Baker’s Solstice Countdown: December 7: Perfect Royal Icing

This recipe from Stella Parks makes the best royal icing I have ever tasted and decorated with. But that perfection comes with some cost. Ms. Parks is a marvelously scientific baker, and all ingredients are calibrated quite precisely. That means, of course, if you deviate in any way, you may not achieve the perfection she does.

One of this recipe’s strengths is that it starts out on the stovetop, helping to both dissolve the confectioners’ sugar, and cook the egg whites to a safe temperature.

I strongly urge you to put the confectioners’ sugar through a fine mesh sieve or strainer before you measure it, to get absolutely all the lumps out of it before you start. Ms. Parks assumes you will do this, and does not instruct you to do so. Lumpy royal icing is just plain frustrating.

Also, the tiniest bone to pick with the recipe: eggs are not manufactured to factory specifications. They are made by chickens. Every egg is different. “Large” eggs by USDA definition, can be a range of sizes, which means the amount of egg white in each egg is going to be different. Which means you may or may not get enough egg white from two “large” eggs. Which makes the icing a bit stiffer than intended, and necessitates adding more heavy cream in the thinning step.

Ask me how I know.

Have three “large” eggs on hand, and twice the heavy cream the recipe suggests, just in case. Lastly, please, please, please measure the egg whites before putting them in the sugar. If you have excess egg white, you can always toss it into some scrambled eggs in the next day or two.

You will need an instant read thermometer to make this recipe. It really helps.

The link to the recipe is below:

https://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2016/12/perfect-royal-icing-recipe.html

Baker’s Solstice Countdown: December 6: Chocolate, Cherry, & Pistachio Pinwheels

I found this recipe a long time ago, in some parenting/homemaking magazine, long since forgotten. But the cookies are unforgettable, and are a holiday tradition for us. They are another labor of love, with a number of fiddly steps, but the result is well worth the effort. Chocolate, pistachio and cherry are quite lovely together, and the ample amount of vanilla and almond extracts adds to the pleasing flavor and aroma of these cookies. Plus I love the look of them. They look pretty on a cookie plate even if you think you’ve botched the rolling up process.

Chocolate, Cherry, & Pistachio Pinwheels

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) butter, softened
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 large egg plus yolk of 1 large egg
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 ounce unsweetened baking chocolate
  • 1/4 cup shelled pistachio nuts
  • 1/4 cup dried sweetened cherries or cranberries
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, divided
  • 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
  • green and red liquid food coloring (you can use gel colors if you have them, but you will have to adjust the amounts to get the color you like)

Method:

  1. Beat the butter, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl of a stand mixer using the paddle attachment, at medium high speed (or high speed of a hand mixer) until light and fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Add the egg and yolk and beat at medium speed until light and fluffy again. Scrape the bowl again, and on low speed, mix in the flour until combined.
  2. Melt and cool the unsweetened chocolate as the package directs.
  3. Finely chop the pistachios, and the cherries/cranberries.
  4. Divide the dough into three equal parts (use a scale if you have one, it helps). Place each third in a separate bowl. Add the melted and cooled chocolate, and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract to one bowl. Add the pistachios, the almond extract, and 8 drops of green food coloring to another bowl. Add the cherries, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract, and 8 drops of red food coloring to the last bowl. Stir each bowl until the ingredients have blended. You may find it easier, if messier, to work the ingredients in with your very clean hands, washing in between bowls so you don’t mix colors.
  5. Place each portion between 2 sheets of wax paper. Roll each portion with a rolling pin into a rough rectangle about 8 inches by 10 inches. Stack the doughs on a cookie sheet and chill in the refrigerator for 5 minutes.
  6. Remove the top piece of wax paper on the chocolate dough. Remove the top piece of wax paper on the cherry dough. Invert the cherry dough onto the chocolate dough, and remove the wax paper. Remove the top piece of wax paper from the pistachio dough, invert onto the cherry dough, and remove the wax paper. If the dough seems very soft and sticky, chill in the refrigerator for 5 minutes. Otherwise, go on to the next step.
  7. Starting on a long side, carefully begin rolling the dough up tightly, peeling the bottom piece of wax paper as you go. If the chocolate layer cracks (it will), gently rub the dough together to close them. Take your time with this step, as a good tight roll will give you a better spiral in your cookies.
  8. Gently roll the dough log back and forth a couple times to smooth the outside, then wrap in plastic wrap and chill for 10-15 minutes in the refrigerator.
  9. Preheat the oven to 350 deg F. Cut the dough log into slices just under 1/4 inch, and move to an ungreased baking sheet, 2 inches apart. Bake 10-12 minutes, until bottoms are light golden. Move cookies from the sheet immediately to a cooling rack to cool.

Baker’s Solstice Countdown: December 5: Holiday Sugar Cookies

Let’s be honest with each other. Baking sugar cookies during the holidays is…well, more about the decorating than the eating. Don’t look at me like that, you know the sugar cookies are the last ones left on the cookie plates after holiday gatherings.

Don’t let that happen to you this year. Those of you who are having holiday gatherings will not have to coax your guests to eat these; you will possibly have to fight them to get one.

These sugar cookies are light, crisp, and buttery. The recipe uses vanilla extract and almond extract, for a more interesting flavor. I roll them nice and thin, starting with well-chilled dough and a floured surface. They bake up extra crispy that way.

Of course, there is also the decorating. I like to sprinkle colored sugar and sprinkles on these before baking, and they are also lovely decorated with royal icing. I intend to do a batch with royal icing, but today was not a good day for that, due to the extra “humidity” in the air. Yes, snow counts as humidity. Royal icing dries faster on dry days. Don’t be mad. It’s just science.

Holiday Sugar Cookies

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
  • 2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Method:

  1. In the bowl of a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar until fluffy and light. Add eggs, one at a time, and beat well, then add vanilla and almond extracts and mix in well.
  2. Mix together the flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Add to the butter mixture and mix on low speed until well blended.
  3. Divide dough into two parts, and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill in refrigerator until stiff enough to roll.
  4. Preheat oven to 350 deg. F. On a well-floured surface, roll out one portion of dough to 1/8-inch thickness, lifting and turning dough to prevent it sticking to the surface (flour the dough and rolling pin lightly if necessary).
  5. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Cut out desired shapes with cutters, and transfer to baking sheet, about 1/2 inch apart. Gather the scraps into a disc and re-roll, or wrap in plastic wrap and chill if the dough has softened too much.
  6. Decorate with colored sugar and sprinkles, if desired. Bake for 8-10 minutes, until just lightly browned at the edges. Remove sheet to a cooling rack to rest for a minute, then transfer cookies to the rack with a spatula to cool completely. (If using icing to decorate, wait until the cookies are fully cooled.)

Baker’s Solstice Countdown: December 4: Gingerbread Cookies

This is by far the best gingerbread cookie recipe I have ever eaten. Ever. The flavor is complex, full of warmth and spice, and the texture is crispy and light, not dense and tooth-shattering like many gingerbread cookies I have eaten. The cookies don’t need any icing at all, but the addition of royal icing decorations enhances the flavor of these cookies. I used currants for their eyes, but these little people are now safely stowed away awaiting their final decoration, after tomorrow’s bake. Royal icing recipes tend to make a lot of icing, so I like to do all my decorating at once if I can.

For the recipe, go to this link: Stella Parks’ Gingerbread Cookies at Serious Eats

Baker’s Solstice Countdown: December 3: Finnish Christmas Buttermilk Rye Bread

My great-grandma came from Finland to America with her family in 1896, age 4, but I didn’t know anything about Finnish food until recently. Now that I have collected a fine stack of Finnish cookbooks, I can work out some recipes of my own. This is the first of many Finnish bakes I will share with you, and this recipe is inspired by one from Beatrice Ojakangas’ book The Great Scandinavian Baking Book.

Rye bread is tricky business. To prevent the bread being dry and dense, the dough needs to remain somewhat wet and sticky compared to other breads you may have made. Try not to over-flour it as you knead it. This bread traditionally contains caraway seeds, but The Husband cannot stand the aroma or taste of caraway seeds, so I substitute anise seeds. You do what you like.

Ingredients:

  • 2 packages dry active yeast (4 1/2 teaspoons)
  • 1/3 cup warm water (100-110 deg. F)
  • 3 cups buttermilk
  • 3/4 cups molasses
  • 1/4 cup melted butter
  • the grated zest of two oranges
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons fennel seeds
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons anise seeds
  • 3 cups rye flour
  • 5-6 cups bread flour
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt

Method:

  1. In the bowl of a stand mixer, mix the yeast and the warm water with a fork, and let it stand for 5 minutes, or until foamy.
  2. In a 2-quart saucepan over medium heat, warm the buttermilk until it is steaming but do not allow to boil. Remove from heat.
  3. Stir into the milk the molasses, melted butter, orange peel, fennel seeds, and anise seeds. Mix well, then pour into the yeast mixture.
  4. Add the rye flour and beat well using the paddle attachment.
  5. Switch to the bread hook attachment, and add 1 cup of bread flour and the salt. Beat well. Continue adding flour, 1 cup at a time until you’ve added 4 cups, beating well in between each addition. Cover the bowl with a towel, and let the dough rest 15 minutes.
  6. Oil a very large bowl or container for raising the dough. Turn the dough out onto a well-floured surface, and knead for 5-10 minutes, until smooth, adding in the remaining 1 cup of bread flour as necessary to work with the dough. You may not need all of the flour – do not over-flour (see note above). Place the dough in the oiled container, cover and leave in a warm place to rise until doubled, at least 1 hour.
  7. Grease a large baking sheet. Turn out the dough onto an oiled surface, and divide it into 3 equal pieces (a scale is quite helpful here). Shape each piece into a round loaf, and place the loaves on the baking sheet, with room in between for rising. Cover the sheet and leave in a warm place to rise, 45-60 minutes.
  8. Preheat the oven to 375 deg. F. with a rack in the center. Once the oven is hot, prick the loaves all over with a fork. Bake for 40-45 minutes, until a wooden skewer stuck in the middle of a loaf comes out clean. Remove the loaves from the sheet to a rack to cool completely before slicing.

Baker’s Solstice Countdown: December 2: Anise Cookies

Today’s bake is Anise Cookies. They’re another family favorite and a labor of love because they take 2 days to make, and the recipe makes a lot of cookies. This is another recipe from my MiL, that I halved because the full recipe makes about 140 cookies. So now it only makes 5-6 dozen. 😂 I made the dough last night, baked and glazed them this afternoon. They will sit out overnight to dry.

Anise Cookies

Ingredients:
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup granulated sugar
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 tablespoons heavy cream
3 cups all purpose flour
1/2 tablespoon ground anise seeds (I sub’d ground star anise once because it was what I had, and now I use that every time. Either one works.)
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon anise oil (I order mine online from Olive Nation. Be sure to use oil for best flavor.)
1/3 cup beaten eggs (about 1 1/2 eggs, beat 2 eggs and save the leftovers for breakfast)
Glaze: 1/2 pound confectioners sugar, 3/4 cup + 1 tablespoon heavy cream

Method:

  1. In a medium saucepan over low heat, heat the honey, granulated sugar, butter, and 6 tablespoons heavy cream until melted, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat to cool.
  2. In a large bowl, mix the flour, ground anise seeds, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.
  3. Stir in the honey mixture, anise oil, and eggs until thoroughly mixed and smooth. (I’ve never used a mixer for this, but if you do, use a medium low speed.) Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
  4. Preheat the oven to 350 deg F. Scoop 1-inch pieces of dough with a spoon and roll into balls. Place on an ungreased cookie sheet 2 inches apart, lightly pressing down each ball to flatten slightly.
  5. Bake at 350 deg F for 12-15 minutes, until lightly browned. Remove gently from the cookie sheet to a cooling rack to cool completely (they will be a bit soft, but will crisp up as they cool).
  6. Put the cookies in a large rimmed cookie sheet. Mix the confectioners sugar and heavy cream in a medium bowl until very smooth with a pouring consistency. Pour over the cookies, mix with your hands, place on wax paper to dry overnight.

Baker’s Solstice Countdown: December 1: Oatmeal Crunchies

(Teacup and saucer: Miss Havisham’s Curiosities)

Today’s bake is Oatmeal Crunchies. They are The Husband’s favorite cookie, and the recipe is from my MiL (naturally). They are simple to make, so they are a great start to the month’s baking. They are light, full of butterscotch flavor, and well, crunchy. They are the kind of cookie you will have to have one of every time you walk by the cookie jar. They won’t be around long, but I don’t mind making another batch.

Oatmeal Crunchies

Ingredients:
1/2 cup shortening (I use Spectrum Organic All-Veg Shortening, but any all- veg should work)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 egg
1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup quick cooking rolled oatmeal

Method:

  1. In a stand mixer (or use a large bowl and a handheld mixer), cream the shortening and sugars together until they are fluffy. Add the egg, and continue to beat until mixture is light and fluffy again.
  2. In a medium bowl, mix the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together well. Stir in the oatmeal until it is well mixed in with the rest of the dry ingredients.
  3. Add the dry ingredients to the sugar mixture and mix until thoroughly blended with no dry pockets of flour. The dough will be little sticky, but still easy to work with. If it’s giving you a hard time, add flour a tablespoon at a time until you can roll a small piece into a ball. Too much flour will make them heavier and not as crunchy.
  4. Put a little granulated sugar in a little bowl, and start rolling 1-inch balls of dough, dipping the tops into the sugar, and placing them sugar side up on a ungreased cookie sheet about 2 inches apart.
  5. Bake for 10-12 minutes, until dark golden brown and crackly on top. Let rest on cookie sheet for a minute then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
    Depending on how big you make them, you will get between 3-4 dozen cookies.

Pantry/Freezer Tomato Soup

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 cup frozen chopped onions
  • 1 tablespoon dried parsley
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 x 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes, or pureed tomatoes
  • 2 cups water, divided
  1. Heat olive oil in a large (3 quart) saucepan over medium heat, until it’s shimmering.
  2. Add the onions, parsley, sugar, paprika, kosher salt, and pepper to the saucepan and cook, stirring to blend, until softened and fragrant, 1-2 minutes.
  3. Turn the heat to low, add the tomatoes and 1/2 cup water (if using pureed tomatoes, use the water to clean out the can, then add to pan), stir, and bring to a simmer (small, frequent bubbles). Adjust heat as needed to prevent burning. Cook, partially covered, stirring frequently for 20 minutes. Taste, and cook longer if the soup tastes “tinny” (like a can), but no more than 30 minutes.
  4. Add as much of the remaining water as necessary to bring to the texture you prefer, taste and add salt and pepper if you like.

Pantry/Freezer Chicken Noodle Casserole

serves 4 hearty portions

For the topping:

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1/2 cup dried plain breadcrumbs
  • 1 teaspoon salt

For the casserole:

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1/2 cup frozen chopped onions
  • 2 cups frozen mixed vegetables (or 1 x 15-ounce can, drained)
  • 2 x 10-ounce cans chunk chicken, drained (12-ounce cans are fine too)
  • 2 tablespoons all purpose flour
  • 2 1/2 cups water
  • 2 teaspoons bouillon powder
  • 2 cups uncooked egg noodles
  • 2 x 4-ounce cans mushroom pieces, drained
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

***Measure out all ingredients before you begin cooking. You will be a calmer, more focused cook. (Also known as “mise en place”)

  1. Preheat oven to 375 deg. F with a rack in the center of the oven.
  2. For the topping, melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Add breadcrumbs and 1 teaspoon of salt. Stir to coat, and toast for 2 minutes. Remove to a bowl, and set aside.
  3. In the same skillet, melt 2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Add onions and vegetables to skillet. Cook, stirring frequently, until they are soft and glossy.
  4. Add chicken, stir to mix, and cook 5 minutes, stirring frequently.
  5. Sprinkle the flour over the skillet mixture, stir to mix in, and cook for 1 minute. There should be no visible flour.
  6. Add the water and bouillon powder. Stir, scraping any stuck bits up from the skillet. Bring to a boil (lots of active bubbles) over medium-high heat.
  7. Add the noodles, stir, and cook over medium-high heat for 5 minutes, stirring every minute to prevent sticking. Remove from the heat.
  8. Stir in the mushrooms, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and taste. If you like, add 1/4 teaspoon more pepper.
  9. Transfer casserole into an 8-inch by 8-inch baking dish and spread evenly. Top with crumb topping and spread evenly to cover.
  10. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until the topping is golden brown and the casserole is bubbly. Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.

Pantry/Freezer Chicken Pot Pie

Now that you’ve gotten comfortable with cooking Chicken Noodle Soup, guess what? You know pretty much all you need to know to cook Chicken Pot Pie! This pie reminds me of the frozen pot pies I ate in my childhood, and I love that. My version has no bottom crust, but the filling is so hearty you won’t miss it.

You start out the same way you did with the Chicken Noodle Soup, with butter, vegetables, and chicken in a pan, cooked together in a broth, only this time you will be thickening the broth into a sauce. The whole thing goes into a square baking dish, with a pre-made crust on top, and into the oven.

The shopping list is almost identical, and maybe you still have some of the ingredients on hand.

Your shopping list:

  • butter
  • frozen chopped onions
  • 16 ounces frozen mixed vegetables (or canned)
  • 2 10-ounce cans chunk chicken in water (if the store brand is cheaper, but larger, go ahead and get it, chicken pot pie cannot have too much chicken)
  • all-purpose flour
  • chicken bouillon powder
  • 1 14.5-ounce can diced potatoes
  • 9-inch refrigerated ready-made pie crust (a package usually comes with two, but you only need one for the recipe; plan ahead and buy enough ingredients to make two pies!)

Your equipment list:

  • 12-inch skillet
  • 8-inch by 8-inch square baking dish
  • measuring cups and spoons
  • glass liquid measuring cup 
  • fork and spoon to stir with, and a serving utensil
  • pot holders and a trivet or hot pad

Here’s your recipe: (serves 4 large portions; serves 6 with fruit and bread)

2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup frozen chopped onions
2 cups frozen mixed vegetables (or canned, drained)
2 10-ounce cans chunk chicken in water, drained
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups water
2 teaspoons chicken bouillon powder
1 14.5-ounce can diced potatoes, drained
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 9-inch refrigerated ready-made pie crust

1. Preheat the oven to 400 deg. F. with a rack in the center.
2. Prepare the pie crust as directed on its package, but do not put it in the baking dish yet.
3. Melt the butter in a large (12-inch) skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and vegetables, and cook them, stirring frequently, until they are softened and coated with butter.
4. Add the chicken, and break it up a bit with a fork. You can leave some big bites if you like. Stir the chicken into the vegetables, and cook for 5 minutes.
5. Sprinkle the flour over the mixture in the pan, stir it in and cook it for 1 minute. You should not have any clumps of flour.
6. Add the water and bouillon powder to the pan, stir well, scraping up any bits that are stuck to the pan, and bring the mixture to a boil (Big, active bubbles).
7. Add the potatoes to the pan, stir everything together well, reduce to a simmer (small, less active bubbles), and cook, stirring frequently, until thickened slightly. If it still looks like soup, cook it longer. Stir in the salt and pepper, and taste. If you like it, it’s ready. If you want to, add 1/4 teaspoon more pepper, but you probably don’t need more salt.
8. Transfer the chicken vegetable mixture to an 8-inch by 8-inch baking dish and spread it in an even layer.
9. Gently lay the pie crust on top of the filling, pressing lightly into the pan so it is touching the filling. Fold any extra crust into the pan and press it against the sides of the pan.
10. Using pot holders, place the pie in the oven, and bake until the pie crust is a rich golden brown, and the filling is bubbly, about 30-35 minutes.
11. Allow the pie to cool on a trivet or hot pad for about 10 minutes before serving.

If handling a slab of pie dough seems intimidating, try cutting the pie dough into smaller pieces with a cookie cutter or a drinking glass, and arrange the pieces to cover most of the filling.

(Cross-posted at closertohomecooking.blogspot.com)