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Lemon Bars are a Slice of Sunshine

Sunday, January 6th, 2008

We’re in the middle of a pretty major storm in California right now, so I’m really craving summer fruits after all the holiday meals and seasonal favorites. What better way to brighten a rainy day than these lovely lemon bars? If you are craving a non-frozen treat with potent lemon flavor, look no further.

I consider myself to be pretty fortunate; I have a steady supply of Meyer lemons most of the year. A citrus hybrid of lemon and mandarin orange, Meyer lemons are less sour than the typical Lisbon or Eureka varieties most commonly found in stores. I’ve seen Meyer lemons sold only a few times in stores. Your best bet for getting some is by befriending someone with a Meyer lemon tree in their yard (living in California will also improve your odds of finding such a friend). I get me Meyer lemons from my viola teacher, and my supply is kept well-stocked thanks to my weekly lessons with my son (who takes violin lessons).

If you can’t find Meyer lemons, there’s no reason to pass on making these lemon bars. I first fell in love with this recipe long before I had acquired a taste for Meyer lemons, so I know how good they are with more common lemons. I like to serve these with a dusting of powdered sugar. Dust them right before serving, since the sugar will absorb moisture from the bars after 10 or 15 minutes. These lemon bars are addictive, so plan on sharing these soon after making them to spare your waistline. I usually bring these lemon bars with my sifter filled with powdered sugar to work. Nearby coworkers would be alerted to the presence of these lemon bars by the squeaking sifter.

Ingredients for making Lemon Bars.

Cream 1 cup of room temperature butter with 1/2 cup powdered sugar.

Add 1 teaspoon of vanilla and then gradually mix in 2 cups of flour.

Spread the dough evenly in a greased 9×13 inch pan, going up about an inch on the sides. Bake for 20 minutes in 350° F oven until lightly browned.

Use a microplane grater to remove the zest of 2 lemons. Juice the lemons until you have 1/2 cup of juice.

Beat 4 eggs, lemon zest, 1/2 cup lemon juice and 2 cups of sugar until blended and sugar has dissolved.

Pour the lemon custard into the hot crust and carefully return the pan to the oven.

Bake for 20 minutes or until top just begins to lightly brown.

Remove from oven and let cool. Sprinkle with powdered sugar immediately prior to serving.

The recipe pictured above, with detailed instructions and complete photo gallery can be found on the Lemon Bars recipe page.

Old Fashioned Sugar Cookies

Sunday, October 21st, 2007

My daughter isn’t a big fan of the spice cookies or molasses softies that I make regularly, and my wife told me that my daughter wanted me to make sugar cookies. It’s been a long time since I have made sugar cookies, but I knew the recipe I wanted to make. Cookies that go by the name, sugar cookies, actually vary quite a bit, with many folks considering the cookies that are decorated with frosting as sugar cookies. To me, a sugar cookie is soft and delicate—much more delicate than the tough cookies one usually finds underneath a layer of frosting during the holidays. And, of course, the cookie must be sprinkled with sugar—why else would it be called a sugar cookie? Plus, unlike those other sugar cookies, these cookies are decorated before baking. Maybe that’s why these are called old fashioned? They certainly elicit memories from childhood.

An unexpected ingredient
This recipe is pretty simple, but one ingredient you might not anticipate is orange extract. The orange extract does a lot to add brightness and freshness, and tasters couldn’t quite put their finger on what the flavor was, though some tasters suggested hints of citrus when asked about flavor. When I told tasters that there was orange extract in the cookie beforehand, they could pick it out without too much difficulty. I think if you used real orange zest or splurged on the extract, the orange flavor might be too strong. A little goes a long way.

This is one of the few cookies I bake on silpat mats. I’ve had less than stellar results with most recipes, especially since most cookies I make call for ungreased cookie sheets. This recipe, however, is ideal for silpat since it calls for greased cookie sheets and the cookies are rather delicate.

How to tell when these cookies are done
Some of the darker cookies I make—molasses softies and spice cookies, for example—are difficult to tell doneness for because they don’t really brown. These cookies have the opposite problem because, although they are very light in color, you actually don’t want to brown them. Baking time can vary depending on how thick you make these cookies, but you want to remove them from the oven when you just think that the edges are maybe—just maybe—starting to look a little brown. My wife prefers her sugar cookies crispy and crunchy, so I made one sheet with more evident browning and they tasted a little odd: not burnt at all, but they weren’t as good.

I don’t make a lot of cutout cookies and thought rolling out the dough was going to be a pain, but with sufficient flour on the surface and rolling pin, it was pretty fun. The kids also enjoy decorating the cookies almost as much as eating them.

Ingredients for making Old Fashioned Sugar Cookies.

Add 3 eggs to 1 cup of room temperature butter and mix.

Add 1 teaspoon orange extract and 1 teaspoon vanilla to 1 1/2 cups sugar and mix until light and fluffy.

Mix together 2 teaspoons baking powder, 3/4 teaspoon baking soda, pinch of salt and 3 3/4 cups of unbleached flour.

Slowly add the dry ingredients a little at a time while mixing on low.

Place fist-sized ball of dough onto generously floured surface and roll to 1/4 inch thickness.

Use cookie cutter to cut out desired shapes.

Place cookies on silpat mat or greased cookie sheet and sprinkle with colored sugar.

Bake cookies for 6-10 minutes (per thickness or size) in 350° F oven until just barely browned (less brown is better).

The recipe pictured above, with detailed instructions and complete photo gallery can be found on the Old Fashioned Sugar Cookie recipe page.

Token Food Blog Post: Chocolate Chip Cookies

Monday, October 8th, 2007

The chocolate chip cookie is truly an American classic and a staple in just about any food or baking blog. For most recipes I usually look for similar recipes on other blogs, but for this recipe, what’s the point?

One of my favorite geology professors, Gerry Weber, liked to say, “All food is good, some is better”. He was also once overheard saying, “Don’t ever give cookies to stoners. They don’t appreciate them, they just eat ’em.” Are all cookies good?

To the contrary: when you think of all the home made chocolate chip cookies you have had in your life, you realize that some people can really screw them up. In the last 30 years of making cookies I have probably made this recipe more than any other cookie, but I actually believe that the chocolate chip cookie is one of the more challenging cookies I have on my site.

For years I made this with a Sunbeam Mixmaster with no issues. Then, 12 years ago, my wife bought me my dream machine: a limited edition 5 quart KitchenAid mixer. I eagerly cranked out a batch of chocolate chip cookies, toll house recipe, and they turned out horrible. Very thin, crispy things full of holes that I could barely coax off the cookie sheets. I made them again and the same thing happened. Was it the mixer, me, or the new house I had just moved into with a different oven?

Few cookies are as sensitive to the quality of ingredients, mixing method, cookie sheet, oven and chef. Discouraged with a couple batches in the trash, I tried some of my other cookie recipes and fortunately they turned out great. After a little experimenting I found that if I increased the amount of flour that the cookies were better. The moral of the story: just because it is baking doesn’t mean you can’t adjust things a little to suit your needs, tastes or environments. Seems obvious now, but remember that there were no food blogs in 1994.

For this chocolate chip cookie recipe there isn’t much I have done to the original toll house recipe except: double the vanilla, increase the flour by 1/4 cup, substitute dark brown sugar for light brown, and use dark chocolate chips. I’m currently favoring Ghirardelli 60% bittersweet chocolate chips because they taste great and are a little wider than regular chips.

Ingredients for making Chocolate Chip Cookies.

Add 2 eggs to 1 cup of salted butter and mix.

After adding 3/4 cups of granulated and 3/4 cups of dark brown sugars, add 2 teaspoons of vanilla.

Mix together 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon baking soda and 2 1/2 cups of unbleached flour together.

Slowly add the dry ingredients a little at a time while mixing on low.

Mix in dark chocolate chips by hand to prevent breaking them in mixer.

Roll dough into 1 1/4 inch balls.

Space rolled dough evenly on ungreased cookie sheet.

Bake cookies for 11-13 minutes in 375° F oven.

The recipe pictured above, with detailed instructions and complete photo gallery can be found on the Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe page.

They’re Peanut Butter Criss-Cross Cookies, Naturally

Tuesday, August 28th, 2007

I remember making this recipe for peanut butter cookies with my mom when I was a kid. I loved to press down on the dough with a fork after she rolled them. More than a decade passed before I tried making them again when I was in college. My dad had recently bought me my own mixmaster electric mixer, similar to my mom’s Sunbeam mixmaster. Although my new Sunbeam mixer now had a light bulb to illuminate the bowl, the body was entirely plastic and the power was definitely not the same. It worked fine for all my other baking needs until I made this recipe, which resulted in smoke pouring out the back of the mixer. It still worked afterwards, but it was never the same and would stutter at lower speeds. In the mixer’s defense I will admit that I had used hydrogenated peanut butter, which is considerably thicker than real peanut butter. Although I now have a wonderful 75th anniversary KitchenAid stand mixer, I still have to recommend you choose your peanut butter wisely.

It’s all about the peanut butter.
The key to a good peanut butter cookie is using real peanut butter. Sure, I grew up with and thoroughly enjoyed Jif and Skippy (creamy, please), but now that I am older I appreciate natural, un-hydrogenated peanut butter (I also like broccoli now, though I still don’t care for zucchini). Nevertheless, I still have fond memories of fighting my sister to be first to swipe a finger in a brand new jar of peanut butter. I was put off at first by natural peanut butter. Look at all that oil on top—and the peanut butter underneath has a rough and dry texture. Mixing only seemed to get oil everywhere. Gross! I have since learned that you can easily reincorporate natural peanut butter by repeatedly plunging a knife into it for several minutes. Eventually you will be able to stir it and the peanut butter will be nice and smooth. Store in the refrigerator and it won’t separate again (at least not for a really long time—too long).

These cookies are soft with just a hint of crunch on the edges. If you like your peanut butter cookies crunchier, just cook another minute or two. These cookies are surprisingly forgiving to over-baking. I think they look best with a 4 tined fork, but use whatever you have handy.

Ingredients for making Peanut Butter Criss-Cross Cookies.

Cream butter, eggs and sugars together until well blended.

Stir natural peanut butter until texture is smooth.

Add 1 cup of peanut butter to dough and mix.

Add 1 teaspoon vanilla to dough.

Gradually add blended flour, baking soda and salt into dough, scraping down bowl occasionally.

Roll dough into 1 1/4 inch balls and place on ungreased cookie sheets.

Press gently with fork to make criss-cross impression.

Bake in 375° F. oven for 11 – 13 minutes. Let cool 1 – 2 minutes before transferring to cooling racks.

The recipe pictured above, with detailed instructions and complete photo gallery can be found on the Peanut Butter Criss-Cross recipe page.

My Favorite Cookies from Childhood

Tuesday, August 21st, 2007

Spice CookiesWhen I was a kid, my favorite cookie was not the chocolate chip cookie. Hey, I liked chocolate chip cookies—and I still do—but the cookie I loved was not available in any store. The cookies I liked the most were the homemade spice cookies that my mom and I used to make in the mid 1970s. Dominated by clove, cinnamon and nutmeg, this cookie was unlike any other that emerged from lunch boxes in grade school.

After my mom and I would make the cookies she would put them away in a ceramic cookie jar. I remember that it was very difficult to remove the lid of the cookie jar without being heard, but I managed to succeed on a few occasions. I would go on to make these cookies by myself and even had a note in the recipe about decreased batch size when my mom or sister was around.

I made these for a class event in junior high, but I forgot one egg and they came out dry. I had since forgotten about them until just a few years ago when I called my mom up for the recipe. I was excited to make them again—I knew that the smell would bring back memories. Sure enough, as soon as I was mixing in the spices and flour into the butter, eggs, and sugar, it all came back. Soft in the middle, with just a little crunch on the edges, these cookies are unique and delicious.

Ingredients for making Spice Cookies.

Cream butter eggs and sugars together until light and fluffy.

Mix, baking soda, baking powder, ginger, clove and cinnamon together with flour.

After gradually mixing dry ingredients into creamed butter, eggs and sugar, roll dough into balls with hands and gently roll in sugar.

Bake in 375° F. oven for 10 – 12 minutes on ungreased cookie sheets.

Promptly remove from cookies sheets onto cooling rack.

The recipe pictured above, with detailed instructions and complete photo gallery can be found on the Spice Cookies recipe page.

The Cookie of Champions

Friday, May 25th, 2007

Wheaties Cookies.

You could still eat the cookie of champions for breakfast, but these Wheaties cookies taste great anytime. With a winning combination of oats, chewy coconut and crispy Wheaties, there’s something in this cookie to appeal to everyone.

I first made this recipe in the mid 1970’s with my mom, who would place a maraschino cherry in the middle of each cookie. Two decades went by before I made them again after noticing the hand-written recipe in one of my old cookbooks. In the last couple years I have started making them more often since my son really likes them. Unless you are a true Wheaties champion and plan on eating the remaining Wheaties cereal for breakfast, get the smallest box you can find. You could also substitute another flaky, crispy cereal of your choice—but wouldn’t that be cheating?

Ingredients for making Wheaties Cookies.

Mix butter, eggs, brown sugar and granulated sugar together until blended.

Add 1 cup coconut.

Add 1 cup old fashioned oats.

Mix together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt before slowly adding to dough.

Crush Wheaties with hand or bottom of glass until pea-sized.

Roll dough into ball and drop gently into crushed Wheaties repeatedly to coat.

Bake for approximately 10 – 12 minutes until center no longer looks raw and edges are browned.

After letting cool for 1 minute on cookie sheets, transfer cookies to cooling racks.

The recipe pictured above, with detailed instructions and complete photo gallery, can be found on the Wheaties Cookies recipe page.