Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Christmas cookies redeemed.

Sam and I spent Christmas in San Antonio with just the two of us for company, which was wonderful and calm and relaxing. Except for one thing. On Christmas Eve there was a definite lack of Christmas cookies in our house. With only two of us, I refrained from much baking this year. After all, the two of us alone hardly needed tins upon tins of sweets. But, at 7 p.m. on Christmas Eve, I just felt like something was missing. It wasn't that I was lonely, but I was worried about having an empty plate for Santa. So I baked cookies.

In fact, I baked two batches of cookies. At least I restrained myself from doubling the batches. The first was an old classic and family favorite known as Russian Tea Cakes, or Mexican Wedding Cookies, or even sometimes butterballs (due to the excessive and delicious butter content). The second cookies was a new recipe, not designed especially for Christmas, but it has become my new favorite Christmas cookie. It is orange shortbread sandwiched together with chocolate ganache. Yum.

I like to focus on citrus for Christmas. It reminds me of Little House on the Prairie. During their Christmas on the cold plains, both girls get an orange in their stocking, and it is such a treat during that winter in their little house on that big, cold prairie. These days we all take our citrus for granted. But just think, little Laura and Mary each received one orange, which they cherished section by section. At my house we currently have a five pound box of Mandarin cuties, and I peel three or four a day if I feel like it (no scurvy here!). And their oranges were not even genetically modified to eliminate seeds!

The cookies are minimally sweet, rich with the ganache, and have a heft that makes you feel like one is enough. The orange provides a sweet scent and a demure, delicate flavor that compliments the chocolate filling. The sandwiches are also sturdy with a good shelf life, which makes them a great choice for the holidays. You can easily whip up a triple batch to package for friends and family without fear of spoilage or crumbs. We ate ours up to a week after baking, and it was only at day nine that they lost their luster. You could also make the dough alone as single cookies, sprinkled with sugar and served up with tea or wassail or just a cold glass of milk.

Next Christmas Sam and I may find ourselves surrounded by family, or with friends, or again sharing each others quiet, lovely company along. But no matter who we spend it with, there will be homemade sweets and this cookie. And every time I eat it I will remember Little House on the Prairie, and the simple pleasures in life, like citrus and a warm home on a cold night and a family that cares whether near or far. They are simple pleasures that should not be taken for granted. So, until next year, happy holidays and good luck with the New Years Resolutions.

Orange Shortbread Cookies
modified from Bon Appetit, with the addition of chocolate ganache for sandwiches

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons (packed) grated orange peel
1/2 teaspoon orange extract
1 large egg yolk
3 tablespoons whipping cream

Position rack in center of oven; preheat to 350°F. Butter and flour large baking sheet. Whisk first 3 ingredients in medium bowl. Beat butter, sugar, orange peel, and orange extract in large bowl until fluffy. Beat in yolk, then cream. Add flour mixture; beat until dough comes together in moist clumps.

Gently roll dough out to ½ inch sheet and cut circle using biscuit cutter. Place on baking sheet, spacing 3/4 inch apart. Bake cookies until golden, about 18 minutes. Transfer to rack; cool.

When ganache is cool and think, spread generously on cookies and gently sandwich together. Pack into cute Christmas tins if desired and deliver to friends and family (recommended).

Chocolate Ganache Filling

1 1/2 cups (12 fluid ounces or 360 milliliters) heavy cream
1 lb (454 grams) semisweet or bittersweet dark chocolate

In a heavy saucepan, boil heavy cream. Turn off the heat. Add chopped chocolate pieces and let it rest until melted. Use a rubber spatula to stir the mixture until all the pieces are melted.

Pour it into a room-temperature bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate the frosting until thick but still spreadable. Fill cookies and enjoy.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

My punishment for cheating.

Yes, I admit it. I cheated. I bought Pillsbury sugar cookie dough in an attempt to shortcut the sugar cookie experience. I suck, I know. But if it makes you feel any better, I paid a steep price for my cheat.

Beyond the guilt and shame, my punishment is the challenge of trying to deal with these ridiculous, shapeless Christmas cookies. You probably cannot tell from looking, but those are bells, trees, stars (yes, stars!) and a pair of snowmen engaged in what looks to be an inappropriate act of passion.

Usually, almost always, like 98% of the time, I bake from scratch. Especially with my Christmas cookies. In my house growing up, we have a long tradition of decorating dozens upon dozen upon dozens of homemade Christmas cookies. The cookies are buttery and light and melt in your mouth and delicious, and always because they are made from scratch. So, I guess I deserve these horrible shapes for deviating from tradition.

Next time, I will bake from scratch. I promise.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The secret ingredient is lard.

Behold my first Christmas cookie of the season, a heart shaped biscochito. The biscochito is the New Mexican State cookie, and a very special one at that. It is an anise-flavored shortbread that appears in cookie jars almost exclusively at Christmas — and also sometimes at weddings, baptisms and quinceƱeras. The cookies are dusted in cinnamon sugar. Cooks often use brandy or wine for flavor. They are light and flaky and crispy, like a good sugar cookie. And they are made with lard.

I had you until I said lard, didn't I?

Don't feel alone in your repulsion to the idea of lard. I was the same way at first, totally grossed out. And to be honest, the idea of lard still kind of freaks me out. I don't exactly know why, because I love bacon. I even save bacon fat in an old jelly jar for sauteing Brussels sprouts and melting into sauteed greens. Bacon fat is delicious. I mean really, really delicious. Do you like bacon? Most of us do. So if you like bacon, and if you eat bacon, and if you are not disturbed by the idea of Brussels sprouts sauteed in pancetta, then why would you be grossed out at lard?

It's just a little bit of pork fat. Or Manteca de Puerco, depending on where you buy it.

However, if the delicious bacon argument has not warmed you up to lard cookies yet, read on. I will try to appeal to your intellect through the power of lard science. I have a theory that the more you know about lard, the less grossed out you will feel. For example, did you know that freshly rendered lard has less saturated fat and less cholesterol than butter? Lard contains just 40 percent saturated fat (compared with nearly 60 percent for butter). So while it is not considered healthy, it is healthier than the butter or hydrogenated shortening alternative.

Keep in mind that this health value is only relevant in fresh lard, the kind that must be refrigerated. Commercial lard (the kind that comes in the blue or green box or tub) is hydrogenated, and therefore has the same faults as shortening. Plus, it lacks flavor. Two good reasons it should be avoided.

Still not convinced? If the similarities to bacon or the healthful composition of lard does not sell you on its superiority as a baking staple, consider your alternative, shortening. Not only is Crisco hydrogenated, which is bad for your heart, it is also of dubious origins. Let me enlighten you to the historical context of the product. Solid vegetable shortening, which became popular around the middle of the 20th century, was discovered when researchers hydrogenated cottonseed oil in the hopes of finding a way to make soap and candles. Of course, soon electricity diminished the need for candles. But these same scientists noticed how much their candle-wannabes resembled lard, and so they opted to market it as a cooking oil. The name they gave it was Crisco — a contraction of "crystallized cottonseed oil."

The idea that hydrogenated shortening was originally designed as a candle should repulse you as much as your original reaction to the thought of lard.

When you use shortening, you are using what was originally developed as a household candle. Ick. Plus shortening is full of trans fats. Vegetable shortenings that are solid at room temperature — or hydrogenated — are chocked full of 'em. There is plenty of evidence that trans fats raise bad cholesterol (LDL) and lower the more protective cholesterol (HDL).

In addition, authoritative figures tout the merits of lard in cooking. Many a fine chef and baker declare lard the superior fat for baking. It makes light, flaky, savory pie crusts. And in a biscochito it makes a crispy, crunchy, not-to-sweet Christmas treat. Really lard is the only way to make these cookies taste as they should.

Of course, acquiring the lard required some less tasty experiences, including a trip into a stinky meat market, a run-in with a cooler full of frozen pig heads, and the discovery that a place with a wall of tripe and beef tongues is not guaranteed to also carry fresh lard. It took us three different stores and the purchase of more than 60 fluid ounces of rendered pork fat to find the Manteca de Puerco I needed for baking. All in all it was a pretty gross adventure, and I was almost turned completely off of the idea of baking with lard. So when my first batch came out of the oven, I hesitantly tasted the first cookie, first with a small nibble, and then with a more confident bite, chew, swallow, and a smile.

Sadly, my husband was less receptive. After his first biscochito, Sam promptly declared his mouth tasted like pork fat and poured himself a glass of Scotch to burn out the flavor. I, on the other hand, was delighted. The cookies tasted just like I remembered them. Only now I have four dozen biscochitos and none to eat them with.

I think his turn off comes down to seeing and smelling the lard pre-batter. One word of advice, if baking with meat market lard, try not to smell it. It smells like, um there is not better way to say this, it smells like rendered pork fat. Which, of course, is what it is supposed to smell like. But still, it smelled a bit ick. And it also looked a bit ick.

In summary, the Christmas consider moving into the realm of authentic baking. Just try not to look at, smell, touch, or think about the Manteca de Puerco (lard) and you will adore your Christmas biscochitos. Oh yes, and keep them away from vegetarians.

New Mexican Biscochitos

6 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons baking powder
2 cups shortening
1 1/2 cups white sugar
2 teaspoons anise seed
2 eggs
1/4 cup brandy
1/4 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C)
2. Sift flour with baking powder and salt.
3. Cream shortening with sugar and anise seeds until fluffy. Beat in eggs one at a time.
4. Mix in flour and brandy until well blended.
5. Turn dough out on a floured board and pat or roll to 1/4 or 1/2 inch thickness. Cut into shapes (the fleur-de-lys is traditional). Dust with a mixture of 1/4 cup sugar and 1 tsp cinnamon.
6. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes in the preheated oven, or until golden brown.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The great miracle of yeast.

Working with yeast makes me feel like a miracle worker. Seriously, it is as close as I get to achieving what a farmer achieves in a growing season. You start from seed with the dry yeast, plant the crop by incorporating the yeast into a dough, cultivate the yeast with careful tending over a period of time as it rises, deflates, and re-rises , monitor the crop's susceptibility to environmental disaster by keeping it in a warm, moist area, and finally you harvest the final, bountiful crop from a warm oven. Of course, unlike a farmer, my crop offers more immediate gratification. Sure, my Thanksgiving brioche took a good 16 hours from start to finish, but it was significantly faster than the summer growing season.

I used my Kitchenaid stand mixer for this decadent roll, following the instructions of Dorie Greenspan from a Fall Bon Appetit issue. Ms. Greenspan wrote about the dough with such affection, and combined with her no-nonsense, "You can do it" attitude, I could not resist.

Sam and I developed a bit of an ego as we baked. It was as though the rolls rose in proportion to our pride. With every step of home baked bread recipe, we felt increasingly proud of our efforts. And of course, with every step of the creation, the yeasty rolls just rose and rose, as though our own self confidence and ego were propelling the rise rather than the yeast. After all, how often does anyone home bake bread these days? Not often. But we did!

The best bites were straight out of the oven, almost too hot to touch, and steaming. They rolls lost luster with age, so please do not restrain yourself around a fresh baked batch. No matter that we were on our way to Thanksgiving dinner right after they baked, I still wish I had eaten two. By the time they hit the table they could have stood for a bit of butter or jam, and on the second day the rolls were in the dry phase, primed and ready for french toast or bread pudding. I never could bring myself to slather them in butter, even the day-old dry leftovers, given the lavish stick and a half in the recipe. But maybe I should have. After all, a bit of brioche is a shame to waste on anything less than perfection.

Bubble-Top Brioches
from Bon AppƩtit, October 2009 by Dorie Greenspan

1/4 cup warm water (110°F to 115°F)
1/4 cup warm whole milk (110°F to 115°F)
3 teaspoons active dry yeast (measured from two 1/4-ounce envelopes)
2 3/4 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
3 large eggs, room temperature
3 tablespoons sugar
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 large egg beaten to blend with 1 teaspoon water (for glaze)

Combine 1/4 cup warm water and warm milk in bowl of heavy-duty mixer fitted with paddle attachment. Sprinkle yeast over and stir to moisten evenly. Let stand until yeast dissolves, stirring occasionally, about 8 minutes.

Add flour and salt to yeast mixture. Blend at medium-low speed until shaggy lumps form, scraping down sides of bowl occasionally, 1 to 2 minutes. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating until blended after each addition. Beat in sugar. Increase mixer speed to medium; beat until dough is smooth, about 3 minutes.

Reduce speed to low. Add butter, 1 tablespoon at a time, beating until blended after each addition, about 4 minutes (dough will be soft and silky). Increase speed to medium-high and beat until dough pulls away from sides of bowl and climbs paddle, 8 to 9 minutes.

Lightly butter large bowl. Scrape dough into bowl. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rise in warm draft-free area until almost doubled in volume, about 1 hour 15 minutes to 1 hour 30 minutes.

Gently deflate dough by lifting around edges, then letting dough fall back into bowl, turning bowl and repeating as needed. Cover bowl tightly with plastic wrap and chill, deflating dough in same way every 30 minutes until dough stops rising, about 2 hours. Chill overnight. (At this point, use the dough to make 12 brioches, or 6 brioches and 1 tart, or 2 tarts.)

Butter 12 standard (1/3-cup) muffin cups. Divide dough into 12 equal pieces; cut each piece into thirds. Roll each small piece between palms into ball. Place 3 balls in each prepared cup (dough will fill cup). Place muffin pan in warm draft-free area; lay sheet of waxed paper over. Let dough rise until light and almost doubled (dough will rise 1/2 inch to 1 inch above top rim of muffin cups), 50 to 60 minutes.

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 400°F. Place muffin pan on rimmed baking sheet. Gently brush egg glaze over risen dough, being careful that glaze does not drip between dough and pan (which can prevent full expansion in oven). Bake brioches until golden brown, covering with foil if browning too quickly, about 20 minutes. Transfer pan to rack. Cool 10 minutes. Remove brioches from pan. Serve warm or at room temperature.