Friday, December 19, 2014

What's Baking: Cut-Out Sugar Cookies

Back in the day, cut-out sugar cookies were one of my favorite cookies to make. Aside from choosing which cookie cutter to use next, my favorite part of the cut-out cookie process was decorating the cookies before they went into the oven. In my mind, the more sprinkles, the more festive the cookies. Needless to say, I may have gone a little overboard with the decorations.

However, once they were out of the oven, although the cookies always looked delicious, they weren't really all that tasty. Enter in this cut-out sugar cookie recipe from The Kitchn. It's touted as the end-all, be-all cut-out sugar cookie recipe, and by gosh, I think they might be right! This is no bland sugar cookie my friends. Its flavor is a delicious melding of vanilla, almond, and lemon. Oof! So good! So deserving of all these exclamation points!

This past weekend I made a full batch that I shared with friends during a night of square dancing (as one does in the Northwoods), and today I made a second batch to send out to a few folks on my Santa list. This recipe is easily halved (use one whole egg; halve all the rest of the ingredients) and the cookies taste delicious decorated solely with sprinkles or with a little icing (and, um, a ton of sprinkles) on top. 

Cut-Out Sugar Cookies (printer-friendly version)
makes 2-3 dozen cookies, depending on cookie cutter size

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

1. Using an electric mixer, cream together the butter, cream cheese, and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg, then beat in the vanilla extract, almond extract, and lemon zest. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as necessary.
2. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients in several small batches while stirring at low speed. Continue stirring until all of the flour is nearly incorporated. Then stir by hand to completely incorporate the flour.
3. Divide the dough into two equal portions. Pat one of the portions into a circle, then roll flat (1/4" or 1/8" thick) between two sheets of parchment paper. Repeat with the second portion of dough.
4. Refrigerate the rolled-out dough for at least one hour. The dough can be kept in the fridge for up to five days.
5. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Use cookie cutters to cut the dough into different shapes. Place the cut-out dough onto a baking sheet covered in parchment paper or a silpat.
6. Bake for 8-15 minutes (depending on cookie thickness). Remove the cookies from the oven once the edges are set and just beginning to turn gold in color. Let the cookies cool on the baking sheet for 10 minutes before placing them on a wire rack to cool completely.
7. Ice the cookies (see recipe below) once the cookies are completely cool.

(from this recipe from The Kitchn)

Sugar Cookie Icing

For the border icing:
1 cup powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
 2 1/2 tablespoons milk (I used 2 percent)

For the flood icing:
1 cup powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/2 – 3 tablespoons milk (I used 2 percent)

1. To make the border icing, stir together the powdered sugar, vanilla, and milk in a small bowl. The mixture should be fairly thick. Carefully pour and/or spoon the icing into a squeeze bottle. Set aside.
2. To make the flood icing, stir together the powdered sugar, vanilla, and milk in a second bowl. The mixture should be fairly thin. Carefully pour the icing into a second squeeze bottle. Set aside.
3. Use the border icing to trace the outline of each cookie. Allow the border icing to set slightly. Then fill in the interior with the flood icing, using the nose of the bottle to move the icing into the corners and edges.
4. The cookies should be allowed to dry for several hours before packing in an airtight container.

(from this recipe from The Kitchn)


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

What's Baking: Peanut Butter Blossoms

Every Christmas, I bake up dozens of cookies. Most are given away to family and friends, but the ones that rarely leave our house are D's favorite peanut butter blossoms. I've made peanut butter blossoms before, but this time around I tried out a new recipe from America's Test Kitchen. This recipe includes ground peanuts in the dry ingredients, adding an additional roasted peanut flavor to the cookies.

I halved the original recipe, as I really don't need four dozen cookies lying around the house. (The original recipe states that it makes 96 cookies, but I'm calling shenanigans on that, as a halved recipe made 24 cookies, and my cookies were definitely already on the small side.)

Peanut Butter Blossoms (printer-friendly version)
makes 24 cookies

1 1/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, divided
1/2 cup dry-roasted salted peanuts
1⁄4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1⁄4 teaspoon baking soda
1⁄4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup (8 tablespoons/1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1/3 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
24 Hershey’s Chocolate Kisses (from one 1-pound bag), wrappers removed

1. Add 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup peanuts to the bowl of a food processor and process until ground, about 15 one-second pulses. Add the peanut-flour mixture to a medium bowl. Stir in the remaining flour, salt, baking soda, and baking powder. Whisk to combine.
2. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat together the butter and sugars until light and fluffy, 2-3 minutes. Add the peanut butter and beat until combined. Beat in the egg and vanilla extract.
3. Reduce the speed to low and add in the flour mixture in two batches. Stir to combine.
4. Chill the dough in the refrigerator until firm, about 30 minutes.
5. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silpat and set aside.
6. Roll the dough into one-inch balls and set two inches apart on the prepped baking sheet. Bake in the oven for 9-10 minutes, rotating the baking sheet 180 degrees halfway through the cooking period.
7. Remove the cookies from the oven and quickly press a chocolate candy into the center of each cookie. Return the baking sheet to the oven and bake for an additional 2 minutes, until the cookies are golden brown.
8. Remove from the oven and allow the cookies to cool on the baking sheet for 5 minutes before placing the cookies on a wire rack to cool completely. Cookies can be stored at room temperature in an airtight container.

(adapted from this America's Test Kitchen recipe)

Monday, December 15, 2014

What's Baking: Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Billionaire Bars

Today I am featuring the cookies I baked for the 2014 Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap. This event, which is in its fourth year, brings together food bloggers from around the world with one mission -- to swap delicious cookies. This year, the swap again partnered with Cookies for Kids' Cancer to raise money for pediatric cancer research.

Each participant was matched with the names and addresses of three other food bloggers. Our instructions were to send each of our matches a dozen cookies; in return we'd receive a dozen cookies from three different bloggers too. I received delicious orange cranberry chocolate chip cookies from Aly of Cooking in Stilettos, tasty Kris Kringles (sugar cookies rolled in crushed almonds and topped with a cherry) from Ace at The Toasted Sprinkle, and the most adorable gingerbread men from Teri at The Freshman Cook. The cookies were all delicious and I have to admit, they didn't last very long in our house.

My three batches of cookies went to Heather of Join Us, Pull Up a Chair; Meagan of A Zesty Bite, and Donna from dang that's delicious. Like last year, I again had a hard time deciding what cookies to bake for this year's swap. I experimented with a couple of shortbread recipes, but I wasn't too excited by the results. With time ticking down to the cookie shipping deadline, I decided to bake up a double-batch of my favorite cookies from last year -- the chocolate chip cookie dough billionaire cookie bars that Christina of Stracciatella sent me.

These cookies actually originate from The Cookie Dough Lover's Cookbook written by Lindsay Landis of Love & Olive Oil, who also happens to be the co-founder of this cookie swap. These cookie bars are truly decadent. And while they may take a bit of time to put together, the end result is totally worth it.

I made a few simple changes to the original recipe. First, since I had some caramel sauce already on hand, I used it for the caramel layer rather than melting together 7 ounces of soft caramel candies and 2 tablespoons of heavy cream that the original recipe calls for. And because the cookie bars aren't rich enough (ha ha!) I also added a white chocolate drizzle to the dark chocolate topping. Go big or go home, that's what I always say. :)

Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Billionaire Bars (printer-friendly version)
makes 20+ bars

For the shortbread layer:
1/3 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

For the caramel layer:
1/2 cup easy bourbon caramel sauce (see separate recipe post)

For the cookie dough layer:
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
pinch of fine sea salt
1/2 cup mini semisweet chocolate chips

For the chocolate coating/drizzle:
4 ounces (1/2 cup) dark chocolate melts
4 ounces (1/2 cup) white chocolate melts

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line an 8x8 square baking dish with parchment paper (it should overhang the dish on at least two sides) and set aside.
2. To make the shortbread, in the bowl of an electric mixer, beat together the butter and sugars at high speed until light and fluffy.
3. Add the vanilla and salt and beat until combined. Add the flour at stir at low speed until just combined. The dough will be very crumbly. Turn the dough out into the prepped baking dish and press the dough firmly into the pan. Use a fork to poke holes across the surface of the dough. Bake the shortbread for 18-22 minutes, or until the sides are golden brown and the surface is firm to the touch. Let cool slightly on a wire rack.
4. Pour about 1/2 cup of the caramel sauce over the (still warm) shortbread layer. Use a spatula to evenly coat the shortbread layer with the caramel.
5. Place the baking dish in the refrigerator and allow the caramel layer to set, this should take about one hour.
6. Meanwhile, make the cookie dough layer. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat together the butter and sugars at high speed until light and fluffy. Add the heavy cream and vanilla and beat to combine. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour and salt, then add the flour mixture to the mixer and stir at low speed to combine. Stir in the chocolate chips by hand. Use a spatula to evenly spread the cookie dough on top of the hardened caramel layer. Place the baking dish back into the refrigerator to allow the cookie dough layer to set slightly.
7. Melt the dark chocolate and white chocolate melts in separate bowls in the microwave (melt in 15-30 second increments). Use an offset spatula to spread the melted dark chocolate over top the cookie dough layer. Then use drizzle the white chocolate over top the dark chocolate, using whatever pattern you choose. Place the baking dish back into the refrigerator and allow to set completely.
8. Carefully remove the cookie bars from the baking dish and place onto a cutting board. Then use a sharp knife to cut the bars into one or two inch squares.

(lightly adapted from a recipe in The Cookie Dough Lover's Cookbook by Lindsay Landis)

Made From Scratch: Easy Bourbon Caramel Sauce

I've posted a few other caramel recipes on the blog, but I think I love this one the most because it takes only a few minutes and involves zero candy thermometers. The recipe comes from The Pioneer Woman, but I took it up a slight notch with the addition of bourbon after the caramel sauce has thickened. This step is entirely optional, but I think the bourbon adds a nice additional layer of flavor to the sauce.

This rich and thick caramel sauce is delicious served warm over ice cream (or a slice of warm apple pie, or bread pudding, or cheesecake, really, the options are endless). But it's also a key component of the truly decadent cookie bar recipe I have coming up for you next.

Easy Bourbon Caramel Sauce (printer-friendly version)
makes about 1 cup

1 cup light brown sugar
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter 
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
pinch fine sea salt
1 tablespoon bourbon [optional]

1. In a medium sauce pot, stir together the brown sugar, butter, heavy cream, vanilla extract, and fine sea salt. While whisking constantly, heat the ingredients over medium heat. Bring the mixture to a boil and continue cooking until the mixture thickens, 5-7 minutes. 
2. Remove from the heat and stir in the bourbon.
3. Use immediately or refrigerate until cold. 

(lightly adapted from this recipe from The Pioneer Woman)

Friday, December 12, 2014

What's For Dessert: Eggnog Cheesecake Bites

If you invite me to a party, there's a good chance I'm going to bring more than one dish to share -- typically something savory and something sweet. For a recent get-together, I brought along everything bagel cream cheese dip and these eggnog cheesecake bites.

I've actually had these eggnog cheesecake bites on my mind since last year, and had plans to bake up a batch for the Christmas season after making salted caramel cheesecake bites for a Halloween party.

Alas, time got away from me (as typically happens during the hectic holiday season), and I never got the chance to bake up these little guys. (That, and, once you're past mid-January, no one seems to be into eggnog anymore, anyway.)

These eggnog cheesecake bites feature a spicy ginger cookie crust, a bourbon-infused eggnog cheesecake filling, and a little dollop of freshly whipped cream dusted with freshly-ground nutmeg. It doesn't get much more festive than that!

I find that the cheesecake bites taste even better on day two, so feel free to make them ahead of time. And, as a side benefit, making the cheesecake bites a day ahead frees up time on the day of your get-together, making it a bit less stressful. That's a win in my book!

Eggnog Cheesecake Bites (printer-friendly version)
makes 24 mini cheesecakes

For the crust:
1 cup ginger cookie crumbs (I used about 20 ginger thins)
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

For the cheesecakes:
1 (8 oz) package neufchâtel cheese (or regular cream cheese), softened
1 egg
1 teaspoon bourbon (or vanilla extract)
1/4 cup raw sugar
1/4 cup organic eggnog
freshly grated nutmeg (or ground nutmeg), for garnish

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a mini muffin tin with paper liners and set aside.
2. In the bowl of a food processor, use the steel blade attachment to make crumbs from the ginger cookies. Add in the brown sugar and pulse a few times to incorporate into the crumbs. Carefully add in the melted butter and process until incorporated.
3. Spoon the crumb mixture into each lined mini muffin cup, filling each cup about 1/4 full. Use the back of the spoon or your (clean!) fingers to press the crumb mixture firmly into the bottom of each muffin cup. (The round end of a muddler also works quite well to tamp down the crumbs as well.)
4. In the bowl of an electric mixer, mix the neufchâtel cheese, egg, bourbon, and raw sugar together at high speed. Use a rubber spatula to scrape down the sides of the mixing bowl as necessary. Mix in the egg nog and continue stirring at high speed until evenly combined.
5. Spoon the cheese mixture on top of the ginger cookie crumb layer, filling each muffin cup almost completely full.
6. Bake in the oven for 13-15 minutes, or until the cheesecake layer has set and appears matte, not glossy. Remove from the oven and let the cheesecake bites cool in the tin on a wire rack. Once cooled to the touch, place the tin in the refrigerator to chill.
7. To serve, remove the cheesecake bites from their paper liners. Dollop freshly whipped cream (see recipe below) on top of each cheesecake bite. Then garnish with freshly grated nutmeg.

Freshly Whipped Cream

1 cup organic heavy cream
1 tablespoon confectioner's sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Chill your mixing bowl and whisk in the freezer for about 15 minutes.
2. Pour the heavy cream into the chilled mixing bowl, and whip at high speed. When cream begins to thicken, add the sugar and vanilla extract.
3. Continue to whip the cream until stiff peaks form.
4. Spoon a dollop of whip cream onto each cheesecake bite, or use a pastry bag with a star tip attached to pipe the whipped cream onto each serving.


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

What I'm Bringing to the Party: Everything Bagel Cream Cheese Dip

One of my favorite things about holiday get-togethers -- aside from catching up with old friends and making now ones -- is that it gives me a great excuse to try out new recipes.

When brainstorming ideas of what to bring along to a party recently, the idea of an everything bagel cream cheese dip popped into my head. It probably had something to do with the fact that D and I had recently made a lunch of bagels and cream cheese, and while he chose a plain bagel, I couldn't help but choose an "everything" bagel. With that savory taste still in my mind, I decided to re-create it in party dip form.

I didn't want the dip to be straight-up cream cheese (as I thought that would be a bit too much), so I cut the richness and thickness of the cream cheese with some nonfat plain Greek yogurt. And then I went to town adding in all those "everything" flavors and textures -- sesame seeds, poppy seeds, dried onion, roasted garlic, and a little dried chives, plus a little salt and pepper to round everything out.

Serve it alongside toasted bagel chips (or your favorite gluten-free chips), and you've got an easy appetizer ready to share at your next get-together.

Everything Bagel Cream Cheese Dip (printer-friendly version)
makes about 2 cups

8 ounces cream cheese (or neufchatel cheese)
8 ounces (1 cup) nonfat plain Greek yogurt
3 tablespoons poppy seeds
3 tablespoons sesame seeds
3 tablespoons dried minced onions
1 tablespoon dried chives
1 tablespoon (3-4 small cloves) chopped roasted garlic
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

1. Beat together the cream cheese and Greek yogurt in an electric mixer until completely combined.
2. Add the poppy seeds, sesame seeds, dried minced onions, dried chives, chopped roasted garlic, salt, and pepper to the cream cheese mixture. Beat to combine. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula as needed. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper if necessary.
3. Spoon into a serving bowl alongside bagel chips. The dip is best served at room temperature or lightly chilled. Store any leftovers in an airtight contain in the refrigerator. After chilling, beat the dip in an electric mixer to soften before serving.

Monday, December 8, 2014

What's For Lunch: Pizza with Roasted Squash Sauce, Caramelized Onions, Apples, and Goat Cheese

When it comes to pizzas, I tend to make a margherita (tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, and fresh basil) more often than not. It's not that I don't like pizzas with more exotic ingredients, it's just that sometimes simple flavors don't need to be improved upon.

A few months ago, D and I headed down to Stoney Acres Farm to enjoy one of the last Friday pizza nights of the season. There we shared a pizza with squash sauce, apples, crispy bacon, and blue cheese. Long story short, the pizza was delicious. And I couldn't wait to re-create it at home.

For my version, I used a roasted butternut squash puree as the sauce, added a layer of caramelized onions, and subbed goat cheese for the blue cheese. I opted for a vegetarian pizza, but a little crispy bacon on top would add a nice salty flavor to counterbalance the sweetness of the apples.

Pizza with Roasted Squash Sauce, Caramelized Onions, Apples, and Goat Cheese
(printer-friendly version)
makes one pizza

1 pizza crust (I like this made-from-scratch recipe)
1 cup roasted squash puree
2 cups caramelized onions (see recipe below)
1 small-medium apple, cored, peeled, and sliced
8 ounces fresh goat cheese, crumbled
extra-virgin olive oil, for garnish

1. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees.
2. Dollop the roasted squash puree onto the crust and use a spatula to evenly coat the crust.
3. Add an even layer of caramelized onions over the sauce.
4. Top the caramelized onions with the apple slices. (I made a circular pattern with the apples.)
5. Generously sprinkle crumbled goat cheese over top the apple layer.
6. Bake in the oven until the crust is golden brown and the goat cheese is just beginning to brown. Let cool for a few minutes and then drizzle with olive oil just before serving.

For the caramelized onions:
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 medium white onions, cut into 1/4" slices, and separated into individual rounds
1 tablespoon brown sugar

1. Heat the butter and olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the sliced onions.
2. Stir occasionally during the first 15 minutes of cooking. The onions will soften and become translucent. Stir in the brown sugar.
3. During the next 10 minutes of cooking, stir the onions about every minute or so to prevent them from sticking to the skillet bottom and burning.
4. The caramelized onions are done once the onions are lightly browned; the entire cooking process should take about 25-30 minutes.
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