Thursday, February 25, 2010

Thanks A Lot Canada

I don't think it's a big secret that I'm part Canadian.  What? You didn't know that? Ok, not really, but I often feel like it.  I truly adore Canada, travel there often (bridge traffic doesn't scare me), and have often day dreamed of relocating there.  So this weeks cookies are in part a tribute to Canada and the Vancouver games since watching the CTV coverage is making me long for 'home.'

The main cookie that went to both Gilda's and Ronald McDonald House were Maple Leaf Butter Cookies.  Thin, mapley, a little crispy, a little chewy and very tasty. 

And in keeping with the Olympic theme I also made a light Chai Shortbread.  Ok, you're right, they have nothing to do with the Olympics, but I'm trying to stick with a theme ...

I think as Americans we tend to take Canada for granted and don't really give them the credit they deserve.  They are by nature so unassuming and mild mannered - perhaps as a nation they've had their senses dulled by all that beer and their obsession with hockey.  Unlike ourselves, they don't typically set out to remind the world of all they've done, but, you know we've got a lot of good reasons to love Canada.  Our borders can be blurred and we tend to forget and not give them credit for all the great things they've given us.  Sure there's always been Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young & John Candy, not to mention that whole 'Right Turn on Red' thing.  I grew up having Canada to thank for Michael J Fox, Jim Carrey and Celin Dion (did I say 'thank?' Maybe I meant 'blame' on that last one! :).  But there's SO much more - there's people and things that should be more famous and more popular than they are, but because they're Canadian, they typically sit just to the edge of the spotlight, off the radar, and are never given their proper due.

But when you think about it, there's a lot of things that should take center stage - and if you take the time to give it a taste, or a look or a listen, I think it would be hard to argue against the true merit of things like:  Coffee Crisp (and anything Cadbury, for that matter), Tim Horton's, Bobcaygeon, Hockey Night in Canada, the Barenaked Ladies (even though Tyler Stewart is from Buffalo!), Mckintosh's Toffee, Wayne Gretzky (that one's for my brother Paul ;), and of course, the reason everyone feels familiar around the Maple Leaf - Molson's & Labatts - and the list goes on...

Now, I have to confess, as much as love I Canada, I think I may have to give up my honorary citizenship - if it hasn't already been revoked for dissing curling in an earlier post, then surely for reversing the colors on their flag - oops, that's supposed to be a RED Maple Leaf on a WHITE background, with RED stripes on the sides - call it, 'artistic impression.'  Even if all that can be forgiven, I'm certain they would draw the line at my rooting for the USA in the hockey game the other night - the cockiness of the Canadians, while quite uncharacteristic and unappealing, forced the USA into the unlikely role of 'underdog,' so I had no choice. 

They can have old Wayne with his big new head of hair, cause we've got
scraggly Ryan Miller, and he is amazing and I am glad.  So no matter how much I profess my love for Muskoka, Anne Murray, Don Cherry or Rickard's Red; you just can't come between Canadians and their hockey ... right?  I mean ... eh?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

You say Macaron, I say Macaroon

When I started this whole cookie project deal I knew there were a few things I wanted it to accomplish.  I think the first was to just get me baking again; something I used to do fairly regularly but had gotten far away from in the past 5+ years, on that front this has been a huge success.  The other obvious goal was to give away the cookies and from my point of view that's been another big win.  Although somewhat chosen by chance, mainly because Gilda's Club and Ronald McDonald House were the only agencies to respond to my email, I personally couldn't be happier with the outlet they've provided me and for obvious reasons also have a strong afinity for the services they provide and the people they serve.  I think if those on the recieving end are enjoying this whole venture even half as much as I am, then it'll be a 'win' all the way around and I'll be 2 for 2 so far.

The last thing I thought about was having the opportunity to research recipes, maybe tweaking them or lightening them up and to try my hand at some new techniques.  I'll confess that the 'research' piece of this has taken on a life of it's own with me.  Along with emails and suggestions from others on what to make I've also spent more hours than I care to admit reading cookbooks and magazines, stalking and talking to pastry chefs and checking out any and all bakerys I may happen upon.  In this regard, I'm happy to report that I've only 'eaten' with my eyes - as I'm saving any and all extra 'points' ;) for my own taste testing.   While it has been a little time consuming, it's also winter in Buffalo and I don't have a lot else I'd rather be doing, so no complaints from me - it's been super fun and very interesting.  I've happened upon some great recipe sites and awesome blogs - to which you'll surely be introduced to in the coming weeks - and am constantly amazed at the quality of the 'food photography' and how that's an industry unto itself. 

Early on when I was complaining about the time required to photograph my cookies for this blog - and my said lack of photography skills; my friend Cindy consulted her daughter Katie for some pointers for me.  Katie referred me to some amazing pictures, including some at the paulette macarons website. Photography wise, one look told me that this was WAY out of my league - duh ...look at this:

While the photographs amazed me, I'll confess that I was more taken by the fact that there is a business built around this single, small confection.  And from all accounts a very lucrative business. Granted it's in Beverly Hills, but even so, how many macarons must one sell just to pay the rent?

The other thing that struck me was the word 'macaron.'  I've only ever known it as 'macaroon' and it was typically preceded by the word 'coconut' and they looked pretty much like the ones below (macaroons? rice balls? you get the idea).  And to this sugar addict they tasted like sweet, sticky, coconutty globs - not bad, but not 'craveable' either, and certainly nothing to build a business around.
So now I have something to confess: I knew nothing of these 'crispy on the outside, chewy in the center, filled with oozing sweetness cookies.'  Egg whites do not scare me, but almond flour and piping and resting and forming 'feet?'  There seems to be a whole macaron underground out there to which I was totally unaware, and now I am totally preoccupied to see what all the fuss is about.  Interesting given that these are actually true 'French Macarons' and I have never even tasted one.   Actually, I didn't really know such a thing existed until I was accidently introduced to them through the Paulette site.

And now, all of a few weeks later, it seems as if I can't get away from them.  For the past several weeks, as I've continued to look for and study cookie recipies these macarons keep popping up at every turn. They are always so beautifully photographed - there is obviously an 'art form' to them.  They can be made with any variety of flavors and fillings and apparently can prove to be quite a challenge to even the most experienced bakers.  While I'm not claiming to be that, I will admit that I'm a bit obsessed with with these now and was feeling up to the challenge.  

So I gathered the few ingredients (egg whites, confectioners sugar, almond flour, white sugar) along with some flavoring ideas and set out to take my first crack at it today - and I failed quite miserably I might add.  I'll fill you in on 'Round One' after this weeks cookies (note: they definitely will NOT be macarons! ...not yet anyway ;)

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Double Chocolate Marshmallow Surprise 360

No, not this weeks cookie, but the latest manuever I've been working on in the half pipe!  Figure it's my best shot at out doing Shaun White's Double McTwist 1260 - and my only excuse for not updating this blog sooner.  As you may have deduced, I'm a bit preoccupied with all things Olympics.  I'm totally obsessed with some of the really athletic endurance events - mainly speed skating and cross country skiing.  Not that other events don't require as much athleticism, but let's face it; events like the Luge & Ski Jump require skill for sure, but also a lot more courage than brains or stamina.  And after watching all the crashes at the women's downhill yesterday - well those girls are just plain crazy!

No, it's the folks maxing out their heart rate for their entire race and collapsing across the finish line panting, drooling and frothing & foaming at the mouth that I can relate to - since that's not unlike my last Time Trial finish.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying they have to work harder than any other olympic athlete, but let's face it, finesse aside, I do believe these guys:
are demading just a little bit more from their bodies than these guys:

With apologies to any of my Canadian friends since I know Curling lies just below Hockey and Beer when it comes to all things worthy in Canadian life.  But you have to agree that Curling, if nothing else is blazing a trail for the next new Olymipic events: Bowling, Billiards, Bocce and Texas Hold 'em!

Ok, enough of the Olympics, since the Pillsbury Bake Off is really more my speed anyway.  The cookies this week were both new and definitely worth repeating.  I made a light biscotti for Gilda's Club that I thought turned out really nice - and is very light.  Lemon White Chocolate Biscotti.  Actually, I did make the Orange/Semi-sweet version of this for another event, and it was equally as good - and no added fat other than whatever is in the chips and egg yolks - really worth the trouble to zest an orange or lemon.
The other cookie was my first attempt at a Martha Stewart cookie - so I take back any nasty comments about her (for now anyway).  This was a really fun cookie to make and turned out looking and tasting great.  Though I will confess to some frosting difficulties - not following the directions exactly left it lumpy and unpresentable, but my second go at it was exactly as expected.  You top each cookie with half a marshmallow part way through the baking process then after they cool (they'll deflate abit) you hide the marshmallows by slathering them up with chocolate frosting. They really did look just like the picture below - but I was bit tired given the aforementioned frosting snafu and forgot to take pictures. 
Time to catch the men's figure skating finals, then I've got to get working on perfecting my triple toe loop with a double back twist - I've never landed it in competition - but look out for when I do! :)

Monday, February 15, 2010

Damn you, Martha Stewart

Love her or hate her (I've yet to figure out which camp I'm in), that woman - and her minions - certainly know their way around a cookie, along with the rest of the kitchen, ok the entire house - and let's not forget the yard and barn and, well, you get the picture.  So after checking out the decorated hearts for sixteen bucks a pound at Wegman's the other day I actually got to thinking my Valentine cookies were 'all that.'  Alright, in truth, I thought they looked ok for free - but even so, one look at her 'couture cookies' lets you and everyone else know they must return immediately to their lowly, destined state of 'wannabe' ... and on your way, please renew your subscription to Martha Stewart Living for $24.95 a year ... 

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Have a heart!

You'll be happy I refrained from taking the 'after' picture of my kitchen sink with all the bowls and knives and spreaders and racks and powdered sugar and pastry bags and unused frosting! What's shown here is so much more civilized - and more appetizing!

I think this edition is going to primarily be a 'plog' (not sure that's a legit term, but I doubt I'm the first to use it for photo log). Since having to decorate the cookies AND then write about it would mean NO sleep for me!

Initialy I attempted to keep it simple with just a few colors - that idea kind of fell apart later when I got bored with the same old patterns.  But using this stuff takes a steady hand, and that I do not have.  Thankfully once they're wrapped and arranged together, they appear colorful and very 'forgiving.'

The finished product, wrapped and ready ... the cookies on the right are the "dark dough" made with molasses - and while they tasted good, I will confess that there may have been a 'miss measuring' of an ingredient or two - cause 'soft and cushiony' they definitely are not! To be honest, I'm hoping no one cracks a tooth. Note to self: do not talk on the phone while measuring ingredients.

So this is it, the 'secret family recipe' for any and all occasions requiring a cutout or decorated cookie, contrary to it's name, they are too good for a singular annual appearance.  It's originally from the 1950 edition of the Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook (which was reprinted in it's original form a few years ago and is now widely available again today).  This recipe has been used for well over 50 years in my family.  I remember my mom making 2 or 3 double batches of 'light dough' at christmas time (but always using vanilla instead of lemon extract) and she'd be baking for days; the top of our 10 person kitchen table would not be visible through the layers and layers of cookies.  I'll confess that, while the cookies may not have looked as nice in the end, it was a lot more fun when there were 4 or 5 of us in the cookie assembly line, slapping on the frosting and then sprinkling them with colored sugar.  I also remember having strict quality control back then too, you see there were certain cookies we deemed "too ugly to serve" and to show mercy on the rest of our family we took it upon ourselves to eat them, thereby sparing the display of their hideousness.  It was a truly thankless job ...hmm, funny how it always looked like there were SO many more cookies when we started ... ;)

Here's my attempt to recreate the conversation hearts, though as shoddy as my workmanship is - they're far more readable than the little Necco hearts - I do believe that company has some quality control issues!

Speaking of which, I'll confess that the later it got, the less creative I got, and I was slacking on that 'quality control' thing myself - there were an awful lot of crooked lines and cookies with dots running around the border ...luckily for me, I didn't invoke that 'too ugly' rule.

But the bottom line is, they still taste good, and that always comes ahead of looking good when it comes to a cookie ... but hopefully there were at least a few that hit mark on both counts.

To everyone on the receiving end - Happy Valentine's Day!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Cookies of Historic Proportions

The cookies this week came all wrapped up in a little history lesson, not to mention a bit of pop culture.  I had a hard time trying to decide what to make so I chose to do two - one a simple, peanut butter/chocolate concoction and the other a more labor intensive raspberry linzer cookie. I hadn't made either before so I depended on the reviews, comments and suggestions of other bakers and hoped that they were not wrong.   I've been wanting to do a real linzer cookie for awhile and figured with Valentines Day approaching it would be fitting visually.  As I was researching recipes and then sat down to write about it, well I got to thinking: why the hell is it called a 'linzer' cookie anyway?

My definition of "Linzer" was a sandwich cookie with jam in the middle and a cutout or window on the top layer.  Turns out I was pretty much right.  For those who are as curious as I was and are just dying to know (ok, I know no one really cares, but humor me for a minute, will ya?) it turns out the the Linzer Cookie is actually a variation of the Linzer Torte.  Which, at nearly 360 years old, is considered the oldest known cake recipe in the world. It originated in the town of Linz, Austria and according to the Linzer Torte history lesson provided on the 'Joy of Baking' website it "is very distinctive looking with its beautiful golden brown crust, filled with ruby red preserves, with seeds intact, peeking through the pretty lattice design."  And from all that I've brilliantly deduced that it's the 'cut out' design that makes a cookie a 'linzer' otherwise, it's just a sandwich.  Phew, glad that's out of the way!

So I found a great, light recipe and decided to change the rectangles to circles and the cutouts to hearts in honor of Valentines Day - I know what you're thinking 'how brilliantly daring!'  .. yeah, I know, I thought so too.  So there you have it, and I must admit the final result was definitely visually appealling - I think you'd want to try one even if you didn't like Raspberry jam.  The cookies are light and crisp with just a hint of cinnamon and the contrast with the jam just makes it, well, 'pretty.'  Honestly the only other way to improve on these cookies would have been to use Kim's homemade strawberry jam, but blame me for forgetting to steal a few jars!

The other cookie this week doesn't have four hundred years of history behind it. Basically you make a cookie and chock it full of peanut butter and chocolate chips and honey roasted peanuts and a combination of the three - the most delicious thing on earth: Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. Seriously, how can that be bad?!  Oh, and I know how they were invented too - there were these two guys walking down the street towards each other, one guy was eating a jar of peanut butter (sounds weird, but it's true - and it's not like I haven't done that before myself!) and the other was eating a Hershey's Chocolate Bar.  Understandably, they weren't paying attention to where they were going and ran into each other. An argument ensued "Hey! YOU got chocolate in my peanut butter!"  "And YOU got peanut butter on my chocolate!"  A delicious accident and the peanut butter cup was born!

I know, I watched WAY too much TV as a kid .... 

(recipes are in the links on the right side of the page)

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Blind Side

I don’t see a lot of movies in the theater – no reason, other than I tend to not take the time or make an effort to drum up people to go with and there’s not a ton of movies I feel like I ‘must’ see in the theater - although I do remember going to see Saving Private Ryan by myself, so I must’ve thought that one was pretty important.

Anyway, while visiting family or on vacation, movies always seem to be on the agenda as it’s the rare occasion when we actually all have time to go. Given the Oscar push this time of year it was nice that we also had plenty of good options. I doubt we saw an academy award winner, but that’s ok, it wasn’t really our motivation. I think more so it was to be a bit of an escape from our own lives; something that wouldn’t leave us depressed or frightened or perplexed or stressed or wondering what happened next. On that goal, The Blind Side was definitely a winner. It was funny and moving and entertaining and hopeful and the good guys win – it’s even based the true life story of Michael Oher.

It’s no wonder it’s gotten good reviews and a lot of ‘buzz’ in the recent months – who doesn’t love a humble, triumphant underdog story? Sure we appreciate the cinematic impact of movies like the The Lord of the Rings and Avatar; or the gripping and graphic World War II portrayals in movies like Schindler's List and Private Ryan, not to mention the likely all to fresh realities of The Hurt Locker. But sometimes, don’t you just want to be entertained? Or even more so, know before you go in, that no matter how bad it gets you already know there’s a happy ending? (think opposite of Titanic).

The nice thing about The Blind Side is that while, yeah, it’s a little light on dramatic acting, and certainly won’t change the course of American filmmaking, it definitely has an ‘everyman’ type of message. At least I thought it did. A few weeks ago I’d watched when Sandra Bullock accepted the Golden Globe for her role in the movie. In her speech, she thanked her husband and then went on to say “because I never knew what it felt like for someone to have my back.” It definitely was a very nice way to say thanks, and obviously apropos of the theme of the movie, but to be honest, I thought it was a little sad for her. To live that long and have never had anyone you could really count on? Maybe that’s Hollywood, but I decided that wasn’t really true, and hoped it was more for a good speech and dramatic effect than accuracy.

And since seeing the movie, and knowing it’s theme, well it does make you think a little; about who you are and who you know, who you really trust and more importantly, who is going to be there for you when things get tough, really tough, who’s got your back?

I’m hoping we can all think of more than a handful of people that no matter the miles or the years, that you know would be there for you if you were only to ask, or maybe even if you don’t. And we know it’s true because, well, you don’t need a life threatening illness for anyone to prove it – but when that happens too, it’s sure nice to know you were not wrong, but it’s true because we prove it to each other in the little things we do nearly every single day. Proof can be found in the cards, and letters, phone calls and conversations, and today, more often than not, it’s in the emails and text messages and maybe even the tweets (if I only knew how to use them!:). It’s in the little things people do without thinking and are never even sure we really notice. Few people are so confident as to tell everyone else exactly how they feel all the time, but that ‘actions speak louder than words’ thing tends to go a long way when you’re trying to figure out who exactly has got your back - family for sure, but well beyond that I know there’s a long line I’d be there for and I hope they’d say the same for me …

The signs may be subtle but no less unmistakable. It’s raising a pint with friends; fresh flowers in your room; a ride when you need one; a dinner invitation; an un-kept birthday surprise; an unsolicited household chore or repair; it’s encouraging or sympathetic words when you need them and a kiss or a hug when you don’t; offering up an organ or caring for your closest companion; an impromptu sing-a-long; giving you the tools for the job when they can’t do it for you themselves; it’s a ride or a run that helps get you to the start line; it’s waiting 50 minutes or 15 hours for you to cross the finish line; fixing a flat or towing you home; it’s dinner on the table or maybe just a drink in your hand … but the whole time, they’re ‘right there,’ right where you want them should the need ever arise …just over your shoulder …covering your blind side .

... And to everyone not in the picture, well, I just hope you know who you are ;)

(enjoy the reprieve - it's back to 'cookie talk' tomorrow!)