Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Go Big or Go Home: A Return to Blogging with 845 Cookies

Well, folks, if I'm going to come back, I'm obviously going to come back in a big way. Yes! this blog has been stagnant for over a year and yes! there has been much less baking than in years past but the siren call of my KitchenAid mixer has finally convinced me to dive headfirst back into the insanity. Contributing to this insanity is my good friend and Christmas baking partner. We've developed this new holiday tradition of baking together at Christmas. This is the third year of our tradition and last year (which I sadly failed to blog about), we made 517 cookies in one day. We counted because we're nerds. It goes without saying that we needed to surpass last year's total this year. We also didn't want to just make cookies this year and decided to expand our baking list to include truffles because who doesn't love truffles? So, on a lovely Sunday afternoon we were off to the races!

Here was our plan: Ok, we kind of didn't have a plan. Last year we had decided on what we were going to bake and strategized the order of the baking and everything. This year our strategy was more in the tone of "Hey, we should bake cookies." So we spent the first hour of our baking time developing a plan. Here was our original plan:

1) Truffles covered in almonds, dark chocolate ganache, white chocolate ganache, Christmas sprinkles, coconut, cocoa
2) Peanut butter truffles covered in dark chocolate ganache and white chocolate ganache
3) Coffee pecan fudge
4) Cookies and cream fudge
5) Palmiers (double batch)
6) M&M cookies (double batch)
7) Reese's peanut butter cup cookies (double batch)
8) Cookie press cookies (snowflakes and trees)
9) Chocolate cookies with white chocolate chips (double batch)
10) Walnut balls (double batch)

That sounds completely reasonable for one day of baking, right? Agreed! Off we went to the kitchen where the first order of business was making the truffles since we would be covering them with so many different things. I love making truffles. It's just heavy cream and chocolate and rolling into a ball. After some very difficult math trying to determine how many truffles should be made for the number of tins that we bought, my friend got to work heating the cream and measuring out the chocolate while I got to work on the base of the M&M cookies. Efficiency! I don't think I've ever talked about the M&M cookies but they're just the regular Nestle Toll House cookies with the chocolate chips cut slightly (which I definitely eyeballed). Then they get baked most of the way until we take them out and add red and green M&Ms in an adorable pattern on the top. And by adorable, I mean completely OCD in that each cookie has six M&Ms (green center, five reds surrounding or vice versa) and obviously the M&Ms must be placed "M" side down. This requires speed, agility, and teamwork to get all of the cookies decorated before the cookies cool down too much. Then, back in the oven for another minute to set the M&Ms and bam! First cookies done!

Well, sort of. Since we made a double batch and we only fit about 12-16 cookies per pan, we were baking these for at least an hour. But that's ok because every time we put a pan in the oven, off we went to do something else! The mixer was occupied so I set about rolling a billion truffles while my friend looked for the spritz cookie recipe. It wasn't actually a billion truffles but the first ones I did were the ones rolled in almonds. Just kidding, because apparently I didn't have almonds! Oh well, walnuts work just as well, right? After a long discussion about the value of toasting nuts before using them, we completely forgot to toast the walnuts and just rolled the truffles in them anyway. Whoops. Oh, have I mentioned how much I love having a food processor? Remember back in the day when I used to chop nuts by smashing a rolling pin into them? This is way better!

Let's see, where was I? Rolling truffles. So I rolled the almond walnut truffles, the coconut truffles (hmm, I'm just now thinking that perhaps I should have toasted the coconut? Is that a thing? I don't actually eat coconut...), and the truffles that were to be covered in dark and white chocolate ganaches. I should also point out that the plan was to have white chocolate drizzle on the dark chocolate truffles and vice versa. Was being the operative word. But wouldn't it have been pretty? By the time I finished the intricate dance of rolling truffles and applying M&Ms and cleaning the chocolate off my hands, my friend had already made the spritz dough and it was definitely time for a glass of sangria.

Devoted readers will remember that I have made spritz cookies before and that I spoke at length of the merits of the Dead Lady Cookie Press. Obviously, I do not have the Dead Lady Cookie Press so I was forced to use a brand new cookie press that I got for my wedding. Well, sort of. Last week, I planned to make spritz cookies for a fundraiser so I opened up my new cookie press and lo and behold, the piece that actually presses the cookies is missing. I was very sad that my fancy electric cookie press was defective so I brought it back to Bed Bath and Beyond where they no longer stock the electric cookie press and I had to get the OXO Good Grips Cookie Press. I was skeptical after the terrible cookie press gun that my mom had failed to press cookies with in the past but let me tell you, I am a convert. This cookie press is SO easy to use! It doesn't hurt your hands, it doesn't slip around, it's easy to load with dough, and it's easy to clean! I know I sound like a commercial for a cookie press but I can't oversell how amazing this cookie press is. Everyone should be so lucky to have this cookie press. I also always love making spritz cookies with people who haven't made them before because it always seems like magic to them to get actual shapes out of those strange metal discs. Anyway, we decided to make the green Christmas trees (because they're the best) and blue snowflakes because they would make our cookie tins look colorful. Simple, beautiful, and baked without incident. Well, except that we forgot to refrigerate the dough before pressing but you know what? I think refrigerating the dough makes it much harder to press! These came out perfectly every time! Bam. More cookies done to add to our total.

At this point, while spritz cookies were baking, my friend magically finished the chocolate cookie dough and was adding the white chocolate chips. I don't even remember her doing any of this but apparently it got done. It was around this time that I realized that we had refrigerated the truffles for wayyyyy too long and now it was hard to pry them from the bowl to roll into balls. I took the bowls out of the fridge but it didn't seem to help much so I muscled my way through the chocolate to roll into balls. It was a fascinating lesson in the science of truffles. The outside of the "dough" was very stiff and hard to get through, but the inside was still creamy and almost wet. Ya know, like a truffle should be! I also learned that no matter how hard the chocolate is, the second I start rolling it in a ball, it gets sticky again and easy to dip in cocoa (which is what I did next).

By now, my dear husband was home and we had prepared a list for him of things he needed to pick up at the store. Also by now, we were realizing that we would need to downgrade at least some of our plans if we wanted to stay sane. So we come to our first compromise: instead of doing white and dark chocolate ganaches, we will just dip in white melted chocolate (Wilton candy melts) and red melted chocolate. How festive! We just needed some red candy melts. Now, I don't want to be too mean because my husband kindly ran this errand for us but I really do have to point out that he texted me a picture of a bag of red candy melts and a bag of dark cocoa candy melts and asked me which one was correct. I don't know how "Wilton red candy melts" on the list could have been clearer in this respect. Also, apparently there were no Christmas sprinkles at the store so my husband picked up red sanding sugar and green sanding sugar. It was a good move and we opted to go with the green since we already would have red truffles.

While we were waiting for our missing ingredients to arrive from Santa, we got to work on the palmiers. We made these last year and they were a big hit and it felt like we didn't make enough last year so we decided to double the recipe. Fun fact: that makes a whole lot of cookies! So many cookies that we ran out of places to put them. We only had enough room to cut one batch in advance and had to wait to cut the rest. But wait, I'm getting ahead of myself! I haven't even told you what these are! Palmiers are puff pastry with sugar rolled in and folded intricately and baked. Sounds pretty easy, right? As always in this blog, if it sounds easy, it surely is not. We had to read the folding directions three or four times and correct the first folding attempt before we got it right, despite having done this before. It's also critical to be careful with the bake time because it's a different amount of time on each side and if you let them go too long, they will burn for sure and burned sugar smells bad. I only burned one batch a little bit but that's because I started to get antsy making just one pan at a time and tossed two pans in at once for one batch. Turns out the bottom pan burns if you do that. After it happened, I vaguely remember that happening last year, hence why I had been doing it one pan at a time. Instinct is an interesting thing. However, now it's documented so that Christmas 2016 Jen won't make the same mistake. Hopefully.

Finally, while the palmiers were baking, we took a break. We were very hungry and thirsty and waiting for our pizza and we needed to continue our annual tradition of watching Home Alone while baking. This year we opted for Home Alone 2 because we didn't finish watching it last year. That movie sure is dated. But I love it all the same. Bear in mind that while we were watching, we were still getting up to remove cookies from the oven at a fairly steady pace. We also used this time to re-discuss our plan and make our second compromise of the night, i.e. there was no way in hell we were making a second version of truffle. Peanut butter truffles were a no-go. We also downgraded the Reese's cookies to a single batch from a double because it was already almost 7 pm and we still had a lot to do. Left on our list at this point was dipping truffles in two types of chocolate, two types of fudge, Reese's cookies, and walnut balls (plus however many palmiers were still left to bake).

After a quick meal, we hauled our already tired and aching bodies off the couch at the approximate point where Kevin is heading to Duncan's toy chest and got back to work. My friend took the cookies and cream fudge and I continued baking the never ending trays of palmiers. Speaking of which, after I put in the last pan of palmiers, my friend played a very mean joke and said "Only one more after that one!" Cruel, cruel joke. I wish I had counted how many batches of palmiers we made because they just went on forever. I also used this time to crush the oreos for the cookies and cream fudge. I was excited to do this with my food processor but I still hadn't cleaned it from chopping walnuts and didn't want to because I still needed to chop more walnuts for the walnut balls. There wasn't time to chop walnuts and then oreos (because apparently fudge is a pretty delicate process that involves moving very quickly once things get going) so I used the old standby: put oreos in a ziplock bag and smack them with a rolling pin. There is something very satisfying about that though. There was something even more satisfying about getting the opportunity to sit on the floor to do it. We were really starting to feel the pain at this point.

There was some intricate teamwork involved with the cookies and cream fudge, especially when we tried to empty a jar of marshmallow fluff into the pot but ultimately we got the fudge in the pan and got the pan in the fridge and set about the next tasks. I took the lead on the second fudge, a nice coffee-pecan fudge. Somehow, this one was more involved than the previous one and involved approximately 20 minutes of constant stirring. While I was doing that, I think my friend was making the walnut ball dough? I don't even know, it all starts to get fuzzy at this point. Anyway, I was very excited to use my candy thermometer for the first time and kept a very close eye to identify exactly when the mixture reached the "soft ball" stage. Then I had to stir in some pecans and put it in the pans. Now, I don't know if we misread the directions or if we were having a collective blonde moment but we definitely should have put it in one pan and not two. It ended up being pretty thin and, in the second pan, didn't even reach the edges. But once it was in the pan, there was no turning back because it was hardening almost instantly. Oh well! Into the fridge you go!

And onto the floor we go to roll out all of the walnut balls. We were completely out of counter space and we were tired of standing and it was definitely past 9:00 at this point. But walnut balls got rave reviews last year! How could we not do them? Strategically, that's why we left them till last. Wait, last....I'm missing something...the peanut butter cup cookies! We also made those sometime between pizza and walnut balls! I literally don't recall how we made that happen. I guess it must have been while I was making fudge? Yes! I remember now, because the muffin tins with the peanut butter cup dough were behind my feet on the floor while I was stirring the fudge! It may have been a bit of a tripping hazard. There were only two pans of those though so I guess they baked quickly. So I suppose that before rolling walnut balls, we were pressing Reese's peanut butter cups into the muffin tins (it's another bake most of the way and add candy recipe) which must mean that at some point, my friend unwrapped all of the peanut butter cups. Hmm. This was only two days ago, I really should remember. We were just getting so tired at this point. And thirsty! It was so weird but we were both so thirsty and we weren't even eating the cookies! We seriously need our heads examined.

Whatever. At some point, we made Reese's cookies and now we're sitting on the floor rolling walnut balls. Despite having very few ingredients, these cookies are delicious. So we rolled them all out on the pans, stuck one in the oven and wait a minute, I missed something else. Sometime before sticking the walnut balls in the oven, we melted the chocolate to dip the remaining truffles in! Let's rewind to that point (whenever it was) and just say that the chocolate melted perfectly in the microwave and we dipped the truffles by sticking a toothpick in each one and spinning it around in the chocolate. In the future, we will be more careful about completely covering the truffles and we will put them on wax paper and not on the pan so they come off easier but in general, this strategy worked well for us. Except for one truffle that looked ugly so we were going to discard it but then we realized that one tin would be a truffle short so we obviously couldn't have that. I actually peeled off cooled chocolate from one of the truffles so that we would have enough of the white truffles to go in the tins. So whew, the last of the truffles are in the fridge chilling and are you tired yet? We are!

Back to balls. We put the walnut balls in the oven and collapsed on the couches to continue watching Home Alone. By the time all of the walnut balls were cooked though, we only got as far as the dramatic music where Kevin starts setting booby traps. Next time we'll need to start the movie earlier. Also, we were rolling the walnut balls in powdered sugar and it worked pretty well but next time, we'll actually sift the powdered sugar first. It was a little bit lumpy. Note for next year!

AND WE'RE DONE! Well, sort of. Done baking. Now we just have to cut a bunch of fudge and actually assemble the tins of cookies and truffles. And ya know, clean up. But look how beautiful they are! And yes, of course we laid the cookies out decoratively on the dining room table for picture taking purposes!

In summary, we made a total of 845 cookies/truffles/pieces of fudge. We started at 1 pm on a Sunday and finished cleaning up at approximately midnight. We are tired. But honestly, it's such a beautiful sight to behold and I feel very accomplished. Next year, I'm thinking that perhaps we don't increase the number like crazy people and instead we focus on better methods of packaging. As it stands, the cookie tins look very nice at first but they are not very stable and the powdered sugar from the walnut balls can make a bit of a mess. We'll definitely be looking for some process improvement there. Overall though, not bad for a day's work. Plus, it was a super fun way to get in the Christmas spirit! Now, who wants a cookie?

A Disney Moment: Treasure Planet
Ok, ok, I know it's been forever. We finished watching all of the Disney animated features well over a year ago and have since moved on to Pixar. But, we did take notes and rank the movies so I'll give you a double feature review until we finish up and give the final rankings! Let's start with Treasure Planet. This is the shocking movie of the group. We settled into watching this with the attitude that we were in for another Atlantis (as a reminder, Atlantis was Black Cauldron bad) but we were pleasantly surprised. It's a pretty underrated movie. We really liked the animation and the creativity of the huge quantities of differently animated aliens. I don't remember much about it except that it was very much in the tone of Muppet Treasure Island (an obvious classic) and we liked that the captain was a woman. Writing it now, it seems pretty forgettable but it was our favorite of the group at the time. Doesn't say much for this group. But we definitely enjoyed this one!

A Disney Moment: Brother Bear
No. There's brothers and bears and my interest in this one ends about there. My sister and I were pretty much yelling at the TV for this one. It felt so long and not much happens and I just did not care. The human animation was reminiscent of Lilo's sister's legs and honestly, were it not for Atlantis, this would be a clear bottom ranking. However, it is saved by the fact that Atlantis might be my least favorite Disney animated film of all time so that earns this movie a 4/5 to close out this grouping. Coming next we have Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons, Bolt, Princess and the Frog, and Tangled. Finally coming out of the black hole of animated films!

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