Dec 30, 2009

Chocolate Peanut Butter Crumble Bars

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The Piece of Cake Kitchen Presents: Moments in Life During Which You Might Think to Yourself, “Oh, man, I am IN FOR IT.”

1. You suddenly realize you are drunk in front of your future in-laws.

2. The doctor says, “I think we need to try forceps.”

3. You are mid-recipe for these completely insane Chocolate-Peanut Butter Crumble Bars.

If the name alone doesn’t get you into all sorts of trouble, then maybe a rundown of what we’re dealing with here will: a chewy, nutty, oatmeal cookie-like base, a salty-sweet streusel topping studded with chocolate bits, and to hold it all together, a layer of what basically translates to peanut butter caramel hovering in between. Oh, I said it. Like a young lady who drinks her face off in front of her future in-laws, I said it.

Now, I know you may be thinking to yourself, “Sweet Lord, Shauna, you’re throwing something with chocolate and and peanut butter and sweetened condensed milk at us four days after Christmas?!” Just hear me out, okay? Yes, these bars are crazy, I know that. But! They came out of a need to clear out the few last bits of goodies that were acquired from weeks of holiday baking and entertaining–some half-consumed bags and bars of chocolate, leftover nuts from cocktail noshing, that sort of thing. So these bars are resourceful! These bars are green, people! They are also chockful of health! Heart-healthy nuts and oats, guys!

Also, there’s only a couple days left to ride that cushy denial train until we arrive at the New Year and skinny jean-fitting reality comes crashing down on us. Won’t you join me? All aboard!

Chocolate-Peanut Butter Crumble Bars

You truly can make this recipe all your own. I’ve listed some suggestions, but go with whatever varieties of chocolate and nuts you happen to have on hand–milk, dark, semi-sweet chips, bits of stocking-stuffer candy bar, salted or unsalted nuts, whatever you’ve got. If the nuts are raw instead of roasted, a quick toasting while the oven’s preheating adds a nice touch of flavor.

Makes 16

5 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, chips or chopped
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch cubes, soft but still cool
3/4 cup dark brown sugar, lightly packed
1 cup old-fashioned oats (not instant or quick-cooking)
1/2 cup chopped mixed nuts (I used half pecans, half roasted, salted almonds)
1 egg, at room temperature
7 ounces (about half a can) sweetened condensed milk
1/4 cup creamy peanut butter (crunchy is ok, don’t use natural peanut butter)

Position an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line an 8×8-inch baking pan with a strip of parchment paper or aluminum foil that will fit along the bottom and up two opposite sides of the pan with a bit of overhang to create “handles” to easily remove the bars later.

Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together into a large bowl. Using your fingertips, rub the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles large breadcrumbs. Stir in the brown sugar, oats and nuts. Put about a quarter of this mixture (roughtly 1 1/2 cups) into a small and stir in the chocolate bits. Set aside.

Into the remaining three-quarters of the crumb mixture, stir in the egg until it comes together into an evenly moistened mass, sort of like a loose cookie dough. Pat the dough into the bottom of the prepared pan and pre-bake for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, stir together the sweetened condensed milk and peanut butter until well-blended. When the bottom layer of the bars is finished pre-baking, spread the peanut butter mixture evenly over the warm layer. Sprinkle the reserved chocolate-crumble mixture evenly over everything and press down lightly.

Return the pan to the oven and bake for 20 more minutes, until golden brown. The bars will feel very soft and not done in the center, but they will set as they cool. Let the bars cool in the pan for 10 minutes before running a thin knife along the edges and removing the slab to a cooling rack to cool completely. Cut into 16 squares. Store any leftover in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 4 days.

Dec 24, 2009

Layered Peppermint Crunch Bark

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Chocolate and peppermint is the Brangelina of the holidays. Fact.

Just in time for the Christmas cutoff, I’m finally sharing a recipe with this celebrated holiday combination, while simultaneously packing like a madwoman for our trip to Colorado, being careful not to forget the essentials, like several pairs of stretchy yoga pants.

If you’re looking for an extra little something to add to the cookie plate this year, something with true holiday pizazz–this Layered Peppermint Crunch Bark is it, guys. And I’m happy to report that this peppermint bark has more personality than any other I’ve tried. Sure, you’ve got the usual suspects–white chocolate and a generous sprinkling of crushed peppermint candies–but with a layer of bittersweet chocolate and a smattering of candy bits tucked within, you get a particularly awesome flavor and texture that keeps you going back for just. One. More. Bite.

Beyond the fabulous texture (spectacularly crunchy at the outset, melting into a silky sea of white and dark chocolates on the tongue), and blast of refreshing mint flavor (so nice after a hearty winter meal), you just can’t beat the pretty factor with this treat. And you and your oven will enjoy a much-needed rest from the holiday baking frenzy–whipping up a batch of this bark feels delightfully more like a creative, crafty project than anything cooking-related.

Now, between you and me, there would really be nothing wrong with making a batch of this stuff solely for the purposes of self-indulgence while doing some last-minute online shopping. We’re totally worth it. But the sparkly, elegant look of the finished candy is just begging to be wrapped up in pretty glass jars with holiday ribbon and gifted to the people you really like. Consider it an amendment to the POC Treats for Gifting Guide! Happy, happy holidays, guys. Enjoy!

Layered Peppermint Crunch Bark

Adapted from Bon Appetit

For the chocolates, you can use either bar chocolate or chocolate chips, but keep in mind that the results with bar chocolate will be a little bit finer textured and more luxurious than if you use chocolate chips (which have stablizers in them). For the dark chocolate, I like to use a half-and-half blend of bittersweet and semi-sweet chocolates, but use whichever you have on hand. Crush the peppermint candies by placing them in a large ziptop bag, having at them with a rolling pin and release that holiday stress!

Makes about 36 pieces

17 ounces good-quality white chocolate (I like Ghiradelli, see note)
6 ounces coarsely crushed peppermint candies (about 30 round striped ones or 12 regular candy canes)
7 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate (see note)
6 tablespoons whipping cream
3/4 teaspoon peppermint extract

Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking mat or a sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil.

Place the white chocolate in a metal bowl set over saucepan of barely simmering water (being careful not to allow the bottom of the bowl to touch the water), and stir occasionally until the chocolate is melted and smooth and a candy thermometer registers 110°F. Pour 2/3 cup of the melted white chocolate onto the baking sheet, and using an offset spatula, spread it into about a 9×12-inch rectangle. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup crushed peppermints. Refrigerate until set, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, stir together the bittersweet chocolate, cream and peppermint extract in a heavy medium saucepan over medium-low heat until just melted and smooth. Cool to barely lukewarm, about 5 minutes. Pour the dark chocolate mixture in long lines over the white chocolate rectangle (pouring it in a puddle will start to melt and smear the white chocolate layer) and using a clean spatula, spread the chocolate in even layer. Refrigerate until very cold and firm, at least 25 minutes.

Rewarm the bowl of white chocolate over barely simmering water again, to 110°F. Working quickly, pour the white chocolate over the firm bittersweet chocolate layer and spread evenly to cover. Immediately sprinkle the remaining crushed peppermints over the surface of the candy. Chill just until firm, about 20 minutes.

If using a silicone mat, slide a thin spatula under the slab of bark and remove it to a cutting board. (If using foil, remove the entire sheet of foil with the bark to a cutting board and trim the bark on the foil, removing the pieces once they’re cut.) Trim the edges of the slab of candy, and then cut the bark into 36 pieces. Let stand 15 minutes at room temperature before serving. Can be made 2 weeks ahead and kept in an airtight container in the refrigerator.

Dec 21, 2009

Thin, Chewy Chocolate Cookies

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I don’t know about you, but I’m running out of just about everything over here, guys. Shopping days, patience for fellow shoppers, time, mental capacity, clean pairs of stretchy yoga pants to house the results of all awesome holidayfood I’ve been consuming as of late. And on a related note, I’m also running out of my beloved Valrhona cocoa powder because in order to cope with the madness, I’ve made a double batch of the best dang chocolate cookie you’ll have all season.

Because it makes me feel better about my stress levels, I’d like to think that we’re all in this harried holiday race together, so I will just get to the point and tell you what you really need to know: this particular chocolate cookie gives the legendary World Peace Cookie a run for its money. And that’s no joke. Consider it the soft, chewy counterpart to that cookie. And if you haven’t tried a WPC and have no idea what I’m talking about, well, now you’ve got an awful lot of chocolate cookie baking to do. Both are the epitome of sweet-salty-chocolately perfection. But this chewy chocolate cookie has a texture on top of that amazing flavor that is so incredibly craveworthy. It’s really something. If, like me, you’re still trying to milk these last few holiday baking days for all they’re worth, this recipe is a fantastically worthy candidate. Perfect for stacking in holiday cookie tins, too.

Now, I’m not one to go on and on about how you always have to use, say, the BEST vanilla extract or the BEST chocolate in a recipe or it’s just not even worth attempting the recipe. I’d much rather have people use the best ingredients they can afford, whatever those may be and not make anyone feel all bad about not buying the $15 bottle of vanilla extract (can you hear me, Martha and Ina?). But because we’re friends, I will always gently point it out when spending more for a premium ingredient makes a big difference in a recipe. And this, my friends, is one of those times. Going for one of the excellent cocoa powders on the market makes for a rich, midnight-dark dough that really makes this cookie spectacular.

These cookies are one for your permanent repertoire–dead simple, big chocolate flavor and so, so right with a hot mug of coffee or cocoa on a wintry day. I should know; I’ve been routinely regrouping from all the holiday craziness by parking myself on the sofa with a mug in one hand and one of these cookies in the other, in a pair of aforementioned stretchy yoga pants.

Thin, Chewy Chocolate Cookies
Adapted from Martha Stewart

This is a time that it’s so worth it to spend a little more for a dark, rich, premium cocoa powder. I love Valrhona and Scharffen Berger in this recipe. In place of regular salt, I like to use 3/4 teaspoon fleur de sel when I’m feeling extra fancy–it does make a difference.

Makes about 4 dozen

2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup Dutch cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt (see note)
1 1/4 cups (2 sticks plus 4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs
Additional granulated sugar or sanding sugar, for dipping

Into a large bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter and vanilla on medium speed until it is creamy, about one minute. Scrape down the bowl and add 2 cups of sugar and the eggs. Beat until the mixture is light and fluffy, about two minutes more. Reduce the mixer speed to low and gradually stir in the dry ingredients until the dough i just combined and there are no dry pockets. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about one hour.

When you’re ready to bake, position an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.

Scoop the dough by level tablespoons and roll each portion into a smooth ball. Dip the top of each dough ball into granulated sugar or white sanding sugar to coat. Place the dough balls onto the prepared baking sheets about 1 1/2 inches apart. Bake one sheet at a time, rotating the sheet halfway through the baking time, until the cookies are set, but still soft in the center, about 8-10 minutes (you will notice the cookies will puff and then deflate–they will be finished about one minute after they deflate). Let the cookies cool on the baking sheet for five minutes before removing them to a wire rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container for up to one week.

Dec 16, 2009

Sun-Dried Tomato and Olive Palmiers

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Reminiscing about childhood reaches a fever pitch at this time of year, does it not? Sugarcoated songs and sappy commercials (i-yi-yi, the commercials, I tell you! Where’s the Kleenex?!) are everywhere these days. I mean, sure, it was indeed awesome back in the day: setting my shoes out in the hallway at school with my fellow first graders and anxiously waiting for Kris Kringle to leave little presents in them while making ornaments out of red and green construction paper, yarn and glitter. Watching Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman on CBS. Flipping open the tiny cardboard windows of an Advent calendar to retrieve one waxy-tasting chocolate at a time in anticipation of the Big Day. All good stuff.

But you know what we didn’t get to have back in the day? Booze, people. Lots of booze at lively holiday parties where delicious things wrapped in puff pastry are served. Call me dispassionate, but I’d definitely trade waxy Advent chocolates for a glass of prosecco and savory palmier, warm from the oven.

There’s really no better time than right now to get a batch of these gems together. They’re the perfect sort of thing to have on hand should the snow be falling and friends come calling “yoo-hoo!”. And truly, this idea is really more of a method than an actual recipe. Even better, it all starts with a package of puff pastry you can just pick up from the supermarket (I really love a brand called Dufour, which is made with all butter and can be found at specialty grocers, but it can be rather spendy; Pepperidge Farm makes a suitable substitute).

Once the pastry is thawed and lightly rolled out, you can really go wild with whatever savory combinations of meats, cheeses, herbs and vegetables that you like. The general idea, though, is to keep the amount of filling to about 2/3 cup or so, and to grate or mince everything, even pureeing some ingredients into a paste of sorts if necessary–you want everything to stay rolled in the pastry when it’s sliced into palmiers, and bigger hunks of ingredients will tend to fall out.

This is also a phenomenal use for all the random savory odds and ends we seem to acquire in the fridge with all the food-centered goings-on during the holidays. Recently I made them with two fillings–one had bits of bacon, extra sharp white cheddar, caramelized onion and garlic and a smattering of fresh thyme. Another had sun-dried tomatoes, olive tapenade, parmesan and more fresh herbs. The bigger and bolder the flavors, the better here–the neutral canvas of puff pastry really makes them shine.

Once the pastry is filled, rolled and sliced, the palmiers can be flash frozen and then stored in big ziptop bags and baked off whenever you want to impress some people with a “Ta-daaaa! I’m so domestic!” kind of flair. And that’s quite a step up from the red and green construction paper, yarn and glitter sort of flair of days gone by, don’t you think?

Bacon, White Cheddar and Thyme Palmiers

These are best served warm, immediately after baking. For the puff pastry, I recommend Dufour, an all-butter brand found in specialty grocery stores.

Makes 2 dozen

1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed
3 strips bacon, roughly chopped
½ small onion, grated
1 clove garlic, grated
Generous ½ cup grated extra sharp white cheddar
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme leaves
Freshly ground black pepper
1 large egg
1 tablespoon water

In a dry skillet over medium-high heat, fry the bacon until crisp and all the fat is rendered. Remove the bacon from the pan with a slotted spoon to paper toweling to drain. Pour off all but one tablespoon of the fat. Place the pan over medium heat and sauté the onion and garlic until soft and beginning to caramelize, about 5 minutes. Add the thyme leaves and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute. Season with black pepper. Remove the pan from the heat.

Lightly flour a work surface and roll out the sheet of puff pastry lightly into a 12-inch square. Spread the onion mixture in an even layer over the puff pastry, right up to the edges of the dough. Finely chop the cooled bacon. Sprinkle the bacon evenly over the onion mixture. Top with the cheddar. Roll one end of the pastry in towards you, tightly but gently, stopping when the roll hits the center of the rectangle. Roll the remaining the pastry away from you to the center and gently press the two rolled sides together. Wrap the dough log in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about one hour.

Position an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone liners. Whisk together the egg and water in a small bowl.

Using a thin, sharp knife and a gentle sawing motion, carefully slice the log into slices about ½ inch thick. Lay the palmiers onto the baking sheets at least one inch apart and brush them with the egg wash. Bake one sheet at a time until puffed and golden brown, about 12 minutes total. Halfway through baking, rotate the baking sheet and using a small spatula or deft fingertips, quickly flip each palmier over. Serve warm from the oven for the best texture and flavor.

Sun-Dried Tomato and Olive Palmiers

Makes 2 dozen

1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed
¼ cup sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil (about 6)
¼ cup prepared olive tapenade
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1 small clove garlic, sliced
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

Combine all the ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and pulse several times until the ingredients are uniformly minced and well-blended.

Prepare the puff pastry as in the above recipe and spread the filling evenly over the dough. Roll, refrigerate and slice the palmiers as directed above. Brush with egg wash and bake at 400 degrees on a parchment-lined baking sheet for 12 minutes, rotating the pan and flipping the palmiers over halfway through baking. Serve warm.

Dec 14, 2009

Treats for Gifting

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The Piece of Cake kitchen is working it OUT, people! Lots on the docket in the next couple of weeks–cookies baking, candy bubbling, savory pastry puffing. With steam on the windows and Frank and Bing cranking from the speakers, holiday vibes are abounding within these walls. I can’t think of a better way to spread a little cheer this time of year than presenting someone you love (or are pretending to like–let’s face it, we all have at least one of those on the gift list, AMIRIGHT?) with something homemade and all wrapped up with a jaunty bow. Here’s some POC favorites that are perfect for such a gifting occasion. Enjoy!

Aunt Phyllis’s Crusty Butter Pound Cake
Gifting Toffee
Brewer’s Blondies
Toblerone Brownies
Chocolate Tweed Angel Food Cake
Chocolate Chip Cookie Brittle
Parmesan and Thyme Crackers
Simple Rolled, Iced Sugar Cookies
Heirloom Sugar Cookies
Classic Gingerbread Cookies
Roasted Nut Brittle

Dec 10, 2009

Chocolate Tweed Angel Food Cake

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Now really, people, how many baked goods can you honestly think of that can’t be improved upon by adding chocolate? Let’s do this.

If the jaunty name alone doesn’t get you fitting your stand mixer with the whip attachment right this second, then surely the mere concept of something called Chocolate Tweed Angel Food Cake will get you on board. A heavenly, tender angel food cake taken to the next level with miniscule shards of unsweetened chocolate is sheer brilliance, I tell you. Although, to be totally honest, I didn’t get the use of unsweetened chocolate at first. Why not bitterweet?, I mused aloud, as nearly all my musings are lately, often with unnecessary animated hand gestures, because I spend all my days with a tiny person clinging to my jeans. At first, I was doubtful of this unsweetened chocolate thing. Reeeeaaalll doubtful.

You should know that few things are etched in my memory like the time I was knee-high to a cricket and excitedly came across a huge bar of chocolate in a kitchen cabinet. I very quietly broke off a gigantic chunk of it before putting the rest back neatly in its place and creeping to the privacy of my bedroom to devour my find, only to discover that it tasted a whole lot like shoe polish or something equally as acrid and horrible. Coughing and choking and pawing the offending matter off my tongue with a Barbie dress, I thought surely it was a setup to deter young children like myself from stealing unauthorized chocolate. And that’s how I met unsweetened chocolate. So I was skeptical of this recipe. Would it be sort of awful or really awful or just plain weird? But I pressed on. I am quite the warrior these days, you know.

As it turns out, Rose Levy Berenbaum, she of all things genius in the baking world, was right. Again. Naturally. After tasting this cake, I slapped myself for ever doubting her. The unsweetened chocolate makes complete and total sense here. By nature, an angel food cake is a sweet, sweet thing, since it pretty much is just sugar, egg whites, air and a bit of cake flour. And an absolute thing of beauty. On a side note, I could make angel food cakes all day long and never tire of the etheral quality of the whole thing. The billowing meringue and gentle folding of the soft, weightless batter over itself in a quiet kitchen…sigh…it’s totally hypnotic. Om…..

So what was I saying? Oh, yes. Rose Levy Berenbaum is super smart again and angel food cakes are super sweet. And because of the high sugar content of an angel food cake, any sweetened chocolate, even a bittersweet one, would push the whole thing into cloyingly sweet territory. The bitter and sweet balance here is what makes this cake so incredibly craveworthy. And the addition of chocolate to the batter gives just the right amount of oomph to a cake that can so often be overlooked because it’s so light and neutral in flavor.

It’s the perfect dessert for this bridge time between Thanksgiving and Christmas. You’ll find yourself passing it on your way through the kitchen and devouring half of it yourself in no time flat, via the “oh, I’ll just have a sliver” method. And don’t tell me you don’t know what I’m talking about. I can’t be the only one that keeps a crumb-covered knife in my cake dome.

But if you can manage to share this cake with others, it would be an awesome end to a fancier dinner party with a dollop of unsweetened whipped cream and a dusting of cocoa powder. And with the beautiful way the finely grated chocolate is woven throughout the batter and how well this cake keeps, I could see making this recipe several times over and giving the cakes away as holiday gifts, wrapped in cellophane with a kicky little ribbon. But perhaps warn the recipient to keep the cake away from small children who might steal away to their bedrooms and eat the whole dang thing.

Chocolate Tweed Angel Food Cake

Adapted from Rose Levy Berenbaum’s Rose’s Heavenly Cakes

Use a good quality unsweetened chocolate here–lesser quality unsweetened baking chocolates are horribly waxy and fake-tasting. If you don’t have superfine sugar, just take regular granulated sugar for a spin in your food processor or clean coffee grinder (my preference). A box grater is the best tool for grating the chocolate and not getting it all over your kitchen. This cake doesn’t hold up well to sauces, but a nice dollop of unsweetened whipped cream is a perfect compliment.

Makes 1 10-inch cake, serving 8-12

1 1/2 cups superfine sugar, divided
3/4 cup cake flour, lightly spooned and leveled
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups egg whites, at room temperature (about 16 large egg whites)
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
4 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 ounces fine-quality unsweetened or 99% cacao chocolate, finely grated and chilled

Position an oven rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Have ready a 10-inch angel food cake pan. Also have an empty wine bottle or similar vessel at the ready for inverting the cake during the cooling process–you want the pan to be high above the countertop so air can circulate all around it as it cools.

In a small bowl, whisk together half the sugar, the flour, and salt until evenly combined. Sift the remaining sugar onto a piece of foil or parchment to make it easy to pour it into the batter.

Place the egg whites in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whip attachment. Beat the egg whites at medium speed until foamy. Stop the mixer and add the cream of tartar. Beat at medium-high speed until the egg whites reach the soft peak stage. With the mixer running, slowly rain in the other half of the sugar and beat until the egg whites are glossy and hold stiff peaks. Beat in the vanilla.

Sift the flour mixture over the egg whites, about 1/4 cup at a time, gently folding in the dry ingredients after each addition, a few flour streaks may remain and that’s okay. Sprinkle in the grated chocolate and gently fold it in, until the batter is evenly speckled with chocolate (don’t forget to get all the way to the bottom of the bowl when folding–there is a lot of batter here!).

Spread a thin layer of the batter all along the sides of the pan, up to about half an inch from the top, so that the sides of the cake will be smooth. Scrape the rest of the batter into the pan, and smooth the top with a spatula. Bake for 30-40 minutes, until a wooden cake tester comes out with just a few moist crumbs (a metal tester will come out clean). The surface will have several deep cracks. Invert the cake onto the bottle and let it cool completely. Loosen the sides and center of the cake with a thin spatula. Unmold the cake and let rest until the top of the cake is no longer tacky, about one hour. Store the cake at room temperature in a cake dome or airtight container for up to three days, or up to ten days in the refrigerator.

Dec 8, 2009

Simple Rolled, Iced Sugar Cookies

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I love hearing little bits about people’s holiday traditions, don’t you? Whether it’s donning gaudy sweaters or midnight Mass or a certain brunch casserole, it seems like everybody’s got their something that makes them breathe deep and say to themselves, Okay, now it’s the holidays. For me, that’s baking up a batch of Heirloom Sugar Cookies. They just taste like Christmas to me. And I know I’m not the only one getting the sugar cookie itch this time of year. When I asked you to tell me about your favorite holiday cookies, the humble cut-out sugar cookie, decorated with icing and colored sugars, popped up again and again. It’s the kind of thing that everyone can agree on during the holidays–even those with pudgy, impatient little hands.

Though my Heirloom Sugar Cookies can be rolled out and cut for decorating with a little extra doing, I usually don’t gild the lily–buttery and delicate, they’re perfect just flattened into rounds and unadorned. But this time of year, everyone needs a sturdy sugar cookie recipe that is designed for rolling and cutting and rerolling and cutting some more, something that bakes up flat and crisp, a perfect canvas for frosting and glittery decors. You know, the kind of cookie you can play with, like a totally delicious, edible craft project. Perfect for gifting and impromptu holiday cookie parties of all sorts. If you’re feeling especially crafty, you could even make them into ornaments. Really!

Now, in my pre-toddler-rearing heyday, I could spend hours crouched over sheets of cut-out cookies with a piping bag, surrounded by little bowls of royal icing in a bunch of carefully blended colors, like some kind of deranged Martha disciple. And trust me, if I could dislodge this tiny person from the leg of my jeans, I would still be perfectly happy doing just that. But that sort of fanciful celebration of frosting is just not likely to materialize during this holiday season. Sad face.

However. I will be baking festively-shaped cookies no matter what in the name of holiday spirit, dammit! And baking sugar cookie cut-outs and not decorating them at all would be sick and wrong and just basically depressing. So instead of dealing with gel food coloring and a bunch of piping bag hysteria, I opted to go the elegant-and-sophisticated-by-way-of-doing-half-the-work route. And nothing looks more slick and elegant on a cookie than royal icing, which whips up in less than five minutes if you can get your hands on a package of endlessly useful meringue powder, which I recommend you do as soon as humanly possible. I love this stuff.

Just flood the surfaces of the cookies with plain white royal icing, wiping the edges of the cookies clean of any wayward icing as you go, and generously coat them with white jimmies, sanding sugar, or, like I did with my snowflake cookies (that doubled as Stars of David depending on which way you looked at them, two concepts in one!) a nice coating of sweetened flaked coconut that made them look extra snowy and added a nice flavor punch.

Wrapped in a big cellophane bag with a nice silver bow, these white-on-white iced cookies would make a perfect hostess gift–the kind of thing that people charge exorbitant amounts of money for and make the recipient ooh and ahh over your thoughtful generosity. Now that’s some holiday magic for you.

Simple Rolled, Iced Sugar Cookies

Working with the dough one half at a time will make it easier to keep the dough cool, making it easier to roll and cut clean shapes. The meringue powder for the icing can usually be found in gourmet groceries, kitchenware and craft stores. This icing recipe will make an icing that can be spread cleanly over the entire surface of a cookie; to make it thick enough to pipe, leave out the additional teaspoon of water.

Makes 2-3 dozen, depending on size

For the cookies:

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
2 large eggs, at room temperature

For the royal icing:

1 1/3 cups powdered sugar
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon water
1 tablespoons meringue powder (see note)
1/4 teaspoon clear vanilla extract (optional)
Various sanding sugars, jimmies, etc. for decorating

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together the butter and sugar on medium speed until light in color, about 2 minutes. Beat in the vanilla and almond extract. Scrape down the bottom and sides of the bowl and beat in the eggs one at a time. Stop the mixer and scrape down the bowl again. With the mixer on low speed, stir in the dry ingredients until the dough it smooth–it will be soft. Turn the dough out onto a work surface, gather it into a ball and pat it into a disc. Wrap the disc in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, at least 1 hour.

When you’re ready to bake, position an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly dust a work surface and a rolling pin with confectioners’ sugar or flour. Divide the dough in half (leaving one half covered in the refrigerator) and working with one half of the dough at a time, roll it out to about 1/4 inch thick. Cut into desired shapes with cutters and place them on the prepared baking sheets. Bake one sheet at a time, rotating the sheet halfway through baking time, until the cookies just begin to turn golden on the edges, about 10-12 minutes. Let the cookies cool on the sheets for two minutes before transferring them to a wire rack to cool completely.

While the cookies are cooling, prepare the icing. Whisk together the confectioners’ sugar, 2 tablespoons water, meringue powder and vanilla, if using, until smooth. Beat on medium speed with an electric mixer until stiff peaks form. Stir in the additional teaspoon of water–the icing should be thick enough to be controlled, but still thin enough to spread cleanly across the surface of a cookie without leaving a track when spread. If necessary, add a bit more water to thin the icing.

When the cookies are completely cool, ice them with the royal icing and decorate as desired. Set the iced cookies on a wire rack to allow the icing to dry completely before storing in an airtight container.


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