Wednesday, December 31, 2008

I Resolve...

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Here it comes, the one day a year we all aim to be better, thinner, fitter and wiser. Since I resolve the fit thing about every third day, I'm not wasting breath on it tonight. But I do have a few resolutions.

I will blog NEW things only. I am not making anything from a previously tried recipe all year, with the exception of my apple pie, my family will lynch me if I change that. Maybe a Christmas cookie or two in December will be an old recipe, but for this blog and all practical baking experiences, it is a clean slate.

I also resolve to be less vocal about my food snobbishness. I will try very hard to not say things like, "Oh my Gosh, is that iodized table salt on that salad?" or "You know these cookies would be way better with Madagascar Vanilla?" or the most recent faux pas, "Taking wine as a hostess gift is a cop out". And let me elaborate on that is a cop out FOR ME. I work at Williams Sonoma for Pete's sake. I bake hundreds of cookies, eat in for the most part, write about food, teach people to cook food, wouldn't you feel like I was copping out if I came to your party with a bottle of wine, especially if I knew you drank martinis? Okay. I drink a lot of wine, bring me a bottle, I'll love it, it won't go to waste, honest. And if my child told you bringing me one was a cop out, I apologize, I was talking about me..not you!

And finally, I am going to ask you to join me in "Dining In". I love to cook, I love to share, so don't be surprised if you get a dinner invite from me for no good reason. Sharing good food and a bottle of wine (yes, you can bring one!) is reason enough. But be prepared for photos since it will most likely get blogged!

So Happy New Year Foodies Everywhere. And as Lori said, the future is so bright I gotta wear shades. Be careful tonight, and make good choices!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

As 2008 fades away...

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Well, it's winding down, and honestly I am ready. I love the satisfaction of eating the fridge clean, of condensing cookies from multiple tins into fewer, and the delightful feeling of buttoning my jeans even after feeling revoltingly full, (must have been gas!). I know now why I don't cater full-time. I throw myself in, and work it like it was my own, then collapse. My family must fend for themselves and it depletes my energy, especially this time of year. Luckily, I had my marathon baking session before the event, so I had plenty to give away and enjoy, and I included a few plates of my family favorites into the party menu.
I really scaled back on the chocolate selections for myself, I made truffles and peanut butter cups. Pretty basic. I made killer espresso brownies for the party, but sold it as a batch, so I didn't get to taste! And also a Butterfinger Bar which mimics a butterfinger.

My truffles used to be famous. Trees of them dipped in white and bittersweet with candied violets and sweetheart roses, truffles wrapped in 24k gold leaf, and truffles laced with any number of delicious liquors. But this year it was simply chocolate, heavy cream, butter vanilla. My kids totally object to the cocoa dusting, so I went for the real chocolate jimmies from Baker's Catalogue. They are delicious, and the truffles were seriously wonderful. Sometimes simple is the way to go. The PB cups were a breeze as well. I mixed the peanut butter, butter and confectioner's sugar together, lined the cups with melted chocolate, put in a blob of PB mixture, topped with chocolate. Again, simple. I also put a small tray of these at the dessert party. Next year, less cookies for us, and more chocolate confections. I really enjoy the whole chocolate process, and hope around the 14th of February I can devote a blog entirely to this food of the gods.
The real find this year for me was the Guittard chocolate bar at Williams Sonoma. 10 pounds of the smoothest chocolate. At $39 for the bar, you're looking at $3.90 a pound. I dare you to find any chocolate of this quality at that price. Of course I have the famous Williams Sonoma discount so it was way better than that!
A few years back I invested in some chocolate tools. The largest, and most dangerous is used to chip off hunks from the big bar. A word of caution, a 9oz bar of chocolate doesn't need this big chipping tool. I actually went through the palm of my hand with it a few years back. But for this 10 pound bar, there really isn't another way to attack it. The smaller tools are designed for dipping and dunking and are pretty inexpensive and do a great job. I use a basic All Clad double boiler and an instant read digital thermometer to melt and temper. It is a process like everything else in the kitchen, and in February I'll lay out the whole thing. For now, I'm too busy to write and write, and my loyal readers are skiing, eating out and not even chatting up on Facebook, so I know there isn't anyone hankering to make truffles today. If so, shoot me a line, I'm happy to help! For now, I am desperately trying to ignore my delicious sugar cookies, plan a rockin New Year's dinner/birthday party, and look forward to the New Year. I have lots of blogger resolutions and big things happening. My producer tells me "This is the year"....I hope she's right! Come along for the ride, it'll be delicious!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Buried in butter

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I am alive, and baking! I catered a dessert party last night for a friend (and reader of the blog!). Thanks Mary, I hope everyone enjoyed the food, I dreamed of bread pudding with bourbon sauce. I swear I have photos, recipes and news, I just have to get out and buy a present or two before Thursday. I will also be helping FedEx and their sagging sales so I can send those presents. I think next year we'll celebrate Epiphany instead of exchanging on Christmas. I'll be back....

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Baking Day!

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So when we last parted, I had a fridge full of cookie dough. Again, organization is the key to cranking out 400 cookies. I started with the sugar cookies because they are the most time consuming. I use a pastry board to roll out my dough, I keep a bin of flour close by to dust the dough and board when they get sticky, and I have some good tools. A bench scraper is a great tool to use to scrape up the stuck on bits of dough left on the board between rolling batches, it also chops hunks of chilled dough off. I also have these nifty things called dough bands which are chunky rubber bands that go on each end of the rolling pin. They are different widths so you can roll your dough perfectly even. It is a great idea for sugar cookies because you naturally roll your dough thinner at the edges and these bands virtually eliminate that problem.

I probably have 100 cookie cutters, I choose about 6 every holiday to use. It makes it easier to decorate when you narrow the selections. I start with one chunk of dough and roll and cut, re roll and cut and so on until I have done 2 sheets of a particular cookie cutter. I usually pick a small cutter to fit in the scraps and therefore have very little waste. I use cookie sheets with Silpats and start one in the oven. I set the timer for half the time and when it buzzes, I move that pan to the lower shelf and put in another, set the timer for the other half of time, and when it buzzes, remove the first, move the second and put in the third. It is a great method. You have a little time to roll out cookies, when one pan has cooled you can slide them onto the racks, and then stack them when they are completely cooled. I toss my used cookie cutter into the hot soapy water in the sink and move on through all the cutters. I follow the same method for the gingerbread men. There is more waste with this dough, it doesn't seem to re roll as well time after time. So now 2 batches, sugar and gingerbread are done, don't wash those silpats or cookie sheets, just the cutters, rolling pin, wipe down the workspace and start on the others.

The Mexican wedding cakes are pretty simple, adjust the temp, and start chopping off sections of dough,(I weigh mine to cook evenly), roll into balls and bake the same as the sugar, rotating your sheets halfway through the time. These cookies along with the pecan crescents need to cool on the sheet for about 5 minutes before you roll them in their respective sugars. I keep the leftover sugars to toss over them when I store the cookies. The Mexican wedding cakes will need to be tossed in powdered sugar before presenting, they seem to absorb it.

The pecan crescents are easiest rolled first into balls and then small cresents. Be careful to not taper the ends to a point, they look best plump.

The chocolate gingerbread cookies are another drop cookie that simply gets rolled in hand. Prior to baking they should be rolled in granulated sugar, non pareils or coarse sugar like I use. They are then baked and cooled and they are fabulous!

And the last to bake were the cardamom slices. The log is chilled firm, I use the bench scraper to slice uniform slices, about 1/4" and bake with a good 2" between them. These incredible cookies spread quite thin, but the flavor is great, and they are better dipped in chocolate. But that will happen on chocolate day! All these cookies should be stored in an airtight tin or Tupperware, alone, with crumpled wax paper and at room temp. The sugar cookies and gingerbread are OK in the fridge, but the cookies rolled in sugar with get gooey.
Whew! It is really just a cycle of sheets in and out of the oven, you have to get in a rhythm. But in one day, it's done! I came across a few new recipes I may try this week and I do see truffles in my future. I'm helping a friend with a dessert party on Friday so I have a home for all this stuff I'm baking!

Friday, December 12, 2008

400 Cookies, and miles to go!

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I love to bake. 400 cookies may seem overwhelming, but I'd like to share my method.

First, I am terribly organized. I know ahead I have all the baking staples on hand. I have one drawer with nothing but measuring cups (normal and odd size), spoons(normal and odd size), pastry brushes, silicone spatulas, bench scraper, anything I would need for baking.

My spices are alphabetized, my flour and sugar in large bins. I went through recipes weeks ago so I knew what I was making. It's a 3 day process, but you don't have to do it in a row.
As soon as I got up I took out all the butter and let it sit on the counter. It is crucial it is at room temp so it creams easily. It's pretty chilly here, so there is no worries about it getting too soft. But in warmer climates, if the butter gets slimy, your cookies will be greasy.
I use a heavy duty Kitchen Aid stand mixer. Many of my recipes can be made with a food processor or a hand mixer but I like to have my hands free. And finally the most important step, a clean kitchen. No leftover dishes, no meat thawing on the counter. Fill your sink with the hottest sudsiest water, a clean sponge and you are ready to go.
I do one recipe at a time. If I use a measuring cup or spoon for a dry ingredient, I don't wash it until the last batch is made. I have one spoon only for vanilla. I use a scale for chocolate and nuts, too many and your cookies are dry, too few and you look cheap!
All of my recipes start with creamed unsalted butter. Cream for only about 3-5 minutes. You want it fluffy and pale. The sugar usually comes next. Then vanilla and maybe eggs. Usually the flour folds in after that. Once the eggs are added, mixing should be monitored. You only want things incorporated, do not over mix or your cookies will get tough.
After the dough is complete, I spread it out on a sheet of plastic wrap on the counter. Drop the dough on the wrap and cover with another piece of wrap and shape it into a disc. Wrap it well, and chill it with the recipe. Wash the dishes and start the next batch. I made 6 batches in no time at all. I doubled 2 batches, and I have no trouble with that, but I don't recommend tripling a recipe. Chances are your mixer will grumble, and thorough mixing is a little harder with larger amounts. Your chilled dough can sit in the fridge for a week, you can even make this dough weeks in advance and freeze it in labeled, heavy duty Ziploc bags, thaw in fridge and continue.
Day 2 is baking day. This day requires a little more time, a lot more space. The next blog will detail all the steps to get these cookies in and out of the oven successfully. Here are the recipes for the drop cookies. The cutouts will be a separate blog.
Remember to chill dough until it is firm, usually 1-2 hours minimum. The dough may be hard to manipulate, but cold dough spreads less in the oven. I always bake on Silpat lined cookie sheets (no rims), and cool on racks until they set and finish cooling directly on the rack itself. When you roll with your hands, keep the extra dough in fridge to keep it firm, and bake the sheets as soon as the dough is rolled. Be careful that dough balls do not roll off the cookie sheet into the oven!

Almond Crescents
2/3 cup raw almonds
1/3 cup sugar
1 cup butter, unsalted, room temp, (2 sticks)
1 2/3 cup flour
1/ teaspoon salt

2/3 cups bakers sugar (superfine)
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Boil the almonds for 2 minutes in water, rinse and slip the skins off. Dry the almonds thoroughly, I gently toast them to get them dry. (You can use slivered almonds for ease.) Grind almonds and sugar in food processor until fine. In mixer bowl, cream butter for 3-5 minutes, add sugar mixture and mix well. Add flour and salt until just incorporated. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill. To bake, remove from fridge and cut dough into sections. Break off small pieces and roll into balls and then gently into crescents. Bake at 325 for 14 minutes. Cool on rack until they can be handled, and roll in sugar mixture. Cool thoroughly and store airtight at room temp. Makes about 75

Mexican Wedding Cakes/Pecan Balls/Snowballs
1 cup pecans, halves or pieces
2 cups confectioners sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups butter, unsalted, room temp,(4 sticks)
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
3 1/2 cups flour

Confectioners sugar to roll finished cookies in.

Grind pecans and sugar in a food processor until fine. Cream butter in mixer bowl for 3-5 minutes. Add nut/sugar mixture. Mix well and add vanilla and flour. When all dry ingredients are incorporated. Remove and wrap in plastic wrap and chill with recipe. This is a double batch, and makes about 100 balls. Remove the dough from fridge and cut off small strips and make into evenly sized balls. I weigh mine to a 1/2 ounce section and roll it into a ball. Bake at 350 for 15-20 minutes. Cool on rack until you can handle them. Toss in confectioners sugar and cool thoroughly. Roll in powdered sugar again after they are cool. Store airtight at room temp.

Cardamom Slices
10 Tablespoons butter, unsalted, room temp
3/4 cup plus 2T sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon almond extract
1 egg yolk
2 T milk
1 teaspoon cardamom
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 1/4 cup flour

8 oz. bittersweet chocolate for dipping

Cream butter and sugar. Add extracts, egg, milk, and spices. Add flour until incorporated. Form into a loaf on plastic wrap, almost like a rectangle, about 3"X2", wrap well. Lay on cookie sheet and chill. When ready to bake, slice into 1/4" slices and give them plenty of room, they spread. Bake at 375 for 12-15 minutes. Cool on racks. Melt chocolate and dip cookies in chocolate on the diagonal. Cool until chocolate is firm. Store airtight in fridge. Makes 56 cookies.

Chocolate Gingerbread Drop Cookies
8 Tablespoons unsalted, room temp butter (1 stick)
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 cup molasses (unsulphered)
1 teaspoon baking soda dissolved in 1 1/2 teaspoons boiling water
2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 Tablespoon cocoa powder
1 1/2 cups plus 1 Tablespoon flour
7 oz. bittersweet chocolate chunks or chips

1/2 cup granulated sugar, coarse sugar or non pareils

Cream butter and brown sugar 3-5 minutes. Add molasses. Add baking soda mixture and spices and flour and mix thoroughly. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill. Break dough off in small balls and roll in sugar. I like the coarse decorating sugar and bake at 325 for 15 minutes. Cool completely on racks and store airtight in fridge.

Tomorrow we bake! And we'll tackle those cut out sugar cookies and gingerbread men!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Flammable Christmas Cookie

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Tuesday brought rain, rain and more rain. So I pulled out the cookie recipes, laid out the butter to soften and made almost 400 Christmas cookies. All the dough needed to chill after it was made, so I made one batch after another and chilled it with the recipe so today I could begin baking. Then mid way through the day came the small meteor fire, and I knew I would have to blog the flammable Christmas cookie before I could go into full detail on all the others.
Mexican Wedding Cakes are one of my favorites. Pecans are a Southern favorite, and who doesn't like a cookie rolled in powdered sugar that looks like a Christmas snowball? So I made a huge batch of dough from my favorite recipe and I tossed it in the fridge to chill. Today I baked them, among a few hundred others.

I know evenly matched cookies bake more evenly, so I meticulously weigh every hunk of dough, and think a half ounce is the perfect size. I chop the dough off with my bench scraper, weigh it, and then form it into balls. I bake them on a Silpat lined cookie sheet and I always move the sheets from top to bottom and turn them around halfway through the cooking time.
The problem arose when I slid a sheet in the oven a little too quick. One of those balls of dough fell off the back end. About half way through baking I THOUGHT I smelled something burning, and brushed it off. After another 7 minutes, I knew I had a problem. I peeked way back in the oven, and beneath those 3 racks of cookies was a fire ball. Who knew butter and pecans were that flammable?This is the real world folks. I make mistakes too. Sometimes they are funnier than yours, and I always snap photo evidence.

So I snapped a quick picture and grabbed a wooden spoon, but I couldn't quite reach it. I had no choice but to remove all the cookies, all the racks and reach in. I found a pair of tongs that had a good reach and moved the little fireball forward for another, clearer photo. Then I tossed it in my dish washing water to a great sizzle! Of course I had to put it with the finished cookies for the final photo, I'm fairly certain you can pick it out! Safe baking to you all. Tomorrow I will blog about all the other delicacies that I made.

Mexican Wedding Cakes

1 cup pecan pieces or halves
2 cups confectioners sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 sticks (2 cups) butter, unsalted, softened
1 teaspoon good vanilla
3 1/2 cups flour, sifted

Confectioners Sugar for covering finished cookies.

Grind the nuts until they are quite fine in a food processor. Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add vanilla extract to butter mixture, and add flour and nuts on low speed until incorporated. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill.
Cut dough into equal size pieces, I like 1/2 ounce, and roll into balls. (Flatten slightly on cookie sheets so they don't roll away)
Bake on Silpat lined sheets at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes. Remember to move the sheets around halfway through baking time. Cool on racks until just warm and toss in confectioners sugar until covered. Re roll cookies when cool and before storing in an airtight container at room temp for up to 2 weeks.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Deck the Halls and the Kitchen

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I admit my weaknesses. Goat cheese, Pinot Noir, 71% Dark Chocolate, (preferably all on the same night), and Christmas decorations. I have 3 trees in full regalia. The family tree choc full of all those ornaments I pick up on trips, given to us at parties and those made in grade school. The second tree is in the dining room and is white and covered in snowmen. Note: Never tell people if you intend to collect something. I have more damn snowmen than I know what to do with! And the last tree is my favorite. It's only about 5', fills a corner of my kitchen and is covered in kitchen stuff. Cooking chefs and santas, copper pots and pans, whisks, silverware, petite fours and glass cheese. I love it!

One friend brought me Christmas okra, a huge okra, like 6" and it's painted like Santa. How funny is that?! I also have a huge assortment of Williams Sonoma ornaments from years past. No big surprise there. The most beautiful is a glass Waterford chef Santa.

Years ago when we lived in Atlanta we started the killer dessert party tradition, Lance and Sue brought us a German Baker Nutcracker ornament. I love the ones that stir great memories!

And, instead of a star on top, there's a chef's hat!
The great thing about the diversity of the trees is that I can poke around for fun ornaments all year long.
So, now that I am decked, it's time to cook and bake. Today we are going to whip up a couple of batches of cheater fudge. I have made it the old fashioned way and was disappointed. So, I decided to try the marshmallow fluff way. I figure it will make a nice easy gift for people I need to pass a sweet treat to. Next up will be an assortment of cookies, a day of make ahead appetizers, and a few other candies. A customer yesterday was taling about peanut butter cups, it's been awhile since I've made them, but are they good. Who knows, So many ideas, so little time. Stay tuned!

Friday, December 5, 2008

A yard of Fabric, a Spool of Thread...

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I gave my spin on the economy yesterday. Late in the day I got an email from my sister in So. California. She has this awesome little sewing store in Santa Monica called Sewing Arts Center. It's been there since the 50's or something. The guy who currently owns it is wickedly creative, has a fabulous inventory of beautiful fabrics for quilts and crafts. He has these classes I wish I could attend and a staff that are equally as creative. But he has competition. Mass retailers who employ cashiers and fabric cutters. Go into one of those huge stores and ask a sewing question. Your answer will be garbled by the tongue stud as the 18 year old girl who is saving to buy a new tattoo explains she doesn't know how to sew. But I digress....
His email was heartfelt. He loves his business, employs passionate people but cannot survive. If his customers came in and bought a yard of fabric, a spool of thread and a package of buttons, he could make a go of it. It's our duty to do so. Anyone who is gainfully employed needs to support grass roots America. Don't put your money in the stock market, put it in your neighbor. Put it in your home town businesses. Put it where your heart is. If you have a choice between saving 15% or saving some one's business I know what I would choose every time. There must be thousands of businesses in his same predicament. Go forth and shop. This is how it was done 100 years ago when my Grandpa got to this country. You shopped with your neighbors. We need to go back to that.
Tomorrow we shall cook....

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Retail Therapy

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Recession. It's an ugly word. The news stations have recession logos they paste at the bottom of the screen when they run their doom and gloom stories on the economy. Everyday, it's the economic update, more casualties, more downturn, no relief in sight. Geez, it's like the weeks following 9-11, you know its happening, you know it's bad, but somewhere on this huge earth there is good news. There are companies thriving and consumers spending their hard earned money.
I work retail. I've been at the same high end store for 11 years. I may as well say it, I've said it before, Williams Sonoma. OOHHHH, I can hear you, "that place is expensive", "you must be in a world of hurt", "your sales must be in the dumps". Let me start by saying I am not any sort of spokesperson for Williams Sonoma. I am on the lowest rung of the employees of this great company. I work in the trenches. I greet the people who walk in, offer samples, sell them what they need, thank them graciously, and on occasion work behind the scenes unloading the daily truck. I have a degree in film, not economics. But here is my take. There isn't a recession. There's a slowdown. There's a scare. People want to spend their money. They want to give gifts and have parties, they want to cook up a storm. They are shopping. They're buying $100 knives and peppermint bark. They want Christmas towels and gingerbread bundt. They are hunting out that perfect gadget for their favorite cook. Granted, they are worried, and pensive, but they are shopping. Thoughtfully shopping.
Is it so bad that people are planning purchases, thinking about what Grandma would really like instead of just picking up some stuff? Could the benefit of all this be that for the first time in a long time people are thinking before they spend?
Do you remember how many gifts you got for Christmas? I don't, but I remember that they were well thought out. Gifts any kid would love (at least in 1974). Now it seems more about quantity. Crap. We are inundated by the bargains. Is there a bargain at the dollar store? What can you possibly buy for a dollar that isn't disposable or that someone would want? I recently went and bought a huge aluminum roaster to use as a litter box for Grandma's visiting kitty and a nail file. I wouldn't bother with anything else there. It's a question of quality more than anything else. I saw wax paper there, I use a lot this time of year. But at the grocery it was only .89 cents. Candy, same price or cheaper at Walgreen's, and probably a better turnover. But we are wowed by that one dollar price. Forget that you'll have to buy another and another and another. Like the pan for a litter box. I probably could have bought a litter box at Target for $5. Line it, pitch the poo, stash the box until kitty's next visit. It's a mindset.
So away with the recession and in with thoughtful spending. Out with huge retailers whose products are low priced and lower quality and in with retailers who support products made in the US. Have you seen or felt the difference between a maple spoon from Vermont and a wooden spoon from China? There is a price difference, but a bigger quality difference. Your kids will fight over that maple spoon in 20 years. How about a set of 4 dish towels at $16 vs. a set of dish towels for $6. Wash 'em, dry dishes with them, bleach them if you must. Next year you'll have to buy 4 more if you chose the cheaper version.
So get out there and shop! If you have a job and are not one of those crazy people with an enormous amount of credit card debt then go forth and spend. But spend thoughtfully. Buy right the first time. Buy things you enjoy, that stimulate the American economy. Shop where people are friendly, helpful and attentive. If a sales clerk treats you like your money is no good, move on. It's time for retailers to be more gracious to the customer. It's time for the customer to be more thoughtful when they choose where to spend their money. Turn off the news and stimulate the economy yourself!