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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.

Hello, Cupcake! The birthday party

chocolate cupcakes, cream cheese frosting, chocolate frosting, Black and White Party
Now that's a stylish spread
Since I was starting the 107 Cookbooks project close to my birthday, I kicked it off with my most recent acquisition, Hello, Cupcake! I found the softcover baking guide in the discount section at Barnes & Noble, and could not resist. It’s full of clever cupcake decorating ideas: cupcakes made to look like TV dinners and popcorn kernels, cupcakes assembled to depict an alligator, cupcakes colored to represent billiard balls. I chose a relatively simple project, the Black and White Party: chocolate cupcakes in white wrappers, coated with a base layer of either white frosting (I chose cream cheese) or chocolate frosting tinted black with food coloring, and embellished away.MeltingChocolate

There’s a cake decorating supply store three blocks from my apartment, where I found a lot of the things I needed. White wrappers, a smaller frosting spatula suited to cupcakes, black and white sanding sugars, black food coloring, cans of black and white decorating frosting. I needed more, though, and after racking my brain I remembered that Dylan’s Candy Bar on Third Avenue at 60th offers a broad selection of single colors of candy. There I found black and white M&Ms, black and white candy-coated sunflower seeds, and black licorice in thin ropes.

I felt that to really do the project right I had to use the cookbook’s recipes for cupcakes and frosting rather than making my usual versions (it offers a wide variety, including both mix and scratch preparations for the cake; of course I chose scratch).Cocoa and flour for batter I had some trepidation about the cake; I’m a huge fan of the devil’s food cake recipe in Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, and I just didn’t think another recipe could measure up. But I was pleasantly surprised: Hello, Cupcake’s recipe is a little easier to prepare, and by using both melted unsweetened chocolate and cocoa powder it provides a satisfying depth of chocolate flavor. The baked cake was tender and delicious. I still love Bittman’s recipe, but for cupcakes I will definitely consider adding this one to my rotation, and may try their other cake recipes as well.

I was less satisfied with the consistency of the frostings. But this is probably not the fault of the frostings themselves; it was a warm day and I’d already heated up the kitchen quite a bit with the other food prep, so by the time I’d made both frostings and had them ready to use the butter in them was far too soft and melty. You should have smelled it--mmm.I had to add quite a few drops of food coloring to the chocolate frosting to get it really black, and I felt that affected the consistency as well. They both tasted terrific, though, and all the guests were very impressed by the visual effect, so I was probably just being overparticular. I’ll have to try them again when the weather is more temperate before I make a final assessment.

I had one of my friends come over before the other guests so we could decorate the cupcakes. We both had a blast; it was really fun to play with the contrasts. Cupcakes fresh from the ovenThe canned decorating frostings were too soft—I should probably have put them in the fridge for most of the day, but I just didn’t consider that they would get warm along with the entire rest of the apartment.

Verdict: Success. Good flavor, good consistency of cake, good appearance; the decorations were fun and impressed the hell out of the party guests. The recipes were clear and easy to follow. I will definitely use this cookbook again.Decorations included M&Ms, candy-coated sunflower seeds, licorice, frosting, and sanding sugar