Sandwiched

Back in October, Tamara, the cookie queen of San Juan Island, suggested getting together for a Christmas cookie baking party.

Just to be clear, I have terrible holiday timing.  When Tamara’s email arrived, December seemed pretty far off.  I was working on the treats I agreed to bake for my second grader’s Halloween party, not thinking about ones I might prepare two months hence.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas, I just don’t have what it takes to pull of an organized Christmas.  My family hasn’t managed to mail a pre-Christmas holiday card for at least five years.  We used to send timely New Year’s cards, but last year we didn’t get it together until February, when we mailed out Valentine’s cards.

So the thought of Christmas cookies in October caught me off guard, and maybe, just maybe, I didn’t respond to Tamara’s message about a holiday baking party in as timely a fashion as I could have.  Finally, when she wrote on Facebook —  “I’ll be bummed if you guys don’t respond. Maybe I’ll keep posting ’til you do. Have a good weekend or a good few hours ’til I post again”  — I looked at my calendar and suggested a few dates.

Fast forward to last weekend, when Tamara, Sharalyn, and I gathered to bake cookies.  In the midst of this crazy, hectic holiday season, I got to spend a day doing something I love with great friends. Would I have done it if I hadn’t put the date on my calender two months ago?  Probably not.  But because I’d scheduled it, I gave myself permission, just for the day, to let go of the the idea of tackling unfinished Christmas shopping, ungraded papers, and a disastrously messy house.

And guess what?  Our day of mixing, rolling, glazing, and nibbling resulted in seven different kind of cookies that each of us could share with teachers, colleagues, and friends.  As I wrapped up plates for my daughters to bring to school the next day, I realized that, for all my love of baking, I’ve never given holiday cookies as gifts before.  Ever.

In addition to enabling me to send lovely cookie plates out into the world, our baking day introduced me to some delicious new recipes to share, starting with these Chocolate Caramel Sandwich Cookies.  Crisp chocolate wafers hold a luscious layer of vanilla bean-laced caramel.  As if that’s not enough, a dark chocolate coating and a sprinkling of sea salt make them downright decadent.

I’m not afraid to admit that I made additional batches so I could eat more of these cookies myself.

In making multiple batches, I used up the Dutch-processed cocoa that I had on hand, so I used natural cocoa powder the third time around.  The cookies with Dutch-processed cocoa tasted delicious, but maybe just a touch acrid, while the cookies with natural cocoa powder had a smoother taste.  While only slightly different in taste, though, they look dramatically different;  Dutch-processed cocoa gives the cookies a deeper, almost black color, while the natural cocoa makes the cookies look decidedly brown.

Christmas arrives in three days, and while I’m far from ready, at least I was able to give some deserving people holiday cookies before Christmas arrives.  Clearly I need Tamara to take care of my holiday planning.  If I get my holiday cards out before Christmas next year, you can thank her.

Chocolate Caramel Sandwich Cookies

Inspired by Food & Wine.  Makes about 50 cookies.

Cookie Dough
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, plus more for rolling out the dough
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
2 teaspoons vanilla

Caramel Filling
1 cup, plus 2 tablespoons sugar
3/4 cup, plus 2 tablespoons heavy cream
3 tablespoons honey
1/2 tablespoon light corn syrup
1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped (reserve pod for another use)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

Chocolate Glaze
3/4 cup dark chocolate chips
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons heavy cream
sea salt

To make the cookie dough, combine flour, cocoa power, and salt in a small bowl.  Set aside.

Combine butter and sugar in the bowl of a standing mixture at medium speed with the paddle attachment until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg and vanilla extract.  Add flour mixture and mix on low speed until the dough comes together, about 1 minute. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead 2 or 3 times. Flatten into 2 disks, wrap in plastic, and chill until firm, about 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350° F. One at a time, roll out the chilled disks of dough to 1/8-inch thickness on a counter generously dusted with cocoa powder.  Using a 1 1/2-inch round cookie cutter, stamp out as many circles as possible.  Transfer cookies to parchment-lined baking sheets, gather the scraps, re roll, and stamp out as many cookies as possible. Bake the cookies for about 10 minutes, until slightly puffed and set, shifting the baking sheets halfway through for even baking. Let the cookies cool on the baking sheets.

To prepare the caramel, butter the bottom and sides of a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan and line the bottom with a piece of parchment paper long enough to reach 2 inches up 2 sides of the pan. In a medium saucepan, stir together the sugar, cream, honey, corn syrup, and vanilla seeds.  Set a candy thermometer in the saucepan and cook over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally, until the temperature reaches 255° F.  Remove from the heat, take out the thermometer, and stir in the butter until melted and well-combined. Pour the caramel into the prepared pan and let cool for about an hour.

Lift the caramel out of the pan and transfer to a cutting board. Using a 3/4-inch round cookie cutter, stamp out rounds of caramel (about 1 teaspoon each) and sandwich them between the cookies, pressing gently to flatten slightly. Press the caramel scraps together and cut additional rounds.

For the glaze, combine chocolate chips, cream, and butter in a 1 cup measuring glass.  Microwave in spurts (15 to 20 seconds each at 50 percent power), stirring occasionally, until melted and smooth.

Dip the cookies halfway into the chocolate glaze, allowing excess chocolate to drip back into the measuring glass. Set the cookies on racks over parchment-lined trays.  Sprinkle each cookie lightly with sea salt.  Refrigerate until set.  Bring cookies to room temperature before serving.

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Jammin’

When I tell someone that a recipe is easy to make, my husband frequently pipes in with, “When she says it’s easy, that just means she doesn’t have to go to the store.”

Since time, or rather a lack of it, often prevents me from baking, I admit that this is partly true.

In the time it takes to get two kids from the house to the car to the store and back again, I could probably be well on my way to producing some treat that would please our bellies.  More importantly though, my kids, rather than squabbling in the car or begging for candy at the store, could work together with me in the kitchen.

They both know how to measure, mix, stir, and knead, and while it’s not necessarily relaxing or tidy having them help, they enjoy helping me, and I enjoy their company.

So yes, if I can spontaneously make a recipe without taking a special trip to the store for one ingredient, I’d say that counts as easy.  For example, if you have a couple of eggs, vanilla extract, flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, a lemon, butter, eggs, and some jam, you could make yourself a jam crostata.

Check out the simple elegance of that crisscross crust that comes together in moments.  And better yet, you don’t even need a tart pan to pull it off.

I like to keep a lemon or two on hand, but the first time I tried this recipe, I didn’t have one.  I refused to go to the store, of course, so I made the crostata without it.  Guess what?  The crust tastes just fine without lemon zest. Sure, it tastes better when you include it, but don’t let the lack of a lemon squelch your impulse for impromptu baking.  When I made that first crostata without a lemon, I learned that the filling tastes fantastic when you substitute balsamic vinegar for the lemon juice.

While the crostata looks much like a tart made with flaky pastry dough, the pasta frolla, or Italian-style pastry dough bakes up tender-soft rather than shatter-at-the-touch flaky.  The result, as my friend Peg put it, is more like a giant jam thumbprint cookie.  And who, I ask you, wouldn’t want that?

If time constrains you as much as it does me, you’ll be happy to know that this recipe works well in stages.  Last week, I prepared the dough when I got home from work thinking that my kids and I could finish making it after I picked them up from school.  Somehow, though, we ran out of time (oh, surprise!).  The dough sat in the fridge until the next day, when we mixed up our jam filling, rolled out the dough, and assembled the crostata.

So you can go ahead and believe my husband, who refuses to accept that certain baked items might possibly come together with ease, or you can just believe me when I say that that this recipe really is easy to make.

Either way, I’m guessing you won’t have to go to the store to find out which one of us has it right.

Jam Crostata

Adapted from Baking Illustrated.  Serves 8 to 10 people.

Pasta Frolla
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk (reserve white for the glaze, see below)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons water
2 1/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2/3 cups granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
grated zest of one lemon
1 1/2 sticks butter (12 tablespoons), cut into 1/4-inch pieces

Filling
1 cup jam
1 tablespoon lemon juice or balsamic vinegar

Glaze
1 large egg white
2 tablespoons water

For the pasta frolla, whisk the egg, egg yolk, vanilla, and water in a small measuring cup.  Set aside.

Whirl flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, and lemon zest in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the blade attachment.  Scatter 4 tablespoons of the butter over the flour mixture and whirl until well combined.  Add remaining 8 tablespoons of butter and pulse briefly until peanut-sized chunks of butter remain.  With the machine running, add the egg mixture and process until just incorporated;  it should still appear very crumbly.  Pinch some of the mixture between your fingers;   if it sticks together, no more water is necessary.  If the mixture feels dry and doesn’t clump easily, add 1 to 2 teaspoons more water and process briefly until just incorporated.

Turn out the dough into a large bowl.  Gently knead until it forms a cohesive ball, no more than 30 seconds.  Divide the dough in two pieces and shape into flat disks.  Wrap each one separately in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour or up to 2 days.

Mix jam and lemon juice (or balsamic vinegar, depending on what type of jam you are using) in a small bowl.  Set aside.  In another small bowl, whisk egg white with 2 tablespoons water.

Remove dough from refrigerator (if refrigerated for longer than 2 hours, let stand at room temperature until the dough feels malleable).  On a floured piece of parchment paper, roll one of the dough disks into an 11-inch circle about 1/4-inch thick, dusting generously with flour as needed.  Using a 10-to 11-inch pot lid, tart pan bottom, or other large circle as a guide, trim the dough into a perfect circle with a pizza cutter or paring knife.  Reserve the scraps.

Move the dough, still on the parchment paper, onto a large baking sheet.  Spread the jam on the dough, taking care to leave a 1-inch border all the way around the edge.

Roll the second piece of dough into an 11-inch circle on a generously floured piece of parchment paper.  With a pizza cutter or paring knife, cut the dough into 10 1-inch wide strips.  Combine scraps with scraps from the bottom crust and knead them into a cohesive mass. Set aside.

Place the dough strips over the filling, 5 in each direction, in a diagonal lattice.  Use a long, offset spatula to help you move and position the strips.   Trim over hanging strips carefully, and then brush the strips with the egg glaze.

Roll the combined dough scraps into a 3/4-inch-thick rope that will fit around the outside edge (about 30 inches long).  Brush the rim of pastry with the egg glaze, and then press the dough rope over the rim, flattening slightly as you work.  Brush the border with the egg glaze.  Refrigerate the assembled crostata on the baking sheet for 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 375° F.  If desired, brush the dough with egg glaze one more time before putting the crostata in the oven.  Bake in on the middle rack until golden brown, about 20 to 25 minutes.  Slide the parchment paper and crostata off the baking sheet and onto a rack.  Cook to room temperature before serving.

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Open Sesame

After putting the kids to bed the other night, I felt the need for something sweet.   A quick inspection of my cupboards and fridge left me feeling uninspired.   My husband, who clearly understood my unvoiced intentions, suggested hot fudge sundaes, but that didn’t grab my interest either.

I wanted something just slightly sweet with a bit of crunch.  Since nothing on hand was going to make me happy, I began searching Epicurious for a recipe that would gratify my craving.  I found it almost immediately:  Sesame Cookies.

As the first batch came out of the oven, I didn’t wait for them to cool.  The dough, which includes tahini, imparts just the kind of savory backdrop that I was looking for in a sweet treat.  And rolling the dough in sesame seeds not only gives these cookies an attractive appearance, it delivers the pleasing crunch I’d hankered for at the beginning of my quest.

While the cookies took care of my immediate need for something sweet, I didn’t feel completely satisfied with them:  the bitterness of the tahini stood out too much in the sweet-savory combination.  On a whim, I kneaded some ground cardamom and freshly grated ginger into the remaining dough, and the experiment paid off.  The cardamom and ginger added enough brightness to detract from the bitter flavor.

Since they’re tiny and not overly sweet, these cookies are slightly dangerous.  When I start to eat them compulsively, I just pretend they’re crackers.

And really, because of their savory undertones, I can almost pretend to believe myself.   I’ve consumed two batches in the last week, and now that my cupboard’s bare once more, I’m off to bake them yet again, thereby prolonging my delusion.

Sesame Cookies

Inspired by Epicurious.com.  Makes about 2 1/2 dozen cookies.

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar, plus 1 tablespoon
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1/2 cup well-stirred tahini
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/3 cup, plus 2 tablespoons sesame seeds (preferably hulled), divided

Whisk together flour, cardamom, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl.

In the bowl of a standing electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine butter and sugars at medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes.  Beat in in tahini, ginger, vanilla, and 2 tablespoons of the sesame seeds.  Reduce speed to low and add the flour mixture in 2 batches, mixing until a crumbly dough forms. Turn out dough on a large piece of plastic wrap.  Use the plastic wrap to press the dough  into a cohesive disk.  Chill the dough, wrapped, until firm, at least 1 hour.

Shape dough into 1-inch balls.  Roll balls one at a time in seeds to coat, re-rolling balls between your hands after coating with seeds to help the seeds adhere.  Arrange cookies 2 inches apart on parchment-lined baking sheets.  Using the bottom of a drinking class, press down gently on each cookie to flatten it slightly.

Bake in an oven heated to 350°F, switching the position of the sheets about halfway through baking, until cookies are puffed and starting to crack, about 12 to 15 minutes.  Cool cookies on the baking sheets for 10 minutes before transferring to a cooling rack.

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