Monday, December 28, 2009


It's officially hockey season in western PA. Mostly due to the fact that the Steelers, short of a miracle, are not going to be in the playoffs due to their inability to, well, I guess "win" would be the right word here. And now those fair-weather (read: "all") football fans will jump on the Penguins bandwagon. I say welcome, friends! This should get you appropriately pumped up and ready for the greatest sport ever.  A la Elliot Reid, frick yes!

(I realize this isn't my usual posting material, but a) I'm home for Christmas, b) hockey is amazing and you'll thank me later, and c) I've most likely watched at least three rerun episodes of Scrubs today.)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas (a little early!)

Merry Christmas!  Feliz Navidad!  Froehliche Weihnachten!  Have a safe, warm and wonderful holiday, everyone!

I'll be spending tomorrow with my family... eating my weight in cinnamon rolls and snuggling by the fire :)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

How-to: Creaming

I love the holiday season, from about mid November until January, people everywhere become hosts and hostesses, bakers, cooks, and crafters when they might not think themselves capable the rest of the year.  When someone tells me of the delicious cookies they baked or cocktail party she hosted, I want to run up and give her a big hug and say something like, "See?  You can do it!  And isn't it fun?!  You should do this more often!"  (and probably frighten said person a little in the process, meh)

These seasonal bakers, or TC (Thanksgiving-Christmas) bakers as I like to call them, sometimes need a little refresher when it comes to baking lingo.  And some of you who are new to this may, too!  In most cookie and cake recipes, you'll see the instruction "cream butter and sugars together until light and fluffy."  But, what exactly is light or fluffy?  How long will it take?  Patience, young grasshoppers.

Creaming is the process of mixing fat, butter or solid shortening (i.e. Crisco), together with sugar.  The dry ingredients are mixed with the fat until it becomes light and fluffy and increased in volume, due to the incorporation of tiny air bubbles.  Not only does the mixture expand, but the color becomes a paler yellow (if using butter).  These air bubbles, locked into the fat, remain in the final batter and expand as the item is baked, serving as a form of leavening agent.

Overall, creaming is a very important step when making cookies, cakes, and buttercreams (Captain Obvious on that last one, right?), so certainly don't skip this one.  There aren't any steadfast time constraints on this one, but usually two sticks of butter with sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer set on medium-high takes about 3-4 minutes.  Use your judgment, and pay attention!  This is not the time to walk away from your stand mixer and do an exercise video... who would ever do such a stupid thing... :)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Glazed lemon pound cake

Currently listening to "Christmas is All Around" by "Billy Mack" from the Love Actually soundtrack.  No matter how unrealistic it is that Bill Nighy is playing an English pop star, you will not get me to stop loving this song, or the ridiculous video, which I hadn't seen until just now.  I actually thought I was getting the clip from the movie with all of the adorable get together moments of the couples, but instead I got an eyeful of scantily clad groupies. You probably didn't want to see that link.  Woops.

[insert an appropriate transition here because, for once, I'm lost for words] This recipe caught my eye when I was searching for something to take to this year's office holiday potluck party.  I was a little late on signing up with my choice of dish and cookies and chocolate cake were already taken.  And because the party is held in someone else's house, I wouldn't feel right asking to use her kitchen to finish preparing my offering.  So, something easily transported and, let's be honest, sweet.  And what a pleasant surprise to have a citrus flavor (normally in season during the summer months) to enjoy.  Enjoy a slice on its own or, another serving suggestion, with fresh berries of any kind and whipped cream.

Glazed Lemon Pound Cake
(adapted from Everyday Food)
-makes 2 loaves, but can be halved (adjust eggs to 3 if so, to make halving easier)

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened
3 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup buttermilk
Zest of 2 lemons, finely grated
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice (about 2 lemons)
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
2 cups granulated sugar
5 large eggs

Lemon glaze: 2 cups confectioner sugar, 4 T lemon juice

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, with rack in lowest position.  Using nonstick cooking spray, coat two 4 1/2-by-8-inch (6-cup) loaf pans.  Dust with a tablespoon of flour each, and tap around until evenly coated.  Dispose of extra.  (I used 1 8 1/2 x 4 1/2" pan and one 9 x 6" pan, and when baking, noted that the latter would be done first.  You can also make mini pound cakes by using a standard muffin pan.)  In a small bowl, combine the buttermilk with the lemon zest and juice, set aside.  In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, salt, baking powder and soda, set aside.

With an electric mixer, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 3-4 minutes.  With mixer on low, add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Again, with the mixer on low (unless you want a flour winter wonderland in your kitchen) add 1/3 of the flour mixture.  Add half of the buttermilk mixture, another third of the flour, rest of the buttermilk, and final third of the flour.  Scrape down sides of bowl with rubber spatula between each step or as needed.  Beat until just smooth (do not overmix!).

Divide batter evenly between pans, if of the same size.  If you're using pans of different sizes, fill about 3/4 full.  Bake until a toothpick or cake tester inserted in the centers comes out clean, 50-60 minutes (40 minutes for the 9 x 6 pan, and probably around 20-25 for muffin pans).  Cool 15 minutes in pan on a cooling rack.  Run a knife around the edges of the pans, and carefully tap cake out onto rack and cool top side up completely (about an hour, maybe more depending on the temperature in your kitchen).

Set rack with cakes over wax paper or foil so that any glaze drippings can be easily disposed of.  Whisk together confectioner sugar and 4 tablespoons of lemon juice in a small bowl until smooth.  Pour or drizzle glaze over cakes, letting it run down the sides.  Let dry about 30 minutes.  Don't worry, it will harden, which lends perfectly to easy transportation.  Stored in closed container or bag for up to a week. 

...or take it to your office holiday party for those people who aren't crazy about peppermint or chocolate desserts and want a refreshingly light and sweet treat :)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The answers to all of your problems!

...or at least baking questions you've asked me.  One of the reasons I started this little project was to take away the mystery and intimidation of baking and some cooking -- it's really not that hard, it just takes some patience and careful attention.  Anyone can do it!

Disclaimer: I am no professionally-trained chef and will never claim to be.  I've gone to the school of "practice makes perfect" with lots of extracurricular Food Network and reading.  I've screwed up recipes, and you will, too.  Just ask my parents about the stuffed red onions.  Not pretty and bland-tasting at best.  You must to be willing to make mistakes, figure out why what happened actually happened, and give it another go.  Recipes you see here are often made at least three times and frequently, over 20 times.  Everyone cooks/bakes differently, and their kitchens, ovens, ingredients, and interpretations of recipes are different, too.  I just try to give the most detailed instructions and give tips that usually aren't included in most recipes.  (My cookbooks look like textbooks with dates and tons of notes in the margins... oh and tons of butter, sugar, and chocolate marks.)

1. "Do I need an electric mixer?  Can I do things by hand instead?"
Teeeeeeeeechnically, yes, you can do without an electric mixer.  Many folks before us did it, but be prepared to put in a lot of extra work, as most recipes assume you have even the most basic mixer.  So, let me answer that again.  Yes, you need an electric mixer if you want to make your life a heck of a lot easier.  I know I harp about my stand mixer all the time (hello, I celebrated my one year anniversary with the thing by using it to make cookise), but they are expensive and unless you will use it often, it's probably not worth the money for you.  Instead, you can find very capable and inexpensive models in stores like Target, Wal-mart and Macy's.  I just coached a friend through buying her first one at a Target, and she found there are models for as little as $15.  Rival, Oster, Hamilton Beach, Proctor Silex, Cuisinart, Kitchenaid -- these are all great models.  Just make sure they come with two metal beaters and you'll be good to go.

2. "I swear you use parchment paper in almost every recipe.  Is it totally necessary?"
No, it's not necessary.  But, for more delicate cookies, as seen in the sugar cookie post, parchment paper will enable you to just remove the whole sheet of paper and transfer to a cooling rack until the cookies become firmer and easier to handle.  I know, I know, I didn't use paper for my chocolate gingersnaps...  that's because I actually ran out (ha!).  But, gingersnaps are much firmer cookies and can be easily removed with a metal spatula without fear of breaking.  If I had to pick one product that I wouldn't make without the use of parchment paper, it'd have to be layer cakes.  Nothing bums me out more than unmolding a gorgeous yellow cake only to have half of the bottom stick to the pan.  Important note: Wax paper is NOT an appropriate substitute for parchment paper.  Wax paper will melt in the oven and I'm sure cause many more problems... I'm not about to find out the hard way.  Parchment paper is available in the baking section of most grocery stores, not in the wax paper/tin foil/plastic wrap section like you might think.  Also, a great more permanent solution would be the Sil-pat.

3. "How do I chop an onion quickly and easily like I see the chefs on TV do?"
I'll say that the art of cutting something, be it an onion, bell pepper, or even tomato, is learned through much practice and observation.  Ina Garten showed me how to cut a bell pepper, some chick on PBS showed me the best way to cut a tomato, and Giada DeLaurentiis was the person I first noticed chopping an onion with such ease.  Since I can't find a video of her online, I'll see what I can find instead.  First tip -- a sharp knife so you are actually cutting the onion, not crushing it.  Alright, here is a quick clip.  I should note that this is how to dice an onion.  For strings or rings, a different technique applies.  Hope this helps!

4. "How do I make a softer, puffier, doughier cookie?  Just decrease the baking time?"
For a quick fix, yes, bake it for a shorter amount of time.  But eventually, the cookie will cool and dry out a bit.  I tell people this all the time and, I'm pretty sure they think I'm just being dramatic, but I have two recipes for chocolate chip cookies and two for sugar cookies: one makes a thin, crisp cookie, and the other is for a chewy and soft version.  There is a difference in ingredients, with two primary examples.  First, a recipe for a thinner cookie will most likely include egg whites and not just whole eggs.  The reason behind this is that the egg white actually dries out the cookie and puffs up much less than the yolk.  Second, a crisper cookie will have more granulated sugar than brown sugar, since brown sugar (sugar + molasses) will create a chewier cookie.  In fact, Alton Brown of Good Eats fame has a great episode about these differences, check it out if you're lucky!  I'll do some posts on this in the future, so just wait!

That's all for now.  Thanks so much for the questions -- keep them coming.  Happy cooking!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Cinnamon bread

What a glorious weekend, aside from the ice-rain attack that Mother Nature waged on western PA yesterday.  Luckily, I didn't have anywhere to be so the day was spent napping, baking and cooking, eating, and watching Christmas movies.  Breads, cakes, cookies, soups... heck yes.  I have lots of recipes for the next week or two!  Oh, and I think the highlight was getting calls from two friends that used recipes found here to have their very own (successful!) culinary adventures.  I'm so happy that I've convinced two self-professed kitchen phobics that they can cook :)

This recipe comes from my good friend Becca, who got it from her mom and, from there, it's a mystery.  So, to make things easy, I'm going to call this recipe "Becca's Mom's Cinnamon Bread".  Alternate titles also include "Hey-I'll-do-an-exercise-video-while-making-this Bread" and, my personal favorite, "Screw-aerobics!-Just turn-on-Food-Network-and-do-jumping-jacks-while-making-this Bread".  (Note:  This was not meant to offend any aerobic fanatics.  I, personally, have no coordination and couldn't even make it through the warm-up -- no joke.  Honestly, this lady must have 20 years of dance training.  And I'm pretty sure her ponytail is giving her a face-lift as she does this video.  Ridiculous.)  And this is an easy bread.  No special flours required, and you can do it easily without a mixer.

The first time I made this I used it for French toast the next day.  Holy amazing, I highly recommend this!  The slices of bread will be smaller than traditional bread, but the richness makes up for the size.  Also a nice loaf of this wrapped up makes a great gift.  Happy eating!

Becca's Mom's Cinnamon Bread
-makes one 8 1/2" x 4 1/2" loaf (you can also use a 9x5 pan)

1 1/4 cup warm water (105-115 degrees F)
1 package active dry yeast
2 Tbsp soft shortening (I used Crisco)
2 tsp salt
2 Tbsp granulated sugar
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 cup brown sugar

Pour water in large bowl of an electric mixer.  Add yeast and stir gently with a spatula/spoon until dissolved.  Add shortening, salt, granulated sugar, and half (1 1/2 cups) of the flour to the water/yeast mixture.  Beat 2 minutes on medium speed with bread hook, or 300 strokes by hand.  Scrape bowl frequently.  Add remaining flour (1 1/2 cups) and stir by hand until just blended.

Cover bowl with kitchen towel, and let rise in a warm place (I sat the bowl on top of my stove) until doubled, about 30 minutes.  Mix brown sugar and cinnamon in a small bowl, and set aside for later use.  Grease 8 1/2" x 4 1/2" loaf pan (metal or glass will work) liberally and set aside.

When dough has doubled, stir down batter by beating about 25 strokes.  You'll hear little "puffs" of air leaving the batter.  This is a good sign!  Stir in brown sugar cinnamon mixture, incorporating but be careful not to overmix.  This will give you swirls of cinnamon in the finished bread.  Spread batter (it will be sticky and a bit stiff, do not panic) into greased pan.  Let rise in a warm place again, until batter reaches 1/4" from top of the pan, about 40 minutes.  Heat oven to 375F.

Bake bread 45-50 minutes or until cake tester inserted in middle comes out relatively clean (there will probably be some cinnamon/sugar on it).  Cool pan on rack for 20 minutes.  Run a clean knife around the edge of the pan, loosening up the loaf, and turn out onto rack to cool completely out of pan.  Optional: Using pastry brush, brush top of loaf lightly with melted butter.  Will keep up to a week in plastic wrap or closed container.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Chocolate gingersnap cookies

(I swear, the title makes sense by the end of this post.  Initially, I wanted to make a play on a movie and tried to Google one with ginger in the title, only to find a 2000 movie called Ginger Snaps in which "werewolfism is a metaphor for puberty."  Obvious yes, but that description is just too awful for words.  My condolences if any of you have actually seen that movie.)

Move over, traditional gingersnap cookie.  These cookies are a wonderful twist on the holiday favorite and yet, subtle enough that they won't scare off fans of the traditional cookie.  Cocoa powder is substituted for some of the flour and mini chocolate chips are added for a sweet surprise.  AND... AND... (are you sufficiently excited for this one?)... no chilling of the dough!  Mix, roll in sugar, smoosh (that's a technical term) on cookie sheet, and bake.  Because this is a crisper cookie, they store and/or freeze in a sealed container beautifully.  Keep them on hand for surprise visitors this winter.  Oh, and I give these an A+ for dunk-in-milk-ability.  Trust me :)

The only problem I had with this recipe was finishing and realizing I was almost out of milk.  Not even enough for one last glass, but just enough for a small bowl of cereal.  Crappedy crap crap.  You wouldn't believe how many times I run out of really basic staple items, like milk or bread, and yet I can guarantee I'll have ginger root, molasses, and three different kinds baking chocolate in massive quantities.  There is something seriously wrong with me.  Meh, it's Friday and the Pens won last night.  I don't really care today :)  Have a great weekend, everyone!

Chocolate Gingersnap Cookies
(adapted from Baking Bites)
-makes about 4 dozen 2" round cookies

2 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
1/4 cup molasses
2 tsp balsamic vinegar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/3 cup semisweet chocolate chips, roughly chopped (or mini chips)
1/4 cup finely grated ginger (peel the root, then grate)
1/3 cup granulated sugar (or colored, if you want) for rolling

Preheat oven to 375F.  Have two cookie sheets ready.  In a medium bowl, sift (or whisk, if you don't have a sifter) together flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, salt and all spices.  (Oh my goodness, don't those spices smell amazing?  Keep going, the cookies are even better!)

In a large bowl of an electric mixer, cream together butter and sugar until light and fluffy (about 2-3 minutes).  Beat in egg, followed by molasses, balsamic vinegar, vanilla, and finally grated ginger.  Either by hand or with the mixer on low speed, gradually stir in all of the flour mixture, mixing only until no streaks of flour remain.  (Don't worry, the dough will be stiff.)  Stir in chopped chocolate.

Form dough into 1 inch balls, roll in sugar and place on baking sheet.  Dip the bottom of a glass, prefererably one with a flat bottom, in sugar.  Press cookies gently with bottom of glass to flatten slightly.

Bake for 10-12 minutes, until browned around the edges.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Fruit, nut & oat breakfast bars

My love of homemade snacks is no secret.  So, when I saw a recipe for breakfast granola bars in Nigella Express, I knew I had to try it.  They are easy to make (I know I say many things are easy, but this is one bowl, one spatula, and one measuring cup easy) but remember that they need an hour to bake and another hour or so to cool and set.  I made a batch on Sunday to have for the whole week.  You know, just in case I have one of those days when I don't want to get out of my warm bed and the thought of walking to work in 20 degree air makes me want to cry, so I stay in bed much longer than I should. Then panic hits when I do the math of how long each part of my morning routine takes and realize that the time I have left isn't enough... yeah.    These bars are perfect for those exact panic moments.  Also suitable for the common 2:30 "I'm so hungry I couldn't have possibly eaten lunch" hunger pangs.

Breakfast (or any other time of the day when you need a satisfying snack) Bars
(adapted from Nigella Lawson's recipe in here)

1 14-ounce can condensed milk
2 1/2 cups old fashioned rolled oats (not instant... they don't have enough substance)
1 cup shredded sweetened coconut
1 cup dried cherries (or other dried fruit of your choice)
1 cup sunflower seeds (or pumpkin, sesame, etc.)
1 cup natural unsalted peanuts

Preheat oven to 250F.  Coat a 9 x 13 inch baking dish with nonstick cooking spray.  Mix together all ingredients except the milk in a large bowl.

Warm the condensed milk in the microwave or in a saucepan over the stove.  Do NOT boil, merely warm.  Pour over the mixture into the large bowl and fold and distribute using a rubber spatula.

Spread the mixture into the pan and spread evenly, patting down where need be to make the surface even.

Bake 1 hour, remove from oven and cool on wire rack for 15 minutes.  While still in pan, cut into 16 equal bars.  Let cool completely (I let mine sit out for another two hours while I was doing other things around the apartment).  Store in a sealed bag or container for up to two weeks.

Enjoy with a cup of tea... mmmm.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Sweet potato lentil stew

On Saturday, it finally snowed in Pittsburgh!  (Maybe not "finally" to some of you, but if it's going to be cold outside, it better snow... at least then my shivering walks to work are aesthetically pleasing.)  Snow and colder weather mean many things to me, two of my favorites being: 1) Christmas decorations, and 2) warm soups/stews.  And, being in a small apartment, both are the perfect ingredients for a cozy day/night in, especially when ABC Family's 25 Days of Christmas is added to the mix.  Nope, try as you might, but you won't get me to feel ashamed about that last part.

With sweet potatoes being in season and thus so inexpensive at the grocery store, I knew I wanted to use them for something.  And it was stew season.  Basic stew formula: liquid + vegetables + shredded or cubed meat (if desired) + spices + whatever the heck else you want.  Seriously.  I basically picked ingredients based on the fact that I wanted it to be a colorful stew.  Red tomatoes, green beans and celery, orange carrots and potatoes... you get the idea.  As for the lentils, I wanted a fairly mild (aka versatile) dried legume to add some protein and substance.  If you choose another bean or even use barley, just make sure to read the package to see what the dry to wet conversion rate is.  Unlike baking, cooking allows for much more experimentation without fear of failure.  If it's too dry, add more water.  If it's too watery, well, remove some liquid. 

This is the quickest soup/stew I've ever made.  No special equipment needed.  And it's so easy!  And super healthy/vegetarian/kosher (even pareve without the sour cream!)  ("But Katy, there is no meat!"  Oh friends, if you aren't familiar with lentils, read about their high protein content and other benefits here.  Now you have no excuses.)  Because this makes so much, I actually froze half in a take-out container for later snowy day use.  If you do this, move container from freezer to fridge a few days before to thaw.  You can always pour it into a saucepan and warm.

And ooooooooooooooh is it delicious!  I didn't even want dessert, nor was I tempted with concession food at Mellon Arena for the Pens game right after this. However, I did eat a few Oreos when I got home at 11 o'clock, so yeah.

(I now understand why Julia Child and her husband set up lighting in their kitchen in order to properly photograph food.  I go through an absurd amount of shots before I get one I kinda like that isn't overwhelmed with the yellowish artificial light.  If only I had more natural light.  If only I were home in the middle of the day and my job was just to cook.  Dear Santa...)

Sidebar -- I've been reading lots of comments (thank you!) and noticed a few questions have been posed regarding certain recipes, techniques, etc.  I'm going to have a question answer post coming up at the end of this week/early next week, so if you have any queries (in addition to those already posted) please leave them in a comment on this entry.  Thanks! :)

(P.S. Thanks to Nick who helped me figure out how to insert links that open a new window when you click on them!)

Lentil and Sweet Potato Stew
(if you're not crazy about sweet potatoes, you can easily substitute regular russet potatoes)
-makes about 8 cups

2 T canola or vegetable oil
1 medium onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
2 medium celery ribs, chopped
1 bay leaf (optional)
1 garlic clove, minced (or 1/2 tsp already minced jarred garlic)
2 cups dried brown lentils, picked over and rinsed
2 medium sweet potatoes (about 1 pound total), peeled and diced into 1/2 inch chunks
1 package (9 ounces) frozen cut green beans, or
1 (14 1/2) can diced tomatoes in juice
Salt and black pepper
Sour cream, for serving

In a large saucepan, heat oil over medium-high.  Add onion, carrots, celery, and bay leaf.  Cook, stirring, until vegetables are softened, 5 to 7 minutes.  Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute more.

Add 7 cups of water and lentils.  (I had 32 oz. or 4 cups of low sodium chicken stock on hand, so I used that and then 3 cups of water for some extra flavor.  Not necessary, of course, but adds even more flavor.)  Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover, and cook 10 minutes.  Add potatoes and continue to cook covered, until lentils and potato are just tender, about 15 minutes.

Add green beans and tomatoes with juice.  Cook until warmed through, 2 to 4 minutes.  Remove bay leaf.  Season with salt and pepper.  Serve with sour cream and maybe some crusty bread for sopping up the broth.  Look how pretty! 

Friday, December 4, 2009

Cut-out sugar cookies

Do you ever have a day when you feel like are constantly reminding yourself to do this and that, and then realize you did none of those things?  Mm hmm.  Yesterday, I set my running shoes by my work bag while making French toast (yes, it was delicious) and said to myself, "Katy, you are wearing your boots to work today, since it's raining, when you normally walk in your sneakers.  Here are your sneakers.  Remember to take these so you can go to the gym after work."

After a decent work day, I changed into my gym clothes only to realize that I left my running shoes at home... right where I should've remembered them.   Boo!  This was the second day in a row that I skipped the gym for a stupid reason.  Two nights ago I went home and attempted to do an exercise video, but that was an utter failure -- this will be detailed more in the cinnamon bread post to come.  But last night, skipping the gym was a blessing in disguise.  Honestly, all I wanted to do was bake.  Some people nap, others indulge in vices, I fling sugar and flour around my kitchen like it's some culinary version of Jackson Pollock's work.  (Hey, it's therapeutic for me.)  And, luckily, the dough for these cookies was already chilled in the fridge.  It's like I know myself so well!

I'll be the first to admit that sugar cookies take a bit of work.  The mixing of ingredients is easy, but the chilling, rolling, cutting and careful watching of the oven turns some people off to the idea of making these from scratch.  It's then that I hear people resort to the greasy tasteless doughs in tubes or just-add-water packets.  Slather some icing on the cookies, and they are marginal at best.  But without the icing, they taste like cardboard, my friends.  Don't do it!  Take the time to make these and I promise you, you'll be glad you did.  You'll never go back to the cheap stuff.  This is another one of Martha's recipes, and if you like buttery-vanilla chewy sugar cookies, this is your recipe.  Just trust me, truuuuuuuuuust me. 

I hope I've given you the courage to make sugar cookies from scratch.  Seriously, don't be scared.  It's not that hard.  Just requires a little patience... and crap, if I can do it, you can, too!

The Absolute Best Sugar Cookies in the Entire Universe
(from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook, her title may differ slightly)
 -depending on shape, makes about 3 dozen cookies

1 lb (4 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
3 cups granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1½ tsp salt
5 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
colored sanding sugar or sprinkles, for decorating (optional)

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter and sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add eggs, vanilla, and salt; mix on medium-high speed until combined. With mixer on low speed, add flour in two batches, mixing until just incorporated.

Turn out dough onto a clean work surface. Divide in half, and pat into flattened rectangles; wrap each in plastic. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to 1 week.  (Note: Almost always, I make the dough one night, chill overnight, and bake the cookies the next day.  Keep in mind that the dough must be chilled before a batch of cookies can go into the oven, so allow for enough time... unless you want to be up until midnight making cookies, which, quite honestly, sounds like a great night to me!)

Remove dough from refrigerator in order to thaw a bit.  (This step is important or your dough will crack at first.  Don't worry, if you're impatient like me, the warmth of your hands and the rolling pin will soften the dough so it no longer cracks.)  Preheat oven to 350°F with a rack in the middle of the oven.  Line at at least two (or three if you have them) large baking sheets with parchment paper.

On a lightly floured work surface, roll out one rectangle of dough to a scant ¼-inch thickness.  Using cookie cutters dipped in flour, cut out shapes. Using a small offset spatula, transfer shapes to prepared sheets, placing about 2 inches apart.

Chill one sheet in freezer or refrigerator until firm, about 15 minutes.  (This may seem like an unnecessary step, but if you want evenly baked cookies, just do it.)  Set scraps aside.  Repeat process with remaining rectangle of dough and place shapes on second cookie sheet, chill. Gather all the scraps, and roll out again. Chill 15 minutes; cut out more shapes, and place on sheets.  (Using two sheets is great because when one is ready for the oven, the next is ready to go into the freezer.)

Decorate cookies with colored sugar or sprinkles, if using, before baking. Bake, rotating sheets halfway through, until cookies are golden around the edges and slightly firm to the touch, about 15 minutes.

(Really REALLY watch the cookies here, unless you like them brown and crunchy... then, by all means, pay no attention at all.  I usually set my timer for 7 minutes, rotate the sheet, 7 minutes more, and check from there until they are at the color I desire.)  Transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.  I made these for a friend's Christmas party, so I plated them on disposable trays to take with me:

Quick tip #1 -- This dough can be frozen, tightly wrapped in plastic and in a large resealable plastic bag, for up to three months (or at least I've only tested it this far). 

Quick tip #2 -- If you are really not into the shapes, roll the dough into a log, wrap in plastic. Whenever you want to bake cookies, let log sit out at room temperature for 10 minutes.  With a sharp knife, slice cookies and place onto cookie sheet to bake.  Easy!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

"Wait, you've never had a falafel?!"

Another day (seriously, how is it December already?!), another New York City food adventure to discuss.  I present to you the acclaimed falafel.

For a simple description, I ventured over to Wikipedia.  ("Wikipedia is the best thing ever. Anyone in the world can write anything they want about any subject. So you know you are getting the best possible information." -Michael Scott, The Office).

A falafel is a fried ball made from spiced chickpeas and/or fava beans.  It is often served with pita bread and various dressings, tangy tahini being the most common.  See below (clockwise from top left): traditional hummus with olive oil and chickpeas, wheat pita bread, and five falafel balls in tahini.

Delicious food from The Hummus Place in the East Village.  It was almost 60 degrees and a sunny day, so we chose to eat outside.  Rachel kindly photographed my first experience with falafel, but I shall summarize for you here.

me: [hesitantly] Hi, I'm Katy, nice to meet you.
falafel: Uh huh, I know who you are.  I'm falafel, but I know you already know that.  You've been avoiding me for years.
me: Hey now, that's not totally true.  I just thought we should have a proper meeting... and being served out of a van or truck along the street never seemed right to me.
falafel: Excuses, excuses.
me: No, really!  Rachel said you were really fantastic and I should wait until I got to New York to meet you myself.
falafel: Okay, fine, point taken.  [pauses] So, what do you think?
me: Crunchy outside, light interior... really flavorful, kinda warms me all over like a comfort food traditionally does.  You remind me of something...
(after further "conversation" with falafel, and even his friends hummus and pita)
me: I'VE GOT IT!!! I'VE GOT IT!!
falafel: Yes?
me: Tacos!  You remind me of tacos!
falafel: [sigh] Just great.

Ah yes, the taco.  Now, I should be clear.  The flavor reminded me most of those taco seasoning packets you'd buy to mix with ground meat when making tacos.  And I love that flavor.  I can't speak for all falafel, since this was my first, but it was delicious.  We shared the above food and were perfectly satisfied (but we did eat cookies an hour later).  The hummus was velvety smooth and not overly oily like some store-bought brands.  The pita was warm and soft.  And the falafel.  Good grief.  It was divine.  And the tahini sauce was a little tangy, sorta reminding me of Greek yogurt just a bit.  I want another after talking about it.

But, much to my dismay, I can't return to NYC whenever I get the falafel itch.  Does anyone know a good falafel place around Pittsburgh?  I'd be greatly indebted to you for any direction.

And hey, give falafel a try if you're still skeptical.  You'll be handsomely rewarded.  No, really, I'll buy you a pony if you can prove you tried one for the first time.

And who doesn't want a pony?  Exactly.