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Vegemite and acquired taste

No interesting cooking to report lately; at least, I’ve been cooking a little but nothing new, nothing I haven’t blogged about before. But on Friday I got to try Vegemite. One of my co-workers is from Australia and brought in a big tub for Australia Day, along with some bagels and cream cheese. So I tried it, and I kind of liked it.

“Kind of” is the operative term here. Vegemite is clearly an acquired taste, but I think I could acquire it. I spread a thin layer on a bagel; a little goes a long way. Vegemite is a thick, dense spread made from brewer’s yeast and vegetable ingredients. It has a very complex flavor: sour and tart, with a kind of underlying pungency. On the sesame bagel, the flavor was sharp and strong. With a bit of cream cheese, the flavor was less challenging; the cream cheese added a different layer of tartness but also lessened the impact of the sourness, and the creamy texture made the Vegemite taste easier to handle as well. Nichole says that in Australia it’s most common to spread Vegemite on toasted wholemeal bread with butter, and I think the rich flavor and fatty texture of the butter would make the whole thing easier to process as well.

Acquired taste is a funny thing. For most people, some foods are simply not enjoyable at first experience — coffee, for example. But for whatever reason — cultural pressures, a desire to feel grown-up and sophisticated, sheer morbid curiosity — we try the flavor again and become used to it, perhaps mixing in other foods to make the overall flavor more acceptable. Milk and sugar in coffee, soda water in whiskey, lemon juice in oysters. And eventually we acquire the taste.

That said, a lot of our co-workers were not ready to acquire a taste for Vegemite. Which isn’t surprising; the American palate is far readier for sweet food than for bitter and sour ones, and Vegemite isn’t in our mainstream so there’s no cultural incentive to adapt to it the way one would to coffee. But if you have come to enjoy strong dark-roast coffee, or aged whiskey, or kimchi, you can probably bring Vegemite into your repertoire too if you give it a chance.

Christmas dinner: chicken, candles and company

roast chicken with herb butter

RoastedChicken

For Christmas we had a friend come over, and I wanted to make a meal that would be nice but not overly demanding. I settled on roast chicken, along with roasted potatoes and roasted Brussels sprouts (our friend brought some cold appetizers plus truffles for dessert and some vodka), and leafed through my books for a good recipe.

HerbsInButter

You would think roasting a chicken would be part of my basic skills now, but I’ve tried out a number of different approaches trying to find the best one for me. For years I used a technique from Cook’s Illustrated that involved starting at very high heat and with the chicken breast-side down, then turning the bird breast-side up partway through and maintaining the high heat until the skin had browned, then turning down the temperature to finish, plus basting every 8 minutes or so. It was pretty labor-intensive, and I quickly lost enthusiasm for repeatedly reaching into a 500-degree oven. When I got fed up with that one I tried versions with a lower starting heat, more or less basting, some with the bird starting breast-side down and some not, but all fairly fiddly. Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything promises simple roast chicken in one recipe title, but I have to say that his roast chicken with herb butter is equally simple during the roasting process itself, which is what matters to me and my oven-heat-warmed face.

PreppingTheBird

The recipe is much like the simple version: starting the bird hotter than the final cooking temperature (450 instead of 500), starting it breast-side down and turning it over partway through (to help ensure that the breast is moist), and basting sparingly. The difference is that first I mashed together half a stick of butter with a tablespoon of minced fresh herbs (I used thyme and chives) plus some salt and pepper, then rubbed the butter mixture all over the bird, loosening pockets of skin and rubbing butter between skin and flesh as well. (This is easier than it sounds.) I also put two quarters of a lemon, a couple of cloves of garlic, and a couple of chunks of ginger root into the bird’s cavity. I melted the other half stick of butter in the roasting pan, then added some water and put the chicken on a roasting rack atop it all, and into the oven it went. I cooked it breast-side down for about 20 minutes; then I basted with pan juices, turned the bird over, basted some more, and returned it to the oven for another 8 minutes or so. At this point I basted it once more, turned the temperature down to 325, and inserted my probe thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh so it could track the temperature up to the desired 160-165 range without my having to repeatedly stab the hot chicken. At this point Bittman lets you stop basting, which takes away a lot of the fuss factor that you find in other recipes, though I did give it one more wash about 20 minutes later when I was turning the roasted vegetables anyway.

PanSauce

When the temperature was in the right zone — I forget just how long that took, though it was a little longer than the suggested time of an hour total because my chicken was kind of large — I tipped the bird up to pour the juices out of the cavity and confirm they were clear. (This also helps make carving less of a catastrophe later, though for me that is frankly a lost cause and always will be.) I let the bird rest about 5 minutes, and in the meantime I poured the pan juices into a saucepan and added some wine and cooked the mixture until it reduced by about half, whisking periodically. This was not technically a gravy, since I didn’t thicken it, but it was a nice flavor complement to the bird, though the meat was very moist and didn’t need gravy to help in that respect. I carved the chicken as best I could, which is not that great considering I only do this a few times a year. But I wasn’t trying for a magazine spread, I just wanted to have light and dark meat easy to choose from the platter, and I did manage that.

RoastedSprouts

The roasted vegetable sides were very easy. I made the Brussels sprouts as I usually do: trim the stems, cut in half, toss with olive oil, pepper and salt — in this case, paprika salt. For the potatoes I mixed together Yukon golds and purple potatoes, cutting the larger ones to try to get reasonably uniform chunks, and tossed those with olive oil and salt and pepper as well. (By the way, yes, those purple potatoes are purple all the way through. And if you rinse and blot them dry on a towel they’ll bleed a little purple onto the cloth. Heh.) Those I put in the cast-iron skillet to ensure a good crispy crust. I put them into the oven when the chicken went in; the sprouts came out a little earlier than the bird and the potatoes did.

PotatoesToRoast4

I didn’t get any photos of the dining table because we had it candlelit, with votives in the holders that we had made the night before using cheap glassware and Mod Podge and tissue paper. I don’t like the effect of my camera’s flash, and there was nowhere near enough light to go without it, so I didn’t record the moment but let us simply experience it. That was the point anyway, right? To enjoy good friends and a holiday meal, to celebrate in the now, to be fully present.

VotiveHolders19

Stephen Colbert Americone Dream Cake

melted ice cream cake from The Cake Mix Doctor

CakeDecorated2

This post will just make it look like all I do is bake sweets, which isn’t true. I sometimes cook them on the stovetop, like peanut brittle. More seriously, I have been cooking some savory food, but it’s the holiday season and that means parties and festivity, and that means that like as not my contribution will be dessert.

IngredientsForCake

Oh, by the way, holiday party? That’s not an accidental phrasing. I support the secularized holiday season because it lets all of us revel in light as the dark nights draw in, not just a select few. I believe in the open, inclusive approach to this time of the year, when several holidays are taking place (one starting this very night). I think the fact that a wide variety of cultural traditions converge on the idea of a festive season of light and giving says a lot about our common humanity. I don’t give much credit to the idea of a war on Christmas, though the commercialization of it is a real if not especially new problem.

BatterInPan

As it happens, I was invited to a holiday party largely made up of humanists and skeptics, and we had a marvelous time full of good will and good cheer. I wanted to contribute something that would be fun and memorable but also easy to prepare, so I turned to The Cake Mix Doctor and flipped quickly to the recipe for Melted Ice Cream Cake. It’s very simple indeed: in a mixing bowl combine a box of white cake mix, three eggs, and a melted pint of superpremium ice cream of your choice. I considered New York Super Fudge Chunk but thought the chunks might be a problem for the mixer; I considered chocolate but wasn’t sure it would be distinctive. Then I spotted a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Americone Dream, and thought, hey! I am cake and so can you!

CakeCooling4

I mixed the ingredients together and poured them into a greased, floured Bundt pan, which went into the oven for about 50 minutes. I let it cool for 20 minutes, as instructed, then turned the cake out, which was tricky and didn’t go perfectly; I ended up with a small bit sticking to the pan, leaving a little divot on the top. Well, that’s what frosting is for.

MixedFrosting

The frosting recipe is from this cookbook as well: chocolate cream cheese frosting. It’s also easy: powdered sugar, vanilla, butter, cream cheese, cocoa. I spread it on the cake, using my offset spatula to try to shape and sculpt it a bit, then sprinkled on some gold dragees for a festive look.

SlicingTheCake

People liked it. It was most and tasty. My only complaint was that I ate way too much at the party, but that’s nobody’s fault but my own.

Holiday baking and catching up

BagsOfCookies

I’m not one of those people who goes bonkers for Christmas; I don’t string the entire apartment with lights or wear comical red-and-green sweaters or collect creche figures. We’ve put up a tree exactly once in our marriage, the one year we were in an apartment that was large enough to accommodate it (and we were as surprised as anyone that the cats didn’t knock it over; we were quite proud of them). But I do enjoy a lot of the more social, friendly aspects of the season, and my own little annual tradition is my cookie baking extravaganza.

PecanCookiesToBake

Yes, the thing I like best about the holidays involves cooking. Don’t act so surprised.

Brittles2

For the past several years I’ve been shipping cookies to distant co-workers. I have a lot of the key details figured out now. The optimal plan is to bake on the Sunday after Thanksgiving and get my boxes into the mail on Monday; I had to juggle my plans a bit this year and ended up baking on Tuesday and Wednesday, then getting the boxes into the mail Wednesday afternoon. It turns out that if you can get the Priority Mail boxes dispatched by the Wednesday after Thanksgiving you can still hit the two-day delivery target. (Possibly you can on Thursday and Friday as well but they’ll spend the weekend sitting somewhere in transit.) I’ve found in the past that the two-day promise becomes very elastic the further you get into December. One year I sent cookies that took a good 10 days to arrive; I started getting emails raving about the goodies, and was about to hit send on a message saying “took them long enough” before it occurred to me that the recipients didn’t want to know that. So I just said thank you, and then shut up.

BagsOfCaramelCorn2

But anyway, the week after Thanksgiving, things are in motion. I take that week as vacation every year, so it’s a fine time to spend the better part of a day in the kitchen. This year was my first baking marathon while still recovering from plantar fasciitis, of which I can say: ouch. Maybe a few other words. I won’t repeat them here. It turns out that standing all day is not optimal for the still-sore plantar fascia. So if you’re my podiatrist and you’re reading this — well, you already know I’m not very good at taking care of my feet, so you won’t be surprised.

GatheringIngredients

This is the kind of project for which a little planning goes a long way. When I was in junior high and we took home ec, we had to write cooking plans, which seemed laughable when we were doing single-dish projects through which we were already being coached. A friend and I lampooned the cooking plan concept for after-school snacking. “3:31: Open the freezer door. 3:32 — no, better make that 3:31:30 — remove ice cream carton and put on counter. Wait, did we say when to get out bowls? Oh, god, this is going to be a DISASTER.” But it turns out that when you’re trying to do, say, five cookies, two nut brittles and caramel corn, a cooking plan helps you save a lot of time and difficulty. If you’re smart, by the second or third year you’re making sure that you mix your doughs that need to chill the night before, and you plan to bake the cookies in ascending order of baking temperature, and you think about how much parchment you need before you go to the store.

CranberryPecanChocCookieDough

I have several favorite recipes, but I wanted to try a new one this year for the sake of the blog. I picked one from the Martha Stewart Cookies special magazine, a cherry and chocolate chunk cookie with toffee pieces that sounded yummy. Of course that meant that I couldn’t find toffee pieces at the store, and dried cherries cost the earth, and I thought, the hell with this. I already have pecans and dried cranberries, I’ll do my own chunk cookie. So I mixed up the regular base dough that I use for chocolate chip cookies and stirred in dried cranberries, pecans, and chocolate chunks. And they were good. Fragile, but good.

ChocolateCookiesBeforeAndAfter

The same Martha Stewart magazine is the source of two of my other favorites, Grammy’s Chocolate Cookies and Cranberry-Oatmeal Cookies. They’re molded in much the same way — you shape them into balls — and they bake at the same temperature. They’re very easy and they taste great.

CaramelCornBaked

That magazine is also where I get the caramel corn. No major spillage of caramel this year, and only one small caramel burn on my hand! A success!

SugarCookiesBaked2

I ran out of time this year, and so I decided to throw the undecorated sugar cookies into the freezer instead of delaying the mail shipments while I frosted and sugared. I’ll decorate those later this week and perhaps make another batch of cookies or a pan of brownies, and bring them into my own office.

BagsOfBrittle5

It’s actually a lot of fun to turn out large quantities of goodies like this, assembly-line style, lining up the unbaked nuggets of dough, lifting the cooling cookies onto the second rack, stuffing the baggies. And it’s a blessing to have people to mail them to; we’d be eating cookies until Fourth of July if we didn’t get them out of the house.

Thanksgiving, Tradition, and Inertia

SeitanLoavesCloseup

Thanksgiving must be the most tradition-bound American holiday. The focus of the celebration is narrow: a harvest feast, and usually a very circumscribed menu. The template is rigid: gather with your family, cook a turkey and some starchy sides, and watch some football before the Christmas season drops upon us like an anvil in a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

Our vegetarian gathering is an act of rebellion in this context, almost a dangerous outlier. There’s no meat on the table, and quite a number of dishes with no egg or dairy either. Those who gather are friends, not family, and we don’t travel from any further than an adjacent borough. (Though visitors from out of town would be welcome if they were to come.) We watch no football, cut out no paper Pilgrim hats, and top no sweet potatoes with marshmallows, and not just because marshmallows aren’t actually vegetarian. If turkey and stuffing are classic Americana, we are subversive.

VegsToRoast
But in other ways we have a very tradition-bound celebration. We’ve been holding it since 2005 with only one interruption, so it’s been a tradition since 2006. We have our favorite dishes: seitan pot roast, macaroni and cheese (for those who wonder, it’s apparently a Southern thing), cornbread dressing, mashed potatoes. We always watch episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, or its descendants Cinematic Titanic and Rifftrax. Even the root beer and the chocolate pudding cake are traditional mainstays now.

We love our traditional dishes, but it’s different for the food writers: starting in early November the anguished cries start breaking out in newspapers and magazines. Thanksgiving, the food writers say, is hard; there are no new things to say about roasting the oversized bird (for the love of God, don’t bake it with stuffing inside), preparing the usual array of sides, using up the leftovers. Kate Julian on Slate points out that the menu is full of annual classics for a reason: “Any lineup that is full of things we only eat only once year seems suspect. If we really liked turkey and candied yams so much, would we not pull them out again on some other day?” She pleads for us to consider new and non-traditional dishes, in a tone that sounds resigned to falling on deaf ears.

I’m more optimistic that there’s hope for heterodoxy here. Maybe it’s just because I’ve co-hosted a bird-free feast for some years now without being visited by the Department of Homeland Security. Or maybe it’s because, since I’m not participating in a family feast that’s fraught with inherited emotional baggage, I feel freer to make the holiday all about the things that make me and my guests happy, and sometimes to let myself put it in that order. In some cases that means the cherished standbys; in some cases that means new variations like olive rolls, an adaptation of the Martha Stewart recipe I made for Christmas a few years ago, which hadn’t had a chance before now to join the November table. In years past it’s been roasted brussels sprouts, kale with cranberries, pumpkin-ice-cream pie. There’s room for the new and the old on my table. (Despite what the photo below suggests.)

ThanksgivingTable
I’ve been thinking a lot about what the 107 Cookbooks project means to me as I figure out how to get back on a cooking and publishing schedule. The reason I have more than 100 cookbooks — more than 107, if I’m going to be honest about it — is that I am constantly open to new ideas and ready to get excited about different tastes and ingredients. The reason that up until a few years ago I hadn’t done anything at all with the lion’s share of those books is that on a day-to-day basis, it’s very easy for me to opt for the familiar, the traditional, the easy. The safety of tradition can provide comfort, a stable place to brace yourself and take a breath before striding confidently back into the world. Carried too far, it can become laziness and ossification, until you find yourself trying to remember the last time you had something for dinner that didn’t come with french fries.

I learned a lot from the first couple of years of this blog: how to make paneer, how to make Thai curry paste, why I don’t usually make Jell-O. I want to get back into the habit of trying new things even as I accept that the good stuff will make its way into a growing traditional repertoire. I’m not throwing up my hands in defeat. So you’re going to see me here more often.
OliveRolls

The Martha Stewart Living Christmas Cookbook: Tasty Traditions

olive-filled rolls, brussels sprouts salad with roasted shallot vinaigrette, roasted turkey breast, turkey gravy, mashed potatoes with caramelized parsnips

DinnerAftermathIn retrospect it was probably not very smart to spend both Christmas Eve and Christmas laboring in the kitchen to create multi-dish meals. But the results were so good for both, I can’t really fault myself, and I did have two more weekend days to recover.

For Christmas I decided to cook from The Martha Stewart Living Christmas Cookbook. SpongeI’ve used this book before, though not for much: a guide to making pot pie, possibly a coffee cake. A number of the desserts repeat recipes in other MSL cookbooks, though since they’re good recipes it’s probably better to have several copies than to be without them. I had never made a Christmas dinner from it, despite the obvious possibilities. So I went SpongeAt24Hrsthrough it, selected some recipes, double-checked oven temperatures and timing, and replaced some recipes with others that would make for a smoother cooking day. I made a cooking plan. I looked at our side table, laden with little bags of cookies and candy, and decided not to make a separate dessert. I invited a friend to join us for the big day.

DoughToRiseThe first thing I started working on was the olive-filled rolls, specifically the sponge for the bread. I mixed a fairly small amount of yeast with warm water and let it sit about 10 minutes, until it bubbled a bit; then I added more water plus some oil and flour and mixed it all together with the dough-hook attachments for my hand mixer, transferred the mixture to an oiled bowl, BrusselsSproutsLeavescovered it with plastic wrap, and let it sit at room temperature for 24 hours. The mixture was thick but soft when I put on the plastic wrap; it expanded during the incubation period, though it never overflowed the bowl as I feared it might. When I removed the plastic wrap the next morning it was a thick and springy mass. The recipe directed me to add half a cup of sponge “pulled into small ParsnipStripspieces” to the olive roll mixture, but I would have had to lay the individual pieces out separately on the counter to keep them from melding back together at once. The half-cup mass blended easily enough into a mixture of water, a bit more yeast, olive oil, flour and salt, and the dough hooks on the mixture did a quick and efficient job of transforming the ingredients into a unified and PeelingPotatoesspringy ball of dough. I had never used the hooks for bread before; I prefer to knead by hand. But at this point I knew I would need the 20 minutes or so that using the mixer would buy me. I did spend about five minutes doing a final hand-knead, then put the dough into an oiled bowl and let it rise for two and a half hours. I put the remaining sponge into the fridge; I should really freeze some of it. RoastedShallotsIt will be handy for making more bread (I think if I follow one more of the recipes calling for sponge that Martha includes, I’ll figure out what I need to know to improvise afterward).

While the dough rose I began my vegetable prep. On paper this did not look considerable, as I had only four vegetables to prep: potatoes for boiling and mashing, PotatoSlicesshallots for roasting, parsnips for roasting, and brussels sprouts. Unfortunately, the brussels sprout salad recipe requires you to separate the sprouts into individual leaves, which sounds reasonable enough until you actually start to do it. Brussels sprouts are really miniature cabbages, and those tiny little leaves take a bit of gentle persuasion to separate. I soon CaramelizedParsnips2developed a system: cut off the stem end and pull away the loosest leaves, cut off a bit more of the stem end, continue until the little core of sprout remaining was no bigger around than my little finger, leave it at that. This was tedious work, but it made for a pretty salad, and it made the peeling and slicing of potatoes seem like a snap in comparison.

ShallotDressingOnce the leaves are separated, the salad is simple: blanch the leaves in boiling salted water 1-2 minutes, then plunge them into an ice bath to stop the cooking and fix the bright color, then drain. This part moves fast, so I couldn’t really get any good pictures of it. For the dressing, I roasted the shallots whole, then peeled them and put them into a food processor with some BlanchedSproutsbalsamic vinegar and pulsed to chop them. I transferred this mixture to a bowl and whisked in some olive oil, then dressed the sprout leaves with the vinaigrette when it was time to serve dinner.

Mashed potatoes are as straightforward as you might expect: peel and slice potatoes, boil them until tender, then mash them together with milk, butter, MashedPotatoesand sour cream. The clever part is to then serve them with caramelized parsnips: parsnip sticks that have been roasted with olive oil, sugars, garlic powder, salt and pepper. The flavors go wonderfully together. The other clever part is to use the dough hook attachments to mash the potatoes, which quickly blend and mash them without overbeating or making them OliveRollsComponentsgluey or tough. Who knew?

Roasted turkey breast was pretty simple too: brush a turkey breast with olive oil and season with salt and pepper, roast it until done. I had to let the turkey breast finish early so I could raise the oven temperature to bake the rolls; when they came out, I put the turkey back in to make sure it was warm, but while it was FillingRollresting I poured the pan drippings into a saucepan to make gravy. I had never really made pan gravy before. The recipes I’ve seen always tell you to put the roasting pan on the stovetop, and I’ve never had a roasting pan that was suitable for putting on a burner. But during the roll-baking hiatus it occurred to me that since the turkey was fully cooked I could PanOfRolls2put it on the platter while I poured off the pan juices, and that it was certainly worth a try. And gravy turns out to be simple. Heat the pan juices in a skillet or saucepan; stir in some flour to make a roux (one could use cornstarch or arrowroot too), then add water or broth gradually while continuing to whisk, until the gravy reaches the desired consistency.

RollsToBake2Ah, the rolls. These were probably the most complicated recipe of the day. Once the dough had risen I divided it into 18 more-or-less equal pieces. I used my fingers to press and stretch each piece into about a rectangle about 4 by 5 inches, and spooned on a bit of olive paste (made by combining kalamata olives, balsamic vinegar, olive oil and garlic in the food processor). I BakedRollsrolled up each piece so the olive paste was sealed inside; I think the filling was supposed to spiral with the dough like a cinnamon roll, but most of them weren’t large enough for the spiral effect to be really evident. I laid the rolls together in loaf pans, nine to a pan, and let them rise once more. When it was time to preheat the oven I put an empty metal baking pan on the bottom TurkeyPlattershelf, and when I put the rolls in I poured water into the pan so it would create steam in the oven. This gave the rolls a¬† nice crusty exterior. When they were done baking, I pulled the pans from the oven, turned the segmented loaves out onto a cooling rack, and let them rest while I reheated and sliced the turkey breast and got everything else ready.

BreadPotatoesGravyThis was a lovely holiday meal. The turkey was juicy and delicious; the salad was tangy; the potatoes were rich and luxurious; and the rolls. The rolls! They were wonderful, the rich olive mixture playing off the tender bread. Even the gravy was a nice complement to both the meat and the potatoes. Our friend brought more sweets, and we had a nicely indulgent Christmas dinner.

PotPiesPlatedOh, and I used the leftovers too: On Sunday I made pie crust (also from this cookbook, as it happens), sauteed onions with celery, carrots, mushrooms and potatoes, added chunked-up turkey breast, and made a bit more gravy; I assembled all these into mini pot pies shaped in muffin pans. They turned out well, and I managed to get all but two of the little pies out of the pan without breaking them.

Verdict: Success. I’m going to have to make the rolls again, and soon. In the future I might just quarter and blanch the brussels sprouts, though it wouldn’t be as picturesque.

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.