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.