Post 64 – Checkerboard cookies

I know I missed the cookie swaps…

and the Christmas parties…

and that it’s almost time for New Year’s resolutions, BUT I just had to make some checkerboard cookies (because I didn’t eat enough sugar over the holidays just like everyone else. Ha! Yeah right! Let’s see – marble cookies, homemade hot fudge, ice cream, pumpkin pie, spiced nuts, not to mention cookies brought over by the neighbors, treats at the family Christmas gathering, and freshly baked black and whites to take with us on the plane ride home! We did miss out on Top Pot doughnuts, but that was probably a blessing in disguise.)

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We spent a lovely Christmas week in Seattle with my future in-laws. Sam’s extended family threw me a wonderful bridal shower that made me feel welcomed into the family and very loved. I am excited by all the wonderful gifts we received and have already started using some (new kitchen gadgets! <squeals of excitement>). We spent our week in Seattle relaxing, indulging, and taking for granted the pleasures of being in an updated and well-kept home where we didn’t have to wash dishes or scoop cat litter (Sam’s reading this and thinking: how often do YOU really scoop cat litter? Also – Seattle photo credits to Sam)

Christmas dinner prime rib roast

Christmas dinner prime rib roast

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The week disappeared far too quickly, and though I do have (less than) a week left, I still have the feeling leftover from my college days that winter breaks should last a whole month. That leaves just about enough time to hibernate and to get used to not working and hanging around in your PJ’s all day.

Extra time at home also lends itself well to is kitchen adventures, hence, the checkerboard cookies. Cold outside and cozy in gives you all the more reason to turn on the oven and set your stove top a-blazin’ (as in the burners, don’t light your kitchen on fire).

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In my case I made checkerboard cookies, which have become somewhat of an unofficial Christmas cookie tradition for me ever since I learned how to make them. As Maida Heatter says in her description in this wonderful gift from my godmother, these cookies require precision, not Antonin Careme-style talent and they are certainly very impressive looking. Many people have asked me if I assemble each cookie square by square. God, no.

They start like most cookies with a mother lode of butter and some sugar. Add some flour and then comes the hard part.

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You divide the crumbly dough perfectly in half (very important). You could do this by weight or volume. (And if you’re a cookie dough eater, make sure you are nibbling on the name amount from each half!)

And you knead cocoa powder into one half of the dough.

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Next you make perfect dough squares, flat and even and measured. And you cut them into strips.

Lay them out side by side, with egg wash as your glue (I used an egg yolk, but you can use a whole egg or even just an egg white for clear “glue”).

I like to use the knife as a spatula so the strips don't break while being transferred.

I like to use the knife as a spatula so the strips don’t break while being transferred.

The strips before being "glued" with egg wash.

The strips before being “glued” with egg wash.

and then layer the strips, being careful to alternate the colors for the checkerboard effect.

Wrap up and refrigerate until firm (at least a half hour) and then basically slice and bake. Ta-da! Checkerboards.

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They look messy now, but just wait until they are ready for baking!

IMG_3977  Just like I told you – slice and bake. IMG_3980

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Bake for 18-20 minutes until lightly golden brown.

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And wrap them up for someone you love.

photo 1(7)See, that wasn’t so hard.

Since tomorrow’s is New Year’s Day and we’re all going to be forgoing sugar and butter for an extra serving of vegetables, you only have one day to make these (sorry…) Either that or put them on your to-do list for next year’s Christmas cookies.

Happy baking and Happy (almost) New Year!

Checkerboard cookies

Adapted slightly from Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Chocolate Desserts

1/2 lb. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

1/4 tsp. almond extract (don’t skip!)

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/4 tsp. salt

2+3/4 cups sifted all-purpose flour (I never sift… oops)

2 T. unsweetened cocoa powder

1 egg, egg yolk mixed with 1 tsp. water, or egg white, lightly beaten (for egg wash)

In a large bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter. Add the sugar, salt, vanilla, and almond extracts and beat to mix well. On low speed gradually add the flour, scraping the bowl with a spatula a few times. The mixture will be crumbly. Turn it out onto a large board or smooth work surface and squeeze it with your hands and knead it until it holds together.

Divide the dough into two equal halves (by weight or volume – using dry measuring cups). Maida says it’s a scant 2.5 cups of dough, but I found that I had a full 2.5 cups when I made it most recently. Set one half aside. Add cocoa to the remaining half and knead to incorporate until smooth and evenly colored.

Shape each half into a flat square, using your hands or a rolling pin. Make sure to square off the corners. The square must be 6 x 6 inches and about 1/2 thick. The edges may be pressed into a straight line by pushing a ruler or a long, heavy knife against them or they may be trimmed.

Mark each square with a ruler and small knife into 1/2-inch increments on two opposite sides. Using a ruler if necessary cut the square into long strips, using the 1/2 inch markers as guides. Do this with both the plain and chocolate dough.

Prepare two pieces of plastic wrap. To assemble cookie logs, place one strip of chocolate dough on the plastic wrap, brush the top and one side with egg wash and lay a plain dough strip next to it on the egg-washed side. Repeat with the egg wash and two more strips of dough, colors alternating. Place four more strips of dough on top, using the egg wash in between layers, being sure to place a chocolate strip on top of a plain strip and vice versa. Form a third layer the same way. Wrap in plastic wrap and set aside. Repeat with remaining strips of dough on second piece of plastic wrap. Wrap and refrigerate both logs for at least 30 minutes or up to one day.

When ready to bake, remove logs and unwrap. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper. Cut a thin slice off the ends of each log to make perfectly straight edges. Measure the bar into 1/4 inch lengths and slice. Place the cookies on the prepared sheets at least 1/2 inch apart and bake for 15-20 minutes until desired golden brown-ness. Cool and enjoy.

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Post 63 – Apple Cider Caramels

As a child I used to make homemade candies. They were probably fairly tasteless and sugary, but even then I knew how impressive it was to make my own candy. I was inspired to make candy because, strangely enough, we owned a candy thermometer – was it my mom’s? My grandmother’s? Who knows, but I do still have one (the same one?) today.

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Making candy was science. Fun science. I would boil sugar and water and vanilla and who knows what else and watch the mercury on the thermometer rise.

Soft-ball….  soft-crack….  hard-crack. Stop!

Then I would pour out my candy in a pan to cool. I had saved old sprinkles bottles (jimmies for you New Englanders) and other jars to store my candy in and when it had cooled I would break up the candy and fill the jars with the sugary shards. My own brand of candy.

I remember their distinct yellow color (from corn syrup maybe?) and my utter satisfaction.

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I have now graduated to making caramels (and actually following a recipe!) Now instead of filling sprinkle jars I keep my caramels in clean applesauce jars, the candies cut more neatly into pudgy squares and wrapped (painstakingly) in waxed paper. One of my co-worker/friends introduced me to this particular recipe. She brought one in for me following a fall party of hers that I couldn’t attend and I savored the tangy, sweet, salty, caramely goodness. What is the recipe?!

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So she sent it to me and I made them – three batches within close to three weeks. Is this a new Christmas tradition?

Perhaps.

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I’ve come a long way since my childhood experimenting days.

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(That is NOT candy I’m making.)

Now I won’t say that caramels are easy, but they are definitely within your reach. You simply need patience, precision, and a thermometer. The hardest part is boiling it to the right temperature and the most tedious part is wrapping each individual caramel (since watching the cider boil down is fairly inactive on your part). I recommend bribing getting someone to help you.

Anyway, turn on the stove, get out your butter and cream and put on some Christmas music while you wrap up these babies.

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I promise you it will be worth it.

For the recipe check out Smitten Kitchen.

Post 62 – Prosciutto Pinwheels and Parties

Have you ever heard the Shel Silverstein poem that starts: “I’m writing these poems from inside a lion and it’s rather dark in here…” ?

Well I’m writing this post from inside a congested head cold and it’s rather stuffy in here, which made me think of Silverstein’s poem.

It was a good weekend, a busy weekend, which is why I think I’m sick now. It started out Friday evening with a wonderfully acted play called The Yellow Boat, performed by the middle school at the school where I work. The kids did an amazing job and I was moved by their performance. Check out the script if you’ve never heard of it.  Warning, it’s a tear-jerker!

Saturday Sam and I prepared for our housewarming/birthday party – there were cupcakes and appetizers to be made, wine to be bought, and house cleaning to do, of course. People loved the chocolate frosting on the cupcakes (same as last year requested by Sam) and the appetizers went over pretty well too, despite a slightly runny cheese ball.

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blowing out his cupcake candles

blowing out his cupcake candles

In addition to party preparations I had another party to prepare for: a holiday party for a repeat Kitchensurfing client! Being asked to cook for him again was a great pleasure, but preparing heavy appetizers for a party of 40 by yourself can be a bit overwhelming. Here was my (over)ambitious menu:

Prosciutto Pinwheels (From Causing a Stir – shout out to my St. Paul’s folks back home!)

Baked Spinach Bites (also from CaS)

Shrimp Cocktail

Beef tenderloin sandwiches

Cucumber and smoked salmon cups

Spiced Nut Mix

Bacon Scallion Cheese ball (in the shape of a pine cone)

Bacon-wrapped Dates stuffed with pecans

Mini pumpkin cheesecakes

Apple cider caramels (post to come)

I spent much of the day Saturday either lugging groceries from store to home or racking up mileage in my kitchen going from fridge to counter to fridge and back. Sunday was equally busy as I spent it cooking (and cleaning) pretty much from dawn to dusk. Needless to say the work paid off. I remembered to bring everything (except the darn camera!) and the party was a hit! At the end of the party, the host toasted me and my companion (his housekeeper – without her I couldn’t have pulled off such a big party since she helped me clean everything and tray the apps). He even invited us to join the party and have a glass of wine. We politely declined in favor of dragging our tired bodies home instead.

Despite not using the labels I had brought to tell the guests what items were, (everyone thought the prosciutto pinwheels were cinnamon rolls – oh well) everyone thoroughly enjoyed the food. The runny, bacon cheese ball, which had been such a mess when I practiced it for our party guests turned out beautifully for Sunday’s party, and the spinach bites were a surprise sell-out! The day ended happily despite my lack of sleep Saturday night and I came home exhausted and happy to find the laundry done and dinner made by my ever-supportive and loving guy. What would I do without him?

The only negative consequence of a successful weekend is my poor health, so I recommend to you if you’re throwing a holiday party to keep it small and don’t cook for two parties back to back. I learned my lesson.

And if you’re hosting a party and you want an easy hand-held appetizer, the prosciutto pinwheels are sure to please and simple to make. Just make sure people know what they are! Happy cooking.

Prosciutto Pinwheels

(an illustrated recipe – from Causing a Stir)

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Thaw 2 sheets of puff pastry from a 17.5 oz package (see package for recommendations how)

IMG_3890Spread with as much or as little creamy, herbed cheese as you desire (Causing a Stir recommends 10-12 oz. of the Alouette brand cheese for 2 puff pastry sheets) leaving a 1/2-inch border on one side to seal (the picture above is before I had finished spreading all of the cheese).

IMG_3893Layer with thinly sliced prosciutto (3.5 oz per roll) to cover the entire surface, still leaving the 1/2-inch border.

IMG_3894Tightly roll (like a cinnamon roll) toward the edge that you left uncovered. Moisten the border with a bit of water and gently press it into the roll to seal the edge. Repeat with remaining puff pastry, cheese, and prosciutto.

Freeze the rolls for 45 minutes or until firm. Slice into 1/4-inch slices and bake on parchment-paper lined sheet pans at 450 degrees for 10-15 minutes or until lightly browned. Let cool and serve!

I wish I could show you a picture of the result, but since I forgot the camera for the party I have nothing to show. Make them for yourself and you will see. Delicious and beautiful.

Here’s to more holiday (and other) parties!

Post 61 – Tout ça pour des macarons!!

I am the queen of using up leftovers – every last drop. Not just dinner leftovers or leftover pancakes, but that last splash of milk and the last scoop of canned pumpkin sitting in the fridge. I love it when all the ingredients get used exactly to create a new food (sometimes on purpose because I alter the recipe to use exactly that amount). Cream becomes creme brulée and chocolate ganache, and leftover egg whites leftover from the yolks used for creme brulée become… Macarons!

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Now careful when you read that word. Do you notice two O’s?

No, you don’t. It’s not macaroooooon.

Do you pronounce that last syllable like the close friend of Harry Potter?

Well, no, not exactly. (Maybe if you were saying his name while gasping for air and choking on a shard of maca… anyway). Do you speak French? Well then forget it.

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Not to be confused with coconut macaroons, a French macaron is a delicate meringue-like cookie sandwiched together with a dreamy filling of buttercream or ganache. They are notoriously expensive when sold at chic little boutiques like L.A. Burdick’s or La Durée in Paris, but for good reason. You must whip the egg whites just right, gently fold in the almond meal, sugar, and cocoa powder, and carefully and evenly distribute each dollop so that they are all the same size and flat enough to sit rounded side down when on display.

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After reading David Lebovitz’s account of his time living in Paris (thanks Auntie Jenkins!), I decided to try my hand at making the famed French treat. I had volunteered at a French pastry class at a cooking school in Ohio where we’d made the very same recipe from his book and yet I’d never tried to make the darn things. I decided so many French recipes have an aura of difficulty hanging over them, when maybe all that was really needed was precision and deliberateness. So I made them (ok so I am not always that precise) and I have to say that though they were not as perfect and beautiful as those that can be sold in stores, they were definitely delicious and adorable.

And even better than the fact that they were adorable and delicious – I used up the rest of the cream exactly, and the amount of chocolate I had pilfered from the Divine 70% cocoa solids chocolate bar had left just enough for the creamy ganache.

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Chocolate Macarons

from The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz

1 cup (100 grams) powdered sugar

1/2 cup almond flour (about 2 oz sliced blanched almonds, pulverized)

3 T. unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder

2 large egg whites, at room temperature

5 T. granulated sugar

1/2 cup heavy cream

2 tsp. light corn syrup (I left this out)

4 oz. bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped

1 T. salted or unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

Preheat the oven to 375. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and have a pastry bag ready with a plain tip. To make the cookies, grind the powdered sugar, almond flour, and cocoa in a blender or food processor until there are no lumps and all the dry ingredients are fine and powdery.

In the bowl of a standing electric mixer or by hand, beat the egg whites until they begin to rise and hold their shape. Gradually beat in the granulated sugar until very stiff and firm, about 2 minutes.

Carefully fold the dry ingredients into the beaten egg whites in 2 or 3 batches with a flexible rubber spatula. When the mixture is just smooth and there are no streaks of egg white, stop folding and scrape the batter into the pastry bag. (Use someone else to hold the bag or prop it up in a tall glass and fold the top over.)

Pipe the batter onto the baking sheets in 1-inch circles (1 T. batter each), evenly spaced apart. Rap the baking sheet a few times firmly on the counter top to flatten the cookies a bit. Bake for 15-18 minutes, until they feel slightly firm. Let cool completely.

To make the ganache, heat the cream and corn syrup in a small saucepan. When the cream just begins to boil at the edges, remove from heat and add the chocolate. Let sit 1 minute, then stir until smooth. Stir in the butter. Let cool to room temperature before using. (Alternatively refrigerate until slightly firm, being sure to stir it every 10 minutes or so to evenly cool it down. Do not let harden or it will be impossible to spread without breaking your cookies!)

Spread of a bit of chocolate filling on the flat side of the cookie and then sandwich together (gently) with another one. You can also pipe the filling on. You may have some extra filling.

Allow to sit in an airtight container at least one day to meld the flavors.

P.S. If you don’t speak French, my post title means “All of that for some macarons!” It comes from a line in a great French song where the singer/rapper complains about things that bother him (ça m’enerve!). One thing that bothers him is all the people who wait in line at Paris’ famous pastry shop La Durée, all for some macarons. He concludes, however, “Mais bon, il parait qu’ils sont bons.” (Oh, well, apparently they’re good). Check it out.