Browsing articles in "Vanilla"
Feb 16, 2011

Pear-Vanilla Brown Butter Bars

Welp, that’s all the fun we’re going to have for a while now, folks. The holidays have come and gone, we can’t legitimately say “Happy New Year!” to strangers anymore, and Valentine’s Day has fizzled out and left us all with killer chocolate hangovers. Now it’s just…winter. Bah.

I can’t be the only one who feels that the last two weeks of February are akin to watching a Top Chef marathon when you’ve already seen all the episodes, like, five times each. Pear-Vanilla Brown Butter bars, guys–consider them your ticket out of this crazy-making holding pattern.

Speaking of things that aren’t dreary, several months back the husband and I got all 2003 with our ourselves (read: barely married, childless) and decided on an impromptu weekend trip down to Monterey. We were giddy about getting out of the city for a couple days, and thought that Little C would just love a visit to the insanely enormous aquarium down there. Our first little family getaway–how Griswold of us! So fun! So much bonding! So much gear required OH MY GOD DO WE REALLY NEED A CASE OF GRAHAM CRACKERS.

Four duffle bags, two sacks of snacky groceries and a loaded DVD player later, we were on our way to the Central Coast. Aside from Little C soaking her entire carseat with apple juice before we even reached the freeway, we had an awesome time together. The views were literally breathtaking, the heavenly sort that make you feel so tiny in comparison to their majesty. The aquarium was indeed Little C approved. And most importantly, I convinced the team to stop in Big Sur so I could cross something off my Baking Geek Bucket List: Lunch and dessert at Big Sur Bakery. Yesssss.

The savory items we tried at the bakery were terrifically satisfying, fresh and flavorful, but the desserts–oh the desserts!–that’s what Mama really came for, people. And the Huckleberry Brown Butter Bar did not disappoint.

I couldn’t get over how complex the bar was in flavor and texture, in direct contrast to its humble appearance. Nutty and rich with brown butter, a bit of crisp, a bit of chew, a punch of jammy fruit. I was instantly obsessed. The recipe would be mine. And thanks to the gloriously earthy tome that is The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook, I didn’t have to look too far.

The recipe in the book is neither for a Pear-Vanilla bar nor the aforementioned Huckleberry Brown Butter Bar, it’s actually made with rhubarb. But like I said earlier, we are in the slog of February here and rhubarb is in very short supply. In a couple months, we can make Rhubarb Brown Butter Bars happen, but for now, all things pear are the order of the day. And happily, the pairing positively sings.

Now I’m not going to lie, darling readers–for as unassuming as this bar looks, you do have to go through a few steps here to make it all happen. But if you’re like me, you might be so intrigued by some of the elements that you won’t really mind the extra time spent doing things like, say, browning two separate batches of butter, and then freezing some of it solid to make the crust. Genius!

After you’ve got your solid brown butter ready, the crust comes together in seconds in the food processor. Then while the crust is baking and cooling, you can start preparing a pear-vanilla jam of sorts and attempt to not pass out from how beautiful it smells while cooking.

In addition to the fabulously ambrosial jam, you’re also going to whisk up a brown butter filling, which is a concoction so magical I might go into some very suggestive language to describe how delicious it is. I’ll just say this: warm browned butter, sugar, eggs, hits of vanilla and orange? Huminuh, huminuh.

My only suggestion to you beyond being prepared to do a few extra dirty dishes with this recipe is to also have something heavy to chain yourself to while these bars are baking, because, good Lord, the smell is incredible. You’ll suddenly care about those February doldrums not a bit.

Pear-Vanilla Brown Butter Bars
Adapted from The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook

These bars are so sweet and rich, I halved the original recipe and cut them much smaller than the bars the bakery serves.To feed a bigger crowd, you can double this recipe and use a 9×13 pan. When doubling, use 3 whole eggs.

Zest your orange before juicing it for the jam–you’ll need the zest for the brown butter filling.

Makes 12

For the crust:

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt

For the jam:
2 medium firm-ripe pears (I used Anjou), peeled, cored and chopped into 1/2 inch chunks (to yield about 1 1/2-2 cups cut fruit)
1/3 cup fresh orange juice (from 1 large orange)
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

For the brown butter filling:
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large egg plus 1 large egg yolk
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon finely grated orange zest (from 1 large orange)
7 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Being by making the crust: Place the butter for the crust in a small saucepan set over high heat. Melt the butter. Once the butter is completely melted, it will bubble and sizzle. Keep swirling the pan occasionally, and listen and watch carefully–when the foam begins to subside and the sizzling suddenly, the butter will quickly turn brown and smell nutty, about 5 minutes total. Quickly pour the hot butter into a small metal pan (I use a loaf pan) and place in the freezer until the butter is solid, about 20 minutes (wipe out the saucepan with a paper towel and set is aside–you’ll need it for brown butter batch #2).

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Completely line an 8×8-inch square pan with aluminum foil.

Place the confectioners’ sugar, flour and salt in the bowl of a food processor (or a mixing bowl if you want to work by hand). Pulse briefly to blend the dry ingredients. When the butter is solid, scrape it out of the pan using a spoon or fork–it doesn’t have to be pretty, it just has to get all out of the pan. Place the butter pieces into the food processor and pulse until a dough forms (or use a pastry butter if you’re working by hand). Press the dough into the prepared pan. Freeze until firm, about 15 minutes. Bake the crust until golden brown, about 18-22 minutes. Let cool completely on a wire rack (leave the oven at 375 degrees).

While the crust is cooling prepare the jam: Place the pear chunks, orange juice and sugar in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir to combine, and bring the mixture to a boil. Cook until the pears are very tender, about 7 minutes. Use a potato masher or fork to mash the pears into small bits (but not completely smooth). Cook until the jam is thick and any excess liquid has all but disappeared, about 7 minutes more. Stir in the vanilla extract. Transfer the jam to a separate bowl to cool.

Place the 5 tablespoons of butter for the filling into the small saucepan. Brown the butter as you did in the step for the crust. Set the brown butter aside to cool slightly. Whisk together the egg, egg yolk, sugar, orange zest, flour, salt and vanilla extract until smooth. Gradually whisk in the warm brown butter until the filling is well-blended. Pour half the brown butter filling over the cooled crust. Dollop the jam evenly over the surface of the filling. Top with the remaining filling.

Bake until the filling is a deep golden brown, about 35-40 minutes. Cool completely on a wire rack before removing the bars from the pan and cutting into squares. Store any leftovers in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 5 days.

Sep 19, 2010

Late Summer Plum Jam

Do you ever get all fired up about the idea of certain food projects? Like you see a thing about pickling or bread making with a carefully nutured starter or something and out of nowhere you’re all, “Yes! Why don’t I do that?! I should be doing exactly THAT!”. And then you head directly to a kitchenware shop and drop ridiculous money on unitasking kitchen tools that you end up using exactly once?

Yeeeaaahhh. I’ve done that a time or two.

Like, say, jam making. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve boiled down fruit with sugar and canned it. And it’s sad, really. Because homemade jam is such a delightful thing to make and eat and give to other people. A true beacon of Americana, if you will.

Plus I own all the equipment I need to do some serious jam making without acquiring burns on 75 percent of my body (note: I say this because I bought said equipment after my own Macgyvered jam-making tools failed miserably and threatened to leave me with burns on 75 percent of my body). So the other day I told myself to get it together, brave the crazies at the mid-week Civic Center farmers’ market, see what was good and fresh and fruity, and make jam out of it. Plums won, big time.

Besides making you feel like you’re in a Norman Rockwell painting, jam making is one of those activities that sort of centers you. Chopping fresh fruit, measuring out sugar, dumping both in the biggest, oldest pot you’ve got, stirring, stirring, stirring with a big wooden spoon. It’s glorious. this is the stage of jam-making when I always wonder why in the world I don’t do this more often.

I get visions of making jam of every conceivable fruit combination and gifting my friends with carefully preserved jars that they can pop open months later for a taste of summer, when berries and stone fruits have long past their peak. It’s so romantic. Until–fast forward 30 minutes later–I am cursing while running my hand under cold water because of a wayward molten jam splatter. But when the jars are filled, capped and lined up, cooling on the counter, I’m glowing with acheivement, again wondering why I don’t do this more often, seared skin notwithstanding.

This batch of plum jam was nothing short of super late summer bliss. Bright, sweet-tart, hints of lemon, vanilla and a gossamer blanket of cinnamon to warm the whole thing up. And tasting exactly like a plum Jolly Rancher, if they ever made one. Can’t explain it, but it’s totally true. I’m just passing on my feelings to you here, like good friends do. Neosporin-ed hands and all.

Late Summer Plum Jam
Makes about 5 half-pint jars

Any variety of plums will work here. I found some lovely ones with a ruby-red interior that made for a stunning shade of jam, but those cute little Italian prune plums that are happening right now would be great too. Since plums are so thin-skinned, peeling isn’t necessary, so buying organic ones is an especially great idea.

If you want to can your packed jam jars, check out this great resourceCanning 101.

3 pounds plums (any variety–see note), washed, pitted and cut into 1/2 inch chunks
2 1/4 cups granulated sugar
Zest and juice of 1/2 a lemon
1/2 of a vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon (Vietnamese or Saigon cinnamon, if you can find it)

In the biggest, heaviest pot you’ve got, stir together the plums and sugar. Let sit, stirring occasionally, until the fruit has given off some juice and the sugar has mostly dissolved, about 1 hour.

Set the pot over medium-high heat. Stir in the lemon zest and juice, vanilla bean and cinnamon. Bring to a hard boil, stirring often, until the jam is thickened and runs off the back of a spoon in big, heavy drops, about 25-30 minutes. While the jam is cooking, skim off any foam that comes to the surface. To test for doneness, spoon a dollop of jam onto a freezing cold plate and let it sit for a minute or two–of you can run your finger through the dollop and a track remains, the jam is done.

Ladle the hot jam into hot, sterilized jars, leaving about 1/4 inch of room at the top of each jar. Cap tightly and process the jars in boiling water for 10 minutes, or store in the refrigerator.

Aug 5, 2010

Ice Cream Muffins

There are several life lessons I hold dear that I’d like to pass on to Little C:

1. You should memorize all the songs from Free to Be You and Me, preferably by watching it over and over on an old VHS tape checked out from the library.

2. It is never okay for a professor to offer to give you a massage. Even if it’s your Theater professor.

3. Sometimes you need to embrace the crazy and just go for it–it could turn out to be really great. Like combining ice cream and flour and making cake out of it. Seriously!

Important, Oprah-esque Life Lessons aside, I am excited to share this totally kitschy recipe for Ice Cream Muffins with you guys. It’s another winner from my recipe scavenging at Gramma’s house back in June, and definitely one of the wackier ones I came across. Since finding it, I’ve discovered that there are several versions out there, some which literally are just ice cream mixed with flour and then baked. This recipe I’m sharing with you has the extra help of a bit of oil and an egg, which I imagine makes for a better flavor, texture and mouthfeel in the finished product than just ice cream and flour alone.

Another thing that will really make these crazy little muffin-cupcake hybrids the best they can possibly be is to use a really great ice cream, the more high-end, the better. I’d look for something that doesn’t have more ingredients than it needs to, not much beyond cream, milk, sugar and eggs. The cheaper the ice cream, the more air it will have incorporated into it (not to mention creepy stabilizers, gums and preservatives) and since we’re measuring by volume and not weight here, you want to make sure you have enough dairy and sugar in the mix with the flour for the best texture and taste. You’re already rocking the boat here with the amount of crazy in the recipe–set yourself up for success with the best ingredients you can get your hands on.

The finished product is a delight–lightly sweetened, great vanilla flavor, totally versatile. I understand that we’re sort of teetering on the edge of Sandra Lee territory with this one, but I was so pleasantly surprised and basically humored by the entire experience of this recipe that I think I’ll take a tablescape for the team and share it with you anyway. Enjoy!

Ice Cream Muffins
Adapted from an old strip of newsprint from an unknown Midwestern publication

The better quality ice cream you choose, the better your results here. Note that this recipe calls for self-rising flour–it will not work with any other flour. I imagine other flavors of ice cream can be substituted. These can have a crazy rise, so keep the muffin cups only about 1/2 full of batter.

Makes 12

2 cups premium vanilla ice cream, very soft
2 cups self-rising flour
1 egg
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Position a rack to the center of the oven and preheat it to 350 degrees. Line a 12-cup muffin tin with paper liners.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat together the ice cream and flour until smooth. Beat in the egg, oil and vanilla until well-blended. Divide the batter equally among the muffin tins, each about 1/2 full. Bake until the muffins are risen, lightly golden and a toothpick comes out clean, 18-20 minutes. Cool completely on a wire rack.

Jul 24, 2010

Pinkalicious Flour Frosting

With just one month left until Little C’s second birthday (I know! Don’t even get me started!), living with her is a lot like being roommates with Sybil. One second, she’s suddenly reaching critical mass in the produce section, the next she’s ceasing her dramatic wailing to sweetly chirp “Hello!” and frantically wave her tiny arm to a passerby near the bananas.

At any given moment of the day I can be found either rubbing my temples while witnessing another Little C tantrum while dangerously close to throwing my own, or cuddled under the covers with the sweetest baby girl in the world, reading book after book, all fuzzy on the inside as she squeezes in tighter to my side and makes a little game out of giving me little kisses after each page turn. It’s moments like the latter that make me come up with all sorts of ambitious ideas, like being inspired to bake pink cupcakes together after reading her favorite book for the 57th time this week.

Do you have little girls? Because if you do, you really should pick up this book, and be prepared to read it aloud. A lot. Pinkalicious is so super cute, about a little girl who turns pink, and then red, from eating too many pink cupcakes and can only return to normal after eating lots of green food. A great message about eating in moderation and the power of a healthy diet. And probably a lot of other noble things that I can’t be bothered to think about because after reading that book on repeat OH MY GOD I WOULD KILL FOR A CUPCAKE.

So like any savvy, creativity-fostering mother with a fever for which the only cure was
more cowbell
pink cupcakes, I declared we would make our own, together. Our cupcake baking activity was totally fun and great–a wonderful bonding experience. That is, when my child wasn’t reaching over to crank the mixer directly from 0 to 10 while I was putting the flour in or demonstrating an Exorcist-level flip out because I kept her from shoveling sprinkles into her mouth. Tender moments, I tell you. Tender. Moments.

So the cake recipe itself was my very favorite vanilla cake which I’ve told you all about before, but the most amazing outcome of this whole mother-daughter baking bonding experience was a frosting so out of this world, I’d eat it pink, white or dolloped on a rubber tire. This frosting is, quite simply, divine. And believe it or not, this revelation of a buttercream is made with flour. Seriously! Little C couldn’t believe it either.

Originally the topping for my Great Aunt Agnes’s beloved Red Velvet Cake, this frosting recipe was one of the first I copied while leafing through my Gramma’s recipes back in Illinois a few weeks ago. I’d been waiting for an excuse to try it ever since–it was all so crazy I couldn’t not give it a go, know what I mean? Basically it starts with a cooked flour and milk mixture, which is cooled and then beaten together with butter and an amount of confectioners’ sugar so tiny in relation to other buttercream recipes, you’ll think that there’s no way this could end well.

Except it totally does, people. The flour mixture helps to give the frosting the sort of body that you would normally get from cups upon cups of confectioner’s sugar (especially great if you’re serving it to kids), and when you whip it with the butter, it becomes almost the consistency of whipped cream–remarkably light and so fluffy you’ll want to dive right in with a spoon. Ethereal, just sweet enough and basically the frosting of dreams. Pinkalicious, if you will.

Fantastic Flour Frosting

Makes enough to generously frost about 18 cupcakes

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup milk
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, cook the flour and milk together, stirring with a wooden spoon, until the mixture begins to bubble and thickens significantly. When it reaches the consistency of a paste, remove the pan from the heat and let the mixture cool.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat together the butter, confectioners’ sugar and vanilla until very light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Beat in the cooled flour mixture and let the mixer run until the frosting becomes very fluffy and noticably lighter in color. It will be nearly the consistency of whipped cream.

Use the frosting immediately, and refrigerate any leftovers covered tightly with plastic wrap. Bring any leftover frosting to room temperature and whip again for a minute before using.

May 31, 2010

White Chocolate Cupcakes

Oh, White Chocolate. Poor, misunderstood, totally underestimated White Chocolate. Come here. I feel you. The awkward young teen in me (the one with the pointless “clear” braces and oddly shaped bangs, whose coltish gait made her fear all things athletic) pulls you to her AAA-cup breast to tell you it will be all right, that you have lots of wonderful qualities. And someday, even the most elite of the culinary community will come to embrace you and then wonder what took them so long. When that happens, don’t forget that I was always here, loving you all along, even when everyone was dissing you and saying you were so 80s.

In fact, I love you so much that I buy you in bulk, and sadly shake my head when I notice that the bins of your dark and bittersweet competition are always visited more than yours. But then, maybe that’s the problem right there. It’s sort of true what your haters say–you’re not really chocolate. You’re cocoa butter, sugar and vanilla, no actual chocolate in you to speak of. But you know what, White Chocolate? That’s not your fault. Your name is just a label. A label that some moron gave you as a way to categorize you for their own convenience. But one day you’ll graduate from high school and head off to college and be able to start fresh, and–wait, what? Oh.

So I was saying. Cocoa butter and vanilla is a lovely thing to be–at your best, you’re dreamy and creamy, a breath of sweet vanilla in every bite. I like to think of you as Vanilla Chips or Vanilla Bar, and use you in fabulous ways that break the monotony of having the dessert course be an endless cycle of chocolate and fruit-based desserts. And with recipes like White Chocolate Cupcakes with White Chocolate Cream Cheese Buttercream to show off everything that’s great about you, well, you are a star.

Other than just being delicious, one of your most endearing qualities is your ability to play well with others. Like in this recipe, which satisfies my cupcake craving like none other. Coconut milk, of all things, is the secret, undetectable ingredient here that gives you even more sparkle in a cake that is so perfectly sweet, so moist, with a richness I’ve never experienced before in a white cake. Pairing you with cream cheese in a luscious buttercream is nothing short of White Chocolate Dynamite (which, coincidentally, would be an awesome moniker for me to use in a dance contest someday). I love you, White Chocolate. Thanks for being you.

White Chocolate Cupcakes
Adapted from The Craft of Baking

The original recipe says this recipe yields 14 cupcakes–I easily got 18, using a leveled 1/4 cup of batter in each cup (I used a standard ice cream scoop). I’m sure the white chocolate called for in the original recipe is meant to be chopped bar chocolate, but I had tons of high-quality white chocolate chips on hand, so I used them instead and everything turned out delicious. I also opted to add some confectioners’ sugar to the frosting, to stiffen and sweeten it up a bit, but it’s not necessary–add it only to your taste.

The cakes and the icing keep beautifully, tightly covered and refrigerated, for up to 3-4 days so these are great make-ahead cupcakes. Unsweetened coconut milk can be found in nearly every supermarket under a few brand names, usually in the Asian foods aisle.

If you can find them, white chocolate vermicelli (thinner, crunchier and much tastier than regular jimmies) make the perfect finishing touch for these cupcakes, adding crunch and extra white chocolate flavor.

Makes 18 cupcakes

For the cakes:

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
8 ounces high-quality white chocolate, chopped bar or chips
1/2 cup unsweetened coconut milk
5 large egg whites

For the frosting:

6 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
4 1/2 ounces high-quality white chocolate, chopped bar or chips
Up to 2/3 cup confectioners’ sugar, to taste (see note)

Position an oven rack to the center of the oven and preheat it to 350 degrees. Line two 12-cup muffin tins with paper liners, 12 in one and 6 in the other.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream together the butter, sugar and vanilla until very light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.

Melt the white chocolate in a double boiler. When it’s just warm to the touch, stir it into the butter mixture on low speed, just until combined–it may separate a bit, but it will come back together. With the mixer on low, alternate adding the flour mixture and the coconut milk in three batches until well-blended. Transfer the batter to a medium bowl.

Clean and dry the bowl of the mixer. Whip the egg whites on medium high speed until they reach soft peaks, about 4 minutes. Gently fold the egg whites into the batter in three additions.

Fill the muffin cups no more than 3/4 of the way full with the batter. Bake one tin at a time until a toothpick just comes out clean and the tops spring back when lightly touched, about 20 minutes. Invert the cupcakes onto a cooling rack, then turn them right side up and let them cool completely.

To make the frosting, beat the cream cheese, butter, vanilla and salt together until light and smooth. Melt the white chocolate in a double boiler and cool until it is just warm to the touch. Scrape the white chocolate into the cream cheese mixture and beat to combine. Taste the icing and check the texture–if you like your icing sweeter and with a bit more body, add in some confectioners’ sugar. If the frosting is too soft to spread, refrigerate it for about 20 minutes and then whip it for 30 seconds before using. Ice the cupcakes generously and decorate as you wish.

The iced cupcakes can be kept in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.

Jan 11, 2010

Brown Sugar Vanilla Pudding

You know what’s less fun than taking care of a sick baby? Oh, wait, that’s right. THERE IS NOTHING LESS FUN THAN TAKING CARE OF A SICK BABY. I-yi-yi. Little C got a case of something nasty a while back (just a bad cold, thank God, a small bright spot of the whole ordeal in our H1N1-fearing times), and the frustration and exhaustion was akin to the early weeks of motherhood. And by that I mean the time period during which half of my waking moments were spent devising a plan to crawl unnoticed into a dark closet with a bottle of Wild Turkey so I could sob and question why I decided to become a parent in peace.

Yeah, taking care of a sick kid is no fun, indeed. Night wakings. Crying, whining, crying, whining (from mother and child). Child vibrating with overtired energy, screaming and struggling violently with pudgy limbs against a mother wielding the thermometer/Tylenol/Kleenex/nose suction thing–roughly one hundred times per day. Child sobbing and desperately wanting something she can’t express, mother frantically trying to guess what that thing might be just to make something better for at least five flipping minutes so I don’t lose my ever-loving mind. Repeat.


And on top of all of that drama comes the not eating. Naturally, when we’re sick, we don’t feel much like eating, but to a worried mother of a sick baby, this logic goes out the window. I was convinced my daughter was going to wither away and die from starvation if this vicious, exotic illness didn’t take her first. So I inanely pushed food in my child’s poor, snuffly, puffy face every chance I got, driving my own stress levels higher as the child refused all of my lame attempts. So much untouched food went into the trash in our home during those few days, I started looking over my shoulder for Sally Struthers to come read me the riot act.


In the interest of getting some calories in my poor babe, any at all, really, I gave up on forcing the “right foods” and just went for what I hoped would be a Sure Thing: a silky, homemade vanilla pudding with lots of comforting milk and eggs and an all-ages-palate-pleasing dose of brown sugar.

Like peace and quiet and the general wellness of my family, I’m kind of obsessed with homemade puddings of all sorts. They’re just so delightfully real–the most basic ingredients, so simple, everything coming together with little fanfare, right on the stovetop with a wooden spoon. It just feels right. If there’s a chicken soup of desserts, a sweet tooth’s tonic to cure all ailments, homemade vanilla pudding has to be it. I would bet my Mommy Card on this claim.

So sure was I of the magical powers of this pudding, I was going to send this child back from whence she came if this tactic didn’t work. But lo, it did. In fact, it was all she ate for two days straight. And if we’re being honest here, it made up the bulk of my diet, too. Not a bad way to ease the suffering, for all parties involved. And even if you find yourself in gloriously good health this winter, there’s really nothing like hunkering down with a cozy bowl of homemade pudding, maybe slightly warmed, or just straight from the fridge with a serving spoon.

Brown Sugar Vanilla Pudding

Using brown sugar in this recipe gives a really lovely caramel note and a great depth of flavor to the dish. But if you prefer a more straightforward vanilla pudding, just use all regular granulated sugar. You can also jazz up this recipe even more by scraping half a vanilla bean into the pot, and dropping the scraped pod into the mix as well.

Makes about 2 cups

3 tablespoons lightly packed light brown sugar
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (or 1/4 teaspoon table salt)
2 cups whole milk
3 egg yolks, lightly beaten
2 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Whisk together brown sugar, granulated sugar, cornstarch and salt in a medium saucepan. Whisking constantly, add about a third of the milk to the pan until the mixture is smooth. Whisk in the egg yolks, and then whisk in the rest of the milk.

Set the pan over medium heat and cook the pudding, whisking often, until is is thickened and just begins to bubble, about 6 to 7 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and switch to a rubber or silicone spatula to stir the pudding constantly for another 5 minutes or so, scraping the bottom and sides of the pan as you go. When you can run a track through the pudding on the back of the spatula with your fingertip and the track remains, remove the pan from the heat. Stir in the butter and the vanilla.

Set a sieve over a large bowl and strain the pudding to catch any wayward lumps of cooked egg yolk or cornstarch, using the spatula to encourage the pudding through the sieve. Lightly press a sheet of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the pudding to prevent a skin from forming, and refrigerate until the pudding is completely chilled and set, at least 2 hours.

Dec 8, 2009

Simple Rolled, Iced Sugar Cookies

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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