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!