Category Archives: cookies
ADVENTURES IN BAKING
As long time readers here know, I have a standing promise to provide ten types of home-baked cookies for the holidays. For the most part, we’ve been evolving a series of family favorites, and year on year are moving those closer to perfection. But this year we’ve opted for a disruption.
Keto baking. Kind of.
We’ve decided to slim down the annual carb-fest that is the holidays. We were not dogmatically inflexible about it, but we did try to make the cookie plate a bit leaner this year, without sacrificing the comforting festive level of indulgence, and leaving some unaltered so we could share them with nut-allergic friends. Some recipes were standards we modded with our own substitutions. Some were new – cognates of known faves, but composed and published specifically for no carb/low-carb baking. Not all were entirely successful, but we did have some very pleasant surprises.
Among our discoveries were the handling properties of the various flours, a disagreement with a claim of 1:1 equivalency for the sugar substitute we used, and what Xanthan Gum actually does. This post may be helpful to others who want to try this adventure. I know it will help me remember this year’s pitfalls if/when I try it again.
As usual, I was greatly aided in this endeavor by Younger Offspring, whose baking acumen now far surpasses mine. The padawan has truly become the master.
First, the group portrait:
1. Earthquakes – more commonly called Chocolate Crinkles. Full octane. We didn’t play with this recipe, this one used standard all purpose flour and real sugar. There are many variations of this recipe out there. Ours, from long time pal Kathryn, uses butter and not shortening. I now use Dutch process cocoa in it for an extra cocoa-kick. Very much like one-bite brownies and much loved.
2. Orange Marmalade cookies. Also not slimmed. After all if the recipe calls for half a jar of marmalade to begin with, there’s very little point in making emendations around that. This is a burst of fresh sunshine, sweet but not overpoweringly so, and a nice contrast to the others. I use this recipe, and with it polish off the jar of marmalade that also contributed to the apple-orange Anonymous Apple Pie back at Thanksgiving.
3. Oysters. My own invention. A hazelnut spritz so named because the first time I did them I didn’t grind the nuts fine enough, and they were weirdly blobby in shape. This year’s are slimmed down from my original recipe, with Swerve sugar substitute standing in for the granulated white sugar, and 3/4 cup of almond flour being substituted for one of the two cups of all purpose flour. I didn’t tinker with the ganache filling with a splash of Frangelico, but we did whip it to make it more airy, mousse like and less dense than usual. The result was very light, delicate, and cake like, much softer and tender than the normal spritz cookie texture. The dough however was a nightmare to put through the cookie press, with three tries and extensive profanity needed to achieve one useable cookie shape. If I do this again next year I might introduce a bit of Xanthan Gum to add more structure to the dough. Even with that painful birth, the result is quite pleasant. Worth further exploration.
4. Keto Linzers. This one is new this year. Although we substituted a reduced sugar, no fructose, whole fruit mixed berry/cherry preserve for the home-made filling, we followed this recipe. We reduced the amount of sugar substitute a bit because we are finding that it is in fact sweeter than cane sugar. The dough was very sticky and rolling between pieces of baking parchment or waxed paper is an absolute necessity, along with lots of extra coconut flour to keep the dough from adhering to the paper. The resulting cookies are delicate (this seems to be a standard characteristic of these alternative flour baked goods). These turned out nicely. A do-over if we bake keto again.
5. Mexican Wedding Cakes. A family standard, this year slimmed down. Except for the confectioner’s sugar on the outside. I used the family standard recipe, much like this one, but substituted 3/4 of a cup of almond flour for one of the two cups of all purpose flour, and Swerve buzzed down in the food processor for the powdered sugar in the dough. They flattened out a bit more than usual in baking, making buttons instead of more rounded/domed usual shapes, but are still as tasty, fitting the bill for this must-have.
6. Cocoa Macarons with White Chocolate Ganache Filling. I was just a observer on this creation. I am very impressed by Younger Offspring’s ability to leap into Fine Baking, and the associated display of piping skills. These by their nature are almond flour and egg white. The results of this recipe are spot-on in taste, with the occasional crackled top being a product of our very imprecise kitchen scale (note to self – this thing is due for replacement). The white chocolate ganache was enhanced by a dollop of raspberry liquor.
7. Cinnamon Swirls. Another specialty of Younger Offspring, these are thin and light, with a profound cinnamon kick that benefits from the addition of orange zest to the dough. Full octane – this one had no subs. The Offspring uses this recipe but leaves out the glaze – the cookies don’t need it.
8. Lemon cut-outs. In previous years we have made the Joy of Cooking sugar cut-outs, with lemon zest in the cookie, and icing made from confectioners sugar and lemon juice. This year we did a total keto cookie instead – this one, complete with icing made from the Swerve sugar substitute and lemon juice. This is the cookie that really demonstrated the difference that Xanthan Gum can make. Although the dough was slightly sticky, the gum gave it structure much closer to that of a dough with gluten-bearing flour in it. It was much easier to handle, roll, and cut than the similar no-gum dough for the Linzers. This dough also retained the cut-out shapes better during baking than the Linzer dough, which spread a bit more.
9. Not Your Average Toll House Cookie. This was our own minor modification. We start with the classic Toll House cookie dough, and we used real sugars and all purpose flour, but instead of loading them with semi-sweet chocolate chips, we used unsweetened cocoa nib chips from Trader Joe’s, plus a handful of the semi-sweet chips, well chopped. The result were these zebra-striped buttons. They are more cocoa bitter than sweet, and intense. An excellent “grown up” chocolate chip cookie that’s delicious with coffee, tea, or wine. I hope TJ’s offers the nibs again next year so we can engineer a do-again (they do have a habit of introducing something wonderful that then vanishes.)
10. Triple Gingers. Again, the ones I invented a couple of years back, but slimmed, with Swerve brown and white sugar substitutes, plus using 1 1/3 cup of regular flour plus 1/3 cup of coconut flour in place of the 2 1/3 cup of flour in the original. I also upped both the powdered ginger and ginger juice a bit. This was one of the first sub-in cookies I tried, and the one in which I discovered that the sugar substitutes are sweeter than real sugar. If I do these again, I would dial back the amount of both brown and white sugars because I prefer a lower sweetness level. (Side note – this was one cookie I had made surplus of last year and froze, so I was able to compare the full octane version and the modded version side by side. The difference was profound, so I do now firmly doubt the Swerve claim of “1:1 substitute for regular sugar in cooking and baking.”
11. Peanut Butter Cookies. Yes, we lost count along the way and ended up with eleven kinds this year. This was a new keto recipe, and by far the least successful of any we attempted. I used this one, with poor results. I used Teddy natural chunky peanut butter, an excellent local product I’ve used in baking for years (ingredients are just peanuts and salt). Note that the recipe did specify a natural style peanut butter. I followed the directions exactly, and used the amount of coconut flour indicated. The resulting dough was a bit softer/stickier than my usual, but not unreasonable to handle, and I was able to roll small balls and press them, although I ended up marking them with a fork as indicated instead of being able to use my usual cookie press (they stuck to that). BUT when I baked these, they exuded gushers of oil – so much that the cookies floated around and oven-fried rather than baked, and the oil overflowed the cookie sheet. I took them out just when they were cohesive and just a tiny bit brown on the edges, and rack cooled them – they were still dripping. After all of the oil lost in baking the result was dry and unappealing, with surprisingly little peanut flavor. I do not recommend this recipe, and don’t think it’s worth any further effort. If we go keto again next year I will look for a different peanut butter cookie.
Bonus Panforte: To round it all out, we did rescue from the freezer the second of the two panfortes I made last year. Obviously not keto – not by a long shot. Younger Offspring again demonstrated piping skills, using the leftover dark and white chocolate ganaches to adorn the top. We didn’t serve it on Christmas Eve, but we will certainly cut into it now, and save a goodly part for New Years Eve dinner as well.
So to sum up – some hits, some with room for improvement, and some misses. And yes – we do now have enough cookies to last forever. Again.
AND THE ANNUAL BAKING MARATHON COMMENCES!
Long time readers know that for decades now I’ve been making at least 10 kinds of cookies for the holiday season. Along the way other goodies have joined them. This year is no different. But how to manage it all?
Systems design and phased planning.
I’m only half kidding. I don’t sit down and do a critical path chart for cookie preparation, but I do put some thought into it. Last week I sat down and composed this year’s list. Over the years the list of must-do kinds has grown, leaving fewer slots for experimentation. This year we hit max do-over – ten kinds now proven and loved. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.
- Chocolate chip cookies – The original Tollhouse recipe (minus the nuts because so many other kinds I make have them).
- Peanut butter cookies – A family favorite. More or less the one from Joy of Cooking, but using Teddy Superchunk natural peanut butter instead of the more sugary big commercial brands.
- Mexican Wedding Cakes – Another gotta-have. Buttery pecan shortbread, rolled in confectioners’ sugar. I don’t stint on the toasted pecans.
- Bourbon Balls – Another standard done every year since I began this. A no-bake cookie. But I’ve been disappointed in the old recipe of late, so this year is a change-up. I’m trying out a recent NY Times recipe. https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1021660-fudgy-bourbon-balls
- Sugar cookie cut-outs – Another Joy of Cooking standard, but I add lemon zest and extract to the cookie, and made the plain confectioners’ sugar/water icing with lemon juice instead of water. Tons of fun to decorate with the kids when they were small, but a lot of work for one person, now. Some changes to this one, too this year.
- Oysters – One of my own invention. Or as they say in knitting – “unvention” (personal discovery replicating something previously done by others, but not known to the unventor at the time). This is a rich hazelnut spritz cookie, served up sandwich style, with chocolate ganache filling between.
- Iced Orange Marmalade Cookies – This will be the third year in a row for these. Obviously they’ve made the cut from exotic newcomer to gotta-have.
- Triple Ginger White Chocolate – Another successful original. I started with a variation on a light brown sugar drop cookie, made with ginger juice, dry ground ginger, plus minced crystalized ginger, along with white chocolate chips, that act as “internal icing” and counter the ginger’s heat. Love these.
- Earthquakes – Most other people call them Chocolate Crinkles. They are the fudgy, brownie like chocolate cookie that is rolled in confectioner’s sugar prior before hitting the oven. During baking they crack and split, making distinctive dark canyons across the white surface. Much loved (and nicknamed) by the kids, long long ago.
- Cinnamon Swirls – A specialty of Younger Spawn, who was Padawan, has now eclipsed the master. Spawn’s swirled icebox cookies are food-stylist-perfect, feather light, and intensely tasty.
- Jam Thumbprints – Eleven? Yes. Eleven. This was a late addition, by special request. I hope it will be a learning experience. Former Padawan Spawn says that a never-fail recipe for them is in their pocket. To date though, mine have been dismal – with no useful divots to retain the jam. No recipe for this yet – I eagerly await the personal import.
Oh. And Panforte. I make this liquor-soused chocolate/nut fruitcake every other year (one recipe makes two). It sits on the sideboard supping up its nightly drink until the day before it is served, when it gets a chocolate ganache top-icing. My mods to it include using less expensive dried fruit – 40% pitted prunes, 40% apricots, and 20% berries or cherries, and NOT using whole nuts. The thing is dense, and having whole hazelnuts and almonds in there make it quite difficult to cut. Instead I use halved or smashed hazelnuts and slivered almonds.
The secret of this juggling? Spreadsheets.
I have a master workbook. Each year I add a new sheet. I copy the previous year’s cookie row or enter new data. The sheet sums up my major ingredients at the top. It feeds into a shopping list form that I can tick off as have-on-hand or to-buy. There’s also a sheet where links or hard copy references to all the recipes live.
Geeky, yes. But effective.
Most years I’ve had to do these solo, although I was spoiled for a few when Younger Spawn was still living at home and evinced interest and growing skill. And I’ve always held down a full time professional job with an intense end of year activity burst (work has an annoying way of interfering with life.). Therefore I tend to do these as two-night exercises. Make dough on night 1, bake on night two. When I can I double up on baking and making the next night’s dough, but that isn’t always possible, leading to some intense weekend sprints to catch up.
And on preparation order – I group cookies by how far in advance I can make them (without freezing). Some types stay fresh longer than others. Some require time to cure or set properly. And some are truly ephemeral, best consumed on the week that they are made. Sequence runs something like this:
First – Panforte. Lasts forever, is better if it is made early and soused with extra liqueur daily until consumed. Ice with ganache the day before finally serving it. I usually do this the weekend after Thanksgiving weekend.
Second – Bourbon Balls. They are better if they have sat to cure a couple of weeks. Always the first cookie made. Usually the same day as the Panforte.
Third – Peanut butter. The natural oil content of peanut butter keeps these soft for a very long time, they are great keepers, and lead off the baked cookie production line.
Fourth – the sturdy drop cookies. Chocolate chip, triple ginger. Not quite a long lived as peanut butter, but if tightly sealed, better keepers than the more fragile guys.
Fifth – Sugar cut-outs, Iced Orange cookies, and the spritz cookies for the oysters. Both of these can be baked ahead and stored without their respective finishing frosting or filling. Kept tightly covered, they will dry out a bit, but will gain regain moisture from their wetter components when they are finished.
Sixth – This batch are more fragile and shouldn’t be made more than a week ahead of need. Earthquakes, Mexican Wedding Cakes in that order.
The ones that depend on Younger Spawn will of course have to await arrival, but if I were to slot them in regardless of Spawn-presence, the Cinnamon Swirls would go in the Fifth group, and the Jam Thumbprints in Sixth.
The instant icebox fudge comes last. Our old neighbor and adopted family member Ms. Jean taught me how to make it the very first holiday season we celebrated together. It’s a special treat that everyone loves, takes very little time, and that’s handy for using up small amounts of leftover nuts along with the chocolate. Like there would ever be leftover chocolate in this house.
Pix of these as they are finished. Or maybe I’ll wait until the end and post the traditional “family photo.”