Sunday, December 13, 2009

Chocolate Candy Cane Cookies & Christmas Baking Traditions

Normally, I don’t do very much baking. The reason is not because I don’t enjoy baking because I do, very much; it’s more because I don’t enjoy eating baked goods all that much. Sure, I like the occasional muffin with my coffee, and sometimes I’m in the mood for something sweet after a meal, but it really is a rare occurrence for me to eat desserts. Sweets just don’t appeal to me the way savory foods do.

However, there is one time of year when my non-sweet-loving nature completely changes, when I have a healthy appetite for sugary delights. That time of year is Christmastime.

When December rolls around, I’m in full baking and cookie-craving mode, and I stay that way until January 1st. I love holiday baking, the memories I associate with it, the way it fills the house with the most tempting aromas, and, of course, the scrumptious results it produces. Holiday baking brings me back to childhood Christmases, and baking with my Mom. One of the highlights of the season was always making Christmas cookies: classic shortbread, soft ginger cookies, fun, marshmallow-filled “church windows”, and elaborately decorated sugar cookies. Though we made cookies often, none compared to these special, sacred baked goods that we could only make once a year. We would start baking around mid-December, but we were not allowed to eat anything we made, not a single glittery sprinkle, until the evening of December 24th. After dinner on Christmas Eve, my mother would fill a platter with a variety of our baked masterpieces, and we were allowed to dig in. After days of anticipation, those cookies seemed like the best ones we had ever tasted.

I speak about these things as if they are in the distant past, but that isn’t the case at all. In fact, my Mom and I still do holiday baking together, and we still save the fruits of our labor to enjoy on Christmas Eve. At the moment, we live more than 2000 miles apart, and though I will be home for Christmas, I decided to get a jump-start on the holiday baking on my own. I am making a few different cookies to bring home to my family, and none are the ones I listed above. I’ll save those to do with my Mom when I get home. Instead, I’m trying out some new recipes because though my family is all about tradition at Christmastime, we’re like to create new traditions as well.

The cookie recipe I want to share with you is one that I made for the first time last year. As soon as I sampled it, I knew that it would become an annual tradition. I cherish the Christmas traditions of my childhood, but it’s also exciting to be creating traditions of my own.
So, on with the baking. This little bit of heaven is called Chocolate Candy Cane Cookies. Imagine this: pink, peppermint buttercream, frosting squished between two chocolate cookies that are not too hard, and not too soft, then rolled in crushed candy canes. Now, make it: the recipe is from last year’s December issue of Bon Appétit, and you can find it here. But I have shiny pictures, so I recommend that you keep reading …

First, you make the chocolate cookies. These consist of a very simple combination of flour, unsweetened cocoa powder, sugar, butter, egg, and a pinch of salt.

While that chills, you make your peppermint buttercream frosting. Have you ever made buttercream frosting before? If you haven’t, I am warning you, it is rather shocking to discover what a sinful combination of fat and sugar this sweet indulgence actually is. In fact, you may just want to stop reading right now. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss, and you may want to stay ignorant of the true nature of buttercream frosting in order to enjoy eating it in the future.
No? Really, you want to know the truth? All right, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. Buttercream frosting is pretty much half butter and half powdered sugar, whipped up together. For our recipe, we will also be adding peppermint extract and red food coloring to get the color and flavor we want.
So, now you know the truth, and hopefully you have processed it and you are able to move on with the recipe. Yes? Here, this might help: I love the pink fluffiness of it. I have to say, as much as I love to cook, it is very unlikely that I would ever create anything this pretty when I am making something savory.

Now, before you put your frosting to work, you’ll need to bake your cookies. You do this by scooping out tablespoons of dough, forming it into a ball, and flattening it into a two-inch round on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. The recipe says to place them two inches apart, but I don’t find that this much space is necessary. The cookies don’t really expand while they bake, so as long as they aren’t touching to start with, they will stay separate in the oven.

Once the cookies have baked and cooled, you can assemble your sandwiches. That starts with a cookie, placed flat side-up.

Now, spread on about two teaspoons of frosting.
Then, top with another cookie, flat side-down, of course. Now, you’ll need to crush up some candy canes. Choose candy canes with the best colors. I did two types, actually: red and white, and red, green, white, and brown. You don’t quite want them to be crushed to a powder, but you don’t want the chunks to be too big, or they won’t stay stuck to the frosting.

Roll the edges of the cookie sandwich in the crushed candy cane so that the pieces stick to the frosting. Now, you have a Christmas treat that is sure to tempt and impress friends and family. I mean, doesn’t this look enticing? These cookies freeze really well, by the way. You can assemble them completely, then place them in parchment paper-lined containers and freeze them for up to two weeks. When they thaw out, you can’t tell that they were ever frozen. In case you missed it, here’s the recipe again for Chocolate Candy Cane Cookies.

This is my newest Christmas tradition. Do you have one too?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

A Classy and Simple Hors d’Oeuvre

Wouldn’t you say that one of the highlights of a great party is delicious hors d’oeuvres? And think about it: which course do you remember most vividly of the more memorable meals you have eaten? Chances are it’s the first course. And there’s a good reason for this: we have hors d’oeuvres and appetizers when we are the hungriest and anticipating a good meal the most. Our mouths are watering for something to surprise and delight our taste buds. Usually, we don’t feel full after a few hors d’oeuvres or an appetizer, so we are left wanting more, and having the highest perception of what we just ate. Appetizers and hors d’oeuvres were a major topic in my Garde Manger class (remember that?) this quarter, so they also played a major role in our final practical exam, where we had to create twelve identical appetizers, one appetizer large enough for two people to share, and one composed salad. I’m happy with what I did for all three components of the assessment, but I think my most creative choice was what I did for my hors d’oeuvre, so I’m going to share that recipe with you. With the holiday season coming, these are a great option of something to bring to a party!

First, I can’t help but show off the rest of my exam. My composed salad was a Crab and Avocado Timbale with Crème Fraîche and Red and Yellow Pepper Coulis:

I was very happy with my timbale, but my coulis did not come out the way I wanted at all. I will definitely be doing a post on making a coulis so that I can work on that skill!

For my appetizer, I made Chicken Satay and a Petit Salad with Sesame Vinaigrette:

Everything came out quite well, though I should have used a smaller bowl for my satay sauce. I could have made the plating a little nicer as well. Plating is not my strong point.

As for my hors d’oeuvres, I made Mini Potato Latkes with Smoked Salmon and Crème Fraîche. The idea is not completely original—it has definitely been done before, but I like the use of the latke as a base rather than the expected bread or cracker.

These are very simple to produce. The quantities I give will give you around 30 hors d’oeuvres, so go ahead and adjust as needed. Whisk together two eggs, ½ cup flour, a teaspoon of Kosher salt, and ½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper. Then, stir in the white parts of two chopped scallions, and two medium russet potatoes, peeled and grated. This is your latke batter.

To fry the latkes, pour about two tablespoons of canola or vegetable oil in a medium skillet and heat over medium heat. Remember, you’re making mini-latkes, so take just a teaspoon of batter for each latke: Place the batter into the hot oil and flatten it slightly with the back of a spoon. Repeat about four times without over-crowding the pan and continue to cook in batches. Let these sizzle away for about two minutes per side. They should be golden brown when you flip them over.
When you take them out of the pan, let them drain on paper towels and sprinkle them with a tiny bit of Kosher salt. Keep them warm in a 200 F oven until all the latkes are made.
To assemble the hors d’oeuvres, start with your lovely golden latkes:
Drop about a half teaspoon of crème fraîche on each latke, and spread it slightly with the back of a spoon.
Next, place a thin slice of smoked salmon, about 2 inches or 5 centimeters long on top of the crème fraîche. Roll or fold it gently so it fits.

Finally, top with a chive spear.
That’s about all there is to it! Now, you have a classy and simple hors d’oeuvre that almost anyone will love, anyone who likes salmon. Well, anyone who likes salmon and crème fraîche. OK, anyone who likes salmon, crème fraîche, and potatoes latkes. Hopefully, that's a lot of people.Now, don’t go away just yet. If you’re interested, these are a couple of notes that my instructor gave me to improve these:

• To make the latkes look cleaner and be a more uniform size, use a small, round cookie cutter or ring mold to shape the latkes in the pan. Personally, I like the rustic look of the grated potato sticking out around the size of the latkes, but using a mold will definitely give you a sleeker look.
• To help hold the chive garnish in place, and to add more color contrast, place a small dot of crème fraîche on top of the smoked salmon before topping the hors d’oeuvre with the chive.
Have fun with these!