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Downtown Dreams: Thumbprints

8 Aug

My mom worked in downtown Pittsburgh when I was growing up. It was always a treat when I got to go visit her. We would often make our way to Kaufmann’s department store (eventually Macy’s, who took over in 2006) and the Tic Toc Restaurant for lunch. I can still remember the way their tuna melt tasted 20 years later, not because it was anything particularly ground-breaking, but because I was with my mom downtown and how cool was that??

The iconic Kaufmann’s clock

The other place we’d frequent at Kaufmann’s was the Arcade Bakery. Now, this blog has made evident my love for cookies, but there are few cookies I remember more vividly and pine for more regularly than the thumbprints from the Arcade Bakery. Thick, sandy, and decadent butter cookies rolled in sprinkles or walnuts and topped with a big piped dollop of vanilla or chocolate buttercream. If there is a thumbprint divot in the middle, you’d never know under buttercream mountain.

Thumbprint, what thumbprint??

I’ve made thumbprints lots of ways, but have never quite achieved the texture and flavor of the ones from the Arcade Bakery. Apparently the recipe was never written down and some of the bakers claim not to even have one, which honestly doesn’t surprise me. I’m completely guilty of “I don’t know how much I put in, I just did it until the dough looked right.” So that’s what I had to do through many test batches. Tweak, alter, and poke at the proportions, ingredients, and most crucially the method, until I had what I wanted. It’s not a perfect copy-cat, but it is very special indeed. And transports me back to dates downtown with my mom, so I’m more than happy.

Thumbprints, inspired by Arcade Bakery and happy memories

Thumbprint Cookies

  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • ½ cup shortening, room temperature
  • 6 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 egg
  • ½ tsp. vanilla extract
  • ¼ tsp. almond extract
  • 2 cups cake flour
  • Sprinkles or finely chopped walnuts
  • Chocolate buttercream
  • Vanilla buttercream

Chocolate Buttercream

  • 6 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 1/3 cups powdered sugar
  • 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1/3 cup whole milk
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

Vanilla Buttercream

  • 4 oz. unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 ½ cups powdered sugar
  • ½ tbsp. vanilla extract
  • ¼ tsp. almond extract
  • Pinch salt

For the cookies, preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Beat the sugar, salt, shortening, and butter until fluffy.

Add the egg and extracts and beat until thick.

Stir in the flour just until a dough forms (it may still be in chunks).

Form the dough into ¾ oz. balls. This is about 1 tbsp. of dough. I use a rounded 2 tsp. cookie scoop.

Roll in the sprinkles or nuts. Then press down with your thumb (or something with a round edge, like a rolling pin) to form a thumbprint in the middle.

Chill them on baking sheets in the refrigerator for 10 minutes.

Bake the cookies for 15 minutes or until lightly golden on the bottoms. Move to a wire rack to cool completely.

To make the vanilla buttercream, beat the butter until smooth and then slowly add the powdered sugar. Once it is all combined, add the salt and extracts and beat until thick. If this sounds familiar, it is! You can find a photo tutorial for this buttercream in the Ribbon Cake recipe.

Transfer to a piping bag with an open star tip. Or just use a plastic storage bag with the corner cut off.

To make the chocolate buttercream, beat the butter until smooth and then slowly add the powdered sugar and cocoa powder, and beat until combined.

On low speed, slowly stream in the milk and vanilla extract, then add the salt and continue beating until well combined, scraping down the bowl as needed.

Then beat on high speed until thick, about 2 minutes. Depending on the weather and temperature, you may need to add extra powdered sugar to stiffen up the frosting. On a rainy, humid day I have added as much as 1/3 cup extra.

Transfer to a piping bag with an open star tip. Or just use a plastic storage bag with the corner cut off.

To assemble, pipe a large dollop of buttercream into the thumbprint you created, swirling out over the edges and covering about 2/3 of the cookie surface.

So while the sprinkle shape might be different (I thought these coated the cookies better, but for a true replica, use long straight sprinkles), one bite and I was instantly taken back to those afternoons downtown that always felt so special.

Still and always having fun with mom!

While Kaufmann’s, The Tic Toc Restaurant, and the Arcade Bakery might be lost to time, their memories are strong in my heart. This recipe might not be the original, but it is just what I remember, and is now down on paper to share with you.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Double Dessert: Strawberry Cheesecake Brownies with a Graham Cracker Crust

23 Jul

Let’s face it, you have enough difficult decisions to make on a day to day basis, yes? So when it comes to having your dessert at the end of a long day, why add one more challenging choice into the equation? This is precisely the thought that came into my head Sunday afternoon. I wanted these super fudgy brownies I made earlier in the week (that seriously satisfied my illicit obsession with “testing” brownie/cake batter), but also had a craving for creamy cheesecake. And yes, the classic marbled chocolate and cheesecake brownie seemed like the obvious answer, but there were a few sticking points I needed to address.

First of all, if you are going to call something a cheesecake, it needs a delicious crust. And second of all, fudgy brownie and cheesecake together cry out for something fruity or acidic to cut all of that richness. So what I started to imagine was a crunchy, sweet crust, gooey, rich brownie, and smooth decadent cheesecake with a little strawberry swirl. I wandered into the kitchen without a recipe and only my cravings to guide me. And a few hours later, I definitely had no difficult choices to make.

Strawberry Cheesecake Brownies with Graham Cracker Crust

Crust

  • 1 ½ cups graham cracker crumbs
  • 6 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
  • 2 tbsp. sugar
  • 2 pinches of salt

Brownie Layer

  • 8 tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 tbsp. cacao or cocoa butter,* melted
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • ½ cup all purpose flour
  • ½ cup cacao or cocoa powder*
  • ½ tsp. salt

*Cacao butter/powder are the raw versions of cocoa butter/powder. This just means that these products have not been processed at temperatures higher than 115 degrees F. Either will produce great results, I just like the flavor of the raw product. Can’t find cocoa butter? Any neutral cooking oil will do in a pinch.

Cheesecake Layer

  • 8 oz. cream cheese, softened
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 2 tbsp. strawberry preserves

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Line an 8×8 pan with aluminum foil and butter the foil.

Combine the graham crackers, sugar, salt and melted butter and mix well.

Press into the prepared pan in an even layer and bake for 12 minutes, or until just set. Move to a wire rack to cool slightly while you prepare the filling.

To make the brownie batter, combine the butter, cacao butter, and sugar and mix well.

Add the eggs and vanilla extract and beat until thick.

Stir in the dry ingredients, but do not overmix. Some lumps are fine.

Pour the brownie batter on top of the crust and set aside.

To make the cheesecake layer, blend the cream cheese, egg yolk, and sugar until smooth. I like to use a food processor for this.

Drop the strawberry preserves onto the cheesecake filling and swirl just slightly. Do not blend well.

Drop the cheesecake batter on top of the brownie layer in dollops and then use a butter knife to swirl the fillings together.

Bake for 35 minutes or until puffy and just set.

Allow the brownies to cool at room temperature for an hour, and then chill for 2 hours before cutting into 24 pieces. If you care about keeping it pretty, wipe down your knife with a warm, damp cloth between cuts.

This really is an awesome contrast of textures and flavors. You get that rich, fudgy brownie against smooth, creamy cheesecake with little swirls of strawberry to brighten it all up a little. Dessert need not be a difficult choice ever again. You’re welcome!

Ciao for now,

Neen

My Favorite Oatmeal Cookies

20 Jul

I love oatmeal cookies. They pair well with lots of different additions, but are also delicious left perfectly plain with a hint of spice. You can do fun things with the texture too. Make them thin and lacy, thick and cake-y, crunchy, or chewy and soft. But my favorite oatmeal cookies, combine lots of textures and have deep dark spice and caramel flavors. The recipe has gone through many iterations as I tried to find the combination of ingredients that gave me the nutty, chewy, crunchy, spicy-sweet cookie I was seeking. I really like where it’s at now, but you know I’d never promise not to play around with the recipe in the future. My imagination is already running off…

I digress. Back to the treats at hand. These are a really special little bite despite their innocent appearance. Let’s fill up the cookie jar!

Toasted Oatmeal, Pecan, and Coconut Cookies

  • ¾ cups rolled oats, toasted until fragrant*
  • ¾ cups quick cooking oats, toasted until fragrant
  • ¾ cup flour
  • ½ cup pecans, toasted and chopped
  • ½ cup (sweetened or unsweetened) shredded coconut, toasted until golden
  • ½ tsp. baking powder**
  • 2 oz. unsalted butter, softened
  • ¼ cup vegetable shortening
  • 1/2 cup light brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp.  cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • Pinch fresh ground nutmeg
  • 1 large egg

*To toast the dry ingredients, just turn the oven to 350 degrees F and spread them out on separate baking sheets. The oats and nuts usually take 7-10 minutes and the coconut takes about 2-4 minutes.

** This weird thing happened when I started taking my medication for rheumatoid arthritis. I was finding that some of my baked goods tasted…off. There was this funny aftertaste that I could not get rid of and I had no idea what it was. I realized one day when I accidentally left some baking soda out of a recipe that OH, that’s that funny taste. This particular recipe can absolutely be made with ½ tsp. of baking soda or baking powder. Use what you have on hand.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. and line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone mats.

Combine the butter, shortening, brown sugar, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, and salt, and beat until smooth and creamy.

Add the egg and beat until well combined, scraping down the bowl as needed.

Add the flour and baking powder and beat until incorporated.

Finally, stir in the oats, pecans, and coconut and beat until well distributed.

Use a small cookie scoop (mine is 2 tsp.) or spoon to drop the dough onto the sheets. I got three dozen this way and placed 18 per sheet. Gently press the cookies down with fingertips to flatten.


Bake for 11-12 minutes or until golden at the edges and lightly brown on the bottoms. Cool on a wire rack or eat them warm because YES.

So yes, I’ll admit there are some extra steps to this recipe, but they really are worth it to achieve all the crispy, chewy, crunchy goodness here. The warm spices make them a super comforting accompaniment to any cup of coffee, cocoa, or tea. Definitely a good evening porch-sitting cookie for summer.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Honey-Vanilla Sandwich Cookies with Vanilla Creme (and Their Peanut Butter Buddies)

17 Jul

Often, my recipe ideas come from prepared or packaged products I see in the grocery store, because I get deeply curious about how they are made. I’ll look at the ingredients and slowly peel away the stabilizers and preservatives to get a sense of what makes up the food itself. And then I’ll try my best to give it a little makeover.

I rarely buy packaged cookies because I love to bake so much, but there are a few that Joe buys because he really likes them. I would not come between that man and his milk chocolate Milano cookies. He also really enjoys Golden Oreos. And for whatever reason, that’s what got stuck in my head this week. I think Golden Oreos taste pretty good too, but the problem with vanilla on vanilla is that it can be too sweet and a little flat. So my goal was to create a cookie with a little more depth of flavor that was crisp at the edges, but soft enough to bite without squeezing the filling out. If the cookie had the right balance, the vanilla creme could remain nice and sweet without becoming cloying. So not really a mock Golden Oreo, but a cookie loosely based on the idea. I think I came up with something pretty good. Joe ate two this morning before he went to work, and that’s honestly the best feeling. Let’s make some sandwiches!

Honey-Vanilla Sandwich Cookies with Vanilla Creme Filling

Cookies:

  • 11 tbsp. unsalted butter, room temperature
  • ¼ cup brown sugar
  • ¼ cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tbsp. honey
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 1 egg
  • 1 ½ tsp. vanilla extract
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • Sparkling sugar

Vanilla Creme Filling:

  • 2 ½ cups powdered sugar, sifted
  • ½ cup vegetable shortening
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 2-3 pinches salt
  • 1-2 tsp. cold water


Get out four sheets of parchment paper the size of your baking sheets and set them aside.

To make the cookies, use an electric mixer or hand mixer to beat the butter until smooth.

Add the sugar, brown sugar, honey, and salt, and beat until fluffy (2-3 min).

Add the egg and beat until the mixture thickens slightly. Scrape down the bowl as needed. Mix in the vanilla until well incorporated.

Stir in the flour just until a soft dough forms.

I used to find the rolling/cutting of cookies to be a little messy and inconsistent. The best part about the method we’ll use here is that it makes this step super simple and avoids adding any extra flour to the dough.

Gather the dough into a ball and put it on a sheet of parchment paper, place another sheet of parchment on top and roll the dough out to ¼ in. thickness. Place this on a baking sheet and put it in the freezer for 30 minutes or until the dough is completely firm.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Place the two remaining sheets of parchment on baking sheets.

Using a 2 in. cutter, cut out circles of dough and lay them evenly spaced on the baking sheets. You will probably need to re-roll scraps once. Do it the same way as the first round of rolling, only this time you only need to chill for 5 minutes or so. While you are working with one sheet pan, put the other in the freezer so that the cookies stay cool and firm.

I fit 20 cookies per sheet pan. They won’t spread, so you can place them fairly close.

Very, very lightly brush the tops with a tiny bit of water and then sprinkle on the sparkling sugar. This will give the cookies a wonderful crunch!

Bake for 10-12 minutes or until the edges are just golden-brown. Let them cool on the baking sheet for a minute or two before moving to wire racks to cool completely.

To make the filling, combine all ingredients except the water and mix well. It will seem too dry, but eventually it will come together. At that point, add just enough water to make it cohesive. Beat until smooth. It should be fairly stiff.

Assemble the cookies by turning half of them over and spooning or piping about 2 tsp. of the filling in the center of each one.

Place another cookie on top and gently press down in the center to spread the frosting out.

The crunch from the sparkling sugar is delightful on top of these slightly-soft-in-the-middle cookies and the filling is creamy and sweet. I love the flavor the honey adds to these too. I bet dark buckwheat honey would be almost caramel-y.

Oh! Vanilla not your thing? Beat ½ cup peanut butter with 1 ½ cups powdered sugar, a pinch or two of salt, and 3-4 tbsp. milk for a delicious peanut butter filling variation. The salt content of peanut butters varies so much brand to brand that it is best to add to your own taste here. (Oh darn you might have to taste it multiple times!)

Try out these little sandwiches and start dreaming up your own variations! A warm maple, bright lemon, or a rich chocolate-hazelnut all sound pretty heavenly to me. I think I might have to head back to the kitchen for more important experiments.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Pressed Perfection: Gram’s Pizzelles

6 Dec

I have introduced you to my Gram before, and shared with you her delicious stracciatella (you’re welcome). But there was in fact, a second recipe card she gave me at my bridal shower five years ago. A particular offering that appears on every Italian Christmas and wedding cookie tray, but seemingly only on those occasions, the pizzelle.

After my Gram passed away a few years ago, they stopped being a special occasion cookie only for me. They became a thing I made when I missed her and wanted to share her with people.  I pull out the pizzelle iron more than a few times a year, and most recently I brought it out right before Thanksgiving to share these with my students.

You’ll need one piece of special equipment, and that is the aforementioned pizzelle iron. There are many varieties, but this is the one I have. It bakes two cookies at a time.

Pizzelles

  • 3 eggs
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • ½ cup butter, melted and cooled*
  • 1 tbsp. vanilla or anise oil**
  • 1 ¾ cup flour
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • Pinch of salt

    *Gram’s recipe actually calls for margarine, I just never have it around
    **I use a combination of vanilla and almond extracts

Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt.

In a large bowl, beat the eggs, and then beat in the sugar until smooth.

Add the melted butter and extracts and mix well.

Finally, whisk the flour mixture into the egg mixture until a batter is formed.

Drop the batter by spoonfuls (I use a 1 ½ tbsp. disher) onto a preheated pizzelle iron and bake for 30 seconds, or until just golden.

Move to a wire rack to cool completely.

Yield: 24 5-in. cookies.

I know that as the holidays approach, I’ll definitely make more pizzelles to add to cookie trays and gifts for people. There’s always a moment of delight when someone receives these so beautifully pressed, crisp, sweet little treasures. And for me it means my Gram is still right here baking and sharing with me.

Ciao for now,

Neen

Graham Crackers (and S’mores!)

23 Aug

Sometimes, you find your 31 year old self needing the comforts of childhood: Cartoons and s’mores. After a particularly long week recently, I asked a couple of friends to come over and watch Batman cartoons with me and wind down.

It’s hard not going into full-on hostess mode when people come over. But I really just wanted to hang out with my friends. Can’t hide in the kitchen the whole time, Neen. So I decided the local Thai place would make dinner and I’d only put myself on the hook for dessert.

I thought s’mores would be pretty fun for a summer evening, so I made a batch of marshmallows (recipe here), a batch of chocolate ganache, and some graham crackers.  I know the typical s’mores chocolate is a good old fashioned Hershey bar, but the ganache was definitely tastier and meltier.

Easy Chocolate Ganache

  • 8 oz. semi-sweet chocolate, chopped
  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream (or coconut milk for dairy-free)

Put the semi-sweet chocolate in a bowl. Bring the heavy cream just to a boil, and then pour it over the chocolate. Let stand for 2 minutes, and then whisk until smooth. It will be very liquid, but will set up and become spreadable as it cools down.

The last step was making the graham crackers, which is really more like making pastry dough than a cookie or biscuit. I’ve made graham crackers a lot of different ways, but this is my personal favorite recipe for ones that are crisp, and juuust sweet enough.

Graham Crackers

  • 2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup dark brown sugar (or 1 cup granulated sugar blended with 3 tbsp. molasses)
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 4 oz. unsalted butter, cubed and chilled
  • 1/3 cup honey or maple syrup. For this batch I used half and half!
  • 5 tbsp. cold milk
  • 1 tbsp. vanilla extract
  • granulated sugar for sprinkling

Combine the flour, brown sugar, baking soda, and salt in the bowl of a food processor.

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Add the butter a few cubes at a time and pulse until the mixture is sandy. You can also do this by hand with a pastry cutter or the tines of two forks.

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In a separate bowl, whisk together the honey/maple syrup, milk, and vanilla extract.

Slowly add the wet ingredients to dry and mix until a cohesive dough forms.

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Divide the dough into two equal pieces, flatten into discs, and chill in the refrigerator for an hour or until firm enough to roll.

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Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and line two baking sheets with parchment paper or a baking mat.

Roll out one half of the dough until it is 1/8 in. thick and then cut out crackers. I used a 2-in. fluted round cutter for these.  Move the crackers to the prepared baking sheet, dock with a fork (this keeps them from puffing up) and sprinkle lightly with granulated sugar.

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Bake the crackers for about 15-20 minutes or until the edges are golden brown. Then move to a wire rack to cool.

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We intended to use my little butane torch to toast the marshmallows (no campfire here, alas). It was out of fuel though, so Joe quickly improvised while at the grocery store and bought a sterno. We lit it and toasted our marshmallows using the chopsticks from dinner as skewers. Honestly, it was a pretty great way to spend an evening with friends. I’m glad to have people in my life who are content to laugh, eat a bunch of gooey marshmallows, and have a good time.

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