Wednesday, December 19, 2018

I Refuse to Use More Parchment Paper!

'Tis the season for cookie baking! Let's dive right in to the annual Christmas cookie-palooza with my dear friend. Last year, you'll recall, was our "Back to Basics" Christmas after a truly disastrous adventure the previous year. Having regained some of our baking mojo, we set out on our 7th year of baking insanity with a definitely manageable list of cookies:

1) Palmiers (a staple I cannot live without) - double batch
2) Walnut balls (taking careful note of the correct recipe) - triple batch
3) Spritz (cookie press) cookies - triple batch
4) White chocolate ginger cookies (huge hit from last year) - double batch
5) Something chocolate (yes, that's what our planning list said) - who knows because we haven't picked a recipe yet
6) Walnut kiffles (special request from my sister) - single batch
7) Zebra cookies (new recipe that I saw in the Bon Appetit Christmas issue) - single batch
8) Something with jam - single batch

8 cookie types, lots of batches, approximately a day and a half, and a casual goal of 1000 cookies. But actually casual. We didn't really expect to get to 1000 cookies. Our main goal this year was to have fun!

So we're off to the races! We did the absolute minimum level of planning which included thinking about which cookie doughs would need chilling in the fridge and then we went to the grilled cheese restaurant. Priorities, people. That said, I think we ultimately got started somewhere around 2:00. I had bought all of the ingredients in the morning, ensuring that there would be no whipped butter disasters this year, and had taken the butter out to soften. Apparently there was too much butter in too close a proximity for it to soften well so we had to use the good ol' microwave trick. We decided to start with the ginger cookies because the dough had to chill and then they'd be ready for whenever we had "down time" for dipping in chocolate and decorating. We both worked on this dough and I swear it was completely ready in approximately 8 minutes. Into the fridge!

Next, we decided to work on the zebra cookies because they were new and different and required chilling as well. The idea behind these cookies are pretty similar to any icebox sugar cookie. We were supposed to split the dough in half, flavor one chocolate, layer the white and chocolate dough into stripes, roll it into a log, chill it, cut it and bam! Zebra stripes! Yeah, that didn't quite happen. The error here was in my definition of "half." You see, when you're eyeballing half the dough and THEN you're adding the dry ingredients, if you don't do it accurately you end up with one very wet dough and one very dry, crumbly dough. In my defense...I have no defense. I took a lazy way out and paid the price. When we were trying to shape our logs of striped dough, we ended up with very sticky chocolate dough and very dry regular dough so we couldn't get quite that striped effect. I believe my assessment was along the lines of "eh, it'll still look fine" and moved on. I'll jump ahead a bit to tell you that there were further consequences to this decision-making. We had to roll our chilled logs of dough into colored sugar (I had both red and green for maximum Christmas spirit!) and the chocolate dough got very sticky with the sugar and the sugar didn't stick to the other dough very well. Oh yeah, and somehow the colored dye was coming off in a liquidy mess on the parchment paper. Still don't quite understand why. Anyway, when we sliced the cookies from the log, they definitively did not look like zebra stripes. More like blobs. Or ultrasounds. Or Christmas Rorschach tests. They looked like this:

We call them: Art Deco Cookies. Hey, if not for this blog, it's not like you would know what they were supposed to look like, right? Hilariously enough, the next day, my friend looked at the cookie table and said "Wow, those zebra cookies actually turned out really well!" and then realized she was looking at the magazine photo and not a physical plate of cookies that we had made. We may have been a little delirious by then.

Anywho, backtracking to when the Art Deco Cookies were chilling, we used that time to make the dough for the spritz cookies. There was an initial debate over tripling or quadrupling the recipe but my friend wisely convinced me that quadrupling wouldn't have fit in the mixer. She was right. Tripling barely fit in the mixer. So since we were tripling, we decided to make trees, wreaths, and snowflakes. And for some reason, I was entrusted to third the dough. I did this...poorly. We have at least three times as many trees as the other shapes. Whoops. Also, because my oven temperature is a hot mess of crazy, we slightly burned one of the batches. But that's ok, they went in the husband pile.

After that, I started monitoring the temperature a bit. It was crazy. In summary, sometimes when the oven was set to 450 it was up at 500, sometimes when it was 350 it was 325 (or 400!), and all the times it was frustrating the hell out of me. I ended up effectively monitoring the temp and changing the setting all willy-nilly hoping to get close to the target temperature. Stupid oven.

After our one batch of cookie burn, all the rest went smoothly and we baked up the rest of the spritz cookies and the ginger cookies. With those cookies done, we decided it was time for pizza, wine, and Christmas movies. Nothing beats an evening of baking, a glass (or several) of wine, and the questionable Christmas classics Christmas in Connecticut and The Christmas Chronicles.

Rise and shine early in the morning for day 2!

I was up first and was just sort of putzing around the kitchen when I decided, "hey, I might as well do something. I'll make the jam!" Because we were making jam sandwich cookies and why would I use jarred jam when I could just MAKE jam?!? (I'm crazy.) I've never made jam before. I had no idea how to make jam. I found recipes that had me boiling raspberries and sugar and lemon juice anywhere from 4 minutes to 20 minutes. I don't even really eat jam so I had no frame of reference for this at all. So there I was, in pajamas, boiling sugar and raspberries, and pondering why I needed to freeze a spoon to decide if my jam was done. Apparently there's some sort of test where you put a drop of jam on the back of a frozen spoon and then if you can run your finger through it and get a line then it's done. By the time I did that, I got my line with no problem. Which was weird because the jam in the pot still looked so liquidy! So I quickly transferred the jam to a container to cool off. By now my friend was up and we both tasted the cooled jam. It tasted really good but the consistency was less jam and more "dear god, why is it sticking in my teeth like a raspberry jolly rancher?!" Yep, I candied my jam. Didn't know you could do that. I nearly chucked the whole batch but a quick Google search showed me that I might be able to save my jam by heating it slowly with about a cup of water to re-liquid it. That....worked! I was shocked! Jam disaster averted!

With that done and our ginger cookies dipped in white chocolate and laying out on parchment paper (I literally can't remember if we did this the previous day or not), we headed off to Zumba. Because it's not enough exercise to just bake for two days obviously. Once we got coffee and came back, we set to work on the zillion batches of palmiers. I actually remember how to make them without consulting the directions now but the problem is that they must be baked on parchment paper and they must be monitored constantly and we can only bake about 8-10 cookies at a time. So they take forever. At least it was passive enough that one of us was able to shower while the other monitored the cookies. Plus my many baking pans meant we could cut them all and lay them out on pans and get on with other tasks like making the dough for the jam sandwiches.

The jam sandwiches were a pretty simple sugar cookie recipe but the dough needed to chill and I needed to find some cookie cutters. Fortunately, my gigantic box of cookie cutters has all of the letters and an "O" was perfect for the tops of the cookie sandwiches to get an adorable window of jam. Stay tuned for how well the assembly of the cookie sandwiches goes...

So let's see, palmiers are baking (FOREVER) and we had some downtime so that's a perfect time to pipe the holly onto the ginger cookies. We melted the candy melts in my new microwave with some shortening and started piping. On a table this year because I thought ahead and remembered how much piping on the floor killed our backs. This went alllllllmost seamlessly. The one mishap was when my dear friend needed to take palmiers out of the oven but was afraid of red chocolate leaking out of her piping tip so she turned the whole bag upside down. Red chocolate POURED onto the table, the floor, her pants, and her socks. It was like the scene in the Shining. Clearly she was experiencing baker's brain. (On the other hand, we really melted that chocolate perfectly if it poured out of the bag that easily!)

So with that mess cleaned up and the palmiers finally just about done, we decided we desperately needed food. We had Zumba-ed and had been baking all morning and it was now about 1:30 and we were getting hangry. Long overdue for a break.

[Healthy salad lunchtime!]

Now fed and watered, we got back to work. Only jam sandwiches to assemble, walnut balls to bake, chocolate cookies to bake, and kiffles getting struck from the list. Since it's too important to not mess up the walnut balls, we tackled that next. Really it was just me chopping all of the walnuts and my friend making the dough. We tripled this recipe but somehow managed to fit all of the cookies on two pans. Once we got that ball rolling (GET IT?!?!), I set to work rolling out the dough for the jam cookies while my friend made the chocolate cookie dough.

I should use this moment to point out that it was a gorgeous, warm day outside. Which meant it was a hot as hell kitchen inside. I didn't realize how hot it was until I opened the window and finally felt like I could breathe. Anyway, the problem with this beautiful day was that rolling out chilled cookie dough for cutting had to be done extremely quickly. The recipe had dictated to roll out the cookies on parchment paper. I would never do this again. The paper kept sliding everywhere even when I weighed it down with random kitchen tools. Plus it was hard to lift the cut cookies off the paper. I was working as quickly as I could but it was just awful. I cut out the bottoms of the cookies but needed to re-chill the leftover dough before I could reroll it to make more. Then I had to do the same thing with the tops of the cookies and everything was getting so warm and the shapes were warping and I just couldn't care by then. I have some wonky jam sandwich shapes.

Ultimately they got cooked (on parchment paper, of course) and filled with jam and they look really cute (albeit messy). P.S. I now have about 5 more cups of jam to use. Any ideas?

While all this was happening, chocolate cookie dough was being made. We tripled that recipe which was INSANE. It was also apparently a new recipe because we couldn't remember which chocolate cookies were made last year and I was too tired to look it up. The result was chilling a gigantic log of chocolate dough that looked...unappetizing. Let's leave it at that.

The final step of the day was to bake the chocolate cookies. I swear, we thought we would never roll out all of that chocolate dough. There was so much of it. I read in the recipe that we were supposed to bake them on parchment paper and I lost my mind and yelled, "HARD NO. NO. MORE. PARCHMENT. PAPER." So we skipped that step and I do not apologize for it. Now the problem was, these cookies take about 15 minutes and they grow. I mean, they get giant. Even though we were actually rolling the balls tiny, they filled the entire tray. It was making us really mad. We just wanted to be done. We were so exhausted that while the chocolate cookies were baking we just laid on the floor and stretched. It felt really good. Eventually, we got the last cookies out of the oven and breathed a collective sigh of relief over another baking weekend well done.

Final roundup: we started out targeting 8 types of cookies and only downgraded to 7 so that was pretty good for us. We used 5 lbs of sugar over the course of one weekend. We determined that I can't divide dough and should never try. The ginger cookies look way too cute and perfect to even be real. Jam apparently can magically turn into candy and then back to jam. And we should get together and bake more often because as frustrating as it was at times, we had a lot of fun. Final tally: 757.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018


This installment of A Statistician Bakes is brought to you by: sort of using a ruler. I wanted to make some impressive-looking cookies for my holiday potluck at work and because I can never do anything halfway, I picked Checkerboard Cookies. I've actually been dying to make these for a while but they seemed so tedious and you have to refrigerate the dough for a while and I rarely meet a sugar cookie recipe that I enjoy. But my trust in the America's Test Kitchen is absolute so I decided to dive in...and instantly deviate from the recipe.

For those of you who have been living under a rock, checkerboard cookies are sugar cookies with half the dough flavored with some chocolate and then the dough arranged to look like a checkerboard. Done well, they look really good. Here's my problem: the America's Test Kitchen recipe only describes a 2x2 checkerboard and I think that looks lame. So instead of doing the sensible thing and splitting the dough in half to design my cookies, I decided to go with 4 squares of chocolate dough and 5 squares of regular dough to get a 3x3 checkerboard. Math! You'll see how that turns out.

Since I was baking for a large party, I decided that instead of cutting the dough in half and turning one half chocolate, I would just make two batches of dough. Spoiler alert: I had way too many cookies. Anyway, I made my regular sugar cookie dough first. Devotees of this blog will recall that I am now worshiping at the alter of my digital scale and am weighing my flour and sugar. I held fast to this belief and bing, bang, boom, my sugar cookie dough was done in no time. It was seriously so much faster weighing ingredients! Why carefully measure out 2 1/4 cups of flour when you can dump 11 1/4 oz into a bowl on a scale? I wish I had timed myself because I think I broke some sugar cookie dough-making records.

I tossed the dough on the counter to roll it out into two 6 inch long squares. Well sort of. First I cut the dough in half. Then I rolled the dough out to 6 inches long. Then I tried to make it square-ish. Then I cut the dough into quarters lengthwise so that I had 4 long rectangle pieces. And then I confused myself about how many rectangles I needed. Bad baker, each 6 inch completed log should have 5 long rectangles! Not 4! So I kinda fudged it and cut off a piece from the dough I had set aside to roll out the bonus two rectangles I'd need. Confused yet? I sure was. I also tried half-heartedly to square up the edges so I would get some nice clean lines but I'd be lying if I said was patient enough to do that well. Anyway, rectangles made, it was on to the chocolate dough!

I melted some semisweet chocolate on the stove while I washed all of my tools. Well, sort of washed. Come on, the same exact stuff is going in. I wasn't going to lose my mind over it. And then I followed the exact same process adding melted chocolate and cocoa powder. I even weighed the cocoa powder! Then I grabbed the measuring spoon that I had used for the salt to add 1/2 tsp and...oh shoot, that's the 1/2 tbsp measuring spoon. Well....crap. I put 1/2 tbsp into the regular dough instead of 1/2 tsp. Here's some more math, folks: that's THREE TIMES the amount of salt I should have used. I stood frozen at my counter for a few minutes. What should I do? Should I chuck the whole thing and start over? But I already made all of those annoying rectangles! But what if the cookies are super salty? But I already made all of those annoying rectangles! But baking is an exact science...shut up and just move on, internal monologue!

So that happened. And I just pretended it never happened.

With that all in mind, I finished up my chocolate dough and went to roll it out. But then I thought, if I made 5 logs from the regular dough and I only need 4 logs of chocolate dough and the intent is for all of these square to neatly fit into a checkerboard pattern, they should logically be the same thickness. At this point, I was over it, cut off a bit of chocolate dough, chucked it in the trash and declared them even. I rolled out the chocolate logs and then set about arranging them. It was actually surprisingly easy. The only problem I had was not getting crisp right angles at the junctions because I had been lazy with my rolling earlier. But I guess that's something I should only care about if I want them to look professional. I wrapped up my two now-giant logs of dough and put it in the fridge to chill.

[Two hours later]

Ok, time to cut them! The beauty of these cookies is that they're so easy to cut once the dough is chilled and they reveal such a lovely pattern once you cut them. I was supposed to cut them 1/4 inch thick and for once, I actually measured. Well, for the first 5 or 6 cookies. Then I eyeballed it because I prefer speed over precision. Clearly. I baked them up (two sheets, 3 batches!) and called it a night. Here are the checkerboard cookies for your judgement:

I think they generally looked pretty good except for the fact that they're all wobbly on the edges. However, people at work LOVED them. They thought I had purchased the cookies. So maybe I'm too much of a perfectionist for my own good? And they were pretty tasty cookies. People really liked them and someone even asked me for the recipe.

I told no one about the salt.

But I could totally taste the salt.

Good recipe. Next time, less salt.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Science Experiment Brownies

It's time to science the sh*t out of this. I have a new cookbook! I finally caved and actually joined America's Test Kitchen because I love all of their recipes so much. Then I agreed to do a phone survey on my experience with the website in exchange for 50% off a cookbook. I opted for the "Science of Good Cooking" and I am beyond thrilled with it. I literally want to sit at home reading a cookbook for fun. It has recipes but also has pages and pages about why they actually work. It's so fascinating! So when tasked with making brownies for my choir's holiday party, I decided it was time to test a hypothesis and bake with some science.

I opted for the Chewy Brownies which were described as the closest approximation to boxed brownies that we could get. Everyone knows boxed brownies are good but it's more fun (and impressive) making things from scratch. So what's the secret of boxed brownie goodness? Apparently it's all in the ratio of saturated to unsaturated fat. For boxed brownies, it's 28% to 72% and for traditional homemade brownie recipes, it's closer to 64% to 36%! Wow! This recipe uses a combination of butter and vegetable oil to get a ratio of 29% to 71%. Was that enough math for you? Too bad, there's more!

Since I was already geeking out over learning about the science of making brownies, I decided to go one step further and actually weigh my ingredients for the first time ever. America's Test Kitchen always supports weighing baking ingredients but I never have because hey, I've got those convenient measuring cups. But when I read a section in the cookbook about the variability in the amount of flour measured by the professional cooks at the test kitchen who were all using the same scoop-and-sweep method, I got curious. So I busted out my digital scale (because I'm fancy like that) and measured my 2.5 cups of sugar the way I normally would and put it into a bowl. When I weighed it, it turned out that I was nearly half a cup UNDER the amount of sugar I needed! Huge difference! I tried the same thing with the 1 3/4 cups of flour. It turned out that I was about a quarter cup OVER on the amount of flour! I would never have believed that my measurements could be so far off if I hadn't tested this. My life is forever changed.

Ok science nerdery aside, let's get to the actual baking. The first step was to whisk cocoa and boiling water until smooth. Oh yeah, here's another bit of science: the book recommends always "blooming" your cocoa in boiling water to bring out the cocoa flavor. The earth just shifted on its axis again. Anyway, next was whisking in unsweetened chocolate (I won't bore you with the explanation about the science behind using unsweetened chocolate) and I was actually clever for once and used my food processor to chop up the chocolate into tiny pieces so it melted easier.

While all of this was happening, I was melting half a stick of butter in the microwave. I could have done it on the stove but didn't want to dirty the pot. Mistake. I swear I was melting it in 7 second intervals. It was barely half melted when I put it in for another 7 seconds and then BOOM. It sounded like there was an actual explosion in my microwave. I opened it up and not only were the door and the entire top of the microwave covered in butter but not all of the butter was even melted! What the hell? So I got annoyed and cleaned it up and my perfect measuring and science was probably screwed up because of all of the lost, exploded butter but onwards and upwards. It didn't occur to me to ditch the butter and start over. I just went with it.

I added in the stupid butter and the vegetable oil and got whisking. Ever notice how brownie recipes never want you to use an electric mixer? I've never made brownies where I used something other than a large bowl and whisk. I guess it's unnecessary to use a mixer but...weird. Anyway, next was two eggs, two egg yolks, and vanilla and then the sugar, flour, and salt. Finally, I was instructed to fold in bittersweet chocolate pieces. I used bittersweet chocolate chips. This was likely also a mistake. The idea was supposed to be that the bittersweet chocolate would create "gooey pockets of melted chocolate" in the brownies and spoiler alert: that didn't happen. Because there something added to stabilize the shape of the chips, I didn't get quite the effect I was going for. I shouldn't have substituted the chips but who really wants to chop chocolate into 1/2 inch pieces?

Anyway, into the oven to bake. The temperature of my oven is still a great mystery but since I was instructed to bake on the lowest rack (an unusual instruction), the temperature was a bit more stable than normal. I remembered to foil sling and the baking time was quite accurate. Then all I had to do was wait for them to cool. Brownies take FOREVER to cool. I was supposed to let them cool in the pan for an hour and a half then remove them from the pan and let them cool for a whole extra hour! Fortunately I made these in the morning before the party. Then I sliced them nice and small and dusted them with some powdered sugar snow and tasted one. Wow. SO GOOD. They weren't quite as moist as I wanted but I think that's down to the exploded butter. They were a huge hit with people. Everyone who had one really loved them. Just one problem: I didn't take a picture! Noooooooo! All I had left was the one brownie I left home for my husband which didn't even have powdered sugar.

Sad. They looked so pretty. But they tasted great and I'd definitely make these again. And I learned so much science too! I am still aghast at how off my sugar and flour measurements were and fully intend to measure these from here on out. Only problem is that a lot of recipes don't specify the weights. So I guess it's time to memorize how much a cup of sugar and a cup of flour weigh! I feel like I've powered up and advanced to the next level of baking! [Insert triumphant Super Mario music here.]

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Lazy Thanksgiving Dessert

Alas, I've fallen behind on my blogging again! So get ready for some blitz blogging as I inch ever closer to my 100th baked good! Thanksgiving was only two weeks ago (but it feels like it was about 5 years ago already) and I always struggle with what dessert to make for Thanksgiving. We always have way too many desserts and we're always way too full to eat the ones we have. So I opted for a quick and easy dessert that would look festive and that my sister would actually eat: Rice Krispie Treats that look like pumpkins.

On paper, super easy. Just make Rice Krispie Treats as normal, dyeing the butter and marshmallow orange along the way, shape into balls, add a mini Reese's for a stem and a green M&M for the leaf. Voila! Fast, adorable, easy.

It's me, it's never easy.

To start off with, I basically never make Rice Krispie Treats. I'm far from the expert. I actually thought you toss the whole box of Rice Krispies in. You don't. So while I was melting marshmallows and butter and unwrapping mini Reese's, I realized that I also needed to measure the Rice Krispies. Ugh. This recipe was already annoying me. I did manage to dye my mixture a perfect orange with my fancy food dye kit. Anyway, not much to talk about with a three ingredient recipe so let's get to decorating.

I had to shape the treats into balls. Ostensibly, I was supposed to make 12 but those would have been giant so I went a bit smaller. Now, there were lots of Pinterest tips and tricks for making these without them sticking to your hands and I opted for the "use wax paper" approach. I put a spoonful of oozy melty goodness onto some wax paper and tried to shape it into a ball...and it stuck all over the wax paper. No dice. At this point, fortune smiled upon me and my sister walked by and said "what are you doing? Spray your hands with some PAM, idiot." Ok, I'm paraphrasing but she did give me the "you idiot" look but then was nice enough to help me out a bit. I bow to the Rice Krispie Treat expert.

Spraying hands with PAM worked like a charm. No more sticking. Now there was just the issue of rolling hot Rice Krispies into a ball and then adding the mini Reese's and M&M. The problem was, I would roll a ball and then press the decorations in, which would flatten the ball and make it all misshapen. Plus the hot Rice Krispies were melting the Reese's and M&Ms. Contrary to popular belief, M&Ms can in fact melt in your hand. I eventually developed a system of rolling, pressing in the decorations and then reshaping my pumpkin into a ball. Oh yeah, and I had to work fast because the Rice Krispies were rapidly cooling and hardening. No time to think! Go! Go! Go!

They're cute but a little annoying. Probably a good baking project for kids. But overall, they were a bright and festive addition to the table and I'm glad I tried it. So that I don't need to try it again. Ever. But let's face it, it's far from the most annoying thing I've baked. I never learn.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Not Quite My Jam

When the frustration of untreated roads in a snowstorm that everyone knew was coming leads to a 3 hour commute home, what better activity is there than baking? Clearly I wasn't going to make it to the supermarket for ingredients so I was left foraging in my pantry to bake with whatever I had on hand. After a few false starts due to lack of ingredients, I found a recipe I could make: Raspberry Pecan Thumbprints. I've never actually made thumbprint cookies but they always look very pretty so I've been wanting to try it for a while. This recipe comes from the old classic, the Favorite Brand Name Bake Sale Cookbook. I didn't notice what the brand name ingredient was though. Whoops.  I set to work softening my butter while I gathered the rest of my ingredients...and realized that I didn't have pecans. Oops. Now they're Raspberry Walnut Thumbprints! I'm still amazed that I had raspberry jam but no pecans!

Moving on, I creamed up the butter, added the brown sugar and the vanilla, and then pondered if I should actually mix the dry ingredients as directed. Nah. Nonsense. So I chucked in the allspice, cinnamon, and salt, gave it a quick stir, then tossed in the pecans walnuts, gave it another quick stir and finally added the flour. Dough complete. Very easy.

But the dough is not the challenge of thumbprint cookies! Oh no, it's the shape and the filling. So here we go. I was suppose to roll one inch balls, flatten slightly, then press my thumb in, smoothing any cracks that form. I have no idea how big one inch is and I will never measure so I just guessed. It didn't help that the recipe didn't specify how many cookies this recipe would yield. So I couldn't even figure out if I was on the right track or not. I ended up making roughly two dozen cookies. In hindsight, I think I should have made them smaller but oh well. I rolled them all out and pressed my thumb into them like a pro. Except I didn't really like the look of them. Maybe it's because I have long nails or maybe I don't know how to properly thumbprint but all of the indents were oblong instead of circular. I feel like an actual round tool would have been more appropriate. Next time, Gadget.

Next, I had to fill the thumbprints with "a heaping 1/4 teaspoon of jam." I take issue with this direction because by the time you make 1/4 teaspoon heaping, you've basically got a half a teaspoon. I pretty much ignored this direction and put in enough to fill the holes. And since I think I made my cookies too big, it was at least a half a teaspoon in each. It was also really difficult getting the jam out of a 1/4 teaspoon scoop but I managed a system of using the back end of a spoon to scoop the jam out of the measuring spoon. I do weird things in the kitchen.

Finally, I was supposed to "scatter the remaining pecans walnuts over the filled cookies." Yeah, no. I see a lot of issues with this direction including that I didn't want any walnuts actually in the jam. Plus, I knew just scattering the nuts would mean that they wouldn't stick. So, like a crazy person, I actually pressed bits of walnut around the sides of each cookie. For what it's worth, by doing it that way, it looked exactly like the picture. It took a while, but hey, what else is there to do when you're snowed in? (Lots. There were lots of things I could have been doing in my house but did not.)

Now, before tossing these into the oven, a slight diversion on my oven temperature. I finally bought an oven thermometer and the conclusion is...I have no freakin' clue. I tested it once before when it was set to 350 and it was reading 400. Today when I tested it, it was reading 325. So I turned up the heat to 375 in hopes that it would get to an actual 350. Then it was actually 375. So I turned it back down. Then it was back down to 325. Then it was back up to 365 for no reason that I understood. I have no idea what's going on or how to fix it. My oven sucks. So I just landed on "I guess I'll keep an eye on my cookies" and tossed them in.

I was pretty curious to see how jam behaves in the oven. I didn't perfectly fill the thumbprint holes in case the jam expanded a bit to fill the holes. This was an inaccurate guess. The jam stayed pretty much exactly where I put it and cooking it just made it set. Well now I know. All in all, they didn't turn out to be the prettiest cookies as a result.

The cookies grew a bit in the oven which only emphasized the weird shapes of the jam. Alas. But look at that excellent walnut decoration, right?! As far as taste goes, I liked the base cookie a lot but I think the jam makes them way too sweet. But I don't really like sweet things so they're probably fine. Since I was home alone, I had no one else to taste test so I'll have to wait for some other opinions. All in all, not a bad snow day's work. The whole baking/cleaning process took me only an hour from start to finish so I deem these quick and easy cookies. So go try to make some cookies with whatever is in your pantry! You never know what you might come up with.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

A Tuile Good Time!

The Great British Baking Show is clearly warping my brain. No longer do I do anything simple like a basic drop cookie. Instead, I spend my time making delicate lace cookies and rolling them into precious shapes. On the other hand, I've been wanting to try to make tuiles for a while now so I guess now's as good a time as any!

I went with a lace cookie recipe from (you guessed it) America's Test Kitchen. I know, I know, I should probably start to open my other cookbooks but this one is so foolproof. I've never actually had a lace cookie and I don't really know the difference between a lace cookie and a tuile. I speculate that a lace cookie becomes a tuile when you curve the warm cookie into a cigarette shape or any sort of curved shape. I guess I could look it up but I don't much feel like it.

Anyway, back to the kitchen. I started out with boiling my butter, dark brown sugar, and corn syrup on the stove. My dark brown sugar was a little bit clumpy but I figured since I was dissolving it, it wouldn't matter in the end. (It didn't.) After boiling the mixture for a few minutes, I took it off the heat and mixed in vanilla, salt, flour, heavy cream, and finely chopped almonds. Basically the easiest recipe ever. The only bad part about it was using up the last of my good Mexican vanilla! Anyone I know going to Mexico anytime soon? I could really use some more.

For once, I actually followed the parchment paper direction and lined the pan with the paper. I usually skip this because I hate cutting parchment paper but the cookbook warned me that these cookies get really sticky and hard to remove and that timing is critical to success. Ok. Next I had to drop rounded teaspoons of batter at 4 inch intervals. That's....very little batter for a very large area. I could only bake 6 cookies at a time. And since I'm terrible at measuring things by eye, I even used my teaspoon measure to dole out the cookies. The problem with this was the fact that a teaspoon is quite small and the batter was quite sticky so getting the batter out of the teaspoon was a challenge. I ultimately got another spoon and had a bizarre method of double scooping but I got those tiny, round balls on the pan eventually.

Then they had to bake for 5-7 minutes or "until deep golden brown and bubbling has subsided." They needed about 6 minutes in my oven and wow, did they ever grow! Good thing I was only making 6 at a time! Once taking them out of the oven, I had to wait 1-2 minutes for them to cool before shaping them. I even set a timer to be sure. Probably overkill but timing was CRITICAL! Initially, I decided to simply shape them into curves by putting them on my rolling pin. After the first two, I realized I needed to shape them a bit with my fingers around the curve of the rolling pin to make it the right shape but by then, the other 4 were cooled. I could have put them back in the oven to soften them again but I didn't bother since I had another 2 dozen or so to make. Clearly, working fast was key to the process. Actually, the book recommended only baking two cookies at a time if this was my first time making tuiles but that seemed insane to me. I'd just have to work faster.

For the second batch, I did four quick rolling pin tuiles and then decided this was way too easy and wanted to make the cigarette shape. I don't have any dowels for shaping or anything so I decided to use the handle of my wooden spoon. That actually worked perfectly. Except I decided to do this way too late and my last two cookies were cooled. Damn. Next batch then.

By the third batch, I planned to roll one cookie, put four on the rolling pin, and then roll the last cookie. The rolling definitely required practice. It was a very delicate balance of moving fast but not cracking the cookies and, oh yeah, not burning my finger tips. Ultimately, I got a few good looking ones but realized I was actually rolling them inside out. That is, the smooth side was facing out instead of the bumpy, crispy side. (Who am I kidding, the whole cookie is crispy.) So for the next batch, I had to flip the cookie over and then start rolling. I was clever for once and did all of this flipping and rolling nonsense on a piece of parchment paper. By the last batch, I was definitely getting the hang of it. I even went so far as to put the over-cool cookies back in the oven to soften because flat cookies are boring. How do you think I did?

They're pretty good, right? Not pictured: a bunch of flat cookies and less pretty cookies and half-broken cookies. One advantage to half-broken cookies though is that I get to taste them! I thought they tasted really good but they were a little bit sweet for me. I don't really know what they're supposed to taste like though. Oh, and one more thing: these little babies are FRAGILE. When I was moving the plate of cookies into the dining room, I may or may not have accidentally walked into the wall and two cookies slid off the plate and shattered on the floor like glass. Of course, the two most perfect cookies. No exaggeration though, I've broken glass on my kitchen floor before and these cookies shattered the exact same way. So it wasn't a perfectly perfect bake but it was generally pretty nice. And quick and easy enough that after baking these, I immediately started baking some chocolate cakes. But that's a story for another day. Coming soon to a blog post near you!

Friday, October 12, 2018

My Eyes Were Bigger Than My Cake

Last stop on the catching-up-on-blog-posts train is my attempt at the Kit Kat Spa cake as prominently featured on Nailed it! The idea behind this is that you build a small two layer round cake, surround it with Kit Kats to look like a fence, top it with ganache to look like mud or water, and then add little modeling chocolate animals so the whole thing looks like pigs in a mud bath or ducks on a pond or a woman soaking in a spa. You know, something adorable like this (image not mine - it's floating around on Pinterest pretty much constantly):
Image result for nailed it netflix kit kat cake

I decided to go with ducks in a pond. Because I think I can actually make rubber duckies out of modeling chocolate and if all else failed, I would straight up put actual rubber ducks on the cake. Sound good? Let's go!

The first thing I did was make the modeling chocolate. The last time I tried to do this, I really screwed it up and all of the oil leaked out. This time, however, I was very careful about following the directions and heated up my corn syrup and chocolate to the appropriate temperatures. I was careful to not overwork the chocolate and it came together pretty nicely! Yay for nice yellow rubber ducky chocolate! I put that aside since I made that well in advance and then I went and got an appendectomy. Yeah, surgery sort of derailed my cake baking schemes. The only thing I was really planning on doing in advance though was baking the cakes and freezing them now that I know the magic of freezing cakes. 

Once I was feeling better and could safely lift my KitchenAid onto the counter, I went about making my cakes. I decided to go with America's Test Kitchen again since it tasted so good but I didn't want to be boring and decided to make the marble cake. Basically this is the same as the other cake I made except in the last steps. Before filling your pans, you're supposed to separate a third of your batter and add melted chocolate to it. Then, when you fill your pans, you put in half of the white batter, then the chocolate batter, then the rest of the white batter in layers. Using a sharp knife, you then make marble-y shapes and then bake. 

The recipe specified that this was for 2 8- or 9-inch round cakes. I would have preferred to make 8-inch cakes but I only have one 8-inch pan. Meanwhile, I had 2 9-inch pans. I wanted a taller cake but I really didn't want to bake in two batches. My laziness won out and I went with the 9-inch. Mistake. 

Well, actually, there were several mistakes going on. First, my oven temperature, which I've mentioned (and which I should really really really check!). Second, using too large a pan. As I filled the pans with my very scientific eyeballing method, it did seem like the batter was a little bit low in the pan. But I figured that if I wasn't overfilling the pans, I'd have a better chance of not getting that domed top and having to level my cakes. Wrong on so many fronts. After the timer went off, I pulled out my cakes and not only did they have domed tops, they were FLAT. I mean, ridiculously flat. To illustrate my last remark:

These cakes were no more than an inch and a half high! I got angry and went on a Google and cookbook deep dive to see why my cakes aren't behaving. I found lots of information about tapping the pans on the counter (did that), baking at a lower heat for a longer time (might try that next time but the cakes were honestly baked perfectly), adding a metal nail in the center of the cake to distribute the heat better (seems dangerous), and a host of other seemingly ridiculous suggestions. I decided to just blame my oven and go about my business. 

I sulkily cleaned up my kitchen and pondered what to do with my cake. I clearly couldn't make a hot tub cake out of that. I really didn't feel like making another cake that day and redoing it. The spa cake was just going to have to wait for another day. But in the meantime, I might as well whip up some buttercream and invite people over to eat cake! 

So I started gathering my ingredients for my buttercream and that's when I noticed my baking powder. My evil, evil SUPER EXPIRED baking powder. It expired in 2012. I don't even know where this baking powder came from. In 2012, it should've been Big Y brand and it wasn't even that. I'm suspecting it somehow came from my grandmother's house. Regardless, baking powder is kind of that thing that makes cakes fluffy. Expired baking powder will not do that in the least. Mystery solved, I guess. (Though I'm not ruling out oven temperature as a contributing factor.) 

Ok, with that sorted out, I went back to the buttercream. I went with the chocolate buttercream in America's Test Kitchen because, again, yummy. This was very uneventful and makes a really nice buttercream. Now I've got about a half hour to frost this sucker and decorate it and oh, did I mention that now I'm marinating steaks because I've invited people over? Never a dull moment. 

First I assembled the cake. This was easier than normal because there's no need to level out a completely and utterly flat cake. Then I frosted the entire thing and that looked fine. But I had leftover buttercream! I can't leave leftover delicious buttercream! I decided to pipe a bottom border because, why not? STILL leftover buttercream! What to do??? 

Just keep piping. 

I started making some sort of strange zigzag pattern on the side of the cake. I was running out of time and wanted to clean up and I didn't care too much about the aesthetics at that moment. It didn't look bad. Until I ran out of buttercream. Because of course I did. I cannot for the life of me gauge how far buttercream will get me. I'm the same way with knitting and guessing how far my yarn will get me. So now I have people coming over and piping around 2/3 of the sides of my cake. I certainly wasn't about to make more buttercream. So what did I do? 

I got creative. Uh oh. I dug in my pantry for anything resembling cake decorations. Random sprinkles that I bought to decorate cake pops? Yup, looks like a cake decoration to me now. I had some nice pastel round confetti sprinkles that I tossed into the gap in the cake. Literally tossed. Because when I tried to press them in, my hands and the sprinkles got covered in buttercream and I'm not nearly OCD enough to do something like use tweezers to decorate a cake. Whatever, guys, I was over it at this point. 

On the bright side, the cake tasted really good. It was a little bit dense (obviously) but the flavor was great. The pictures don't show it well but you could even see the marbling in the cake a bit. When all was said and done, not my finest hour as a baker. And now I have a bunch of yellow modeling chocolate and Kit Kats sitting around useless. Maybe I need to go back to cupcakes for a bit. And definitely need to check the expiration dates on all my ingredients! Sheesh.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Because "Retirement" Has Too Many Letters!

This a super late baking report but I just have to tell you all about this one...

Get ready, because this was an advanced cake-building adventure. My mom has retired after a long and illustrious career and what better way to celebrate than with a big party, right? In planning the party, originally I was going to buy a cake. But then I thought to myself, "Why would I pay for a cake when I can just make one myself?" Seems absurd to pay for a cake! Surely I can make just as good a cake as any bakery who would inevitably misspell my mom's name. So I started planning my cake-building endeavor. Step 1: Make cake. Step 2: Make buttercream. Step 3: Build cake. Step 4: Frost and decorate cake. Easy peasy!


Let's start with the cake. I wanted to make the cakes a bit in advance so that I wouldn't have to be spending an entire day and night making this cake. A bit of Google research informed me that cakes can in fact be made several days or even weeks in advance if they're frozen. Moreover, frozen cakes actually result in a moister cake. Interesting theory. Willing to put it to the test. So I turned to the good ol' America's Test Kitchen for their chocolate cake recipe. I briefly thought about using box mix but a) I wanted the cake to be more special than that and b) I didn't have any. Conveniently enough, I had all of the ingredients to make two 9x13 cakes. My vision was basically a sheet cake structure with some nice decorating. A simple two-layer cake seemed like plenty to feed the party masses. One problem: I only have one 9x13 pan. Of course. But it's fine, it just meant a long day of cake baking.

There's nothing too interesting about the recipe except that it includes sour cream and cocoa melted together with bittersweet chocolate. I'm convinced that's what makes it so good. I also didn't even  use my KitchenAid for this one. The recipe recommended a bowl and whisk. This surprised me because hours of watching Nailed It! have told me that I need to use a good mixer to get light and fluffy cake but ya know what? America's Test Kitchen has never once steered me wrong.

You know what just occurred to me? I could have just made a double batch of the batter and then only filled the pan with half the batter and covered the rest. Why didn't I do that? Why did I spend roughly 4 hours making two identical batches of cake? Seriously, weeks later and this idea JUST occurred to me.

Moving on.

I mixed up the batter (the first time) and filled my very carefully greased pan. America's Test Kitchen didn't specify how to grease it so I used Crisco. Nailed It! recommends butter. I figure Crisco is close enough. So I baked the cake perfectly and then had to wait for the cake to cool for 2 hours before removing it from the pan. Waiting. Waiting. Might as well make the second batch of batter while I wait. Waiting. Waiting.

Finally after two long hours, I could flip the cake onto the cooling rack. I'm always impressed by how cavalierly people on baking shows toss their cakes around. I'm always terrified of them breaking. I very carefully flipped my cake out onto the cooling rack and only slightly lost two of the corners to sticking. Ooops. I really greased the corners well so I'm not sure what happened. However, it is a super duper old pan. Look back to when I started this blog. It's my ONLY 9x13 pan. Anyway, the broken pieces allowed me to taste the cake and YUM. So good. So I filled the pan for the second time and took extra care re-greasing the corners and let the second cake bake. And then let it cool for 2 more hours. Waiting. Waiting.

Finally, I could flip the second cake out of the pan and once again, the same two corners stuck. Time for a new pan for sure. But overall the cakes were pretty even and it seemed like a success. Just needed to wrap them in plastic and put them in the freezer. I laid the plastic wrap out on the counter and flipped the first cake from the drying rack onto the plastic. Not bad. I got a nice tight wrap on the cake and put it in the freezer. It did seem like I needed to handle the cake very carefully though. Did the same thing with the second cake annnnnnnd...crack. Entire cake split right up the middle. Devastation. How do people toss cakes around and not have them break?? Are they making super dense construction cakes? What's the story here? I certainly wasn't going to make another cake so I just wrapped it up tight and told myself that I'd stick it back together with buttercream.

Whew. Now I can take a break for a few days.

The next step required a change of location. Better to decorate a cake where you'll actually be serving it so I headed to the shore armed with two frozen cakes, ingredients for buttercream, and everything I could possibly need for decorating this cake. Oh, and cake boards because I thought I'd get fancy and not just serve it on a sheet pan.

I decided to go with a simple vanilla buttercream but used the recipe specified by America's Test Kitchen. This recipe is terrific but is a pain in the butt to make. It involves whipping egg whites, simmering sugar and ever so carefully pouring the sugar into the egg whites extremely slowly while the mixer is going and "being sure not to get any on the sides of the bowl and beater." Sure. I actually managed to not make too much of a mess with my pouring and while I was doing this, my mom was carefully cutting the pound of butter into small pieces. Yes, a pound. I had to mix until the bowl was barely warm which took around ten minutes and then had to beat in the butter one piece at a time. Needless to say, this buttercream took forever to make. I used the time to unwrap my cakes and level them. I haven't been super pleased with the way my cakes have been puffing up lately and I think that's down to my oven temperature but no big deal since I was just going to cut the cakes to the size I wanted anyway. Buttercream ready to go, it was time to start frosting!

I leveled out the bottom cake and put it on the cakeboard and flopped some frosting on top. And immediately figured out that a) two of these cakes would be extremely massive and b) I was going to almost surely run out of buttercream. I probably could have made one 9x13 cake and cut it in half longways. That's how fat these cakes were. So I was trying to walk the delicate tightrope of having a thick layer of frosting in the middle so it wouldn't just be huge bites of cake and not running out of frosting. I used my best judgment and then flopped the second cake on top. Seriously big cake. I leveled out the sides, somehow did a poor job of doing so, and ended up with a bit of a trapezoid cake. Oh well. I eeked out every last ounce of frosting to cover the cake. I managed to but it wasn't a very neat job at all. And I had run out of buttercream for decorating. Damn.

Guess that means I have to make a second batch of buttercream! I didn't feel up to spending another hour making buttercream so I pulled up some random recipe online and made a simpler buttercream. It tasted decent but not nearly as good. Since this buttercream would be used for decorating, I consulted the guest of honor on what color she would like. I had my amazing color mixer kit so could make any color in the world. She said orange. "Orange??" "Yeah, orange would be fun!" Ok. Not exactly what I would have picked but what the retiree wants, the retiree gets. Plus it was getting late and I was getting a little punchy. A note on colors: since we did all of the frosting the day before the party, the buttercream yellowed a bit overnight (as predicted by America's Test Kitchen) so the orange was a nice complement to the yellowed buttercream. Personally, I didn't find it the most appetizing combination of colors though so in the future, I think I'll definitely color the buttercream.

Anywho, my concept for this cake was to represent all of my mom's different jobs over her career. A bubbling beaker for her lab job, a bottle of pills for one of her companies, and two of the products from her other two companies for a small bit of a 3D element. I also fully intended to write "Happy Retirement!" However, at that point, my brain wasn't up to that much piping or for correctly spelling "retirement" so instead I landed on "Yay Jean!" I apologize for nothing. I was also very anxious about piping the decorations on and wasn't pleased with how one came out so I had to scrape it off and try again but eventually it got done. And now I had a ton of orange buttercream left over because I had only piped tiny decorations. So I decided to use the rest of the buttercream to line the top and bottom of the cake. I was looking for a swirly rose type piping tip and I mostly achieved that. I'm also very proud of the evenness and uniformity of my piping. Only problem: I once again ran out of buttercream! I am apparently a very poor judge of buttercream quantities. I managed to juuuuuust eek out enough to finish the decorations. Way more stressful than it needed to be. Plus my cakeboard really backfired on me because it left stains anywhere I dripped buttercream so I didn't get the nice, clean look that I was going for. I've since seen a trick where you put parchment paper strips under the edges of the cake to avoid that. I'll have to try that next time.

At the end of the day, I was pretty pleased with how the cake turned out and people were generally impressed. Decorating skills need some work but I'll get there someday. Maybe.

Oh, by the way, the cake tasted AMAZING. It was one of the best cakes I've ever made. Super moist. Great pairing with the buttercream. It could've been a bit thinner but overall, flawless cake recipe as far as flavor goes. A store-bought cake wouldn't have tasted this good! Although, maybe a store could've spelled "retirement"...

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Little Puffs of Happiness

Just a quick little update to brighten your day! Some epic baking tales are in my backlog but I thought I'd just give you all a little taste of what I've been up to lately. After my super awesome trip to South Africa, I've decided that the lack of a proper afternoon tea is everything that's wrong with our country. (Not really, there's a whole host of other things, but afternoon tea is the one I can tackle today.) To that end, I've decided to institute tea time in my day at approximately 3:00. Naturally, if I'm going to have tea, I'm going to need some afternoon snacks to go with my tea! I wanted something that stored easily and something more on the savory side so I opted for Cheese Gougeres.

Basically these are nice bite-size cheese puffs made from a pate a choux (forgive my French, I'm way too lazy to put in appropriate symbols). What's a pate a choux, you ask? I barely know myself. It's the pastry that you use for cream puffs and eclairs and such. Which means I've made it before. With mixed success. However, I've been binge watching the Great British Baking Show on Netflix so I've watched it get made a bunch of times and now have a much better idea of what to do. Maybe. Ok, not really. But off we go anyway!

Step 1: preheat oven. Check. I'm doing so well already. Next I had to combine butter, water, and salt into a 2-4 qt saucepan. I literally have 2, 3, and 4 qt saucepans and stood motionless in my kitchen for a solid 5 minutes debating which one to use. I opted for the 3 qt because I was only combining a cup of water and a stick of butter and then adding a cup of flour to it later. Plus I never get to use my 3 qt pan so this was a new and exciting adventure. I brought it up to a boil as directed and then took it off the heat to IMMEDIATELY! add a cup of flour and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until it resembled mashed potatoes. Ooof, need to work on my arm muscles. After a couple minutes, it actually did start to resemble mashed potatoes! I swear it even started to smell like mashed potatoes. Then I had to return it to medium-low heat and stir for 3-5 minutes until the dough "smells nutty, glistens, and dries out enough to hold up a spoon". Disaster.

At first it seemed like the dough would never dry out and I got worried that the heat was too low. Then I worried that I was stirring too fast (or maybe too slow?) and was experimenting with different speeds. And actually, at about 5 minutes, the dough was glistening and smelled nutty and looked drier. But it couldn't support a spoon. That said, I suspect that in the 3 qt pan, it never would have supported a spoon because the base was too wide. So I kept stirring a little over the 5 minutes and I swear, at 6 minutes precisely, the dough just died. It somehow seemed to be getting worse! It looked to me like all of the butter was now seeping out of the dough from overmixing. I had no idea if it could be saved. I took it off the heat, I tried stirring it slowly to try to reincorporate the butter, I prayed to the baking gods, I stared at my pot...and I threw out the dough. Failure.

Don't get despondent yet! I'm determined to succeed!

So I just started again. This time, in the 2 qt pan and with a shorter wooden spoon so I could get better leverage. And with timers so I didn't go one second over that 5 minute mark. And ya know what? It worked! I'm really proud of myself for trying again. I moved the dough to the mixer where I was supposed to mix for about 1 minute until the dough stopped steaming. After a minute the dough was still steaming and I started panicking again. But the next step was adding eggs and I really didn't want scrambled eggs. I let it mix a tiny bit longer and then added the eggs one at a time as directed. The recipe was a little bit weird in that it said some days I might need 3 eggs and some days I might need 4 and to check it by seeing if the dough makes a V when I lift it with a spatula. Ooooook. I did get a little worried after the second egg because I felt like the dough was doing the opposite of incorporating the egg and was splitting apart instead. But I upped the speed just a bit and it all came back together. By the way, I did need all 4 eggs.

Next I had to mix in the cheese. I decided to make half with Gruyere and half with Parmesan. I eyeballed dividing up the dough and mixed in the Gruyere first. I was pretty amazed how well the shredded Gruyere incorporated into the dough. It was a super smooth dough. Finally, I had to scoop out 12 Gruyere balls from my dough. They seemed a little bit big and definitely sticky and I ended up with 15 instead of 12. I think in the future I'll make them smaller but I didn't want to work with 3 baking pans this time. Then I mixed up my Parmesan gougeres and got about 9 out of that. Again, bigger than I wanted but I couldn't stand the thought of 2 batches.

Apparently the key to baking these is a high heat initially then longer on a lower heat. I'm going to come out and say this now: I do not think my oven is baking at correct temperatures. I keep meaning to get an oven thermometer and check but I haven't gotten around to it. And with pastry, you really do want to be correct. So into the oven they went at 450 for 5 minutes. I'm not sure if this step was supposed to brown them or not but they didn't really get very brown. Then the directions said to reduce the heat to 350 and bake until puffed, deep golden brown, and dry to the touch. For some reason, I thought I had to take them out of the oven and wait for the oven to come down to 350 before continuing to bake them. I have no idea why I thought this. It's not like the recipe said to take them out. I've literally never done that before for anything I've ever baked. I can only claim temporary insanity that lasted approximately 3 minutes before I yelled in my kitchen "WHAT AM I DOING?!?!" and threw them back in the oven. So umm, that happened.

At the end of the day, they needed a bit longer in the oven and didn't get quite as deep golden brown as I would have liked but they were done and they were delicious. Little puffy heavenly bites.

The more neatly rounded ones are the Parmesan and the messy ones are the Gruyere but I actually really like the nooks and crannies of the messy ones. Plus I think I like the taste of the Gruyere better.

Overall, definitely some user error in this recipe but live and learn and now I have a bunch of these in my fridge and freezer to enjoy with tea! Yum! I'll take any other suggestions people have for afternoon tea snacks by the way, and encourage you to institute your own personal afternoon tea time!

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Nailed It and Failed It

Just a short little post because I think it will amuse some folks. Incessant binging of "Nailed It!" on Netflix leads to some really excellent life decisions like making pancake art. Originally, I was thinking that I would go completely crazy and fill squeeze bottles with colored pancake mix to make pancake eggs and bacon and then I realized I was way too hungry for that and I hate flat pancakes. Flat pancakes are the worst. So instead, I decided to use the cookie cutter approach for fun shaped pancakes. I had a Mickey Mouse cookie cutter and an adorable rubber ducky cookie cutter. What could go wrong???

I don't need to describe making pancake batter because I could make that in my sleep. I started out with the Mickey Mouse pancake and filled the cookie cutter with minimal issue. I did start getting worried about how thick the pancake was but whatever, I'm sure it will be fine. I also filled up the rubber ducky cookie cutter in the same pan. As I was waiting for the bubbles to form I noticed that the rubber ducky cookie cutter was designed for kids' hands. So it had a wide plastic rim on the top for small hands to grab. Which meant that there was no way at all I'd be able to flip this without melting the plastic. While I was considering this issue, it was time to flip Mickey. I actually managed to flip him with minimal effort and he was looking pretty good. Then I went to pick up the duck pancake and realized that in fact, the ENTIRE cookie cutter was plastic and the duck had melted onto my pan. Duck pancake and duck cookie cutter went directly to the garbage. Sad.

Then the Mickey pancake was ready and while it looked excellent, it may or may not have been completely stuck to the cookie cutter. I guess I should've greased the cookie cutter. But hey, at least it didn't melt, am I right?!? ::High Fives!:: I used a small knife to loosen the pancake (which was a very difficult task considering the round shape and the fact that the metal cookie cutter was hot as hell) and eventually, Mickey was freed! So adorable!

Pretty perfectly cooked and so so tasty. It was a fun little start to my day. Meanwhile, that duck did succeed in creating the world's most adorably ruined pan:

Stay tuned for an exciting tale of cake building coming soon!

Friday, June 15, 2018

Easy as Rollin' Off a Log

Hello loyal readers! It's been a while. And by a while, I mean since Christmas. And by since Christmas, I mean I HAVEN'T BAKED SINCE CHRISTMAS!!! Isn't that horrible? I was so busy with so many other things that I just haven't had the time and I was starting to forget where my mixer even was!

But here I am today, enjoying my summer hours at work by waiting at home for the refrigerator repairman. Larry said he'd be here at 1:00. It is currently 4:30. Larry is still not here. I already planted a bunch of flowers and watched a bunch of Gilmore Girls and I am BORED. And what else is there to do when you're bored except bake? So I went foraging in my pantry to see what I have ingredient-wise and ended up having just enough pecans to make Martha Stewart's Pecan Logs. I've never had a pecan log but I figure it has pecans so it must not be bad. Plus Martha's recipes are usually safe and easy to not screw up.

So I started out by putting a bunch of pecans on a pan to toast them in the oven. Mmmmmm pecans. Then I successfully softened my butter and added my confectioner's sugar (no regular sugar in this one) and turned on my mixer. And the bowl promptly jumped off the counter and fell to the floor. Yup, definitely forgot to lock in the bowl. Rookie mistake. That's as bad as forgetting to put the top on a blender. I was very embarrassed by my mistake but fortunately, I was the only one who saw it so nobody has to know about it. Shhhhh....

Amazingly, none of the ingredients fell on the floor (even though the bowl did) and I could get back to work. Very simple recipe: butter, powdered sugar, an egg, flour, salt, baking powder, pecans and OH, LARRY IS FINALLY HERE!

Ok, now he's under my fridge so I can resume. Like I said, simple recipe overall. Although I did notice that there was proportionally an awful lot of salt. One and a half teaspoons to be precise. That's not necessarily a lot but it seems like it when there's only two and a half cups of flour in the dough. We shall see. I lazily eyeballed the "half the pecans" direction because half the pecans go in the dough and half are used for rolling the pecan logs in. I tossed the dough in the fridge to set and immediately compromised with myself by saying "well, it's supposed to chill for 30 minutes but how about I let it chill for as long as it takes my oven to preheat?" Because I'm bored.

Once the dough was semi-chilled (sorry, Martha, I know you're right but I don't care today), I was instructed to roll tablespoons of dough into 2 inch logs. We should all know by now how good I am with measurements. If you don't know, the answer is: bad. Once again, I eyeballed it. The first few looked gigantic so I started rolling them smaller. I was supposed to get 4 dozen pecan logs. I got 2.5 dozen. Pretty close! I also had to roll these logs into the chopped pecans. This was not a terrible task but I felt like the pecans were falling off a bit. I wanted to press them into the dough but then I lost the shape of the log. Although, I'm not super sure why they need to be log-shaped anyway. Why couldn't they just be cookie shaped? I'm overthinking this but I'm managing my anxiety about Larry asking how old my fridge is.

Anyway, into the oven they go for 14-15 minutes (oddly specific, Martha) and I wait. And made myself a cup of tea. Finally they were done and I pulled them out and they looked perfect. Lightly browned and slightly cracked. They didn't grow at all, as I suspected they wouldn't, so with the exception of the couple of giant ones, most of the pecan logs are delightful two bite pieces. When they finally cooled, I prepared myself for a lovely little Friday afternoon treat:

Ok, so maybe it doesn't necessarily look appetizing but oh man, are these ever delicious! Crumbly, but not too crumbly. Sweet, but not too sweet. Oddly enough, I think the huge amount of salt really help the flavor although next time, I might use juuuuuust a bit less. You can definitely taste the salt. But it does help balance out the overwhelming pecan flavor.

Overall, not my favorite Martha pecan recipe (that honor still goes to the Pecan Tassies!) but delicious nonetheless! So, now I've satisfied my boredom and have two dozen pecan logs. Anybody want to come over for a cookie?

Say a prayer for the outcome of Larry's investigation...

Friday, January 12, 2018

Super Simple Apple Pie

This blog post is brought to you by: seeing one of those stupid accelerated cooking videos on Facebook. My husband showed me a video of an apple pie that had a cinnamon bun crust and a cinnamon bun top and instead of the normal person's reaction of "oh, isn't that amusing", my reaction was "I NEED TO MAKE THAT NOWWWWW." So I did.

Well, sort of. The first thing to do was look for an actual legitimate recipe. And I couldn't find a single one that had cinnamon buns as both the top layer and the bottom layer. I suppose I could have combined two recipes but that inherently felt like a phenomenally bad idea. So I opted to go with the Pillsbury Cinnamon Roll Dutch Apple Pie which has a cinnamon roll crust and involves peeling no apples.

This is seriously one of the easiest desserts ever. To make the crust, you press one cinnamon roll into the middle of your pie plate and then surround it with the other seven cinnamon rolls. Press them together until you seal all the gaps. Bam. Bake crust.

While it was baking, I made the crumble which goes on top. It consisted of brown sugar, butter, cinnamon, and flour. My only problem here is that it suggested combining with a fork. I wasn't getting quite the crumbly quality I was looking for so I switched to my pastry blender. That helped a bit but it wasn't entirely there and then I remembered that the best way to make crumble is with my hands. Two seconds later, perfect crumb for the top of the pie. Then I stirred in some pecans because who doesn't love pecans?

At this point, the crust was done baking and was cooling off a little bit. I opened up the can of apple pie filling with no regrets because I hate peeling apples and I have had no success with apple pie yet. Then I was an idiot and went to move the crust to a more open counter space, completely forgetting that it had just been in the oven. Six of my fingers were not pleased. Fortunately, my instinctual reaction to being burned is to throw down the thing that is burning me and not grab on tighter. Also fortunately, I didn't drop the pie plate onto the ground. It was pretty harrowing.

After running my fingers under cool water, I put the apple filling into the pie, topped with the crumb, covered the edges with tin foil and then stuck it in the oven for 30 minutes. Beautiful. The grand finale was microwaving the cinnamon bun icing and topping the pie with decorative drizzles. Voila!

Not the best picture in the world but it sure was tasty! I was expecting it to be way too sweet but somehow it wasn't. Very nicely balanced. It's my new favorite super low effort pie. Easy for beginner bakers if you're interested in giving it a try!

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Back to Basics Christmas

Happy New Year everyone! I just discovered that I am 23 posts away from 100 blog posts. So now I'm pretty dedicated to making it there. Now that I'm happily in my new home, I have yet another new kitchen to get used to baking in. And what better way to kick off baking in a new kitchen than with the annual Christmas baking insanity with my dear friend? Devotees will recall that last year ended in disaster and tears and sad cookies and truffles. This year, we decided it was time to go back to basics to get our Christmas baking mojo back. We decided to go with a plan of all things we had made before with only one new cookie and NO TRUFFLES. It was hard dropping the truffles but after last year, we really needed the break.

So here's the plan:
1) Palmiers
2) Walnut balls (the CORRECT recipe this time!)
3) M&M cookies
4) Cookie press cookies (i.e. Christmas trees)
5) Double chocolate cookies
6) White chocolate ginger cookies (our new addition)

Seems like a fair plan, right? Even more relaxing, we had a slumber party planned so we could do the baking over two days! Well, you know what they say about plans...

For reference, I had only moved into my house two weeks prior, on the day before Thanksgiving. So to say I was a bit frazzled and knew where nothing was is an understatement. The result of this was basically me looking in my cabinet, saying "I've got the walnuts and the M&Ms and surely I have everything else I'll need", and then actually having none of what I needed. We went to bake the first batch of cookies only to discover that I had no puff pastry for the palmiers and only one stick of unsalted butter. Who runs out of butter??? This girl.

I enlisted my dear husband to run to the supermarket for us. Because we didn't feel like going outside. Really and truly, that was the reasoning. Since I had my husband going to the store anyway, I decided to also add things that probably needed replacing in my cabinet. Baking powder from 2012 is probably no longer super effective. His list consisted of baking powder, baking soda, puff pastry, some spices for the ginger cookies, and five pounds of butter. "Five pounds?!?" he says. "Of course, five pounds!" we says. So off he goes. While he's there, our evening looks like this:

Not pictured: Home Alone on the TV. Priorities. Finally, my dear husband arrived (about the same time as our whole cheese pizza just for me us) with this:

We. Could. Not. Stop. Laughing.

Technically, I suppose he correctly bought five pounds of butter. But it's whipped butter! Which I have never bought in my entire life and has never been in our fridge in our entire relationship! I attempted to research if we could even use whipped butter and the resounding answer from the internet was "nope." Also not pictured: the world's largest box of baking soda and the TWO cans of baking powder (which, in fairness, a nice lady at the supermarket suggested he buy after hearing we make several hundred cookies). Remember, we were only getting these ingredients because I hadn't used up the stuff I bought FIVE YEARS AGO. [I love you, husband! Thanks for trying!]

So where does this leave us? Eating pizza, drinking wine, and watching Home Alone while my dear husband goes back to Shop Rite at 11 pm to return the offensive butter and no baking at all on Day 1. I guess we were no worse off than any other year though.

We woke up in the morning to nice normal sticks of butter in the fridge with a pound left out on the counter to soften overnight (nice idea, but the first thing we did was take out the other four pounds. We blew through that first pound in about 2 minutes.) So we could get right to baking! We started off with the cookie press cookies. We didn't do any planning for a numerical goal or for how many batches we wanted for each so I think we tripled the batch for the cookie press so we could do four shapes and colors. This logic made sense early in the morning. In reality, we made two types in two colors. But that was fine, easy to accomplish and brought our cookie count to a quick 150 or so.

I think next we made the ginger cookies. Those were the new ones and required several steps so I think we decided to get them out of the way early. The dough was pretty easy to put together except for one thing: when I was making my list of spices, I didn't actually check the recipe and was just going from memory. So instead of getting nutmeg, I told my dear husband to get allspice. Whoops. I didn't have any nutmeg. But instead of fretting, we just used the allspice and hoped it would taste good. [It did.] The first batch of cookies was a little bit underbaked and the cookies were a little too big so after that we made them a bit smaller and cooked them a bit longer. Then they were perfect circles of gingery excellence. We put them aside for later because the next step was dipping them in chocolate and piping adorable holly berries on them. No potential for failure there whatsoever.

On to the next critically important step: walnut balls! We were so heartbroken last year that we needed to take extra care this year. We checked, double-checked, and triple-checked the recipe. We carefully measured everything. We remembered to sift the powdered sugar. Aaaaaaaaaaand...they're perfect! Little nutty balls of heaven. Note for next year though: sifting the powdered sugar does nothing. We won't waste our time next year.

With those out of the way, we turned our attention to our next potential problem. Namely, we started to get afraid of running out of flour and, you guessed it, butter! Around this point, we were also talking about taking a coffee and breakfast break. As we were discussing our urgent need for coffee, an angelic voice from upstairs yelled "give me a few minutes and I'll get you coffee!" Husband to the rescue! The kicker was when he was taking our coffee order and I threw in the "hey, while you're out, could you pick up some more butter?" and his jaw almost hit the floor. His immediate reaction seemed to be "no, you have more than enough butter" but then he was very sweet and got us flour and butter. Which we didn't end up needing. Whoops.

About this point, we started to divide and conquer. I took out the puff pastry to thaw for the palmiers and started collecting the various chocolate needed for the double chocolate cookies while my friend worked on making the base for the M&M cookies. I melted A LOT of chocolate. I don't even want to tell you how much. But those cookies are a tried and true favorite even if they aren't very Christmas-y. On the other hand, one of our goals was to make a pretty tin of cookies with lots of colors and designs so it helped fill out the tins in that way. One of our other goals was to make the M&M cookies smaller this year, which we accomplished, but it was much harder to get the M&Ms into the cookies fast enough. We also baked up the chocolate cookies which take forever to bake so we finally got a little break. I also ran out of cocoa. Tired yet?!?

Speaking of chocolate, we still have to dip those ginger cookies! At this point, we had completely run out of space in the kitchen and on my dining room table so that means dipping the cookies in chocolate and then laying them on wax paper on the floor. SorryNotSorry. We started the chocolate melting adventure by choosing bad vessels for dipping and realizing that we each needed our own bowls of melted chocolate if we were ever going to finish. We used white Wilton candy melts and apparently the thing that makes chocolate smooth for dipping is adding shortening and NOT increasing the microwaving time. Thanks, Google! It actually worked perfectly except that I ran out of white chocolate candy melts and white chocolate and my giving a crap level was quite low at this point. So even though we were only dipping half of each cookie, we somehow managed to use a technique where we only covered the top of half the cookies. Basically, from the top, the cookies look perfect but from the bottom, they look like a disaster mess. But we managed to eek out enough chocolate to dip all but three cookies so mission: accomplished.

We're in the home stretch! And starving because we've only eaten a bagel all day. We once again called upon our fetching hero to fetch us some lunch/dinner at the grilled cheese restaurant. And we got going on the palmiers. Which we never should leave to last because they take FOREVER. Fortunately, I have a ton of baking pans so we could cut almost all the cookies and place them on pans to be ready to bake. At this point, there was pan overflow into my living room. Things are a bit of a blur here because I think we were also piping the ginger cookies at the same time. My friend was piping the red berries and I was piping the holly leaves. On the floor. We quickly discovered a need for pillows under our knees but it was rather uncomfortable regardless. Naturally, I didn't have piping bags large enough for all of the chocolate I needed so once the bags got refilled, our hands were covered in red and green chocolate. It took forever. My hands cramped. But I do have to say, the effort was worth it because these cookies were adorable and delicious.

Note the trays of uncooked palmiers in the foreground. Palmiers continued their endless baking while we cleaned up the kitchen and packed up the cookies. Here's a photo of the stuffed dining room table with tasty cookies:

Ok, really that's about 2/3 of the cookies because you may recall, they just didn't all fit. And our final cookie tally this year was a whopping 667. Not our record but not half bad either for one day of baking. Here's our very scientific tracking system:

Whew! All the cookies came out great and we definitely have our confidence back! Guess we'll have to do something crazy for next year, right?