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Cookies and Sweets

The Twinkies Cookbook: Twinkiehenge

Twinkiehenge

TwinkieHengeTwinkies are the epitome of processed food: spongy, resilient, wrapped in plastic, with only slightly more flavor than the wrapping, they are globally recognizable and endlessly the same. They couldn’t not be Recipes of the Damned. So when I saw The Twinkies Cookbook in the discount section at Barnes & Noble a couple of years ago, I had to buy it. What could one possibly cook with Twinkies?

PuddingIngreds2So many things, though “cook” is not always the operative word. An astounding 49 recipes, ranging from Twinkie Kebabs to Twinkie Ice Cream to Twinkie Tunnel Bundt Cake (yes, cake with a tunnel of Twinkies) to Pigs in a Twinkie. (In the upsettingly named chapter “Twinkies and Meat,” which only contains three recipes, thank heavens.) You can blend Twinkies into a milkshake. You can deep-fry them and serve them with chocolate sauce. (We tried that at Chipshop in Park Slope, Brooklyn; meh, unable to hold a candle to the deep-fried Cadbury Creme Egg.)

Oreos2But of course for the party I had to try Twinkiehenge.

It’s very simple. You start by mixing up some instant chocolate pudding, according to the package instructions. The recipe called for a 5.9-ounce package, but all I could find was two 3.9-ounce packages. This didn’t bother me; have you ever noticed that you never hear the phrase “too much pudding”? I mixed up the pudding and put it into a serving bowl, and topped it with crushed Oreos, about 16 cookies’ worth.

CrushingOreosNow it was time to add the Twinkies. The recipe says to cut Twinkies in half crosswise and stand them up on end, with the rounded edges up and the cut ends pushed into the pudding. But this seemed to me to be only halfway there. Stonehenge isn’t just standing vertical stones; it’s the crossbars that make it truly distinctive. Without them I’d have Twinkie Rapa Nui. So I halved a few Twinkies lengthwise as well and laid them atop the posts, and voila: Twinkiehenge.

CrushedOreosSome of you may have found the combination of chocolate pudding and crushed Oreos familiar. When I was in my teens, back in the last century, our Y-Teens gatherings often featured a dessert known by a number of names: Better than Sex, Better than Robert Redford, God in a Pan. (Yes, we were in our mid-teens and Robert Redford was in his late 40s at that point. What can I say? The man can still bring it.) BTS was made of chocolate pudding, crushed Oreos (often still a bit chunky), and whipped cream or Cool Whip. We did not bother with Twinkies, or henges.

PuddingAndOreosOf course on Saturday it took us a while to get around to eating Twinkiehenge. It’s one of those dishes that looks too pretty, or at least too goofy, to eat. But we cast aside our fears of little Twinkie Druids casting little Twinkie curses on us, and dug in. Unsurprisingly, the combination of pudding and Oreos was tasty. The Twinkies didn’t really add anything to that. They didn’t detract; they were just kind of there.

TwinkieHenge3Verdict: Success, albeit silly. I don’t think I’ll be bothering with the Twinkie part again, but we’re working on transforming too much pudding into no more pudding.

The New Joys of Jell-O: Joy Is Not the Word I Would Use

ring around the fruit mold

RingAroundJellO2I have never been a fan of Jell-O. I find the texture off-putting, the taste chemical-y and harsh, and the very principle simply wrong. This is probably one reason that I own three Jell-O cookbooks; in fact, it was a Jell-O cookbook that started me down the path to Recipes of the Damned, and eventually to this blog.

JelloFruitCocktailThe New Joys of Jell-O is not that cookbook. The New Joys of Jell-O is a slim hardcover published in 1973 and resplendent with early 1970s glory; lurid color photos display outmoded hairstyles, clothing and Jell-O dishes. The publisher is clearly trying to pull Jell-O out of a 1960s cultural tar pit by showing that hip, groovy people who are in touch with today’s modern world will show up on your doorstep carrying fruit encased in translucent goo.

JellOPowderThe last time I made a Jell-O recipe I played it safe, adding melon balls to lime Jell-O and leaving it at that. This time I decided that I really had to go big. Big and bad, as it happened. So I scanned the recipes for something that would encapsulate all the worst aspects of Jell-O cookery — no small selection of choices — and settled on ring around the fruit mold.

JellOInBundtPan2I began by making the Jell-O itself. Following the recipe’s instructions, I drained the liquid from a 30-ounce can of fruit cocktail, and added water to it to make 1 1/2 cups. I set this aside, possibly not as far as I should have. I dissolved a 6-ounce packet of strawberry Jell-O in 2 cups of boiling water, stirred in the fruit cocktail solution, and poured the liquid into a Bundt pan. This represented my first real sign that things weren’t going to go quite as hoped. (Well, first real sign after the realization that I was making Jell-O in the first place.) I don’t own any actual Jell-O molds, and I didn’t have anything at all ring-shaped other than my standard Bundt pan, and it’s about twice the size I needed. I worried a little about whether the Jell-O would unmold cleanly, then decided there wasn’t anything I could do about it at this point, and put the pan in the fridge to chill overnight.

DicingMarshmallowsThe next step was to assemble the fruit component. The recipe called for 1 cup of prepared Dream Whip, 1/3 cup of chopped nuts, 1/2 cup miniature marshmallows, and the fruit from that can of fruit cocktail. You can see already this isn’t going anywhere good. I’ll reassure you on one point, though: Dream Whip is (or perhaps was) the mix-it-yourself equivalent of Cool Whip. (It is not salad dressing; that’s Miracle Whip. Breathe a sigh of relief.) I don’t know if Dream Whip is available for sale today, but it certainly can’t be found in my neighborhood grocery store, so I substituted Cool Whip.

JellOFillingIngredsThe marshmallows were also a problem, because they didn’t have miniatures at FoodTown. I couldn’t be sure from the shelves if they were sold out or if they just weren’t available. I considered trying the other grocery stores in the area, but I decided against that. It’s been insanely hot here, and I didn’t feel like trooping from store to store. I also wasn’t confident that I’d find them anywhere else; after all, who runs out of or doesn’t stock miniature marshmallows? It wouldn’t be the first time that I’d gone store to store only to discover that nobody carries something that I had just assumed everybody would have in stock. And I had a party to prepare for; I didn’t really want to spend the time, especially if it wasn’t going to come to anything.

JellOFillingSo I bought full-size marshmallows and decided to chop them into bits. This was tricky, because marshmallows are gummy and sticky inside and really want to stick to your knife. I dusted my knife blade with powered sugar and dipped the exposed surfaces in powdered sugar as I went along, and while this didn’t completely solve the stickiness problem, it reduced it enough that I could accumulate half a cup of marshmallow bits without completely losing it.

JellOJelledMy sourcing problems addressed, I mixed together the Cool Whip, fruit cocktail bits, marshmallows and chopped walnuts. The mixture was pale and lumpy and distinctly unencouraging. I set it aside and prepared to unmold my Jell-O. I turned it onto a plate and it came out in once piece–a misshapen piece that was liquidy at the edges. I think I may have held the mold in warm water a little too long; I was afraid I’d mixed in too much liquid (package directions say no) or used boiling water when I should not have (package directions say boiling water, no problem there) or failed to let it chill long enough. But it didn’t continue to bleed liquid, so I think I just warmed the pan too much. Certainly once I’d turned it out into a cockeyed triangle, it didn’t remain malleable enough for me to shape it back into a ring.

JellOUnmolded2I began to spoon the fruit cocktail mixture into the center. There was a lot of it. Frankly, I think there was too much of it. For the amount of fruit cocktail mixture I had I think I needed twice the Jell-O. (It had occurred to me the night before, when I saw that the Bundt pan was only half full, that I might go get more Jell-O and make a double quantity. But then it occurred to me that I would have that much more Jell-O left over, because I had no illusions that the party guests were going to flock to the Jell-O mold and clamor to take some home with them. So I didn’t.) I spooned in as much as I felt I could reasonably keep on the plate without in fact hiding the Jell-O, and carried the dish out to the party buffet.

RingAroundJellO3Quite a bit later, after we’d enjoyed salad and dips and pickles and cake and whiskey (more on that in another post), Scott decided it was time to find out how the Jell-O was. He served himself a plate with even shares of Jell-O and fruit cocktail mixture, took a bite, and furrowed his brows. “You have to eat some of this,” he said, in a tone that implied “It’s your fault we even have this here.” He served some out for me before I could protest, though I agreed that it was my fault and it was only fair that I tried it for myself.

JellODishedThe Jell-O was the best part of it. This is not a compliment. The combination of Cool Whip and fruit cocktail and marshmallows was unpleasant, even more than I had expected. (The nuts did nothing to improve or degrade it, really.) The flavors and textures were completely discordant. There was the slipperiness and chemical tang of Jell-O, the sticky softness of marshmallow, and the mushy so-very-not-fresh-fruit sensation of the fruit cocktail pieces. I finished the serving because I kept thinking one of these spoonfuls was bound to improve, but they never did.

The apartment was really warm, but the Jell-O held up surprisingly well, and didn’t start to melt off the plate for some hours. Once it did, I took it out to the kitchen and disposed of it.

Verdict: Disgusting. Kids, don’t try this at home.

Today’s Country Cooking: Rhubarb Rhubarb Rhubarb

strawberry-rhubarb pie

PieSlice2Last Saturday I finally made it to the neighborhood Greenmarket, its third week of operation. I had good but annoying reasons for missing the first two and I was determined not to miss this one. I knew it was too early for tomatoes, but I was delighted to see there are still plenty of strawberries on hand. I picked up a couple of quarts, and on my way to join the line I saw stalks of PiecrustIngredsrhubarb, and I thought, this will be a blog recipe to knock off. One of my books has to have a recipe for strawberry-rhubarb pie, and I bet it’s Today’s Country Cooking.

And I was right, though I missed it at first; the index had no listing under strawberry, but when I searched “rhubarb,” I found rhubarb pie with a variation that included strawberries. Good PiecrustInPanenough for me!

Today’s Country Cooking is the last one I had left to try in the group of cookbook-club-published books I’ve accumulated. Like its fellows, it’s large and glossy and prettily laid out. It offers lots of glowingly American recipes: mashed potatoes, jam, meatloaf, cake, and something called “American Chop Suey Hot Dish.” Rhubarb2(Macaroni, garlic, ground beef…I think I don’t want to know, actually.)

I started by preparing a pie crust, following a recipe included in the book. I had reservations, because I’m a butter-crust person and the recipe here called for shortening. But one of my goals for this project is to get better at following a new recipe without Rhubarb5imposing my own ideas about what to do before I’ve even seen how it would work, and I knew that there would be a real difference in texture with shortening. I had to try it for myself. So I took a deep breath, bought a container of Crisco, and set to work. I blended some flour with a bit of salt and some Crisco, then mixed in some ice water. I used the amounts specified, and I Strawberriesexpected the crust to be a bit shaggy, but it was downright wet. I swiftly blended in some more flour until the texture seemed right, trying my best not to over-handle it and make it tough. I rolled out a bottom crust and laid it into the pie pan, then rolled out a top crust and folded it into a quarter-wedge, and set it aside.

Now it was time to put together Strawberries4the filling. I sliced rhubarb into half-inch-thick pieces and arranged them in the pie pan, then sliced up some strawberries and added them to the rhubarb. Then I blended some sugar, brown sugar and flour in one bowl; in another, I combined eggs, egg yolks, half-and-half, and vanilla. I poured the egg mixture into the sugar mixture and whisked it together, then FruitInCrust2poured it over the fruit.

Now it was time to top the pie. Well, I assumed so, anyway; the recipe doesn’t actually say to lay on the top crust, but the illustration shows a lattice-topped pie, so I decided that would serve as an implication that a top crust was intended, and carefully unfolded the top crust that I had set aside. It wanted to stick FillingIngredstogether, but I managed to tease it apart into a single layer with out shredding it too much. I pinched the edges, poked a few holes, and popped the pie into a 350-degree oven for an hour.

Once the pie had cooled, it was ready to slice and serve. The crust was surprisingly good: light, flaky, and with a delicate flavor that complemented the pie filling. ClosingPie2The filling was very good too, though I found it a little sweeter than I thought it should be; that could probably be taken care of by adding just a bit more of both kinds of fruit without increasing the egg-and-sugar mixture. The strawberries and rhubarb balanced sweetness and tartness.

Verdict: Success. I may have to make another within the next PieBaked3couple of weeks, while there are still strawberries in the Greenmarket.

The New Hostess of To-Day: In Which I Rediscover the Joy of Custard Sauce

apple snow, with boiled custard (soft)

CakePlusSauceThe New Hostess of To-Day dates from 1916, so it’s not quite as impenetrable as Miss Leslie‘s work but is still chock full of vague directives and alarming ingredients. Pigeon Galantine, for example, though I may just be biased by living in New York and therefore seeing any pigeon recipe as no different from one calling for rat. (Possibly you’d find more meat on a rat here.)

YolksNSugarLinda Hull Larned offers introductory chapters on various kinds of entertaining: the formal luncheon, the informal dinner, the informal dinner with but one both to cook and serve (ah, for the days when you could take servants for granted), the wedding breakfast, the card party and more. She has an extensive section on chafing-dish cookery, leading me to suspect she’d YolksNSugar2received several for her own wedding.

So I was a little nervous as I flipped through the book looking for recipes, but I was determined not to set myself up for failure this time. Linda Hull Larned might not have had an electric mixer, but I do, and I was determined to use it if necessary. I was also determined to rule out any CookingCustardrecipes whose instructions truly mystified me. And as usual I opted against anything with scary or impossible-to-find ingredients, so it didn’t take me long to narrow my choices to a manageable number. The dessert chapter didn’t look too challenging, and soon I settled on a two-part dish: apple snow with custard sauce.

GratedAppleI spent a semester studying in London, and our host family often prepared desserts with custard sauce. Custard sauce on steamed pudding, custard sauce on fruit; hell, if they’d poured custard sauce on rusted nails I’d probably have lapped it up and asked for more. I knew that one could find mixes for the right version in shops that sell British foods, but it had not occurred to me to make it BeatenEggWhite2from scratch. I’d assumed it would be hard, and I was wrong.

I started by making the custard. I beat two egg yolks with 1/4 cup of sugar until the mixture was fluffy (and surprisingly light in color). I then scalded some milk, then added the egg yolk mixture and stirred the mixture while it cooked. Larned’s instructions say “Cook until spoon is coated,” and SnowMixturefor a while I was not sure just what that might mean, but as the sauce continued to cook and thicken, I could see the effect she meant: as I lifted the spoon from the pan, the custard clung to it, more and more thickly as I continued to cook. I kept cooking and stirring until the consistency seemed right, then added a teaspoon of butter, removed the pan from the heat, added a bit of CakeAndJam2vanilla, and was faced with the direction “Beat until cold.”

Now what kind of a cooking instruction is that? I considered two possibilities; if the idea was simply to incorporate cooler air into the mixture to chill it in a pre-refrigeration age, I could just put the sauce in the fridge to cool down. But if the stirring was necessary to maintain an CakeJamSnowemulsion — to keep the custard from separating — then I couldn’t skip that step. I decided to try stirring for a while and see how it went. It went slowly. I checked periodically, and while the custard wasn’t immediately separating if I stopped stirring, it was showing a certain paleness at the edges that prompted me to keep at it, but it was very slow to cool. After a while I got the bright idea to pour SnowOnCakeit into a cool bowl instead of the hot saucepan, and that helped considerably. By the time I quit and put it into the fridge it wasn’t exactly cold, but it was far cooler and not separating.

After that I made the apple snow. This was a fairly simple mixture: a grated Granny Smith apple — which I peeled, on the assumption that the “snow” was CakePlusSauce2not intended to have a green tinge — plus 3/4 cup of powdered sugar, a pinch of salt, and three egg whites beaten stiff. The recipe said to beat them together until fluffy, which threw me at first because adding the apple and sugar to the puffy egg whites deflated them quite a bit; however, I kept beating the mixture and it reached a point that I could consider fluffy, just not as fluffy as the egg whites alone.

The apple snow was to be served over sponge cake spread with a layer of jam, and topped with custard sauce. You probably know sponge cake as angel food cake; I used a store-bought cake because I didn’t want to go to the trouble of making my own, but I probably should have, as the cake was just OK. I opened up a jar of the peach jam I made last summer, which was rather better. I spread jam on cake and scooped on some of the apple snow, then poured on some custard. The combination was delicious: tart apple, light creamy foam, rich custard, fruity jam. It felt elegant and rich, belying how easy it was to make.

Verdict: Success. And I have lots of custard sauce left over. Now if I can just find some nails…

Special Diet Recipes: I Made Dessert With Baby Food

peach parfait

PeachParfaitBowl3Special Diet Recipes is a 1949 pamphlet of recipes that use baby food — perhaps a predictable approach for the Gerber Products Company. The recipes are recommended for various special diets. Peach parfait fits into a few regimens, including bland diet, soft diet, dental or mechanically soft diet, and liquid diet. So if I ever find myself needing to nurse someone through an antiquated EggWhitedisease I’ll have options for feeding them. (You laugh, but a friend did once get scarlet fever, and Scott suffers from gout. It could happen!)

I picked up this book for Recipes of the Damned because of the meat milk-shake (which is more or less what it sounds like: milk, Gerber’s strained meat, and refrigeration), but I’ve long had MakingSyrup2my doubts about all of the recipes. Baby food? Really? I mean, it’s not like it’s a booklet of recipes using dog food; theoretically baby food should be good stuff since you don’t want to feed crap to your baby. But it seems unpromising, and I’d probably never have used the booklet if it weren’t for this cookbook project.

EggWhiteCloseupAnd that would have been a shame, because I believe I have found a way to make homemade frozen desserts without buying an ice-cream maker. The recipe for peach parfait looks more difficult than it is. I started by making a sugar syrup, dissolving three tablespoons of sugar in a quarter-cup of water and heating it to the thread stage (230 degrees F for those of us who prefer using FoldingInEggWhitea thermometer to playing about with bowls of cold water). I then pulled the syrup pan off the heat, quickly beat an egg white to stiff peaks, and then continued to beat while drizzling in the syrup. Once it was fully blended, I covered the bowl with plastic and chilled it for about an hour.

When I decided the egg white-syrup mixture had chilled FoldingInPeachPureelong enough, I assembled everything and measured out a cup of heavy cream. I whipped the cream until it made sharp peaks, then folded in the egg white-syrup mixture, and then folded in a jar of Gerber’s strained peaches and a couple of drops of almond extract. I had misgivings when I poured the peach puree into the bowl, because it looked so unappetizing (and seriously, PeachParfaitthe baby food section at the grocery store was awfully monochromatic), but I forgot to taste the puree at that point to see what it was really like. It did smell peachy, though not as nice as actual fresh peaches.

I carefully turned the fluffy, creamy mixture into a plastic container and put it in the freezer. And this is the real magic of this PeachParfaitToFreezerecipe: You just have to freeze it, with no churning or turning. Several hours later when we were ready for dessert, the frozen mixture had a thick, creamy consistency.

And the real surprise was that it tasted good.

So I think I’m going to have to try this again, though not with baby PeachParfaitBowls2food. It seems like it should be simple enough to puree fresh peaches or other fruit, or to make a chocolate-and-nut mixture and fold it in. The flavor element is the last thing to be folded in, so as long as the proportion and consistency are right, I should be able to substitute my own ingredients.

Verdict: Success, and surprise. I’ll keep you posted on future experiments.

Cooking With Gourmet Grains: Easy Pudding

double chocolate pudding

PuddingBowlCooking With Gourmet Grains is a Recipes of the Damned book, sent to me by Sallyacious with sticky notes calling out some of the most egregious concoctions. The foremost of those is “wheat germ chicken with peaches,” which Sally tags “the reason I bought this book.” It’s basically oven-fried chicken and oven-fried peaches, breaded with wheat germ. The peaches are canned PuddingIngredientshalves, not fresh peaches, though I’m not sure that would help matters.

The book itself is a plastic coil-bound relic of the early 1970s, all brown illustrations on natural-tone paper and that dated typeface that I’m pretty sure was only really in use between about 1968 and 1979. I’d call it hippy-dippy but that would be DryMixtureunduly insulting to hippies. Its theme is the use of grains, and the category is quite broad, ranging from kasha and wheat germ to all-purpose flour; basically, if the Stone-Buhr company manufactures it, it counts.

I didn’t bother to try to search out Stone-Buhr brand grains, which I’m not sure are PuddingBattereasily available in this part of the country, and I didn’t feel compelled to make anything I found especially hippy-dippy. This left me with a lot of options, though since I knew I’d be working on a weeknight I ruled out yeast breads and breakfast foods. I also decided I should probably try something that wasn’t just a variation of something I’ve made before, BatterWSugarMixturewhich struck off a lot of the baked goods. Eventually I settled on double chocolate pudding, because it looked easy. Suspiciously easy, I thought. Surely this can’t work?

I started by mixing together some whole-wheat pastry flour, baking powder, sugar, cocoa and salt; in another bowl I combined melted butter, milk and vanilla, then PuddingPlusWatermixed the liquids into the dry ingredients. This resulted in a smooth and thick batter, which I spread in a baking dish. Then I mixed some cocoa and sugar (this second application of cocoa accounts for the “double” chocolate), which I spread evenly over the batter. Then I carefully poured some water over the whole thing, and put the now unlovely-looking mixture into the BakedPuddingoven for about 45 minutes. During the baking it puffed up and formed a crust with a moist interior. I let the pudding cool for a bit, then served it up; the warm concoction had a mixed consistency, dense cake-like structure with lots of soft gooey spots, which worked together nicely. It tasted rich and chocolatey. It would have been good with ice cream or whipped cream, but it was just fine on its own.

You may be saying that doesn’t sound like pudding. Certainly it’s not like stovetop puddings or Jell-O pudding, but it’s more like what one might call “a pudding,” a denser baked dessert. Whatever you call it, it’s tasty, and unbelievably easy.

Verdict: Success. Easy dessert, good flavor, no canned peaches.

McCall’s Cookie Collection: Two New (to Me) Holiday Cookies

coffee-almond lace wafers, glazed fudge drops

RolledWafersThis is the third and last Christmas cookie post. I’ve come back to McCall’s Cookie Collection, which I used in June only to realize I’d made that recipe before, and so this time I was careful to choose things I know I’ve never made. From this book or any other, in fact. As is my wont, I tried to choose cookies that would be a little bit tricky, but both recipes were surprisingly GlazingFudgeDropseasy.

The first one I attempted was coffee-almond lace wafers. The batter itself is simple: Combine ground almonds (I used a coffee grinder to grind my own), butter, sugar, instant coffee, milk and a bit of flour in a saucepan, and stir them together over low heat until the butter is melted.

IngredsForCoffeeAlmondLaceHere I must make an FTC-guidelines-style disclaimer: The instant coffee I used was Starbucks VIA, Colombian, and I got it free from another far more popular blogger, Clutch 22, who is a co-worker; Starbucks had sent her a generous supply of both Colombian and Italian varieties and encouraged her to blog about it, share samples with others, and encourage them to blog about it MeltingButteras well. So Starbucks has indirectly provided me with free samples in hopes that I will endorse it. I drank some in October and enjoyed it, but never wrote about it. But I was very glad to have it on hand for this recipe, because I was not inclined to go out and buy other kinds of instant coffee for the sake of the recipe. Unlike other brands that I’ve tried when stuck in cheap LiquidBatteroffice settings or motels, VIA actually tastes like real coffee. And it imparted a very good coffee flavor to these cookies. Plus, the little single-serve packet was exactly the right amount for the recipe. So, OK, I’m endorsing it.

Once the batter was a smooth liquid, I poured little rounds of it onto parchment on cookie sheets, BatterToBakeabout five rounds per cookie sheet. I baked them one sheet at a time for about 8 minutes, during which time the batter spread in a lacy pattern; then I let the sheet cool for about a minute.

Now came what I thought would be the tricky part: I picked up each round in turn and rolled it around the handle of a wooden BakedFlatWafersspoon, then placed the cylinder on a cooling rack to finish setting. In fact the cookies began to stiffen up as soon as they were lifted from the cookie sheet, and if I didn’t move quickly enough the last cookie would harden too soon and shatter when I tried to roll it. But once I got a feel for the pace at which I needed to lift and roll, this part became very easy. I love it when you can follow some IngredsForFudgeDropssimple steps and produce something that looks complicated and elegant.

The cooled cookies were delicious, with a rich coffee and almond flavor, but quite fragile. I decided not to ship any because I did not think they would survive handling by the Postal Service, so those we didn’t eat at the party went in to the office, where they were very MixingFudgeBatterwell received.

The other recipe I tried was for glazed fudge drops. These were fairly easy as well, and may be the only cookie I’ve made in years that doesn’t call for butter. In one bowl I mixed flour, unsweetened cocoa powder, salt and baking powder. In another bowl I beat eggs with vegetable oil, vanilla, almond extract and FudgeBatterWithNutssugar; I then stirred in the flour mixture and chopped walnuts, and chilled the resulting stiff dough for 30 minutes, during which time I sifted powdered sugar and beat it with a bit of milk to make a glaze.

I took the dough out of the fridge and scooped spoonfuls of it onto parchment on cookie sheets, and baked them for about 10 minutes. FudgeDropsToBakeI let them cool on the cookie sheets for a minute or two, then transferred the cookies to a cooling rack set over parchment and spooned on glaze, then sprinkled on chocolate jimmies. I made the mistake of glazing too many at first without adding the jimmies right away; the glaze hardens fast, so you really have to glaze and then sprinkle about four at a time to keep the jimmies FudgeDropsBakedfrom just bouncing right off. I was quite pleased to see that the glaze was almost exactly the right amount for the number of cookies the recipe produced, with barely a cookie’s worth left in the bowl when all were coated. The resulting cookies were tasty — nutty and chewy, with a good chocolate flavor — and everyone seemed to enjoy them.

Verdict: Success. I’ll be adding these to my repertoire, and maybe I can even figure out a way to securely pack the coffee-almond lace wafers for shipping.

Martha Stewart Holiday Cookies: The Great Caramel Spill of 2009

golden popcorn squares

CaramelPopcornBarsThe really crazy part of this isn’t that I tried out a caramel sauce recipe that nearly led to disaster. The really crazy part is that I almost made fortune cookies in addition to the other holiday sweets.

PopcornMartha Stewart Holiday Cookies is another of those special-issue magazines, this one from 2001 (several years before we lived above Zupan’s). I’ve used it before; I’m quite fond of the oatmeal cookies with dried cranberries, and there’s a chocolate cookie that I make every year (I did this year too, but didn’t take pictures since it’s not new for the blog). Most of these recipes are charming and truly special, and this appealed to me because I don’t want to do PopcornNPeanutsanything dull or unoriginal when it comes to my holiday baking.

So I gave very serious thought to making fortune cookies, for which Martha provides a recipe. I’ve made fortune cookies before, nearly 20 years ago now; the tricky part is folding them quickly before they harden. But when I was doing my last planning for the baking marathon I calculated CookingSyrupforCaramelhow long it would take to make them, and realized that I would have to devote 2 hours just to the fortune cookies; they go slowly because you can only bake two at a time to ensure you have time to fold them.

So I turned instead to golden popcorn squares. Every other cookie in the magazine has a big glorious display photograph. CookingSyrup2Golden popcorn squares appear in a photo that’s really featuring creative ways to pack and wrap the cookies, and I had to dig to find it; the squares are a pretty small part of the scene. I think there’s a reason for this. They’re not an elegantly pretty cookie. They are a somewhat rustic bar. And, oh, they are messy.

Golden popcorn squares have CaramelSaucethree basic ingredients: popcorn, peanuts and caramel sauce. Popcorn was easy: I used our stovetop popper and some Greenmarket popcorn kernels and canola oil, and in short order had exactly 12 cups of beautiful, white, fluffy kernels — and no unpopped kernels. I thought this was auspicious, which just goes to show you that I am not always in tune with my intuition. I added some peanuts, and I took a few moments to prepare the baking pan: oil the pan, line it with parchment, oil the parchment. Then I turned my attention to the caramel sauce, for which Martha provides the recipe.

CaramelCornI wasn’t intimidated at the prospect of making caramel sauce on the stovetop. I’ve made peanut brittle before, so heating sugar syrup is nothing new to me. And I was careful to use a good, heavy saucepan, a nice Calphalon one I received for Christmas a few years ago. The recipe specifies that the saucepan should be at least 3 inches deep, and this one was 4 inches. What I failed to take into account was that I was making one and a half recipes’ worth. So I blithely moved ahead. I combined sugar, PanToBakecream of tartar, salt and water in the pan and cooked it until it reached 300 degrees. This is kind of fun to watch: When it reaches 212 the water boils out vigorously, and it looks like it’s going to bubble out of control but it doesn’t. When the mixture reached 300, I attempted to follow the direction to pour heavy cream slowly down the side of the saucepan. I believe the object of doing it this way is to quickly warm up the cream before it reaches the syrup. Unfortunately, my pan was small enough that I had very little side of pan exposed above the top of the sugar mixture, and could not help but pour some of the still-cool cream directly into the sauce, which caused it to bubble over dramatically.

CleanedStovetopThe first rule in any cooking mishap is not to panic. The second is to remove a boiling-over mixture from the hot burner, which I did immediately, though it was a little tough because the sticky mixture really wanted to adhere the pan to the stovetop. I went ahead and finished incorporating the cream into the sauce, then mixed it with the popcorn and peanuts and PanBakedNTurnedpressed the mixture tightly into the baking pan. With bars safely in the oven, I turned my attention to the stovetop. As you can see, I took a couple of pictures of mess mode, but of course I couldn’t capture the most alarming points of the boiling-over because I needed to focus on dealing with the crisis itself. And I am inordinately proud of the fact that it did not occur to me until hours later to summon my husband out to the kitchen to document the disaster for me. This tells me I haven’t entirely taken leave of my senses. (You cannot blame me for wanting assurance sometimes.)

PanBakedNTurned2Caramel sauce is a sticky substance, and burned caramel sauce really wants to adhere to the stovetop. Fortunately, the thing that makes it so sticky is also the key to its cleanup: The stuff is mostly sugar, and sugar dissolves in hot water. I did a bit of damage to a kitchen sponge, but with some concerted effort I was able to wipe away the stuck-on goo in pretty short order, and I had managed to clear away nearly all traces before the popcorn mixture was ready to come out of the oven. What really saved me was the new flat stovetop; it would have been a lot harder to safely get the caramel out of the pipes and crevice of a gas stove burner.

SlabToCutWe weren’t done with the recipe yet, though. Martha directs you to prepare two pans, but I only have one of that size. Her instructions call for letting the baked bars cool for 5 minutes, then inverting the mixture into the second prepared pan and letting that cool entirely. Perhaps, I thought, I could turn the bars onto a cookie sheet. So I tried it, and CuttingSlabthe caramel quickly began to dribble down and the popcorn slab to sag and spread. It would seem the point of the second pan is to get the baked mixture into cooler surroundings as quickly as possible to allow it to set up. So I hustled to wash, re-oil and re-parchment the pan, then invert the now shaggy-looking mixture back into it. The whole thing was somewhat lopsided and irregular, but I left it to cool overnight anyway.

CuttingSlab2The next day, I turned the now-set bars out of the pan onto a cutting board and hewed it into squares. I expected that part to be more difficult, but my knife is a pretty good one, and it didn’t take me long to make passable bars. They looked great, though the longer they sat at room temperature the more they wanted to adhere to one another. By the time I was ready to bag up treats I’d given up on the concept of “bars,” and of “pretty,” and decided to see it as bags of caramel corn.

CaramelPopcornBars2And it was delicious. Is delicious; I’m nibbling on some right now. (Carefully, so as not to get my keyboard sticky.) I may have to get a second baking pan and a larger Calphalon saucepan, sharpen my knife, and try it again next year.

Verdict: Close enough. I made caramel corn and got the stovetop clean again. That’s good enough for me.

Christmas Cookies: First of Three Holiday Cookie Posts

Christmas sugar wafers

DecoratedShapes2Christmas Cookies is a pretty little volume published by Oxmoor House, which also puts out a lot of Martha Stewart titles. The photography is lovely, and the recipes are very nice. I’ve used this book before; last year I made a pecan-butter cookie that was truly delicious and very easy. I may make some of those this coming weekend, now that I think about it. But this past weekend I SugarWaferIngredientswas determined to take advantage of my holiday baking frenzy to check a few blog titles off the list, and the rules call for new recipes, so the pecan-butter cookies did not make the cut. Instead, I decided to try Christmas sugar wafers, which have earned themselves a place near the head of my sugar cookie list.

BeatenWetMixtureNot that this list is terribly long, mind you. Most sugar cookies are not too exciting. Bakery sugar cookies are usually forgettable, and the ones from the plastic tube are execrable. But they’re fun. If you’re baking cookies for the holidays you need to have some that you can cut into shapes and decorate, and it’s silly to add creamy frosting and colored sprinkles to a cookie BeatenDoughthat’s flavorful enough to stand on its own. Sugar cookies do not need to be strongly flavored, but they should be buttery rather than cardboard-y. For years I’ve made my Christmas cutout cookies from a sour cream cookie recipe, which provides a nice rich undertone to the chocolate jimmies and icing squiggles and red hots.

DividingDoughThe challenge with sugar cookies is that they’re easy to overwork. The dough at its best is delicate and buttery, but rolling it repeatedly on a floury surface can make it tough and dull the flavor. There are two main ways to minimize this risk: chilling the dough so that it is not overly soft and kneadable when it is rolled, and rolling it between sheets of parchment or wax paper to DividingDough2minimize the use of flour. This recipe takes advantage of both techniques quite cleverly: once you have mixed the dough you roll it, between sheets of waxed paper, into four rounds, then put it into the freezer for at least half an hour (overnight turns out to be fine too); when you are ready to cut, you can get right to it without additional rolling, and the RollingSugarCookiesstill-cold cookies will not stretch or tear as you transfer them to the baking sheet.

Making the dough was fairly easy. I started by combining the dry ingredients: flour, some cornstarch, baking powder, baking soda and salt. I think the cornstarch helped mitigate toughness too, by helping to stiffen the dough without gluten. CookieShapesThen I beat together some butter, white sugar and brown sugar. When it was fluffy, I added vanilla and egg whites (the absence of yolks was another factor in a lighter, airier dough). I beat in the flour mixture, then divided and rolled the dough and chilled it. I took only one circle out of the freezer at a time, and did my best to cut the shapes as close together as possible to ensure the CookieShapes2least possible scrap dough to re-roll.

I baked the cookies until they were lightly browned and let them cool. That evening I hosted a cookie party; I’d invited people only a few days before (I’d sort of overlooked that detail in the midst of a crazed week back at work) and so there were only a few of us, but we had a good time BakedCookies2frosting and adorning the shapes. We also had a good time drinking the delicious Belgian-style beer that one guest brought, with up to 12% alcohol, which is the sort of thing that you don’t notice at the time but are acutely aware of the next morning when you have to get up and go to work. Fortunately, decorated sugar cookies can help restore one’s spirits, though not quite as BakedCookieseffectively as lots of water and a large coffee.

I invited guests to take home cookies, then packed what was left into little bags and sent most of them off to distant friends. Fingers crossed they will arrive in good time, still recognizable as trees and pigs and bells rather than crumbs and clumps. (Yes, pigs. I have a pig cookie cutter DecoratedShapesand I use it. Those of you who are Discworld fans can take this as a¬† nod to Hogswatchnight, the night that the Hogfather travels around the world giving gifts, assuming things haven’t gone awry.)

Verdict: Success. The cookies were light and buttery, and took well to decoration — better than the sour cream cookies, in fact. I may have to make these my holiday decorating standards.

Recipes for a New Majority: Pies, Potluck and Politics

Kentucky pie

KentuckyPieSlicedIt’s been 14 years since Recipes for a New Majority: Cooking From All Your Favorite Democrats was published, so I can’t remember for certain, but I think I helped proofread it. Recipes for a New Majority is a compilation assembled by the Democratic Party of Oregon, and Scott and I were friends with one of the co-editors. In fact, Scott’s illustrations are featured CookbookGraphic1prominently in the book.

I believe Recipes for a New Majority was done as a fundraiser, but I don’t remember whether it was sold or given away as part of a bigger project. It does feature a lot of recipes from leading Democratic figures, from all over the country; some are still prominent, such as Ron Wyden, then Congressman, now Senator (Democratic Chicken Chili), and Hillary Clinton, then First Lady, subsequently Senator, now PieCrustSecretary of State (Chocolate Chip Cookies). A few contributors have several entries, most notably then-Sen. Paul Simon. He must have had more free time than you’d expect. The recipes are varied; New England corn chowder, barbecued baby beef ribs, Cajun deep fried turkey, vegetarian lasagna. I briefly toyed with the idea of making “Mike’s Nutritious Snack,” a contribution from former Congressman Mike CookbookGraphic4Kopetski, which makes up in simplicity what it lacks in elegance.

Put Rice Krispies in a bowl, like you would if you were going to have a bowl of cereal. Arrange half spoonfuls of peanut butter (gourmets call it “dollops”) FillingIngredsover cereal. 8-10 dollops should do. Pour a cereal size portion of milk over all. Eat and enjoy.

Instead, I chose to make Kentucky pie, a contribution from Sen. Wendell H. Ford. I had no particular attachment to Sen. Ford, but I thought that the recipe sounded like it would produce something similar to FilledPieCrustDerby Pie, which is a Kentucky specialty; I’ve enjoyed it on both of my trips to Louisville. Of course Derby Pie is trademarked and carefully guarded, but it’s not surprising that there are lots of variations out there, and I thought the combination of pecans and chocolate in a dense filling would be well-received by my co-workers at today’s potluck and cooking contest.

BakedPieThe pie itself is easy to prepare. I started by making a pie crust — two, actually, so I could have one for the potluck and one for Thanskgiving — using a recipe from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything (but I’ve used that recipe before, so it doesn’t enable me to knock off that book too). For the filling I chopped pecans, melted butter, beat eggs, blended flour and sugar, and then mixed it TheSpreadall together with chocolate chunks and vanilla extract. I turned the mixture into the pie shells and baked them at 325 for a bit over an hour. Once the pies had cooled I put them in the freezer. One is to keep until Thursday; I wanted the other to be good and cold this morning, because I was also bringing an ice-cream pumpkin pie to the office and wanted to make sure it was well insulated against melting. And it worked: Tupperware salad bowl, Kentucky pie underneath, bag of ice cubes on top, and by the end of a half-hour commute the ice-cream and pumpkin concoction had barely begun to soften. I set the Kentucky pie to thaw so it would be easy to serve when the potluck began at 4.

MostlyDessertsThe potluck was a tremendous display of talent and skill. The spread included dips, muffins, mac and cheese, and loads of dessert. The offerings ranged from simple — peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cut into triangles — to elaborate — flourless chocolate cake umolded and dusted with sugar just before showtime. And the drinks! We all learned about the cocktail called PouringDrinkthe bee’s knees, which blends gin and honey syrup and bitters and lemon and did I mention gin? There was definitely gin in there. The elaborate mixology was in fact the bee’s knees. A bit of gin later, I agreed to be one of the judges for the appetizers and sides category, and happily sampled more food. This tasting duty also had the advantage of helping offset the gin, which was MacNCheeseimportant since I still had work to do before leaving for the day.

After we’d all made some dents in the non-sweets categories, I got things started by cutting a wedge of the pumpkin ice-cream pie, then one of the Kentucky pie. This encouraged others, and soon people were digging in. The TiropitaKentucky pie went over well; people liked the chocolate and the nuts, the dense filing, and the contrast of the sweet interior with the plain pie crust. I think they also appreciated the fact that it wasn’t as drippy as the gradually melting ice cream pie, though they seemed to be enjoying that one too.

The potluck rolled on, the PBJco-workers wandered in and out of the room nibbling more food, and at some point we remembered that we never got around to finishing the judging. Category judges were instructed to confer and get the results in tomorrow. So stay tuned; I’ll let you know if the Kentucky pie came away with the ribbon.

Verdict: Success, even without the votes in. Really, I think we’re all winners today.

(FYI, there are lots more pictures from the cooking and the potluck on my Flickr page. And you can find pictures from all the blog recipes tried so far in the 107 Cookbooks set on Flickr.)