Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Merry Meringues

Guys, I used the WRONG walnut ball recipe! Brown sugar! My recipe lacked brown sugar!

(Ok, so this is in reference to my last post with the crumbling walnut balls. But I just needed to share my discovery of the truth!)

Moving on to this baking adventure! Just a quick post from a baking adventure last week. I had to bake cookies for a holiday party at work. I didn't have much time to do so and I also didn't want to do anything boring. I'm guessing you know what that means? Something completely crazy!

I decided on meringue cookies. I've made these a few times in the past with varying success. BUT! To spice things up and keep it interesting, I saw a recipe online for "merry meringues" which are striped like peppermints! I just had to try it.

I went back to the America's Test Kitchen meringue recipe because it is just the best and I'm positive always gives me the best results. And I love making meringues because they have so few ingredients. Just egg whites, cream of tartar, a pinch of salt, sugar, and vanilla. Making the meringues was so easy. To achieve the striped effect, I was directed to paint colored stripes on the inside of my piping bag. I opted for only 4 stripes of red to test it out. I think this would have worked better with non-plastic bags because I felt like I had trouble with the dye rolling around a bit but overall, I ended up with 4 thin red stripes in my bag.

Then I had to VERY CAREFULLY spoon the meringue into the piping bag without smudging the stripes. It helped that I was working with a gigantic piping bag. So I started piping and the first five or so came out completely white. Not a disaster because hey, they're still going to be yummy meringue cookies. After that though, I actually got the desired effect! I think next time I'll either add more stripes, make them thicker, or pipe while turning to get a spiral but regardless, I really loved how they turned out!

How cute are they?!? I tried to fit as many as possible on the two pans because I wasn't making two batches and actually ended up throwing out a bit of meringue. It was a travesty. I baked them for the appropriate amount of time then let them cool in the oven. When I finally took them out, they popped right off the pans perfectly. And when I bit into one, it was absolute perfection. It was just the right amount of airy goodness - little pillows of perfection. These are probably the most perfect meringues I ever made. Success! I brought them to the party and they were enjoyed by all. I got quite a few compliments on these. See? I can still bake! Ignore that last blog post! Hopefully more tales of holiday baking to come! Especially now that I know the correct walnut ball recipe!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The One Where the Baker Gets Burned (Literally and Figuratively!)

Welcome to the very special holiday edition of this blog! As you may know, at the holidays, there is a lot of baking that goes on but there is one yearly tradition that is an exercise in excess. That's right, the yearly baking with my dear friend where we do crazy things like make over 800 cookies in a single day! It's crazy! It's fun! It's festive! It's exhausting! It's successful! Well, normally, it's successful. This was not. Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy ride...

This year, we were shooting for 1000 cookies. We say cookies but really that includes truffles and pieces of fudge as well. It was a lofty goal and we weren't going to be disappointed if we didn't hit it but dammit, we were going to try. And it was definitely attainable! After all, we had a plan! So here's our initial list of what we were going to make:
1) Cookie press cookies (quadruple batch)
2) Palmiers (double batch - makes a lot of cookies per batch)
3) Walnut balls (quadruple batch)
4) Hot chocolate cookies (double batch)
5) Penguin cookies (a late addition because we didn't have enough cookie types)
6) Chocolate truffles (white chocolate and regular)
7) Fudge (3 types)

It's a lot but totally doable. Plus we started baking earlier this year! We took out the puff pastry for the palmiers for it to defrost (yay thinking ahead!) and then we kicked it off with the cookie press cookies. A quadruple batch is more than my mixer can handle so we did two double batches. We settled on trees (obviously), snowflakes, wreaths, and teddy bears. Making the dough was easy. Coloring the dough was even pretty easy. We had our looming suspicions that the color combinations that the food dye package suggested wouldn't work but they did. We also had to use a hand mixer to color two of the batches because we didn't want to clean the KitchenAid four times that early in the day and it was a challenge but we got it done. I love cookie press cookies because you can make so many of them so fast. I also love that I have at least six baking pans so we could press all of the cookies and bake two trays at a time. Within about two hours, we already had 365 cookies. Well, 364 if you don't count the teddy bear cookie that got excluded because it somehow turned pornographic. And no, I don't have a picture of him but suffice it to say, he would be inappropriate to serve to children.

Promising start, no? Next up, we did the first step of the hot chocolate cookies. These cookies are a new one and are part of the "we're so crazy" lineup. Basically, they're sugar cookies baked into a cup shape that you fill with ganache, add super mini marshmallows to, add a pretzel handle and voila! A cup of hot chocolate! You're already shaking your head at me, aren't you? Stop shaking your head, it wasn't even close to the biggest disaster of the day. We used Pillsbury sugar cookie dough as directed (read: because we're lazy) and greased our mini muffin tins. There was some debate over whether we should roll the dough in sugar to help the cookies release from the muffin tin. It was a late addition to the recipe and as my friend pointed out, "If they had to update the recipe, it's probably an important optional step." Good point. So we pressed the dough into the muffin tins so that they looked like adorable little cups and tossed them in the oven. We used the cook time to clean up a bit (look how efficient we are!) and then checked the oven. They did not look done. At all. And a bunch of them rose so they just looked like mini muffins. Noooooooo. We had just finished discussing that worst case scenario, we'd cut out the middles and then when we checked back, they had collapsed again. Oooookay. Disaster averted? They definitely needed extra baking time but finally they started to look browned and done so we took them out of the oven. Let cool completely in pans. Seems like a good time to go get coffee, lunch, and more baking ingredients!

Fast forward to about an hour later where we've already decided on only two types of fudge but to just add nuts to one of them and where we discovered that Dollar Tree was completely out of truffle and cookie tins. Despite these setbacks, we're still feeling good. We checked on our now-cooled hot chocolate cookie cups and well, a chisel wouldn't have released them from the pans. After staring at them for a bit, we decided to try putting them back in the oven to soften them. Miracle of miracles! It worked! It's like we're real bakers with knowledge or something! At this point, we're already patting ourselves on the back for how well we're doing. Fools. We lost about nine of the cookies because the bottoms stuck to the pan too much but overall, we had some adorable little hot chocolate cups. We put them aside to fill later and moved on to the palmiers.

I was smart this year and looked at last year's blog post to see if I had any palmier tips. I did and the tip was "only one pan at a time". The problem with palmiers is that, even though they're only two ingredients, they take forever to bake all the batches and require sustained attention. This year though, we quickly remembered how to fold the cookies properly, were again amazed at the FOUR CUPS of sugar we used on these cookies, and we remembered that while we're doing these cookies, we can actually get a lot of other things done too. So while my friend did the Oreo fudge (I can't report on this at all because I definitely didn't touch any part of it), I manned the palmiers. Here's what I forget every year: they're a pain to flip over and to get off the pan because the sticky sugar gets all over the spatula. So what I end up doing every year is forgoing the spatula and just use my fingers. This is easier when I have long nails (I do not at this moment) but after a few seconds of letting them cool, they are cool enough for a very fast flip. This works great and I made it halfway through the batches (out of, I swear at least 12 batches) before I got distracted by talking or thinking or something shiny and didn't wait any time before touching the cookies. Bam, burn. I feel like a baby because it's so small but let me tell you, a sugar burn on the tip of your right index finger is obnoxious and painful.

It all goes downhill from here.

I truly mark that as the moment where everything that was going so very smoothly just went to hell in a handbasket. Because after this point, nothing at all went right.

Let's return to our heroes who are still baking palmiers, shall we? Once the Oreo fudge was done, we started working on the ganaches for the truffles. I measured out a combo of unsweetened and bittersweet chocolate for the regular truffles and heated up the heavy cream to melt the chocolate. Then I did the exact same thing for the white chocolate. Let me re-emphasize this: I did the EXACT same thing for the white chocolate. I did notice that the white chocolate melted chocolate seemed a bit more liquid than the regular chocolate but didn't think much of it because white chocolate has behaved oddly in the past. Anyway, they both went into the fridge to chill. Then we made the ganache for filling the hot chocolate cups. It was basically the exact same process except actually hot cocoa mix gets added as well. This was actually uneventful and we filled our hot chocolate cups with ganache pretty easily. We also added the super mini marshmallows (they're called marshmallow bits and they're actually stocked by the hot chocolate, oddly enough) and these little guys looked adorable. The last step was to add the pretzel handles but we needed to wait for the ganache to harden first. So off to the side they go again.

And now the fudge. Bear in mind, we are still rotating pans and pans of palmiers at this point. I very stupidly picked a Martha recipe for the fudge. I'm sure it makes excellent fudge but it's very complicated and involves a candy thermometer and let's just say the Oreo fudge did not. Oh yeah, and we doubled the recipe. We actually discussed in advance which would be a bigger regret: doubling the recipe or not doubling the recipe and risking not having enough fudge. So we doubled. Mistake. We thought we were being smart - when it said things like "use a medium saucepan" we used my big pasta pot and thought that would suffice. It did not. Somewhere in the heating cream, melting chocolate stage (during which time we almost forgot to put in half of the chocolate!), the pot got very very close to boiling over. And we were supposed to let this boil to soft ball stage. The problem was, the chocolate was rising above where my candy thermometer temperature line was. And there was nowhere left for this mixture to go! I think we finally called it when we were two degrees below soft ball stage. We really didn't want to clean boiled-over fudge off the stovetop. So we hoped it had cooked enough and put it into a giant metal bowl. Then Martha directed me to add the pieces of chilled butter to the top of the mixture to let melt. The butter was a little less chilled than I would have liked because it was so so hot in the kitchen at this point. We don't normally bake on a day that's almost 60 degrees! Anyway, time to let the fudge cool down for an hour to 112-118 degrees (yes, seriously) and time to take a short break and watch Home Alone. I'd like to point out, the movie had been playing in the background for hours and we technically sat down to watch it the third time when we finally took a break.

Whew. Sustenance....needed....

We used this time to keep pulling the never-ending pans of palmiers and to assess the situation. Cookie press cookies: done. Palmiers: will never be done, but done. Oreo fudge: done. Chocolate fudge: cooling. Truffles: cooling. Hot chocolate cookies: drying. Walnut balls: not even started. Penguin cookies: abandoned. But fear not! Our cookie total isn't looking sad because I had forgotten that I bought holiday chocolate chips (they're just red and green but they're too cute. How could I NOT buy them??) and my friend found them so we decided to whip up a quick batch of Nestle Toll House cookies for good measure. So, after assessing how screwed we were, we ordered pizza, bid Kevin and the Wet Bandits goodbye and got back to work.

My friend took the chocolate chip cookies and I took the walnut balls. At first we were reluctant to tie up the mixer because we'd need it again for the fudge but when I checked the temperature of the fudge, it was still at about 180 degrees. And the bowl was still piping hot to the touch. Hmm. I won't say much about the chocolate chip cookies because they're easy and they looked great and that was cool. I will, however, tell you very carefully about the walnut ball process. If you recall, the plan was to quadruple the recipe. That would require 6 cups of walnuts. But alas, I didn't have enough walnuts! Or maybe I did but couldn't find them but we were also worried that it wouldn't all fit in the Cuisinart so we downgraded to tripling. So if a quadruple batch needs 6 cups, then a triple batch needs 4 cups, obviously. Oh, you math nerds are telling me that's wrong? Well, you're right, it is wrong. I forgot a half a cup of walnuts. Ooops. As this unfolds, you tell me if you think that was the fatal flaw. Then I added 3 cups of flour, 6 tablespoons of sugar, and 3.5 teaspoons of vanilla (ok, it was supposed to be 3 teaspoons but I forgot that we were tripling and not quadrupling momentarily). Finally, I added the three sticks of butter and the dough looked exactly right. It felt exactly right. I had to leave it in the mixer for a bit to attend to some other things but walnut balls are so easy, how could I get them wrong?

I stepped away from the walnut balls to roll my chocolate truffles which were now ready. We did not double the chocolate truffles because we also had the white chocolate truffles. So I rolled out the truffles, covered my hands in chocolate, and started getting worried that we wouldn't have enough. At this point, our truffle tins were looking like they would be 3 pieces of fudge and 7 truffles (mixture of white and regular). We figured that worst case scenario, we could double up on each of the fudges. I'll spoil it a little...this was not the worst case scenario in the end. It was worse.

After rolling the chocolate truffles, I checked on the white chocolate and it was still liquid. Didn't seem to be thickening at all. And we were running out of time. So I put it in the freezer. Meanwhile, the chocolate fudge was still way too hot. We moved it to a different room and hoped it would eventually cool off. All that done, we decided to circle back and finish our hot chocolate cups. All that was left was to melt white chocolate and break off pretzel pieces to make adorable handles. Except I bought the wrong pretzels. Something we noticed AFTER melting all the white chocolate. Ughhhhh. So I called my dear husband to see if he could pick up the correct (smaller) pretzels on his way home.

Tired yet?

We rested our weary feet and sat in front of the TV rolling the walnut balls. We were careful not to make them too big and we did a very nice job on consistent sizing and they looked great. Tossed them in the oven at 300 degrees for 35 minutes and cleaned up a bit before the pizza finally arrived. So we had an actual break! And we got to see Kevin booby trap his house!

Our break sadly ended when the walnut balls were done. We had made a note last year to sift the powdered sugar so it would be less lumpy and we sifted two bowls of sugar so we could both roll the walnut balls in powdered sugar before they cooled. At this point, we were completely out of counter space and were planning to sit on the floor to roll the walnut balls. We pulled the walnut balls out of the oven, waited a minutes, and then tried to pick them up. And couldn't without them crumbling. So we panicked. Were they not cool enough? Were they not cooked enough? We didn't think they looked as browned as usual and we were making a lot so we put them back in the oven for another few minutes. In the meantime, we started prepping truffle coatings. At this point, we realized our frozen attempt at white chocolate truffles was still liquid and unlikely to change. So we set about rolling our sad number of truffles in walnuts and covering them in red and green chocolate. Or at least that was the plan until "Oh wait! The fudge!" It was now finally cool enough to put back in the mixer where I was instructed to mix it until it started to hold its shape, about 3-8 minutes. About 16 minutes later, I was afraid my KitchenAid was going to overheat. No luck, still liquid. It was thickening but I'm pretty sure we were done for. We mixed pecans into half of it, tossed it into pans, and put it in the fridge and hoped for the best.

We didn't get the best.

The fudge never fudged. It's still in my fridge and is surprisingly soft (though maybe is cut-able now, days later). I bet if you went at it with a spoon it'd be delicious. But there was no way that fudge was making the truffle tin cut. So for those keeping score, we're now at one type of fudge and one type of truffle for our truffle tins. The ones rolled in walnuts were fine. The ones dipped in green were fine(ish). The ones dipped in red were fine until the last one where we ran out of melted red chocolate to dip, had to melt some more but the chocolate wouldn't melt to a dippable consistency, got a fresh bowl of red chocolate, tried to make that last one look nice, and promptly gave up. Meanwhile, I was too sad to dispose of all of the white chocolate ganache and it was a really nice piping consistency so I filled a piping bag with it and made beautiful designs on some of the truffles. At least they were beautiful for about 5 seconds after I piped them and then the white chocolate would just sort of roll off the truffle. I thought I was going crazy. I would look at ones that I swore were piped well and they looked bad so I would repipe them. Finally, my friend informed me that I wasn't losing my mind, the truffles were just losing their white chocolate. This whole fiasco ended with my friend saying "that last red truffle looks pretty bad" and me saying "who are we kidding? ALL of these truffles look pretty bad!" and the two of us literally falling on the kitchen floor laugh/crying.

But it's not over yet! Don't forget, there are still walnut balls to handle. Or rather, to not handle. Because picking them up was like picking up a ball of sand on the beach. The lightest pressure and it would just crumble into a billion pieces. We managed to roll maybe 4 of them before we just gave up. We tried googling this walnut ball issue to see what went wrong. We quadruple checked the ingredients I added and while mistakes were made, that didn't feel like the problem. Our working theory is that the kitchen was warmer than it's ever been when we were baking and baking is a fickle thing. But regardless of how it happened, we are heart broken. Everybody loves the walnut balls. I love the walnut balls. But we have no walnut balls to give. Four cups of walnuts gone to waste. We had even sifted powdered sugar! And we never sift! Wasted sifting! I tried to think of ways to use the crumbled walnut balls but my brain was way too fried after nearly 12 hours of baking. My friend asked if they at least tasted good aside from the texture. I popped one in my mouth and nearly choked. It was impossible to separate the taste from the texture because the second it hit my mouth, it just crumbled and dried out my entire mouth. And so, garbage. We called my husband and told him to forget about the pretzels because we were DONE. We had the bitter taste of failure and a whole kitchen to clean up. It was so disappointing because we started out so strong and then the hits just kept on coming.

We sadly boxed up our cookies and truffles and fudge but it was half-hearted at most. I was counting on a lot of gifting of cookies and truffles but was just so embarrassed by the truffle tins that I may not gift them at all. The cookies at least make a presentable tin though there is a pretty heavy emphasis on cookie press cookies. We didn't even continue counting our cookies. We definitely hit over 500 but the number target just wasn't important in the end. Sigh. I guess after so many successful baking endeavors we had to have a failure. Just wish it wasn't at Christmas.

Next year, it's Back To Basics 2017. No truffles, no fudge, no cookie recipes we haven't tried before (well, maybe just one or two). Like a phoenix, we shall rise from the ashes of failure to emerge even more triumphant than ever before. Also, 2016 sucks.

Looking on the bright side, the cookies that we did make look lovely. Take a look and see for yourself.

The cookies:

The truffles:

The truffles do look very nice in the tin though. Somehow that makes it a bit better. 

The failed walnut balls: (And yes, I did Hulk smash the entire pan of cookies in my sadness and rage.)

I almost forgot the best part! While we were tinning up the cookies, I pulled out a tin and put it on the table. Minutes later, I said, "Oh wait, we already filled this tin." To which my friend replied, "No, we didn't...." That's right, my friends. I found in my kitchen a half-empty tin of LAST YEAR'S CHRISTMAS COOKIES. They looked surprisingly not-disgusting but I'm still alarmed that I found that. Must keep better tabs on my cookie tins this year. I consider it a sign though. It's like the universe is reminding me that we can be good at this and we will one day succeed again.

Don't worry, I will have more successful upbeat blog posts before we actually hit Christmas. In fact, I made some remarkably perfect meringue cookies that I'll tell you all about soon. In the meantime....FA LA LA LA LA FA LA LA FAIL!

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

American as Apple Pie Cookies: An Election Day Distraction

Oh my goodness, I have been DYING to bake! I've been so busy that I've felt like there hasn't been a second to spare. Of course, the day I decided to do some baking, it wasn't like I actually had a spare second. But I was desperate. The siren call of my KitchenAid was drawing me in.

I was having a little shindig at my house so clearly that calls for cookies. And naturally, I can't do things the easy way and decided to make two types of cookies. I very creatively Googled "fall cookies" to try to find whatever looked weird and interesting and ended up with Hot Chocolate Cookies and Apple Pie Cookies. I was mostly intrigued by the Apple Pie Cookies. I glanced at the recipe and my first reaction was "But wouldn't these make an ooey gooey mess?" I was pretty convinced that these little bites of apple pie wouldn't be good so the Hot Chocolate Cookies were really there as a backup. They looked pretty safe. Just a pretty basic chocolate cookie with a piece of dark chocolate pressed in and a marshmallow pressed on top. What could go wrong?

You must be forgetting who the baker is if you think nothing could go wrong.

Naturally, I strategically made both types of cookies at once. I started with the chocolate cookies because the dough had to chill for two hours. It started out nicely straightforward: melt butter and a whole bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips. I didn't actually have an unopened 12 oz bag of chocolate chips so I looked at my opened 36 oz bag of chips (yes, they sell bags that big to the general consumer) and eyeballed about a third of the bag. Measuring chocolate chips is for suckers. While the chocolate was melting and was supposed to be constantly stirred (oops), I combined the brown sugar, eggs, and vanilla. Next I had to add the chocolate mixture. Now, a clever person would have removed the KitchenAid paddle to add the chocolate. A clever person would not have contorted in a vain attempt to pour a pot of chocolate into a partially obstructed bowl. I am not a clever person, apparently. I somehow managed to actually splash warm chocolate all over my shirt, pants, cabinets, and floor. If you're trying to picture how that would happen and can't...well, I have no explanation for you.

After a slight time-out to clean up chocolate (and to realize that I should really wear an apron when I bake), I added the rest of the ingredients, namely cocoa powder, flour, baking powder, and salt. At this point, my dear husband wandered in to say "Wow, that smells really really chocolatey! Overwhelmingly chocolatey. Why are you covered in chocolate?" Go away, I don't want to talk about it. Then my overwhelmingly chocolatey dough went into the fridge to chill for a few hours.

Time to start in on the Apple Pie cookies! I should preface this with the fact that I haven't successfully made an apple pie. I tried once and let's just say it overflowed all over the oven and I'm still not sure how. Whatever, it was a long time ago. The general outline of this recipe is as follows: make apple pie filling, make pie crust, roll the dough flat, put caramel and apple pie filling on top of it, make a lattice for the top, cut out cookie shapes with cookie cutter, bake, eat. I won't even pretend that sounds simple. So let's take it step by step...

Let's make some apple pie filling! I peeled the apples moderately successfully (now I know why I don't make apple pies...peeling is annoying) and then had to heat up sugar, brown sugar, water, cinnamon, cornstarch, and nutmeg. I was supposed to boil it until thick and then add the apples. Just as I was wondering when I'd be able to tell if it was thick, it turned on a dime and all of a sudden turned into a practically solid mixture. I panicked and frantically threw in the apples and covered the pan. Yes, I actually warrior-yelled as I tossed in the apples. Husband was mercifully out of the house at this point.

From here, I moved on to making the pie crust. I went with the food processor method but I had the problem of frozen butter. So I had to carefully warm up my butter just enough to cut it with my knife and then toss it into the food processor. I don't think I entirely succeeded though because I still had some large chunks of butter. My solution to this was to move it all to a bowl and use my pastry blender. That was also no help. I then went with the "just do it by hand" method which worked pretty well. Still trying to figure out the best way to make pie crust I guess. Otherwise, crust making was uneventful. I tossed that dough into the fridge to chill for an hour, did a quick cleanup, and then my perfect timing told me it was time to bake the hot chocolate cookies. But wait! First let's check on those apple slices that have been simmering away. I was told that apples should be soft but not mushy. Ummm....what do you do if your apples are mushy? Is that just it? Game over? A couple of my apples may have gotten a bit mushy but you couldn't really tell once everything got chopped into tiny pieces. Whatever, moving on. Ugh, so tired already.

This recipe was supposed to make 24 cookies. But after scooping out the cookies, I decided I didn't want to make another batch so I ended up with 20 cookies. Close enough! I tossed them into the oven, cut the marshmallows in half, and broke up my dark chocolate bar into 20 pieces. This was a small problem because I was supposed to be using 8 oz of dark chocolate...but my friendly neighborhood Big Y ran out! So weird! I ended up with only 4.5 oz instead. I was originally thinking I could do half dark chocolate, half bittersweet, but looking at how much chocolate that was broken up, it seemed like double the chocolate would be way too much. So I just used smaller pieces than I was supposed to. Turns out that it was a good thing I did because some of the pieces were almost too big for the cookies as it was! After 10 minutes of baking, I pressed the chocolate pieces into the center of the cookies, topped with a marshmallow, baked a bit more and voila! Hot Chocolate Cookies!

I'll save you the suspense: these were delicious. Definitely very chocolatey but also incredibly smooth. I don't really care for marshmallow but I didn't notice or mind it much. Not sure what it has to do with hot chocolate but it was a pretty good chocolate cookie. Also, you'll notice that some of the cookies had two marshmallows. That's because I had already cut 24 marshmallows and the cookies were pretty big so some of the cookies looked sad with only one marshmallow in the middle.

Now back to the mess.

Where we last left our hero, she merely had to assemble her apple pie cookies and bake them. No big deal, right? Well. First I had to roll out my two pieces of pie crust to unspecified sized discs on the counter. The dough wasn't really cooperating though and I kept ending up with the dough breaking into star-shaped discs. Not too big a problem because I knew I'd be cutting out cookies so there would be some waste at the edges. Then I had to spread caramel sauce on one half. Yes, I could've made my own but that would have been too ambitious for the day so I used the Hershey's jarred caramel sauce. I'm sure it's not the worst. Next, I had to spread my apple pie filling on top and lightly press down. Yup, already a mess.

The final step of the layering was to cut the other half of the pie crust into strips to make a lattice. Now, I have never made a lattice before but my hands were sticky, my dough wasn't rolled very well and I just did not care at that point. So I did my best. The lattice definitely didn't make it to the edges all the time, some pieces were thick and some pieces were thin, but in the end, it looked pretty close! Yay! Now it's cookie cutter time. I was told to use a 2.5 inch round cookie cutter. Then I realized that I don't really have cookie cutters other than the 101 plastic animal shapes that my friend got me many Christmases ago. I rummaged through and managed to find a 4 inch and a 2 inch round cutter. So I went with the 2 inch and hoped for the best.

So I cut my first cookie and surprise, surprise, apple pie filling just OOZES out between the latticework. Plus my dough is now pretty stuck to the counter because this all took so long. Eventually I developed a method of cutting a circle, peeling off the dough around it, sliding it onto a pastry scraper, and popping it out onto the pan. It. Was. Messy. There was apple everywhere. My hands were sticky. Sometimes the bottom part of the dough would get rolled up or stuck. A few times, the cookies just fell apart in my hands. Eventually I got a reasonable number of cookies onto pans (about 16, which apparently was all this was supposed to make) but there was an awful lot of waste and my counter eventually looked like this:

Finally, I had to brush the tops of the cookies with egg and sprinkle with cinnamon sugar. Except I'm out of eggs. And I don't care. So I just tossed some cinnamon sugar on top. The tops of the cookies were sticky and oozy from the filling anyway. Probably the tops didn't get as nicely golden brown as they could have but I was just done at this point.

Remember back when I said that I was pretty sure these would make a mess in the oven? Well, I was about 80% right. The apple pie filling didn't exactly ooze out but the bottoms of the cookies were surrounded by that lovely golden brown, sticky, caramel-y goodness that makes cookies impossible to remove once cooled. They weren't burned but they were SO stuck to the pan. I had to toss them back in the oven twice just to soften them enough to pry them off the pan. But when all was said and done and I had finished cursing the world and my stupidity, they looked...pretty good. If by pretty good, you mean "like a distracted kindergartner put these together."

I mean, they certainly could have looked better and a bigger cookie cutter would have helped but it was pretty close. Taste-wise they were also pretty good (but I think they needed a bit more cinnamon) and all of the cookies were demolished in no time. All in all, an exhausting day of baking but it all turned out yummy in the end.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Salty Caramel Pretzel Goodness

Hello there! Seems like a good day to bake! I was originally going to make these adorable cookies that are bears hugging almonds but alas, I did not have a bear cookie cutter with long enough arms. So first plan abandoned, I found a recipe for Salted Caramel Pretzel Chocolate Chip Cookies which sounds relatively easy and definitely yummy.

So I started off with my two sticks of butter as any good chocolate chip cookie recipe starts. Unfortunately for me, I didn't have any sticks of butter in the fridge so I had to go to my backup stash in the freezer. Thus began the dangerous task of softening butter in the microwave without melting it. Anybody know why butter melts from the inside out? Anyone? Anyone? It doesn't seem to make any sense. Anyway, this task is additionally complicated by the fact that my microwave doesn't have a time setting lower than 15 seconds. Not sure why that is either. But with enough attentive care, the butter successfully did not melt from the inside out but it could've been a bit softer. This was ingredient problem #1.

Here comes ingredient problem #2. I decided to refill my big container of sugar with a smaller container of sugar. The problem is that the sugar got a bit clumpy in the smaller container. And by a bit clumpy, I mean it was basically one giant block of sugar. In my infinite wisdom, I thought I could just plop it into a big container and then break it up with a wooden spoon. Long story short, this was a bad idea and there's sugar all over my counter. Time to move to phase two of problem solving. A food processor! I'm always forgetting I have this but this time I remembered! So I poured all of the sugar into the food processor (and I totally didn't spill it all over another counter...) and processed it until it was super fine again. Success!

After all of that drama, it was fairly smooth sailing. It's pretty much a standard chocolate chip cookie recipe with a bit more brown sugar and a bit more flour. I also used sea salt flakes instead of the usual kosher salt. I chopped up a bunch of pretzel sticks to toss in with the chocolate chips and mixed it all up and bam! Dough done. At this point I started thinking to myself, "When am I supposed to put the caramels in?" Then I checked the recipe and figured out that I had to unwrap the caramels (duh), cut them in half, and then press a caramel into the center of each cookie ball, making sure to completely cover the caramel with dough so the caramel didn't leak out in the oven.

Now, I don't know if you know this about me but I don't like getting my hands messy. So reading this direction in the recipe made me pretty sure that if I had read it in advance, I wouldn't have made these cookies. I just don't really like sticking my hands in cookie dough. Ugh. Whatever, I've come too far. I was supposed to use two tablespoons of dough per cookie but that seemed insane so I made them a bit smaller than that and then did my best impression of Emeril and bammed some sea salt flakes on top of the cookies.

Ok so this isn't so exciting. They're just cookies with extra stuff in them. But they came out really great (once I added an extra four minutes to the recommended baking time) and when you crack them open, the caramel just oozes out and that's kind of awesome. Plus they're tasty. Something more exciting next time, I promise!

Monday, August 29, 2016

C is for Cookie...

Get ready because today is another mission in achieving adorable cuteness! This adventure is brought to you by: my sister's birthday. I have now historically made several adorable desserts for her birthday including panda cupcakes and a TARDIS cake and this time, I decided to surprise her with Cookie Monster Macarons. The reasoning for this was twofold. First, I've never made macarons so finally we have something new and exciting for me to try not to screw up and second, who doesn't love Cookie Monster? I found this idea here and the tutorial is pretty excellent and includes the world's most adorable gif of Cookie Monster macarons eating a row of cookies. So cute. Let's get started!

Aaaaaaand the recipes are in metric. Huh. Now we have a threefold challenge. Now the baker must convert metric measurements to US measurements. First step is to make the macarons starting with 100g of egg whites. A quick Google search revealed that 100g of egg whites is "around 4-5 egg whites but it shouldn't really matter to your recipe." Alarm bells everywhere! I know that macarons are difficult to make and I've discovered that baking is an exact science (who knew?) so there was no way in the world that I was going to guess on the number of egg whites going into this batter. So I ended up with another first for me: using my kitchen scale to weigh ingredients! Yes, for my wedding, I (I mean, we, but let's face it, my dear husband doesn't even know it exists) received a kitchen scale ostensibly for moments like these. So there I was, weighing egg whites. I should probably also mention that it was already pretty late at night and I had a terrible migraine so all decision-making needed to follow the path of least resistance. Turns out, 100g is five egg whites minus a little bit that I scooped out with one of the egg shells. I tossed those into the mixing bowl to come to room temperature while I dealt with the dry ingredients.

Actually, let me backtrack just a moment. Do you all know what macarons are? Basically, they're meringue-like cookie sandwiches with yummy filling in the middle. They're French and apparently really easy to screw up. People have entire classes to learn how to make just macarons. I'm trying it late at night with a migraine. Oh yeah, and I'll have the added challenge of dying them Cookie Monster blue, adding eyes, filling with ganache, and adorably placing a cookie in the mouth. Sums it up, right? Ok, moving on.

The first dry ingredient instruction was to pulse my powdered sugar in a food processor. No. Not happening. What I did do was sift the sugar through a fine sieve. I didn't bother with my actual sifter because it's a pain to clean. So there I was, scraping powdered sugar through a sieve and into a bowl that was on my scale until I got to 200g. It took a while. Then I had to do the same thing with 110 g of almond meal. It took me forever to find that stuff. It was very well hidden in the grocery store. It was a little harder to sift the almond meal but the bag said it was already superfinely sifted so after about 20g, I gave up and just poured. Way way too much effort. I tossed that into a bowl with the powdered sugar and called it a day.

Back to the egg whites! I added some salt and whipped to soft peaks and then added some sugar and mixed to stiff peaks. Easy. Now I just had to stir the meringue into the dry ingredients. It was weird because I'm used to being gentle with meringue but my recipe said that the goal was to beat the air out of the egg whites at first and there was no need to be gentle. Ok! Also, I swear, it looked like it was never going to all incorporate together. I just wasn't optimistic. But lo and behold, after a bit more stirring, it magically all incorporated. Yay!

Now to turn it blue. With my fancy food coloring kit, I had about four shades of blue to choose from and wasn't really sure how to best match Cookie Monster's fur. Eventually, I went for a deeper shade of blue than was in my tutorial since it seemed more accurate and that worked out to 40 drops of blue and 1 drop of black. In hindsight, all of these measurements are for roughly 4 cups of buttercream or icing so I probably used too much dye. In fact (and I won't leave you in suspense here), they turned people's mouths blue. Very blue. Blue that persisted for several hours. Blue teeth, blue lips, blue tongue. I'd say it was a mistake but it was really really funny. Not sure how much I actually regret it.

Back to baking. I had to remove a bit of the mixture to keep white for the eyes and then stir in the blue dye for the rest. That was easy. Then I had to pipe the mixture into 3.5 cm circles with a 1 cm piping tip. That sounds really small. I don't have a ruler. I am too tired to find a ruler. I am now just guessing. However, I know the recipe is supposed to make 20 macarons so I figure I'll pipe a size that makes sense to me and if they're not big enough, I'll go back and add more batter. Macarons are normally small but these seemed really really small. I ended up just making them a little bigger because I didn't think Cookie Monsters that small would be able to fit a cookie in their mouths. (More on that in a bit.)

Piping was mostly uneventful and then I had to leave the macarons to dry for half an hour. I was warned not to rush this step because if I did, I would end up with soppy, fried-egg looking macarons and I definitely did not want that. One small problem though was that the next step after drying was to add blue sprinkles for texture. But they didn't really stick! I think I should've added the sprinkles a bit earlier. Some stuck but I definitely wasted a lot of blue sprinkles. Next I had to pipe on the white eyes with my remaining batter. I got a very small piping tip for the precision work this was going to require. And it went fine! No fried eggs! The only issue I had was that I should have flattened the circles with my finger so they didn't have spikey points but I was so tired by this point and they still had to dry for another hour and then bake. Originally I was planning on completing the macarons that night (filling and assembling) but I was burned out and decided to finish baking the shells and then do the rest in the next day.

After the macarons dried, I was directed to preheat my oven to "130-150 degrees C (265-300 degrees F)" and I was so tired that I definitely thought I was supposed to bake them at 130 degrees F. Caught it at the last minute. But what the heck? Who gives a range of temperatures for your oven? If I had been very diligent, I would have cross-checked this with my America's Test Kitchen book. I know they have a recipe for macarons and I'm sure they have all sorts of troubleshooting tips but I cannot even express to you how tired I was. So, I ended up picking 275 degrees and just went with it. Well thought out macarons will apparently be for another day.

Bake. Remove from oven. Let cool. Toss in tupperware. Nite nite.

In the morning, I took a good look at my shells and they looked pretty good. They successfully grew "feet" (the sort of ridging on the sides) and they looked fine. Then I saw that I had accidentally cracked one/decided to eat one and it was pretty hollow inside. Sad. Some research after the fact suggests either underbaking or too low an oven temperature or perhaps not sifting well enough (probably that one) may have caused this but I was assured that macarons don't need to be perfect as long as they taste good. And they did taste good so that works for me!

Now I had to fill them with ganache and decorate. I started to really deviate at this point because I literally just eyeballed my ganache. I threw some semisweet and some bittersweet chocolate chips into a bowl, boiled what looked like enough heavy cream, and threw them all together. I was just hoping it would be enough ganache but I didn't want to follow a recipe and have a ton left over like the royal icing fiasco of a few weeks ago. While the ganache was cooling, I added Cookie Monster eyeballs to the eyes using an edible ink pen. I've had trouble with this pen when using it on chocolate before but it worked so perfectly on the macarons. Yay!

I also had one more problem to work out (yes, I know this is a long one but there were a lot of steps!) and that was the size of the cookie. I was too lazy to bake cookies for this purpose and I don't even know what bake times you'd use for super tiny cookies so I just bought Chips Ahoy mini cookies and Entenmann's soft cookies. I love the Entenmann's and was hoping they would be small enough but in a head to head comparison with the size of the macaron, I saw they were too large. And then when I tried the Chips Ahoy minis, even those were too large! This was not working out. Time to get creative...

I started looking around my kitchen for a mini round cookie cutter. This lasted about five minutes before I realized it was a ridiculous notion to think I would have one. So then I grabbed one of the pastry bag couplers to cut out a smaller Entenmann's cookie. Still too big. Eventually, I landed on using one of the piping tips, upside down, and then poking the cookie out of the tip with a metal skewer. To give you a sense of the scale, I could cut three mini cookies out of one Entenmann's cookie. Super. Tiny. Cookies.

But one more problem! The cookies were still too thick! I ended up creating a process where I would cut three mini cookies, squish them down gently with my fingers (thank goodness for soft baked cookies), hope they didn't crack into a million crumbs, bring the three cookies ACROSS MY KITCHEN, pipe the ganache onto the bottom macaron, gently place the cookie hanging over the edge, pipe more ganache on top of the cookie as "glue", and then finally put the top macaron with the Cookie Monster eyes on top. Whew. Now, if I were an intelligent person, I would have cut out all of the cookies at once instead of three at a time or maybe moved the macarons closer to the cookies I was cutting. But I'm apparently not. I repeated this process for all 20 macarons and my hands were a crumby, greasy mess. I really could have used some extra hands for this one. But at the end of the day, I achieved success and my Cookie Monster macarons were adorable little monsters:

Yummy and adorable success! Plus hilariously blue mouths! Happy birthday, sister and I can't wait to see what I dream up for next year!

A [Last] Disney Moment: The Top Five Six

With our mission of watching every single animated Disney film completed, we had only one thing left to do: pick the best one. We had previously agreed to pick our top five and rewatch them in a two day period so they'd all be fresh in our minds. We couldn't actually agree on only five so landed on a total of six to rewatch: Lady and the Tramp, Dumbo, Princess and the Frog, Little Mermaid, Lion King, and Robin Hood. Just barely missing the cut were Beauty and the Beast (but we couldn't justify it because Little Mermaid had beaten it in the group rankings) and Frozen (because at the time it was at the peak of its popularity and was being called the best film of all time or something).

By the way, there was no scientific system for these choices. Nor is there any real system for which one wins. It's simply whichever one we liked the best. So we hunkered down for two days and blew through these. We laughed, we cried. And we picked a winner. Stacked in order of our final rankings you'll find our results:

The winner: DUMBO! Followed closely by a two-way tie for second place between The Little Mermaid and Lion King. Fourth place: Lady and the Tramp. Fifth place: Princess and the Frog. Sixth place (and really probably shouldn't have been included but I love it so why not): Robin Hood.

We literally spent days debating the nuances of Little Mermaid vs. Lion King and just couldn't decide. But we love Dumbo and it soundly emerged the victor.

And that's it! We had highs, we had very low lows (I'm lookin' at you Saludos Amigos...), and overall we had fun sister bonding time. Now it's time to tackle the Pixar films!

Friday, August 19, 2016

What a Smart Cookie!

Get ready to be killed by cuteness, dear readers. Because today I tell you about my adventure making Nerdy Nummies Smart Cookies. They're cookies...but with glasses so you know they must be smart! Side note: I always wanted glasses growing up so people would think I was smart. And before all you people with glasses tell me what a pain they are, let me just say that I know and I wanted them anyway. Moving on...

This journey begins with your friendly neighborhood baker wandering into a Barnes and Noble in search of a book. As soon as I walked in, BAM! Staring me in the face on the new books display was the Nerdy Nummies Cookbook. I picked it up immediately and, with no hesitation at all, purchased it. Inside, it is filled with some awesome baking projects with nerdy aspects ranging from fandoms to science to technology to things that are just downright adorable. For example: I never knew that I needed to make geode cupcakes until I read this book. But now I NEED to make geode cupcakes. Geode cupcakes aside, there was one recipe that I couldn't stop thinking about and have been aching to bake ever since I bought the book. That's where the Smart Cookies come in.

The problem is that these cookies are at least a two day process. You need one day to make the glasses for the cookies and then the second day to actually make and decorate the cookies. I thought about it for ages. I printed the glasses template (more on that in a bit). I made sure I had all the ingredients at the ready. But I kept putting it off and putting it off. I'm not sure what it was about this week but maybe it's because I was feeling fidgety after watching almost two straight weeks of Olympics or maybe the 1-2-3 USA sweep of the 100m hurdles inspired me but this was the week that I was tackling these cookies.

Let the games begin! (Get it??? Because the Olympic games are on right now...)

Here I run into my first issue with the Nerdy Nummies cookbook. There's no guidance on how many cookies the recipe makes. So, did I need to make 10 pairs of glasses? 20? 100? I have no idea. I decided to gauge it based on how much icing I had and how bored and/or frustrated I got with my terrible piping. But first I had to make my royal icing. Royal icing is just egg white, vanilla, and powdered sugar. Sounds easy, right? Don't you know by now that when it sounds easy, it's not? First I had to separate five eggs to get the whites. But I had the rather unique problem this time of the eggs cracking vertically. This happened for three out of the five eggs and I have no idea why. It is awfully hard to use my normal egg separation method when the eggs are cracking on the wrong axis. Basically I ended up with both my hands covered in egg and needing to fish an egg yolk out of my bowl of egg whites at least once.

Once that harrowing experience was over, I mixed the egg whites and vanilla and was instructed to add 4 cups of powdered sugar "a few tablespoons at a time." Ha. You must be kidding. That would take forever. I added the sugar 1/2 cup at a time but there was no way I was going to stand there for an hour making icing. Then I had to color it black. I had my handy dandy new food dye with its full coloring guide so I dropped in a few drops of black and, hey, why is it a blueish purple color? Hmm. Added a bit more black dye and now it's a grayish color. Hmm. At this point, I went to my coloring guide and apparently to achieve a deep black, I needed to add SEVENTY drops of black food coloring! I did not quite expect that. At this point, I was just indiscriminately squirting food dye into the icing. Eventually, the icing turned black. (By the way, I wish I had taken a video of my first mixing of the dye because it was so cool watching the white icing streak with black and then get fully incorporated. Next time, I promise I'll take a video because it is hypnotizing.)

So now I have black icing but it is way too thin. It would definitely run right out of the piping bag. So began the process of adding more sugar and then adding more food dye to keep the same color. This went on for about 20 minutes and another 1-2 cups of powdered sugar. Oh, and did I mention that it's already about 10 pm at this point? Finally, I had usable icing. I put it in a pastry bag fitted with a #2 tip as directed...just kidding, you know there's no way I actually have a #2 tip. I'm pretty sure I've run into this problem in the past but haven't rectified it yet. The smallest tip I have is a #6. That may make the piping a bit interesting.

I had previously printed the template from the reference materials for the cookbook but for some reason, the glasses in the template looked way smaller than they should be. I compared them to the templates at the back of the book and, sure enough, they were different sizes! Now why would they do that? Is it that difficult to have consistency of size when we're talking about a pdf or a jpeg? So weird. I decided to do some smaller ones and some larger ones so that I had flexibility depending on how big my cookies turned out. I put a piece of wax paper over the template, secured it with the super scientific method of plopping a handy box of benadryl on the corner (because it was there for some reason) and got to piping. And believe it or not, it was super easy! The icing was completely cooperative and I would've liked the finesse of a smaller piping tip but they came out really well! Things got a bit tricky once I started making the bigger template because I had to balance the wax paper on the book and slide it around to pipe more than one but it was still reasonable enough. Eventually I just started doing them freehand because the shapes were so easy. See for yourself:

Not too shabby! Remember how I said that I was going to gauge how many glasses to make based on my amount of icing? Yeah, after piping all of these, I had enough icing left to fill a 4 cup Pyrex container. Apparently it'll stay for a week in the fridge so I will take any and all suggestions for what I should do with that icing in the next week! (No, I'm really serious, I have no idea what to do with it and I don't want it to go to waste!)

Anywho, I let these dry overnight and the next day, after an energetic Zumba class, I could bake and assemble. I was even joined by my Christmas baking partner-in-crime for some extra fun! The cookies themselves are just Nestle Toll House but without the chocolate chips so I made those without incident. We took a wild guess on how big the cookies should be and made perfect little (ok, big) circles with the cookie scoop. The cookbook suggested 7 minutes for the cooktime but there was no way that was correct. We added another two minutes and voila! Beautiful cookies. Now the tricky part. After letting them cool on the pan for exactly one minute (yes, we set the timer), we had to remove the cookies to a wire rack and place six chocolate chips on the cookies in specific places to leave enough room for the glasses. With two of us, we managed to get this done but we really had to work fast so I'm glad I had help.

While the cookies were baking though, I had to make some pink royal icing. I wasn't about to make the same mistake as the previous day though and make enough to ice an entire cake with though. So I took just one egg white, a splash of vanilla, and enough powdered sugar to get it to the right consistency. To get a pale pink color, I was supposed to add one drop of pink food dye. The problem was, that one drop is meant to color about four cups of icing and I was working with less than one cup of icing. So it came out a bit more hot pink but whatever, it was still cute. Also, since my mixer was filled with cookie dough, I was doing this by hand. It was frustrating and took way more powdered sugar than I would have expected. By the end, it was still a little thin but we only needed it to pipe rosy cheeks on our smart cookies so we just went with it.

As a side note: can anyone explain the science of royal icing to me? Why does it harden over time? It's not like you're heating it or cooling it or doing anything to it so why does it change? Is it magic? I truly don't know.

Hang in there, we're at the last step! We just have to put it all together! For this purpose, I actually went out and bought #1 and #2 piping tips because this was going to be delicate work. We had to attach the glasses with a dot of black royal icing in the center of the back of the glasses first. This didn't work and we had to put dots on the corners instead to make them stick. From the second we attached the first pair of glasses, we spontaneously "Awwwww!"-ed with how cute they were. After attaching all of the glasses, we just had to pipe on eyes, a smile, and pink rosy cheeks. I kid you not, we could not stop audibly squealing at how adorable and perfectly these were turning out. We're talking sneezing panda AWWWWWWs. SO. CUTE. And they looked exactly like the picture!

Ok, maybe they're not all perfect but they're so cute! I should also point out, these cookies are large enough that the whole batch of dough only made 20 cookies. So, I have a lot of extra glasses. Any ideas on what I can do with those glasses? Seriously, I'll take any ideas...

Next time: a truly spectacular birthday dessert for my sister!

A Disney Moment: Zootopia

OMG, I'm finally done! This is the last Disney movie!!! I don't even want to remind you how long ago this project was started. But here we are at long last with Zootopia which I guess ranks a 2/5 in this group because that's what's left but this whole ranking system is shot to hell at this point. That said, I really did enjoy it.

I loved the world-building aspect that has been so consistent in this grouping of movies. As scenes were flashing by, I just kept wishing I could slow it down so I could see all the details of what were happening in the background. I would've liked even just a bit more time to soak it all in. The story was fun, the protagonists were fun, the sloth stuff was solidly funny (even though I had seen it in the previews). I appreciated the fact that the movie surprised me a bit. I thought the middle bit where they catch the bad guy and they have the triumphant press conference was going to be the end of it and then it took a turn for the heavy-handed anti-racism, anti-xenophobia, whatever messaging it went for. I criticize it for its heavy-handedness a bit but overall the story really worked for me.

I find it quite serendipitous that I'd be writing about Zootopia where calling the protagonist "cute"is an insult and I think I've used the word "cute" about 18 times to describe these cookies in this blog post alone.

Next time: a final recap of the journey and the selection of the best Disney film of all time!

Friday, August 5, 2016

Jen and the Amazing Technicolor Meringue

How shocked are you that I'm already back? You weren't expecting that one, were you? Well, fear not because there are several baking projects coming your way! Tonight, my husband is at a baseball game and I am bored. (And before you ask, yes, I was invited but no, I wasn't terribly interested in going.) Not that I ever need an excuse to bake but my programming team at work has been kicking ass this past week above and beyond my expectations so I thought I'd bring in some yummy cookies to brighten their day and thank them for all of their efforts!

I wanted to do something slightly challenging and interesting and I didn't want to have to go to the supermarket for ingredients. After a bit of back and forth over what to make, I finally landed on a recipe that my sister had sent me ages ago in one of those insane Facebook "watch something cook/bake at high speed for about 30 seconds" videos. So ya know, I'm sure it will be a flawless set of directions. Here I go, taking a recipe from a YouTube video (I am literally shuddering at the thought) to make Hydrangea Meringue cookies for Mother's Day. I'm a little late on the whole Mother's Day thing, apparently. Credit to Haniela's for the recipe and video.

The basic idea is to make meringue cookies but to split the batter? dough? meringue? into three different colors and pipe them all at the same time to get a festive swirl of color. I'm not describing it well. You could just go watch the video to see what I mean. Or you could read on because the process will make it abundantly clear. I hope.

First step, make the meringue. Since meringue is only three ingredients, it's pretty straightforward. Start with room temperature egg whites. No way am I waiting for those things to come to room temperature. If memory serves me correctly, we want the egg whites to be room temperature so that it's easier to form the stiff peaks when it's whipped. But that doesn't really make sense with these directions. Because I was supposed to whisk the egg whites and the sugar and then put the bowl over a pot of boiling water and whisk until the sugar dissolved. Soooooo...wouldn't that just warm up the egg whites anyway? Am I missing some high tech baking physics? I truly have no idea. Whatever, I whisked the egg whites and sugar until it pretty much looked like the sugar had dissolved. It was really hard to tell. But I've made meringues before and I don't recall ever doing this step. I'm thinking it'll be fine.

Next, add the vanilla extract and whip until stiff peaks are formed. In my world, that means turn on the mixer and walk away. I decided to use the time to cut my parchment paper and set up my piping bags. I needed one large and three small piping bags and fortunately for me and my hatred of cleaning up, I have disposable piping bags right now. Yay! Simplicity! I also pulled out my handy dandy new food dye kit. It has eight colors and an entire color chart saying how many drops of each color to get certain other colors. There are at least 50 colors in this chart! Devotees will recall that I have trouble mixing colors to make anything that makes sense. So I saw this kit while I was at Michael's picking up something else and decided it was worth the expense. A whole ten dollars (with my 40% off coupon) is well-worth making something actually look appetizing.

Ultimately, I decided to go with the combination of Mother's Day colors that were in the video because they're so pretty together. A pastel pink, purple, and blue. I divided my meringue into three separate bowls, thanked my lucky stars that I bought that three-pack of spatulas, and set about dying my meringues. (Meringue? Meringues? I'm not so sure about that one.) My first attempt was the purple. Two drops pink and one drop blue. Here we go! I tried to very gently fold -

Hang on, we interrupt this blog post because I just pulled dried meringue out of my hair. How did that even happen? Weird.

Ok, back to folding in the colors. I tried to be really really gentle so that I wouldn't destroy the meringue but I also had to mix it enough that there weren't streaks of blue and white and pink. And believe it or worked! It worked just fine! The blue and the pink went equally perfectly until I ended up with three bowls of meringue that looked like this:

Isn't that just gorgeous? I'm so proud! If I had these colors, my cupcakes would've looked SO much better! Now for the tricky part: actually piping these suckers. I filled the three little piping bags with each color separately, cut off the ends, and then basically shoved the three bags together into the large bag fitted with a large star tip. The idea here is that all three colors come out at the same time. Makes sense in principle. However, the first three cookies were entirely blue. Eh, whatever, I have three blue cookies. No big deal. I was also supposed to prepare a template to pipe perfectly even circular cookies but it was really easy to make them all the same size. Plus preparing a template takes time and effort. All I had to do was pipe once in the center and then five or six pipes around that to end up with these cute spikey rainbow-colored cookies.

One problem: the recipe is supposed to make 12 cookies. There was no way I was making giant cookies. In and of itself, this isn't a problem because I'll get twice the cookies that are half the size. The only problem is that I only prepared one pan. So I had to start to work fast because it was starting to feel like the meringue was getting too warm and losing its shape. Cut the parchment paper, piped the cookies on, and then with the tiny bit of meringue I had left, I added another layer around the blue cookies so that they'd be less boring.

Whew! That was some quick piping! Now into the oven for the next two hours. And then to cool in the oven overnight. Hmm. I'm thinking that I'll have to wake up early to pack these super fast before I can take them to work. Whoops. So here I sit, waiting for my cookies to bake. Maybe I'll go rewatch Big Hero 6 so it's fresh in my mind to review. But here's some pictures of the pre-baked cookies for you to see how nicely they're turning out.

[Next day]

Oh hey, they look like meringue cookies! There was really no need to take more pictures because meringues don't do anything in the oven in terms of changing shape and color. I woke up in the morning, pulled the pans out of the (cold) oven, and they were super easy to pick up off the parchment paper, which was a good indication that they cooked correctly. I packed them up in a tupperware, threw the pretty cookie bags into my bag, and headed to work bright and early. I had a momentary panic when I realized that nobody actually comes into the office on Fridays so no one will receive them until Monday but a quick Google search indicated that they should keep just fine. Of course, in my hurry this morning, I forgot to grab one to taste! They look pretty good though so I think they will taste just fine. Maybe I'll update you in my next post to tell you if they're good or not.

Quick side note: last night I felt just like the mom in a Christmas Story yelling at her husband "don't you dare touch that oven!" As soon as the timer went off, my husband said, "Cool, can I have a cookie now?" Let's just say he was not pleased to learn that they had to cool in the oven overnight. Patience is a virtue.

A Disney Moment: Big Hero 6

So I know I said that I was going to rewatch before reviewing but well...I didn't. Got distracted by Olympics stuff instead. But one thing that I do find telling is that I had to go back to my posts to see which rankings I hadn't assigned yet. That's how close I find all of the movies in this group (excluding Winnie the Pooh). So for this movie, I think I'm landing on a 4/5 but a 4/5 in this group is really more like a 1/5 in the dark times Disney groupings. Although, I guess anything is a 1/5 compared to the dark times Disney films...

My favorite part of Big Hero 6 was the very creative world that was built. There was just something so cool about San Fransokyo to me. I loved looking at the background and seeing the blending of San Francisco and Tokyo architecture. Maybe that's because I'm a nerd. I also loved seeing the intellect being something that's valued in this fictional future world. So it's a super hero movie but the only super thing is the technology that is being used (Iron Man-style). Makes sense that I'd like this approach more because the only super hero movies I can tolerate are the ones that have Iron Man.

In other news, how adorable is Baymax? I just loved him and his whole character. The "drunk" scene was especially hilarious in an "I can't believe Disney is doing this" sort of way. Somewhat dumb of me because they did do a drunk baby elephant in Dumbo so I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. This movie made me laugh, this movie made me cry, this movie made me think but it's still only a 4/5. Why is that...?

I guess it's because it's not a musical and I tend to be a bit biased against non-musical Disney films. I also found that I just don't remember large sections of the movie. A rewatch probably would've made me rank this higher but I think that the fact that it didn't stick in my mind much says something. Oh whatever, Disney films are awesome. Nuff said.

Only one more movie to go! And then you get to (finally, after 5 whole years of waiting) find out what got ranked as the best Disney film of all time!

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Time to Travel in Time (with a TARDIS!)

Welcome, welcome, welcome! I'm trying to get back in the habit of blogging more consistently but alas, I haven't baked anything new yet so I'm going to go way back in time to blog about a project that I can't believe I didn't cover in the first place. The year: 2014. The event: My sister's birthday. The challenge: A TARDIS cake. Let's get all timey-wimey and wibbly-wobbly and let's go!

First let's get some administrative things out of the way. For those of you who are unfamiliar, a TARDIS is a spaceship that looks like a police box that travels through time and space and is from the classic British TV show, Doctor Who. Next, my sister doesn't really like cake but does like rice krispie treats so this "cake" isn't actually a cake. But for the purpose of this blog, I will be referring to it as a cake because "rice krispie treat masterpiece" is way too much to type. Finally, credit must go to this TARDIS cake tutorial because I followed well, some aspects of this tutorial. Some may be generous though. I ignored A LOT of this tutorial because it has insane things like adding a working light to the top of the cake. I was obviously not going to do that. Similarly, I was not going to make a space-themed circular board to put the cake on. A plate will do just fine, thank you very much.

[insert Doctor Who theme here]

So here's the general plan. I found many tutorials online for how to make an excellent TARDIS cake. Almost all of them had cake as a base. As I've already mentioned, I'm not doing that and am making a rice krispie cake instead. So the general structure is for me to make a rice krispie "cake" as a base, cover it in blue modeling chocolate (more on that in a bit), and add the appropriate decorations to make it look like a TARDIS. Simple, right? Agreed.

Fortunately for me, the TARDIS is a rectangle. This made the rice krispie treat part of the project quite easy. All I had to do was make rice krispie treats and then pour the mixture into a very heavily and carefully greased loaf pan. If I recall correctly, I was even clever enough to use a wax paper sling inside the pan so that I could easily lift the rice krispie treat out of the pan. This. Worked. Flawlessly. I cannot emphasize that enough. It was so easy to do and it came out as a very perfect rectangle. I didn't even have to cut the edges or anything. I've never been so proud of making a block of rice krispies.

But as we all know, that wasn't the hard part. The next challenge was making modeling chocolate. I opted to go with modeling chocolate instead of fondant (like I said, I did a lot of research) because I hear it's much easier to work with and it tastes better. I've never worked with fondant so I don't know conclusively but the modeling chocolate was also surprisingly easy. The tutorial linked me to an instructional video on how to make modeling chocolate. I even prepped by watching the video of how many ways modeling chocolate can go wrong! Given my track record with chocolate, I was taking no chances. So ok, melt chocolate (I used white Wilton candy melts), warm up some corn syrup (with the correct combination of food coloring to get TARDIS blue), and fold in with a spatula. This was some workout! I kept a vigilant eye out for white streaks in the chocolate which would mean that I hadn't properly mixed the corn syrup and the chocolate. This was easier than in the video demo because my corn syrup was blue. At the end of the day, it seemed pretty well-mixed to me but wasn't quite perfect. Then I had to let it set overnight. Boo. It really slowed my progress. But I did also use the time to make a much smaller batch of black modeling chocolate. This was not in the tutorial but since I wasn't really following the directions, I was going to need it for some decorations later.

If you think that I finished out my evening by watching an episode of Doctor Who, you'd be...wrong. I went to bed instead.

Next morning! Time to put my decoration and assembly skills to the test!

My handy dandy tutorial wanted me to ice the cake with buttercream before sticking the chocolate on but since I wasn't using real cake, I skipped this step entirely with the logic of "surely chocolate will just stick to rice krispie treats!" And dear readers, I was right! I rolled out my modeling chocolate to exactly 1/8 inch (Just kidding, I have no idea how thick it was but it looked pretty thin to me) and cut it with a big ol' knife and then stuck the pieces onto the four sides and top of my rectangle. I struggled a little bit with the corners and with smoothing it out but modeling chocolate is pretty forgiving and I developed a nice little technique of basically just smoothing it out with my fingers and it didn't look half bad. I'd venture to say it even looked half good!

Now things got really creative because I rolled out a second layer of the chocolate to put exactly on top of the first. Why would I do this? Well, because I'm about to use an x-acto knife to cut out designs. The tutorial wanted me to use a ruler (HAHAHA) and cut out the windows and the panels of the police box. It was actually really simple because once I cut in, it was very easy to peel away just the top blue layer to get a nice 3-D effect. Yes, I'm surprised too. Next, I had to cut thin strips to put on the corners to give it even more dimensions. These got a bit frustrating because I had a tendency of accidentally squishing them out of their long, rectangular shapes. They unfortunately ended up a bit rounded. Plus, I was starting to get a little bit OCD about making things look extremely smooth.

Next we need a roof. To accomplish this, I had to make a pyramid out of the chocolate the exact size of the top of the TARDIS. However, with a rolling pin, even this was manageable! Just start from the middle of a ball of modeling chocolate and then gently going around each of the four sides, keep rolling until you get a pyramid. Cut the edges into a square and then plop it on top. Cool! This project is moving along seamlessly.

Now is the part where they want me to use a real lightbulb in a cake. I'm not that cool. I took my blue modeling chocolate and made a little shape that kind of looks like a lantern and I stuck it on top. I was also instructed to use printable TARDIS decals (not edible) for more of the decorations. I was not going to do this for two reasons: 1) I don't like putting non-edible things on a dessert and 2) that just seems like way too much work. So for the Police Box labels that go around the top, I cut out rectangles of the black modeling chocolate and put them on the top (looking good so far) and got some white writing icing to write POLICE BOX and dear God, I've run out of room. Hmm. Problem. My absolutely brilliant solution to the fact that I just couldn't write that small was to write "POLICE" on one side and then "BOX" on the next side and then repeat. Not perfect. Not an accurate representation of the TARDIS. But at least it's all edible.

Time for some finishing touches! I was supposed to paint in the top windows with black food coloring but I already had a ton of black modeling chocolate so I just pressed that into the spaces instead of painting. And then I was supposed to use white fondant to make the panels of the windows but I didn't have any of that so I just piped with the writing icing. This was...challenging. I'm not so good with piping in that small a space. So the windows ended up a little spike-y. Finally, I had to add the door handle and the police box directions and some other small touches but I just piped all of those on and voila! A TARDIS!

So have I painted a clear enough picture for you? Are you ready to see my exceptional TARDIS? Here it is for your judgement:

Is it just as perfect as I described? It's not at all crazy looking or lumpy, right? Not lopsided either, right? Oh well, to me, it was a solid first attempt at something with some very intricate decorations. I think I'm most proud of the panels in the sides. Those look cool. And it was pretty yummy too! Once we knocked it over and cut slices of rice krispy treats, it was enjoyed by all. Almost like it was bigger on the inside or something.

By the way, for comparison's sake, here's the photo from the tutorial I was following (photo credit:

Looks exactly the same, right? For those keeping track, two years ago, I made this TARDIS for my sister's birthday and last year I made the panda cupcakes...what do you think this year might bring?

A Disney Moment: Frozen

So guys, Frozen is a pretty loaded topic at this point. If you haven't heard of Frozen, you're either living under a rock or a character in Jane the Virgin. By now, you're probably sick of the pop culture saturation and if you hear "Let It Go" one more time, you might attempt to permanently deafen yourself. But let me take you back. Way back to the week the movie was released. Before it was a phenomenon. Before it was iconic (debatable). And before people got sick of it. That was my experience of Frozen. I saw it during it's opening week with my family and some friends. And I loved it.

First and foremost, the music is awesome. I honestly think "Let It Go" is the weakest song in the entire movie. I laughed really hard at "For the First Time in Forever" and "Love is an Open Door" (seriously, the line "we finish each other's" "SANDWICHES!" made my friend and I turn to each other in the theater and say "Did they just make an Arrested Development reference? Awesome!") and I cried really hard at "Do You Want To Build A Snowman?" Seriously, I can't listen to the last verse of that song. I tear up thinking about it. That whole sequence is first five minutes of Up heartbreaking. I was astounded by Kristen Bell's singing voice. All of the music just jelled for me. And in defense of "Let It Go" I just have to say...they use the word fractals, people. The lyrics are starting to treat people like adults again.

Love Olaf as comic relief. I thought he was just fantastic. And while we technically get a second sidekick, Sven (the reindeer), he doesn't talk so it's fine. But most importantly, the story of the sisters really touched me. Especially near the beginning, I could look at it and see myself with my sister. It just gave me the warm and fuzzies.

All those good things said, the movie suffers from some very real pacing issues. When I rewatched it later, the beginning is still fantastic. I think the movie works up until the point that Elsa zaps Anna in her insane ice castle (kudos to the animators because that thing is beautiful). After that, I completely lose interest. All of the resolution was fun to watch the first time when I didn't know what was going to happen but on rewatches, it doesn't really hold up. The trolls especially seem like a waste of screen time, much as I love "Fixer Upper" as a fun song.

All in all, I think I rate this one a 3/5 in the group. These movies were all really close so it's hard to gauge. But I'll still listen to the soundtrack anytime and will duet with my sister and yes, wanna build a snowman.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Meet You at the [Pecan] Bar!

Hey there people! For today's adventure we enter the mythical world of bars. I had to make a shareable dessert for a coworker's going away party. I originally was thinking cookies but I just did that so time to think outside the box. Well, kind of still a box because I landed on bars. I started out thinking I'd make caramel pecan turtle bars but I didn't have any heavy cream and I legitimately hadn't been to the supermarket since the last time I baked. Oh well, pecan bars it is! This recipe comes from the good ol' American Test Kitchen Baking book. If I'm not mistaken, I've never made a bad recipe from that book. I'm sure if I'm incorrect, someone will correct me but it's a generally dependable way to go. Onward!

Step 1: Foil sling the pan with the still magical tin foil method. Then I greased the pan with some PAM. Then I fell asleep. Oops.

So now I appear to have upped the difficulty level. I now had to complete a baking project by noon while actively participating in conference calls. No problem, right? Ok, back to step 1. Oh wait, that step is still already done! I'm so ahead of the game. Next step is to toast a bunch of pecans. I needed some for the crust and some for the filling, just like making a pecan pie. So into the oven went the pecans. I was supposed to be shaking the pan every few minutes but I was on a call so let's face it: that just didn't happen. However, I was watching the clock closely so started working on everything else while they toasted. Fortunately, America's Test Kitchen always has my limited time in mind so I was directed to melt the butter for the filling while the pecans were toasting to allow the butter time to cool. How clever.

Time to start on the crust. I decided to actually use my food processor for once instead of cutting in the butter by hand. So I tossed in the flour, brown sugar, salt, and baking powder and then sat around waiting for the pecans to finish toasting. And I'm waiting. And I'm waiting. C'mon, pecans, I'm working with a tight deadline here! Ok, they're done. Tossed those in too and pulsed "about 5 pulses" which seemed oddly specific. Especially considering the next direction was to toss in the chilled butter and pulse for "about 8 pulses." Is there that big a difference between 5 and 8 pulses? Is there someone at America's Test Kitchen testing 6 and 9 pulses and then doing a taste test comparison? These are questions that I need answers to!

Press the crust firmly into the prepared pan with your fingers and bake for 20-24 minutes. Sheesh, seems like a long time considering the filling will have to bake too. Starting to get nervous about the time. Oh well, I guess I can make the filling while I wait. Good thing the calls this particular morning were more "listening" meetings than "participation" meetings. Only downside is that when you're actively listening to meetings while baking, you tend to have to check the measurements 5 or 6 times because you keep forgetting what the actual measurements are. So putting together the filling took a while. But it was pretty easy. Just whisk together some brown sugar, corn syrup, melted butter, vanilla, salt, egg, and bourbon. Hey, why is so much of the bourbon gone? I barely had enough for the recipe!

By now, the crust was done and I poured in the filling, sprinkled the rest of the pecans on the top, and stuck it back in the oven. For 25-30 minutes. For those keeping track, I've already been baking this for about an hour. I was supposed to let it bake until there were cracks on the top but it was browning and a toothpick came out clean so I declared them done. Ok, so remove from oven and let cool in pan for TWO HOURS??? I really should read recipes before I start them. So, this is only a minor problem. If I let them cool for two hours, then I'll have approximately five minutes to cut them and get to the party. Hmm. Negotiating with myself, I opted to try cutting them after about an hour and a half. I have a foil sling, how bad could it be?

So I'm waiting. And I'm waiting. And, dear God, these things smell amazing. I am literally salivating in my living room smelling these from the kitchen. I keep going back to check on them to see if they're cool yet (they're not) and every time I walk into the kitchen, I salivate a little bit more. Still waiting.

Ok, enough time has passed! Well, not really, but I'm starting to feel the time pressure. So I lift the foil sling out of the pan, put it on a cutting board, and try to get the foil off. The operative word being "try". As I started to peel the foil off the sides, I could see the middle of the bars straining and cracking. Which means it's about to become a collapsed mess. My clue should have been that the center was still warm to the touch. Dammit, back into the pan to hold its shape and cool longer.

Now I'm getting really fidgety. I gave it an extra 20 minutes to cool (for those keeping track, I've now been dealing with these things for about three hours) and tried again. This time I was extra super gentle trying to peel off the foil. Pecan bars are sticky, didja know? Finally, the bars were free from their foil prison. Ooooh, and a little bit got stuck on the foil that I can just peel off and taste and - DEAR GOD, THESE ARE AMAZING! It was freakin' heavenly. These are so good that my immediate reaction was "Screw the party, I'm keeping all of these to eat by myself and I'm telling no one, not even my husband, about these and when he comes home and asks what smelled so good in the kitchen I'll just tell him 'nothing, the dog ate it!' [We don't have a dog.]" But that would be a bit extreme, right? Yeah, that's what I thought too. But I really wanted to.

Resigned to the fact that I would have to share, I started cutting up the phenomenal bars into bite-size pieces. Oh, did I mention that this recipe only makes an 8 inch pan worth of bars? Yeah, so it didn't look like very much to bring to a party. The recipe was supposed to yield 16 bars. That was clearly nonsense. I cut them into about 64 pieces. For mathy math geniuses, that's about 1 inch square pieces. Just small enough to pop into your mouth in one bite. I brought 61 of those to the party. Three of them might have just fallen into my mouth while I was plating them. Not sure how that happened. But here are the pretty little beauties before and after cutting:

More pictures than usual but they're just so beautiful! And yes, I did eat everything that fell on that cutting board. Clearly, these little bites of heaven were gone in no time further solidifying my reputation as a super awesome statistician baker!

A Disney Moment: Wreck-It Ralph

Loved it. I'm really really really torn on the rankings in this group. Mostly because I watched them so far apart and we're in one of those new Disney Renaissances. So I'm going with a gut ranking for now and might rewatch this and the other three before my next blog post. I'm going to go ahead and call this one 1/5.

Here's why: the details. In this era of Disney films they are paying so much attention to the world-building. This is true of Big Hero 6 and Zootopia as well but there was something so charming about diving back into all of these old video games. I'm not even a big gamer so a lot of the references were completely lost on me but I feel like I see something new on each viewing.

And the story is the other thing that knocks this into first place for me. The story is more moving than I would expect. When Ralph smashes the car, it's legitimately heartbreaking. But otherwise, the story is just a lot of fun. A generally well-done film overall. And I find myself turning it on when it's on TV so that's another point in its favor.