Posts Tagged ‘Baking’

Reviving an Old Favorite


Repeat after me – ‘Cookies are supposed to be soft’.  Again.  ‘Cookies are supposed to be soft’.  Now, continue to repeat that mantra until you have come over to the soft side of the camp.  It’s actually really nice over here; It’s quiet (no noisy crunching) and it’s relatively clean (no nasty crumbs flying around from shattering cookies).  Yes, I’m pretty happy to be a part of the soft cookie crowd.  However, before I completely and totally isolate the crunchy cookie lovers out there (and there are plenty of you) I do have to say that there are two cookies that are traditionally fairly crunchy (sometimes soft) that I do enjoy: Shortbread and Spritz.

I don’t know what it is exactly that can cause a soft cookie fan to temporarily suspend their passion for all things un-crunchy, but Shortbread and Spritz are just so buttery and smooth, they almost melt in your mouth – at least when done right.  Just in case you’re not familiar with Spritz, they are a small butter cookie, typically formed with a cookie press in a variety of shapes and colors and occasionally adorned with a light sprinkle of decorator’s sugar.  A well made cookie should be light, slightly crisp, smooth and buttery.  If you’ve seen those big tins of Danish cookies that pop up on store shelves every Christmas packed full of cookies in a variety of shapes, you’re essentially looking at Spritz cookies.  I must caution you though, homemade Spritz will blow away the dry, overly crunch tin can cookies any day of the week.

While some may debate the origin of these cookies, they are definitely a Scandinavian tradition.  Growing up with a grandmother who was born in Sweden, we had Spritz cookies every year at Christmas.  As a kid, I was more a fan of iced sugar cookies (soft, of course), but always managed to down a few Spritz along the way (she also made peppermint candy cane shaped cookies that were fantastic).  As I got older, I don’t know what changed, be it nostalgia for things past, or a more refined sense of taste and texture, but I got an urgent craving for those cookies.  Since my grandmother passed away when I was 15 and no one had chosen to continue the tradition, and the little cookies kind of faded from memory.  After my grandfather passed away about 10 years ago, though, I inherited my grandmother’s old cookie press.  I didn’t have her recipe for Spritz, but a little investigating on the web turned up a vast variety of Spritz recipes.  It was time to revive the old tradition.

I first tried them last Christmas and was quite pleased with the results.  The dough is easy to make and easy to work with.  The press, on the other hand, requires a bit of skill if you are to pull off perfectly shaped Spritz.  Basically, you want to start with the press perpendicular to the baking sheet, actually touching the sheet.  You squeeze the trigger, wait a second or two, and when just the right amount of dough has come out, you lift the press straight off the sheet.  It sounds easy, but it takes a little practice to make them look really nice.  In our family, my grandmother, rather than using the different shaped cookie discs, typically used just a star disc and piped cookies in the shapes of ‘S’ and ‘O’ – we often called them “SOS” cookies for this reason.  I’m not certain why she used these shapes, she just did. My mother says she used those shapes because her mother made them in those shapes.  I thought maybe the ‘S’ was for ‘Sweden’, but I can’t confirm that.

There are a few simple hints I’ll give you if you decide to bake these cookies:

  • You can buy cookie presses just about anywhere.  If you don’t have one, and don’t wish to buy one, you can use a pastry bag and a tip of your choice, but with the chilled dough, it can be difficult to pipe.
  • Which brings me to chilling the dough.  After you’ve mixed your dough, it’s a good idea to chill it for 15 – 20 minutes before you bake your cookies.  They will hold their shape better.
  • Since your dough is cold, your pans should be too.  Don’t try to form your cookies on a warm cookie sheet, they won’t stick to the sheet when you form them and will just sit on the end of the press.  I prefer to work with several pans, baking one at a time, allowing the pans to cool sufficiently between batches.
  • If you choose to use different shapes and sizes, stick with similar sizes on the same pan so they all bake at the same rate.
  • Don’t over bake these cookies.  If you wait until you see the brown edges forming, they will turn out really crisp.  If you like them that way, fine, otherwise, pulling them out just before they really start to brown will leave you with a cookie that’s just crisp on the outside and tender on the inside.  This takes some time and practice to get it right. They go from just right to over done to burned in a very short period of time.  Keep an eye on them.
  • Be creative.  You can add other flavors – lemon, lime, orange, peppermint, rum, anise? – It’s all up to you.  The traditional version usually only includes vanilla and sometimes almond extract.  I’ve also seen them dipped in melted chocolate!

To see some great colored Spritz cookies, check out this recent post on Cooking at the Pacific Outpost.  By the way, her version is Vegan, for those of you who may be searching for that option.

Click here for my favorite Spritz recipe, which is a compilation of recipes from a number of sources.   There is a cream cheese version out there I’d like to try, but haven’t done it yet.  Click on any of the photos below to see a larger version.

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A Nice Holiday Treat


A few weeks ago, I was asked to bake several desserts for a Holiday Bake Sale Fundraiser.  I’m really a sucker for this kind of stuff.  For one, it gives me a reason to bake.  Second, I don’t have to eat all or most of what I bake (which is always a good thing).  I love to bake for other people, and when it goes to a good cause, it’s even better.

I started with a batch of my Candy Cane Peppermint Brownies.  They are always a hit and are always the first to sell out.  They are a dessert I’ve been making at Christmas time for about 25 years and they’ve got a cult following of fans.  For me, I just can’t really eat them anymore.  They’re too sweet and just too over the top for me.  Next I made a batch of Pumpkin Pie Snickerdoodle Bars by Julia at Dozen Flours that I posted about recently.  Those did well at the sale too.  The sale also had a Christmas Café running where shoppers could stop in for a bit to eat during their shopping – for the Café, I was asked to provide a dessert that would be easy to sell by the slice. 

I didn’t really have a Christmas cake recipe in my arsenal since Christmas for us usually revolves around cookies and candy.  Cake just usually disappears until after the holidays pass and I prepare a Almond Poppy Seed Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting for my wife’s birthday at the end of December.  So, I did some surfing on the net and tapped into my fellow food blogger’s stash of recipes to find something that would work.  After checking a bunch of my favorite sites, I finally settled on an Apple Cranberry Holiday Cake I found on Joy the Baker’s blog (She also calls it the All-Purpose Holiday Cake).  This was something a little different from the usual fair found at this sale, so I decided to give it a try.

This is a relatively simple cake to throw together.  I think the majority of the work comes from dicing the apples and cutting the cranberries (If you’ve never cut cranberries before, it’s an interesting task to cut up a bunch of little round berries – try it sometime).  Since I don’t bake many cakes in my Bundt or tube pans, I’m always excited to try something new that will hopefully release from the pan in one piece.

The cake smelled great when baking, kind of like spiced cider being steeped on the stove.  The cake itself is wonderfully dense and moist, not too sweet.  I decided to top it with a cream cheese glaze for a little extra sugar kick and I’m glad I did, because it was just a perfect accompaniment to the cake itself. 

So, how did it do?  It sold out.  The most important thing about baking for a fundraiser is that the items you bake actually sell.  I’m happy to say that all of my items sold out by the end of the sale, making for a successful year and for a happy Oregon baker.

Now, before you ask, I’m currently not planning to post about my brownies because I’m so embarrassed about how easy they are to make, you almost can’t call it baking.  Besides, you simply don’t need that kind of temptation in your life, trust me.

Thanks again to Joy for posting this recipe.

If you would like to see a copy of the recipe, visit the original post on Joy’s site, or click here for a copy on my site.  Click on any of the photos below to see a larger version.

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Cold Days, Warm Scones


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We’re in a bit of a cold snap here.  We don’t get a lot of snow and below freezing temperatures, but we’re in for more than a week of it.  It started yesterday morning, when we got a nice dusting of 5 inches of snow.  Since we don’t see it very often, it’s fun to see the beautiful blanket of white all around us.  So, what types of things go well with snow?  Staying inside, getting a fire going, brewing up some hot coffee or tea, and whipping something warm from the oven.  Yes, this kind of weather gets me in the mood to bake.  In fact, this is perfect scone weather.

Scone. The word has been around since about 1513, when it appears to have been first used by a Scottish poet.  Depending on where you’re from, you may pronounce them ‘Skoons’, ‘Skons’, or ‘Skones’, (or if you’re Gollum, from Lord of the Rings, you may call them ‘Sconeses, my precious!’)  You may also debate whether it was the Scots or the British who developed them.  Rest assured, depending on who you talk to, the subject of these simple little delights can invoke a tremendously powerful emotional response.  ‘Scones should only be served with Devonshire cream at High Tea’. ‘Scones shouldn’t be too sweet’.  ‘Scones shouldn’t be too bland’.  ‘Scones need to be made with Currants’. ‘Those things they sell at Starbuck’s aren’t really scones’.  ‘Those scones they sell at Starbucks are my favorite!’  Regardless of your personal feelings, on the issue, one thing is certain, this seemingly simple recipe is one that you must have in your baked goods arsenal.

I have a friend who is a bit of a scone connoisseur.  When I have a question about scones, she’s my go-to person.  She knows what she likes and makes no apologies for her opinions on the matter.  We’ve discussed the finer points of scones, from the ingredients, to the techniques, pros and cons of the various shapes, and the add-ins or toppings.  I know if I can make a scone that meets her standards, I’ve done a fair job of it. 

It’s interesting to me that for a recipe that is the rough equivalent of a drop biscuit, you can certainly exercise your creative muscle when tackling these babies.

Scones can be found in a variety of shapes and sizes.  Some have the appearance of a drop biscuit, while others take the shape of triangles or squares.  Some folks like their scones sweet, while others prefer them fairly bland, requiring clotted cream or jam to be added later for the real flavor.  In the US, we seem to prefer our scones in a variety of flavors, occasionally with a light, sweet glaze, almost like a pastry.  Some may prefer them a bit on the dry side, while others may tend toward a moister version.  I’ve sampled light and flaky scones and scones that were heavy and dense.  I personally like them all.  So far, I’ve never really had a scone that I would call ‘bad’.  But, truth be told, I do like those slightly sweeter scones, especially with a light glaze on top.  I also like a scone that is light, but moist and a bit flaky. 

I made my first scones last year.  I chose a basic recipe and combined it with ground hazelnuts to make a nice, nutty scone that I served with a homemade blackberry curd (I’m including a link to the recipe for this version at the end of this post).  I did some study on the techniques and was pleasantly pleased with my first ever attempt at scones.  Not long ago, I had a craving to try them again, this time with a different recipe, and two different flavors.  I was not disappointed.

And so, I share with you today my most recent foray into Scottish/British quick bread: Cinnamon Scones and Blueberry Scones.  I chose cinnamon because I simply love the cinnamon scones at Starbuck’s – I also have to say, quite honestly, that mine are better.  As for the second flavor, blueberry, it is simply one of my most favorite fruits for baking.  I did the cinnamon scones in triangle shapes and the blueberry as a more free-form drop scone.

While both scones were awesome, I definitely loved the blueberry over the cinnamon.  I don’t know what it was, they were both tender and flaky, both sweet, but not too sweet, and both had just the lightest crust containing the soft insides.  The blueberry just really got my attention.  I could have kept eating them until they were gone.  Thank goodness I do have some will power, but these suckers really put it to the test

If you’ve never tried making scones before, why not give it a shot and impress your friends and family?  If I’ve convinced you to take a shot and give these a try, let me share a few techniques I find to be very helpful for scone making:

  • Use only chilled, preferably frozen butter when preparing the scone dough.  I will take a stick of butter, cut it into small chunks, place them in a ziplock bag and keep the bag in the freezer.  I don’t take the butter out until I am ready to add it to the flour.
  • While there are several methods for cutting butter into flour for baked goods like scones and pie crusts, my preferred method, hands down, is to use a food processor.  This method is fast and consistent, easily providing the ‘pea sized’ pieces of butter you are typically looking for when incorporating the fat into the flour.   As a bonus, this method is relatively clean, keeping your countertops just a bit more tidy.
  • If you do choose to cut the butter in by hand with a pastry blade, knives or even by pressing it into the flour with your fingers, keep your hands as cold as possible.  My grandmother would keep a bowl of ice-water nearby and use it occasionally cool her hands in order to keep from prematurely melting the butter.
  • When adding liquids, such as water or milk, use only very cold liquids.  Again, the idea is to keep the fats (butter) solid until it gets into the oven.
  • Before baking your scones, cool them in the freezer for 10 – 15 minutes after you have shaped them, then put them right into the oven.  Keeping the butter cold as long as possible will help give you the best possible texture.  If I have space in my freezer, I’ll put the scones onto the baking sheets and place the sheets directly into the freezer – then it’s very easy to transfer the sheets to the oven when I’m ready to bake.
  • Since we’re talking about the freezer, formed scones can be wrapped and frozen, unbaked, and saved for a later date.  When you want a couple of scones, just toss them into a preheated oven and bake like normal.  This is a great option if you want to make a larger batch, but only bake a few at a time.
  • Don’t handle the dough any more than necessary. When mixing ingredients, only mix long enough to get the ingredients incorporated.  Over-mixing can lead to tough scones.

There you have it.  Follow those methods, use fresh ingredients, add a little patience, and I guarantee you’ll be able to turn out scones like a pro.  Finally, I’m sharing with you two different scone recipes I particularly like.  There are literally hundreds, if not thousands floating around out there.  Feel free to go out and experiment, or tweak mine to your personal tastes.  Believe me, once you try making your own, you’ll never want to buy another scone again.  And, by the way, you don’t have to wait for the snow to whip up a batch of warm scones for yourself.

For a copy of the Cinnamon Scone and Blueberry Scone recipe, click here.  For a copy of my Hazelnut Scone and Blackberry Curd Recipe, click here.  Click on any of the photos below to see a larger version.

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As you read this, you will undoubtedly note it was posted several days late.  I actually completed the cake a few weeks ago, but the preparations for and cleanup after the holiday kept me from the computer for the better part of 5 days straight.  So, I hope you’ll grant me a little leeway this month (and probably next month too!)  I am one of those people who hates to be late to anything, so in order to address this issue, I can assure you I have properly punished myself with a steel whisk.

I have to say that there weren’t many challenges that could have been presented this month that would make me set aside the time from holiday (Thanksgiving) preparations in order to make them.  Which is why when I found out what this month’s challenge was, I was torn – do I spend time getting the house in order after our remodel, or do I bake?  Of course, baking won out, how couldn’t it?  Caramel Cake with Caramel Icing and Vanilla Bean Caramels?  Are you serious? The only thing that may have gotten my attention more than this would have been some sort of triple chocolate cake with triple chocolate icing and triple chocolate pots de crème shooters on the side.

So, I set about to make this cake for a November family birthday party.  Not having spent much time making caramel, I was a bit concerned about my ability to gently coax a lovely golden amber caramel out of my pot of sugar water.  Past experiments with this mixture have not always gone very well, but as a Daring Baker, I was determined to complete this challenge.

It wasn’t as time consuming as some previous challenges have been, but it did present a few persnickety steps, particularly, the caramelization process, that did involve some time and intense focus on the stove top.  Everything went well, though, and other than ending up with a pan that needed a little extra scrubbing, all of my caramel turned out just fine.  I wanted a slightly larger cake, so I doubled the cake recipe and used (2) 9″ round cake pans – the final size was just right for the birthday cake.  I did run into one issue in that I could not find any Golden Syrup available locally (I’ve seen it before, I just couldn’t find it when I needed it) so I ended up making a golden syrup copycat recipe I found online.

I shared this cake with about 10 other people and had mixed reviews.  The frosting was the issue.  I found it almost too sweet (if there is such a thing) and for my taste, the browned butter was out of place (as it was for several other tasters too).  I’ll stick with browned butter and mizithra cheese served over hot pasta. The caramels, however were a big hit and disappeared quickly.  Will I make this again?  The cake, absolutely yes, the frosting, perhaps a second go without the browned butter would be more to my liking as well as a thinner layer – this stuff is wicked potent!  The cake itself is one of the best I’ve ever tasted, and perhaps, if I’d toned it down a bit on the frosting, it would have been perfect.  As you can see by my choice of caramels for the opening photo, that I was impressed by them.  I only wished I’d topped them with some flake salt. The caramels are a definite make again recipe.

A big thanks again to Dolores at Culinary Curiosity, Alex of the Blondie and Brownie, and Jenny of Foray into Food for the great challenge and for hosting this month.  Natalie at Gluten A-Go-Go provided information for the Alternative Daring Bakers. This month’s Caramel Cake with Caramelized Butter Frosting is courtesy of Shuna Fish Lydon (Eggbeater), as published on Bay Area Bites.  The Golden Vanilla Bean Caramels are from Pure Dessert by Alice Medrich, Artisan Press, Copyright 2007, ISBN: 978-1579652111

You can find a copy of the recipe here.  Click on any of the photos below to see a larger version.

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Something a Little Different


I mentioned a possibility of writing about pumpkin in my last post, and seeing as we are about to hit Thanksgiving, I thought it was time that I oblige the Foodie overlords and conjure up my obligatory pumpkin post.  To that end though, I wanted to try and do something a little different from the pumpkin pies, pumpkin cookies and pumpkin rolls.  Don’t get me wrong, I love all of them all, actually, pretty much anything made with pumpkin.  But since I don’t post often here, I wanted something that might catch your attention, especially if you are looking for something just a little different for this week’s festivities (for those of you visiting from outside the US, it’s just a great little recipe to try any time you’re in the mood for pumpkin).

Enter Pumpkin Pie Snickerdoodle Bars.  This recipe is a creation of Julia over at Dozen Flours and is based on another recipe creation of hers: Snickerdoodle Blondies.  My wife and I love Snickerdoodles, so any recipe with Snickerdoodle in the name is going to get my attention (I have yet to try the Snickerdoodle Blondies, but they are on the short list of items to bake). I had the task of baking up several items for a bake sale 2 weeks ago and selected this recipe as one of those items.

If you’re pressed for time, this is one of those recipes that doesn’t take a lot of time to put together.  As far as pumpkin desserts go, this is pretty different from all the rest.  I’ve tried a lot of different pumpkin combinations, and this one stands out on its own.  The topping is a simple drizzle of melted white chocolate mixed with pumpkin pie spice.  The bars look great, and once they were all plated up for the sale, they all headed out the door.  We did have to sacrifice a few as samples, mostly because people didn’t know what they were.  Everyone who tried them gave them high marks for flavor and texture.

I really liked the fact that this was something different.  I did my usual Candy Cane Brownies and an Apple Cranberry Holiday Cake, but these were more out of the ordinary, which got them noticed.  So, if you want to do something a little different for the holidays this year, consider giving Julia’s recipe a go.  You, and your guests, will be pleased.

Click here for a copy of the recipe on my site.  Click on any of the photos below to see a larger version.

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Spice is Nice


If I haven’t already said it, I love Fall.  I love the weather, especially the cool days when the sun still shines and the leaves are just starting to fall.  I love the smell of fireplaces being started for the first time in months.  I love how much bluer the sky seems to me.  I love that it’s not 90 degrees anymore.  But most of all, I love the fall food.  Comfort food.  Soups, stews, casseroles, and, of course, sweets.

Fall is that time of year when we depart from the fresh and light of Summer and jump face first into heavy, spicy, creamy and hot.  It’s finally cool enough in the kitchen to actually spend some time in there without an air conditioner blowing full boar.  Yes, it’s finally time for spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and molasses.  It’s time for people to once again celebrate my favorite food fruit – apples.  And it’s finally time again to pop some cans of pumpkin.

I believe it’s required somewhere in the list of Foodie rules out there in the blogosphere that if you are a food blogger, then, come Autumn, you must post about pumpkin at least once.  Really.  I’m pretty sure the food police will come and find you and shove a real pumpkin up your nose if you don’t post at least one pumpkin recipe.

And so it is, for that reason, that I choose at this moment to blog about cookies – Big, Soft, Ginger Cookies.  What?  No pumpkin?  After all that talk about pumpkin?  Yeah, that’s right.  I did talk a lot about pumpkin, and, if you are desperate for something pumpkin, I may actually blog about something in the weeks to come.  Don’t forget, I wrote about spices too.  And spices are what I want to focus on right now.  I’ve seen a ton of blogs on pumpkin cookies, pumpkin bread, pumpkin rolls and pumpkin pie, you don’t need another one here.

Let’s keep this simple.  If you like soft, spicy cookies, make this recipe.  If you don’t like them, well, at least read my blog and leave a comment.  I’m sure if I could share one of these with you, I may be able to make you into a convert.  For now, you’ll just have to trust me.

I didn’t capture many photos this time, I can’t say why, maybe I was just being lazy.  Be that as it may, click on any photo below to see a larger image.  If you are tempted and would like to try this recipe, I’ve posted a copy here.

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