Friday, December 23, 2011

if you know me, you'll be seeing these soon

Some years, I've gone a little nuts when it comes to making cookie tins for Christmas. Others, I take it a little easier. This year, I'm in that second frame of mind.

You see, I've realized you don't need an entire parade of tree-shaped, red-and-white-striped, bedecked holiday cookies to make a good gift — just one or two really great recipes. For me in 2011, that means chocolate crinkles and pains d'amande. Believe me, they're good. I gave some of each to my two office mates this morning and soon heard an "Oh, girl" come from across the room.

The crinkles strike me as such a classic Christmas cookie. They're snow-capped, dramatic in color contrast and abstract in design — each one comes out of the oven with a unique form. And they taste dreamy. The dough is exactly like fudge, so you can imagine how they bake up. I made double batches twice within the past week, both times with help from my buddy Alex, who somehow always got stuck with the most physically demanding part: stirring the dry ingredients into the wet. (Sadly for her, the recipe says to refrigerate the dough for at least three hours or overnight. So both times she's helped, it's gotten too late to start baking. I think I owe her a batch.) (By the way, as an editor, I think in most cases it's so useless to put things in parentheses. They're so Ann M. Martin. But I can't give them up.) (P.S. That reminds me, this deserves its own parenthetical home.)

Before baking.

After baking. I'm pretty fascinated with the crackling.

When I last made powdered sugar-covered cookies, I followed the instructions and took forever rolling each ball of dough in a shallow dish until it was covered in white. This time I wised up and poured the sugar into a largish plastic bag, then added the cookie dough and shook the bag around. It takes two seconds! This is when I learned there is no such thing as too much powdered sugar. What sticks with this method looks like an overwhelming amount, so I brushed some back into the bag. I was afraid of biting into a cookie and getting a repeat of what happened once when a gust of wind blew a funnel cake onto me at Westfest. The top cookie here shows why you shouldn't do that:

It seems some of the powdered sugar soaks into the dough as it bakes. Don't worry about adding too much. A lot = just right.

As for the pains d'amande, I don't know what I was expecting with these. I sort of just took Food 52's "genius recipe" title at its word, and that was not a bad move. They're biscotti-like and the kind of thing I think my parents will enjoy having with their morning coffee when they get to the point of being overloaded with desserts and candy as gifts, which happens to them every Christmas because they are some of the most popular people I know. Another reason for the overload is that my parents give a box of chocolate-covered cherries to each family member as part of a tradition that started in lean years when buying presents for everyone was a tall order. But the thing is, not everyone likes chocolate-covered cherries, so they (and I) end up with the extra boxes. All that to say: these thin almond cookies are subtle but not ordinary.

They taste like very thin biscotti.

To make sure the pains d'amande were tasty enough to wrap up and give away, I took the advice of some commenters and added splashes of vanilla and almond extracts, and it paid off. The cookies look fairly plain, but a bite tastes just enough of cinnamon, vanilla and almond. Another tip for making these: have a friend over. Step 2 says to wait 30 minutes while the butter and sugar cools, and there are no other steps to do in the meantime. This is a good chance to lean against a counter and talk about college and boyfriends and Ryan Gosling and Big Freedia.

Merry Christmas, folks!

Chocolate crinkles
By way of Bakin' Love
Makes about three dozen cookies

8 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
4 tbsp unsalted butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 tsp vanilla
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 cup chopped pecans
Powdered sugar

In a glass bowl set over a small pot with just a bit of water, melt the chocolate and butter together over medium heat.

Beat the eggs and sugar until fluffy. Add vanilla. Add chocolate mixture.

Mix dry ingredients in a separate bowl. Add to chocolate mixture. Cover and refrigerate three to four hours or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and fill a shallow bowl with powdered sugar. Make 1 1/2 inch rounds with the dough and roll them in the powdered sugar until they are completely coated. Place the balls of dough on the baking sheet about 1.5 inches apart.

Bake for 10 to 12 minutes until the edges are firm but the centers are still soft. Cool on wire rack.

Flo Braker's Pains D'Amande
From Sweet Miniatures by Flo Braker
Makes about 7 dozen cookies

2 1/3 cups unsifted all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 stick unsalted butter, chilled and cut into quarters
1 1/3 cups turbinado or raw sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/3 cup water
3 ounces (1 cup) sliced almonds

Sift the flour and baking soda onto a sheet of waxed paper; set aside.

In a 1 1/2-quart saucepan over low heat, combine the butter, sugar, cinnamon and water. Stir occasionally just until the butter melts. Do not allow the mixture to boil. David Lebovitz recommends not letting the sugar melt thoroughly — the crunchy bits make for wonderful texture in the cookie. (Beth note: That sounds great, but I'm not sure how you'd keep the sugar from melting unless you add it last.) Remove from heat and stir in the almonds. Pour this mixture into a 3-quart mixing bowl; set aside for about 30 minutes at room temperature until lukewarm, about 90 degrees F.

Add the dry ingredients all at once; stir thoroughly until blended.

Press the soft dough into an 8 1/2 x 4 1/2 inch pan, preferably straight-sided (such as a 1 1/2 quart Pyrex loaf pan) lined with plastic wrap. Cover surface with plastic wrap and refrigerate or freeze until firm.

Adjust rack to lower third of oven and preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Line two large cool baking sheets with parchment paper.

Lift out the firm dough from the pan onto a cutting board. Slice as thinly as you can from the shorter end, aiming for about 1/8 of an inch. Space them 1/4 inch apart on the baking sheets. (The dough slices as though it were fudge.)

Bake, one sheet at a time, for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the undersides are light golden; then turn cookies over and bake for an additional 8 to 10 minutes, or until crisp and honey-colored. Place baking sheet on a wire rack to cool. Lift cookies from parchment when cool.
Stack cookies in an airtight container and store at room temperature up to 10 days.

Monday, December 5, 2011

a nod to mimee

Geez, Louise, I've got some catching up to do. I've done lots of cooking since that last post this summer, but a new job has left me little time for blogging. Beyond my own cooking, I did a daring amount of eating on a trip to France and Italy in September, and I plan to record that here, too. It was the best kind of vacation: I had ice cream or gelato nearly every day and sometimes twice.

A Speculoos-flavored cone in Paris. It's ice cream made out of cookies!

But let's start with my most recent kitchen marathon: Thanksgiving! I spent the day at my brother's house, and I brought Parker House rolls, a bourbon pumpkin pie with pecan streusel and a cranberry family favorite. In the kitchen the day before the holiday, I thought about how magazines love to refer to recipes "just like Grandma used to make," hinting at such comforting quilted blankies as tradition and Old World simplicity. But I have to say, that comparison never has rung true for me about my North Texas-bred, non-cookie-baking grandmother.

Sweet as she was, Mimee, my mom's mom, was not much of a cook. Like most women of her generation, she did cook nearly every meal for her household; they just didn't taste very good, to be honest. Still, she sustained four children and her husband and even sewed all of her children's clothes until they were in high school. At that point, my mom and her sisters begged to have store-bought clothes with tags! — like seemingly everyone else in Fort Worth in the '60s. Mimee responded by ordering a box of cloth labels embroidered with "Mr. Fine of Dallas" — a real brand? I might never know — and stitching them into the necks of their shirts and dresses. No one can say she wasn't resourceful.

Mimee's father owned a bakery. I bet he made great rolls. I used this recipe.

She had her charms, too. One of my favorite of my grandmother's idiosyncrasies was the way she adapted to the invention of the answering machine. She left messages at our house as though she were leaving my mom a note, signing it aloud at the end: "Mother."

This was a SUPER boozy pie. It was more mellow and much better eaten cold. It came from here.

The best thing I can say about eating at Mimee's house is that she was very generous with ice cream. She would stock up on neopolitan from the Braum's down the street when we'd visit from Austin. Otherwise, she made tuna sandwiches that were too wet and served cottage cheese alongside everything. Along with green bell peppers, cottage cheese is one of the few foods I still absolutely can't stand.

But in my opinion Mimee had one shining recipe, a cranberry side she brought to our family's Thanksgiving table every year. It was one of those totally outdated fruit concoctions with Jell-O (flavor: anything red) as the main ingredient, but we all loved it. She made a similar dish with green Jell-O, pineapple, pecans and cottage cheese like the one at Luby's, but the Thanksgiving one was blessedly free of curdy dairy products.

I don't have Mimee's original recipe, and I don't know where she came across it. So the past few Thanksgivings, I've been making a reimagined version that cuts the Jell-O but keeps the freshness. It's uncooked and really quick. It's also something I do by feel each time without a recipe to follow. So this year only after I'd puckered the mouths of Miguel's family with a too-tart version I brought to an early Thanksgiving dinner the weekend before — I wrote down the measurements of the correctly sweetened version I brought over to my brother's. It's a keeper.

A Nod to Mimee Cranberry Relish
Seems to serve any size group of Thanksgiving guests; with all the other food around, most people take only a few spoonfuls.

12-ounce bag of fresh cranberries
two medium-sized juicy oranges
1/4 cup sugar

Rinse the cranberries in a small colander and toss them into a food processor. Zest one orange over the cranberries. Squeeze in the juice of the oranges, add the lid and let the food processor go until it's pretty much just stirring the tiny bits of slightly liquified berries. Pour it into a bowl, stir in the sugar and taste it. Add in a tablespoon more of sugar if needed. Refrigerate until ready to serve.