Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Let's Talk Cookies

If you're still sticking with your New Year's resolution to eat healthier and be healthier...good for you! You've outlasted the "resolutioners" who frequented my complex's gym for a while. Unfortunately, you'll probably hate me for what I'm about to post. It's time I finally get around to telling you about the Christmas cookie tins I gave to my loved ones this year. Aren't you glad I put it off until now?

It was by no means my first time making Christmas cookies, but it was my first time making tins and giving them to people, rather than gobbling them up myself. Though, let's be honest, there was an embarrassing amount of gobbling on my part, regardless. It all came about because Husband's dad's boss, up until this last year, would make a cookie tin every year, and Husband always looked forward to it. Last year she decided to retire from the holiday cookie obligation, as it really is a ton of work. Husband, completely bummed out, suggested I try my hand at it...and well, that's really the only encouragement I need to bake at this point!

Let me tell you...trying to whittle down my long list of possible cookie candidates was an exhaustive process. I had a whole list going in Google documents, that was actually comprised of several sublists; highlighting was involved. I had subgroups of cookies, where I grouped them by type (molasses, gingerbread, sugar, shortbread, etc.), then I pasted links to all food blogs and other websites I read that had recipes of that type that looked good. And here's where you'll really think I'm crazy. I read through all those recipes, compared them to each other, and one by one eliminated them until I knew which recipe I wanted in each category. Oh man, it took forever. But it was fun to see the subtle differences in ingredient to come up with a similar end product! And you can start pretending you don't know me now, because yes, I fully admit to being a bit obsessive sometimes.

I know I tend to be over ambitious when it comes to cooking and baking. If you're coming over for brunch, I don't just make pancakes. I also bake up some spinach and eggs, make a fruit salad, bake some scones and biscuits, always with the intention that I'll whip up something for dessert, though I always run out of time. Heck, if I have enough notice I'll bake up a fresh loaf of Challah, and the night before make up some boozy baked French toast for baking the next day. So I knew I wouldn't have time to make every kind of cookie I wanted. I ended up just planning for every eventuality. I made sure I had enough ingredients to make everything I wanted. I had a million pounds of ap flour, 500 sticks of butter, pecans, almonds, extra jars of cinnamon. It was like a war zone in the kitchen. Then I prioritized my cookies. What did I definitely want in the tin, and what could I live without? Then it was time to bake! I ended up hoping for ten different kinds of cookies, but ended up with six. Not bad! Especially considering I didn't much consider how much the tins I bought would actually hold. But I'll get to that. For now, let's talk cookie.

  • Chocolate peppermint cookies, courtesy of Martha Stewart. These are chocolate peppermint cookies with a white chocolate coating and a dusting of peppermint candy. They look like crap, but I swear they didn't before the white chocolate was involved. A word to the wise for those making these cookies: just do plain circles! These were supposed to be pretty stars, but well, the white chocolate coating didn't go so well. Have you ever worked with white chocolate? I hadn't. It doesn't melt! At least the chocolate I bought wouldn't. I thought I was going all out by getting the good stuff, but maybe I should have just melted some cheap white chocolate chips. In the end, rather than dipping the cookies, I had to brush on the goop (which is the most spreadable consistency I could get it to), and since I had to keep the chocolate over the heat to keep it goopey, it was also very hot, scalding in fact. So I pretty much burned the heck out of my hands while trying to evenly cover each cookie. Since this was the first cookie I attempted, I was afraid it didn't bode well for the rest of the day. Thankfully, this was the worst mishap I had, and it ended up being pretty worth the effort. They may not have looked it, but they were delicious, definitely enhanced by the white chocolate, so I wouldn't skip it. In fact, they were Husband's favorite! Maybe next time I should try thinning it out with some butter or water or something?
One note on the recipe, it called for way more white chocolate than I needed. It called for 2lbs, and I only wanted to shell out the money for 1lb. I think it ended up being pretty close, but I actually still had a little left over. Perhaps that's because I didn't have anywhere near the 6 dozen the recipe supposedly makes. Considering my cookie cutter was only like an inch and a half, and I only ended up with about 2.5-3 dozen cookies...that's a seriously small cookie she's making! Be warned. Also, have you ever tried sprinkling peppermint candy dust? It doesn't sprinkle so much as clump and stick to your fingers. I don't really have any tips for you, just play around with it until you find something that works for you. And maybe practice sprinkling before you turn half your cookies into a clumpy mess like I did. I ended up sprinkling with dust (a certain flick of the wrist helped de-clump), and then going back over with the courser crumbs for a bit of crunch.

  • Cherry-nut rugelach, courtesy of King Arthur Flour, via Serious Eats. Another (successful!) first attempt. If you've never had rugelach, it's a flaky almost pie dough-like cookie wrapped around a cinnamon roll-like filling. But it's a cookie! They're seriously good. The secret to the dough is cream cheese. I hear that it really makes all the difference in flavor and tender texture. I wouldn't know, but since they turned out so well, I'm not going to knock it, that's for sure. I used dried cherries and walnuts as suggested, but I'll bet you could play around with other dried fruits and nuts, though I don't know why you'd want to. Everything here just worked. Unfortunately, it was also very labor intensive. It made 64 cookies! That's 64 wedges of dough you have to cut out, 64 wedges you have to roll up and shape. The recipe makes exactly that many because you actually divide the dough into 8ths and then slice each piece into 8 wedges. I'd say you could always go for bigger wedges and end up with bigger cookies, but I think the size I ended up with was perfect, a nice bite size.
By far the best compliment I got on these cookies was my co-worker telling me that they tasted just like the rugelach her aunts used to make her. She said the best food is the kind that invokes a memory and I had done a really good job. Isn't that the sweetest thing ever?

  • Sugar cookies, courtesy of Martha Stewart. I decided to represent a little Chanukah in my Christmas cookie tin with these dradel-shaped sugar cookies. I decorated the tops with turbinado sugar I mixed with blue food coloring. I had to add quite a bit to keep it from looking green. It was a shout out to the sugar cookies we used to make when I was a kid, decorated with red and green sprinkles. I know sugar cookies are sugar cookies, but these really were divine. I really liked the simplicity of the recipe, and I wanted one with a good amount of butter. Sugar cookies should be buttery! Unfortunately, they really lost their freshness the next day. Even though they were stored properly, they became a bit stale in texture. Since these were traveling all over the place, I probably would nix this cookie next time. But for any same-day event, these cookies are a winner (and really, even "stale" they still tasted pretty darn good to me!). They also made a ton. Probably about 4-5 dozen because my cookie cutter was smaller. So unless you have a million people to feed, or unless you're using giant cookie cutters, I would halve this recipe.

  • Slice and bake cookies, courtesy of Smitten Kitchen. These were essentially shortbread cookies with cocoa powder, orange flavoring, and dried cranberries and pomegranate seeds. They were, unfortunately, really not my favorite. I added cocoa powder to the dough, mostly to appease my chocolate-loving husband. I think they would have been better without it. I also had a dried cranberry/pomegranate seed combo package from Trader Joe's and decided to use it, instead of just dried cranberries. There was nothing distinctive from the pomegranate seeds, they didn't add anything, and their texture wasn't quite right for a cookie. I would leave them out next time. And I would add more orange. They weren't orangey enough. Personally, I liked these cookies the least of all, but I had a friend who liked these the best, so you just never know.

  • Bourbon balls, courtesy of my mom. Let me tell you about these "cookies". When I told my mom I would be doing a cookie tin, and I was deciding which kinds of cookies to make, she told me about these bourbon balls my grandmother used to make. My mom said they were so good she literally gained 10lbs from licking the batter the one time she made them. Yikes! Fattening with booze involved? I was so there. First off, please pardon my lumpy spheres above. I don't know what deformity I have, but I am unable to roll dough into a ball to save my life. It always ends up some weird flying saucer shape instead. Anyway, these puppies were strong. I rolled them all out, popped one in my mouth, and then immediately started re-rolling them all smaller just so it wouldn't be such a kick in the teeth. Phew! It was like taking a shot! I think next time I would reduce the amount of bourbon I used...but not by too much! I'll post the recipe below.
I should also mention the reason these balls are so strong is because they are uncooked! It was actually kind of a pain because I felt like I needed to make a disclaimer to everyone eating them, especially those who were pregnant and breastfeeding. And I didn't want to give them to people at work because we have a dry campus and I didn't want to get in trouble. So I think next year I would leave these out. But they'd definitely still be good for a dinner party or other boozy event! Also, I really think these improved in flavor over time. The alcohol flavor chilled out a bit, and the flavors married together a lot better a day or two later. So next time I think I'll do these up ahead of time.

  • Gingerbread cookies, courtesy of 101 Cookbooks. Somehow I didn't manage to get a picture of these cookies, which completely bums me out because they were far and away my favorite, and beautiful! I had a gingerbread man cookie cutter and everything. I could not stop eating the dough while making the cookies, and after they were done, I could not stop eating the finished product. Fantastic. Seriously. Which is funny because up until, oh, a year ago, I thought I didn't like gingerbread. It's kind of a more adult flavor, but oh do I love it now. But even if you don't love gingerbread in general, you will still love these cookies; Husband did! I kept telling him to try the dough (omg, it's the best dough ever!), and he wouldn't, insisting that he wasn't a fan of gingerbread. Well when he finally tried the finished cookie, he was a believer, and even regretted not trying the dough. Sucker! Definitely follow her advise and don't over-bake. I know my oven runs hot, so I actually ended up pulling them out a good minute or two sooner than the minimum recommended time. When the cookies were cooled I dipped them in some royal icing I whipped up with yellow food coloring. Don't worry people who ate my cookies, I used pasteurized egg whites I bought in a carton, which are supposed to not carry salmonella or whatever, though really, who gets salmonella from eggs anymore? Did I mention how much raw dough I ate?
What set this recipe apart from the other gingerbread recipes? It was definitely the white whole wheat flour. Don't be fooled by the name, it's still a whole wheat flour. I believe it just comes from a different type of wheat than regular whole wheat flour. It's a finer grain, which bakes up a lot less heavy, more like AP flour, but with that hint of nutty flavor that I love so much. Everything about the ingredients in this recipe worked great.

And those are all the cookies I had time to make. It was pretty hilarious to see every single surface of my kitchen covered in cookies. Considering I only made about 8 cookie tins, I definitely ended up with more cookies than I needed. Next year, if I have the time to do this again, I will definitely halve some of the recipes.

Here are my lessons learned (ugh, I am such an engineer):
  • The freezer is your friend. I had dough firming up in the freezer pretty much constantly. It made such a huge difference in how they came out. Using the cookie cutters was a thousand times simpler when the dough was cold, and I think it really made a difference in how they baked up as well.
  • Use easy cookie cutter designs. I thought I had! A star, what's so involved about that? Well it was still a pain in the butt. Next year I might nix it and just stick with a circle.
  • Plan ahead! Make sure you have all the ingredients you need. You may have flour, but do you have enough of it for all the batches of cookies you want to make? I actually calculated it all out to make sure. I hate running to the store for one thing. I don't live close enough to make it not a complete pain in the butt. Also, plan what you'll make when. Some of the doughs I made 2 days in advance, just so I would have time! I made sure all the doughs were made the night before so cookie day was just about the baking. And read each recipe! If you need eggs and butter at room temperature, make sure you take them out of the refrigerator with enough time for them to warm up. I'm notoriously bad at this.
  • As I already said with the gingerbread, but this really goes for all cookies, don't over-bake! Nobody likes crunchy dried out cookies. If you're going to go through all the trouble to make cookies, it's worth the extra minute of keeping a close eye on the oven a little before the time they're supposed to be done.
  • Husbands are good at destruction. I got a bit stressed over the white chocolate fiasco, so Husband wanted to help out to help calm me down. I gave him the job of smashing peppermint candies, he enjoyed it immensely.
  • Buy big enough cookie tins! I knew the tins I bought would be too small, but I was stubborn because the next size up I found were just too darn big. Next time just go a size up. Sure, it's a pain to ship, but better that than feeling like you're shorting your loved ones. I only had enough room for 2-3 cookies of each type.

Bourbon Balls

1 c. ground pecans
1 c. powdered sugar
1 1/2 T. cocoa
3 1/2 c. crushed vanilla wafers
1/2 c. bourbon
3 T light corn syrup

Combine nuts, sugar, cocoa, and wafer crumbs and blend well. Stir in bourbon and corn syrup. Form mixture into balls about 1" in diameter. Roll each ball in powdered sugar and store in a tightly covered container. Makes 3 dz.

julo notes: I just threw everything in the food processor and pulsed. If you have that option, I would definitely use it. I would probably only use 1/4 cup of bourbon next time. The crazy hippie homemaker in me would rather make her own wafers and find a substitute for the corn syrup, like agave nectar, but the lazy girl in me probably would never bother.

Did you notice how awesome my cookie pictures turned out? No, I didn't learn not to suck as a photographer overnight. I got some help in the form of a Christmas/Chanukah present from my awesome sister. More on that later.


Kelly said...

I'm TOTALLY making bourbon balls for the superbowl!!

Bette said...

Who gets salmonella from raw eggs these days? Several hundred thousand people every year do, according to the CDC.

And the ones who never get tested and blame their illness on "the flu" or some other food probably account for more that double the reported cases.

You don't have to get that liquid crap in the carton. The eggs that are pasteurized in the shell are fantastic. Most importantly, they won't make any sick.

JuLo said...

Kelly, let me know what you think!

Bette, for icing the "crap in the carton" worked just fine, since I forgot to check whether my regular eggs are pasteurized. But they were from Trader Joe's, and therefore possibly a bit more awesome than stuff you would buy in a regular grocery store. :p I don't think there was any kind of a difference in flavor, since it's all about the sugar anyway.

Spectater said...

the pics turned out awesome! and you started with my fav cookie. and i don't even like white chocolate. :)

JuLo said...

I know! It's all thanks to my light studio! :D

Yeah, I'm not a big fan of white chocolate either, but they just went so well. It really needed that bit of creaminess to go with the chocolate cookie and mint.