Friday, November 30, 2012

November at a Glance

Food trends and diets come and go from year to year, but as soon as November arrives and the thought of Thanksgiving looms on the horizon for all of us, we seem to want those time-honored and much beloved recipes we grew up eating.  I'm no different in taking comfort in the flavors and aromas of fall.  Did you all have a nice Thanksgiving?  I certainly hope so.  Ours was pretty much stress-free because I did not roast an entire turkey as in previous years.  My turkey was a stuffed and rolled version that went very well with the usual side dishes we crave.  Everything was tasty and nothing was leftover past the next day.  Admittedly, I kind of regret not having had leftovers for a few turkey sandwiches, but with Christmas right around the corner I won't have to wait very long for these savories.

This past month on the blog I explored a few recipes which have quickly become favorites of mine, because they call to mind all of the flavors I loved as a child.  A lot of these are just the thing to herald in the fall season.  I also showed you a most collectible cake mold in the shape of a turkey that bakes a showstopping dessert for the holidays.  If you collect kitchenalia like I do I suggest you keep a sharp eye for one of these molds at auction sites, they're worth having.  It occurred to me this month that we needed a refresher course on keeping and maintaining our wooden cutting boards.  With the dry fall & winter air, it's a good idea to have cutting boards that are primed and ready to help us with our countless meal preparations.  A split or warped wooden board is never a nice thing.  By the way, I hope you enjoyed the Thanksgiving table I set out for my feast this year with the colorful maple leaves and the dried fruits as centerpieces.  Not too fussy or ornate, but striking and memorable nonetheless.

December is upon us and I can assure you that many tasty, eye-catching and celebratory good things will be shared here on the blog in the coming month, so stay tuned.  In the meantime a review of November's festive things is worth a second glance.  Enjoy!

Antique cake stands filled with multi-colored cookies.  

I think I'm going to treat my extended family to these cookies for the holidays because they are really delicious.  Such a beautiful cookie to bake and decorate, the recipe makes dozens of treats for everyone to savor.  I want to flock them with cinnamon sugar or some confectioner's sugar to make them a bit different from the ones I baked this month, which will make an even tastier version.
These marvelous cookies were baked and iced by my friend Joy and her granddaughter.  She's quickly become a fan of the blog and is in the midst of completing a cookbook in the coming year.   She took a few moments to not only share a baking lesson with her granddaughter, but to also show her how to properly   clean and brighten those collectible Sugar Squirrel & Mighty Acorn  cookie cutters from Martha by Mail.  Thank you for sharing Joy!  

Don't hesitate to buy a few of these squashes at the supermarket the next time you find a bin full of them.  I find it best to roast them in halves so that they don't take an hour or so to roast.  Pureeing them for soups, desserts or as a side takes only a matter of minutes.  Nothing could be easier.

If you didn't treat yourselves to some of this soup for Thanksgiving, do so for the holidays this December.  I think it's worthy of any type of get together, so think about it the next time you're invited to a potluck dinner.  Again, it's easy to prepare with just a handful of ingredients.  Canned squash can easily be substituted for the freshly roasted puree if you want.

Thank goodness Thanksgiving came and went rather quickly.  All of the food, prep work and stress is done and over with.  Everyone of us stresses out over this holiday, but the rewards of eating the various comforting dishes is well worth it in my opinion.  Mine was simple.  If you must know, I did not bake a pumpkin pie!  I know right?  I made the Pumpkin Pound Cake from the blog and let me tell you, it was delish!  Keep reading.

Some of my silverware being checked for tarnish.

This gorgeous cake mold is a wonderful piece of kitchenware that has become a collector's piece.  I consider it quintessential Americana because it bakes such a spectacular turkey that is emblematic of the fall season for us in the United States.  The mold is made of heavy cast aluminum that is meant to last for decades.  

I love how cleverly decorated this version is from the former Martha by Mail catalog.  One can, of course, take liberties and color, decorate and accessorize this cake to his or her tastes.

I have to give a big thank you to my friend Janet from North Carolina for sharing some of these images with me.  You see, I've misplaced a few of my decorating cards at the moment, much to my chagrin.  Janet saved the day!  I'll blog more about her in the future.  She too is a collector of cookie cutters and is amassing a formidable collection.  Thank You Janet!

I cannot tell you enough how sensational this cake is.  The pumpkin and spice cake perfumes your entire kitchen for the time it bakes and sits on its cakestand awaiting your guests.  Enhanced with an orange glaze, the rich golden dessert just beckons you to have a taste.  Dare you go for seconds?

The cake is filled with nothing but wholesome ingredients.
A nice big slice is just the thing for any holiday table.  Since I didn't bake a pie this year I served this cake instead. 

I had a lot of fun putting this table together.  I wanted to keep things festive, yet modest for my Thanksgiving gathering.  Those small porcelain bowls filled with dried fruit from my pantry are wonderful for guests.  You'll be surprised at how enticing they look sitting there.  Even the kids will want to try everything in them!

Here I am setting a nice rimmed soup bowl on top of an old ironstone salad plate.  The silverware and glassware are items I've collected over the years.  It's nice being able to mix things up because it makes for an interesting table arrangement.
An overview of the holiday table.

Go through this posting and then check your cutting boards at home.  If they look dry & thirsty, grab some food-safe mineral oil and begin conditioning them.  I've had cutting boards split on me in the past and it's not something I ever care to repeat.  Cutting boards should last you for many years if they're kept and maintained properly.
As you can see I love animal-themed cutting boards.  I find them to be adorable!

Through years of rolling out, cutting and baking cookies, I've come to learn a thing or two.  Revisit this post for a few things to remember when rolling out cookie doughs.  These types of doughs are good for any special occasion, but they're also wonderful to bake just because.  
This particular antique daisy cookie cutter was given to me by an antique dealer many years ago.  I cherish it.

By the way, this dough that I'm working with in the post is the Hungarian Cookie dough from above.  It's such a wonderful dough to work with and it's one that I highly recommend starting with if you're new to this type of cookie baking.  Enjoy many seasons of making these cookies!

I'm not one for giant, crippling snowstorms, but a light dusting of snow this time of year is always beautiful.  

There is still a little bit of snow on the ground which hasn't melted just yet because the temperatures have been quite cold, but I'll tell you, the landscape looks completely different today as I write this.
Our snow covered home.

Here's to more wonderful things in December! 

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

First Snowfall of the Season

The first snowfall of the season is always magical to me.  Everything seems to pause as the snow begins to drift onto rooftops, trees and the surrounding landscape.  On Tuesday morning we woke up to gray skies, cold temperatures and a light drizzle, but within a matter of a few hours the snowflakes began to fall in earnest.  By mid afternoon we were blanketed in white as many of us went about our day.  As soon as the heaviest of the snowfall was over I went outdoors with my camera to capture several photographs to show you. 

A glimpse of the falling snow from a kitchen window.

It's amazing that not a single bird, squirrel, deer or other creature was in sight when the snow was falling.  These quiet moments are indescribable as you can imagine.  To me it feels as if winter officially arrives for us in the Northeast when I see the bare deciduous trees and the evergreen boughs laden with pristine snow as light as gossamer, and the grounds completely covered.  

Pine Boughs

A Drooping Evergreen

Our snowfall was not particularly heavy this time around (1 inch or so), which was good for me because I was able to walk around our home unencumbered.  With my camera in one hand and an umbrella in the other to keep me dry from the snow which was tapering off, I photographed as quickly as possible.  Although I'm always bundled in a winter coat & waterproof boots whenever I walk through snow, I find it difficult to maneuver and operate my camera with winter gloves, so I have to photograph in haste.

Take a look at the winter scene here in Montgomery County this past Tuesday afternoon, it was quite pretty.    

The view from the center hall window on the second floor.

This small window is over the utility sink in the mudroom

The view from the second story window was simply beautiful.

The shingled rooftop was only lightly dusted with a bit of snow.

This trail entrance shows that there is still some color in the landscape.  I love walking this particular trail.
My walk up the long driveway shows how icy & cold everything was.
Snowy white branches are pure perfection in my opinion.
A view from the snow-covered barn patio looking down the hill.  The beech tree on the right is miraculously hanging on to its leaves.
All was quiet behind the barn. 
This single maple tree that's been newly planted within the last year seems to guard the field at the edge of the meadow.

Not too much snow as you can see, but enough to make everything look spectacular.
Icy Cold!
I love the edge of the field where a bank of evergreens about 50 feet tall stand at attention.
The Driveway
It was time to head back inside my toasty home and make a Hot Lemon Drop to warm me up after being outside without gloves . 


Monday, November 26, 2012

Rolling Out Cookie Dough

It isn't difficult at all to properly roll out cookie doughs for baking.  With numerous cookie cutters to choose from, every baker (experienced & beginner alike) ought to make these types of cookies for the holidays and other celebrations throughout the year.  The number of cookies I've cut out from rolled doughs for birthdays, baby showers, gift giving and for Christmas probably runs into the thousands if I had to count.  Over the years I've used various recipes from several sources that have given me excellent results, but I've also developed a recipe or two which have become my go-to doughs.  Some of the best cookie doughs to work with when rolling out are those which are buttery, smooth in texture and not overly sweet, such as shortbread.  Sugar cookies, chocolate cookies and spice cookies also make wonderful doughs to roll out.  Perhaps the most stubborn dough of all to roll out, however, is gingerbread; this dough needs resting periods to roll out without problems, but it too is great to bake.

Professional bakers and cookbook authors (look at my friend Nancy Bagget's technique, she's a true professional!) have their particular ways of rolling out cookie doughs.  Some, like Nancy, prefer to roll out doughs between two sheets of parchment paper which requires no additional flour during this step and results in the most tender cookies.  Others stick to the old-fashioned way of flouring a rolling pin and surface to perform the task.  Both techniques are correct and both get the job done; it's a good idea to be familiar with each of these techniques.  In my kitchen I use a combination of these two methods, but instead of using parchment paper, I roll out the dough with plastic wrap. 

If you're a beginner baker I truly believe that there is no better way to gain the knowledge and wisdom of good baking than by trying.  One should be fearless in the kitchen and not worry so much about making perfection the first time around.  After a batch or two under your belt you will begin to see the joys of baking rolled out and cut cookies for your special occasions.  These cookies are wonderful to give as gifts, as favors at a wedding or shower, for decorating Christmas trees and for those cookie exchanges that many seem to participate in this time of year. 

Let me show you my method because it is simple and the tools required for it are few.  Now is the time to start thinking about what types of cookies we're all going to bake for the holidays.  If they happen to include the rolled variety (an absolute must!), let me show you how I do it. 

Most recipes will tell you to divide your cookie dough in half (some even in thirds).  It's a good idea to do this because it makes it easier to maneuver a smaller amount of dough on the kitchen counter than one great big piece.  When I divide my doughs I always lay two overlapping pieces of plastic wrap to create a double-width wrap.  I place half of my dough onto the double-width wrap and flatten it into a disk; the other half gets treated in the same manner.  Rolled cookie doughs benefit from a chilling period to relax gluten and to make it easier to roll out.   These types of doughs can be frozen for up to a month provided they are kept in zip-top freezer bags (thaw doughs overnight in the refrigerator still wrapped).

Note: some recipes will tell you to shape the dough into a ball and chill it.  Don't believe a word of it!  A hard ball of dough is difficult to roll out and will crack.  Flattening into disk shapes is by far the better choice.
Rolled Cookie Dough Tools
  • Chilled Cookie Dough
  • Cookie Cutter(s)
  • A Sturdy Rolling Pin that is heavy is best for rolling out these doughs.  They can be made of stainless steel, marble or wood.  I use a large 18" ball bearing professional rolling pin made of solid maple.  It rolls out doughs with such ease. 
  • Metal Spatulas are a must when removing the cut out shapes from your counter or dough surface onto silpat-lined or parchment-lined baking sheets; a small offset metal spatula is perfect for this task.  The larger offset metal spatula slides underneath a flat disk of dough if it happens to stick to the surface.  
  • A Pastry Brush will gently remove any excess flour from your dough and rolling surface.  Make sure you have one exclusively for this purpose; don't use the one you have for marinades or sauces.
  • Flour in a bowl or on a plate to dip the cookie cutters is a must.  This makes clean cuts every time and helps release the dough from the cutter.  Make sure you can dip the cutter into the bowl, otherwise use a plate. 
I always remove and work with one disk of dough at a time.  The other stays in the refrigerator until I need it.  Depending on the temperature of your kitchen (between 65-70 F is an ideal environment to work in) it's best to let the disk of dough sit on the counter for about 10 minutes.  You don't want the dough to get too warm or have it come to room temperature, but you also don't want to roll out the dough straight from the refrigerator.  The former will make it impossible to roll out with ease because it will be too soft and the latter will make it difficult to do so without any cracks.  The dough should still be cool, yet pliable.

I lightly sprinkle flour onto my kitchen surface (picture above) and place the unwrapped dough in the middle. 

Reuse that double-width piece of plastic wrap you chilled your dough in.  Place the plastic wrap over the dough and begin rolling it out.  Give the dough a few rolls in one direction and then give it a quarter turn.  Roll it out again with a few strokes. 

If at any point during rolling you find that the dough is curling up at the edges (picture above), it is time to release the plastic wrap from the dough and reposition it.  You can resume your rolling.  This may happen a couple of times during the rolling process.

Roll out the dough evenly, not just in one direction, so that you have an even thickness throughout the rolled disk of dough.

As you're rolling make sure you can lift and rotate the entire piece of dough.  Check the bottom to make sure it isn't sticking to your rolling surface.  If it does stick, toss and sprinkle a minimum amount of flour underneath.  You'll notice in the picture above that I have maybe half a teaspoon or so underneath the dough so that it doesn't stick.  Adding too much flour will only toughen your cookies. 

Use that large metal offset spatula and slide it gently underneath the dough if you find it sticking at any point.  You don't want to tear the cookie dough so do this carefully.
If you can lift the dough with your hands and move it around like a piece of pizza dough, you've done well.
As you can see the dough doesn't have to be a perfect round.  Remove the plastic wrap and begin cutting out shapes. 
I always begin cutting out my shapes starting at the edge of my dough.  I cut every shape as close to each other as possible, working my way toward the center of the dough.  This minimizes scraps. 

Dip the cutter into the bowl (or plate) of flour in between each cut.  Make sure to tap off any excess flour from the cutter.

Use the small metal spatula to gently lift & release the cut out cookies from the surface and place them onto your prepared baking sheets.

Not too much excess dough was left over from the initial cutting, which is exactly how you want your dough to look when you're done.  Just about any rolled cookie dough can be rerolled a second time, so don't throw these scraps away.
Gather up the scraps and shape them into a disk.
Use the same piece of plastic wrap and chill the dough for at least 15 minutes before you reroll it a second time.  You can now proceed with your second disk of dough. 

Note: Most cut out cookies should be chilled 15 minutes to 30 minutes before baking in order to retain their shape.  If you find that the edges of the cut out cookies have flour leftover from the cookie cutter(s), use that clean pastry brush to wipe it off before baking. 

It's quite simple don't you think?  There are only a handful of things to consider when doing this type of cookie baking and with practice on batch after batch of cookies, these lessons will become second nature.  I actually find it quite soothing and relaxing to roll out cookie dough on any given day I happen to have time.  As long as I'm organized and have my baking equipment & tools at the ready, I can roll and cut dozens upon dozens of cookies in an afternoon.  Once you discover the pleasure of gift giving fun-shaped cookies you'll be reaching for your rolling pin and your favorite cookie cutters year after year.  I hope a lot of you bake this season.