Monday, January 29, 2007

Mondays with Maida - Plain Old-Fashioned Sugar Cookies

Page 193 in the old book / page 221 in the new book

Every time I make these - and I've made them many, many times - I am always a little surprised by how good they are. There is no secret ingredient or even anything remotely unusual about them, they are very easy to make, and the dough handles like a dream, but mostly and most importantly, they just taste incredibly good. If I were compelled to explain the "secret" to these cookies, I'm afraid all I'd be able to come up with is real butter and real vanilla. There's not much else to explain the fantastic flavor.

I make these almost every Christmas, often at Easter or Valentine's, and on occasions in between. This is a very versatile cookie and can be rolled thick or think and cut large or small. I usually roll them a little less than a quarter of an inch thick and cut them in circles or occasionally hearts. This time, being that it was for no particular occasion, I was not constrained by tradition in any way and decided to try out a cookie cutter I bought years ago in an antique store. I have no idea what it is supposed to be (if anything), but it seemed to be a hit and was cause for much discussion (what is it?).

Here's the panel ...

Suzanne: "I love sugar cookies! Cathy’s cookies had just the right amount of sugar on them so that they were not too sweet. The shape of the cookie was quite unique and whimsical. Rating - 4.5"

Denny: "I liked the unique design of the cookie cutter very much; kind of like a "fleur de lis" for any Saints fans. But it's just a sugar cookie. +1 on presentation (cutter) and -1 for no chocolate. I'd give them a 3. Rating - 3.0"

Laura: "You can never go wrong with a good sugar cookie... and these are good sugar cookies! Light and crunchy, with a great flavor. The sprinkling of crystal sugar on top adds an elegant and tasty touch. (The lovely unique cookie cutter also gets a 5/5) . Rating - 5.0"

Terri: "These are great old-fashioned sugar cookies. The crystal sugar on top adds a nice touch. They're crunchy and not too sweet. I liked the cookie cutter that Cathy used. It looks like a "flying comma". Adds an interesting look to a basic sugar cookie. Rating - 3.5"

Overall rating by the panel - 4.0

In two weeks - Chocolate-Chip Pillows

Nutrition Facts

Monday, January 22, 2007

Mondays with Maida - Cornell Sugar Cookies

Page 192 in the old book / page 220 in the new book

I completely forgot to take a picture - hence the funny looking blob above. Actually, the cookies didn't look that much different. They were very plain, soft, and were hardly my idea of a sugar cookie. They had an interesting flavor and an even more interesting back story.

In the late forties Dr. Clive McCay**, a professor at Cornell University, was asked to help improve the diet of patients in New York state mental institutions. Dr. McCay decided the best place to start was the bread and he developed a recipe for what came to be known as Cornell Bread. The key ingredients in the recipe, which were chosen to enhance the protein and vitamin content of the bread, were soy flour, wheat germ, and dry milk. Maida Heatter has taken these signature Cornell ingredients and applied them to the sugar cookie, producing something quite different from your typical sugar cookie. There are a few other ingredients worth noting in this recipe: raw sugar, nutmeg and allspice. The spices are hardly recognizable (though Laura caught it and came and asked if there was nutmeg in the cookies), but definitely contribute to the flavor, and the raw sugar adds a little crunch here and there.

I decided to forgo the pastry cloth this week and had no trouble rolling these out on a floured counter top. I cut them a little smaller than recommended and ended up with 29 rather than 18 cookies, but I thought the size was still generous. The cookies were good, but not good enough to make up for their plain-Jane appearance. Perhaps I could do a little nutritional/visual enhancement of my own... say, a little chocolate icing?

** sorry, the article I've linked to was only available through the Google cache, but it is by far the most informative I found

The panel was a little short-handed this week with Suzanne on vacation and Denny out sick...

Laura: "These are good. Moist and chewy with just a hint of spices (nutmeg and allspice). Very yummy. Rating - 4.0"

Terri: "These are very tasty and not as sweet as most sugar cookies. I'm not sure how many calories though. Not dry, but quite plain. Rating - 3.5"

Overall rating by the panel - 3.8

Next Week - Plain Old Fashioned Sugar Cookies

Nutrition Facts

Monday, January 15, 2007

Mondays with Maida - Dione Lucas' Sablés

Page 190 in the old book / page 218 in the new book

I've gotten off easy the last couple of weeks - if only all rolled cookie doughs were as easy to handle as this one! Once again the dough is rolled unchilled between sheets of wax paper, chilled briefly and then cut. In spite of the fact that I went with a cutter with a ruffly edge, I was still able to easily release the cut cookies from the cutter.

The cookies themselves were a little disappointing. Pretty as they were, they were rather bland in flavor. They have ground almonds and a little rum in them, but the almonds contribute more to the texture than the taste of the cookie, and the rum is more noticeable to the nose than the tongue. Even the whole almond that tops the cookie could stand to be enhanced flavorwise. For some reason (perhaps to keep the whole cookie uniformly pale in color?) the almond is not toasted beforehand as it was for last week's cookie.

Now let me tell you a little about Dione Lucas. I was not familiar with her name, but I suspect many of you are. She was the first woman to graduate from the Cordon Bleu and the first woman to host a television cooking show (in the late forties). Maida Heatter calls her "one of the greatest cooks of our time" and says that she served these cookies at a memorable dinner party. Julia Child, who many of us might consider to be "the mother of French cooking in America", herself attributed that accomplishment to Dione Lucas. Ms. Lucas wrote several cookbooks, including The Cordon Bleu Cookbook, and ran the Egg Basket restaurant in New York. She died in 1971.

Here's the panel...

Suzanne: "The cookie again this week was a somewhat plain, but I enjoyed the taste. I thought it had a slight buttery taste, but maybe what I was tasting was the rum. It was an attractive cookie with a clear glaze on top which I expected to be sweet, but it wasn’t. Rating - 3.5"

Denny: "Dione should drink more rum when she bakes. These were Ok, kind of bland especially when compared with many of the others we've tried. I'd give them a 2.0. They're actually better but the chocolate penalty of -1 drives them down and I actually like shortbread. Rating - 2.0"

Laura: "This is a very nice shortbread type cookie. Very tasty. Love the crunchy almond on top. Yum! Rating - 3.5"

Terri: "These are very tasty with a slight flavor of rum. They were a little bit dry, almost a shortbread consistency. The almond and glaze were delicious. Rating - 3.5"

Overall rating by the panel - 3.1

Next Week - Cornell Sugar Cookies

Nutrition Facts

Monday, January 08, 2007

Mondays with Maida - Ginger Shortbread Cookies

Page 188 in the old book / page 217 in the new book

These cookies are mildly spiced and very crunchy. The texture was verging on a candy-like crunch and wasn't at all what I expected for a cookie labelled as shortbread. When I first read the recipe and saw it called for dark brown sugar and it was called shortbread, I thought it too good to be true. I guess it was!

They couldn't be easier to make. The dough comes together quickly and then is rolled between sheets of wax paper before chilling for just a few minutes. Cutting the cookies out is equally easy, as the dough handles well. I didn't have a smooth circle cookie cutter of the proper size (1-3/4 inch), so I made some with a slightly smaller (1-1/2 inch) cutter and some with a slightly larger (2 inch) one. Both sizes worked well. These cookies spread a little and left some melted butter on the cookie sheet.

Here's the panel...

Suzanne: "This was a good cookie, not great, just good. The spices reminded me of spices in a pumpkin pie and therefore would be good to serve in the winter months. Rating - 3.0"

Denny: "Excellent. I'm not that big on ginger, but these are great. I don't even eat gingerbread because of the ginger taste. The glaze seemed to make them a little crunchier. I'd give them a 4, deducting 1 for no chocolate. Rating - 4.0"

Laura: "Yummy crunchy cookies - just the right mix of spices! These are very tasty cookies. Rating - 4.0"

Terri: "These cookies are delicious. Just the right amount of ginger makes them mild, but spicy. The almond in the middle is not only decorative, but very tasty. I liked the crunchiness of this cookie too. Rating - 4.5"

Overall rating by the panel - 3.6

Next Week - Dione Lucas' Sablés

Nutrition Facts

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Essence of Chocolate

If you follow any food blogs, you've probably already gotten a peek at The Essence of Chocolate - a gorgeous chocolate cookbook from the guys at Scharffen Berger, John Scharffenberger and Robert Steinberg. I'd had my eye on this book, so I was thrilled when offered the opportunity to review it Happily, the book lived up to and even exceeded my expectations.

This is not just a cookbook. Interspersed with the recipes are chapters that describe how the Sharffen Berger company came into being, how chocolate is made, and how cacao is grown. Both the narrative and recipe sections of the book are lavished with beautiful full page photographs.

Perhaps what pleases me most about this book is that there are so many enticing recipes and that they generally appear to be very doable - not overly difficult and not requiring obscure ingredients. If I allowed myself to dog-ear this book (I can't bear to - it's too beautiful), there would probably be at least twenty page corners folded over. I'm also very happy to find a number of ideas for using those cocoa nibs that have been languishing on my shelf.

The recipes are divided into four sections: Intensely Chocolate (rich chocolate sweets), Essentially Chocolate (lighter chocolate sweets), Hint of Chocolate (sweet and savory recipes with just a little chocolate), and Basics and Add-Ons (recipe components or accompaniments that aren't necessarily chocolate). Some of the recipes come from the folks at Sharffen Berger, but most are contributed by well-known chefs and cookbook authors, including Rick Bayless, Flo Braker, Thomas Keller, David Lebovitz, Alice Medrich, and Jacques Pépin.

There are also a number of simple ideas, called "Quick Fixes", scattered throughout the book. These are more like interesting ideas than recipes: load up a clean pepper grinder with cocoa nibs and mill some nibs over melon or strawberries; or use a mixture of cocoa powder and salt as a rub for chicken, meat or vegetables.

Like most everyone else, I'm trying to get back to eating a little less indulgently after the holidays, so I have not yet sampled any of the chocolate sweets in the book. I did try the Three-Bean Chili which has a bit of cocoa in it to provide rich color and aroma. This was a very easy to make vegetarian chili, using canned beans and tomatoes and having a cooking time of only 10 minutes. Probably because of the short cooking time, the acidity of the tomatoes seemed to overwhelm the other flavors. But allowing the chili to sit overnight and reheating it eliminated this problem entirely. I thoroughly enjoyed the leftovers. Next time I would make this the night before I planned to serve it.

I've long wanted to make marshmallows and when I saw among Claire's new year resolutions, "Make Marshmallows", I thought, me too! There just so happens to be a recipe for marshmallows in the chapter of Basics and Add-Ons. It is used in the S'mores recipe and is suggested as one of the things you might dunk in the Chocolate Orange Fondue. I'm enjoying mine straight, though I plan to have a couple in a mug of hot cocoa tonight. Marshmallows are basically a sugar syrup mixed with gelatin that is beaten into a foam and then allowed to set. You'll need a candy thermometer, but other than that they're really very easy - and fun! This particular recipe is flavored with a generous amount of vanilla extract and dusted with a mixture of cornstarch and confectioners' sugar, but you could tinker with the flavoring or coatings. I'm thinking next time of rolling them in toasted coconut, dipping them in chocolate, or as my brother David suggested, rolling them in cocoa powder.

If you're still not convinced that you must have this book, you might want to take a look at a few of the recipes from the book that are posted at Leite's Culinaria, where the book was named as one of the Best 20 Food Books of 2006: Almond Roca, Apricot Hazelnut Squares, and Cocoa Caramel Panna Cotta.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Mondays with Maida - Uppakra

Page 186 in the old book / page 216 in the new book

If only these had come up a week earlier in the rotation! These pretty little Swedish cookies are rich and crumbly and would be perfect included in an assortment of Christmas cookies. With their buttery flavor and the crystal sugar sprinkled on top, they reminded me of those ubiquitous "Danish Butter Cookies" you see this time of year under various labels and almost always in blue tins. With a little potato flour in the mix, these cookies were much lighter in texture than their tinned cousins and were also graced with a sprinkle of finely chopped almonds.

The dough chills for just a brief period and didn't stick to the pastry cloth, so rolling was relatively easy. You have to keep the rolling pin floured though, because the dough has a tendancy to stick to the rolling pin, particularly at the edges. The cookies are formed by cutting circles and then cutting about a third of the circle off (I found a bench scraper worked well for this) and placing it atop the remaining two-thirds of the cookie. The cookie is then brushed with a little beaten egg and sprinkled with almonds and crystal sugar.

Here's the panel...

Suzanne: "The cookie is a mix between a shortbread cookie and a sugar cookie. The cookie is a little dry and crumbly. It isn’t as sweet as a sugar cookie, but it did have large sugar granules on top. I also like anything with nuts, so I enjoyed the ground up almonds on top. I do have to admit that the cookie does play tricks with your mind. It looks like a half of a round cookie, so my mind is telling me I need another half. Rating - 3.5"

Denny: "Nicely done, but a tad understated. Maybe I'm just cookied out from Christmas. I'd give them a 3 with the obligatory minus one for no chocolate. Rating - 3.0"

Laura: "These cookies had a delicate flavor, but they were a bit dry for my liking... I was out of the office for several days and Cathy saved some for me in a zippy bag. Because I ate them several days later, that may have contributed to the dryness. Still, they were nice cookies. Rating - 3.5"

Overall rating by the panel - 3.3

Next Week - Ginger Shortbread Cookies

Nutrition Facts