Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Essential Versatility

Entertaining is something we do often, and appetizers are an essential part of every gathering. When paired with a glass of wine or a cocktail, appetizers help to set people at ease and aid conversation. They also nicely whet the appetite! This is a recipe I make often and it is always well received. Traditionally, palmiers are a sweet pastry; this recipe is savory creating an interesting twist on this delicacy.

One of the beauties of this recipe is its versatility. Almost any combination of vegetables can be substituted for the roasted peppers, as long as they have been sauteed first, if necessary, to soften them. Prosciutto or other thinly sliced cooked meat can be substituted for the smoked salmon. I like to use fresh basil, but pesto can be used, as can tapenade. The recipe can also be halved. It can be made ahead and stored in the refrigerator or frozen. To make ahead, layer the cooked slices between waxed paper in an airtight container. Store in refrigerator overnight or freeze for up to one month. To reheat follow the baking directions below. If palmiers are not frozen, bake for 8 to 10 minutes or until heated through.

Smoked Salmon Palmiers

1 pkg. frozen sheet puff pastry, thawed
1 c. densely packed basil leaves, finely chopped
Olive oil
1 10 oz. pkg. frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
¼ c. capers, rinsed
½ c. roasted red peppers, chopped
½ c. roasted yellow peppers, chopped
½ c. grated Parmesan cheese
8 oz. smoked salmon
1 egg
1 Tbsp. water

Preheat over to 400. Line two large baking sheets with parchment and set aside. In a small bowl, mix the chopped basil with enough olive oil to make it easily spreadable with a pastry brush—about 2 Tbsp. Set aside.

On a lightly floured surface roll one sheet of the puff pastry to an 11 inch square. Brush with half the basil mixture. Top with 2 Tbsp of the capers, then half of the spinach, red peppers, yellow peppers, Parmesan cheese, and smoked salmon. Sprinkle these ingredients evenly over the surface of the puff pastry.

Roll one side jelly-roll style carefully to the middle and stop.
Repeat with the other side rolling until both side meet in the middle. With a very sharp serrated knife carefully cut the roll into ½ inch slices.

Carefully transfer the slices to prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the other sheet of pastry. With a fork beat the egg and water until well mixed. Brush the tops of the slices.
Bake for about 20 minutes or until the slices are puffed and browned. Serve warm or transfer to wire racks to cool.
Makes about 24 slices.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Sense of Well-being

There is something elemental about kneading bread. To feel the bread move under your hands as they gently work it to a smooth elasticity. The smell of yeast as it takes hold and works its chemical magic. My journey with bread began, as did so many other adventures in cooking, in my early to mid-teens. I started with simple breads and worked my way up to coffee cakes. In my late teens I became more adventurous developing my skills and expanding my repertoire. By my early twenties I had been introduced to breads from many countries, including Brioche, which became my god. Tremendous satisfaction was derived from the baking of bread and to this day, a sense of well-being and all’s-right-with-the-world envelops me every time I place a loaf of freshly baked bread on the counter to cool.

We still eat mostly homemade bread, but the pace of life and the crush of responsibilities and obligations (work) do not often permit me the luxury of the joy of kneading. Now, I use a bread machine. Bella grew up eating homemade bread, and yes, it came from a bread machine. Even so, this bread was vastly superior to its commercially produced relations. Call it cheating, betrayal, whatever you want, but it was still homemade and it was still delicious!
Perhaps when retirement comes my way, I will once again find myself with the time to feel the dough move beneath my hands. Until then, I will happily use my bread machine to create the rolls, breads, and coffee cakes my family loves.

Quick Tarragon Rolls

2-1/2 c. bread flour
2-1/4 tsp. instant yeast (1 pkg. yeast)
2 Tbsp. parsley, finely chopped
2 tsp. dried tarragon, crushed
¼ tsp. celery seed
1 c. water
2 Tbsp. sugar
2 Tbsp. oil
1/2 tsp. salt
1 egg

Combine all ingredients in work bowl of bread machine. Set to dough cycle. Watch while mixing and add enough flour to create a smooth and elastic dough.

While cycle is running, grease regular sized muffin cups and set aside.

When the cycle has completed divide dough into 12 equal portions. Shape into rounded balls and place into the greased muffin cups.

Fill a 9x13 inch pan with about ½ inch of boiling water. Set a wire rack over the top of the pan. Place the filled muffin tin on top of the rack, cover with a towel. Let rise until nearly double (20 to 30 minutes). Preheat oven to 375 and bake for 15 to 18 minutes, or until muffins are golden.

Place on a wire rack and cool for 10 minutes. Remove rolls from muffin tin to wire rack and cool completely.
12 rolls

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Favorite Flavor Combination

This cookie is fabulous and worth the time you will spend making it. It belongs in my “fussy” cookie category. When holiday time rolls around and I’m asking my family which cookies they would like on the baking list, this one always gets mentioned by both DH and Bella. Chocolate and caramel come right behind chocolate and raisins on DH’s list of favorite flavor combinations. The combined flavors of dark chocolate and caramel are sublime. Add toasted pecans and this cookie moves into divinity. The texture of the cookie, the chewy richness of the caramel and the deep flavor of the dark chocolate all conspire to destroy any resolve to eat just one!

Chocolate Caramel Delights

3 oz. bittersweet chocolate

1 c. unsalted butter, softened

2 c. flour

1 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. salt

1 c. sugar

1 egg

1 tsp. vanilla

½ c. pecans

14 oz. pkg. caramels

2 Tbsp. milk

3 oz. Bittersweet chocolate

1 Tbsp. shortening

Put the chocolate and butter in the top of a double boiler over simmering water. Do not allow the water to touch the bottom of the insert. Melt the chocolate and butter, stirring frequently to combine and smooth.

Measure the flour, baking soda and salt into a bowl and set aside.

Place the sugar in a large mixing bowl. Pour the chocolate and butter mixture over and stir to combine. Stir in the egg and vanilla. Stir in the flour mixture. When well combined, cover and refrigerate at least 1 hour or overnight.

While dough is chilling, preheat oven to 350. Place pecans on a baking sheet with sides and toast in the oven 5 to 8 minutes or until lightly browned and fragrant. Do not let them burn. When cool, finely chop and place in a small bowl. Set aside.

Unwrap the caramels and place in the top of a double boiler. Add the milk. Over simmering water heat the caramels until melted. Stir frequently to smooth and blend in the milk. When melted and smooth turn burner to low and keep warm.

When the dough is chilled, use a 1 Tbsp scoop to measure out dough. Shape into balls, and roll in the chopped pecans. Place 2 inches apart on ungreased cookie sheets. Use the end of a wooden spoon to make an indentation in the balls. Use your fingers to support the sides of the ball as you make the indentation. Bake for 6 to 8 minutes or until the cookie is set. Remove from the oven and immediately reimpress the indentation. Remove to wire racks to cool.

Place wax paper under the wire racks. With a small spoon fill the indentation with about 1 teaspoonful of caramel.

While the caramel sets, place the chocolate and shortening in the top of adouble boiler over simmering water. Stir to smooth and combine. When melted drizzle over the caramel. Cool completely.

When cooled and set, layer cookies in an airtight container separated by wax paper. Store in a cool, dry place.

Makes 4 dozen cookies.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Splashy Surprise

This recipe is based on the recipe that was a senior winner in the 1st Grand National Recipe and Baking Contest held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City in 1949. This prize-winning recipe was submitted by Miss Laura Rott of Naperville, Illinois. The contest was created to celebrate Pillsbury’s 80th birthday. The contest was nick named “Bake-Off” and it fit so well, that it stuck. A tremendous success, the contest has been repeated annually for the past fifty years.

I started making these cookies professionally for a splashy surprise on cookie platters. A few leftovers on a plate and my family was hooked! They do fall into my “fussy” cookie category, but they are so very worth the time and effort. An assembly line process helps to take some of the tedium out of their making. I measure out all the balls, then flatten them and enfold the mints, etc. This works quite well for me, but you may find another process that works better for you.

Notes for this cookie: Although chocolate mint wafers are called for, any chocolate wafer of similar size and shape can be used.

Starlight Mint Cookies

3 c. flour

1 tsp. baking soda

1 c. packed brown sugar

½ c. sugar

3/4 c. unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 tsp. vanilla

2 eggs

60 solid chocolate mint candy wafers

60 walnut halves or pieces

Measure the flour and baking soda into a bowl and set aside. In a large bowl beat the sugars and butter until light and fluffy. Scrap the sides, add the vanilla and eggs, and beat until blended in. Scrape the sides, add the flour mixture and beat on low speed until combined. Cover and refrigerate for at least two hours or overnight.

Preheat oven to 375. Count out walnut halves into a bowl and set aside. Unwrap the wafers into a bowl and set aside. Have cookie sheets handy.

With a 1 Tbsp scoop measure out the dough into balls. When the step is complete, flatten the balls of dough in the palm of your hand. Place a chocolate wafer in the middle of the flattened dough. Fold the dough over the wafer so it completely covers it. Place the cookies seam side down about 2 inches apart on the cookie sheet.

When this step is complete, place a walnut half or a few walnut pieces on top of each cookie. Bake for 6 to 8 minutes or until the cookie is a light golden brown. Rotate sheets halfway through cooking time. Remove immediately to wire racks.

Makes about 5 dozen cookies

Thursday, March 4, 2010

I Got Lucky

My mother was a fabulous cook. For a number of years she had her own catering business, which she ran with one of her friends. I spent many hours watching my mother cook and bake. Mom was usually moving too fast to teach while she was working, but every once in a while, if you caught her just right, you got lucky! One Saturday morning when I was about twelve, Mom was making her macaroni and cheese, I got lucky.

My mother worked with a practiced ease—this was a dish she could have made blind folded. I stood to the side and watched, fascinated and transfixed. At one point she turned around and looked at me. I began asking questions. Why do you do this? Why do you do it that way? What does it do? How do you know to do this? Why? Why? Why? How? Why? Why? My mother patiently answered every question. This is how and when I learned to make a roux, and Mom’s Famous Macaroni and Cheese.

Notes for this recipe: This is a crowd-sized recipe, but can be halved. The type of cheese really does make a difference. For the best flavor use a high quality extra sharp cheddar. I use Cabot Extra Sharp Cheddar Cheese. This cheese has excellent melting qualities and gives the sauce a velvety rich texture. Do not use low-fat cheese. Use unsalted butter, no substitutes. This is not a difficult dish to make, but does take patience and care.

Mom’s Famous Macaroni and Cheese

2 Tbsp. butter

1 lb. pasta (such as: penne, macaroni, gemelli, cavatappi)

4 oz. unsalted butter

½ c. flour

4 c. milk

1 lb. extra sharp cheddar cheese, cut into 1 inch chunks

8 oz. extra sharp cheddar cheese, grated

Preheat oven to 350. Grease a 4 qt. heavy casserole with the 2 Tbsp of butter and set aside. Cook the pasta according to directions on package. Drain, rinse thoroughly and pour into the prepared casserole. Set aside.

In a heavy saucepan melt the butter over medium-low heat. Add the flour and whisk to form a paste or roux. Add the milk and whisk to combine. Cook the sauce until slightly thickened, stirring frequently. Add the chunks of cheddar and stir them in. Continue to stir until the chunks have melted and are combined into the sauce. Stir continuously, do not allow the sauce to boil or burn.

When the sauce is thickened and velvety pour it over the pasta and sprinkle the grated cheese evenly over the top. Bake for 1 hour or until the sides are bubbling and the top is a crispy golden brown.

A Particular Treat

Whenever there was leftover pie crust dough my mother made what she called “Snickerdoodles.” These were a particular treat and lasted about 1 minute. Even my father would eat more than one. Dad was not a fussy eater he just believed in the abundance of sufficiency and rarely over ate. But, he did have a powerful sweet tooth and these treats were among Dad’s favorites. He’d pour himself a cup of coffee or a glass of milk, pile a few of these onto a plate and have himself a snack break. My mother reveled in his obvious enjoyment.

My family doesn’t like these any less. When I make pies I make extra dough just to be sure there will be enough left for these delectable treats. Everyone knows what will be coming out of the oven and they hover at the kitchen door. As soon as these babies are cool enough to handle, they are gone, often before they can be plated. Hence the extra pie dough!

Please note: Due to the molten sugar, remove the pastries from cookie sheets immediately. While cookie sheets are still warm, douse them with water to begin dissolving the sugar.

Mom’s Snickerdoodles

Pie crust dough for 1 single 9 inch pie crust

4 Tbsp unsalted butter

1 c. sugar

2 Tbsp. cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350. Lightly grease cookie sheets and set aside.

Place the butter in a small saucepan and melt. Combine the cinnamon and sugar and set aside. Roll out half the pie crust dough on a lightly floured surface into a roughly shaped rectangle to about 1/8 of an inch thickness. Brush with 2 tbsp. of the melted butter. Sprinkle evenly with ½ c. of the cinnamon sugar mixture. Roll the dough from the LONG end (not the short) into a long, thin roulade. With a VERY sharp knife cut into rounds about 3/8's of an inch think. Place cut side down on prepared cookie sheets. Repeat with remaining dough. Bake for about 8 minutes or until the edges are lightly browned. Rotate racks half way through baking time. Remove to wire rack immediately to cool.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Elegant Simplicity

Every Christmas, my mother made dozens of many different kinds of cookies. My favorites were her Vanilla Spritz and Sugar Cookies. When Bella was old enough we made sugar cookies frequently. For every school event Bella brought sugar cookies. Holidays meant, yup, sugar cookies. Over the years we have developed quite a cookie cutter collection.

Every year at Christmas-time Bella and I still try to bake sugar cookies together. This year Bella was able to come home a few days early, and we had a wonderful time baking. We made many of our traditional favorites, including Sugar Cookies. We made the colored sugars and used our favorite cookie cutters. It was such a wonderful treat!

This is the recipe my mother used. It is elegant in its simplicity in both flavor and the making.
To enhance your creative possibilities, make your own colored sugars. For colored sugar how to, see my earlier post Surprisingly Easy.

Best Ever Sugar Cookies
2-1/2 c. flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
¾ c. unsalted butter, room temperature
1 c. sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract

Measure the dry ingredients into a bowl, stir to combine, and set aside. Place the butter, sugar and eggs in a medium-sized bowl. Beat on medium speed until well combined. Scrape sides of the bowl. Add the dry ingredients, and blend in on low. Chill dough covered for at least one hour or over night.

Preheat oven to 400. Have cookie sheets handy. Remove dough from the refrigerator. Cut into thirds. Roll one third of the dough out on a floured surface to about ¼ inch thickness. Cut into desired shapes using cookie cutters. Place on ungreased cookie sheets. Decorate as desired with colored sugars, dragees, nonpareils, edible glitter, etc. Bake for about 4 minutes until cookies are set and the edges are a very light golden brown. Rotate half way through baking time. Watch carefully as the cookies burn easily. Remove to wire rack to cool completely. Store in airtight container with wax paper between layers.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Surprisingly Easy

Variety is the spice of life, and when decorating sugar cookies it can make all the difference. I’m speaking specifically about colored sugars. Years ago frustrated with the lack of color choices, the problems created by the coarseness of the sugar, and the bitter after taste imparted by the dyes, I began making my own colored sugars. It is surprisingly easy. There is no limit to the variety of colors and the texture of granulated sugar is perfect for decorating cookies. The only color I have found to leave an after taste is red, and only when a very intense color is desired.

It is essential to use paste colors. Do not substitute liquid or gel paste products, these contain too much moisture and will dissolve the sugar. Paste colors can be purchased almost anywhere cake decorating or party supplies are sold. There are a number of name brands--Wilton, Ateco, and Cake Craft are among the most well known. Whether you use these brands or another is not a factor in successfully coloring sugar.

The variety of colors made available to me by making my own colored sugars transformed cookie decorating in my professional world. My customers loved it and so did I. So will you. Enjoy!

Colored Sugars

Granulated sugar

Paste food colorings

Put about 1/2 cup sugar into a glass or metal bowl. With a toothpick scoop out a tiny amount of the desired color onto the sugar. With your fingers rub/mix the paste into the sugar. Add paste a little bit at a time, rubbing/mixing as you go, until the desired color is achieved. Scrape the finished sugar into an air-tight container and store in a cool dry place. Use on cookies, cakes, muffins and other baked goods.

Valued Family Traditions

As a child I spent a great deal of time with my grandparents. They lived just a mile or two away. The day I was deemed old enough to ride my bicycle to my grandparent’s was a milestone in my young life. My bicycle and I were inseparable, and I rode to my grandparent’s often.

My grandmother and I would sew together. She taught me how to darn socks, make patchwork quilts, and do cross-stitch embroidery. I would help my grandparent’s with household chores, and often stayed for meals. My grandmother was a wonderful cook. I would watch her cook and once in a while we would make something together. Some of my most valuable cooking lessons were learned in her kitchen.

When I was around twelve we made gingerbread cookies together. The index card I copied the recipe onto still lives in my recipe box written in my childish hand. The memories attached to these cookies are among my most cherished. Over the years, I have made these cookies many times. My father remembered eating them as a child, and they always brought a smile to his face. Bella is the third generation to bake Gram's Gingerbread Cookies. There are pictures of her decorating these cookies when she was barely tall enough to stand at the counter. We still make these cookies together every Christmas. These are the family traditions I value.

Gram’s Gingerbread Cookies

2 c. flour

2 tsp. baking soda

1/2 tsp. cinnamon

½ tsp cloves

2 tsp. ginger

½ tsp. salt

¾ c. unsalted butter, room temperature

1 c. brown sugar

1 egg

¼ c. molasses

Dried cranberries, dark and golden raisins, whole cloves, crystallized ginger

Sift together the dry ingredients and set aside. Cream butter until fluffy. Add sugar, egg and molasses. Beat to combine. Add the dry ingredients and beat to combine. Cover and refrigerate at least two hours or overnight.

Remove dough from the refrigerator and allow to sit for about 10 minutes to soften slightly. Preheat oven to 375. Lightly grease cookie sheets and set aside.

Divide dough into quarters. Roll one quarter out on lightly floured surface and cut with desired shapes. Place well apart on prepared sheets. Repeat with remaining dough.

Re-roll scraps, cut and place on sheets. Decorate the cookies with dried cranberries, raisins, whole cloves and crystallized ginger.

Bake for 8 minutes rotating sheets after 4 minutes. Watch the cookies closely during second half of baking as they burn easily. Remove to wire rack to cool completely.