Friday, December 31, 2010

So Long 2010 . . . You were a Sweet, Tasty, and Memorable Year!

The New Year will arrive in just a few hours, so what better time than the present to do a quick recap of Jane's Sweets & Baking Journal's 2010 highlights? It was indeed a sweet, tasty, and memorable year. Here's a little sampling of one item from each month . . . these were among my personal favorites!

January 2010 --The Sweet Potato Pound Cake . . . this turned out to be one of those recipes that really surprised me. Who would have thought you could make something so pleasing from a humble potato?

February2010 -- Orange Polenta Cake with Sweet Citrus Glaze . . . and who knew that a simple cake containing corn meal and olive oil could be so appealing? Not me, until I tried this recipe.

March 2010 -- Jumbo Blueberry Muffins . . . (oh, and did I mention these are BIG?) Rarely does a muffin  evoke stares of  amazement like these babies do. Not just because of their mighty girth, mind you, but because of their extreme Yum Factor.


April 2010 -- Honey Oatmeal Sandwich Bread . . . this post was bittersweet because it centered on  my father-in-law, "Grandpa Joe," whom we'd lost a few days before I wrote it. He loved to bake bread and I couldn't help thinking of him while I prepared this recipe.

May 2010 --Tart Cherry Frozen Yogurt with Crispy Honey Cookies . . . mmmm, tart is right! I'd never made frozen yogurt before, and I was tickled pink with the way it turned out. The crunchy honey cookies were a fine foil for the lip-puckering tang of this bright fro-yo! This post was also one of my faves because it documented a robin's nest, with two lovely eggs in it, that a mama bird built in a little flower pot hanging on our fence. My family and I monitored its progress like anxious parents-to-be until the babies hatched and, after a couple of weeks, flew off to see the world and make their own families.

June 2010 -- Chocolate-Filled Coconut Macaroon Sandwich Cookies . . . no, these weren't those fragile pastel treats that have been all the rage for a couple of years now in baking circles . . . but they're just as good, if not better! The hubby and I loved these cookies. Recommended!

July 2010 -- Chocolate Mousse Dream Cake . . . This one was dear to my heart, but not just because it's a fabulously decadent cake. I made this for my 14-year old son Nathan's birthday, at his special request. Not only was it a luscious dessert to serve at any birthday, it was a poignant birthday celebration to me because my littlest boy just isn't little anymore!

August 2010 -- Sparkling Peach Cobbler with Prosecco, Ginger, and Honey . . . I never was a big one for cobbler--not until I cooked this up! One of the best homestyle/summertime/fresh-fruit concoctions I think I've ever tasted. Sparkling is right! Sparkle on!

September 2010 -- Parmesan, Herb, and Garlic Popovers . . . that's right, pop on over to my house for the most startling popovers around! These guys knocked my socks off. They'll defy all your popover preconceptions--no kidding! And, gosh, do they ever smell fantastic!

October 2010 -- The Cake that Thinks it's a Pumpkin . . . this is what you might call a cake with an identity crisis but, oh, what an intriguing crisis to have! I never expected to get such a big reaction out of the people who saw this cake--one that I made in my Theme Cakes class. What a lot of fun it was to work on this.  And easy? Anyone can make it . . . I sketched out instructions in the post.

November 2010 -- Apple, Quince, and Pear-filled Sweet Rolls . . . nothing like a nice breakfast roll, warm, sweet, and sticky with autumn's most charming fruit. I made these on a school day when my Pastry I class was unexpectedly canceled. It was a much enjoyed windfall of free time that I chose to spend in the kitchen--of course!

December 2010 -- Sam the Snowman Cake . . . I have to tell you that I feel a special kinship with this fictional character now, after having spent so dang much time on this cake! Heck,  I'll never be able to watch Rudolph on TV again without thinking about it. It's like the cake-decorating equivalent of a getting a tattoo.


Wow, 2010 sure went by fast, didn't it? I know I'm looking forward to whatever 2011 brings to us bakers, one and all. Expect I'll be whipping up something new to share with you in a couple of days. Until then,  Have the happiest New Year ever!!

Jane   :)

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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Time to slow down...

First I want to thank everyone who visits my blog for the reading my ramblings about food, making food, and my perspective of food.  Without everyone who visits I don't know that I would have enjoyed this process as much as I do.  Blogging and cooking really are activities that bring me great joy, but so is  going to school and participating in the many events my children do.  I am at a point right now that something has to give and with the upcoming college term fast approaching I realize that I have to step away from the areas of my life that don't support my family or my education.  This blog is one of those things.  No I'm not quitting all together, but rather giving myself permission to slow down and not apply undo pressure to myself. 

So what does this mean?  My goal is to post at least once a week, maybe more if my schedule allows, maybe less if I just can't get to it, but I will still be here and as my schedule allows I will add recipes.  Thanks everyone!  I'll be back soon :)

Christmas Play

Quote of the Day:  opening lyrics to Dynamite Taio Cruz
I throw my hands up in the air sometimes

Saying AYO
Gotta let go
I wanna celebrate and live my life
Saying AYO
Baby, let's go

My boys like that song.  It's peppy and happy and all about living in the moment.  Throw your hands in the air, let go, and live!  

So, we found time to play this holiday season.  My boys like to pick out things for each other that they like, and that they would like to play/share with them.

(I especially liked the gift in the middle *grin*)

Traditions, what can I say?  There's some to keep and some to tweak.  Every year is different.  Maybe you've added a family member, maybe you've lost one.  Maybe there's a difficult separation or illness.  Maybe you've moved and you can no longer get back home for the holidays.  Whatever the reason, you may find yourself in need of a new picture.

This holiday season, I determined to let go of the Norman Rockwell - everyone sitting around the tree, cozy and happy on "the day" - picture, and thought of how I could paint my own picture.  We started doing the "pickle game" a few years ago.  I hide an ornament in the tree that looks like a pickle, so it's hard to spot. The boy who finds it gets to open a present the day before Christmas Eve (our celebration day).  I called it our "Pre-Christmas Day."  It was great.  Eric was the first and opened a movie.  After I got the bread started and the soup on, we watched it together.  Then, Bobby opened a book (Breakthrough by Stephen Tremp) that I discovered from reading blogs.  I hope he likes it.  Next, Zach opened the game Guesstures, and Charlie opened the movie Despicable Me - a funny movie - that we watched until late.  I had to stay up anyway and bake the bread.  I started the dough a bit late in the day.  It was my first time baking bread from scratch.  Mom's recipe.  It turned out okay.  Not as good as Mom's - naturally.

We also played Guesstures which was so great.  We were running and laughing and grabbing for easy clues and shouting answers.  I LOVE Guesstures and I LOVE playing with my boys.  Then, Bobby came alive like he did when he was young.  He'd play a game with me, then see how it could be improved, or add something to it.  So, he invented a bonus round based on time, the faster you get the others to guess the better, and subtracting points for answering correctly, so that you gain something by guessing.  It was so fun.  I jumped and clapped and acted, and at one time, Zach said, "You're fun!" - my best gift of the season.

I had this thought lately, that we're wrong to cling to the sameness of life. That change is always happening.  Kids grow up.  We meet people.  We end bad relationships.  We move, and we move on.  It is the idea that things will always be the same that makes us feel hopeless.

Journaling Prompt:  What holiday traditions have you kept from childhood, and which ones have you tweaked or made on your own?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Where is my place of zen?

I am going batshit crazy over here! Birthday tomorrow, Christmas on Saturday ....I need a Xanax! will get you everytime!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Muddy Buddies

In my quest for great cookies to try out this holiday season, I stumbled onto these tasteful bites that contain two of our favorite things in this house--peanut butter and chocolate.  While they aren't exactly a cookie, I can definitely see the brilliant snacking potential they offer, not to mention the who wouldn't want them as part a holiday hostess gift?  Simple,  easy, cost effective and most importantly, delicious, these buddies won't last long once prepared.  Cook's if you have plans that include wrapping and removing the buddies from your house you may want to do it when those people who love to sample all the goodies in your house are gone, sleeping or distracted in some way.  Otherwise, they probably won't make it out the door...mine didn't!  Enjoy!

Muddy Buddies

Recipe source: Modified slightly from Plain Chicken

9 cups (almost a whole box) Corn Chex®, Rice Chex®, Wheat Chex®  cereal (or combination)
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips (I used 1/2 chocolate and 1/2 butterscotch with amazing results!)
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
1/4 cup butter
1 teaspoon pure vanilla
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar

Into large bowl, measure cereal; set aside.

Combine chocolate chips, peanut butter, and peanut butter in a sauce pan.  Allow to melt stiring occassionally on medium heat until smooth and combined.  Pour over the ceareal and stir until evenly coated.  At this point you can either place the cereal into a large zipper bag or into another large bowl.  I went with the bowl option.
Add powdered sugar to your bag/bowl.  Seal bag; shake until well coated or toss cereal in the large bowl with the powdered sugar.  Using a slotted spoon, lift cereal out of the powdered sugar and shake off excess.  Spread on a cookie sheet covered with waxed paper to cool. Store in airtight container in refrigerator.

Place in clear bags and wrap with a ribbon for a fun addition to any holiday gift.

Total Cost $2.16
Cereal $.79
Chocolate Chips $.25 (I love it when chocolate chips are on sale!)
Butterscotch Chips $.25
Butter $.37
Vanilla Free
Powdered Sugar $.50

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Famous Tomato Story...

I am a notoriously picky eater.  So picky that when we call in food orders at work I am usually forced to do the calling because no one wants to assume responsibility if my order is wrong.  As a young child my grandfather would tell me the same story every time we visited, usually while we at Sunday dinner, about the summer that he "learned to like tomatoes."  Yes, that is how it goes.  He didn't like tomatoes and then learned to like them.  His aunt, her name was Pete and the stories about her fascinate me but that is for another blog entry, came to visit and care for him while his parents were away.  One evening grandpa and I'm assuming, his siblings too, were presented with a plate full of tomatoes for dinner.  Nothing else.  No bread, no meat of any kinds, just sliced tomatoes.  He had two choices he would tell me, either eat the tomatoes or be hungry.  Of course he chose to eat the tomatoes, and guess what? He learned to like tomatoes that summer.  It didn't matter what was on the table, or what I was picking at on my plate, that story was told. 

Now as an adult I wonder if Grandpa was right about learning to like new foods. I now like a variety of things that even a few years ago would not have crossed my lips; onions, asparagus, mustard and nuts all come to mind.  So maybe a person can learn to like something if they just try it.  I'm going to keep an open mind and maybe, just maybe, one day I can say I'm not a picky eater anymore.  Until then, I will remember Grandpa sitting at the table telling me his story trying to convince me to just eat the tomatoes I was picking out of Grandma's green salad.

Chocolate Walnut Rugelach . . . Like Christmas, it Comes but Once a Year!

It's a good thing that the level and intensity of baking that occurs in preparation for Dec. 25th happens only once a year. Despite our love for all-things-baking, we also love being able to fasten the top button of our pants--am I right?

That's just one of the reasons why homemade rugelach happens in my household once a year and once a year only. Oh yes, rugelach is delicate and delicious. Given its ingredients, it'd better be! Butter, cream cheese, and flour, all wrapped around sweet jam, finely chopped nuts, and sometimes (hopefully) chocolate. It's all in there.

Like the Ghost of Christmas Present, rugelach swoops in and, just as swiftly, swoops out. That's as it should be. Enjoy it while it's here, and look forward to its brief appearance again next year.

About this recipe . . . 

Today's treat comes from one of the greatest chocolate-baking resources I've ever found, Chocolate American Style, by food writer Lora Brody. This volume exudes a warmth that will envelope you.

No, let me rephrase that . . . It will enrobe you, because that's what fine melted chocolate does. Just ask any chocolatier! It's a book so luscious, you won't know whether to read it or take a bite of it, but I advise that you do the former.

I adapted this recipe slightly by rewording it, by adding a tiny amount of sugar to the dough, and by using an egg wash topped off with a petite sprinkling of cinnamon sugar before baking. Note that the recipe indicates use of a food processor, though you can try making it by hand with a pastry blender.

Chocolate Walnut Rugelach

(For a printable copy of this recipe, click here!)

For the dough:

8 oz. full-fat cream cheese, chilled and cut into small chunks
1/2 lb. (2 sticks) of unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small chunks
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp. salt
2 tsp. sugar

For the filling:
1 cup finely chopped walnuts
3/4 cup semi-sweet mini chocolate chips (Definitely use the mini-morsels or, if you can't find those, chop regular size semisweet chips evenly into small bits. Because the filling provides almost all the sweetness, you might want to stick with semi-sweet versus trying dark chocolate; I considered substituting dark chips--just because I adore dark chocolate--but realized that could make these rugelach simply not sweet enough.) 
1 tsp. ground cinnamon (Optional, per the cookbook, but I included this and I recommend it.)
1/3 cup apricot jam/preserves

For the top:
1 large egg lightly beaten with 1 Tbsp. cold water
1/4 granulated sugar, mixed with 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, and sugar.  In the large bowl of your food processor (fitted with the metal blade), place the chilled cream cheese and butter chunks, along with the flour mixture. Process until the dough comes together to just form a ball.

Divide the ball of dough into equal quarters, then flatten each quarter into a disk and wrap it securely in plastic wrap. Chill the dough for three or more hours, or overnight (I chilled mine overnight; it was very easy to work with the next day--not too soft or sticky).

When you're ready to roll out and form the rugelach, preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Line one or two cookie sheets with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, mix together the chocolate chips, chopped walnuts, and cinnamon.

Heat the apricot jam in a small bowl; do this slowly in the microwave, or in a small saucepan over a low flame. The jam needs to be fluid enough for you to brush it onto the dough. Keep the jam warm.

Work with just one piece of dough from the fridge at a time. On a well floured work surface (I used a thin plastic mat designed for rolling out dough or fondant, with measured circles on it--very helpful, but of course not necessary!), roll the dough into a circle that's no more than 8 to 9 inches in diameter. If you roll it too thin, it may tear when you try to roll it up. Using a pizza wheel or a sharp knife, cut the circle into eight equal wedges.

Brush the cut wedges with a thin layer of the warm jam. (I used a small paint brush--dedicated to food use only!--because of its soft bristles. This dough is tender and a coarse brush can mangle it. A soft silicone brush works well too.) 

Sprinkle about 1 tsp.--not much more or it will just spill out the sides--of the filling mixture onto each dough wedge.

Starting at the wide end of each one, roll the wedge up snugly without stretching the dough and place it on your cookie sheet. Brush the top of each with the egg wash and sprinkle with a pinch or two of the cinnamon sugar.

Bake the rugelach for 10 minutes; check to see how quickly it's browning (not a bad idea to peek at the bottom of one piece as well), and reverse the cookie sheet from front to back. Bake another 3 to 5 minutes. Remove the rugelach as soon as they appear lightly golden. Allow them to cool on the cookie sheet, set on a cooling rack, for five minutes before removing them to cool on the rack on their own.

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Pretzel Rolls

If you are looking at these rolls thinking they are just another roll, look again my dear readers. These rolls are the new love of my family.  They posess a soft and flavorful exterior that is dotted with crunchy bites of salt, combined with a light yet chewy center which creates the most most perfet roll. A roll that tastes like a pretzel, and so delicious that it is easy to eat a bunch few without even realizing it.  I was amazed that the simple step of poaching the rolls in water and baking soda would yield a flavor that is exactly the same as a soft pretzel.  My next plan is to make them in pretzel form, covered in cinnamon and sugar.  Until then, pairing these up with a warm winter soup is ideal.  Enjoy!

Pretzel Rolls
Recipe Source: Sweet Peas Kitchen

**Cook's note-Add the baking soda slowly to prevent your water from boiling over.  Make sure to drain your rolls very well before returning to the baking sheet.**

1 1/2 cups warm water (110°F)

1 package active dry yeast
2 teaspoons sugar
4 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup baking soda
large saucepan of water
1 egg, lightly beaten
pretzel salt (sea salt works too)

In the bowl of a stand mixer combine the water and the yeast and let rest 5 minutes until foamy.  Add the sugar, flour, salt, and butter; mix with the dough hook until thoroughly combined. Cover with a towel and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour or until doubled in bulk.

Punch down and turn out onto a lightly floured surface.

Cut the dough into 18 pieces (2 ounces each) or less if you want a larger roll, and shape into balls. Place on baking sheet seam side down at least 1” between each roll. Cover with a towel and let rise in a warm place for 30 minutes until doubled.

Preheat oven to 425°F and place oven racks on the lowest and middle positions.

In a large saucepan, bring 2 quarts of water to a low boil. Add the baking soda and lower heat to a simmer. Put the rolls into the poaching liquid, seam side down. Poach for 30 seconds then carefully turn the roll over in the liquid. Poach other side for 30 seconds then remove with a slotted spoon to the same prepared sheet pans, seam side down.  Repeat with the remaining rolls.

With a pastry brush, glaze each roll with the lightly beaten egg making sure to coat all sides completely. Top each roll with a sprinkle of pretzel salt. With a sharp straight edged knife or kitchen shears, cut a slash or “X” in the top of each roll.

Bake the rolls in a preheated oven for 15-20 minutes.

Seeking Light

Quote of the Day:  Mingle a little folly with your wisdom; a little nonsense now and then is pleasant. - Horace, Roman poet and satirist

So, I started to look for the Light - you know, places where I see generosity, good people, moments of levity, a good old-fashioned belly laugh.  The Mothers of Multiples (MOMS) group went to Prairie Bay for our holiday dinner.  I handed my camera to the hostess.  She had some fun snapping candid shots.  We lined up in front of the fire place, then politely asked this man if he wanted to join the MOMs' club and be in the shot?  He said something funny that I missed, which caused this fun shot of laughter!

Here's our photographer - lookin' good in front of and behind the camera lens!

I passed around a card I bought for our sister in mothering multiples who was just diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer.  The front says: There is a circle of caring all around...  And, inside ...and you're right in the middle.  We also passed the Christmas plate for donations to some families in our midst who could use a little Christmas cheer.

And, I've spent time at noon during Advent with my pastor/friend and other women who need time to connect during this season.  Great discussions, meaningful moments.  So glad I have you, Erika!

Bill, facebook friend, is sharing corny jokes during this season.  Here's a sample:  Two hats were hanging on a hat rack in the hallway. One hat said to the other: 'You stay here; I'll go on a head.'

One more:  A sign on the lawn at a drug rehab center said: 'Keep off the Grass.'

I'm drawn to the Light during this Advent season.  How are you doing?

Journaling Prompt: Share a fun holiday memory or story from your near or distant past.  Or, post a joke! 

Monday, December 13, 2010

Highs and Lows

Today was a very hard day. I went to my friends funeral which they call a "Celebration of Life", but it was hard nonetheless. The saying goodbye ...missing someone. Doing too little, too late. I knew the end was near but stayed away because it was too close to home. I felt guilty because my mom is doing well, and she wasn't. Same cancer, same stage. What else is there left to say? So, with the guilt and the sadness, I said goodbye to a lovely woman that motivated me, inspired me, and made me wonder the beauty of life and absolute unfairness of it all. Why not a miracle? It's interesting because that was brought up at the funeral. How she never gave up and how the fact that we knew her and her struggle ...and her amazing relationship with God...she WAS a miracle. It was a lovely service. I am glad I went.

After the service I went to the school and brought Birthday treats for Riordan for an early Birthday celebration. Since his birthday's during Winter Break, we have to celebrate early. He LOVED it. He is such a mini me. Extreme high. I am so grateful to be be able to attend these fun parties for my son's! It made his day and I love helping him have a great day!

Later this week we have the Holiday Bazaar and the Christmas Party to prepare for. So much to do but so much fun to celebrate! So, long story short, I am exhausted. Wish I could sleep for a day.

Goodness and Light

Quote of the Day:  from the song Do You Hear What I Hear
Said the King to the people everwhere,
"Listen to what I say."
Pray for peace, people everywhere,
listen to what I say!
The Child, the Child,
sleeping in the night,
He will bring us goodness and light

To hear Martina McBride sing this song of hope with an orchestra and choir, click on this Youtube video.

Here's a glimpse at what it looks like in Minnesota this week.  We don't need to just dream about a white Christmas.  This is nothing to what happened south of us.  The Minneapolis/St. Paul area was pounded with snow.  The Metrodome roof collapsed.  You might have heard about that on the news or seen the video.  OMG! The Vikings game had to be postponed and moved to Detriot. 

The good that happens from a hard knock by Mother Nature is that you quickly see neighbor helping neighbor.  The one with the snowblower helps out the ones who only have a shovel, and the ones with a shovel band together to make the work go faster. When my neice's car got stuck in the street, friends and strangers alike dug it out.

Snow is easier to handle than the subzero temps.  We wake up to the weatherman warning us that the thermometer reads negative 18 degrees Fahrenheit with a windchill factor of minus 40.  We just want to stay under our flannel sheets and down comforters.  Who wants to go out in that!  We start to feel isolated.

Isolation is not good for me.  Add to that the short days and long dark nights and the increased illnesses that happen this time of year.  Well, it gets harder and harder to stay in a happy holiday mood.  I feel sad for my friend who's four-year-old son died this summer.  It's so hard for her this Christmas.  I feel sad for another friend who is recovering from an abusive relationship and worrying about her kids when they're with their dad.  I just learned that a friend of mine was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer.  I can hardly type that and not break down crying.  That sounds really scary.  She has a 12-year-old daughter and triplets who are seven (two girls and a boy).  She's been in our Mothers of Multiples group.  My age.

So, yesterday, I was getting cranky at Christmas.  What is helping me is being with people IRL (in real life).  Human contact with good people who care about those who might be having a blue Christmas.  Loving people who don't expect you to be happy just because it's the holidays.  And, nurturing people who shine light on those dark emotions.

If you're experiencing the dark days of December, know that you're not alone.  Reach out to others.  Look for the light.  "Do you hear what I hear?"  A child is born to bring us goodness and light.

Journey on, even through the cold and the dark.  Nothing ever stays the same.  Cling to the the promise of new life.

Journaling Prompt:  What are you feeling blue about this season?  How can you reach out to someone to find goodness and light?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Cinnamon Cranberry Shortbread . . . Simplify the Christmas Cookie Marathon!

When your holiday to-do list is longer than the tobaggon hanging on the wall in your garage, how do you  find the time and energy to enjoy non-critical tasks like making cookies without that activity, too, seeming like just another chore? If you're like me, every year you wish you had the time and gusto to make at least a dozen varieties of Christmas cookies, some from brand new recipes and some from old faithfuls. In theory, the cookie-baking marathon sounds so delightful, doesn't it?

Think about it. There you are, bustling around in the kitchen, carols playing in the background, snowflakes twinkling on the window sill. Maybe you're even wearing that cute apron--the one that's been in a drawer for the past ten years because you've never had the guts to expose it to robust molasses or melted dark chocolate? I know, I know. I've been there. Sometimes the Christmas cookie mega-bake experience is just a pipe dream.

But then again, maybe it's not? I figure the answer to this dilemma is two-fold. It requires breaking the work down into chunks--like making the doughs all in one long work session, and then baking the cookies in another. Of course, even that prospect can be daunting. So if you're really stressed, consider making it easier on yourself by using just one base recipe for a simple but fail-proof cookie that can be adapted with any number of different flavorings or add-ins.

Shortbread is a perfect candidate for this approach because:
  • it's comprised of very few ingredients and mixes together fairly quickly
  • it handles easily compared to stickier roll-out doughs for gingerbread or sugar cookies
  • it can be pressed into tart pans by hand, or rolled out and cut with cookie cutters
  • it bakes slowly and at a low temperature, which greatly minimizes the chances of burning the cookies
  • it's sturdy and not delicate, thus not problematic to store or ship
  • it has a long shelf life and can handle reasonable variations in temperature
  • it can be customized with the addition of chocolate, with finely chopped nuts or dried fruits, or any variety of extracts--try vanilla, citrus, or almond
  • the finished cookies can be dipped in melted chocolate, glazed with a thin icing, or sprinkled with sugar

Just remember, don't fiddle with the the proportions of flour, sugar, and butter. They're kind of sacrosanct in a scenario like this. But everything else is up for grabs. Really. It's a miracle cookie. It's the original Christmas Miracle Cookie! Not kidding. So don't panic if you committed to producing a zillion cookies for this office party and that church event. Stick with one basic recipe, adjust it to suit your whims, and everything will be fine. These cinnamon cranberry shortbread cut-outs are a case-in-point. Made from a recipe I adapted, they won't let you down.

This is adapted from the classic shortbread recipe in Dede Wilson's book, The Baker's Field Guide to Christmas Cookies.

Cinnamon Cranberry Shortbread Cookies
(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line a couple of cookie sheets with parchment paper.

1 lb. of unsalted butter, softened (4 sticks)
1 cup granulated sugar, plus a little extra for sprinkling
5 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp. salt (a generous 1/4 tsp.; I think a wee bit of salt is vital in a cookie--without it, it's just flat)
3 drops vanilla extract
2 drops almond extract
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon (or less, if you prefer; more, though, can overpower this recipe)
3/4 cup dried cranberries chopped very small (loosely packed into the measuring cup)

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

In the large bowl of your mixer, beat the butter at medium high speed for three minutes, until light and fluffy. Still on medium high speed, slowly pour in the sugar over a period of about 8 minutes (yes, I said 8 minutes), until the mixture is almost white in color and extremely fluffy. Add in the vanilla and almond extracts.

Now on the lowest speed, add in the flour mixture in three portions, mixing just until each portion is  incorporated. Pour in the cranberry pieces and beat only until they seem fairly evenly distributed in the dough, not long at all. The dough should not be so soft that it needs to be chilled before rolling.

Divide the dough into thirds. Working with one third at a time, on a lightly floured work surface, roll the dough out to about 1/4" thickness--no thinner. Using small cookie cutters of your choice, firmly cut the pieces and place them carefully onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet. They can be placed pretty close together as they'll spread very, very little in the oven. Sprinkle each cookie with a couple pinches of granulated sugar.

Bake each tray for approximately 15 minutes or more, checking the cookies regularly; remove them from the oven when they just start to turn slightly golden around the edges. They're not supposed to become golden brown all over. Allow them to cool on the pans for 10 minutes before removing them to cooling racks.

Alternately, you can press the dough evenly into 8" or 9" tart pans with removable bottoms. This is a very quick and easy method if you don't feel like using cookie cutters. Sprinkle sugar on top and place the pans on top of cookie sheets to bake. If you make them this way, slice the baked cookies pie-wedge fashion while they're still somewhat warm from the oven; if you wait to slice them until they're cool, they'll be far more prone to breaking apart.

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Christmas is....

As another Christmas approaches, I get to contemplate. I have been so busy with the boys school activities, donating my time, redoing my family room (whoever says staying at home is boring obviously isn't doing it right...ha!) that I have to MAKE myself stop and reflect on the little things so I still appreciate Christmas. We get so wrapped up in Holiday parties and shopping that I feel we really need to stop, take a breath, and just enjoy each other. Last night we all got bundled up and went to our town's Festival of Lights. Expecting the older two to throw a fit, I was holding my breath, waiting for the outcries that they were too old. Nothing came. Not even a single complaint about dressing warmly! We all shuffled in the car, parked and then walked to the main street. Watched the street fill with people...huddled together for warmth. As we watched the floats go by, people would yell, "Merry Christmas!" and we would yell it back. I watched the boys have fun being kids. I appreciate that this might be our last year playing Santa, so we are revelling in the magic. I have the Christmas story brought out, just getting ready to read. Brian took Daegan out shopping today and Daegan came home with a huge smile on his face. Not only did he get to spend time with dad, but he got to get "really cool things for the family". He loves the picking out, and loves the anticipation of his brothers opening their gifts. Too much fun! As the boys get older, I tell them...

enjoying each other
being thankful we are all together
counting our blessings
caring more about other's happiness over our own
sharing love
sharing Christ
loving one another
giving to those in need
swallowing pride

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Lemon Meltaways

I am a lover of lemon and lime flavors most especially in the form of dessert.  Maybe it is the fresh flavor they bring to the end of a meal or the simple fact that most of the time a cook can interchange them in any recipe.  They are just simply delicious and I look for every opportunity to make something new.

 I saw this recipe over at Closet Cooking and decided to adapt it to lemon from lime for the simple reason that I didn't have any limes in the house.  The result was a tasty lemon shortbread cookie that literally melted away in your mouth without too much sweetness. A great holiday cookie that is pretty to display and delicious to enjoy with a cup of tea or coffee on a cold winter afternoon.  Enjoy!

Lemon Meltaways
Recipe Source: Adapted from Closet Cooking

12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter (room temperature)
1/3 cup powdered sugar
Zest of one lemon
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups + 2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons corn starch
1/4 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup powdered sugar

Cream the butter with the powdered sugar.  Beat in the lime zest, lime juice and vanilla. Meanwhile, ix the flour, cornstarch and salt in a large bowl.

Beat the dry ingredients into the wet. Until just combined and roll the dough out into a 1 1/4 inch log.
Wrap in plastic and let chill in the fridge for at least an hour.

Slice the dough into 1/4 in thick slices and place them on a baking sheet, 1 inch apart from each other.
 Bake in a preheated 350F oven until just lightly golden brown, about 12-15 minutes.

 Let cool on a wire rack for 4 minutes. Dredge cookies in powdered sugar to coat.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Sam the Snowman Cake . . . from Rudolph!

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine trees crusted with snow . . .

-- from The Snowman, a poem by Wallace Stevens
Before we get too much further into the Christmas season, I wanted to be sure and share this with you. It's my attempt at replicating, in cake form, the snowman from that favorite old TV special made in 1964, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I created it as my final-exam project for my Theme Cakes class, which ended in November. Since making this cake, I've come to the conclusion that just about every American under 75 must be a big fan of Sam the Snowman, the show's chubby narrator.

He's a pretty distinctive fellow, as far as snowmen go. Both wise and witty, he's possessed of a philosophical outlook not common to your typical garden-variety snowman. When he tells us to, "Pull up an iceberg and lend an ear," we're inclined to do just that. And isn't there something especially appealing about a dapper snowman who sounds just like Burl Ives?

I'm not going to confess exactly how long it took me to work on this cake, all in all, nor how much  fretting I did in preparation for assembling it. Needless to say, the process was time consuming for me and fraught with potential pitfalls. That's because this kind of cake--one requiring quite a bit of advance planning, not to mention structural support and anchoring--is still pretty new for me. I was more relieved than I can convey when the finishing touches were completed on the last day of class.

You know how it is when you work on something that requires you to immerse yourself in its every detail? You become acutely aware of the finished product's imperfections and those are what you tend to focus on. That's how I felt, initially at least, when this cake was done and largely why I was stunned when my teacher and fellow students liked it so much.

Chef Lois, my teacher, asked me if she could keep the cake to display it at a couple of upcoming culinary-school sponsored events. I was pretty flattered by this. She suggested that I first take it home to show to my husband and kids (who'd been hearing me fuss about it for at least a couple of weeks) and then bring it back to school. So that's what I did.

Thankfully, it was a very successful project all in all, and Sam turned out to be a pretty fun character to try and depict in cake. For those of you who want to know how this cake was created, click here for the gory details. For those of you who become nauseous or disoriented at the mere thought of making something like this, you have my sympathy. I'll understand completely if you need to stop reading right now. Yes, you may be excused. Go bake some cookies instead . . . or get a start on wrapping those presents!

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