Monday, December 20, 2010

Cooking Floyd: Cookies!

When I was little the weeks preceding Christmas were full of excitement.  After Thanksgiving the lighted street decorations would go up in town, the stores would transform with glittering interiors and handpainted windows.  Homes would begin to look like full size gingerbread houses.  Snow would frost everything.  Dad would bundle us into the car for the annual night time tour of lights which always seemed to include at least one instance of getting stuck in the snow.  We'd go out to search for the perfect tree and if I promised to be very careful I'd be allowed to hang the delicate glass ornaments and drape tinsel.  But best of all, Mom would get out flour, butter and sugar and her box of cookie cutters and make cut out cookies.  I loved sitting at the table with her as she mixed up all different colors of icing and laid out sprinkles and jimmies, dragees in silver and gold, red hot cinnamon dots and nonpareils.  Then we would begin icing, painting, sprinkling, sugaring while we shared hot chocolate and she told me stories about Christmases with her parents and brothers and sisters.

Even though my kids are all grown up and moved away with families of their own I still love to make cut out and painted cookies.  Michael (who can be a teensy bit grinchy) says, "I don't know why you do this but I'm glad it makes you happy."  I do it because I'm sentimental and nostalgic, and I really miss my mom during the Christmas season.  I have all her glass ornaments and cookie cutters and handling the ornaments and making cookies brings back sweet winter memories.  I love giving the cookies to folks and watching their faces light up with delight at receiving the colorful, sparkly confections.  Everyone loves cookies!

For years I just spread the icing on with a knife, then sprinkled on colored sugars, added jimmies or candies.  But I wasn't satisfied.  Mom's vintage cutters had features that left impressions on the cookies.  I disliked covering them up.  I wanted to enhance them.  I wanted them to look like the fancy cookies found in real bakeries.  So a few years ago I started searching the web.  I had no idea!  There are cookie artists out there turning out edible master works and sharing their techniques!  I learned about royal icing and mixing it to different consistencies to create different effects.  Gel food coloring versus liquid food coloring.  Pastry bags and tips and other tools.   Outlining and flooding.  Sanding sugars and large flake sugars.  Shaped sugar decorations.  Techniques using paint brushes.  It was a revelation!  My cookie crafting was so upped!

The first thing I learned was I needed a sturdier sugar cookie recipe.  I use this one from the King Arthur Flour's Baker's Companion book, page 310:

All Purpose Cutout Cookies
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
8 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 large egg
2 1/2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
1/2 cup cornstarch

In a large bowl, beat together the shortening, butter, sugars, salt, baking powder, and vanilla.  When well blended, add the egg, beating until fluffy.  Whisk the flour and cornstarch together and stir in.  Divide dough in half, form into disks, wrap well, and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350F.

Remove the chilled dough from the refrigerator and roll it 1/8 inch thick on a lightly floured surface.  Cut with cookie or biscuit cutters, place cookies on lightly greased or parchment-lined baking sheets, and bake for 8-10 minutes, until they're very lightly browned on the edges.  Remove them from the oven and cool on racks.

I do a couple of things differently from the above recipe.  First I cut parchment paper to the size of my baking sheets.  When I roll my chilled dough, I do it directly on the parchment laying on the work surface.  I flour my rolling pin but not the parchment or the dough.  I also roll the dough a little thicker than 1/8 inch.  (This means the cookies take a bit longer in the oven but not much.  I watch them for that little bit of gold on the edges.)  When the dough is rolled to nearly the size of the parchment, I move the dough and parchment on to the cookie sheet and cut out the cookies there, removing the excess dough.  This way I don't distort or break the cookies by spatuling them off the work surface and on to the baking sheet.  Once the cookies are cut out I pop them back into the fridge to chill for 10 minutes before putting them directly into the oven.  This seems to keep the outlines and impressed details nice and sharp.  You can find more details about rolling and cutting cookies here, and here at University of Cookie.

Once your cookies are cool you're ready to decorate.  You'll find this isn't a quick process but as you get more familiar and proficient with it you will get faster.  What takes the longest time is waiting for the royal icing to dry on flood iced cookies.  They usually dry to a hard smooth surface in 24 hours and are ready for further decoration then.

These sites are invaluable to me for making royal icing and decorating how-tos:
This one is my go-to for royal icing

This one for piping, flooding and sugar flocking

This shows quick, easy ways to decorate

And this one shows how to make great gingerbread gift boxes

The University of Cookie website has tons of video tutorials starting with cookie basics and taking you through all kinds of icing and decorating methods.  Scroll down and look on the right for "Labels" and click on the topics listed there.

I also love Once Upon a Plate for inspiration for painting hardened frosted cookies with food colorings and a brush.  It's kind of like water painting!

This year I added a few other cookies and confections into the mix.  Linzer cookies are a sandwich cookie with a cutout in the top that shows off the jam filling in the middle.  I used Blueberry Lime jam and Cranberry Pepper jam that I put up during the summer for the fillings.  I bought these awesome walnut shaped molds several months ago and made walnut cookies with a chocolate ganache filling.  You can see them on the plate in the above picture.  I made truffetes from Jacques Pepin's Celebrations book in three flavors: Chocolate Cranberry with the cranberries I had dried and a cranberry liqueur we got on a trip to Quebec, Mocha Latte topped with a chocolate covered coffee bean, and Macallan 12 year old Single Malt Scotch rolled in cocoa powder.  Also, the candied orange peel from the Candied Peel post, some plain and some dipped in chocolate, and Chocolate-Peanut Butter Chip cookies.

Michael and I took gift boxes and bags to the Blue Ridge Restaurant, the Pine Tavern , and the Floyd Country Store whose staffs take very good care of us all year long.  It was great fun watching the Pine Tavern staff rapturously devour their goodies while we ate dinner!  Later this week we'll distribute the rest to our friends and Michael's coworkers.  That's the best part of making cookies- giving them away!

 Remember, painting cookies isn't just for Christmas!  Here's some Fall Leaves I did for our guests:

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