Another Birthday Already

He’s six. And the next chapter in the super hero story is Green.

These are the sugar cookies made for his classroom party at school. He ventured away from our traditional “birthday cake” this year and went all-cookie. It was a fun change. I made a giant sugar cookie cake for his family party…which was a total experiment as I’d never made one like that before. Based on the rave reviews at the party, I think it worked out well. Of course, it was mostly family, so maybe they were just being nice. (But the platter was totally empty at the end of the day – which rarely happens with a regular cake!)

I wish I’d taken a picture of the inside of it when it was cut…it was really chewy and moist with a kind-of-crunchy outside. In my house that is pretty much the definition of a perfect cookie. Sometimes my experiments work out!

We added a new birthday tradition to the mix this year. I’ve seen this wreath on Pinterest over the past few weeks and I thought it would be great to have one to pull out whenever we are celebrating a birthday. We already have “Happy Birthday” banners for each of the boys that we put up in the living room, so this is just an addition to the celebration decor.

It was a very easy little project – as long as you have nearly 200 balloons on hand!

Key points to making one of these:

Leave the plastic on the wreath so it doesn’t shed straw everywhere.

Use greening pins (found in the floral sections at craft stores) for an easy way to stick the balloons and pipe cleaners onto the wreath.

The original tutorial (linked above) says she used 144 balloons. I used about 200. It didn’t quite look full enough to me at 144, so I kept going. But the back is left bare.

I also thought about adding some ribbon to it, but I didn’t. I think that could be really cute…maybe I’ll add it next time we bring it out for a birthday.

And one more little piece of birthday fun was the early morning balloon gauntlet right outside the birthday boy’s door. Yet another thing I’ve seen floating around on Pinterest that was a big hit. I think the boys played in it for an hour when they got up.  Which was really nice for me while I was busy getting birthday breakfast on the table!

I highly recommend the celebration gauntlet the next time you are party planning!

I was quite happy to have all these projects to keep me busy…it prevented me from really thinking about the fact that he is already SIX. (insert deep sigh here.)

And here’s the cookie details for those of you who might crave a giant cookie.

Sugar Cookie Dough (especially good for icing and bouquet-type cookies)

1 1/2 cups unsalted butter, at room temperature

3 cups sugar

4 eggs

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (for the large cookie cake.  If making smaller cookies, use 5 cups.)

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

Cream together butter and sugar. Add eggs and vanilla mix well. Add dry ingredients and mix well. Chill dough in refrigerator at least an hour. Preheat oven to 400. (For small cookies, roll dough out to 1/4-1/2 inch thickness, cut and place 1 inch apart on a cookie sheet. Bake 6-8 minutes.) For the large cookie cake, press the dough into a spring form pan (mine is 9-10″ I think.) Cover with foil and bake for at least 20 minutes. (Now this is where it gets a little sketchy because I just kept checking it every few minutes and I’m not entirely sure how many more minutes it was in there. I’m going to say between 24 and 30 total.)  I was just waiting for the center to firm up…and the toothpick test was a good way to tell. The foil kept the edges and the top from getting too brown and too crispy, but you can take it off at the end for the last few minutes.)

Once it was completely cooled, I removed it to a rack and iced it with store-bought cake icing. I cut it like a pie…and, come to think of it, save one tiny taste I took while slicing, I never even got a piece! Maybe next time.

 

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Holiday Hen Party

My aunt hosts a great holiday get-together each year that her husband refers to as the “hen party.”  She’s a wonderful hostess and we are always so happy to kick off the holidays with a yummy lunch and a goodie swap.

My aunt, grandmother and mother...and little Addison hiding her face at the end

Look at that pretty table! Christmas china and linens and freshly-polished silver…beautiful!

The other half of the table...and Addison is not hiding her face now. Such a cutie!

And since the hostess was taking the photos, she’s not in them! So I’ll just rave about her food instead. There was a green chili chicken stew that was so yum I could have just eaten that. Of course, I didn’t. There were too many other options: chips and guacamole and crackers and dips (including a wonderful pesto torte) and a huge green salad.

It was lovely.

I’m particularly grateful for holidays with my grandmother, whose health, as regular readers know, has been declining this past year.

My aunt's mother-in-law (left,) who is over 90, and my grandmother who is not yet 90.

We got to hear some great stories about how Laura, my aunt’s mother-in-law, used to bake for the holidays…and when I say “bake” I mean like you can’t imagine. Reportedly she produced hundreds of dozens of goodies every year for friends and neighbors. Did you hear that? HUNDREDS – plural. They were telling stories of how her dining room would be buried in containers of cookies and breads and endless treats. Amazing. Wish I could have seen that!

And, for the record, my husband’s favorite treat from this goodie swap was hers. I didn’t even get to try one. He ate them all.

Here’s the platter of holiday delights that I came home with. Let’s review:

Graham crackers covered with gooey goodness and chocolate. (Recipe Below)
These are called Fat Ladies...really, no need for further explanation. (Recipe below)
An oldie but a goodie, date-wrapped pecans rolled in powdered sugar.
Chocolate cookies with chocolate-mint candies melted on top.
Dubbed "Reindeer Droppings," they couldn't be simpler. Peanuts and marshmallows coated in chocolate. The other variation is cashews and dried cranberries. Who doesn't love "candy making" without the pesky thermometer? (Recipe below)
And finally, my husband's favorite, the glorious macaroon. Wish I could tell you how yummy they were, but I can't. So pretty though!

I love this annual tradition for several reasons. Simple time with loved ones is up there. A fantastic lunch that is served to me is also high on the list. But it’s really nice to have this gorgeous tray of delicacies on my kitchen counter without having to do any of the work, too! (And my visitors the past few days have been pretty happy about that as well.)

Now, I didn’t include my contribution to the swap. That’s coming in another post. But I do have recipes for some of these sweets, so don’t despair.

And also, one last photo of my family…and our gorgeous hostess is IN this one! Let’s hear it for the party planners!!

Me, my mom, my aunt/our hostess, my grandmother and my aunt. Or, I could list them all by their "grandma names" because that is fun, too: Me, Gigi, Aunt Granny/Grammy, MeMaw and NaiNai.

CHOCOLATE CHIP TOFFEE GRAHAMS

as written to me by Aunt Kathy

11 whole graham crackers broken into squares
1 cup  butter
1 cup  sugar
1 tsp  ground cinnamon
1/2 c  chopped pecans
1 6oz package chocolate chips (I use a bit more)
Arrange graham crackers in single layer in jelly pan. Combine butter and sugar in a small saucepan and cook over medium heat. (Slight boil  2 minutes.) Stir in cinnamon and pecans. Pour over graham crackers and bake at 350 for 10-12 minutes. While still warm out of oven sprinkle with chocolate chips and cool for 5 minutes. Transfer to wax paper and refrigerate. I put in a tin can and freeze. They are best  when cold.

 

REINDEER NUGGET CANDY (aka Reindeer Droppings)

from the newspaper, source: Teegie Collins

6 oz semi-sweet chocolate bark

12 oz dark chocolate chips

8 oz lightly salted dry roasted peanuts

5-6 oz small white marshmallows

Microwave the bark and chocolate chips for 30 seconds on high. Stir. Continue for 30 seconds longer (until melted.) Stir in peanuts and marshmallows. Drop on foil by the tablespoon. Let stand until hard.

Really. That’s it. So…any last minute need for a holiday treat? No excuses. You can whip these up in less than 5 minutes. OK, onto the Fat Ladies…

 

FAT LADIES

from “Flavor” the San Antonio Junior League cookbook – and a big THANK YOU to Marquel for my copy! I’m pretty much restricted from purchasing any more cookbooks…but no one said anything about getting them as gifts! Love that.

1 roll refrigerator chocolate chip cookies

1 6-oz package semi-sweet chocolate chips

32 Kraft light caramels

1/4 cup light cream

1 cup chopped pecans

Cut cookie dough 1/4 inch thick and press into a 9x12x2 pan. Bake at 375° for 20 minutes. While baking, melt caramels into cream. Cool cookie slightly and sprinkle with chocolate chips. Spread with caramel mixture. Top with chopped pecans and refrigerate. Cut into squares.

Next: Cranberry Pumpkin Bread, Chocolate Gingerbread Tea Cakes and Peppernuts.

More on Birthday Celebrations

When our youngest turned one last month we had a little family celebration with snacks and cupcakes. I tried to keep the menu pretty simple with some tried and true favorites.

I wasn’t organized enough to get photos before everyone started eating…so please excuse the messy, unstaged plates. Those are little roast beef sandwiches in the top corner with a variety of spreads, a Greek salad with fresh mint and a classic Pampered Chef favorite that has been around for roughly 87 years, Chicken Florentine Ring.

There was one recipe that was a new one…kind of odd, but yummy. Pesto Squares…or Pesto Cacti, depending on which one you took.

They look like a dessert because of the green food coloring I put in the top layer. But they aren’t. They are like a cream cheese pesto dip on crackers. And I have to credit my aunt for being able to get the cactus-shaped ones out of the pan in one piece – it wasn’t easy! The recipe is below, with my suggested tweaks.

In addition to the red velvet cupcakes which are a regular feature on here, I also made these fun-shaped chocolate chip cookies. Confession: they were not from scratch. They came in a plastic-wrapped tube. I baked them in a big sheet and then cut them into shapes. No one knew the difference.

And because I always hate wasting the “scraps” created by using cookie cutters, I saved them and later in the week they appeared on top of bowls of ice cream and as two-bite desserts after dinner. You can also chop them into tiny bits and mix them into frozen yogurt for a homemade Blizzard-type thing.

Chocolate Chip Cookie Scraps

You could even keep them in the freezer. Is that taking the not-wasting-thing too far? OK maybe. Anyway, here’s the recipe for the little pesto squares, which, by the way, can be made up to 24 hours ahead of time:

Pesto Party Squares

from The Pampered Chef, circa late 90s

1 1/4 cups round buttery crackers (about 30) crushed – I think that means Ritz 😉

3 TB butter, melted

2 pkgs (8 oz) cream cheese, softened

1 container (7 oz) pesto

1 container (8 oz) sour cream, divided

3 eggs

4 green onions with tops, thinly sliced

1 plum tomato, seeded and finely chopped

Preheat oven to 325°. Finely crush crackers in a sealed bag. Combine crackers and melted butter, mix well. Press crumb mixture into the bottom of a 9×13 casserole. Bake 15 minutes. Whisk cream cheese and pesto until well blended. Add 1/3 cup of the sour cream and eggs. Whisk until smooth. Pour mixture over crust. Bake 20-25 minutes or until center is set. Carefully spread remaining sour cream over hot filling. Cool completely and refrigerate at least 3 hours. Just before serving cut into squares and sprinkle with green onions and tomatoes.*  Yield: 40 small squares.

*I meant to sprinkle with tomatoes because I thought it would look like pretty red flowers on the cactus – but I forgot. Also, I don’t recommend doubling this recipe as it becomes a little too thick to really set up as well as it should. If you need more than 40 squares, make two pans. And lastly, I thought the crust could be thicker so it would feel more like dip on a cracker. Next time I make them I’m going to increase the amount of crackers.

Spreading filling over pre-baked crust

The French Macaron: Take One

More French.  I know.  I can’t help it.

The 2009 October Daring Bakers’ Challenge was brought to us by Ami S.  She chose macarons from Claudia Fleming‘s The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern as the challenge recipe.

I actually had no idea what a macaron really was. In America the term “macaroon” usually refers to a cookie made primarily of coconut.  European macarons are cookies made of almond flour or almond paste and sugar and egg whites…which are then sandwiched together with buttercream or ganache…the texture is both chewy and crunchy.  Turns out, they are an art form of sorts and seem kind of fussy.  If you want to see what I mean, go here.  Helen of Tartelette is widely regarded in the food blogging world as one of the Queens of the Macaron.  Here are some of hers…you can see why:

Tartlettes Macarons II
Violet Macarons from Tartelette

Aren’t they amazing looking?

Tartlettes Macarons III
Red Berry Macarons from Tartelette

One of the important characteristics of the cookie is the “foot.”  That’s the bottom part of the cookie, the part touching the baking sheet, where you can see all the air bubbles that were in the batter.  It almost looks like it is separate from the shiny top.  They are really beautiful.

Mine don’t look anything like this. Hence the “Take One” in the title of the post.

Macarons
Yummy...but oh so flat.

You can just barely see the “feet” on these little wafers, but they aren’t nearly as puffy as they should have been.  In fact, I felt like I was making the milanos again! Here’s what Ami had to say about the elusive macaron:

French macaroons are notorious for being difficult to master. Type in “macaroon,” “French macaroon” or “macaron” in your search engine of choice, and you will be inundated not only with bakeries offering these tasty little cookies, but scores and even hundreds of blogs all attempting to find the perfect recipe, the perfect technique. Which one is right? Which captures the perfect essence of macaroons? The answer is all of them and none of them. Macaroons are highly subjective, the subject of passionate, almost Talmudic study and debate. Chewy? Crisp? Age your egg whites? Ground the nuts or use nut meal or nut flour? Cooked sugar syrup, or confectioners’ sugar? In the words of a therapist, what do you think is the ideal macaroon? The answer lies within you.

The answer is not within me, yet.

I will say that these little cookies are delicious.  And the texture, while flatter than it should have been, was still discernible and quite wonderful.  Crunchy and chewy at the same time – genius.  I put pumpkin pie spices in the cookie batter and used cream cheese filling sweetened with sugar and blueberries (the lavender one.)  The flavor possibilities are overwhelming.  So, I can guarantee that when I have egg whites hanging around (which I most certainly will since we love this pie so much) there will be a Take Two and Take Three…and so forth.

DSC04661

Oh macarons…I am not finished with you yet.

The recipe I used is below.  For lots of flavors and varying degrees of success, check out The Daring Kitchen.  And don’t forget about Tartelette’s recipes, too, which many said were more successful than the challenge recipe.  I intend to try hers in the upcoming attempts.

French Macarons

Ingredients
Confectioners’ (Icing) sugar: 2 ¼ cups (225 g, 8 oz.)
Almond flour: 2 cups (190 g, 6.7 oz.)
Granulated sugar: 2 tablespoons (25 g , .88 oz.)
Egg whites: 5 (Have at room temperature)

Directions:

1. Preheat the oven to 200°F (93°C). Combine the confectioners’ sugar and almond flour in a medium bowl. If grinding your own nuts, combine nuts and a cup of confectioners’ sugar in the bowl of a food processor and grind until nuts are very fine and powdery.
2. Beat the egg whites in the clean dry bowl of a stand mixer until they hold soft peaks. Slowly add the granulated sugar and beat until the mixture holds stiff peaks.
3. Sift a third of the almond flour mixture into the meringue and fold gently to combine. If you are planning on adding zest or other flavorings to the batter, now is the time. Sift in the remaining almond flour in two batches. Be gentle! Don’t overfold, but fully incorporate your ingredients.
4. Spoon the mixture into a pastry bag fitted with a plain half-inch tip (Ateco #806). You can also use a Ziploc bag with a corner cut off. It’s easiest to fill your bag if you stand it up in a tall glass and fold the top down before spooning in the batter.
5. Pipe one-inch-sized (2.5 cm) mounds of batter onto baking sheets lined with nonstick liners (or parchment paper).
6. Bake the macaroon for 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and raise the temperature to 375°F (190°C). Once the oven is up to temperature, put the pans back in the oven and bake for an additional 7 to 8 minutes, or lightly colored.
7. Cool on a rack before filling.

Daring Bakers’ Challenge: Marshmallows and Milanos

The July Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Nicole at Sweet Tooth. She chose Chocolate Covered Marshmallow Cookies and Milan Cookies from pastry chef Gale Gand of the Food Network.

This is the other part of The Daring Kitchen website which I joined a month or so ago…remember the fish and the powders?  Anyway, this is the first baking challenge I’ve done and I was excited for two reasons:  I’ve always wanted to try homemade marshmallows and I *heart* Milano cookies.  (Also being nine-plus months pregnant certainly helps in the chocolate craving department.)

The Mallows as the chocolate was setting up (sort of)
The Mallows as the chocolate was setting up (sort of)

Since it is particularly hot here in South Texas in late July, I did have a little trouble keeping the chocolate firm when these cookies were out of the refrigerator.  Next time I will omit the oil from the coating mixture…although storing these in the ‘fridge wasn’t all that bad since they were like a cold, cloud puff of sugary treat each time I snagged another.  Yum.

The cookie dough was easy to work with (although the recipe as written makes WAY more cookies than needed for the marshmallow and chocolate amounts.)  Thankfully, people were already discussing that on The Daring Kitchen forums and I knew to save back half of the cookie dough to use for something else (like blueberry tartlets!)  The cookies by themselves are a great little cinnamon shortbread and could be flavored in any number of ways – a handy recipe to have around with or without the marshmallows.

Nice thin little shortbread cookies with marshmallow "kisses"
Thin little shortbread cookies with marshmallow "kisses"

The marshmallows were much easier to make than I imagined.  However, they are sticky, sticky, sticky and need to be used immediately as they start to set-up fairly quickly.  Just moments before the above photo was taken, I dropped my camera right on top on these and the tip of a kiss went smack dab into the lens cover and lens of the camera.  I’m pretty sure the auto lens cover will never be the same again!  What a mess!!  I think I managed to salvage the camera…at least it is still taking photos.  Anyway, there are all sorts of interesting ways to form marshmallows, as it turns out.  I put mine in a cake decorator tool and pumped/piped it onto the cookies.  Some people spread the marshmallows and then cut them.  Others used an old-school flour mold method that looked really cool.

Don't they look like mini moon pies?
Don't they look like mini moon pies?

Overall, we loved these cookies and I will certainly be making them again sometime with different flavors mixed into the marshmallows…or a layer of caramel might be nice, too.

Now for those Milano cookies…

Milanos

Pepperidge Farm’s Mint Milanos are one of my very favorite cookies…I love to keep them in the freezer.  So, I was delighted to try making these at home.  The cookie dough is really more like a batter and gets piped out onto the cookie sheet…which was a test for my piping skills (or lack thereof!)

You can see how they start to spread on the warm cookie sheet
You can see how they start to spread on the warm cookie sheet

You can use a Silpat or a silicon baking mat on the cookie sheet to help get them really thin and crispy.  I don’t have an honest-to-goodness Silpat baking mat (but would love one, hint, hint, to anyone who reads this and must buy me occasional gifts!) but my Kitchenaid silicon mat seems to work fairly well most of the time.  These cookies take a little practice just because of the shaping issue – since you make them into little sandwiches, it would be nice for all the cookies to be as uniform as possible.  Several bakers on the Daring Baker forums noted that if you let the dough/batter sit for a little while before piping, it holds up better and is a little easier to work with.

The filling is dark chocolate and orange zest - delish!
The filling is dark chocolate and orange zest - delish!

Don’t be alarmed by the seemingly large amounts of extract in these cookies – those amounts are correct (2 TB of each.)  These cookies are meant to have a nice big flavor – much more so than the ones you buy in the store.  And because they are so thin when they bake, a bit of that extract cooks off, too.  When I make these again, I plan to use mint for the filling…and maybe I’ll even make the cookie part chocolate, too.

My little kitchen helper trying to steal a sample!
My little kitchen helper trying to steal a sample!

It was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon and both recipes were really successful.  My 3-year-old was very interested and very involved (puffed sugar and chocolate – what’s not to love?) which is always part of my goal, too.  I let him have a big hunk of the cookie dough, his own pastry roller and a handful of cookie cutters and he crafted his own little masterpieces right alongside me.  Much better than Play-Doh, right?

(Here’s another super-detailed post from a fellow Daring Baker with more information about these recipes that you can imagine…and also alternative recipes, chocolate blooming information and another great example of the flour mold marshmallow method!)

For the complete recipes, check out The Daring Kitchen’s website.

So, go on – get thee to your kitchen and make marshmallows…and let me know if you drop anything important into them!