Cheese and Crackers

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I love sweets, but I think I’ve have had enough cookies, cakes, candies, and pies to get me through the year.  This Christmas Eve, I felt compelled to bake something savory to compensate for the onslaught of dessert that always accompanies the holidays.  So after we tucked our Christmas-crazed kids into bed, I put some Rosemary Cheese Crackers in the oven.

I thought we could snack on these crackers Christmas day before dinner. I also thought I could package some up for my impossible-to-shop-for uncle who needs absolutely nothing.

We had to, of course, make sure they tasted all right when they finished baking. Cayenne and crushed red pepper give them some serious kick. They’re like goldfish crackers for adults with a dense-crisp texture.

In almost no time, we were sipping champagne and nibbling crackers topped with goat cheese and pepper jelly while playing Santa Claus.

We had a few crackers left for our cheese plate on Christmas day, and they disappeared in no time.  Since we’ve already established how well these flavorful, crunchy crackers go with champagne, I’ve decided to bake another batch to help me ring in the New Year.  Truth be told, I probably won’t wait, though. I could use a good excuse to open a bottle of champagne.

Rosemary Cheese Crackers

Adapted from Sara Foster’s Southern Kitchen . Makes about 60 1-by-1 1/2-inch crackers. If you don’t like spicy food, reduce the amount of cayenne pepper or use paprika instead.

2 cups (8 ounces) sharp Cheddar cheese, grated
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
2 teaspoons fresh rosemary, chopped
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon sea salt, plus more for sprinkling on top
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
¼ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

Cream the cheese, butter, and rosemary in a large bowl with an electric mixer or a wooden spoon until smooth and well combined.

Stir together the flour, salt, red pepper flakes, and cayenne in a separate bowl.

Add the flour mixture to the cheese mixture and stir to combine thoroughly.

Turn the dough onto a piece of parchment paper. Roll into a log shape for round crackers; for square crackers, gently tap each side of the log on the counter several times to form a long rectangle. Wrap the dough in the paper and refrigerate for several hours or overnight, until the dough is firm and sliceable.

When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 375°F. Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Cut the log into 1/4-inch-thick slices and arrange them on a baking sheet. Using a fork, prick the center of each cracker several times and sprinkle with salt. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, until golden brown around the edges.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely before serving or storing in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

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Seeing Stars

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I finally found an evening to bake the chocolate sandwich cookies that have eluded me for two weeks.  The idea to make them hatched when a friend hosted a holiday craft fair and cookie contest at her house.  I’d never made chocolate sandwich cookies, and her party seemed like the perfect opportunity to give them a try.  I imagined something like an Oreo cookie with a chocolate-mint filling.

The day of the party — a Friday ending a busy week — I rushed home from work to make cookies.  As I walked through my door and stumbled over knee-deep clutter scattered across my living room, I realized I didn’t need to make cookies.  I needed to clean my house.  I couldn’t do it, though.  Instead, I diverted my eyes from the chaos and relaxed on the couch with a book for the first time in what seemed like forever.  Before long, I was picking up my kids from school and taking them to the tree lighting ceremony in town.

Later that evening, I indulged in sweet treats baked by my friends, and when I returned home after the party, I found that my husband had cleaned up the house.

I don’t usually let go of projects so easily, but I need to get better at it.  Here’s my new mantra:  just because I have time to do something doesn’t mean that I should.  I know I would have enjoyed making cookies that afternoon, but I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t have enjoyed it more than my respite from rushing, rushing, rushing to squeeze one more thing into my day.  Besides, look how well it turned out for me in the end. 

Letting go of a baking project on a given afternoon doesn’t, however, divert my mind from the idea of it, and I just couldn’t shake the idea of chocolate sandwich cookies.  In keeping with my new philosophy, I tried not to make them just because I could squeeze cookie-making into an already jam-packed day.

Finally though, Eliza needed treats to bring to her Daisy Scouts holiday party. I didn’t have any grading or planning to do for school, so I made cookies:  crisp, chocolatey wafers filled with chocolate-peppermint ganache.

I could eat the wafers alone and feel satisfied.   Crisp, textured bites melt in your mouth like a buttery chocolate cookie crumb crust with an occasional burst of salt mixing in with the sweetness.  Slather rich, peppermint-laced ganache between two wafers, and it’s pretty much over.

To make them feel more Christmasy, I used a tiny star-shaped cutter.  Popping those little stars in your mouth makes it seem like you’re eating next to nothing.  The Girl Scouts are lucky they got any.

Baking these cookies takes some time, but they’re not hard to make, as long as you don’t mind relaxing a bit between steps.

Double Chocolate-Mint Sandwich Cookies

Makes about 30 to 60 cookies, depending on the size of your cutter.  A 1 1/2-inch star cutter produced about 60 cookies.

Chocolate Wafers

Adapted from Epicurious

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 sticks (1/2 pound) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
1 large egg yolk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Whisk together flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt.

Beat butter and sugar with an electric mixer until pale and fluffy, then beat in yolk and vanilla. At low speed, mix in flour mixture in 3 batches just until a dough forms. Divide dough in half and form each piece into a 6-inch square, then chill, wrapped in plastic wrap, until firm, about an hour.

Make ganache (see below) while dough chills.

Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.

Roll out 1 piece of dough between additional sheets of parchment paper into a 14- by 10-inch rectangle about 1/8 inch thick. Slide dough in parchment onto a tray and freeze until dough is firm, about 10 minutes. Repeat with remaining dough.

Remove first chilled rectangle of dough from the freezer.  Peel parchment paper off one side and replace it (this will prevent the cookies from sticking to the paper).  Turn the dough over and remove the top sheet of parchment, cutting out as many shapes as possible with your cutter.  Reserve and chill scraps, then quickly transfer cookies to parchment-lined baking sheet, arranging them 1/2 inch apart. If dough becomes too soft, return to freezer until firm.

Bake cookies until baked through and slightly puffed, 10 to 12 minutes. Cool on sheet on rack 5 minutes, then transfer to rack to cool completely.  Cookies will crisp as they cool.

Make more cookies with remaining dough and scraps.

Spread about 1/2 teaspoon of ganache on one wafer and top with a second wafer. Chill, layered between sheets of parchment, in an airtight container until filling is set, at least 1 hour.

Chocolate Mint Ganache

Adapted from Chocolate, by Nick Malgieri

1/3 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cut in four pieces
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1 1/2 teaspoons peppermint extract

Combine cream and corn syrup in a small sauce pan and bring to a boil over low heat.  Remove from heat and add butter, chocolate, and peppermint extract.  Shake pan gently to submerge chocolate and butter completely in the hot liquid.  Let stand for 5 minutes, and then whisk until smooth.  Scrape the filling into a bowl.  Let stand at room temperature or in the refrigerator until spreadable.

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Pillow Talk

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Gnocchi. I love to say it almost as much as I love to eat it.

And I’m not talking about the gnocchi that you buy in vacuum-sealed packages nestled amongst the pasta in the grocery aisle.  I’m talking about the real-deal-mixed-and-rolled-out-on-your-counter gnocchi.   I’m talking about soft pillows of goodness somewhere between pasta and dumplings made by mixing flour, egg, and spices with either potato or soft cheese.  I’m also talking easy.

I had a hankering for gnocchi the other day, and I happened to have some potatoes on hand and no other plans for dinner.   In almost no time at all, Tessa and I mixed, rolled, and cut a whole pile of soft, fluffy potato pillows for dinner.

I also found a hunk of Gorgonzola cheese and a carton of heavy cream in the fridge, which I turned into sauce to drizzle over the gnocchi. Then I noticed the bacon;  I fried that up, obviously, because bacon improves everything.

I would almost admit to feeling gluttonous except for that redeeming sprinkling of  green, healthy chives that I added over the bacon bits at the last minute.  Phew.

If you feel intrigued by this dish but daunted by its richness, just serve small portions as a first course.   Of course then you’ll probably find yourself tempted to go back for more.

Gnocchi with Gorgonzola Sauce and Bacon

Adapted from Epicurious.  Serves 4 as a main dish or 8 as a first course.

2 1/4 pounds potatoes
1 large egg
2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
ground black pepper, to taste
1 cup whipping cream
12 ounces Gorgonzola cheese, grated
fresh chives, snipped in small pieces
3 slices bacon, fried and chopped

Pierce potatoes with fork in about four different places. Microwave until tender, about 16 minutes total, turning once about halfway through.  Cut potatoes in half lengthwise and scoop potato flesh into bowl; discard potato skins.  Mash potatoes until smooth.  Mix in egg.  Sift flour, salt, nutmeg, and pepper over potato mixture; stir to combine. Knead gently.

Divide dough into 8 pieces. Roll each piece on work surface into 1/2-inch-diameter rope. Cut dough into 1-inch pieces.  Roll each piece with a fork to make grooves along the sides.

Cook gnocchi in large pot of boiling salted water until they are tender and rise to surface, about 5 minutes. Transfer cooked gnocchi to a platter with a slotted spoon.

Bring cream to simmer in heavy medium saucepan over medium heat. Add Gorgonzola, whisking until melted.

Spoon sauce over gnocchi. Sprinkle with bacon and chives.


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I ♥ Cake

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I make cakes for fun.  Since I work and have small kids, I usually make cakes at night after my kids go to bed.  This usually means that I stay up most of the night, and so does my husband.  Because I don’t do it very often, it doesn’t make me crazy.

A few people have asked me if they could pay me to make cakes, but I’ve always said no.   The sheer amount of time it takes to produce a cake would compel me to charge more money than I feel comfortable asking friends or acquaintances.  Mostly, though, I just don’t have that much free time, so I’m pretty protective of the little that I’ve got.

Back in October, though, I got an email message from Sara, a super cool, super amazing local designer.  Sara’s family planned to celebrate the adoption of four-year-old Rylie in a big way.

I might be out of line so please let me know if so! I  have noticed how amazing your cakes are (hasn’t everyone?).  And I was wondering if you would be willing to make a cake for Rylie’s adoption? I have a cake in mind.  Rylie’s would be tiered but still pretty simple. I could pay you, or if you want I could make you a super cute logo for Flour Arrangements? What do you think? It’s okay if not! Seriously.

I always wished that I had a super cute logo for my blog, but I realized that if I waited for that to happen, I’d never write anything.  So I just started writing about my baking projects with the hope that someday I could justify paying someone to create a logo for me.

What Sara didn’t know was that I had thought about asking her if she’d trade a birthday cake for some design work.  Now I feel silly that I didn’t.  One thing I’ve learned from Sara is that if you’re curious about something, you should just ask.  People can always say no or tell you to back off or whatever they need to tell you.  She’s from New York.  You usually know what she’s thinking, and I like that about her.

I wrote back: Cake for super cute logo? Awesome trade, lady. Tell me about your vision. It would be fun to make a cool cake for such an amazing little girl on such a momentous occasion.”

She sent me a picture of the cake — a three-tiered cake with hearts all over it — and I started getting excited.  I’d never made a tiered cake before, but the simple, lovely design made me want to try.

I also felt excited and honored to contribute to the celebration.  I wanted to help make the adoption party special for Rylie and her family.  It’s hard to imagine that she hasn’t been part of their lives forever.  She even looks like Sara and Thor and her brother Henry.

Sara had asked for pink cake “inside,” so I started looking for recipes.  My initial search turned up cakes that relied on raspberry Jell-O to achieve their rosy hue;  this seemed like a bad idea.  I have nothing against Jell-O, but using Jell-O to color cake batter seems wrong and just plain weird.  Finally I stumbled upon a recipe for a Pink Lady Cake on Smitten Kitchen that included pureed strawberries for color, not to mention taste.
Now that I had the cake, I needed to make sure I wouldn’t screw up the party with a sorry excuse for a tiered cake. I’ve brought an over-the-top practice cake to my neighbor’s house more than once, but a three-tiered cake seemed just too much for that.  I needed an occasion for this trial run.  Fortunately, my husband had a birthday about a month before the adoption party;  if his three-tiered birthday cake flopped, I’d still have time to come up with a new plan.

I pulled off the birthday cake with minutes to spare.  I now felt ready to make Rylie’s cake.  So ready, in fact, that when asked to make a cake for the cast party of a musical during the same weekend, I said, “Sure.”  So much for protecting my already minimal free time.

On two separate nights the week before the party, I baked a single recipe of the strawberry cake.  The first night, I made three eight-inch cakes, which I cooled, wrapped in plastic wrap, tucked in zip lock bags, and popped into the freezer.   On the second night, I baked three six-inch cakes and two five-inch cakes, wrapping and freezing them as well.

On Sunday, I thawed them in their wrappings to prevent condensation from making the cakes soggy.  After trimming the rounded tops, I brushed the cakes with a simple syrup flavored with Framboise and Creme de Cacao.

I mixed up several batches of marshmallow fondant to cover each cake.  Kneading color into fondant usually takes lots of time and effort;  this all-white cake, with the exception of a single pink heart, made this step of the prep work much simpler.

I lightly frosted each tier with a simple vanilla butter cream before wrapping it in fondant.  Then I got to work cutting fondant hearts and borders.  Finally, I was ready to head to the party venue to assemble the cake.   The rough ground, speed bumps, and steep narrow road between my kitchen and town made me nervous.  So nervous, in fact, that I made my husband drive the car.  I’m a wimp.  Thankfully, he humors me.

I didn’t even recognize the inside of the building, which Sara and some friends had transformed into a Valentine’s Day dreamland.  I don’t think I’ve seen that many pink and red hearts in one place before.  Ever.  Rylie (not to mention every little girl at the party) was going to freak out.

Once I caught my breath, I got down to business, sticking wooden skewers in the lower two tiers and then stacking cake upon cake.  I unrolled my previously cut 1 1/4-inch bands of fondant and applied them around the bottom edge of each tier.  Then I started applying the hearts in a straight line up the cake.  This took some time, especially when I painted too much water on the back of a heart, which made it slip down the side of the cake.  I tried to work slowly, holding each heart to ensure that it would stay in place.  After that first row, I made three more straight lines up the cake at roughly 90-degree angles.   I filled in the remaining spaces with hearts as evenly as I could.

The top of the cake looked uneven to me, so I placed four of the remaining hearts flat on the top.  I shaped some leftover fondant into thin wedges to slide under the hearts to give it a level appearance.  I played with the thickness and arrangement of the wedges until it the cake looked mostly level.

I made it home just in time to brush the corn starch and sugar off of my arms and face, change my clothes, and head back to town for the adoption ceremony.  As soon as Rylie and her family entered the courtroom, I got teary-eyed.   And once people started talking, I lost it completely.  I’m a sucker for love stories.

Photos of Rylie and her family, Henry and the cake, and Rylie holding the pink heart courtesy of David Newsome.  Close-up of the cake courtesy of Joan Benney.
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Hot Potatoes

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I‘ve been making some serious bread this year.  We’re talking at least two loaves a week, except for the last week of November when I made two intense cakes (one and two) and two recipes of dinner rolls for Thanksgiving.   As I got wrapped up in my cake frenzy, my friend Sharalyn offered to take over my bread responsibilities for the week so Eliza would still have homemade bread for her sandwiches.   How cool is that?

When I got going on this project to bake bread once a week for my daughter’s school lunches, I had visions of trying out different loaves each week. Time just seems to get away from me, though, so I usually end up baking something that I’ve made before either because I know it will work or because it needs perfecting.

After my daughter decided she loved fennel seeds, I’d experimented with a whole grain fennel loaf for her.  After a couple of tries, I produced a decent loaf that tasted great, but I decided that the bread overpowered the fennel.  I felt inspired to try out fennel seeds in a loaf with fewer competing flavors and textures:   potato bread, a basic white bread with mashed potatoes and buttermilk mixed into the dough.

Fennel potato bread may well be my favorite bread ever.  It rocks a peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwich like you wouldn’t believe.  As you’re eating, your teeth crack into a fennel seed and then this explosion of intense licorice-like flavor mixes in with the nutty peanut and sweet berry goodness.  Mmmmm.  My husband doesn’t love fennel, and even he raved about this bread.  It’s that good.

Here’s the thing, though.  Eliza didn’t like it.  She didn’t like if for the same reason that we loved it:  “You’re just eating and then all you can taste is fennel.  It takes over your whole mouth,” she said.

So much for potato fennel bread.  Someday, I’ll make it again.  I myself have taken to sprinkling fennel seeds over the cheese in grilled sandwiches, which I recommend highly.

In the meantime, I’ve been cranking out potato bread straight up, which makes for lovely sandwiches, cold or grilled.  Normally I don’t like squishy white bread, but I can’t resist this soft white loaf with its rustic crust, tender crumb, and flavor almost like sour dough, but rounded out with sweetness.

Since I’ve become this potato bread factory, I thought, why not make potato rolls for Thanksgiving?   I’d just used my last loaf of potato bread to make stuffing for the turkey, and I knew Sharalyn would make her addictive Gruyere mashed potatoes, so adding potato rolls to the spread seemed only right.  I have this thing for the number three.

The potato rolls emerged from the oven better than I’d even imagined.  I had spaced tight balls of dough closely together on a  rimmed baking sheet, and, as I had hoped, they baked together into light and fluffy pull-apart rolls.

They looked lovely, and when you pulled off a roll and took a bite, the tender, light texture provided the perfect complement to smoked turkey, tart cranberry sauce, Gruyere mashed potatoes, and potato bread stuffing.

Lest you think I’m in a total rut, I’m happy to share that I made pumpkin rolls as well.  They looked amazing.

Unfortunately, they tasted uninspiring. The recipe does have potential, though, and now that I’ve made it once, I won’t give up until I get it right.

Don’t wait for Thanksgiving to give potato bread a try.  Bake up a couple of loaves and enjoy some great sandwiches.  Mix in some fennel seeds if you’re feeling adventurous.  And if you ever find yourself with a leftover loaf that you should have given away right when you baked it, buy a turkey, make some stuffing, and invite some friends over for dinner.  Don’t forget to make potato rolls.

Buttermilk Potato Rolls

Adapted from The Bread Bible, by Beth Hensperger.  Makes 24 dinner rolls or two 9-by-5-inch loaves.

1 large potato (about 3/4 pound)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons active dry yeast
6 to 7 cups unbleached all purpose flour our bread flour

Peel the potato and cut it in large pieces.  Place potato pieces in a small sauce pan and cover with water.  Bring to a boil and cook until soft.  Using a strainer, drain potatoes over a glass measuring cup.  Pour out some of the potato water from measuring cup, leaving 1 cup for use later (if you don’t have 1 cup of potato water, add water to measure 1 cup).  Allow water to cool to 105º to 115º F.

Return potato to the pan and mash.  Add butter while the potatoes are still warm;  mash it into the potatoes until it melts completely.  Pour in buttermilk, sugar, and salt.  Stir to combine.

Once the potato water has cooled, add it to the bowl of an standing electric mixer.  Sprinkle yeast and a pinch of sugar over the surface.  Stir to combine and let stand at room temperature until foamy, about 10 minutes.

Add potato mixture and 2 cups of flour to the yeast mixture.  Beat until smooth with the paddle attachment, about 2 minutes.  Add remaining flour, about 1/2 cup at a time until a soft dough forms.  Switch to the dough hook and knead for 3 to 5 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and springs back when pressed.  If desired, transfer to a floured surface and knead briefly by hand.

Place the dough in a deep greased bowl, turning once to coat the dough.  Cover with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 375º F. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and deflate it gently with your hands.

To make rolls, form  the dough into a large rectangle.  As evenly as you can, on the narrow side, cut the dough into four strips.  In the other direction, cut six strips to give you 24 squares of dough.   Parchment line an 11-by-17-inch rimmed baking sheet.  Form dough squares into a tight balls, spacing them apart evenly as you make six  rows of four rolls.  Dust lightly with flour and cover loosely with plastic wrap.  Let rise in a warm place for about 20 minutes.  Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until golden brown and firm to the touch.

To make loaves, grease two 9-by-5-inch loaf pans.  Divide the dough into two equal portions.  Shape each portion into a rectangle and roll it into a tight loaf, pinching the seams closed.  Set loaves seam-side down in pans and dust lightly with flour.  Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise for 20 to 30 minutes.  Bake in the center of the oven for about 40 minutes or until the loaves are deep brown and the sound hollow when tapped with your finger.  Immediately transfer loaves from pans to a cooling rack.  Cool completely before slicing.

For Potato Fennel Bread, add 1/8 to 1/4 cup of fennel seeds when adding potato mixture and flour to the yeast mixture.


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