Archive for ‘cookies’

June 11, 2011

S’more Truffles & Even MORE Macarons

As I’ve openly professed my love for all things marshmallow throughout the duration of Pumpercake’s existence, it should come as no surprise to my most loyal readers that I’m also a big fan of s’mores.  Smore’s are one of the only hot desserts that are perfectly acceptable during even the hottest summer nights.  A few years back, there was one summer in particular that Alicia, Katie and I lived solely off of graham crackers, milk chocolate and melted mallow, maybe with the occasional dollop of creamy peanut butter thrown in.  So when our families planned a visit during my last trip to Michigan, I knew I had to create a couple s’mores-inspired treats to pass around as the girls re-told the story of my being too impatient to wait for my metal marshmallow skewer to cool before devouring the mallow and nearly burning off my bottom lip.

Both desserts combine all the elements of the beloved s’more in different ways.  The truffles have crushed grahams and melted marshmallow that make up the base of  the candy, as well as a surprise mini-mallow hidden in the center.  The truffles are finished with a coating of milk chocolate and an extra pinch of crumbs.  The macarons, much sweeter than the truffles, present the flavors of the s’more in a more familiar, sandwich-like display.  Both bite-sized treats were delicious, looked beautiful together, and went over very well.


S’mores Truffles

Inspired by: S’mores

These truffles are most delicious when served cold, straight out of the refrigerator or cooler, if possible.  This allows for the texture of the truffle interior to match that of the marshmallow hidden inside, creating a velvety, homogeneous bite.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

15 large marshmallows

6 ounces cream cheese, softened

1½ cups graham cracker crumbs*

½ cup mini marshmallows

2 cups milk chocolate chips

In a small saucepan over low heat, melt butter.  Add in large marshmallows, toss them to coat in the melted butter, and allow them to melt entirely.  Once melted, transfer the mixture to a medium bowl containing the softened cream cheese.  Beat together the melted marshmallow and cream cheese until homogeneous.  Mix in the graham crumbs until completely combined.  Refrigerate mixture for about 10 minutes.  Once the mixture has chilled, it’s time to shape the truffles.  Using a melon-baller or a small cookie dough scoop makes this job a breeze, otherwise, I suggest using a round tablespoon measuring spoon to scoop and measure out the mixture.  Each time a truffle is scooped, place a mini-marshmallow into the center of it and roll the truffle to re-shape it into a ball with your hands.  Once all the balls are formed and stuffed with a marshmallow, transfer them to the freezer to chill for 15-20 minutes.

While the truffle centers are chilling, prepare a double boiler fitted with a medium glass bowl containing the chocolate chips.  Over low heat, slowly, evenly start to melt the chocolate until it has almost completely melted.  Remove bowl from heat and continue to stir chocolate to melt the remaining solid pieces and to slightly cool the mixture.  Remove the truffles from the freezer to prepare to coat them, one at a time, with the melted chocolate.  I find that the easiest way to do this is to use the fork and spoon method, thoroughly described in another of my candy-making posts, here.  Once each truffle is coated and dropped onto a sheet of parchment paper, they may be dusted with a sprinkle of graham cracker crumbs before the chocolate has hardened.  Store cooled, hardened truffles in between layers of parchment paper in an airtight container in the refrigerator or freezer.


S’mores Macarons

Inspired by: S’mores

A truly delicious rendition of  the dessert.  Each of the components that make up this recipe can be found throughout Pumpercake.

Chocolate Shells

Marshmallow Frosting

Graham cracker crumbs*

Flaked sea salt

Once macaron shells have baked and cookies have been sandwiched with frosting, prepare a small batch of simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water brought to a boil over the stove, reduced to a syrup and cooled) to brush on top of the shells.  Sprinkle a bit of graham cracker crumbs and pinch of flaked sea salt over top of the syrup-brushed cookies.

*Both desserts can also be made gluten-free by use of gluten-free graham crackers crumbs.

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June 2, 2011

Macaron Mess, Part III: Practice Makes Perfect

I’ve been going a bit overboard with macaron practice and production lately.  The delicate cookie that I once loathed has recently become my favorite kitchen experiment and my favorite gift to give away.  I’m constantly thinking and talking about them, and I may have even had a few dreams revolving solely around the macaron and its endless flavor combination possibilities.  It became clear to me that it was time to re-visit the chocolate-peanut butter macaron recipe from my very first attempt (emphasis on the word “attempt”) about a month ago.  Regardless of the fact that I’ve been a mac-making machine lately, making chocolate macaron shells still brought about a whole new challenge for me.  The addition of cocoa powder into the batter scared the living daylights out of me.  And as David Lebovitz suggests cutting back on almond flour while Tartelette suggests cutting back on powdered sugar when attempting chocolate macarons, I was torn and confused.  What’s the difference between unsweetened cocoa powder and Dutch-process unsweetened cocoa anyway?

Luckily, my chocolate shells turned out very nicely due to David’s recipe (although that doesn’t mean that Tartelette’s wouldn’t have turned out just as well!).  I went with my original inspiration and filled the shells with a salted-peanut butter buttercream, mimicking my sister-in-law’s peanut butter buckeyes.  I kept my promise to my sister-in-law and my brother and made sure that they got to taste these less-fragile, correctly made cookies.

In other (much more exciting) news, Evan’s great friends, Sam and Megan, were married at a gorgeous black tie ceremony in Detroit this past weekend.  Evan selected some really nice wedding gifts to be shipped to their home, but I also decided to bake them something nice and have it waiting for them in their suite after the reception.  I wanted to make them something really special and pretty… something personalized just for them on their special day.  I didn’t even find out until after I’d given them the cookies that Megan just so happens to be allergic to gluten.  Thank goodness I’d ended up making these… one of the few fancy and gluten-free treats that I’ve come to grow so fond of whipping up!

As purple was one of the theme colors of their wedding decor, I chose to make Megan and Sam some violet shells with a blackberry buttercream filling.  I hand-painted some of the macs with tiny designs and flourishes, including one with their initials.  I saw the beautiful couple two days after the wedding and found out how much they enjoyed the cookies.  Congratulations, newlyweds!

Salted Chocolate Peanut Butter Macarons

Inspired by: Chocolate-Peanut Butter Buckeyes

Chocolate Macaron Shells

Adapted from David Lebovitz’s “French Chocolate Macarons”

1 cup confectioners sugar

½ cup almond flour

3 tablespoons unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder

¼ cup superfine sugar

2 egg whites, aged & room temperature*

small pinch of cream of tartar

-recipe yield: about 17 filled macarons

Substituting the vanilla ingredients for the chocolate ingredients and proportions above, follow the French Macaron Shell directions portion of the recipe (as well as the extra tips listed just before the recipe).  The cocoa should be added into the food processor and ground along with the confectioners sugar and almond flour.  Baking time may need to be increased by an extra minute or so.

Salted Peanut Butter Buttercream

½ cup smooth peanut butter           ½ teaspoon table salt

2 tablespoons unsalted butter        ½ cup confectioner’s sugar

½ teaspoon vanilla extract              2 tablespoon heavy whipping cream

In a medium bowl, cream together peanut butter and  butter until fluffy, about 2 minutes.  Beat in vanilla and salt.  Gradually add confectioner’s sugar and continue to beat.  When the sugar has been combined, drizzle in heavy cream and whip until fluffy, being careful not to over-whip.

-Optional:

Once macaron shells have baked and cookies have assembled and sandwiched with buttercream, prepare a small batch of simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water brought to a boil over the stove, reduced to a syrup and cooled) to brush over top of the shells.  Sprinkle a little kosher or flaked sea salt over top of the syrup-brushed cookies for an extra salty bite.

Blackberry Wedding Macarons

Pretty Purple Macaron Shells

For purple (or any other color) macaron shells, follow the French Macaron Shell recipe (as well as the extra tips listed just before the recipe).  Desired amount of gel food coloring can be added to macaron batter just after dry ingredients are sifted in and just before starting to fold dry ingredients into the meringue.  A good way to do this is to squeeze the gel directly onto a clean spatula before using the same spatula to fold the batter.

Blackberry Buttercream

Adapted from sammyw‘s “Raspberry Buttercream Frosting”

½ cup unsalted butter, room temperature

¼ cup seedless blackberry preserves

2-3 cups confectioner’s sugar

1 tablespoon heavy whipping cream

In a medium bowl, whip butter until fluffy, about 2 minutes.  Add in blackberry preserves and beat until homogeneous.  Gradually beat in confectioner’s sugar until desired sweetness has been achieved.  Once sugar has been dissolved, drizzle in heavy cream and whip until fluffy.

-Optional

To make the designs, I diluted some more of the purple food coloring with a drop or so of water and used a fine paintbrush to apply a small amount of the thick purple liquid to the tops of the cookies in different designs.  Allow painted shells to dry completely before stacking, packaging, handling or serving.

May 22, 2011

Macaron Mess, Part II: Macaron Success!

It is with great enthusiasm that I share with you today the news of my recent triumph over the anticipated (and dreaded)  French macaron!  You may remember my recent post involving my previously unsuccessful and all-around sad attempts at the temperamental cookie, as well as my promise to keep practicing, researching and attempting to master the art of the macaron.  Luckily, this is one of those instances where my more obsessive-compulsive traits came in handy, and after another week or so of reading up, gathering a few more materials, aging another couple pairs of egg whites, and picking apart the brain of the brilliant blogger/baker/creative mastermind, Heather (aka Ms. Sprinkle Bakes), I was finally able to pop out a couple batches of some pretty successful macarons.  Hooray!

I came to realize that I’d had a pretty good idea of what I was doing during the first few attempts, and with a few little tweaks to my original game plan, I found victory.  Victory, in this case, comes in the form of smooth, crispy, eggshell-like crusts, soft and meringue-y cookie center, and beautifully flourished “feet.”  One of the most crucial (and ridiculously simple)  changes I made had to do with the temperature of the oven.  After describing to her in painful detail every step I took in preparing my macaron batter, Heather’s first suggestion to me was to use an oven thermometer to test the true temperature of my oven.  I immediately bought the tool and came to find out that my oven is an astonishing 20 degrees hotter than its stated temperature says it should be.  This, most definitely, played a part in my failed cookies.

Convinced that I had jinxed myself the first time by previously making the filling before the macarons (incorrectly) baked, this time I focused only on the macaron batter and didn’t think twice about making a filling until they (hopefully) baked up correctly.  My first successful batch was just a simple white macaron.  In the spirit of celebration, I whipped up a rum-infused chocolate-black cherry filling to pipe in between the lovely little cookies.  Having been too nervous to sprinkle anything atop the unbaked batter, I instead brushed the top of the cookies with a little simple syrup and dusted them with some chopped cocoa nibs.

Just in case this batch had been a fluke, I made one more batch using the exact same techniques and adding a touch of green food coloring to the batter.  To my amazement, this batch worked out just as beautifully.  Using the extra pistachio paste I had leftover from my semifreddo, I made a pistachio buttercream for the filling, and used the same simple syrup brushing method to sprinkle some chopped nuts on the top of the assembled cookies.

By no means am I claiming that my macarons turned out perfect or that I’ve mastered the process, but I do feel pretty satisfied with the cookies I’ve been able to crank out so far.   I’m not sure if the oven temperature was the only flaw in my previous attempts, as I made a few other changes in the steps taken to achieve my final product, but I’ve formulated a (rather long) list of all the helpful tips and tricks that I’ve gathered along the way for anyone looking to make their own macarons.  I will continue to practice and possibly add to this list, but for now, I feel confident in saying that if these precautions are taken and the steps are followed meticulously, you’re bound to find the same success that I eventually did!

  • Invest in an oven thermometer.  As stated above, I found out (after a few failed batches) that my oven was much hotter than the temperature set.  While these cookies are too fragile to withstand such high heat, they also won’t bake up properly if the heat is too low.  Get to know your oven and it’s true temperatures before attempting your macarons.
  • Keep your almond flour in the freezer.  I always keep nuts in the freezer in order to keep the oils from going rancid, but for some reason I never thought to apply  this rule to my almond flour.  Not only will it keep the natural oils in the ground almonds from spoiling, but freezing the flour will also keep it from turning into a paste when you further grind it down.  So simple, but makes all the difference.
  • Use super-superfine sugar.  I normally buy Domino brand superfine sugar that comes in a skinny cardboard box.  When my first couple batches of macarons didn’t come out, Ms. Sprinkle Bakes inquired about my SF sugar and suggested that I might have gotten a bad box.  The fact that it comes in a cardboard box makes it susceptible to moisture.  If the box gets set into even the tiniest puddle of water on the counter, the sugar can be ruined.  I found another brand of superfine sugar that’s meant for dissolving into iced tea and is sold in a plastic container.  I double checked that it was pure SF sugar and nothing else and gave it a little zip through the food processor before using it to create my meringue for the macs.  I highly suggest being extra cautious in the quality and condition of your SF sugar!
  • Pulverize, pulverize, pulverize.  Grind up all of your dry ingredients to the finest powder you can possibly achieve.  Even the superfine sugar can benefit from a good run through the food processor.  Combine both the cold almond flour and the powdered sugar together in the food processor before grinding it down in order to keep the almond flour from becoming almond butter.  If the almonds start to separate from the sugar in the food processor, turn it off, fluff the powders together with a fork, and combine again.
  • Sift, sift, sift.  Sift the ground almond-powdered sugar mixture two or three times before sifting it (again) into the meringue.  Discard any and all excess almond bits that don’t make it through the sifter.
  • Beat the perfect meringue. The meringue should reach stiff peaks before the dry ingredients are incorporated, but not so stiff that the eggs start to separate in chunks.  Try beating on medium speed instead of high speed and checking the meringue frequently to make sure the mixture holds its shape and isn’t runny, but doesn’t appear too dry and over-whipped.
  • Fold carefully. When it comes to combining the batter, one fold too few or one fold too many can mean misshapen, cracked, or foot-less finished cookies.  Regardless of what anyone else said about starting with quick folding strokes, I’ve found long, gentle strokes are the best way to slowly but surely incorporate your batter to the perfect consistency, to the point where the batter falls from a spatula in shiny, smooth “ribbons.”
  • Line and prep insulated aluminum cookie sheets.  I read that the best pans to bake macarons on are insulated aluminum sheets (not non-stick), and after testing out this theory for myself, I most definitely agree.  The cookies baked up on these sheets were the most evenly cooked and the all-around best ones.  To line the cookie sheets, I tested both silpat mats and parchment paper and was pleased with the results of both, but would suggest parchment paper.  The reason for this is that I found it very helpful to trace 1-inch circles onto the paper to use as a guide when piping the batter onto the sheets.  This will help to create perfectly round, evenly sized and shaped round cookies every time.  Space the circles about an inch and a half apart.
  • Use a pastry bag and tip.  Using a pastry bag and tip will help the batter to pipe out smoothly into perfect little disks.  Using a pastry bag and tip will also help you to test out the consistency of your batter, as batter that just starts to ooze out of the tip of the filled pastry bag is the correct consistency.  If it does not, it is too stiff and hasn’t been folded enough.  Squeeze the batter back out of the bag, give it another fold, and try again.
  • Dry out your batter.  Once the batter has been piped into round disks on the sheets, tap the sheets on the counter-top to help get rid of any air bubbles and then allow the sheets to sit a room temperature for 15-30 minutes.  This will help the batter to create a shell on the top of the disks, and when the cookies are placed in the oven, the heat will help the bottom of the cookies to rise and form the little feet, while the dried shells will stay round, smooth and intact.
  • Rotate your pans. Being overly-cautious, I was hesitant to open the oven enough to rotate the cookie sheets halfway through baking, but found that it does make a huge difference in helping the macarons to bake evenly and the feet to flourish nicely around each cookie.

    French Macaron Shells

From Martha Stewart’s “French Macaroons”

1 cup confectioners sugar

¾ cup almond flour

¼ cup superfine sugar

2 egg whites, aged & room temperature*

small pinch of cream of tartar

-recipe yield: about 17 filled macarons

Trace 1-inch circles onto parchment paper and line cookie sheets with the paper.  Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.  In a food processor fitted with a steel blade, pulse together the confectioners sugar and the almond flour until further ground into a fine powder and thoroughly combined.  Sift the powder at least twice through, discarding any clumps, and set aside.  Clean the food processor and blade, and then use it to further grind down the superfine sugar.  Set aside.

Using an electric mixer on medium speed with a whisk attachment, beat the egg whites until foamy.  Add in the cream of tartar and continue to beat until soft peaks have just formed.  Gradually add in the ground superfine sugar and continue to beat on medium speed, frequently turning off the mixer and checking for stiff peaks.  Once stiff peaks have been achieved, sift in the almond-confectioners sugar mixture.  Using a rubber spatula, gently fold ingredients together without deflating the meringue.  Batter is properly folded when it falls from the spatula in shiny “ribbons.”

Fill pastry bag with cookie batter.  Pipe circles of batter onto parchment-lined sheets using the traced circles as guides.  Lightly tap trays on kitchen counter to release any air bubbles in the batter.   Gently press down with your finger any little peaks on the surface of the cookies that may have formed from piping.  Allow trays to sit at room temperature for 15-30 minutes so that cookie batter can dry out.

When cookies have dried, reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees and insert one sheet of cookies into the center rack of the oven.  Rotate the pan after 5 minutes of baking and allow cookies to bake for an additional 5 minutes (10 minutes total).  Remove from oven and place onto cooling rack.  Replace oven temperature to 375 degrees, wait about 5 minutes for oven to reheat, and then reduce temperature to 325 degrees when inserting next sheet of cookies into the oven.  Repeat this process for each sheet of cookies.  Let baked cookies cool on trays on cooling racks for 10 minutes before carefully removing them to be assembled with filling.

Optional Ingredients:

gel food coloring

¼ cup sugar

¼ cup water

topping of choice (chopped cocoa nibs, chopped nuts, kosher salt)

If choosing to dye the macaron batter, the food coloring should be added to the batter just after the dry ingredients have been sifted in but before any folding has taken place.

To add a topping to the top of the baked macarons, a simple syrup is needed to bind the topping to the cookies.  To make a simple syrup, simple combine equal parts sugar and water into a saucepan over medium heat and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat and allow the liquid to come to a simmer.  Remove from heat when all the sugar has dissolved and liquid has formed a syrup, about 5-10 minutes.  Allow to cool completely.

Brush a small amount of cooled simple syrup onto top cookie of the assembled macaron.  Sprinkle on the finely chopped topping of choice and allow to dry completely before handling.

Rum Infused Chocolate-Black Cherry Filling

¾ cup semi-sweet chocolate chips          ¼ cup black cherry preserves

¼ cup cream cheese, softened                 1 teaspoon rum extract

Assemble a double boiler with a small glass bowl and melt the chocolate.  Once melted, remove from heat and set aside to cool.  In a medium bowl, beat the cream cheese until soft and fluffy.  Add in the cherry preserves and rum extract and beat until combined.  Pour in the cooled chocolate and beat until homogeneous.  Transfer filling to a pastry bag and pipe a small amount onto the bottom surface of macarons to sandwich the cookies together.

Pistachio Cream Cheese Buttercream

½ cup white chocolate chips

¼ cup cream cheese, softened

¼ cup unsalted butter, room temperature

½ cup pistachio paste

½ teaspoon salt

1 cup confectioners sugar

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

1 ½ tablespoons heavy cream

Assemble a double boiler with a small glass bowl and melt the chocolate.  Once melted, remove from heat and set aside to cool.  In a large bowl, cream together the cheese and butter until soft and fluffy, about 5 minutes.  Add in pistachio paste and salt and beat until thoroughly combined.  Beat in the cooled white chocolate.  Gradually mix in the confectioners sugar while continuing to beat, and then drizzle in vanilla and heavy cream and beat until desired consistency has been achieved.

May 19, 2011

Crème Brûlée, The Cookie Way

My very close family friends, Judy and her daughters, Alicia and Katie, are huge supporters of my baking and the blog.  I actually spent a great deal of my adolescence playing ‘bakery’ (amongst other games) in their kitchen with Alicia and Katie when I would babysit.  One of our most memorable dessert-making experiences was the time we attempted Paula Dean’s “Chocolate Crème Brûlée.”  After watching Paula prepare the dish for a live audience on TV, Alicia insisted that we give it a try, quoting Paula throughout the entire process and reminding me that “we can do this!” and “not to fear the brûlée!”

When the recipe called for a touch of coffee liqueur, Alicia excitedly pulled out an unopened bottle of Tia Maria and handed it to me.  I told the girls that we could just skip to the next ingredient on the list, as I didn’t feel right using the liqueur, both because it was unopened and because I’m pretty sure the girls were both under the age of twelve at the time.  Alicia assured me that we were not only allowed to use the liqueur, but that we NEEDED to in order to make Paula proud.  Torn, I told the girls that if they called Judy and got her permission to open the bottle and use some for our brûlée, that that was the only way I’d allow it.  Alicia, being the older sister, strategically handed the phone over to little Katie who dialed her mother and proudly asked, “Mom, is it okay if we open the big bottle of liqueur from the pantry?”  Shaking my head, I was certain that I’d never be allowed to bake with the girls again.  Judy, dumbfounded I’m sure, backtracked and asked Katie why she wanted to open the bottle of liquor, to which Katie replied in a huff, “Not liquor, Mom.  Liqueur.”

Eventually, the confusion was cleared up and Judy was happy to grant us access to anything we needed for the recipe, resulting in some beautiful and delicious ramekins of chocolate crème brûlée and a silly story to be told and retold at every family gathering since.  In order to give Judy and the girls a big ‘thank you’ for the many lovely gifts for the kitchen that they’ve showered me with since Pumpercake’s debut, I wanted to pay tribute to our favorite story and send them something inspired by the yummy brûlée we made that day.  I decided on some sweet little brûlée-esque  cookies, complete with a dash of homemade coffee liqueur.  The vanilla bean cookies are ultra-rich and buttery, just as you might expect, and are finished with a dusting of sugar and a light brush of the kitchen torch (also a beloved gift from Judy and the girls a few years back).  Making them brought me right back to baking with my two favorite little girls…who, by chance, aren’t very little anymore.

Crème Brûlée Cookies

Inspired by: Crème Brûlée

Adapted from Abigail Johnson Dodge‘s “Burnt-Sugar Vanilla Butter Cookies,” Fine Cooking

½ pound unsalted butter              2 eggs plus 2 egg yolks

1 ¾ cups granulated sugar           3 cups all purpose flour

4 teaspoons vanilla bean paste    1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons coffee liqueur         2 teaspoons baking powder

-recipe yield: about 2 ½ dozen cookies

In a large bowl, beat butter until smooth.  Add in 1 ¼ cups of the sugar and cream together until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.  Beat in vanilla bean paste and coffee liqueur until well-incorporated.  Add in eggs and yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition.  Sift in the flour, salt and baking powder.  Gently mix on a low speed until just blended.

Refrigerate dough for about 10 minutes, just chilling it enough to slightly firm the dough.  Divide chilled dough into two equal parts.  Roll each half into a log and wrap each log tightly in plastic wrap and then in aluminum foil.  Freeze the two logs overnight (or longer).

When ready to bake cookies, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Remove the logs from the freezer and peel away foil and plastic wrap layers.  Slice logs into disks about ¼ inch thick and drop each disk into a dish containing the remaining ½ cup sugar.  Place the disks, sugar-side up, onto sheet trays lined with parchment paper.  Leave at least 3 inches of space between disks on tray, as they will spread quite a bit while baking.  Bake cookies for 11-14 minutes.  Place trays onto cooling racks for 7-10 minutes to cool, then transfer cookies directly on racks.

Once cookies have cooled, dip the sugared side of each cookie, once again, in the remaining sugar.  Using a kitchen torch, melt the thin layer of sugar on the cookies.  Allow the hardened sugar on the torched cookies to cool before serving or storing.  Store cookies in between layers of parchment paper (the sugar will stick to other cookies without paper) in stacks in airtight containers.

Coffee Liqueur

¼ cup granulated sugar           ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract

¼ cup water                             ¼ cup vodka

2 ¼ teaspoons instant espresso powder

-recipe yield: about ½ cup

In a small saucepan, combine sugar and water over medium heat and bring to a boil.   Reduce heat and allow liquid to simmer for 5-10 minutes, until sugar has dissolved and formed a syrup.  Remove from heat and stir in espresso powder.  Set aside and allow to cool slightly.  Stir in vanilla and vodka.   Cover and store in a cool place.

May 14, 2011

Cream Cheese Sugar Cookies, Doctor Approved

When I was a kid, right around Christmas every year my mom would allow me to play “hooky” from school for one day, and instead of attending classes, I was to spend the entire day in the kitchen with her baking hundreds of Christmas cookies.  We called this day “Cookie Hooky.”  I’m not sure if her reasoning behind this day was to reward me for getting good grades and doing well in school, or if it was just her sneaky way of getting me to do the bulk of the work (my mother is a self-proclaimed baking-hater).  Regardless, I excitedly looked forward to Cookie-Hooky every year… almost as much as Christmas day itself.

We baked lots of different kinds of cookies, and eventually some of our recipes became family traditions that were requested each and every year, come Christmastime.  My brother’s favorites were always the “Cream Cheese Sprinkle Cookies,” a simple, yet scrumptious creamy vanilla cookie dressed with a pretty Christmas sparkle.  We made a double batch of these babies every year, per Jeffrey’s request.  Somehow, over time, our recipe was lost and a few Christmases passed by without the familiar luscious red and green sprinkled treats.  I’ve researched and played around with a few cream cheese cookie recipes, but nothing seemed quite right… until, out of the blue on a day in late April, my mom found the beloved recipe!  Just in time for me to bake up a few batches and experiment with some new flavors for my brother’s birthday in May!

The vanilla recipe, I knew wouldn’t need much tweaking, as it is simply magnificent just as it is.  As he also happens to be a lover of chocolate, I also baked Jeffrey a special batch of my own chocolate-version of his favorite treat.  The cookie doughs turned out beautifully, both of them deliciously sugary-sweet with the perfect touch of tangy-tartness.  After a few quick rolls in sugar of Jeff’s favorite color, bright “Superman-Blue,” the dough was sliced, baked, and shipped off with love to my amazing brother, who just recently passed his last set of boards and is, officially, a doctor.  I’m so proud of him and hope that these cookies help bring him back to memories of our Christmases together as kids, and I hope that they also play a part in the celebration of his birthday and this huge milestone in his life and his career.

Vanilla & Chocolate Cream Cheese Sugar Cookies

Inspired by and adapted from: Mama Lew’s “Cream Cheese Sprinkle Christmas Cookies”

Vanilla Cream Cheese Sugar Cookies                                                    Chocolate Cream Cheese Sugar Cookies

½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature                    ½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

8 ounces cream cheese, softened                                                     8 ounces cream cheese, softened

1 cup granulated sugar                                                                     1 ¼ cup granulated sugar

½ teaspoon vanilla extract                                                                ½ teaspoon vanilla extract

½ teaspoon salt                                                                                 ½ teaspoon salt

2 ½ cups all purpose flour                                                                  2 cups plus 2 tablespoons all purpose flour

colored sugar for decorating                                                              1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

-recipe yield: about 3 dozen cookies (per batch)                               colored sugar for decorating

In a large bowl, beat butter and cream cheese until soft and combined.  Add sugar and cream together until no longer granular, about 5 minutes.  Beat in vanilla extract and salt.  Sift in the flour and cocoa powder (if making chocolate cookies).  Stir dough together until just combined, scraping down sides of bowl.  Refrigerate dough for about 10 minutes, just chilling it enough to slightly firm the dough.  Divide chilled dough into four equal parts.  Roll each part into a log and wrap each log tightly in plastic wrap and then in aluminum foil.  Freeze the four logs overnight (or longer).

When ready to bake cookies, preheat
the oven to 325 degrees.  Remove the logs from the freezer and peel away foil and plastic wrap layers.  Roll the logs in colored sugars and press sugars gently into the dough to help them to stick.  Slice logs into disks about ¼ inch thick and place disks onto sheet trays lined with parchment paper.  Leave a couple inches of space between disks on tray.  Bake cookies for 14-18 minutes, making sure not to overbake.  Place trays onto cooling racks for 7-10 minutes to cool, then transfer cookies directly on racks.

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May 3, 2011

Macaron Mess, Part I

Up until this point, everything I’ve shared on pumpercake has been a story of recipe triumph and picture-worthy finishes.  It is a harsh reality that in the baking world, some stories do not end in success.  I feel as though it would be dishonest of me to share with my small, but loyal group of readers only the stories that end in the sweetest victory.  Now, I’ve been upfront with the fact that I am, by no means, a pastry professional and have had zero means of formal instruction in the kitchen, and it was inevitable that a recipe-flop was bound to take place at one point or another.  I was just really hoping that it wouldn’t happen at this point in the lifespan of my blogging career… barely one month after my first post.  But, then again, it was me who chose to take on the amateur baker’s worst nightmare, also known as: the French macaron.

Here was my thought process:  Cathryn, my sister-in-law, has a birthday coming up, and I wanted to bake up something special for her.  Cathryn is a terrific baker herself, my favorite of her specialties being her chocolate-peanut butter buckeyes that she whips up every Christmas.  Those bite-sized dreams could put peanut butter cups out of business.  I wanted to make her a batch of  something small with similar flavors modeled after her perfect candies, and I decided that this would be a good time to attempt French macarons.  Not to be confused with those swirly coconut chewies (macaroons), French macarons are tiny little sandwich cookies with an eggshell-thin crust, meringue-y cookie interior, and a variety of silky fillings to bind and sandwich the two cookies together.  And the feet, oh, the feet!  If all goes well, when the teeny tiny disks of cookie batter are piped onto sheet trays and placed into the oven, the heat from the trays pushes the top disks of the cookies up-ward, and creates, at the bottom of the cookies, pretty little flourishes called “feet.”  Now, macarons are notorious for being one of the most finicky and temperamental confectioneries one can attempt. The slightest blunder in over-folding, under-folding, or measurements (most recipes call for the ingredients to be measured in grams) can result it cracked tops, lava-like explosions, or lack of feet entirely.  A spin on Cathryn’s buckeyes, I decided I’d attempt  a chocolate macaron with a peanut butter filling to be shipped off to Cathryn and my brother’s home in Ohio.  And Cathryn, being a fellow baking-junkie, was sure to appreciate the time and efforts put forth to prepare for her the special cookies.

Chocolate batter

I studied and researched many a cookbook and blog for two weeks straight.  I bought the suggested brands of ingredients that work best, the correct size piping tip to use, and the specific type of cookie sheets that help the macarons to rise the most evenly.  I learned tons of tips and tricks to help the process go by super-smoothly, like exactly how many folds would incorporate the ingredients to the perfect consistency, and that I should age my egg whites for at least two days (I did mine for three!), and that tracing 1 inch circles onto your parchment-lined sheets helps to pipe symmetrical disks.  I gathered my ingredients, enough to make two batches in case the first ones didn’t work out, and planned every last step of the process a week ahead and set aside an entire day devoted only to these little buggers.

Regardless of my measuring and re-measuring and my sifting and re-sifting, my first batch of cookies were a nightmare, complete with lopsided feet and an inedible, raw center.  After quite a few tears and a little revamping,  I attempted a more simple, vanilla batch the second time around, and although this batch did turn out significantly better, they were nowhere near where they’re supposed to be.  In an effort to disguise their imperfections and also to make them a little more buckeye-like, I sprinkled the fragile little failures with some cocoa nibs and changed the peanut butter buttercream to a peanut butter and chocolate ganache.  I wrapped them in bubble wrap and dropped them off at the post office to be sent to the birthday girl in hopes that she won’t be too disappointed with what is sure to be a macaron mess by the time it reaches her.

Unfortunately, I have no recipe to share today… only a few sad pictures of my unsuccessful attempts during my adventure this past weekend.  But, I have made it my new mission to not only be able to create the perfect macaron, but to master the process.  I know, I know, I have a long way to go.  But, lucky for me, I’ve been able to get into contact with the ever-talented baker and blogger Heather Baird of the amazing Sprinkle Bakes, who has agreed to help me through this process and has already given me some words of wisdom, encouragement, and a few tips to start off with.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to keep you updated with my progress.  If there are any experienced macaron-makers out there who have any suggestions or advice for me, I’d love the input!  And although I’m too embarrassed to post any pictures of the first batch, there will be a day, hopefully not too far from today, where I hope to post them right alongside the pictures of my successful macarons.  But, until then, keep your fingers crossed for me!

To be continued…

*My more recent (and successful) macaron posts, including an extensive tip list and directions, can be found here and here.

April 14, 2011

A Short Tale of Shortbread

The economic troubles our country is currently struggling through have been truly devastating to many people.  Many have found themselves being laid off, receiving a pay cut or have had a lot of difficulty finding work at all.  Even those who are fortunate enough to have gotten or held onto a great job may be making the extra effort to spend their money wisely and making a few cutbacks during this difficult time.  It came as no surprise to me when I heard that even the Girl Scouts of America were making some “cookie-cutbacks” in lieu of the economic downturn.  Upon hearing this, being the food lover I am, I immediately had to see which of their cookies were being omitted from the selection this year.  Regardless of the fact that I don’t think I’ve purchased or eaten a girl scout cookie since I was a girl scout myself, over 15 years ago, I was very relieved to see that all of my familiar favorites would still be included in production.

Scanning through the list of the “chosen” cookies that had made it past the cut, my eyes fell upon the ever comforting ‘Trefoil’ cookie.  Yes, Trefoils are good, but compared to something with rich peanut butter cream or something covered in swirls of chocolate and coconut… aren’t they kind of plain?  How had they made the cut?  I’ll tell you why.  Shortbread is a true crowd-pleaser.  Soft or crunchy, cookie or biscuit, salty or sweet, twice baked or raw dough and spoon… everyone likes shortbread.

The reliability and comfort of the Trefoil inspired me to make a sheet of shortbread of my own.  It turned out just as expected, just as always.  It was sweet, salty, buttery, crumbly, and melt in your mouth delicious.  I divided the cookies into a few different packages to pass out to friends, including quite a few for Evan to bring to work the next day.  Needless to say, the dependable shortbread worked its magic again and was a huge hit at his office.  I love the fact that they even acted as a bit of an icebreaker with a couple of his superiors.  And let’s face it.  In this economy, winning a few brownie (shortbread?) points at work can’t hurt.

Reliable Shortbread

Inspired by: “Trefoils” – Girl Scouts of the USA

-adapted from Marie Simmons’ “Cookies,”  Williams-Sonoma Collection Series

1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

1 cup confectioners’ sugar         -optional: 1 tablespoon coarse salt for sprinkling

½ cup granulated sugar                              -½ cup semisweet or white chocolate

1 teaspoon vanilla extract                           -¼ cup chopped pecans

4 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons salt

Cover a shallow 9×13 pan with buttered parchment paper and set aside.

In a large bowl, use an electric mixer to beat the butter until fluffy and pale yellow.  Add both sugars and continue to beat the mixture until all the sugar is well dissolved.  The mixture should be smooth when rubbed between your thumb and forefinger, not gritty.  Add in the vanilla and continue to beat.

In another large bowl, measure out and sift together the flour and the 2 teaspoons of salt.  Gradually add the sifted mixture into the butter and sugar mixture while mixing on a low speed until crumbly, yet combined.

At this point, I find it helpful to allow the dough to refrigerate for about an hour.  The chilled dough will be much easier to press into your prepared pan then room-temperature dough would be.  Floured fingertips also help to keep the sticky-ness to a minimum.

Once the chilled dough has been pressed into an even layer onto the pan, use a fork to prick holes into the dough wherever you plan to cut the baked cookies.  This scores the dough, making it easier to slice later and helping to ensure that you don’t end up with a crumbly mess.

Sprinkle the pressed, scored dough with the coarse salt, if desired, and place on the middle shelf of  an oven preheated to 300 degrees.  Bake for anywhere from 40-50 minutes, or until desired golden color  has been achieved.  Allow the shortbread to cool in the pan on a wire rack for at least 30 minutes before removing them from the pan, peeling away the parchment paper, and returning to the wire rack to cool completely.

Once completely cool, transfer shortbread to counter-top or a large cutting board and slicing along the score lines into desired shapes.  Then, if desired, melt chocolate using a double boiler and drizzle the onto selected cookies.  Sprinkle chopped pecans onto cookies while the chocolate is still warm.  Store cookies in an airtight container at room temperature.

April 5, 2011

Whoopie! for Carrot Cake Creme Pies

As a huge ‘Food Network’ fan, I often find myself daydreaming about what I’d do with the secret ingredient on Iron Chef: America or what kind of witty yet soul-crushing critique Geoffrey Zakarian might give me should I find myself competing on Chopped.  And I’ve thought long and hard about what I’d select as my favorite dish on Best Thing I Ever Ate.

Well, I found my answer a couple months ago when I first visited this cute little lounge a few blocks away from my apartment just outside Washington, DC.  I went for a late-morning Saturday brunch, and needless to say, have been back almost every Saturday since my first visit.  It’s getting embarrassing.  The waitress knows my name and I think my body is starting to become conditioned to crave brunch food from their menu come Saturday morning (or earlier in the week).  They make a rosemary waffle with silky poached egg and wild mushroom, crème’ fraiche topping, and it is the Best Thing I Ever Ate.  Having the ever-persistent sweet tooth that I do, it seems odd that my all-time favorite dish be a savory one.  Therefore, I’ve allowed myself a second favorite for those (much more frequent) days in which I find myself craving something sweet.  Luckily, this little lounge has created a stuffed French toast that is nothing short of a masterpiece.  Sweet and refreshing orange cream cheese filling oozes from thick cut, crispy brioche that is warmly spiced to perfection.

This French toast was my inspiration behind today’s recipe.  I did my best to recreate the orange filling and then sweetened it up a touch to resemble the marshmallow-y frosting found in the middle of whoopie pies.  I used a cookie recipe as a base and altered it to make it a little more cake-like, yet still dense enough to hold its shape and the filling.  I chose to go with a carrot cake theme, as I knew the sweet carrots could stand up to the many different spices I imagined the brioche being dredged in to make the French toast.  Also, I found myself with an abundance of carrots that I needed to do something with.  But let’s go with the first reason.

And here is the result!  It’s the oatmeal creme pie your mom used to pack in your lunch box meets carrot cake meets my favorite brunch-time treat:

Carrot Cake Whoopie Pies

Inspired by: “Stuffed French Toast”

–Eleventh Street Lounge (Arlington, VA)



Carrot Cake Cookies

-adapted from Martha Stewart’s “Carrot Cookies”

½ pound (2 sticks) of unsalted butter, softened

¾ cup granulated sugar

1 cup brown sugar

2 large eggs, room temperature

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 ¾ cups all purpose flour*

½ cup whole wheat flour*

¼ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground clove

¼ teaspoon allspice

¼ teaspoon ground ginger

2 cups quick cooking oats

1 ½ cup finely grated carrot (about 5 medium or 3 large carrots)

1 ¼ cup golden raisins (red raisins work fine, too!)

Peel and grate the carrots using the finest side of a box grater, and then set aside.

Spread your raisins out on a large cutting board and give them a rough chop.**  This can turn into quite the sticky situation.  After the raisins are roughly chopped, I like to throw them in a medium bowl, and then spin them through the measured dry oats, coating the raisins completely.  I do this for two reasons: 1) As the oats are covering the raisins, they naturally break apart any sticky raisin-clumps that may have formed, and 2) this dry coating really helps keep the dense raisins suspended in the cookie as they bake, as opposed to sinking to the bottom of the cookie and burning.

In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugars with an electric mixture until fluffy (3-4 minutes). Add eggs one at a time, vanilla, and carrots, beating on medium speed until combined.  Set aside.

Sift together flours, salt, baking powder and soda, and spices.  Stir to combine.  Gradually add flour mixture to carrot mixture on lowest speed until just blended.  Stir in raisins and oats.

At this point, it’s important to cover and chill the dough in the refrigerator for at least an hour in order to let the dough firm up.  This will ensure that the cookies will hold their shape in the oven.  Room temperature dough will cause the cookies to spread out too much and you’ll end up with flimsy whoopie pies. Which will still taste delicious, of course, but will make a giant mess when attempting to eat or handle.

Using a medium sized ice cream scoop, scoop out balls of dough spaced a couple inches apart onto cookie sheets lined with parchment paper.  Bake cookies for about 12-15 minutes at 350′, rotating sheets halfway through baking in order to ensure even color.  Transfer baked cookies to wire racks and allow to cool before handling or assembly.

Orange Cream Cheese Filling

The tangy sweetness of this frosting can work harmoniously with many different kinds of cakes or cookies.  It also makes a delicious dip for fruit!

5 ounces of cream cheese, softened

¼ pound of unsalted butter (1 stick), softened

2 cups powdered sugar

3 tablespoons fresh orange juice

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

2 ½ tablespoons of orange zest

about ¼-½ inch of fresh ginger root, finely chopped

1/8 teaspoon of ground cinnamon

a pinch of ground nutmeg

-optional: chopped pecans, flaked coconut (sweetened or unsweetened)

Using an electric mixer, cream together cheese and butter in a large bowl until the mixture is homogeneous.  Gradually add powdered sugar, scraping down the sides of the bowl throughout mixing.  Continue to cream together the mixture until fluffy, about 3 minutes.  Add orange and vanilla extract, zest, ginger and spices and continue to beat until well incorporated.

Transfer filling to pastry or zip-lock bag, if desired.  Refrigerate filling before pie assembly to allow it to set up and maintain stiffness.

Assembly:

Once cake-cookies have cooled completely and filling as set up in the fridge, it is time for assembly.  If you’re a control-freak perfectionist about your confectionaries, like me, the first step will be to pair up each like-sized cookie with its mate in order for the prettiest finished product.  If you’re using a pastry bag, squeeze out a small ring of filling right in the center of the bottom of half of the cookies, being careful not to get filling too close to the outer edge of the cookie.  If you’re not using a pastry bag, you can just as easily use a small cookie-dough scoop or melon-ball scoop to drop a couple tablespoons of filling in the center of half of the cookies.  Press remaining cookies on top of frosted cookies, pressing down so that the filling reaches the outer edge of cookie-sandwich and is visible.

If desired, roll the assembled pies through chopped pecans or flaked coconut so that the exposed filling picks up the topping.  With your fingers, press pecans or coconut lightly into the filling.

Whoopie pies should be stacked in between layers of parchment paper and stored in an air-tight container in the refrigerator up until ready to serve.  Also freezes well.

*If you’re choosing to make a batch of carrot cake cookies by themselves, as opposed to the whoopie pies, go ahead and cut back to only 2 cups of flour total (instead of 2 ¼ cups total).  This can mean using only whole wheat or only all purpose flour, or your choice of a mixture of both.  I like the depth of flavor and texture that this mixture gives, and the whole wheat flour can definitely stand up to all the spice!
**This is another step you can skip if you’re going the “cookie-only” route.  Although, in this case, re-hydrating the raisins is a great idea.  To do this, soak the whole raisins in some hot water for about 5-8 minutes or until they’ve plumped up, then drain them and pat dry with a towel, breaking up with your fingers any raisins stuck together.  Better yet, add a tiny splash of rum or rum extract to the water to give the raisins a little kick!