Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Comfort in a Cookie

I think it was a little over a week or so ago that I got on this kick to find the ultimate cookie recipe. Throughout the course of my searching – a good 8 hours a few Sundays ago - pouring through cookbooks and magazines and google results – I realized my efforts were futile. There is no ‘ONE’ best cookie. My favorite will likely not be yours, and that’s a good thing. That means, with any luck, throughout the course of this project, I may hit the mark for ‘someone’ every week. And the coolest thing is, that it’s not always about the palate, sometimes it might be the look or the texture, the smell or even how it feels or dissolves in your mouth or the memory it evokes. Any of these characteristics in food has the ability to transport us, if only for a second, to another era, another moment or time in our lives – it can be a pleasant reminder, and hopefully it just tastes good.

Such was the case with this weeks cookies for me. After polling my family for recipes of our youth, I ended up, not with ‘the’ recipe, but several variations of a single, simple, cookie we’d all been weaned on, Sour Cream Drop Cookies. The front runners in the recipe search turned out to be one I found after unearthing my mom’s old recipe card box (gotta love the stains on it! also, note the lack of directions & oven temp, baking time, etc.  I guess simple list of ingredients was all a home baker needed back then), and the other from my sister in law Kim. No doubt she scribbled it out down during one of her many accidental cooking lessons my mother bestowed upon her during the early years of her marriage to my brother Paul. They lived around the corner and as a new bride and later a new mother, she, along with her first son Nicholas, became my mom’s constant kitchen companions. Between there and the coffee shared on the front porch, well, talk about ‘Kitchen Wisdom?’ I’m sure those conversations had it all over any advice Julia could impart upon her, and doubt very much of it had a whole lot to do with cooking!

Oh, wait, I’m supposed to be talking about cookies – you see what can happen? When I found my mom’s recipe file, I was hoping it would match up with what Kim had found – then it would be definitive. They were very close in proportions for fat & sugar & eggs & flour – the one big difference was the recipe file card cookie was made with brown sugar, where the other version used white sugar. So, channeling my own ‘Top Chef’ I decided I’d to make both versions, my very own ‘Duo of Sour Cream Cookies.’ I adopted icing recipes from similar cookie recipes I had found on line – because in my memory, there MUST be icing (truth be told, they really didn’t need it, but they sure look good). The brown sugar cookie has a deadly version of a Penuche type, brown sugar frosting and is very sweet – unfortunately for me though, there is no such thing as ‘too sweet,’ unless you’re talking about wine :)  Hope the folks who end up eating them feel similarly.

It’s funny because the most obvious thing about both versions of this cookie recipe is that they make enough to feed a small village. Which makes me believe my Mom, at some point, baked them both, because growing up in a house with 9 other people (or 10 actually – I can’t forget Aunt Mary!) you need A LOT of cookies. The other obvious thing – they’re easy, and have standard fare for ingredients. The only item that might require some planning would be the sour cream, but no worries there, we can just ask Dan the Milkman to deliver some when he’s here again on Wednesday…. wait, what? what year is it again?

You can see both versions in the pictures and I’ve entered the recipes and posted them online through the SparkPeople site – as White Sugar Dough and Brown Sugar Dough. (also note the recipe Kim published in the comments section below has a small typo, it should read 1 tsp Baking Soda, 1 tsp Baking Powder - it's corrected in the versions on SparkPeople).

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Light & Healthy made Lighter & Healthier

When I started this project I felt like part of what I wanted to do was make an attempt to bake some 'guilt free' cookies at least part of the time.  I'll confess that part of my motivation for this is self serving due to the fact that during the course of baking all these cookies it would be practically impossible for me to not actually eat a cookie now and then.  Sometimes I can legitimately justify that as being part of the 'quality control' process to ensure the final product is suitable for human consumption (sounds good anyway, right? :). Truth be told, I don't really have to 'taste test' cookies that I've made dozens of times before, but I'm sticking with the 'quality control' angle anyway.  Still, I do think, at least on occassion, it's a good idea to make something that not only tastes delicious, but that also isn't loaded with calories and fat.  Some recipes are just naturally healthier, sometimes is can be accomplished by portion control and sometimes you can pull it off by making careful ingredient substitions and modifications - with this past weeks cookies I think I was able to hit the mark on all three fronts.

I started with a solid, well reviewed recipe from Cooking Light for an oatmeal raisin cookie called Oatmeal Spice Cookies.  I made them a little large so they're comprable to what someone might buy from a bakery - or similar to an Otis Spunkmeyer type cookie.  I then made some only slight substitutions.  Had they been for myself, I may have been more aggressive with the flour and fat substitutions, but I wanted to make sure they were 'gift worthy' so I did only half substitutions and the result was an even healthier cookie that still tasted great.  And I can comment also, due to my quality control testing ;), that the healthier version was a bit more dense and strangely had a much more intense spice/ginger/nutmeg flavor, perhaps because there was less fat to mellow the flavors?  If I were to make this version again I would probably also slightly reduce some of the spices. 

Here are the two versions - either well worth the effort.  In the photo the original version is on the left, the healthier version with craisins on the right.

Oatmeal-Spice Cookies (Healthier substitutions in Italics)

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (3/4 C Flour & 3/4 C Whole Wheat Flour)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup stick margarine, softened (1/4 C Margarine & 1/4 Unsweetened Applesauce)
3 tablespoons light-colored corn syrup
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 large egg whites
1 large egg (1/4 C Eggbeaters or Egg Substitute)
3 cups quick-cooking oats
1 1/3 cups raisins (1 1/3 C Dried Cranberries [Craisins])
Cooking spray

Preheat oven to 350°.
Combine first 6 ingredients in a small bowl, and set aside. Combine brown sugar and next 6 ingredients (brown sugar through egg) in a large bowl, and beat mixture at medium speed of a mixer until well-blended. Stir in oats and raisins, and let stand 5 minutes. Stir in flour mixture.

Drop dough by level tablespoonfuls 2 inches apart onto baking sheets coated with cooking spray. Bake at 350° for 10 minutes or until lightly browned. Remove cookies from pans, and cool on wire racks. Store cookies in an airtight container for up to 1 week.
Yield as Prepared: 36 Cookies (serving size: 1 cookie)
CALORIES 115 (24% from fat); FAT 3.1g; IRON 0.7mg; CHOLESTEROL 6mg; CALCIUM 13mg; CARBOHYDRATE 20.3g; SODIUM 104mg; PROTEIN 2.2g; FIBER 1.2g

With all noted substitutions:
CALORIES 110; FAT 1.9g; IRON 0.8mg; CHOLESTEROL 3.5mg; CALCIUM 12mg; CARBOHYDRATE 22.3g; SODIUM 143mg; PROTEIN 2.1g; FIBER 1.4g
Cooking Light, SEPTEMBER 1997

By the way - check out the nutritionals on a 2 oz Otis Spunkmeyer Oatmeal Raisin Cookie - twice the calories and three times the fat (four times of the healthier version!), in fairness, their cookie maybe slightly larger than mine, but not by much, maybe 10%
CALORIES 230 (over 1/3 from fat); FAT 9 (3.5g Saturated) CHOLESTEROL 10mg;  CARBOHYDRATE 37g; SODIUM 150mg; PROTEIN 3g; FIBER 2g

And while I wasn't planning on doing a 'light' cookie for next week, I can guarantee it won't be over 200 calories and have 10 grams of fat in it!!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

So many cookies, so little time ...

I feel bad that I’ve gone nearly a week without any blog updates – I think when I started I figured 2 or 3 entries a week would be reasonable.. hmmm, best laid plans. I’d like to say I’ve just been too ‘busy’ but truth be told, that’s not the case – maybe just a bit too scattered. My mind has been all over the place and more than anything, I haven’t been able to form a cohesive line of thinking that would possibly be of interest to anyone. As I’ve been getting into the real intent of this project I’ve been thinking a lot about cancer, and on a positive note, how much things have changed. How early detection and clinical trials are saving so many lives and how some people just got it a little too soon and how some people just got really lucky, and how some people did not. It’s definitely a humbling thing to think about, and then you throw on top of that all that has and is and will happen in Haiti and to it’s people, it’s all just been a bit overwhelming.

So instead I’ve apparently channeled Scarlett O’Hara and have opted to bury myself in cookbooks and the Internet and recipe cards and cooking magazines. I appear to have embarked upon a futile search for the ‘World’s Greatest Cookie.’ There is definitely no shortage of opinions on this one, nor am I lacking in the resource department. I’m thankful that I fought the impulse to slap down twenty bucks for ‘Martha Stewart's Cookies’ from the book section of Wegman’s the other day. Say what you will about Martha, but that woman (ok, her ‘people’) can bake a mean cookie, and then do it true justice with some awesome food photography. Which, not to get off track, but this food photography thing has come a long way – some of my 1992 Bon Appetit magazine dinner party photographs look like dog food compared to the artistic interpretations we see now – just amazing. But back to Martha for a second, so yes I saved a few dollars but then in turn spent the better part of the day on Sunday surfing through her online ‘Cookie of the Day’ archives – all I can say is keep an eye out for them as they’ll be “Coming soon to a Clubhouse near you!”

Now the problem is this, it’s Tuesday morning and I have yet to decide what I’m going to bake tonight – I know I have plenty of options given that I’ve been stocking up on ingredients as of late – but for a variety of ridiculous reasons, I’m incapable of making a decision on this one – will it be another biscotti? a linzer cutout? the old stand by of chocolate with mint frosting? a light molasses cookie? some Martha Stewart 20 ingredient concoction? or an old fashioned sour cream drop cookie?  Which, by the way, I spent the better part of the weekend scouring around searching for the recipe, which also included an emergency family email that ended up all the way over in Australia to try to elicit some family flavor memories of days long past: Was there nutmeg in it? It was frosted, right? But with a glaze, not a buttercream? Here’s one, I wrote ‘good’ on it so it must be it! Nope that’s a cutout, definitely not a cutout … and the conversation continues….

That actually was kind of fun, I was thinking this morning of how, long before Tupperware or Ziplocs, our great aunts would show up at our house in their big old Buick with several dozen sour cream cookies for us all neatly layered in a Williams Brothers shirt box. That was fine by us, it was pretty unlikely any of the 5 or 6 dozen cookies could possibly get stale in our house of 10.  Rumor has it the original recipe is out there and in capable hands – a free batch to whomever can produce it … after it passes the ‘taste test’ which must also involve transporting me back to 1969, since a cookie, you see, may not be able to change the world, but I’m willing to bet it can invoke time travel. To anyone reading this I'd love to hear about some of your favorite cookie memories, since, after all, that is what truly makes a cookie great - and tossing a recipe or two my way wouldn't hurt either!

Ok, that’s enough reminiscing, you can see why I’m having such difficulty here – I’ll impress even myself if I actually show up at Gilda’s Club with any cookies tomorrow!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Cookie Nutrition 411

Week 2 cookies are in the books (get it?) - couldn't resist - see the photo :) - and actually, they aren't in there but they have been delivered. Overall, it went a bit smoother than last weeks late night bake off... thank goodness. How do you like the photo of my White Chocolate Cashew Coffee Biscotti - I think it's better than the one shown with the recipe! Of course the backdrop of my kitchen and decor doesn't hurt. And you can plan on seeing the rest of my cookie jar collection throughout the course of the year. They've been ignored and empty for way to long! The one pictured here "Cookies for Empty Tummies" was the first of the bunch (thanks to Ann for getting me started) and I think I have a total of about 20 and have long run out room to properly display them.

Back to the matter at hand, along with the biscotti I made the 'Ultimate Maple Snickerdoodle' and to anyone who's eaten these and may be reading this, well you'll know why I omitted the word Ultimate from the description. I'll admit the flavor was good (yes, quality control tasting is a VITAL piece of the success of this project! :) but I couldn't get the right texture. I think making this cookie a little larger and baking them on Silpat (which is GREAT for even, non-stick cooking, but is slow to 'brown' the cookies) both contributed to a flatter, crunchier cookie than intended - but I'll admit that the caramel-maple flavored cookie was still pretty tasty. But there's no pictures - and with good reason, they looked far less than perfect - my apologies to those on the receiving end - still worth making but I'll use different pans and adjust the size and baking time next time.

So this week they went to both Gilda's Club and the Ronald McDonald House in Buffalo. After I dropped them off, I realized I forgot to include a copy of the recipes. As time permits, and if I have them available, I'd prefer to provide recipes so that if anyone would like to see the exact ingredients they can. I've also made a fair attempt at providing the nutritional information on the cookies as they were made. Meaning a recipe may state that it makes 36 cookies and while I typically make a fairly small cookie (because I'll often 'gift' several kinds of cookies, so for sampling, small is better) but for these cookies I'm typically making the drop cookies about 1/3 larger to provide a nice serving in a single cookie. Being the reformed accountant that I am, I calculate the nutritional information for the entire batch and then divide the total by the actual number of cookies. For example, if I only got 26 instead of 36 cookies, they'd be a little higher in calories per cookie. So what I provide on the cookie packaging is fairly close to actual - the only thing I haven't accounted for is the variance in size - which I try to limit by using a standard size scoop. I also need make a disclaimer on the biscotti, as the size of those can vary quite a bit depending on what part of the 'loaf' it was cut from, so there - consider it a ball park per average cookie.

Ok, the boring 'housekeeping' tasks are done and before I get to thinking about next weeks cookie selection I may take a minute to write about this 'red letter' week in Hoffman cancer history ... but for the moment, I'll leave it for another day ...

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Resolution Record

At least for me it is! I just read a NY Times article where it said 1/3 of all the resolutions people make are broken by the end of January and over 80% of resolutions are never kept – I’m sure we know that all too well. I know at my gym the notion of it being ‘crowded’ is long over by Valentines Day, by then it’s bring on the dinner reservations and boxed chocolates with no memory of the December 31st declaration. And honestly, I’m not much of a ‘resolutionist’ either, more of a ‘wisher’ or ‘hoper’ or ‘prayer.’ I want to do things; make changes, be better, more organized, less in debt, but I’m typically not willing to put in the effort to get the results (sound familiar?). So to avoid the disappointment that comes along with the oath and a New Year’s Eve promise, I simply don’t bother, and if I did, I most definitely would NEVER, EVER tell ANYONE! I think the reasons for that are pretty obvious; I rarely need help playing the role of a fool!

I gotta tell ya, deciding to do something that you love, that you find fun, and that other people might like and even encourage you to do – and THEN ‘calling it’ a resolution, well, that’s a pretty good way to go about it. It’s kind of like giving up eating liver for Lent or resolving to be late for work or to eat more pizza , not really all that hard to do.

So here I am, all the way to the second week of January, and the cookie project is firmly intact. Not only are this week’s cookies already half done (thanks to the fact that it would be pretty hard for a biscotti to get stale – I made those last night) but I also can’t stop thinking about what else I can make and when. Bonus that it’s been a successful distraction from the single digit temps we’ve been having (and made me wonder why today I’m feeling like 19 degrees is ‘warm’), plus it’s got other people thinking about what cookies I should make too – and honestly, I love that.

A few of my friends have offered their help, and I’ve taken them up on it, and as soon as the weather breaks, and they get out of their flannel and fleece, they’re coming right over – I’m sure of it. Those that have been on the receiving end of my Christmas baking over the past years have been unofficially voting and deciding which cookies should go with each holiday, special occasion or season (Valentines, St Patty’s Day, etc), nice of ‘em, huh? Seriously, I thought so too!

I’m definitely onto something here – the key to a good resolution is one that’s so fun you’ll never mind doing it, so much so, that other people even want to do it for you too! How cool is that?!

For anyone who's interested, this weeks cookies are Chocolate Cashew Coffee Biscotti (pictured above) and because it contains nuts I'm also making Ultimate Maple Snickerdoodles which will be for the first time - so wish me luck on that one!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Ready, set, bake …

I think I’m obligated to do something like this project because I have all the tools of the trade. Just over 20 years in this now 100-year-old home and the only renovation I’ve done has been the kitchen. Then there’s the years of Bon Appetit, Martha Stewart & Cooking Light magazines, and my jam packed cookbook-bookcase, plus I have great friends and family that were all too willing to get me the must have gadget on my wish list. So I’ve got the goods and I might as well put ‘em to good use.

So 1 week down, 51 to go.  I’ll admit the actual baking/cookie part was less than perfect. Despite my claims of being so ‘expert’ at this and ensuring the folks at Gilda’s Club that I could do this in my sleep, and my reassurance that ‘oh no, of course I won’t be up all night baking.’ Thankfully, it wasn’t ALL night, just much later than I had planned, which meant no gym time for me this morning – but that’s ok, there were lessons well learned and I plan on doing better next time.

Despite my best planning I left work late yesterday, got home late and the roads didn’t help matters so then I got a late start. My oven tends to run a little low on temp so even though I did an initial ‘test’ pan with two cookies to make sure I was sizing them right, the first full pan still came out a little rough and misshapen. I realized that only had enough ingredients for the 2 1/2 batches I had planned (the honey & lemons were done)so I need those cookies.  First lesson: make sure I have enough in the event of a major mistake and to also have a back up cookie.  Anyway, I was hoping the frosting could camouflage the imperfections on that first pan. And when it comes to frosted cookies you’ve got to make sure you factor in enough time to not only bake, but also frost the cookies (especially when the frosting doesn’t have any fat or egg white powder in it to help it harden and needs longer to set). The only part that went as planned was the packaging – although as I dropped them off tonight I kept my fingers crossed that the frosting wouldn’t all be stuck in the bag when people went to eat them.

My trip to Gilda’s Club was pretty quick and easy – something I was glad for. The staff & volunteers there were super friendly and didn’t seem to think I was some kind of freak, so that was a relief.  I did provide a copy of the cookie recipe and also included the actual nutritional infomation on the cookies.  I typically make a smaller cookie that will match up the recipe "servings" but since I was individually packaging them I made them slightly larger - getting only 25 cookies (vs the 32 from the original recipe).

 I'll likely meet with the volunteer coordinator within the next week or so and take a tour of their home and then I can talk a bit more about them as an organization. For now, if you've seen their website, then you know about as much as I do.  Hopefully the cookies will pass the taste test and I’ll be able to continue to do this for them on a regular basis and become more familiar with their community, at least I hope so cause I’m already working on the ‘menu’ for next week!

(The pictures presented in this entry were taken during my 'baking' session - likely another reason it took me longer than expected, and I've got a bit of work to do on my 'food photography.')

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The First Cookie

Rather presidential sounding, no? Well it’s a done deal, I just knew there’d be someone out there willing take a few cookies off my hands every once in a while.

From my initial email to the local agencies and hospitality homes the first taker was Gilda’s Club of WNY. They’re the local affiliate of the national network that provides social and emotional support for men, women & children living with cancer and also have support groups for their family and friends. I’ve also been playing phone tag with the volunteer coordinator at the local Ronald McDonald house so I’ll keep you posted on how that goes.

But for now it’s on to the task at hand and I’m baking my first cookies tonight to deliver after work tomorrow to Gilda’s Club. I guess Wednesday evenings and Thursday’s are fairly busy with activity groups and multiple support group meetings each day. When I checked their program calendar I was surprised at all they had going on – and nearly every day of the week, including a special program for children and tons of wellness and social activities like yoga and language classes – I haven’t even been there yet but already I’m impressed!

So now I’ve got to come through with the goods. I’ve gotta bake a cookie – and while I SWORE I would not overcomplicate this or over do it, I’ve already been tempted to do multiple ‘types’ of cookies. I KNEW I would want to do that, I rarely can do just a single baked good for any event – there are just too many options and so many to choose from. Different flavors: chocolate, with or without nuts (more on this some other time), citrus, ginger, maple, caramel, vanilla, molasses, mint, peanut butter, and the list goes on; different types: Rolled, drop, refrigerated, sliced, molded, baked, no-baked, twice baked – and that doesn’t even touch on the different shapes and textures: crispy or chewy or crunchy or soft – frosted, dipped, drizzled or glazed!! How can I possible pick just one? It’s a dilemma indeed …

Ok, back to reality – since I do have a daytime job and still need to get in some decent gym time throughout the week, I’ve made this little rule. If the primary cookie I choose to make contains nuts or is more ‘adult’ oriented (like a biscotti), then I will also make a second variety without nuts and more geared for the kids. That was simple enough. Now the next decision is to just pick one (or two) and I’ll confess I took comfort in the fact that this is a year long project so I know that not everything would be riding on just this one cookie. Since I just made nearly 20 varieties of cookies over Christmas, I thought it would be wise to go with one of those, something tried and true and not risk something new right out of the gate – smart, huh? Over thinking it, huh? It’s a freaking cookie – not a marriage vow – get on with it already!! Ugh … ok, ok, well, given that it’s the first week of January, with all those resolutions still so fresh and intact I guess my best bet is something light, in both flavor and in calories… Thinking… thinking … got it!

They're pictured above - we'll see how mine compare.  Wish me luck, I’m off to bake … finally!

Friday, January 1, 2010

Who wants a cookie?

I'll confess to being pretty excited about the prospect of this 'project.'  It's nothing ground breaking, or even that difficult, but it's something consistant that will be fun for me personally and can maybe do a little good in the meantime - not so bad, right?

So I've vowed to not make it too complicated or have too many rules - I think my bottom line is that I have to do at least one type (batch) of cookies per week - but then I don't want to blow off vacation weeks so I'll also commit to doing this 52 times throughout the year - making sure I make up somewhere for vacations and travel/busy weeks etc. 

Ok, so that's easy enough now there's the matter of what happens to the cookies - since in my mouth is NOT the goal I'm after.  I had some ideas, but they were vague assumptions at best.  So I've been doing some homework and it wasn't too hard to come up with a whole list of appropriate, worthy charities here in Western New York.  I personally was familiar with a few residential 'hospitality' houses providing accommodations for patients, out-patients & their families during treatments and hospitalizations - primarily at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

These homes include:

Buffalo Ronald McDonald House

Kevin Guest House

Hope Lodge

There's also Gilda's Club, that's non residential but it would be a good candidate based on all the group support services they provide ( my thinking is that, while I'd like to support non-profit organizations, I'd also like for the cookies to go primarily to the people they serve and not just the staff).

And then there's Haven House which provides both residential and non-residential support to victims of domestic violence.

All of the organizations have big wish lists and requests for volunteers to do cooking for them - something else I've considered doing - but for now I'll start with the cookies.

The email request is being fine tuned - trying not drown them in details - if you know me you know hard hard this is for me!  But I'll get the note out and see what kind of response I get - I think initially I was thinking I bake for one single place and provide them different cookies every week, but now that there's so many worthy options, well I'm just going to have to see how it plays out.

This weekend I'll hit the discount stores and stock up on treat bags and things like zip loc bags and disposable containers since these items all appeared on the agencies wish lists ... hopefully I'll hear from a few places to nail down what needs to be done this first week - then the only thing I'll have left to decide is what cookie to bake first ... that's going to be the hard part!