Gingerbread cookies

Gingerbread men

I love it when, without any effort, I happen to have everything in the house to bake something. Today that’s gingerbread cookies.

I’m not the biggest Christmas nut I know, but there are certain traditions I need to experience to make the season come alive. Most of them are food related (naturally). The first haul of clementines have already been devoured and there’s more chocolate than usual in the house, so cookies are the next logical step.

The dough is chilling in the fridge as I write this, but I’ve already had great fun sampling it before I did the dishes and the trio of spices – ginger, ground cloves and cinnamon – is heaven!

I’m also excited to use some tiny new cutters that make adorable bite-sized cookies. The only part of this process I’m already dreading is the decorating part. I’m good with making the dough, rolling it out, pressing the cutters, baking, cooling and testing. But then it seems that decorating is just one step too far and I have a feeling that most of these will get eaten plain. I think I need to form an alliance with an enthusiastic cake/cookie decorator.

And here’s photographic proof – the star in the second one is clearly an alien asking me to to take him to my leader. And the men look as though they require medical attention.

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This recipe is adapted from the Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook. I switched out the shortening for unsalted butter. You’re welcome.

1 stick of unsalted butter (1/2 cup)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 cup molasses
1 egg
1 tbsp white vinegar
2½ cups all-purpose flour

Make sure the butter is at room temperature before you begin. You will also need to chill the dough for about 3 hours, so plan your time accordingly.

Measure out your sugar, baking powder, ginger, baking soda, cinnamon and ground cloves into a small bowl and set aside. Beat the butter in a bowl using a handmixer or your stand mixer (using the paddle attachment) until fluffy, about 30 seconds on a moderately high speed. Add the sugar and spice mixture to the butter mixture and mix until combined – you may have to scrape down the sides once in a while. Add the molasses, egg and vinegar to the mixture and mix until combined. Add the flour in stages until combined. Divide the dough in half, place on clingfilm, wrap up tightly and place in the fridge for about 3 hours.

Roll the dough on a floured surface until it is 1/4 inch thick. Cut with cookie cutters and bake in a 375F oven for 6-8 minutes or until lightly browned.

And for those intrepid ones who wish to surpass my modest decorating ambitions, here is the recipe (again from the Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook) for Powdered Sugar Icing:

1 cup sifted powdered (aka icing) sugar
1/4 tsp vanilla
1 tbsp milk or orange juice

Mix the sugar, vanilla and milk or orange juice together in a small bowl, adding more milk/orange juice until drizzling consistency.

After that you’re on your own, kids. I didn’t bother rushing out to buy any special equipment, just merely spooned the icing into a ziploc bag and cut a tiny hole in the corner.

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Brownies

Brownies

Last week I was in the “depths of despair” to quote Anne Shirley; had the “mean reds” as Holly Golightly would have it. Baking brownies was imminent. Most of them were packed up nicely as a housewarming gift. Most of them.

This recipe hails from In the Sweet Kitchen. I frequently find this book mentioned on food magazine lists of must-have cookbooks, with good reason. In this book, I have found my holy grail of brownie recipes, aptly titled “Really REALLY Fudgy Brownies”,  on page 488. While grabbing the Amazon link it looks like there is going to be a new paperback edition published this spring.

At any rate, get ye to the grocery store and pick up a shocking amount of unsalted butter and squares of baking chocolate (I used Baker’s with excellent results, no need to get fancier than that) ’cause this recipe makes an awful lot of brownies – a 9 x 13″ pan may not sound like much, but hoo boy. You might also want to send out a call for volunteers to help you eat them all.

7 ounces unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped
3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 cup plus 2 tbsp unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
4 large eggs, at room temperature
2 1/3 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 1/4 all-purpose flour
3 tbsp good-quality unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa
1/8 tsp salt

Preheat oven to 350F. Grease a 9 x 13″ baking pan and line the bottom of pan with parchment paper. Leaving extra parchment paper to hang over the long sides makes the brownies easier to remove from the pan. Gently melt chocolate and butter in a double boiler, set aside to cool slightly. Beat eggs and sugar until mixture becomes thick and pale, about a minute or two, then add vanilla. Pour the chocolate and butter mixture into the egg and sugar mixture and stir to combine. Sift the flour, cocoa and salt together in a small bowl and then fold into the batter in three additions.  Pour into pan and bake for 35 minutes. Cool completely before cutting.

Classic Madeleines

Madeleines

Madeleines exist at the point where my love of all things French intersects with my love of pretty baking tins. Light and lemony, they tend to disappear quickly amid oohs and aahs. I really can’t take credit for how fantastic they look, with the tin itself responsible for their delicate appearance, but hey, what non-bakers don’t know won’t hurt ’em.

Unlike cooking, baking is a very precise art and I don’t bake often enough to experiment with or adapt a recipe, especially one as  thoughtful and well-written as Dorie Greenspan’s madeleine recipe in Paris Sweets.  Although I will provide the recipe, I highly recommend picking up her beautiful book.

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
2 large eggs, room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
grated zest of 1 lemon
2 tsp vanilla
5 tbsp unsalted butter, melted and cooled

Sift together the flour and baking powder and set aside. Beat the egg and sugar together with an electric or stand mixer for a few minutes until well beaten. Add the lemon zest and vanilla and beat to combine. With a spatula, fold in the flour and baking powder. Fold in the melted butter. Place a layer of plastic wrap on top of the batter and refrigerate for at least three hours, and up to two days.

Generously butter the tin (even if it’s non-stick) and spoon the batter into the molds, about 1/3 full. Bake for about 10 minutes in a 400F oven, until lightly golden and springy.

Remove from tin by running a knife around the edge of the cookies and cool on a wire rack.

Snowballs

I’ll be honest. I stopped making these cookies for a while. One year I had the bright idea to bake cookies and roast hazelnuts for all of our friends and package them with a Christmas CD Jeff recorded. Brilliant idea, in theory. That Christmas season found me making dozen after dozen of these. As time went on, I would have much rather braved the late December mall – and I live by the maxim “hell is other people” – than stand in the kitchen for one more minute making these effing cookies.

I’ve now returned to my senses and annually make moderate quantities of these cookies. It’s really just shortbread wrapped around a chocolate kiss, but my god they are divine.

Just don’t store them in the fridge, as a friend ruefully told me once. Fridge-cold chocolate and teeth don’t get along too well!



2 sticks butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
2 cups sifted flour
1 cup finely chopped walnuts
8 oz. Chocolate Kisses
powdered sugar for dusting

Cream butter and sugar well, until smooth. Add flour, then walnuts. Gather dough into disk-shape and wrap in plastic. Refrigerate at least half an hour. Preheat oven to 350F. Remove foil from Kisses and insert one inside a ball of dough 1″ in diameter. Make sure each Kiss is completely covered by dough. Bake on an ungreased baking sheet for about 12 minutes, until just cooked through. Sift over powdered sugar while still warm.

Notes: The walnuts are optional. I also opt not to dust with powdered sugar.

Source: Christmas Joy