Tuesday, March 28, 2006

My Favorite Cookie Recipe

The recipe I make most often is brown-sugar cut-out cookies. They work for the holidays, but also all year round, in different shapes and forms.

Update January 2007: see the video for this recipe here.

Recipe: Brown Sugar and Almond Cut-Out Cookies

- 1/2 cup butter, left out to soften at room temperature
- 1/2 cup brown sugar: in Switzerland I get the darkest I can find at a Reform Haus. One kind is lumpy, which makes the cookies a little pock-marked but these pocks get caramelized and taste delicious.
- 1 beaten egg
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract (or one pack vanilla sugar)
- 1 3/4 cups flour (I sometimes use one 1/3 cup whole wheat)
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup ground almonds

Making the dough
Cream butter; add brown sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Beat in egg and vanilla. Mix the flour and salt (I mix the salt directly into the first cup of flour, saves messing up a bowl) and blend into the creamed mixture. Stir in almonds. You can do all this by hand or with a mixer, though you may have to finish the last part by hand. Pat into shape.

Storing for later use
At this point you can store the dough in the fridge, well wrapped in plastic, or freeze all or part of the dough. I often make a double recipe and freeze half. Make sure you prepare the dough in ready-to roll portions, flatten them slightly and then wrap them in plastic wrap. When you take the dough out of the freezer, let it defrost at room temperature (2 hours?). Or defrost it in the fridge for several hours or overnight, then leave it at room temperature for half an hour or so until it's soft. If you don't bring it to room temperature you'll have difficulty rolling the dough out very thin, which I feel is important for the taste of the cookie (see below).

Rolling out the dough
The recipe I had (from the internet... sorry, I don't remember the source but I did modify it quite a bit) said: "Chill then roll out thin." I like to roll out the dough immediately between two sheets of baking paper. I can get it much thinner than if it's still cold from the fridge. I cut the dough into 2 or 3 parts, and roll each separately. (Again, this is illustrated in a video here.)

Actually here I used a sheet of paper on top and a silicone baking mat underneath, but all paper works just as well. You may need to dampen the table with a sponge so the paper doesn't slip around when you roll the dough.

Then I place the whole rolled-out sheet with paper into the fridge or if I'm in a hurry the freezer. Once it's quite hard (1/2 hour? 1 hour in fridge? or 15 min. in freezer), I peel off the top sheets, then peel off and replace the bottom sheet (helps for lifting cookies off sheet). If the sheet of dough has frozen solid, just wait 5 minutes. You can get really crisp cut-outs from the hard dough. Also, if the dough is very sticky (for instance for gingerbread), freezing the whole sheet makes it easy to peel off the liner.

Preheat oven to 180°C.

Cutting out the cookies
I then have fun with my large and varied stash of cookie cutters. Here I used letter cut-outs to personalize the cookies for specific friends. Place the cookies on a baking sheet, usually lined with baking paper or silicone mat.

Glazing the cookies
For the cookies illustrated at the top and bottom of this post, I brushed the tops with egg mixed with milk. I don't know if I'll do that again, it makes them golden but a little blotchy. I also think I didn't bake them as long as I like, since they turned brown faster.

Using scraps
Any scraps I drop into a plastic sandwich bag, or wrap up in saran wrap, and stick in the fridge. If and when I have time I roll them out and cut them again. This time any scraps go directly on the cookie sheet, as you don't want to re-roll dough too often or it will get tough. I like having "ugly" cookies for my own consumption...

Baking the cookies
Bake cookies on ungreased baking sheets in preheated 180° oven for about 6 to 10 minutes, depending on thickness. I like the cookies quite brown, even browner than in the shot below.

As I made these round cookies they reminded me of the basket of sablés at the boulangerie Poilâne in Paris (though mine are less delicate and pale). I looked for photos of these, but the Poilâne website is not very detailed. Then I found a post on them in Chocolate and Zucchini, with a link to the recipe in a book called Paris Sweets : Great Desserts From the City's Best Pastry Shops. As Clotilde points out, you can see the recipe on Amazon using the "look inside" feature, page 4. Interestingly, they're called "Punitions."

Oven Fries

Having been away the last five weekends, I haven't done much cooking or baking. But yesterday as I made my children's favorite oven fries I thought they might do for a blog entry. These are good substitutes for French fries. Not as crunchy, but also not as greasy.

Recipe for Oven Fries

1. Preheat oven to 220°C. I never quite know what temperature to use, or whether to use the grill feature. I adjust it as I go. Here I used the grill.

2. Peel baking potatoes, two or three per person depending on the size of the potato. Here in Switzerland the label tells you if they're firm or mealy, good for potato salads or fries... I believe you want them more on the mealy side.

3. Rinse them and pat dry with a towel.

4. Slice them into fries with a large knife.

5. Put them in a bowl and pour a tablespoon or two of olive oil. I used one tablespoon here for two servings. For four people I'll use two tablespoons. Sprinkle with salt. Mix well to coat the potatoes.

6. Spread the potatoes on a baking sheet covered with baking paper or silicone liner. This is important to keep the potatoes from sticking. Try to keep the potatoes in a single layer, though some overlap won't matter too much.

7. Place in oven for about 20 minutes, turning the potatoes over once after 10 minutes. If you leave them in longer, they will be crisp but a bit dry. If you leave them in less, they will be softer. I sometimes put the potatoes in the oven under a roasting chicken. After taking the chicken out, some of the middle potatoes may be less golden than the ones on the edge, so I redistribute them and place them under the grill briefly.

Friday, March 24, 2006

A Goal

I sometimes wonder where this blog is going. How many pictures of cookies can I post? (I actually have some more of the same coming).
And then I saw this post, from a blog called Delicious Days. I have to admit, I haven't yet read the text. But this is what I'd like to be able to do, in terms of photography: take photos on the fly (ie no elaborate lighting or setup) of people and details, to convey a mood and beautiful shapes and colors.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Flash vs. Mood

Is there any way to take a picture with flash and still capture mood? The drawbacks of using a flash were never so apparent to me as when I tried to capture a little boy's interest in lighting a fire.

Without flash, I got the warm glow of the fire, but the shot is blurry. I used the highest sensitivity possible (1600 iso). Perhaps a tripod would have helped for camera shake but not for subject movements.

With flash, the picture is sharp but has no soul. Even though I decreased the power of the flash (flash exposure compensation = 2/3). Maybe I could have used another white balance setting than auto, to warm up the shot...

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Cake au Saumon

My mother made a very tasty salmon bread. The French often serve savory cakes (which they call cake, pronounced "kek"). I'm not fond of the usual variety with bits of bacon and cheese. It's often too rich and heavy. But this salmon version, with dill and crushed pink pepper corns (I think that's what they are) made a very good snack.