Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Valentine's Day (or any day) Sugar Cookies

Since it was literally snowing sideways today, I spent the day inside, baking (and watching movies, and those other things normal people do on snow days). Since Valentine's Day is fast approaching, I decided to make sugar cookies and use the heart sugar cookie cutter that I have never managed to use before. I just don't make sugar cookies unless it's Christmas time...that is until I learned about royal icing. I mean, sugar cookies are time consuming, and even though they taste good, there are many other cookies I'd rather eat. But what a sugar cookie has that no other cookie does is visual appeal. I love that you can decorate them like a blank canvas, and sprinkles are great and everything, but royal icing really gives them that professional look. You may have seen seasonal sugar cookies decorated in stores and thought, how do they make them look so good? The answer, my friend, is royal icing (and a lot of practice drawing with a pastry bag).

Today, I just went for something simple but appealing. Pink hearts.

The following is the recipe for sugar cookies. I am telling you, this dough is so easy to make, and so easy to roll, you won't believe it. Here's the recipe:


* 1 1/2 cups butter, softened
* 2 cups white sugar
* 4 eggs
* 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
* 5 cups all-purpose flour
* 2 teaspoons baking powder
* 1 teaspoon salt


1. In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar until smooth. Beat in eggs and vanilla. Stir in the flour, baking powder, and salt. (If you are using a stand mixer, add flour gradually). Cover, and chill dough for at least one hour (or overnight).
2. Preheat oven to 375. Roll out dough on floured surface 1/4 to 1/8 inch thick. Cut into shapes with any cookie cutter. Place cookies 1 inch apart on cookie sheets (give them a quick spray if you like, but I find you don't need to grease them).
3. Bake 6 to 8 minutes in preheated oven. Cool completely.
Makes about 60 cookies.

Now the first thing you'll want to be sure of, especially if you've never made sugar cookies, is to have enough time to chill the dough. An hour is fine, but I usually leave mine overnight so I can minimize the mess in my tiny kitchen by cleaning up from making the dough before settling in to roll, cut, bake, and decorate them.

Once you've chilled the dough, you'll need a flat, clean surface to roll your dough on. Some people have pastry boards or cloth, but I just use my kitchen table. That way I don't have to worry about whatever I'm rolling on sliding around. Sprinkle a bit of flour on -- a bit! You want just enough flour on the surface to create a thin film, and you should still be able to see the surface through the flour. Also put some flour on your rolling pin. Oh no, you don't have a rolling pin? That's alright! A wine bottle (preferably empty) will do just fine.

When I roll dough, I like to make one good flattening roll, and then flip the whole piece of dough over to begin the "evening out" roll. I suggest you roll out as much dough as your space can hold. If you keep breaking off small pieces to roll and only make 8 cookies or so with every piece of dough, you'll run into he problem of consistent height in your cookies. Some might be closer to 1/8 in. thick, and others 1/4 in, and you might think they all look the same but, usually they aren't. This will cause different cooking times in the oven, and some will be more browned than others, which is not ideal. However, if you only have a small space, just try your best to watch the thickness of your cookies, and compare them to the previously cut ones.

Thickness is also another personal choice. For Christmas, when I use a lemony icing and sprinkles, I like my cookies thin, about 1/8 of an inch. But for these Valentine's cookies, with thick royal icing spread on them, you want your cookies on the thicker side as well. Something needs to balance out the extreme sweetness of the frosting, and a thin little cookie isn't going to cut it.

Move the racks of your oven to the two topmost rungs. I find that if I bake sugar cookies too close to the bottom of the oven, they burn on their bottoms, and look uncooked on top. You can certainly put two sheets in at once though if they are on the top two rungs. You will want to watch them carefully as these little buggers can really burn fast. As soon as you see any eensy bit of browning on the bottom edges, yank them out. Then cool them on racks after they've been on the sheets for a bit.

So, now, royal icing.

Here's a recipe that will make enough to ice the cookies from the recipe above (and 60 is a lot of cookies!)

2 cups confectionary sugar
1 1/2 Tbsp Meringue Powder (you can substitute egg whites, but some people don't like raw egg whites in their food; use 2 medium egg whites)
1/2 tsp vanilla or lemon juice or another flavor you like
Several Tbsps of room temperature water (start with 3)
Food coloring

Royal icing is different from frosting. It will be spreadable and seem pretty liquidy at first, but it dries solid with a matte finish. Therefore, you would never want to ice a cake with this, since you'd probably need a saw to cut it open (not to mention it would not taste good). Royal icing is used by professional bakers to make roses and other flowers for cakes ahead of time; they are then transferred to the cake once they are hard. They also use it to decorate cookies, like we will be doing here. When it is dry, it won't be smearing off if you accidentally bang into it (like a cupcake frosting), which I think is a great thing. The other nice thing is that royal icing is water based, so it comes off of things very easily (can't say as much for the food coloring though).

So, you put all the frosting ingredients in your mixer, and beat it on high for 10 minutes, stopping as necessary in the beginning to scrape down the sides and make sure it is all incorporated. You will need a stand mixer for this, because you definitely will not want to be holding a hand beater for 10 minutes, and it could burn out your motor on it. (If you don't have a stand mixer, you can make a different kind of icing, with confectioners sugar, a little lemon juice, and a little milk, which will be like a glaze). Don't move that icing until it's been 10 minutes. It might look ready but trust me, it is not. I have done this more than once and I have been very unhappy with the results (I told you I'm not very patient).

Now you need to check the thickness. Chances are, it is pretty thick now. You'll want to add at least two more tablespoons of water. You want the frosting to be easily spreadable if you are going to spread it on the whole cookie, and even if you are going to pipe it, it needs to be pretty thin. It will still work if thick, but won't give you as smooth a look on your cookie. Once you've got your thickness the way you want it, add your food coloring.

I like to take a little bit out and put it in a small piping bag for white, and then separate the other colors out as necessary. I just added some red into the whole batch for this one though. As you can see, they are pink, not red.

It is very difficult to get red frosting, and even if you manage to, you've probably used your whole food coloring jar, and the frosting will probably have an odd chemical taste. Here are your options: 1. Buy "no taste red" food coloring. This is specially designed not to make you gag when you add a lot of it in. or 2. only make a little bit of red. There is no way you could make the whole bowl red, but a small cup, sure.

Then, you're ready to decorate. You can pipe designs with this, or just spread a coating. Whatever you want to do is up to you. Don't layer it too thick though: you do want to be able to taste cookie, right? Let them dry for a few hours. The test that they are ready is that the frosting has become a uniform color. If you see dark pink and light pink, the frosting is not set.

So, the things to remember:
1. Coat surface and rolling pin for easy rolling.
2. Roll dough to an even thickness and roll as much as you can at once for uniformity in cooking.
3. Take cookies out at the first sign of browning on bottom edges.
4. The frosting isn't dry until the color is uniform. Don't eat until you see that!

These are a great treat for kids, to bring to a party, or even to make for your sweetheart on Valentine's Day. They will be very impressed. I mean, who wouldn't want a Valentine's message in cookies?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Carrot Cake Cupcakes

And now for the second installment on cakes. This time, cupcakes! But not just any kind of cupcakes, carrot cake cupcakes! These are my all time favorite, and the weird thing is, I don't really care for carrots on their own. Although many think that carrot cake is an "adult cake," kids will like this version as well. No raisins and no nuts (yuck!) But, if you are a real adult, you can certainly add them to the recipe. I got the base recipe from smittenkitchen (great site for recipes), and altered it a little bit to fit my tastes. It's a really simple recipe but it yields great results. There are also just general cupcake tips if you have a different recipe you prefer. Read on!

So for carrot cake you've got to have two elements; first the cake, and then the cream cheese frosting. If you don't have the latter, well, no one will like your cupcakes :).

Here's the cake:

2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground ginger
2 cups sugar
1 1/4 cups canola oil
4 large eggs
3 cups grated peeled carrots
1 cups coarsely chopped walnuts (optional)
1/2 cup raisins (optional)

Preheat oven to 350.

Line 24 cupcake molds with papers, or butter and flour them.

Whisk flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger in medium bowl to blend. Whisk sugar and oil in large bowl until well blended. Whisk in eggs 1 at a time. Add flour mixture and stir until blended. Stir in carrots (and nuts/raisings, if using). Divide batter among cupcake molds, filling 3/4 of each.

Bake cupcakes 14 to 18 minutes, or until a tester inserted into the center of one comes out clean. Let cool in pans for five minutes or so, then transfer cakes to a cooling rack. Let cool completely before icing them.

And here's the great twist on the frosting: maple!

Two (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups confectioners’ sugar
1/4 cup pure maple syrup

In a stand mixer beat all the ingredients on medium until fluffy. Chill the frosting for 10 to 20 minutes, until it has set up enough to spread smoothly.

So let's start with the cake. First of all, if you have a food processor, you'll want to use it for the carrots. Once peeled, cut then into 2-3 inch peices and plop them in there. Grind it on pulse (so you can control how fast and how long it chops for, so you don't end up with carrot juice, which has happened to me on more than one occasion.) You want your carrot pieces to be small because no one likes crunchy carrot cake (see photo). If you don't have a food processor, then you can grate them with one of those large cheese graters, or even mince them all by hand, but that will take a very long time and you will probably never want to make this ever again.

So you've got your carrots, and then you want to get your dry ingredients ready in a separate bowl. Then mix the sugars and the oil. They have to be incorporated completely, forming a sludge (see photo). Then you'll want to crack eggs in, one at a time, meaning to incorporate one egg into the sludge before adding the other.

Now, maybe you have a strategy for cracking eggs, and maybe you don't. But if shells are a constant problem for you, here's a tip: crack your eggs on a flat surface (counter) not an edged surface (bowl). Why? Have you ever noticed that thin almost skin-like layer underneath the shell? Well that is your friend. If you crack on an edge and break that skin and separate shells from that skin, well then its up to chance whether those shells get in your batter. But by breaking it on a flat surface, the shell fragments remain attached to the skin, and never come off (well, almost never). This technique has always worked for me.

Now, you mix all the separate ingredients together, according to the instructions, and your batter is ready. So now it's you versus the cupcake tray. One of my friends mentioned to me that she hates making cupcakes because not only is it a huge mess getting the batter into the individual cups, but that all of the cups come out different heights no matter how close she tries to get them. I agree--those things are very annoying. And here is how we fix that. An ice cream scoop.

If you have an ice cream scoop that has one of those metal pieces inside that rotates to clear the ice cream out (I have a smaller version as well for dropping cookies onto cookie sheets), you are in luck. You have the perfect tool to lessen your cupcake-making stress. Even if your scooper is just a level half-sphere it will help you out. By scooping the batter over its bowl, and then putting it into each cup with the scoop, you have a pretty perfect measuring cup and a less messy way of transporting the batter. Try this next time. I had a small scoop, so I put two scoops in each cup, and the results are below. They are pretty even and definitely the most even batch I've made.

Cupcakes complete. Now for the frosting--this is the easiest and best tasting frosting ever. The tips I have for this are the same as I had earlier for my other cake frostings: make sure the butter is at room temperature, as well as the cream cheese. These bases need to be soft or you'll have lumps in your frosting (it will still taste good though). Also, incorporate the fats (cream cheese, butter) a little before adding the powdered sugar so it doesn't spray out of the bowl and onto you during mixing. After trying this recipe a number of times, I found that there wasn't enough maple flavor for me, so I put about 2 TBSP more maple syrup, and I preferred it. But you can do as you like.

If you don't feel like getting out your cake decorating supplies (or don't have them) put the frosting in a ziplock bag, and force all the frosting into one of the bottom corners. After refrigerating, cut of a small part of the corner, and make a swirl with the frosting on top of the cupcake. Yours can and will be much prettier than mine (cut way too big of a hole at the corner).

To recap the tips for this recipe.:

1. Shred carrots small to avoid raw carrots in final cupcakes.
2. Crack eggs on flat surface if you have problems with egg shells dropping in your batter.
3. Use an ice cream scooper to help you limit the mess and get even sized cupcakes.
4. Make sure cream cheese and butter are soft before making frosting.
5. Add a little extra maple syrup to the frosting if you hope to get a kick of maple flavor.

Bring them to your next party, or make them for someone special. I promise that they will convert any carrot cake haters in your life.