Dec 20, 2007

Classic Gingerbread Cookies with Royal Icing

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The best holiday cookie tins have a terrific balance of flavors and types of cookies. Like a classic, simple shortbread or sugar cookie, definitely a chocolate selection, something exotic and then something that brings the cute, festive factor that takes a little doing.

For the cute, festive cookie in my gifty tins this year, it had to be kitschy little gingerbread people–the ultimate holiday baking experience, right? But after some cheer-filled mixing, rolling and cutting (with Frank and Bing still playing in the background–not tired of it yet!) things took a turn. Sheet after sheet of spicy sweet little people began emerging from the oven. And then I started to panic–I knew there was no turning back. You simply cannot give someone a cookie in the shape of a person and not decorate it. That would be the saddest thing ever. And given my Type A baking tendencies, I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep until every last cookie had been given life in the form of royal icing eyes, mouths, clothing and accessories. What had I done? I had put myself in Martha hell, that’s what. Oh, dear.

Thankfully, the anxiety was fleeting. As soon as I had put the finishing touches on the first cookie and saw its darling little face smiling at me, I let out a maniacal giggle much to the husband’s great fear, and spent the next two hours hunched over a community of adorable gingerbread people that outnumbered the residents on my block. I mean–so cute! Can you stand it?!

But all of their adorable, sugary accoutrements aside, gingerbread cookies are one of those things that can be very, very good, or very, VERY not. Some are so spiced and pungent, they’re almost soapy. Some are so weak, well…they might as well be snickerdoodles, people. And the right texture was of upmost importance–I definitely wanted crunchy, but not so hard they could be mistaken for dog biscuits. So in short, I wanted to make sure the base cookie recipe for my gingerbread friends was crisp and sturdy enough to decorate and had a balance of sharp spice and mellow sweetness, with a lush, buttery nuance as well.

I wanted them to be as cute as they were delicious, and to add the cuteness I needed a good royal icing recipe. Something that would be workable given my limited cookie decorating experience (and lack of piping bag–there are still five shopping days left until Christmas if you’re trying to think of something to get me, I’m just saying) and also an icing that would set up firm so I could ship the cookies without freaking out about my hard work schmearing all over the insides of the tins.

I settled on a gingerbread recipe from Baking Illustrated with a few added tweaks, and consulted the fantasically handy Joy of Cooking for guidance with a royal icing recipe. To color the icing, I used my beloved gel food coloring for the most intense color, mixing red, yellow and blue like a first grader until I arrived at the perfect Christmas-y red and green hues. Filling the icing into plastic zip bags and snipping off a tiny corner of them worked really well considering the aforementioned lack of piping bag, and helped make this the most freakin’ adorable Christmas ever.

Classic Gingerbread Cookies with Royal Icing
Adapted from Baking Illustrated and Joy of Cooking

Makes 3-4 dozen cookies, depending on shape and size

For the cookies, feel free to experiment with the amount of ginger in the recipe–more ground ginger equals more spice and heat. Or add additional spices like nutmeg, clove, even white pepper. Mild flavored molasses is recommended here, but if you love the flavor, try a robust molasses instead. For the icing, meringue powder is easiest to work with, but a large fresh egg white can be used in a pinch if you’re not afraid of using raw eggs. The consistency of the icing is stiff enough to pipe smiling gingerbread faces and buttons, but adding a tiny bit more water will make it spreadable enough to smoothly cover larger surfaces. Any leftover icing stores for up to two weeks in an airtight container.

For the cookies:
3 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened but still cool, cut into 12 pieces
3/4 cup mild molasses
2 tablespoons milk

For the royal icing:
2 2/3 cups powdered sugar
2 tablespoons meringue powder or powdered egg white
4 tablespoons water
1/2 teaspoon clear vanilla extract (optional)
Pinch salt
Food coloring (optional)

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees, and position the oven racks to the upper and lower thirds of the oven. Line two baking sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment paper sprayed with nonstick cooking spray.

In the bowl of your standing mixer with the paddle attachment, with an electric mixer, or in a food processor, mix the flour, brown sugar, soda, ginger, cinnamon and salt until well-blended. Scatter the butter pieces over the dry ingredients and mix again on medium low speed until the mixture is sandy and resembles fine meal. With the mixer or processor running, slowly pour in the molasses and milk, and mix until the dough is evenly moistened, no traces of flour remain, and begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl.

Scrape the dough out onto a work surface and divide it in half. Roll out each portion to about 1/8 inch thickness between two large sheets of parchment paper. Stack the two parchment-gingerbread sandwiches onto a baking sheet and freeze until firm, about 15 minutes. Working with one portion at a time, cut the dough into desired shapes and place on prepared baking sheets. Bake at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes until the cookies are darkened in color and their centers are firm to the touch. Cool on the baking sheets for two minutes, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely before icing.

Meanwhile, make the royal icing: In a medium bowl, stir together the confectioners’ sugar, meringue powder, extract (if using) and water until well-blended. Transfer the mixture to the bowl of your standing mixer fitted with the whip attachment, or using a handheld electric, beat on high speed until stiff peaks form, about two minutes. Divide the icing into smaller containers and color as desired with food coloring (use gel food coloring for the most vibrant colors and to avoid thinning out the icing). Embellish the cooled gingerbread cookies to your heart’s content using a small spatula, a piping bag or similar. Allow the icing to dry completely, at least 15 minutes, before serving.

Dec 19, 2007

Nibby Buckwheat Butter Cookies

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I am an “everything in moderation type” of person when it comes to the joy of eating, especially during the holidays. I am sort of notorious for following a lovely balanced meal of grilled fish, brown rice and a green salad with a sizable piece of frosted cake. And I think that’s just fine. I prefer healthy, nourishing foods for my main meals and my desserts from scratch so I know exactly what’s in them. When I’m keeping this kind of balance in my diet, I don’t have to reach for fat-free plastic pudding or go all wacky health food nut and muck up classic dessert recipes with whole wheat flour or somesuch to guiltlessly satisfy my sweet tooth. Viva le white flour and sugar–in moderation!, I say. So although intrigued by the Nibby Buckwheat Butter Cookies in Alice Medrich’s Pure Dessert (an entire book beautifully dedicated to “mucked up” dessert recipes with wacky health nut ingredients, by the way), I was skeptical. Then I saw a post about them on the ever-inspiring Orangette, and onto the baking to-do list these cookies went.

I wanted to instantly love these, I really did. They seemed so awesomely sophisticated. Cacao nibs are the new black. I pretty much covet everything Alice Medrich has ever done, and then there was that endorsement from one of my favorite food bloggers. I so wanted to be in the Nibby Buckwheat Butter Cookie Lovers’ sorority. Well, it didn’t happen right away. In fact, I didn’t think it would happen at all. It didn’t even happen after Molly’s recommended day of waiting to let the flavors develop and the buckwheat-y punch to dissipate. I was afraid this was too much moderation for me. I wanted to ice them with a vanilla glaze or dip them in melted Valrhona or something. I don’t want to feel like I need to wear something made of hemp in order to enjoy a cookie, okay?

But then a few more days went by. I had stashed the leftover cookies in the freezer because I hate throwing out food, even food I am on the fence about. After lunch one day, I wanted a little something extra, but not too sweet. I had been surrounded by glittering, sugary, buttery discs the entire day before, and although I hadn’t had too many (just enough to ensure they had turned out suitably, of course–baker’s obligation, you know), I just needed to back up from that a bit. I remembered the nibby buckwheat buggers in the freezer. And wouldn’t you know it, the flavors had definitely transformed into something quite different! Even the husband said so. In the end, these radical little hippie cookies had charmed us. Who knew? This of course, wasn’t the first time I was proven wrong by a recipe. And I apologized by including these in my holiday cookie tins as the “exotic” selection. Crunchy, buttery, just sweet enough and the cacao nibs are one of nature’s most powerful antioxidants. Now how’s that for moderation?

Nibby Buckwheat Butter Cookies
From Alice Medrich’s Pure Dessert

Makes 4 dozen

Medrich’s original recipe says these cookies are delicious fresh or the day following baking, but I found them to be at their best three days later. They store well in an airtight container for up to one month and are great candidates for shipping.

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup buckwheat flour
2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup cacao nibs
1 1/2 teaspoons good vanilla extract

Whisk the flours together in a medium bowl and set aside. In the bowl of your standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or with an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar until smooth and creamy, but not fluffy. Stir in the cacao nibs and vanilla, then mix in the flours just until incorporated. Scrape the dough out onto a work surface and knead a few times if necessary until the dough is smooth. Form the dough into a 12-inch long log, about two inches in diameter. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least two hours.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and position the oven racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.

Slice the dough into 1/4 inch thick slices and place on prepared baking sheets about 2 inches apart. Bake at 350 degrees for 12-14 minutes, rotating the pans from top to bottom and front to back about halfway through baking until the cookies just begin to brown at their edges. Cool completely on a wire rack.

Dec 6, 2007


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I am so super pumped about the holidays this year. That’s right, I said super pumped.
I should confess that the past few years, I have been bordering on Scrooge-like behavior. Like I could take it or leave it. Maybe it’s because of the mild, usually gorgeous weather here in Los Angeles. There are very few environmental signs of the pending season to get me all geared up for mugs of hot cider and big roasted birds and special holiday recipes. I’ll be galavanting about in the sunshine and 72 degree weather with springtime in my bones for weeks straight, and then BAM!–all of a sudden the crazy old hippies across the street decide to actually light up the trampoline-sized, garland-trimmed peace sign that hangs in their yard all year long. Living in Santa Monica, the holidays always sneak up on me.

But this year is different. The husband and I are preparing for our big move to San Francisco, and when we arrive in our new hometown just a few short days from today, we will have a couple of cooler, maybe foggy (!) maybe drizzly (!!) weeks to get us in the Christmas spirit before heading to Chicago to be with family. It could be the thrill of such a big life change, but I am filled with excitement and joy about the holidays this year. Frank and Bing have been the soundtrack to my packing. Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la!

Of course, there will be things I miss about this city I’ve called home for the past four and a half years. The aforementioned beautiful weather is unbeatable. I’ve made friends here who have become like family (and who will surely remain as so). The lessons I’ve learned have forever changed me. I’ve discovered more about myself than I expected to, and what I found is that I’m more of a Midwestern girl than I ever realized. Although there were many great moments, pursuing things in the entertainment world that seems to rule everything here could sometimes leave me feeling empty, depressed; like somehow me just being me wasn’t enough. Getting creative in the kitchen and reconnecting with my lifelong passion of cooking and baking has been a balm during those times. That passion blossomed into this blog and reignited my love of writing, leading to new, exciting opportunities in the food world that I never would have thought to pursue before.

When I first came to L.A., I remember thinking that my time here would have to be an apex of sorts, the absolute living end, that nothing would ever top what this city held for me. Turns out it might be more of a means to an end, rather than the end itself–a vantage point from which to see what else is possible, way beyond what’s in this city. I’m so grateful for that discovery. And even more grateful to have San Francisco be our next stop. It is a city so full of character and charm and great people who love to eat and drink. Sounds good to me!

While the coming days continue to fill up with corrugated cardboard and then miles of road, I’ll be brainstorming all kinds of holiday recipes that I can share with you as soon as I get back on track. In San Francisco, people! It’s all too much! Anyway, I’m betting that a week or so from now, when I’m snug in our new home in a foggy city, cranking Frank and Bing once again, I will be tearing at the box marked “Baking Stuff” like a crazy person. ‘Tis the season!

Dec 2, 2007

Glazed Cinnamon Rolls

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I love how the holidays, though sometimes hectic, encourage us to slow down and do a few things that would normally seem like too much work, like making cinnamon rolls from scratch, because the payoff, like the smells of sweet spice and brewing coffee wafting through the house on Christmas morning, is enough to fill every little pocket of the soul.

The process for making cinnamon rolls, like with a lot of yeast-risen things, can be a wee bit complicated and generally time-consuming (keep in mind the aforementioned payoff, people!). I wanted to do a test run of a cinnamon roll recipe now just to feel it out, and time to practice will be limited in the coming days. Keeping in mind that cinnamon rolls are best eaten fresh, just moments after emerging from the oven, I knew an entire batch of warm cinnamon rolls oozing with glossy icing, taunting us from the kitchen counter, would be crazy bait in our house. So it’s a bonus that this recipe is perfect for making a day ahead or freezing portions for a longer term. After the rolls are sliced, just wrap them tightly and stick them in the fridge or freezer and in the morning or whenever the urge hits, take a few out to come to room temperature and do their final rise on the counter for two hours or so, then bake and glaze as usual. Brilliant!

If you have a standing mixer, this recipe is a breeze using the dough hook. If you don’t have a standing mixer, simply do the majority of the recipe by hand with a wooden spoon, and then when you’d normally switch to the dough hook with a mixer, just turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead by hand until the dough is soft and smooth. Even though I adore my standing mixer and began to use it for this recipe, I know the kneading by hand works because, well, I managed to bust an ordinarily indestructible KitchenAid mixer during the making of this recipe. Oh, yeah.

Okay, so the tragedy involved the collision of a metal measuring cup and the rotating thing on the mixer that holds the attachments. While I was mindlessly attempting to dump in a cup of flour and look at the recipe at the same time. Both competitors fought a violent fight, with lots of grinding and snapping and squealing, and in the end, believe it or not, the measuring cup won. Big time. And so, now we know, that in the event of a nuclear war, we will be left with cockroaches, Cher and a set of Williams-Sonoma measuring cups. Thankfully, I was within my warranty, and the good people at KitchenAid seemed to be so appalled that a measuring cup could take down their flagship product, they have offered to send me a brand new mixer. Which is on backorder. For 2-3 weeks. During peak holiday baking time! Pout.

Anyway, these cinnamon rolls are a dream to work with and even more dreamy to eat. They call to mind everything we love about a certain shopping-mall indulgence, in terms of spice and tenderness and a generous swipe of icing, but none of the greasiness and cloying sweetness. You can enjoy one on Christmas morning (or anytime, really) with a nice cup of coffee without feeling like you might go into insulin shock or have to take a breather during eating in order to eat the whole thing. The addition of butter and egg yolks in the dough give the rolls a lovely richness that makes butter in the filling unnecessary, so the cinnamon flavor comes out loud and clear.

I liked the drippy, not-too-sweet cream cheese glaze that accompanies this recipe, but kind of actually missed the thick, almost buttercream-like frosting that comes with commercially made cinnamon rolls and will might make a few changes for the icing the next time I summon a few of the rolls from my freezer. This is the first time I’ve even remotely disagreed with a recipe from Baking Illustrated. I hope Christopher Kimball comes to find me and grounds me. I really, really hope so.

Glazed Cinnamon Rolls
Adapted from Baking Illustrated
Makes 12

When cutting the rolls, try quick snips with kitchen scissors, or even better, fishing line or unflavored dental floss, to make clean cuts and avoid smashing their pretty cinnamon swirls.

For the dough:
1/2 cup milk
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup warm water (about 110 degrees)
1 envelope instant yeast
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
2 large egg yolks
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
4-4 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting

For the filling:
3/4 cup light brown sugar
3 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon salt

For the icing:

8 ounces cream cheese, softened but still cool
2 tablespoons corn syrup
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt

For the dough, begin by heating the milk and butter in a glass measuring cup in the microwave until the butter is just melted and the mixture reaches 100 degrees on an instant read thermometer, about 45-60 seconds.

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or in a large bowl with a wooden spoon, mix together the warm water, yeast, sugar, whole egg and egg yolks. Add the salt, warm milk mixture and 2 cups of the flour and mix until well-blended. Add the remaining 2 cups of flour, and if using a stand mixer, switch to the dough hook and knead at medium speed until the dough is smooth and freely clears the sides of the bowl, about 10 minutes. Then turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and shape into a ball (if making the dough by hand, stir in the remaining two cups of flour and when the mixture is well-blended, scrape the wet dough out onto a floured surface and knead it until it is soft and smooth, then shape into a ball). Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl and let it rise until it has doubled in bulk, about 2 hours.

For the icing, combine all the ingredients and beat with a whip attachment in a standing mixer or with an electric hand mixer until smooth and free of lumps. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until the rolls are ready to be glazed.

When the dough has risen, punch it down and then turn it out onto a lightly floured work surface. Roll the dough out into a 12×16″ rectangle, with a long side facing you. Combine the filling ingredients and sprinkle evenly over the dough, leaving a 1/2 inch border at the long end away from you. Begin rolling the dough into a log with your fingertips beginning at the long edge closest to you, pinching the dough as you roll it tightly. When you reach the end, moisten the edge of the dough with wet fingertips and finish the roll, sealing the edge. Cut the roll in into twelve rolls and place them in a greased 9×13-inch baking dish. Cover with plastic wrap and let the rolls rise until double in bulk once again, about 2 more hours.

Bake the cinnamon rolls at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes until they are golden brown and the centers register at 185 degrees on an instant read thermometer. Let the rolls cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then ice generously with the cream cheese icing.

Nov 28, 2007

Lemon Bars

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Remember the other day when I told you about the pumpkin tart I brought for Thanksgiving dinner? Well, you didn’t really think that I would only bring ONE dessert, did you? Of course not. That would be like leaving an arm at home or something. Ludicrous!

After being in league with a bountiful table of meat and more meat, vegetables glistening with butter and seven types of starchy carbohydrates, Thanksgiving desserts should probably be an exercise in balance. Then again, holidays like these are really the only time that one can legitimately have dessert with their dessert. But something lighter, cleansing, after the first dessert course. A “side dessert”, if you will. Pumpkin pie is a must in most circles, but even the most delicious wedge topped with a bulb of whipped cream can seem one-dimensional after consuming so many different flavors during the main part of the meal. Since I volunteered for dessert duty this Thanksgiving, I opted to serve my pumpkin pie with a side of lemon bar.

Lemon bars are one of those great all-American desserts that one can find a mind-boggling amount of recipes for with a single Google search. But nearly every recipe starts with a simple, parbaked shortbread crust that is covered with a lemon curd mixture and baked until set. And please don’t forget the snowy blanket of confectioners’ sugar.

I’ve been using the lemon bar recipe from Williams-Sonoma’s Dessert cookbook ever since receiving it as a wedding gift five years ago with fine results, but there were a few things about those bars that I always wanted to tweak. Since the lemon curd layer went into the oven as a an uncooked liquid, the crust lost its snap by the time the bars were baked and completely set. And no matter how gently I whisked the aforementioned lemony liquid, there were always a series of unsightly bubbles that appeared on the surface of the baked curd. Sure, I could cover it with confectioners’ sugar, but it just wasn’t as pretty. And good lemon bars are all about the pretty–delicate, a bright, taut surface, fresh and sweet-tart. This Thanksgiving’s lemon bars deserved better.

I found a recipe that looked promising in my trusty Baking Illustrated. Although it was a bit more time consuming than the recipe I had been using, I was prepared for it. America’s Test Kitchen always promises us the best results, but rarely the fastest way to get there. Anyway, this recipe calls for a cooked curd to be poured onto the baked crust, which allows for a much shorter final baking time and less time for the curd to make the crust soggy in the oven. And when set, the cooled lemon filling is much shinier, smoother and more sturdy than the Williams-Sonoma recipe. Hooray!

Just between us, I discovered a little trick for giving even better flavor to lemon bars. Normally, I like to use Meyer lemons in lemon desserts for their sweeter, almost floral quality. But since I shopped for groceries the day before Thanksgiving and the zoo that was the grocery store didn’t have Meyer lemons and I was not about to make a special trip to a store across town in search of them, I replaced a bit of the lemon juice with freshly squeezed orange juice. This small tweak gave the curd the hint of sweetness and slightly golden color that Meyer lemons would have given this recipe, without the time spent in traffic to get them and the additional expense. This just might have to become a permanent tweak.

Lemon Bars
Adapted from Baking Illustrated

Serves 12-16

For the crust:
1 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar, plus more for dusting
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened but still cool, cut into 1-inch pieces

For the filling:
7 large egg yolks
2 large whole eggs
1 cup plus two tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons freshly squeezed orange juice
1/4 cup finely grated lemon zest
Pinch salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
3 tablespoons heavy cream

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and set an oven rack to the middle position. Grease a 9-inch square baking pan with nonstick cooking spray and line it with two 9-inch wide strips of parchment paper, placed perpendicular in the pan and nestled into the corners and up the sides of the pan to create parchment “handles” that will make the bars easy to remove from the pan later. Grease the parchment as well.

In a food processor or by kneading with your fingertips, combine the flour, confectioners’ sugar, salt and butter pieces until the mixture is pale yellow and resembles coarse meal. Sprinkle the crust mixture into the prepared pan and press it firmly and evenly over the bottom of the pan. Refrigerate for 30 minutes. Bake the chilled crust for about 20 minutes, or until it is golden brown.

While the crust is baking, prepare the filling: Whisk together the yolks, whole eggs until combined, then slowly rain in the sugar, whisking until just combined. Whisk in the lemon and orange juices, lemon zest and salt until well-blended. Pour the mixture into a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, add the butter pieces and cook the curd, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. When the curd reaches 170 degrees on a candy or instant-read thermometer (it will have thickened to a sauce consistency).

Immediately pour the curd through a fine-mesh sieve over a medium bowl, encouraging it through by stirring slowly with your wooden spoon. When all the curd is strained, stir in the heavy cream and immediately pour the curd into the warm crust. Bake the lemon bars at 350 degrees for 10-15 minutes, until the filling is shiny, opaque, and only jiggles slightly in the center few inches of the pan. Cool on a wire rack to room temperature, about one hour. Remove the bars from the pan using the parchment “handles” and cut into 12 or 16 bars using a large chef’s knife, wiping the blade between cuts for perfectly clean edges. Generously dust the bars with confectioners’ sugar just before serving.

Nov 23, 2007

How To Make Vanilla Sugar

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There are a few tips that really help to make baking projects successful, and most of them are all about precision–the exact measuring, the perfect oven temperature, mixing things just so. As I’ve said before, these parts of baking appeal to my Martha-like tendencies. But I have to say, a girl can’t operate like that all the time. There has to be a little wiggle room, a risk-free way to add some pizazz to a recipe without throwing everything off. When I want to add a little oomph to my recipes without drastically changing the formula, vanilla sugar is where it’s at.

I used to think that making vanilla sugar was the epitome of having way too much time on one’s hands, but it really takes no effort at all. The creation of a certain cake lead to the ownership of a few more vanilla beans than I knew what to do with. Rather than tossing the seedless pods into the trash, I threw them into a jar of granulated sugar, and after a few days, began using the fantastically fragrant and flavorful results in everything from my morning coffee to iced tea (in moderation, of course) to cakes, cookies and candymaking. Just about anywhere you would use granulated sugar in sweets, vanilla sugar adds a certain je ne sais quoi to the finished product. It’s not as assertive as extract, which makes it great for things like pumpkin pie or citrus-based desserts that wouldn’t list extract as an ingredient. And all you have to do is just keep topping the jar off with more sugar–the infusing power of the vanilla beans lasts for years. Seriously!

It’s the perfect time to get a jar of vanilla sugar going, just in time for all those holiday baking projects. Plus, it makes a cheery little hostess gift–just pack sugar and a few vanilla bean halves into a quart-sized jar, tie a sweet little ribbon around the lid and label the jar with a small card.

Vanilla Sugar

2 whole vanilla beans
Granulated sugar
a large jar or other airtight container

Split the vanilla beans, and scrape out the seeds if desired. Place the pods into the container, and fill the jar with granulated sugar, leaving a bit room at the top. Give the jar a good shake, and set it in a cool, dry place to rest for a few days, shaking every so often to help the vanilla essence permeate the sugar. Use in place of granulated sugar for a little extra something special.

Nov 21, 2007

Pumpkin Tart

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This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for transition. More specifically, I’m giving thanks for the growth that’s allowed me to not fear it. It wasn’t always this way. If I had been handed all of the experiences that have come about in the past six months, and the big ones that are just around the corner (more on that in coming weeks) a year ago, I’m pretty sure I would have dug myself a hole somewhere and never come out. But these days, I’m embracing the big changes, the challenges that stare me in the face with huge, fiery, unfamiliar eyes, with the faint sounds of the “Rocky” theme playing somewhere in the distance. I’m now looking at them as opportunities to learn more, be better, fail better.

This is not to say that I’ve become a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of person who can forgo routine altogether. My beautiful sister got that gene. I still love my daily rituals and the preferences that make my life most comfortable in schedule, clothing, meals, that sort of thing. Though I have to say, my palate has absolutely been changing to include food and drink that I wouldn’t have touched before. Let’s not get crazy here–my infamous hatred of eggs that goes back to babyhood still stands, in any finished dish where eggs are identifiable, in mostly breakfast-related items (obviously, eggs in baked goods don’t creep me out). But I have ended up loving foods that I once would not even consider–like pumpkin pie.

All together, now–“How can you not like PUMPKIN PIE”?! I know, I know. But I love it now, see? I love it so much that I made a whole big one to bring to Thanksgiving dinner, with pastry from scratch and everything. It really was a smash, a marriage of several different recipes. The all-butter crust was crisp and flaky, sturdy even in the center of the pie. Baking it in a tart pan added a bit of visual interest, with the shiny, flat, deep orange custard sailing right up to the golden, uniformly crimped crust. The pumpkin filling was smooth and creamy and tasted of fall spice, not the least bit vegetal in flavor. When wedges of the pie were passed along with coffee, there was indeed a happy feeling nothing in the world can buy. Thankfully, some things never change.

Pumpkin Tart

Serves 8

For the crust:

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (one stick) unsalted butter, softened but still cool
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 to 4 tablespoons ice water

For the filling:

1 1/2 cups solid-pack pumpkin (not pie filling)
1 cup heavy cream
2/3 cup packed light brown sugar
2 tablespoons vanilla sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt

To make the crust, mix the flour and salt together in a medium bowl. Cut the butter into eighths and drop the butter pieces into the flour. With your fingertips (or in a food processor), begin blending the butter into the flour, until the mixture resembles coarse meal with a few pieces the size of small peas. Sprinkle three tablespoons of ice water over the mixture, and use a fork to gently stir in the water until just incorporated. Test the dough by squeezing a small handful of it. If it doesn’t hold together, add more ice water, 1/2 tablespoon at a time, until it comes together. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface, and divide it into 4 portions. To ensure the butter is evenly distributed throughout the dough, smear each portion in a forward motion, then roll it back on itself twice with the heel of your hand. Gather all of the kneaded potions into a ball and flatten the ball into a five-inch disc. Wrap the disc in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for one hour.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. On a lightly floured work surface with a lightly floured rolling pin, roll the dough out to a diameter of about 14 inches across. Fit the dough into a 10-inch tart pan with a removable bottom and trim the edges to create a 1/2 inch overhang. Fold the excess dough inward to create an edge that comes up just slightly from the tart pan. Prick the crust lightly with a fork, cover the crust with foil and fill it with pie weights or dried beans. Bake for 25-30 minutes until the crust has pale golden edges. Cool completely on a wire rack, about 30 minutes.

For the pumpkin filling, whisk together the pumpkin, cream, brown sugar, vanilla sugar, eggs, spices and salt until well-blended. Pour the mixture into the blind-baked tart shell and bake at 350 degrees for 50-60 minutes, until the crust is golden and the first few inches from the edges are set, and the center jiggles ever-so-slightly. The tart will set further as it cools. Cool completely on a wire rack and remove from the tart pan for serving. Serve with generous dollops of lightly sweetened whipped cream.

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