Saturday, December 31, 2011

Simply Perfect: All-Butter Shortbread

Sometimes the simplest things really are the best. These cookies certainly prove that point. I first made them out of sheer laziness. I was preparing to make a plain cheesecake when I realized I was out of graham crackers. Not wanting to make a run to the grocery store, because that would entail changing out of my pajamas, I began searching for a simple cookie recipe that could serve as a graham cracker stand-in. I had previously used store-bought shortbread in the crust of a strawberry cheesecake with good results, so that seemed like a good place to start looking. After a bit of searching, I stumbled across a recipe that fit my needs: it was quick, it was easy, and I already had all the ingredients on hand. Perfect.

All-Butter Shortbread is perhaps the simplest of cookies. The most basic recipes call for just three ingredients: butter (obviously), brown sugar, and flour. Based on a little bit of research on tips for achieving shortbread perfection, I adapted these slightly to include two types of flour (unbleached all-purpose and rice), a pinch of salt, and a splash of vanilla extract. While I was expecting these cookies to be good, they far exceeded my expectations. They're everything shortbread should be: buttery and crumbly; tender, but still slightly crisp; sweet, but not overwhelmingly so. In fact, even David was impressed, and that is no easy feat. He actually made an audible "Mmmm" with his first bite. According to him, these cookies are "just like the ones you buy in those tins around Christmas, but these are better." Probably the most praise he's ever given one of my baked goods. I'm pretty sure I will be making them again and again. In fact, they're so delicious and so easy to make, they may become the new standard for all of my plain cheesecake crusts. And I can almost guarantee that I will never buy pre-made shortbread cookies again.

All-Butter Shortbread
adapted from

2 cups (4 sticks, 32 tablespoons) unsalted butter
7 ounces brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4.5 ounces rice flour
15 ounces unbleached all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt

1. Beat butter and brown sugar together on medium-high until very creamy, approximately 3-5 minutes. Add vanilla extra and beat an additional 1-2 minutes, scraping down beater blade and sides of bowl as necessary.
2. Sift together flours and salt. Lower mixer speed to medium-low. Add dry ingredients to butter/sugar mixture one cup at a time until fully incorporated.
3. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and roll into one or more cylinder(s). Place dough cylinder(s) in refrigerator for at least an hour to chill. (Alternatively, you may roll out the dough to 1/2 inch thickness and cut into desired shapes using cookie cutters. I would recommend chilling cut-out shapes prior to baking to minimize spreading/puffiness.)
4. Pre-heat oven to 315 degrees. Cut dough into 1/2 inch slices and place on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake for 18-25 minutes, or until cookies just begin to slightly brown. Allow cookies to cool before removing from cookie sheet.
(Optional - Melt bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate in a double boiler or microwave with a touch of vegetable oil. Dip cookies in chocolate, place on parchment paper, and chill until chocolate has firmed up.)

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Soft and Chewy White Chocolate Ginger Cookies

Every year when I start brainstorming for types of Christmas cookies to bake and share with friends and family, I ask David for his suggestions. Without fail, he always asks for gingersnaps. In my mind, gingersnaps should be crunchy, spicy cookies. When you bite into one, it should, you know, snap. Hence, ginger-snap. Apparently, David does not share this concept of what a proper gingersnap should be. In his mind, the ideal gingersnap should be soft and chewy. While I certainly enjoy a soft and chewy ginger cookie, I refuse to call such cookies "gingersnaps".  If it doesn't snap when you bite into it, it's not a "snap". Those are the rules folks.

Once I finally figured out that David was actually asking for ginger cookies, I set out to find a recipe that yielded perfectly soft, chewy cookies with a well balanced spicy ginger flavor. After a few semi-successful attempts, I think I finally found a winner. So far, everyone who has tried these has raved about them. As an added bonus, these cookies stay soft and chewy for days and days. So if you, too, are looking for the perfect ginger cookie, give these a shot.

(Sidenote: I added the white chocolate chunks and crystallized ginger, because well, I like white chocolate and crystallized ginger. If you don't, feel free to leave them out.)

Soft and Chewy White Chocolate Ginger Cookies
adapted from America's Test Kitchen

12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened but still cool
2 1/2 ounces (about 1/3 cup) granulated sugar
2 1/2 ounces (about 1/3 cup) dark brown sugar
1 egg yolk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
6 ounces molasses (about 1/2 cup), light or dark is fine; I use sorghum from a local supplier
11 1/4 ounces (about 2 1/4 cups) bread flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoon ground ginger
2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon salt
2-3 tablespoons finely chopped crystallized ginger
8 ounces white chocolate chunks (optional)
1/2 cup coarse sanding sugar for dipping (I used red and green on some cookies for a festive touch)

1. Adjust one oven rack to middle position. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2. Cream butter and sugars (granulated and brown) at medium-high speed until light and fluffy. Depending on your mixer's power and speed, this should take approximately 3-5 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.
3. Add egg yolk and vanilla extract and continue beating at medium-high for 1-2 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl midway through.
4. Add molasses and continue beating for 1 more minute.
5. Whisk together flour, baking soda, spices, and salt. With mixer set on lowest speed, gradually incorporate flour mixture into wet ingredients until no streaks of flour are visible. Periodically scrape down sides of bowl.
6. Fold in crystallized ginger and white chocolate chunks using your mixer's fold function, or by hand.
7. Pour sanding sugar into a shallow dish. Roll dough into approximately 1 1/2 inch balls and coat with sanding sugar.
8. Bake for 10-12 minutes on a parchment lined baking sheet. The original recipe recommends only baking one sheet at a time, as the cracks will not properly form otherwise, so I heeded their advice. Remove cookies when they begin to crack. Cookies should still look undercooked between cracks.
9. Allow cookies to cool for at least 5 minutes on the cookie sheet, then transfer to a wire cooling rack to complete cooling.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

So, you've been a little naughty this year, huh? There's a cookie for that!

Like most kids, as a child I was endlessly warned by my parents to "be a good girl, 'cause Santa Claus is watching you." I must admit, in retrospect, the thought of some old guy watching me while I was sleeping is more than a bit suspect. Ahh, but I digress. That ever looming threat of having Santa pass over my house on Christmas Eve was usually enough to scare me straight. On the off chance that I had a particularly naughty day, I assumed I could always lure the big guy with some tempting treats. It must have worked, because I never awoke to an empty stocking.

If you've had a few days (or months, who's counting) of less than nice behavior this year, I recommend making these Peppermint Bark Cookies. With all the flavor components of peppermint bark (white chocolate, semi-sweet chocolate, and candy cane) baked into a soft and chewy cookie, I think they're good enough to cause Ol' Saint Nick to overlook any minor behavioral transgressions.

Peppermint Bark Cookies
adapted from Savory Sweet Life and Alton Brown

8 ounces (1 cup, 2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened but still cool
2 ounces granulated sugar
8 ounces brown sugar (light or dark, either is fine)
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1 ounce (2 tablespoons) whole milk, half and half, or cream
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
12 ounces bread flour (please, please weigh your flour; volumetric measurements are not reliable)
1 teaspoon sea salt, small to medium coarse
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
8-10 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips
8-10 ounces white baking chocolate, roughly chopped
1/2 cup (more or less) crushed candy canes (not pulverized, but no huge chunks either)

1. Cream together butter and sugars (brown and granulated) on medium high until very fluffy. This will take 3-5 minutes, depending on the temperature of your butter and the speed/power of your mixer. Stop midway to scrape down sides of the bowl and beater blade.
2. Add egg, egg yolk, vanilla, and milk. Beat for approximately 2 more minutes on medium high. Stop midway to scrape down sides of the bowl and beater blade.
3. Whisk together flour, salt, cinnamon, baking soda, and baking powder. Lower mixer speed to lowest setting. Gradually add dry ingredients, stopping once or twice to scrape down sides of the bowl. Continue until all dry ingredients are incorporated.
4. Add semi-sweet chips and white chocolate chunks. Either mix in using your mixers "fold" function, or stir in with a spoon.
5. Chill the dough for at least one hour. I tend to think longer is better. I usually try to chill for at least four hours, and ideally overnight.
6. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
7. Place crushed candy canes in a shallow dish. Scoop dough into approximately 1 oz portions (I like to use a use a 1 oz ice cream scoop), and roll in crushed candy.
8. Place cookies on a parchment lined baking sheet, spaced at least two inches apart, and bake for 11-13 minutes, rotating once halfway through. Cookies should be slightly brown around the edges, yet still appear undercooked in the center, when removed from the oven. The residual heat from the cookie sheet will continue to cook the center. Allow cookies to cool on the cookie sheet for at least five minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack. Or eat them straight off of the cookie sheet. I won't tell anyone.

Note - You may notice that most of the ingredient portions are provided by weight, not volume. This is because I almost always use my digital food scale to weigh ingredients when I bake. Not only does this allow me to obtain more consistent results, but it also means fewer measuring cups to wash. That's a win-win in my book. If you don't have a digital food scale, I highly recommend that you consider getting one. It will make your life in the kitchen easier.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Hello World

I plan to use this blog to chronicle all of my recipes, which I sometimes have trouble keeping track of, and occasionally have to reinvent. Hopefully this will help me stay a bit more organized.