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Posts Tagged ‘Holidays’

Reviving an Old Favorite

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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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With family coming over for the 4th, I wanted to do something fun for dessert, but with a young daughter toddling about the house, a meal to prepare, grill to clean, and chores to do, time was limited.  I wanted something that was themed for the day, and, of course, Red, White and Blue are one of the most obvious choices.  How to implement, though?  I thought about the Jell-O Flag dessert, but it’s just not my first choice.  I wanted to do something I haven’t done for awhile, but would be fun and good for a crowd.  And then it hit me – I haven’t made cupcakes in years.

Looking around the blogosphere, I’ve found a number of sites dedicated to the little handheld goodies.  That surprises me.  Maybe I am just in an area where we don’t see a lot of cupcakes – my friends and family usually don’t bake/serve them, and those who do, usually buy them from the store.  Now, I have had some very nice cupcakes from the local mega-bakeries, but notice, I said SOME.  Most of the buy-in-the-plastic-box cupcakes are, in my humble opinion, not worth the time it takes to eat them.  Why?  Let’s start with the base – depending on who makes it, they are usually light and airy, almost like Angel Food cake, but rather tasteless – or they have a strong ‘chemical’ aftertaste.  Moving up, we arrive at the crowning feature – the frosting.  I’ve seen quite a few beautiful cupcakes come from the local bakeries.  Airbrushing bright fluorescent colors, imaginative decorations, rainbow sprinkles – they do a nice job of making some very pretty display pieces.  Then you bite into them.  Is it just me, or is the typical frosting/icing you get on the store bought bakery goods like cupcakes, kind of inedible?

When it comes to sweets, I’m not much of a snob.  If it has sugar, there’s a good chance I’m going to like it.  But not this stuff – they use it on their cakes, too.  And, while it may make a good base for those nice decorations, it’s just not enjoyable to eat.  This goo is either too sweet or not sweet enough.   It’s fluffy in a weird, unnatural way.  And some of it is almost too light and airy, it feels as if it could collapse under the weight of those knick knacks on top.  No.  For me, I want some frosting a bit more substantial.  Something that may not perhaps look as pretty, but just screams ‘flavor’ and leaves you wanting that coveted 2nd cupcake.  My guess is there must be a trade off between mass production, impulse buys and shelf life, because I can’t believe people buy these things only to say, wow!, I wish I could have more!  No, I want people to bite into my goodies and say, Wow! Can I have more!

That’s why I like to use my old standby – Cream Cheese Frosting.  It’s so easy to make, and it always gets great responses.  I like the recipe found in The Cake Mix Doctor.  I also like her recipes for cakes.  I’ve made a number of them and always get requests to make them again.  Now I know that some of you may balk at the idea of using a boxed cake mix in a recipe, but for those of us who are ‘cake challenged’, this is not a bad way to go.  The simple modifications she uses make for a very tasty end product.  I’m going to continue to work on my scratch baking, but from time to time, this will be my fall back position.

So, cake and frosting recipe in hand, I just needed a theme.  This is where I need the most help.  I’m artistically challenged.  Baking and cooking I can do, rather well at times.  When it comes to decorations, display or artistry of any kind, I’m out of my league.  So, I look for inspiration and go with whatever comes to mind.  I happened to come across several recent blog entries for Red Velvet Cupcakes (see this one on Joy the Baker).  I thought about that, but I wanted to do something they hadn’t seen before.  So, I contemplated turning things around a bit.  I’ve never seen a blue cake before, I’m sure someone has done them, I’ve just never seen it.  How hard could it be?  Next, in continuing with my Red, White and Blue theme, I decided to make the frosting red to top my little blue beauties.   White sprinkle would complete the trio of color.  But wait, I wanted something even more.  And then it hit me – I had just read about home made Twinkies on Joy the Baker’s blog.  She had the recipe for Twinkie Cream posted on her site.  I got the idea to hide some extra ‘white’ inside the cupcakes and give them something they have only seen in a Hostess Cupcake. 

I selected a Basic Sour Cream White Cake recipe from the Cake Mix Doctor and set to work.  When it came time to make the cakes blue, I assumed I would just dump in a little squeeze bottle of blue food coloring and that would be it.  However, the ‘white’ cake recipe didn’t turn out truly white.  According to the recipe, you add 4 whole eggs, which turned the whole thing yellow.  I was afraid I would have a green cake, so I added some of Wilton’s Icing Whitener, which helped to tone down the yellow considerably.  I added some blue and mixed.  Okay, not bad, but very light.  I wanted dark blue, so I dumped the whole bottle in.  Guess what, not enough.  So, I added more.  A second full squeeze bottle.  Still not enough.  Why won’t these things turn a darker blue?  Long story short, 2 ½ little squeeze bottles later and I had blue cake mix, but it never got as blue as I wanted.  Oh well, I decided to stop before I did something to really ruin this recipe – all that extra mixing was bound to backfire eventually.   While those were baking, I mixed up a nice batch of red Cream Cheese Frosting.  Finally, I whipped up some of that Twinkie Cream.  Alas, like the cake, it wasn’t white like I had hoped, so Wilton’s Icing Whitener to the rescue again- it did a beautiful job and I got the true white filling I was hoping for.  A quick little bit of assembly and voila, I had some neat treats for the 4th.  Where they the most beautiful cupcakes, no, but they were worth looking at.  And the reviews?  Everybody loved them – seconds all around.

For a copy of the recipe, click here.

The Finished Product

The Finished Product

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