Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Buttermilk Yeast Rolls and Cheesy Potatoes for Christmas Eve

It's true that it's New Year's Eve, not Christmas Eve, but we are catching up here. Happy New Years y'all!!

I'm still searching for the perfect dinner roll, but the ones I made for Christmas Eve dinner are mighty close. I used a recipe from Baking with Julia and although the original recipe was for a loaf of bread, with the bread made in a dough machine, I didn't actually change the ingredients, something I'm not known for. Being an experienced baker I knew that I could convert the process to make the dough in my trusty stand mixer and that the dough could then be divided into rolls at shaping time instead of being shaped into a loaf. Julia claims that you can also make the dough into bread sticks....maybe next time! These rolls were the perfect accompaniment to baked ham, potato casserole, steamed broccoli and salad. They were delicious without butter and decadent with.

The rolls were light but sturdy enough that they didn't collapse when you bit into them. They had a slight tang from the buttermilk, but were clearly yeast rolls. The bread lovers in the family enjoyed them immensely. I had never used powdered buttermilk before making these rolls, but I will make use of it now instead of fresh buttermilk, even though the reconstituted powder doesn't have the same creamy texture that fresh does. Usually that will not make a difference since my main use of buttermilk is for things like Irish Soda bread, scones, waffles, biscuits and that sort of baked good. I'm looking forward to seeing how the powder does next time I make the soda bread. I'll let you know.

Buttermilk Rolls
from Baking with Julia but made with a mixer and into rolls, not a bread machine and into a loaf. Instructions are my own.

3 cups (approximately) bread flour or unbleached all-purpose flour (I used bread flour)
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons powdered buttermilk
2 1/2 teaspoons (one packet) active dry yeast
1 cup (approximately) room-temperature water
3 tablespoons pure maple syrup
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, at room temperature

In a large bowl whisk together the flour, salt and buttermilk powder. Set aside. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a bread hook, place the water, yeast and maple syrup. Let stand 10 minutes. The yeast will 'bloom'. Add the butter and start the mixer on low. Slowly and gradually add the dry ingredient mixture. The dough will form and 'climb' the dough hook. Knead with the stand mixer for 8 - 10 minutes. Turn the dough out into an oiled bowl or rising container, cover loosely, set in a warm place and let rise until doubled in bulk, about 1.5 hours.

When dough has risen, turn out onto a lightly floured work surface, flatten with your hands and divide into 11 or 12 pieces. Shape each piece into a ball and put into a lightly greased 9-inch cake pan, leaving a little space between the balls so they can expand. Cover lightly with oiled plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about 45 minutes. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. toward the end of the rising time.

Bake rolls in the preheated oven, reducing the oven temperature to 375 degrees F when you put the pan in the oven. Bake about 15-20 minutes, or until the rolls are golden to dark brown. Turn the rolls out onto a wire rack, separate and serve at once. Makes 11 - 12 rolls.

The other dish that was new that night was the potato casserole from Julia Child's classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Although I've made the Savoyard potatoes from that book, I had not tried her method for the classic gratin of potatoes. I used very thinly sliced Yukon gold potatoes, which lent the dish a nice golden glow, plus the milk and Swiss cheese that Julia recommends.

I made these a day in advance since the ham was going to take up the oven, which meant that I added additional milk when it was time to reheat the casserole. A key step here is to make sure that the baking dish is not too deep. Mine was somewhere between 1.5 and 2 inches deep. This depth allows for plenty of exposed potatoes across the top of the casserole, allowing the excess water in the milk to evaporate and also allowing the cheese and milk to form a nice crust on top. Quite a few guests had seconds, so I know that this was a hit. It probably would be at your house, too, and it's not hard to make. Who can hate cheese and potatoes?

Gratin Dauphinois
(Scalloped Potatoes with Milk and Cheese) from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck

2 lbs. Yukon Gold potatoes (6-7 cups when sliced), (or other boiling potatoes)
A fireproof baking-serving dish about 10 inches in diameter and 2 inches deep (if recipe is increased, dish must be wider but no deeper) - I used a 9 x 13-inch baking pan, like the kind you use for brownies, and it worked very well
4 tablespoons butter, softened
1 teaspoon salt (I used garlic salt for 1/4 of it instead of the fresh garlic that Julia calls for)
1/8 teaspoon pepper, freshly ground
1 cup (4 oz) grated Swiss cheese (I used diced Swiss)
1 cup boiling milk

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Peel the potatoes and slice them 1/8 inch thick. Place in a basin of cold water. Drain when ready to use.

Smear the inside of your baking dish or pan with 1 tablespoon of the butter. Sprinkle with 1/4 of the salt, and use garlic salt if you can. Drain the potatoes and dry them in a towel. Spread half of them in the bottom of the dish. Divide over them half the remaining salt, and half the pepper, cheese and butter. Arrange the remaining potatoes over the first layer, and season them. Spread on the rest of the cheese and divide the butter over it. Pour on the boiling milk. Set the baking dish over heat and when simmering, set in upper third of preheated oven. Bake for 20 - 30 minutes or until potatoes are tender, milk has been absorbed, and the top in nicely browned. (As the oven is hot, and the dish shallow, the potatoes cook quickly.)

Since I cooked mine in advance (the day before), I brought the cooked potatoes to room temperature, preheated the oven again, poured about 1/2 cup milk over the top of the potatoes, and put the pan in the oven for another 10 minutes. By that time the milk was absorbed, the potatoes sizzling hot and just a little more browned on top.
Serves 6

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Catching Up

The last week or so has been full of holiday spirit and fun with family and friends and...of course...wonderful food. There has been so much fun that there has been little time to catch up here with what I made for the various occasions.

Let's start with the Friday before Christmas. Our dear friends from Healdsburg joined us and Sweetie grilled a boned leg of lamb. I had mixed up a marinade with good red wine, lots of garlic and fresh rosemary and some pepper. It marinated almost 24 hours, so you can well imagine how all of those strong flavors had melded with the tender lamb. A stellar main dish!

Starters included a nice veggie tray with hummus and a board with a couple of local cheeses and some baguette slices. Unfortunately when Sweetie bit down on one of those baguette slices he managed to crack a tooth, making a dental visit the next day necessary. To go with the lamb I made a Barefoot Contessa inspired dish of spiced couscous with zucchini slices (and I added toasted pine nuts which really adds to the dish),

as well as home grown butternut squash which I peeled, then coated with a mixture of balsamic vinegar, olive oil, maple syrup, sage and cayenne pepper. I also coated some slices of red onion. All of it was then roasted in a very hot oven until tender. Really good that night, but excellent the next day at lunch time, too. Sweetie really loved my rosemary foccacia bread, too.

Dessert was a mixed nut tart with a honey based filling, which was flavored with orange zest. Much less sweet than the standard pecan pie. You can find this Mosaic Nut Tart recipe here.

During the next few days cookies were baked and gifts bought and wrapped but otherwise we had fairly pedestrian meals. We can't feast all the time, right?

For Christmas Eve my sister and her hubby came and so did Grandma L. Grandma L provided a delicious smoked salmon and cream cheese spread with capers and water chestnuts for the appetizer. For dinner we had baked ham, Julia Child's Gratin of Potatoes with Yukon Gold potatoes, Swiss cheese and milk, steamed broccoli with pomegranate arils and green salad with grape tomatoes and Champagne dressing. Homemade Buttermilk Yeast Rolls were a big hit and so was the cheesecake with fresh strawberry sauce that my sister brought.

One of these recipes will be posted here, some on my next post, and a few have links to past posts.

Christmas morning will have to wait for another post. Bet you'll never guess what we had then.

Barefoot Contessa Inspired Spiced Couscous with Zucchini and Pine Nuts
Serves 6-8

1 1/2 cups homemade chicken stock or canned broth
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 zucchini, large dice
1 1/2 cups couscous (10 ounces)
1 cup chopped basil leaves
1 cup chopped parsley leaves
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts (dry toast in a hot cast iron skillet, stirring often, until lightly browned)

Bring the chicken stock to a boil in a small saucepan, and turn off the heat. Add the salt, pepper, cumin, and saffron threads and allow to steep for at least 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil and melt the butter in a saute pan. Add the zucchini and cook for 5 minutes, or until lightly browned. Bring the chicken stock just back to a boil. Place the couscous in a large bowl and add the cooked zucchini. Pour the hot chicken stock over them. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and allow to stand at room temperature for 15 minutes. Add the basil and parsley. Toss the couscous and herbs with a fork, then scatter the toasted pine nuts on top. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The lucky denizens of the Land of St. Honore' are probably born with the knowledge of how to bake and bake well. The rest of us have to learn as we go along. I was lucky to have picked up a lot of baking lore from my Mom as I grew up. I also love to read cookbooks and I read it all, not just the recipe or three that interests me. Some stuff I've known so long that I don't even think about it.

One of those long known things is to let your ingredients come to room temperature before you bake. Now some recipes will tell you to used a chilled ingredient or ice water, or to melt butter and either use it while it is still warm or to let it cool to room temperature, but it the recipe doesn't specify, you are usually safe to have ALL of your ingredients at room temperature. That might require planning ahead so that you can set out the butter or eggs, or even flour if you store yours in the fridge, well in advance of your baking time.

You might wonder what difference it makes. Sometimes it might not make any difference, but a good example of where it can is when you are making something like Chocolate Fudge Pie. The filling needs to almost emulsify in order for it to bake up as  homogeneous  fudginess. If you use, say, cold eggs, you may end up with a fudgy layer on top and another layer that is sticky and almost clear (similar to pecan pie filling) at the bottom, as in this photo. It might also be the result of using melted butter that is still too warm from melting.

Thanks for the photo Natashya! 

Room temperature eggs combine with the butter and sugar in a different way than cold eggs. The same is true of creaming butter, a standard beginning for everything from cookies to cakes. Room temperature butter creams beautifully, letting air mix with the butter as it lightens. Then the sugar gets added and the crystals cut into the fat of the butter as they are creamed together, resulting in a lighter textured cake or cookie.

I recently made some Persimmon Nut Quick Bread using the persimmons from our tree. This is the perfect example of a recipe where all of the ingredients need to be at room temperature, except for the butter. It gets melted, but then needs to cool back to almost room temperature so that, when added to the batter, it doesn't cook the eggs.

Do try this recipe if you can get fresh persimmons. You want the heart shaped Hachiya persimmons, the ones that have very soft fruit when ripe. The persimmon flavor is delicate, but this is a great bread, if made with a light touch. Not too sweet, a little persimmon flavor, a lot of nut flavor, with a moist crumb. I made one batch with walnuts and one with pecans. I think I like the one with pecans slightly better, but they were both delicious. This recipe makes two loaves...one to eat and one to give as a gift (or freeze for later)!

Persimmon Nut Bread
from Baking in America by Greg Patent

6 fully ripe Hachiya persimmons (about 2 pounds)
3 cups (about 12 oz.) walnut or pecan large pieces or whole halves
3 1/4 cups  all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 cup (2 sticks/ 1/2 pound) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

Adjust oven rack to lower third of oven. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.  Butter two 8 1/2 X 4 1/2 X 2 3/4 -inch loaf pans; set aside.

Pull the leaves and stem off of the persimmons. Cut each in half and scoop out the flesh onto a cutting board. Use a pastry blender or small knife to cut the persimmon flesh into small pieces. Put cut up persimmon in a large measuring cup. You should have some small pieces of persimmon mixed with pureed pulp and you need 2 cups. Use any extra for another recipe.

Toast the nuts in a shallow baking pan until fragrant, stirring once or twice, 6 - 8 minutes. Be careful not to burn the nuts. Set aside to cool completely.

Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together; set aside.

Whisk the eggs in a large bowl until thoroughly combined and slightly frothy. Add both sugars and beat in thoroughly with the whisk. Whisk in the butter. Stir in the persimmon pulp and nuts with a rubber spatula. Add the flour mixture and stir only until the batter is smooth. Divide batter between the prepared pans and smooth the tops.

Bake for about 1 hour and 5 minutes, until the loaves are well browned and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. The loaves will be quite dark, especially on the edges, but if they start to brown too much before they are done, lay a piece of aluminum foil, shiny side up, loosely on top during the last 30 minutes of baking.

Cool in the pans on a wire rack for 20 minutes. Run a small sharp knife around the sides to release the loaves, and carefully unmold them. Set them right side up on a rack to cool completely. Wrap airtight. The loaves can be frozen for up to 2 months.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Christmas In Your Kitchen - Breakfast

With the combination of a weekend bookending the Christmas holidays this year and Christmas morning itself being an occasion when you can indulge at breakfast, there are lots of opportunities coming up to enjoy breakfast treats from your kitchen. If you can find the time, start with fresh orange juice...with maybe a little Champagne added to make a mimosa.

If you have the time, one of my favorites is for DeeDee's awesome Sticky Buns, fragrant with cinnamon and brown sugar and rich with cream. You would be hard pressed to find a better Sticky Bun recipe if you like your buns sticky and rich.

An easier version is one made with frozen bread dough. It combines the flavors of spices, nuts and dried fruits with the ease of having the dough already made. Once filled, rolled, cut and baked, no one will be the wiser and your house will smell wonderful!

For the family that loves to sit down to crisp, hot waffles, we have a holiday version; Gingerbread Waffles. I like 'em with apple slices that I cook with a little cinnamon and a sprinkle of sugar, but they taste fine with butter and maple syrup, too. These do have yeast for leavening, but you start the batter the night before, which makes the time before those glorious waffles are on the table pretty short.

French Toast is another traditional breakfast treat, and one that Sweetie just loves. This version also includes a recipe for the apples I mentioned above, with the added twist of maple syrup for sweetening instead of sugar.

Do you love the flavors of Greece? Then you might enjoy this Greek Omelet for Christmas breakfast. Spinach, feta and pine nuts join Greek yogurt and eggs for this hearty dish.

That should give you a few ideas for breakfasts. Do you have traditional recipes for the holidays for breakfast, too.?

Monday, December 16, 2013

Babes Celebrate December...La-la-la-Lardy Cake

The Bread Baking Babes welcome mid-December with a sweet and delicious Modern Lardy Cake. The cake used to be baked with lard, but the modern version uses butter. Ever the iconclast, I baked it with lard, using a recipe from The River Cottage Bread Handbook by Daniel Stevens, mostly because my niece was able to get fresh rendered lard from the store in San Francisco where she is a manager; Bi-Rite Market. Thank you T! We had a great time baking together and the resulting Lardy Cake was moist and fragrant with cinnamon. Some of the lard and cinnamon sugar seeped to the bottom of the pan and made a nice, crackly and sticky crust. Since you serve the cake upside down, that becomes the top crust...really lovely. As Lien says "Lardy cake is not a cake, but a bread that is laminated with lard with some raisins or currants."

I had every intention of also making the modern version, but have had the stomach flu lately and ran out of time for this post. Be sure to check out my fellow Babes's versions to see how they made theirs. Links to their sites are on the web version of this post, at the right, bottom.

I'm going to print the modern version first, and at the bottom the old fashioned lardful version in case you want to make it with lard. Having fresh pig fat (which is what lard really is) did add a nice flavor that is different from butter. The cake was very tender, too, which might be because of the lard. The top crust certainly benefited from the lard element...nice and crisp.

Don't forget to e-mail Lien, our Kitchen of the Month, if you make the Lardy Cake and want to be a Bread Baking Buddy. She'll send you a nice Buddy badge and include you in the round-up at the end of the month.

Modern Lardy cake

375 g strong white flour
1 ½ tsp active dry yeast
1 TBsp sugar
¼ tsp salt
35 g butter, melted and cooled
± 200 ml milk, warmed

100 g butter, softened
75 g soft dark brown sugar
½ tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
50-75 g currants or raisins (or a mix)
beaten egg, to glaze

24 cm (9 in) round cake tin (pref. a springform)

Put all the dough ingredients in a large mixing bowl and knead  (preferably with a dough hook in a heavy duty mixer) until smooth and supple. Bring the dough together in a ball and return to the bowl. Cover with clingfilm and leave to rise in a warm place until doubled in size.

To make the filling butter, sugar and spices together until creamy.

Knock the risen dough back and re-knead it briefly. Roll it out to a rectangle  about 50 x 25 cm (20 x 10 in). Spread the filling evenly over two-thirds of the dough sheet, leaving one outer third empty and about 4 cm (1 ½ inch) on all sides. If using, sprinkle the dried fruit over this and press down to embed. Fold the empty third over the middle third and the remaining third over this. Pinch all the edges well to seal the filling in. Cover with a sheet of clingfilm and leave to rest for about 5 minutes to relax.

Give the parcel a quarter turn and roll it into a rectangle about 30 x 15 cm (12 x 6 in). Fold into thirds again and leave to rest for 5 minutes. Repet this procedure three more times, turning the dough by a quarter turn and rolling and folding. If you find you are losing too much filling, omit the final turn.

This is a delicate, difficult and messy work as the filling oozes out in weak spots. Patch them up as good as you can and continue to work. All the oozing bits will caramelize nicely as the cake bakes. But you don’t want to loose too much filling as the laminating effect.
Grease the tin and put the dough packet in it, then flatten it with your hand to fit it in as well as possible. Cover with clingfilm and leave it to rise until almost doubled.

Meanwhile preheat the oven to 180ºC (350ºF).

Brush the dough with beaten egg, then lightly score a cross-hatched pattern onto the surface. Don’t cut into the filling. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until brown.
Remove from the oven, but leave in the tin for about 5 minutes. Carefully release the clip and turn the cake upside down on a wire rack. Remove the bottom of the tin, which will probably still be attached to it, and leave to cool further.
Eat lukewarm or cold, cut into wedges or slices.

(source: “Warm Bread and Honey Cake” by Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra)

Lardy Cakes
The River Cottage Bread Handbook, by Daniel Stevens
"...you can be sure of two things: plenty of lard, but no cake - lardy cake is a bread."
Serves 8

2 cups (8.8 oz/250g) white bread flour, plus extra for dusting
2/3 cup warm water
1 1/2 teaspoons (0.18 oz/5g) instant yeast
1 teaspoon (0.18 oz/5g) fine salt
3/4 cup (5.6 oz/160g) lard
1/3 cup (1.8 oz/50g) golden raisins
1/3 cup (1.8 oz/50g) currants
1/3 cup (1.8 oz/50g) chopped candied citrus peel
3 1/2 tablespoons (1.8 oz/50g) superfine sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (ideally, freshly ground in a spice mill)

Combine the flour, water, yeast, and salt in a bowl and mix to a soft dough. Melt 2 teaspoons of the lard and incorporate it into the dough, then turn out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic. Put into a clean bowl, cover, and let rise until doubled in size.

In a separate bowl, toss the dried fruit and candied peel with the sugar and cinnamon. Cut the rest of the lard into small dice. (I chilled mine after dicing by placing the diced lard on a piece of parchment paper, supported by a cookie sheet.)

Tip the dough out onto a clean work surface and press all over with your fingertips to deflate. Roll out to a rectangle about 3/8 inch thick. Scatter half the dried fruit and lard pieces over the dough, then roll up from a short side to enclose the filling.

Give the dough a quarter turn and roll it out again to a rectangle, as before. Scatter the remaining fruit and lard piecs over the dough and roll up again. Roll out the dough to an 8-inch square and place in a greased deep 8-inch square baking pan. Let rise for another 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Bake the lardy cake for 30 to 40 minutes, until well risen and golden brown. Let cool slightly in the pan for 10 - 15 minutes, then invert onto a wire rack to finish cooling. Placing the lardy cake upside down will allow the melted lard to be reabsorbed into the dough as it cools. Serve warm or cold, cut into slices.

My notes;
This recipe is exactly as printed in the book, with the addition of my note about chilling the lard. When typing it out it seemed to me that some of the measurements might be off. When I made it, I found that there wasn't nearly enough water if you are using the cups and tablespoon measurements. Perhaps the ounces or grams measurements are better. The water and cinnamon don't have those measurements, which seems odd, and the oven temperature setting doesn't have Celsius or gas mark, either.

I think that the water should have been 1 2/3 cups...a lot more water. Otherwise it seemed to be OK.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Seasonal Treats For You - Cookies

Still very little cooking or baking going on, but this is a good time to think about the holiday season and some of the recipes you might want to make for yourself, family and friends.

For starters, there are always Christmas Cookies. You might not want to bake sweet things to have in the house if you have little or no self-control as I do, but this is the season for indulgence. More importantly, it is the season for gifting. It never hurts to have a few choice cookies, already on a small paper plate and sealed into a plastic bag, ready to be given as a 'small token' gift. When your favorite mail carrier shows up at the door with a package, or a neighbor comes by and shovels you walk for you or helps you move something heavy or bring in the tree, you have something sweet to give them, along with your thanks. Any of the cookies mentioned in this post will make a nice addition to such a plate.

Christmas Cookies also make great gifts for friends and family who have no time to bake. That's probably quite a few of the people you know. You don't have to tell them that cookies like slice-and-bake Santa's Whiskers or speedy bar cookies like

Raspberry Cookie Bars and

 Nut and Cranberry Shortbread Cookies didn't take you long to make. Let them think you slaved over them for hours in the kitchen!

Some cookies do take some time and care, like

  Macarons, those delicate and delicious French sandwich cookies.

Pfeffernuesse need to be made ahead, but are worth the wait.

Some cookies become a family tradition.

In my family those include my Mom's Crescent Cookies,

my favorite Swedish Ginger Cookies

and my daughter's favorite Santa's Whiskers.

 Does your family have one or two favorite cookies you always make for Christmas?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Cold and Flu

In general I prefer not to whine, but today I'm going to. Very late on Saturday evening I came down with the stomach flu...the same bug that Sweetie succumbed to on Friday. Friday was also the beginning of our cold snap...a series of nights well below freezing that is still happening tonight and probably tomorrow, too. The combination has been interesting, but at least I have had an excellent excuse for staying home and in front of the gas fireplace, watching old episodes of The Good Wife and reading books, plus sleeping and sleeping and sleeping. 

This had to happen, of course, during the most festive week before Christmas (except for Christmas week itself), so have cancelled a lunch and three parties with another possible cancellation on the weekend. Not much eating going on, no cooking and no blogging about food. OK, over my pity party now. 

I do hope that your week has been better, that you are having holiday fun and not too much cold, ice, snow or flu.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Last of the Strawberries in a Tart

I am ridiculously spoiled, and I admit it. Because we have a local farmer who plants different varieties of strawberries, including late season ones, and because we have had a looooong warm autumn, last Friday we were able to purchase fresh local strawberries. It was also the week when I cleaned out the freezer and found a disk of tart dough. However, with Thanksgiving weekend taking up my time, no tart was made until this week.

If you have tart dough ready and a packet of ground blanched almonds, too, this tart is absurdly easy. If not, make some tart dough and chill it, then get out the food processor, blanched almonds and a bit of sugar and make the almond meal. I used the stand mixer version of the almond cream since I already had ground almonds handy, but if you have made the almond meal in the food processor it would be sensible to also make the almond cream in the processor.

You can use any kind of fruit in this tart. The original recipe in Dorie Greenspan's book was for poached pears, a lovely fruit at this time of year. I can almost taste this made with fresh apricots in the summer, and blueberries would be good, too.

Since I used a smaller tart pan, I had about 1/4 cup left over almond cream, but Sweetie took care of that for me. He does loved his nuts.

Not only does this tart look good, but the combination of sweet fruit, rich almond cream, and buttery, flaky crust is divine. This would be a pretty dessert to serve with coffee during the holidays, so take a break from the bustle and shopping, invite a few close friends over for tart and coffee or tea, relax with friendship and good conversation. You'll be glad you did.

French Strawberry Tart
based on a pear tart in Dorie Greenspan, Baking: From my home to yours

3/4 stick (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup sugar
3/4 cup ground blanched almonds
2 teaspoons all purpose flour
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 large egg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract

1 9-inch tart shell made with Sweet Tart Dough, partially baked and cooled
(I used a 6-inch tart shell, unbaked, which worked fine)

1 pint fresh strawberries, washed, dried, hulled and cut in half

Confectioners sugar for dusting

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment or a silicone mat.

Put the butter and sugar in a food processor and process until the mixture is smooth and satiny. Add the ground almonds and process until well blended. Add the flour and the cornstarch and process to blend, then add the egg. Process for about 15 seconds more, or until the almond cream is homogeneous. Add the vanilla and almond extracts and process just to blend.
OR Put the butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer and beat with a whisk attachment until mixture is smooth and satiny. Add the ground almonds and whisk on medium speed until well blended. Add the flour and cornstarch and whisk briefly to blend, then add the egg. Whisk on medium until the almond cream is homogeneous. Add the vanilla and almond extracts and whisk just to blend.

Fill the tart shell with the almond cream, spreading it evenly with an offset spatula. Place the halved strawberries in a nice pattern on top of the cream, starting at the outer edge of the tart shell.

Bake the tart on the prepared baking sheet for 50 - 60 minutes, or until the almond cream puffs up around the fruit and browns. Transfer the tart to a rack to cool to just warm or to room temperature before removing the sides of the pan.

Right before serving, dust the tart with confectioners sugar.  Makes one tart.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Going With the Flow On Christmas Cookies

Well, we made it to December, safe and sound. With Christmas only 23 or so days away, I've started to think about what I'd like to bake and cook for the season. Topping the list is Christmas cookies. Somehow the smell of the molasses and spices of gingerbread cookies gets my inner elf going, so the prospect of holiday shopping and wrapping and shipping (to say nothing of decorating the house) seem less daunting.

This year my darling daughter was home for Thanksgiving for the first time in a long time. As part of her visit we planned a cookie decorating evening with a neighbor whose company we really enjoy. It's fun to have a chance to be a kid at heart and play with decorations the way I did when I was young. One of the ways to bring out that inner child is to have lots of options for decorating. We even did Ninja Warriors.

 Not only did we have gingerbread cookies, but I had also made some dough from a recipe I found in the current issue of Bon Appetit magazine (recipe below). The cookies are vanilla and bake up a little flatter, crisp and delicious. We started out the decorating process for both by icing them with a slightly thinned royal icing to create a canvas for painted decorations...the flow because you thin the icing enough that it flows flat to create a canvas for the painting.

 K brought some luster dust decor bottles with her in silver, copper, red, green, and blue. Combined with lemon extract, they became paint that added a wash of color and a sheen of luster that was quite pretty. I also had some regular royal icing in white, red, and green to be used for accents or to attach silver balls or sanding sugar or other decor to the cookies.

 Lots of opportunity for creativity! Most of the photos are for the gingerbread cookies, but we did bake some with the vanilla dough, too. Look for the star with the blue outline and the round one that looks like a pizza, for example.

We had a blast and I think the cookies are little works of art in many cases. One of my favorites was the little piggy. Terrible photo, but hopefully you'll get the idea. It had red flow icing as a base and AM used silver paint to delineate the various cuts of meat one could get from a pig.

This can be a fun activity to do with kids, too. If they are really young, it is recommended that you roll, cut out and bake the cookies ahead of time. If you are making the flow iced ones, do that in advance, too, so the icing has time to set. That way the kids get the fun part of painting and adding embellishments to their creations without a waiting period. A muffin tin with different decors in each section is an excellent way to corral the sugars, silver balls, small red hot candies and other embellishments.

Disposable pastry bags work well for the royal icing, either with an added icing tip or not. If not, be sure to keep the hole you cut in the tip pretty small so your icing stays small, too, and doesn't overwhelm the cookie. The tip or hole for applying the flow icing can be bigger, but the one for adding details needs to be small. K bought the Wilton brand luster dust on Amazon, but I think some crafts stores might have it, too, if they carry Wilton cake decorating supplies.

Ultimate Sugar Cookies
from Bon Appetit magazine, Dec. 2013
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
3 cups sifted all purpose flour, plus more for rolling
1 1/4 cups (2 1/2 sticks) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Place racks in lower and upper thirds of oven. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
Whisk salt, baking powder and 3 cups flour into a bowl.
Using an electric mixer on high speed, beat butter and sugar until well combined, about 3 minutes. Butter does not need to be fluffy. Add egg, egg yolk, and vanilla. Beat just to combine.
Reduce speed to low and gradually add dry ingredients. Mix just to combine.
Form dough into tow 3/4-inch thick disks. Wrap disks in plastic. Chill at least 2 hours.

To bake: Let 1 disk of dough sit at room temperature until softened slightly, about 5 minutes. Roll out on a lightly floured sheet of parchment paper until about 1/4-inch thick, dusting with flour as needed. If dough gets soft or sticky, chill on parchment until firm. Cut out shapes with floured cookie cutters. Transfer cut-outs to parchment-lined baking sheets.

Bake cookies, rotating baking sheets halfway through, until edges are golden, 12 - 16 minutes, depending on size. Transfer baked cookies to wire rack and let cool. Repeat with scraps and remaining dough.

Decorate cooled cookies as desired.
Cookie dough can be made 1 month ahead; freeze instead of chilling. Cookies can e baked, but left un-decorated 2 weeks ahead; wrap tightly and freeze. Makes 2 - 3 dozen, depending on size.

Royal Icing for decorating
Using an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat 3 1/4 cups powdered sugar and 2 large egg whites until white, thickened and tripled in volume, about 5 minutes. Add water by the tablespoonful until icing no longer holds a peak. Test some if you are going to do the flow icing to make sure that it is thin enough. Icing for adding details needs to have less water added. When icing is desired thickness, divide icing into smaller bowls and color with food coloring as desired. Once colored, put icing into pastry bags.  Makes about 2 cups.

To make paintable cookies: Follow the Ultimate Sugar Cookie directions. When cookies are cool, load a pastry bag, fitted with a plain tip, with white or colored Royal Icing.

Pipe a line around the outside edge of the cookie top, then fill in the shape. Icing should be just thin enough that it will flatten on the cookie once piped on. Let the iced cookies dry completely, allowing at least two hours.

Thin luster dust with lemon extract in a small bowl until smooth and the consistency of half and half. Use a clean small paintbrush to paint on designs. Let dry.