop with a sandwich cookie, when you can have a sandwich cookie dipped in dark chocolate? Why stop with a chocolate-dipped sandwich cookie, when you could sprinkle that chocolate with sea salt? Why stop with a sea salt-sprinkled, chocolate-dipped sandwich cookie, when you could also sprinkle on some raw sugar? And let's stop there. Yum.

To be sure, these cookies have a lot going on. But somehow it all works. It worked especially well after they sat for a few days and the cookies got a bit softer than they were when I first baked them. I thought I wanted a very crisp cookie, so I went for the longer end of the bake time. When I make these next, I will go for the shorter end, perhaps 12 minutes instead of 14. But this is to your taste. I like the crispy cookies on their own, but when you bite the sandwich, if the cookies are too crispy, the creme squirts out the sides. Slightly softer is better. More of a coherent cookie experience.

The chocolate dipping is definitely optional. I love them this way. But adding the chocolate is what my mother would call gilding the lily. If you are trying to make a cookie that will stand out at your office holiday party or will really wow your friends and family, then why not gild away?

- Franklin

Chocolate-Dipped Gingersnap Sandwiches
Adapted from here and here at Smitten Kitchen
Total Time: 5 Hours
Sweetness Factor: 7; Indulgence Factor: 8; Difficulty Factor: 7; Chance I'll Make Them Again: 8.

For the Cookies:
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon table salt
3 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground pepper
2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 large egg
1/3 cup unsulphured molasses (not blackstrap)
2 tablespoons finely chopped crystallized ginger

For the Filling:
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) room-temperature, unsalted butter
1/4 cup vegetable shortening (I like earth balance)
2 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar
2 teaspoons ginger syrup

Note: The ginger syrup is by Morris Kitchen. I bought it at a small shop in Philadelphia, but it is available online. You could also make some from scratch.

For the dipping:
8 ounces dark chocolate
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon sea salt (I used black salt)
2 tablespoons raw sugar

To prepare the cookies, whisk together all the dry ingredients (the flour, baking soda, salt, and spices). Set aside. In a stand mixer, cream the butter and the sugars. Beat a few minutes, until fluffy. Add the molasses, the egg, and the crystallized ginger. Beat until thoroughly combined. On low speed, gradually add the dry ingredients. Once the flour mix is completely combined, dump the dough onto a piece of plastic wrap. Wrap it up and chill for about two hours.

Preheat the oven to 350. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Roll the dough into balls of about 3/4 inch in diameter. You can make them bigger if you want, but these cookies are intense enough, that I think it is better to keep them pretty small. Bake for 11-12 minutes.

I let the cookies cool, stored them for the night, and made the filling the next day, but you could go ahead and start the filling while the cookies are cooling. To make the filling, combine all the ingredients in a stand mixer and beat until thoroughly combined. To assemble the cookies, you can either use a pastry bag, which take longer to set up but is then neater and more efficient, or a teaspoon. Match the cookies, so each has a partner that is evenly sized. On the bag of one of each pair, put a dollop of frosting. About two teaspoons worth. Sandwich the cookies together.

Melt the chocolate in a double-boiler. Once it is melted, remove from heat and add the butter (or you could use vegetable oil). Stir in, until butter is melted too. Let the chocolate cool until close to room temperature. If your house is anywhere as cold as mine (63 on a good day) you might not want to wait to long because the chocolate will set very quickly. Dip each cookie 1/4 to a 1/3 in to the chocolate. Lay it on a piece of parchment paper, and don't move it until the chocolate is set. Let sit for a few minutes and then put a pinch of salt and a sprinkle of sugar on each cookie.

Once the chocolate is totally set, the cookies should keep very well in an airtight container for a few days. You may want to separate each layer with a piece of parchment paper, but this is only important if you are very worried about presentation and want the cookies to stay very pristine.

December 13, 2011

Black Bean Brownies

By popular demand, a beanie brownie! I made these for the first time last year at the request of a friend who wanted a chocolatey dessert but was on a strict low fat diet. They are surprising. They are dense and fudgy, but not too heavy. The beans lend a subtle earthiness that makes them taste hearty but not too much like health food. Actually, they taste a bit like a more delicious version of a chocolate power bar. I guess that may sound unappealing to some. But for me in conjures up a strong and happy memory of long bus rides to high school cross-country meets.

There are a lot of versions of these brownies out there. This one, from 101 Cookbooks, promises to be truly yummy, but in addition to the beans, it contains both butter and eggs. I thought that if I was going to add beans to my dessert, they should at least be performing some central function, so I went in a different direction. The recipe below is completely vegan (unless you count the real butter I used to grease the pan, oops).

These are great as dessert or as a protein-rich snack. If I still ran (or really exercised at alll), I would pack one of these to eat an hour before the run. Instead, I'll just have a piece after dinner with a scoop of raspberry sorbet and some chocolate sauce. Overkill? Maybe.

All in all, however, although I thought these were pretty tasty, I guess I might not make them again. Or I might try the 101 Cookbooks version. Don't get me wrong, I gobbled these up, but I eat a lot of beans anyway, so I don't need the two for one that these provide.

- Franklin

Vegan Black Bean Brownies
Adapted from No Meat Athlete
Total Time: 45 minutes
Sweetness Factor: 7; Richness Factor: 6; Difficulty:3; Chance I'll Make it Again: 4.

1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup spelt flour (you could sub in all purpose)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 1/4 cups raw sugar
1 1/4 cups cocoa
4 teaspoons instant coffee
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate (optional)
1 15 ounce can black beans, drained, rinsed, and returned to the can, and refilled with water
1/4 cup maple syrup (add if you add the extra chocolate)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup water

Preheat the oven to 350. Grease a 9*13 inch glass baking pan. Line with parchment paper and grease the parchment paper.

Add all the dry ingredients to a bowl and whisk thoroughly. Chop up the chocolate and melt in the microwave or in a double boiler. Combine all the other wet ingredients (including the beans) and puree until smooth. Add the melted chocolate to the other wet ingredients. Slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, whisking until thoroughly combined. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake for about 25 minutes, until the center looks set.