Thursday, December 21, 2006

Hey there, sugar!

In general, I love Christmas, the trees and the gifts and the food and even some of the music (though not that awful “chestnuts roasting” song, which makes me crazy). Last year, I was feeling down and kind of skipped the holiday, which made sense to me at the time, but left me for a whole year feeling like something was out of whack. This fall, I was feeling some trepidation about the whole holiday season. I lost my best friend this year, and the holidays were just sort of looming there ahead, threatening. From Thanksgiving I hid. But sometime just after Thanksgiving, the Christmas spirit kicked in with a vengeance. M. had always loved Christmas inordinately, going overboard with baking and gifts, and suddenly it seemed like the only way to get through the season was to treat it as she would have. I shopped like I have never shopped before. And this weekend, I made cookies. Lots of cookies.

I sent cookies to my aunt and uncles. I brought packages of cookies to work. I left plates of cookies for the neighbors. I spent the entire weekend baking and singing Christmas carols. I discovered that Christmas cookies have healing powers; I really felt much better after my baking extravaganza than I have in ages.

Okay, I’ll put the personal stuff aside now and talk about cookies.

I’ve noticed that people who improvise wildly when cooking are nervous about making even the slightest adjustments in a baking recipe. They shouldn’t be; there are lots of things you can do to change cookies without the slightest risk.

It’s important to think about flavor and texture separately. Flavor is easy to play around with; texture is more problematic. Texture defines a cookie – shortbread is shortbread whether the flavor is vanilla or ginger or even chocolate, as long as the texture is crumbly. The texture of a cookie depends largely on the following factors: ratios of major ingredients (eggs, flour, sugar, butter), method of combining (is the butter melted, are the eggs separated and whipped, is the flour sifted), temperature of dough (chilled or not), temperature of oven and baking time, and even a little on temperature of the cookies sheets. In some cases, ingredients affect texture if they are structural, intrinsic to the dough – cake flour versus a.p. flour can matter quite a bit, and ingredients like molasses or peanut butter make a big difference.

But flavor is a whole other story. For one thing, you can add things to cookies with abandon; unlike cakes, which can fall under the weight of too many extras, cookies will pretty much bake up just fine as long as there’s enough dough to bind all the bits you’ve added. So you can add nuts, coconut, all kinds of dried or candied fruit, or chocolate chips to almost any cookie. You can also swap out extracts – use a little less lemon, almond, or orange extract than you do vanilla. You can add spices or grated citrus peel. Before baking, you can sprinkle cookies with sanding sugar or pearl sugar or cinnamon sugar. After baking, you can glaze cookies or dip them in chocolate. You can also swap dark brown sugar for light to deepen the molasses flavor or swap light for dark to lighten it. (Don’t swap white and brown sugars, though, unless you want to change the texture).

This year I made a few cookies straight from the recipe: the lime meltaways and chocolate crackles from Martha Stewart’s holiday cookie supplement last year. The chocolate cookies were good, but the lime were a bit dull. Not bad, but I won’t make them again. I made butter cookies from the Cook’s Illustrated Best Recipe Cookbook recipe, with only a minor adjustment. I added a little orange oil, because I like a hint of orange in my sugar cookies. I also decorated them with royal icing. I made the Russian tea cakes from Stars Desserts straight, and they were good, as always.

I used The Best Recipe cookbook for several starter recipes. My chewy walnut cookies are a variation on the chewy chocolate chip cookies. I use dark brown sugar, add natural walnut flavoring, and replace the chips with toasted walnut halves. I made their spice cookie, but replaced their cinnamon-heavy mix of spices with a hearty teaspoon of clove and ¾ teaspoon of allspice, used light brown sugar so the clove flavor would come through, included ½ teaspoon of lemon extract, then glazed the baked cookies with a lemon/powdered sugar glaze and topped each one with a little candied lemon peel. These were winners, tart and spicy and sweet all at once. I turned the anise biscotti recipe into orange-cardamom-fig biscotti with the addition of ½ tsp each dried orange peel and orange oil, 1 teaspoon of cardamom, and chopped figs soaked in Triple Sec (dropped the anise and vanilla). I liked these very much as well.

Less successful were the oatmeal cookies from the Best Recipe. Clearly, not the best recipe after all. I made no changes except substituting dried cherries for the raisins, but these just weren’t very good oatmeal cookies. Oh, well, live and learn.

I don’t like the Best Recipe peanut butter cookie recipe, so I used the one from the Wooden Spoon Dessert Cookbook, another good source for dependable American-style baking recipes. Again, I replaced the light brown sugar with dark to increase the molasses flavor, then I added 2 teaspoons of ginger, and garnished the top with a piece of candied ginger. My favorite saltwater taffy was always the peanut-molasses; I think a lot of people are surprised as how comforting and familiar the peanut-ginger-molasses combination is. And, yes, I used natural peanut butter; the idea that only preservative-laden peanut butters can be used in cookies is a myth, and a silly one at that.

I wanted to make some meringues, but I seem to have lost my big star tip, and Verna’s Cake Supply on Mass Ave has tragically closed its doors. Still, a solid selection of cookies, which made for nice plates. I was wiped out by the end of weekend, though, what with the baking and the glazing and the decorating and the packing and the tying of the bows. I’m all rested up now, so it’s time to start thinking about Christmas dinner.

Here's hoping you make some great cookies this year. Don't be afraid to improvise - oh, and be sure to write down your changes, just in case someone falls in love with your cookie and you have to make the same recipe every Christmas forever and ever.

Sunday, December 10, 2006


It's the holiday season, and I've noticed a distinct downturn in the number of postings on cooking blogs. This is not surprising: there are cookies and fruitcakes to bake, special candies and liqueurs to shop for. The food-obsessed are damned busy this time of year. And some of us are starting up websites.

I've not been posting a lot in the last month or two, because I've been involved in a project now ready for unveiling. It's a website called NewEnglandGrown, devoted to New England agriculture and food. Each month, we will be publishing new articles on some theme, some aspect of NE farming, as well as directories of resources related to that theme. We're hoping to build up a useful resource, as well as providing some interesting reading. We intend to focus on some of the less-explored aspects of the food/farm world, not just the apple orchards and the CSAs, but the farm summer camps and the llama breeders and the heirlooom seed growers and the farm inns and the people who sell Maine seaweed and the people who grow and dry herbal teas. We've also got an extensive events listing, because as far as I can tell, there's no one place to go to find information on all the maple festivals, open farm days, country fairs, cheesemaking workshops, and other great stuff going on.

Anyway, the first issue is up, and I would be thrilled if you took a look. Unfortunately, the first issue is a little light on writing - we're hoping to up both the quantity and the depth of the reading content next month. We spent a lot of time getting some of the resource material ready and didn't focus as heavily on the writing as I would like, but that will change. In the meantime, we've got a local food guide and a farmers' internet guide, directories of farm B&Bs, Christmas tree farms, and wineries, a holiday gift guide, some book recommendations, recipes, and the events listing, so there's plenty to check out.

If you have any recommendations about thing you think the site could use, do let me know. I'll read your messages between batches of sugar cookies and research on bison farms in New England for the January issue.