Baking on a Snowy Winter’s Day

The nice thing about wintertime — well, one nice thing about it — is that one is, if already kitchen-oriented, inclined to take on kitchen projects that you wouldn’t do at other times of year because you’re at home, it’s cold out, and you feel a need to do cozy odd things like attempt to make clotted cream. The bad aspect of this sort of thing is that in my case, this means your fridge winds up filled with endless little jars and tubs of the results of  these kitchen experiments. For the last few weeks, I have had so much dairy in the fridge I’ve had to make labels for the things I decanted or created in order to tell them apart: “CLOTTED CREAM” “CREAM LEFTOVER FROM CLOTTED CREAM” “VANILLA SWEETENED CONDENSED MILK” “HOMEMADE YOGURT” “COCONUT MILK.” It has gotten quite out of hand, especially when you take into account the tubs and jars of normal leftovers, like the chicken lentil soup (about 3 cups, I need to get someone to eat that) and the two chicken thighs from Friday night dinner and so on.

The three of us have been hanging around the house a lot, these last few February days, which you’d think would result in much of this stuff getting consumed, but last night we had a friend over for dinner and ordered in a large quantity of Chinese food, and it’s gotten so bad that the leftovers had to go in the auxiliary fridge in the basement, which normally holds only cases of seltzer and bags of flour. And that was after I took action to try to clear out space in the kitchen fridge by making a cake. As of this writing (1 p.m., Sunday afternoon, February 12th) all of the Chinese leftovers have been consumed except for a little bit of rice (which my daughter will, I’m sure, be happy to have with furikake on it as a mid-afternoon snack), and half of the cake is gone, too. If I can think of another thing to bake that will use up the last cup of coconut milk, the last of the leftover cream, and maybe that little jar of caramel frosting that’s wedged into the back of the fridge, I’ll feel a lot better about the state of the refrigerator.

In the meantime, though, we get to finish this cake, which I pretty much made up, and which turned out surprisingly well — so well, in fact, that I’ve already had requests to make it again.

The goal, when I started on this cake, was simple: bake a cake that will use up the rest of the store-bought yogurt. I eyeballed it and estimated it was about 1 cup of yogurt. (It turned out to be precisely one cup of yogurt, which I felt pretty smug about.) I said to my daughter, “I am going to bake a cake. How do you think cinnamon cake sounds? That sound good?” She said yes, so I began to think about cinnamon cakes, and I wondered about pound cake. I did some research in books and online and realized that I wasn’t really game to do a proper pound cake. The good pound cakes I make — they’re stupendous, but they require things like “whip 8 egg whites in one bowl, 9 egg yolks in a separate bowl” and I just didn’t have the patience for that kind of thing. I remembered a King Arthur Flour recipe for a brown sugar pound cake, and decided to model my cake after that. It’s a fairly simple cake that isn’t a true pound cake to me (it doesn’t have the same velvety crumb) but it’s good and the brown sugar gives the crust a really nice burnt-sugar flavor. The cake I made was baked in a Bundt pan but I’m sure you could do this as a loaf cake, as rounds, as whatever you wanted.

The list of ingredients:

2 sticks butter; 2 jumbo eggs; 1 cup light brown sugar; 1/2 cup granulated sugar; 2 tsp. vanilla; 2 cups flour; 2 tsp. baking powder; 1 tsp. baking soda; dash of salt; 1 heaping tablespoon cinnamon; 1 cup plain yogurt

Preheat oven to 350°. Butter the baking pan(s) of your choice; I used a 10 cup Bundt-pan.

Cream the butter; add both sugars and whip together until they’re smooth and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, mixing thoroughly after each addition and scraping down the bowl once or twice. In a separate bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients (flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon). Add the vanilla to the butter and sugar and eggs, and then  add half of the flour mixture. Be sure to scrape the bowl down. Pour in yogurt; mix; add second part of flour. Combine again, scraping the bottom and walls of the bowl. Pour batter into pan(s); bake until cake tester comes out clean or cake hits about 200°. (In a Bundt pan, this took about an hour.)

Pulling this cake out of the oven was a pleasure; it smelled so ridiculously good, even if there wasn’t any chocolate in it. All of us have been eating slices of it all day long; to my daughter, it’s a perfect snack cake to have with a glass of milk; my husband thinks it’s a perfect match for a cup of coffee.

It tastes strongly of cinnamon and brown sugar, though my daughter suggested I might want to go with more cinnamon next time. I realized this morning, as I had a second slice, that it reminded me a lot of the Drake’s Coffee Cakes we used to get when I was little. True, they are fundamentally different things: my cake was not a soft yellow cake with a grainy, sugary streusel topping, but somehow the two cakes are related.

It occurs to me that this is the kind of cake that can probably be altered a million different ways. I could do another one and use up the coconut milk in it; leave out the cinnamon but throw in some shredded coconut, a little extra vanilla? The basic formula remains stable: two cups of flour, some baking powder, some baking soda, two eggs, two sticks of butter, two cups of sugar, one cup of dairy, and — flavoring. Whatever the flavoring is, don’t be stingy with it.

This is a cake that works well, but not well enough, to distract a middle-aged woman from dealing with the hell of making Valentine’s Day cards for her child to bring to all 25 of her classmates at school. To achieve the kind of numbness necessary to survive that, I’m afraid something more drastic is called for. Something along the lines of Everclear in a tall glass. Obviously this isn’t happening (and the previous sentence was, also, obviously a joke, don’t worry: I’m not much of a drinker to begin with, and I’m definitely not someone who’s gonna be drinking Everclear) so I suppose I should cut myself another piece of cake and face the glitter glue.

 

Kimball Brook Farm Milk: For When You Can’t Fly to England?

Americans with an interest in English cookery are aware that there are dairy products that are normal in England that basically don’t exist in America. For one thing, there’s clotted cream. For another, there’s double cream. These are creams that have a significantly higher butterfat content than any of the conventionally-available American forms of cream (light cream, half-and-half, heavy or whipping cream).

Those of us who have eaten the real things in England know that once you’re back home in America there’s really no way to get your hands on any of this stuff. It’s a sadness to which one becomes resigned. You have to maintain a stiff upper lip about these things.

So it comes as a shock to buy a carton of milk at the store, bring it home, and find at the neck of the bottle a dairy product that you regard as impossible to obtain in the US. When I bought this milk and brought it home, I had no idea that I would find white gold stuck in the neck of the bottle.  I tasted a little of the cream, gawped, and used some of it to make carrot pudding. I spent a long time reading online about butterfat percentages and different types of cream, trying to establish some ideas regarding what kind of cream this really was.

I had no butterfat numbers for this product; but I did have the means to reach out to Kimball Brook Farm and ask them questions. So I did.

I had a lovely exchange first with a farm staff member and then I got transferred to one of the farm’s owners. I learned a great deal. My basic question was, “Hey, is the stuff on top of your whole non-homogenized milk double cream, in the English sense?” It became clear that the woman I was writing to didn’t understand what was meant by double cream, so using the information at this chart I rephrased, asking if they had percentages regarding butterfat content of the product (actually the two products that came in this one milk bottle).

The farm owner told me that the whole milk is usually 4% butterfat, but that the cream at the top of the bottle is 40-45% butterfat. This would put it in the double cream range, according to the WhatsCookingAmerica information. They say double cream is 48% butterfat. So not identical — but close.

Before I’d learned about the very high butterfat content in this stuff, I decided to jump in with two feet and attempt  to make yogurt with a mixture of the cream and the milk. I had to decant the milk into another container so that I could cut the milk carton with scissors to get at the cream: there was no other way to get at the cream. Using a skinny silicone spatula and a Hello Kitty chopstick, I scraped out about 1/4 cup of cream; I then added milk to make 2 1/2 cups, and put it in a pot to come to a boil. As soon as the cream began to melt, a yellow buttery film appeared on the surface of the milk. “Okay,” I thought, “this is going to be weird.”

And weird it was. I boiled the milk, cooled it to 110°, and added the yogurt starter as you’re supposed to do, and then I decided to do as a friend of mine does and just let the yogurt ferment in the Dutch oven where I’d boiled the milk. It seemed like a good idea, and if I’d been paying closer attention to maintaining the requisite warmth around the pot, I’m sure it would have proven to be a brilliant idea. But in my case, I got distracted by other things, and what happened was, when I checked on the yogurt around 5.30 yesterday evening, what I had was slightly yogurty-smelling milk with little yellow bubbles of butterfat floating on top. Cue Kevin Kline. It wasn’t that it looked scary or smelled rancid or anything like that; but it was plainly not right.
So: Operation Yogurt Rescue commenced. This meant trying again by letting the yogurt warm up to 110° again. It took a little maneuvering and juggling to do it, but I did it; in the end I transferred the stuff into a glass jar, wrapped the jar in towels, put the jar and towels into a clean Dutch oven with a lid, and put the whole shebang into a pre-heated oven (as low as I could get it, 170°). Then I left it there overnight. “We’ll see what happens,” I said to my husband. He replied, “Look, if it fails, don’t agonize over it, ok? It’s just some milk.”
This morning, I was awakened by the cats and staggered into the kitchen to feed them; while they snarfed their yummy slop, I opened the oven and pulled out the Dutch oven. I was not exactly optimistic about what I’d find. To my considerable surprise, the yogurt had thickened, beautifully! It was definitely yogurt-textured. Sure, it still had the weird buttery dots on top of it, but it was definitely yogurt.
Late in the morning, I baked a yogurt cake using the top several tablespoons of yogurt; the cake, which I dosed with some vanilla and cinnamon, came out a delicious, slightly sweet snack cake. What shocked me about the yogurt was that once I’d used the buttery layer of yogurt at the top — which was also slightly grainy-looking — the yogurt that remained in the jar was so smooth, and so rich, it was shocking. It was also rather more tart than I expect my homemade yogurt to be, probably because of the long fermentation period. But no matter: this stuff is lush. If I strained it to make yogurt cheese, it would be the yogurt cheese of the gods.
The graininess of the top was a little off-putting. I read up online about this grainy quality in yogurt. The consensus was that you could just whisk the yogurt and that graininess would disappear; this was exactly what happened when I whipped those top tablespoons of yogurt before using them in the cake. It was definitely unappealing, but clearly a non-issue if you just stirred the yogurt after it had chilled.
In the meantime, we ate the snack cake and I got another message from Kimball Brook Farm, this time from the person who does all the in-store tastings. She wrote that she thinks I’m basically correct about the cream-on-top being more or less an analogue to British double cream, though the numbers are not precisely matched. She admitted that she’d never personally made yogurt with any of their products, but said — and this was exciting — that she had made clotted cream at home. She gave me a link to a recipe, and said, you have to use the heavy cream to do this, but here’s how you do it.
Naturally, when I was downtown yesterday, I picked up a bottle of the cream on top milk and a bottle of the heavy cream. My husband, opening the fridge last night, said, “You know, I remember ten years ago, you were someone who only bought 2% milk; you would yell at me if I bought whole milk. And now you’re buying heavy cream with abandon.” “I’m going to try to make clotted cream,” I said.
He didn’t complain.
It turns out you have to keep your oven at 180° for 12 hours straight to make clotted cream. This means it’s something I can’t decide to do just any old day. However, I have announced my plans to my husband, and so, probably after dinner on Friday night, I intend to turn the oven on, pour the cream into a pan, and then…. see what happens.
I will report back.

Double Cream. Maybe. I’m Not Sure.

The other day I was at the Elm City Market in downtown New Haven. It used to be a genuine food co-op; the co-op failed, and now it’s just a grocery store that caters to an extremely food-aware, and pretty affluent, clientele. Some items are crazy expensive and some are perfectly reasonable. On the whole, the quality is very good indeed. While I do not do most of my shopping there (far from it) I’ve come to rely on it for a few categories of things I can’t easily obtain elsewhere.

A case in point: it is one of the few shops I can get to easily that has my preferred brand of milk — Farmer’s Cow — in big jugs. We go through a lot of milk, and while I’m not wild about buying milk in plastic jugs, generally, there’s no question this is more cost-effective than the waxed cardboard cartons. So once in a while, I pop by the Elm City Market and buy milk; I also like to snag Cabot or Arethusa Farm Dairy brands’ sour cream, and sometimes I’ll pick up a tub of really good yogurt, usually Arethusa.

A few days ago I was in there getting my milk and some yogurt and my plan was to buy a big tub of yogurt so that we’d have some to eat for a few days and then I’d use the last of the yogurt as a starter for a batch of homemade. I thought, “Well, with this big container of Farmer’s Cow milk, we should be fine,” but then my eye landed on a smaller container of milk that had a $1.99 sale sticker on it. Kimball Brook was the name of the dairy. I knew nothing about it. But it said “Cream on Top Whole Milk,” and I found that interesting. I decided that for two bucks, I could afford to take it home and see what it was like.

This afternoon I opened the carton because I needed milk for making carrot pudding. Actually, I needed cream, which was something I didn’t have (technically speaking). Reading the recipe that said I needed 1/4 cup of heavy cream, I thought, “I bet the stuff on top of that carton of milk will work,” so I opened the milk, and I’ll be damned: the stuff on top of the milk was a solid, unpourable mass. In a good way. “HOLY CRAP,” I said loudly. My daughter, sitting at the kitchen table glumly writing a thank-you note, said, “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” I said. “But you remember how we were watching Two Fat Ladies and they were using double cream to make that cake?” My daughter nodded. “I think I have double cream here,” I said, peering into the bottle. “Look at this!” I said. I carried the bottle over to her. “Ewwwwwww,” she said, squinching up her nose.

“No,” I said, “This is incredibly cool.” I took a knife and jabbed it into the carton. Milk came up through the cream; the cream had formed a plug, a second seal, on top of the milk. “This is just like the milk that your grandma and I used to buy when we lived in England,” I said. “This is amazing!”

“Gross,” said my American daughter.
“Be that as it may,” I said, “I am using this to make dinner.”

I used it to make a carrot pudding. Carrot pudding is the kind of vegetable pudding that was standard fare in households in another era: a pureed, cooked vegetable, with cream and egg added, poured into buttered ramekins, and baked. In this case, a pound of carrots was prepped, boiled in a small amount of water, and then pureed with two eggs, salt, pepper, a pinch of nutmeg, and about 1/2 cup of cream from the top of this bottle of milk. The recipe I used (which I found somewhere online, and which was sufficiently dull and inaccurate that I’m not even going to link to it) advised using 1/4 cup of cream (which didn’t seem like a enough to me) and baking the puddings for twenty minutes. At twenty minutes, these things were still basically raw. It took 45 minutes at 375° to get these done correctly. When you put the puree into the cups, it just looks like orange slop, not too inspiring. But it bakes up into this sweetly puffy little thing that you can either serve in the ramekin or turn out from its mold onto a plate. It’s true it’s not an exciting dish, though certainly one could add spices and such to make it more interesting. I think the purpose of it is just to hide the essential fact of “vegetable” and make it soft and comforting and a bright, colorful spot on an otherwise drab plate of food. In my case, I was serving it alongside peppery steak and a delicious-but-not-interesting-looking curried rice with chickpeas and coconut milk. So the carrot pudding was just the thing.

However: there is no question that Kimball Brook Farm milk is a very interesting addition to my kitchen. The milk is very rich. I am looking forward to making yogurt with it. Stay tuned.

 

I lost my cookies. And I forgot about them. But then I found them again. In FudgeTown.

Some months ago my daughter asked me why we never have Oreo cookies in the house and I thought, “You little ingrate.” Then I went and wrote a few hundred words on the subject, and made a plan for Chanukkah. I have since executed this plan. The plan was, Have boxed, storebought cookies make up a significant portion, if not all, of my daughter’s Chanukkah gifts this year.

In the end, it’s about 60% cookies, 40% other stuff (the Big Present being, She got her ears pierced), but every time she pulled out a box of cookies, she was thrilled. The biggest hit was the Mallomars. (Not that there were complaints about any of the other cookies.) I said “These cookies are, like, these are not normal, everyday, box cookies.” My husband piped up, “I’ve heard of them, but I’ve never had a Mallomar.” “You HAVEN’T?” I asked, astonished. It’s not like I grew up with stacks of boxes of Mallomars in the house, in fact I don’t think my parents ever bought them at all, but I’ve certainly consumed them, sometime in my 46 years. I said, “Well, now’s your chance.” That night, our daughter opened the package, shoved one into her mouth, declared it the best cooky ever, and handed the box to my husband. He gingerly pulled one Mallomar from the plastic packaging and considered it; then he bit in. “These are good,” he said. “These are really good.” I threw my hands in the air: “Of course they’re good!”

“I could eat a whole package of these,” my husband said thoughtfully, reaching for a second one.

Talking about Mallomars led to my Googling Mallomars, and reading an extensive Wikipedia entry on the subject of chocolate-covered-marshmallow cookies. It was here that I read the name of a cooky company, Burry, that I swear to God I had not thought of in probably thirty years. And yet I was immediately thrown back to the kitchen where we kept cookies on this one long shelf, boxes and boxes of cookies (and also variety pak boxes of Fritos, Doritos, and Cheetos, and tall boxes of cold cereal). Burry brand cookies were a major part of my childhood, along with some Nabisco classics (Oreos), some Keebler classics (chocolate covered graham crackers), and — the best — Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies (Freihofer’s a close second).

So how on earth had I forgotten about them?

It wasn’t that they were so great. They were, in fact, kind of schlocky. But I loved them. I could not, at first remember what the specific cooky was that we used to get; but we live in the era of Google search, and specifically Google Image search. And this is how I had my Moment of Cooky Memory, The Cooky I’d Lost and Unexpectedly Found: the Fudge Town cooky.

Burry’s Fudge Town cookies. Which came in two varieties: “vanilla” with a “chocolate creme filling,” and “chocolate” with a “chocolate creme filling.” They were awesome. They were kind of flower-shaped, with a hole in the middle of the cookies and you could take your finger and pop the blob of filling in the middle right up and eat it separately.

A Google search for Burry’s Fudgetown Cookies results in an appallingly low number of hits: 1230. Even if you spell “Fudge Town” as two separate words, you only get about 15,000 hits. Compare this to “Oreos”(more than 22 million hits). Statistically speaking, almost no one loves these cookies. But I loved them, and though I’d forgotten about them, I will never forget them again. It turns out that I am not the only person who fondly remembered plowing through cellophane sleeves of these things, but I am the only person in my household who remembers them at all. I also remember Mr. Chips, which I think my brother liked, and the Burry’s Best bagged cookies, which were kind of competition for the Pepperidge Farm bagged cookies (like Milanos and others). We never had the Gauchos, the peanut butter cookies — oddly, though my mother and I both love peanut butter, we never ever had peanut butter cookies — but I bet they were really good.

The lost cookies of my packaged-snack childhood will no longer be forgotten. I may use the recipe linked to above to try to recreate them. Maybe not for a while. We’ve not even started the Keebler Deluxe Grahams, or the Oreos, yet, because since I’ve discovered how to make Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies… well: I am easily distracted. My family even more so. Last night we watched a DVD of Two Fat Ladies in which the ladies made a raspberry-strawberry shortcake that caused my daughter to croon at the tv, “I need that.”

If I can find a source for double cream….

 

 

Easy Cooking for the Easily Distracted: Pasta with Onion, Egg, and Sour Cream

Maybe this sounds vile to you, but bear with me. I didn’t serve this to my family (though maybe I should); this is a meal I made for myself on a night when I was alone in the house and I didn’t have to worry about making anyone but myself happy.

I was, I should add, also making chocolate honey cakes at the same time I made this meal; part of why I did what I did was that it allowed me to be cooking dinner at the same time I did other things — other much messier, more attention-demanding things. Baking chocolate honey cakes is all well and good but it takes energy. Making pasta with onion, egg, and sour cream takes (I learned) very very little energy, though it does require time.

This meal was going to be just pasta with onions and sour cream, but then I mistakenly cracked open four eggs when I only needed two for the cake; so I incorporated the other two eggs in the pasta dish. No one suffered as a result, I can assure you.

In a small heavy pot heat up a couple tablespoons of olive oil (not extra-virgin) and a tablespoon of butter. Thinly slice two large onions and a couple of fat cloves of garlic and bung them into the pot; let them cook for a really long time. Like, an hour and a half even, Stir occasionally. Grind in some pepper. The onions let off a lot of liquid; let them just simmer in their juices, with the heat on pretty low, but not all-the-way low.

In a small bowl, whisk together two eggs (I had jumbo eggs on hand, so that’s what I used) and a couple tablespoons of sour cream. Grate in maybe 1/4 cup of Parmesan cheese.

Cook fettuccine (or other long skinny pasta) in boiling water; drain; dump egg mixture and onion mixture on top and toss and toss and toss.

The resulting dish is delicious, but very dull looking. I make no apologies. It would be a nice side to serve with some red meat and a bright green vegetable. But I ate it all by itself (and all by myself) for dinner tonight. And I will do it again some day, I am sure.

A Holy Grail: How to Make the Entenmann’s Chocolate Chip Cookie at Home, or, Ok, it’s not EXACTLY the same but it is damned close

As a child, we almost never made cookies from scratch. My aunt taught me how to make something called Chocolate Pinks (chocolate cookies with pink frosting) that we found in a cookbook (I should Google it and try to figure out where it came from, and make them again and see if they’re any good). My brother used to make chocolate chip cookies sometimes. But 99% of our cooky consumption was store-bought boxed or bagged cookies. Some of them were wonderful and some of them were pretty crappy but we loved them anyway and some of them we bought and then hardly ever or never got again because they were so uninteresting.

The Platonic ideal of the chocolate chip cookie was the Entenmann’s chocolate chip cooky. They were small, soft, generous with the chocolate chips, and had a real, genuine brown sugar taste and texture to them. They were wonderful. My brother and I could eat an entire boxful in one sitting. But they were expensive, as store-bought cookies went (and go today), and so they were a once-in-a-while treat.

I’ve long wished I could just live on Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies. In recent years it’s occurred to me, I’m a good enough baker now, I could maybe try to make cookies that good on my own. But I never thought hard about it. To be honest, I just didn’t believe it was possible. But the other day I decided to give it a roll. I Googled “soft chocolate chip cookies” or something like that and scrolled around a bit and eventually I landed on a website that had a cooky recipe titled “The Best Soft Chocolate Chip Cookie.” The photos — of which there were many — did indeed look more or less like Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies. So I took out a stick of butter and an egg and did some thinking.

The list of ingredients was this:

  • 8 tablespoons of salted butter
  • ½ cup white sugar (I like to use raw cane sugar with a coarser texture)
  • ¼ cup packed light brown sugar — I used 1/2 cup brown sugar, which was a big deal I think.
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 egg
  • 1½ cups all purpose flour (more as needed – see video)
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ¼ teaspoon salt (but I always add a little extra)
  • ¾ cup chocolate chips (I use a combination of chocolate chips and chocolate chunks)

What you do is, you preheat the oven to 350°, and you set up a couple of baking trays with parchment paper. Then you soften the butter so it’s almost liquid, and you cream the butter with the sugars in your mixer (or do it by hand, whatever, I don’t care). I used 1/4 more brown sugar than the original recipe called for, which I think was a significant change — I really wanted that brown sugar taste to be strong. Add the egg (I used an extra-large egg) and the vanilla. The original writer says that if you beat this for too long it toughens the egg and makes for a stiff cooky; I have no idea if this is true, but I’m reporting it just in case.

Then you mix in quickly and completely the dry ingredients, which you’ve whisked together (the flour, baking soda, and the salt). Then you add the chocolate chips. The dough will be a very soft, cohesive blob in the mixing bowl.

Take the dough by the teaspoonful in your hand and roll nice little balls. Put the balls on the baking sheet about an inch apart from each other, and press them down ever so slightly to flatten the tops a tiny bit. Bake these cookies for about ten minutes. The tops should look dry, but alarmingly close to uncooked. You will think, “Damn, these are still raw.” Nothing should be golden brown — you know how some cooky recipes say “bake till edges are golden brown”? Sometimes, that’s a good thing, that’s what you want. In the case of the soft chocolate chip cooky, it means you have gone too far and have made a cooky that will not be soft or chewy once it’s cooled. It means you have wasted your time and effort and ingredients. We will not discuss it further.

Let the cookies set on the baking tray for a few minutes to cool before you transfer them with a spatula to a baking rack. You can eat them now that they’re not scalding hot, the chips will remains melty for a while yet.

These are without any doubt in my mind the best chocolate chip cookies I have ever made. My husband, who is not a worshipper of the Entenmann’s chocolate cooky, but knows it well, said that it was absolutely clear these were the best possible approximation of the Entenmann’s cooky as could be produced by a home baker. I baked two dozen of these cookies (the original recipe, which tells you to make the cookies big, produces between 9 and 12 cookies, according to the author) and they lasted all of two days. Writing about them right now, I wish I had about five of them to eat all by myself, and I would make more, except I made a chocolate cake yesterday and I’ve got to be responsible about these things.
But as soon as the cake is gone, I’ll be making more cookies.

Baking on Demand: or, How One Tired Hausfrau Rose to the Challenge Two Times in Two Days

It was late December and that meant there was a lot of baking on demand to be done, at least for me. My husband had no such pressures to meet; he was busy thinking about what he might make for Christmas dinner, which is a whole ‘nother story.

In years past, I’ve been involved with cross-country Holiday Cooky Exchanges; this year, all the regulars were too depressed to get revved up to do it, so that was off the table. But even this year, friends still hosted holiday parties, and that meant that guests still had to come up with lovely little tidbits to bring to add to the festivities. I don’t mind; I’m all for bringing things to festivities. But I was definitely a little blah about it, in terms of planning. I mean, I knew we wanted to go to these parties, and I knew I would have to bring something, but I was not feeling inspired, culinarily speaking. There was no one thing that I was thinking, “oh, man, I’ve GOT to try out those [fill in the blank] cookies on those people! They’re gonna love ’em! It’s gonna be awesome!”

No, this was a situation where we had one party on Saturday and one on Sunday, and in each case, the morning of the event, I awoke with no sense whatsoever of what I was going to bring. It’s really not like me, to be honest. I had moments of doubt: would I come through? And what would I come through with, exactly?
In the end, I began my work by thinking carefully about what ingredients I had on hand and what I’d have to do to turn them into something special. In each case, time would be tight: I’d have a maximum of three hours in which to commence assembling ingredients, baking, cooling, and icing. What’s more, I had to be working in cookies — cakes would not do. These had to be finger-food treats. (I could have gone a savory route, but that would have sent me into same-old-same-old territory — cocktail meatballs or pimiento cheese — and I just didn’t want to do that to my friends.)

In the case of the Saturday event, I wanted something fairly simple to put together but a little quirky. The hosts are people who like good food; they cook, by which I mean they cook ambitiously. I wondered what cheery herb or spice I had that I could throw into shortbread — because shortbread is a fast thing to make, and calls for very little more than flour and butter and sugar. Did I have anything kind of special just sitting around? I remembered the baggie full of candied rosemary that I’ve had sitting in my “sweet” drawer for two years, and thought “That’s it. Rosemary shortbread.”

And so I threw this together in about 15 minutes.

Take a lot of candied rosemary, and grind it in a food processor all by itself (just leaves, removed from stems); I wound up with about 1/2 cup of pulverized candied rosemary, which was probably 8-9 stems of rosemary, but I didn’t count before I started so who knows.
To this, add 1/2 cup granulated sugar; 1 3/4 cups white all purpose flour; 1/4 cup cornstarch; 1 tsp. vanilla powder. Combine in processor and then cut in one stick of butter. Combine, pulsing the processor, until coarse meal forms. Press into 8×8″ baking pan lined with parchment paper; bake at 325° until golden brown (about 30-40 minutes). Prick holes in dough with a fork before putting in oven, if you can remember to do so; I only remembered about halfway through baking, and everything turned out just fine. Cut shortbread in pan while still warm, then remove to rack to cool.

The resulting shortbread is a little sweet and is slightly perfumed with the rosemary. It’s definitely a “sweet” and not a “savory” but the line could certainly be blurred. If you left out the sugar and upped the salt a little, and maybe added some pepper, you’d have a really twisty-turny, probably very delicious snack. (The candied rosemary is always going to mean “sweet” but rosemary is such a flexible flavor, I wouldn’t put it past me to make another batch of candied rosemary just to give a pepper-candied rosemary shortbread a whirl.)

I gave a piece of the rosemary shortbread to my husband and a piece to my child and they both gobbled them down happily. Then my daughter went off to a birthday party for one of her associates.

About ninety minutes later, I lined up the stubby rosemary shortbread soldiers in a little blue Pyrex tub, covered the tub with tinfoil, and we piled ourselves into the car. We picked our daughter up at her friend’s birthday party and then went to the homey-yet-elegant Christmas party a couple miles away. There, two tables held a vast array of Christmas-y treats: a ham, numerous dips and crackers and cheeses, and a bowl of punch. I imagined that my daughter would graze here happily, but it turned out she was quite full up on party good already; she instead sat down in a corner chair with a coloring book and occupied herself nicely, completely fried, for about half an hour. Then we became aware of two things: 1. Our girl needed to sit down and eat a proper meal and 2. She desperately needed an early bedtime.

So we revised our plan — not that we really had a plan — and made our excuses and wrapped ourselves up in our winter coats again and tumbled back into our car. We were driving down Fountain Street when I observed that we were mere yards away from a favorite old restaurant, House of Chao. “We could stop and get Chinese food for dinner,” I said. There was no good reason to do this; we had good food at home. But my husband immediately grasped the appeal of this plan and turned onto Whalley Avenue. We had a hot, cozy meal; my daughter nearly fell asleep at the table, she was so tired (but she declared the food delicious); and we drove home.  It was a very cold night, and we were all exhausted and what we really wanted was to be in our pajamas and curled up on the couch in blankets with our stuffed animals and perhaps a cat or two. By 8.30, this was achieved, and I wondered how the rosemary shortbread had gone over, but wasn’t too concerned. To be honest, it was a “what’s done is done” situation. If no one liked it, then no one liked it, and there was nothing I could do about it.

The hostess of Saturday’s Christmas party was present at the Sunday afternoon party. So I got my little blue Pyrex tub back — empty. This was heartening: if  no one had liked them, she had at least been kind enough to empty the tub out so that I wouldn’t be faced with humiliating leftovers. “I hope people liked them,” I said. “I was kind of going by the seat of my pants.” She told me that people devoured the cookies, and wanted to know the recipe. Well, Gracious Hostess: see above. I thanked her for returning the little tub to me: it’s not a valuable piece of china, but I am very fond of it.

“What did you make for today?” she asked me.  The tables in the kitchen were, again, covered with platters and trays and bowls of homemade goodies, some sweet, some savory. Some things were easily identified (guacamole) and some things were mystery tidbits (tiny quiches that held some savory thing entirely unidentifiable by sight). I laughed and said, “I made something else up,” I told her. “I made these little vanilla poofs with a brown sugar glaze. They’re on a white tray with little blue flowers on it.” I glanced back at the table where the tray of little vanilla poofs with brown sugar glaze was…. nearly empty. Maybe five biscuits left. Out of three dozen made. You could really see the little blue flowers. As we stood in the kitchen doorway blocking traffic, a guy to my left said, “You made those little biscuits? Man, those are good.

I hadn’t started the day feeling so optimistic about whatever it was I’d be bringing to this party. I knew I had certain parameters, and a lot of flexibility. I needed finger food, but it could be sweet or savory; I needed something I could assemble handsomely and carry the daunting distance of one block; and I needed something that would be enjoyed by adults and children. I wanted to stay away from nuts (one worries about allergies at parties) and I wanted to avoid being deliberately weird. (This was not the time to try a pepper-and-candied rosemary-shortbread.) Remembering how, years ago, I brought soup and biscuits to a friend’s family on this same block, just a few houses down, when she’d broken her arm and couldn’t cook for the family, and how the four year old in the house had been enchanted by the biscuits (which she had called “butter muffins”), I decided to make a fancied-up biscuit. Like shortbread, biscuits are made out of basically nothing, and can be gussied up in countless ways.

And so I reached for the flour bin and the butter and got to work. Soon we had several dozen 1″ vanilla biscuits baking. My husband expressed disapproval, saying I was getting too experimental with something I was planning to serve to friends and total strangers; but I was undaunted.

I took 1 3/4 cups of white flour, 1/4 cup of cornstarch, 2 tablespoons of baking powder, and 1/2 cup of white sugar and sifted them together. I whisked in about a teaspoon of vanilla powder. I cut in nearly a stick of butter, and set the bowl in the fridge to stay cold while I whisked together my liquid ingredients: I killed the last of a carton of heavy cream, maybe 1/4 of a cup of cream, blended with whole milk to make one cup of liquid, with a teaspoon of vanilla essence added. Basically, I made biscuits, but with more sugar than I’d normally use, and a double dose of vanilla.

I preheated the oven to 400° while I added the liquid to the dry ingredients, and combined them. The dough was rather sticky and delicate, and I had to flour the countertop heavily to be able to roll the dough out. But I managed, and using a 1″ round cutter I got almost four dozen little vanilla biscuits onto baking trays (about 15 onto a tray, as I recall). They baked nicely, if lopsidedly (totally my fault, I must have been sloppy when cutting). When the tops were just golden, I took them out of the oven, and when they had cooled, I took a misshapen one and broke it in half. “Here,” I said, offering a piece to my husband and a piece to my daughter. “Mmmmm!” my child said happily. My husband was less impressed, and said they were good, but he clearly didn’t see the point. “I’m not done yet,” I said. I went back into the kitchen and made a glaze. I melted a couple tablespoons of butter in a pot and added to it about four tablespoons of brown sugar. I stirred over medium heat until the sugar began to boil, and kept stirring to get the sugar to dissolve. I poured in a couple tablespoons of milk and kept stirring, over lower heat. I cooked this fairly carefully for a couple of minutes — I wanted to be sure this was as smooth as I could get it, but I also didn’t want it to boil over and make a huge mess — and then I turned off the burner and let the sugar and milk cool down. About five minutes later I stirred in about a cup of sifted confectioner’s sugar, and I whisked and whisked and whisked it until it was absolutely smooth. I lined the biscuits up on cooling racks that had waxed paper underneath them, transferred the glaze into a measuring cup (so I could pour more easily), and began to pour the glaze over the biscuits.

This was a messy process, and it did not result in beautiful, evenly, perfectly covered tops of all the biscuits, in part because so many of them had slanty tops (I reiterate: this is my fault, not the fault of the recipe). Some biscuits had more glaze than others. I’m going to be honest: These little vanilla poofs were quite homely.

However, the glaze hardened nicely, and by the time I could assemble them on a tray without dinging the glaze, the biscuits looked cute, if a little uninteresting. (Someone with more of an interest in the aesthetics would have added a contrasting-color fillip, like bright green sugar crystals dappling the glaze, or tiny sprinkles shaped like snowflakes, or something like that. Candied violets. I do not have the time or patience for this kind of thing.) Nonetheless, I knew these things would be a pleasure to eat, and I called my husband over. “Have one of these,” I said. He said dismissively, “I already had one, it was good.” I said, “Yeah, but have one of them NOW.” He obediently took a glazed biscuit from the tray and popped it into his mouth. “Oh,” he said. “Now, this version, I approve of wholeheartedly.”

He ate two more biscuits before we headed out to the party. I wrote up a little card explaining that these were vanilla biscuits with brown sugar glaze, taped it to a toothpick, and jabbed the toothpick into one of the biscuits. When we got to the party I set the tray down and stopped paying attention. Maybe half an hour later, I glanced at the tray — I was looking to snag a little artichoke and spinach quiche thingy — and half of them were gone. About an hour later, there were maybe five or six biscuits left. And then, by the time I was telling my daughter that it was time to put on her shoes, it was time for us to go home, there were none left.

I discovered this when someone asked me, as I was wrangling my daughter into her coat, and wondering where my boots were, “What did you bake for the party?” I said, “These little vanilla biscuits. Oh! I need to get my tray actually to bring it home. I’ll just move whatever’s leftover onto another tray.”  I located my boots, set them just outside the door, and I went into the kitchen and looked for my tray. It was on the table, empty. The little card was lying there, but the vanilla biscuits — they were all gone. Only thing left on the tray was the toothpick with the card saying “vanilla biscuits with brown sugar glaze,” and the little blue flowers printed on the tray.

So it appears that the vanilla biscuits with the brown sugar glaze — which my husband described as slightly too experimental sounding — were a huge success. Assuming no voracious dogs in the house: Any little treat where the tray is left empty after 90 minutes is a success.