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Christmas-themed mini black and white cookies

During winter break when I was thinking about what Christmas-y things I wanted to bake, a lot of things that came to mind had really nothing to do with the holiday. (Have I mentioned yet that I'm really slow to update btw?) But something that I really really wanted to make again were the black and white cookies that NYC is known for, because I just really adore them. Their soft cakey cookie topped with a sweet and mildly tart combination of vanilla lemon and chocolate icing that has a perfect little crunch when you bite into it. It's divine really, especially when fresh. I've made black and white cookies once before, in the traditional giant cookie size. But for Christmas, I thought I would switch it up a little with mini cookies, sprinkled with Christmas colored sugars on the white side to jazz it up with some holiday spirit! I also decided to give a different frosting recipe a go, which turned out much better than the first recipe, in my opinion. These disappeared fast… I think their small size makes them really tempting to reach for whenever someone passes by the platter in the kitchen :P Anyway, with these cookies you can substitute any type of colored sugar for various holidays (pastels for Easter anyone??), or leave them naked for any occasion.

Mini Black & White Cookies  (makes about 50)                                recipe from Epicurious

Ingredients:

Cookie base
1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 cup buttermilk (substitute with 1/3 cup milk + 1/3 tbsp white vinegar or lemon juice, mixed and left alone for 5 min.)
1/2 tsp vanilla
7 tbsp unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 egg

Icings
2 3/4 cups confectioners sugar
2 tbsp light corn syrup
2 tsp fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp vanilla
4-6 tbsp water
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
colored sugar for decorating as desired

Directions:
1. Preheat oven to 350deg F. Grease baking sheet or line with foil.

2. Combine dry ingredients (flour, baking soda, and salt) in a bowl. Separately, mix together buttermilk and vanilla.

3. Beat butter and sugar in a bowl with an electric mixer on med-high until pale and fluffy (~3 mins). Add egg and beat until smooth. Reduce speed to low and add flour mixture and buttermilk mixture in alternating batches, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Mix just until smooth.

4. Drop batter by rounded teaspoonfuls, 1 inch apart onto baking sheets. Bake until tops are puffy and edges are a pale golden (cookies should spring back when touched, see picture below, in the back). About 6-8 minutes total. Transfer to cooling rack with the flat sides up, the bottoms will be a golden brown.

5. Meanwhile, make the icings. Start with the vanilla icing: stir together confectioners sugar, corn syrup, lemon juice, vanilla, and 2 tbsp of water in a small bowl until smooth. Add more water (1/2 tsp at a time) as needed until icing becomes a spreadable consistency.

6. (This departs from the original recipe, but trust me from experience, it makes sense). Transfer 1/3 of the vanilla icing to a second bowl, and stir in cocoa powder. Add more water, 1/2 tsp at a time, to reach the same consistency as the vanilla icing. Cover surfaces of icing with saran wrap if not using right away.

7. When cookies are cool, use a butter knife or small spatula to spread vanilla frosting on one half of all the cookies, on the flat side (that's right, the rounded dome side is the bottom of the cookie!). If you frost the rounded side by accident the frosting will just slide off. Sprinkle on colored sugar as desired. Set on wire rack to harden a bit.

8. Finally, frost the other halves of each cookie with chocolate icing and let set completely. Happy munching!


Apricot and pistachio rugelach

Yes, it's been half a year since my last update… medical school has been eating up all my time and not having my own kitchen nor my cooking and baking supplies is seriously hindering my ability to make things. I am loving it here in medical school though, so it's good that it's keeping me busy. I've learned so much in just the first semester of my first year… and even though I don't feel even remotely close to being competent enough to take care of anyone yet, I can definitely see myself getting better and better as I learn more things each day. It's an amazing and exciting feeling.

Unfortunately, living in a dorm again and sharing a kitchen between 2 floors is not very convenient, so I've been more or less cooking my meals in the comfort of my own room by using my rice cooker, steamer tray, and microwave, as well as raw foods to get in all the necessary food groups. It's pretty healthy, but I sure miss the creativity of cooking on my own. Luckily I had a chance over the last semester to form a "cooking club" with some of my classmates in the dorm, and we cooked a bunch of meals for each other about once or twice a week depending on our schedules, so it was good to have some homecooked food and mess around with new recipes together from time to time. I put up a blog to showcase some of our meals at http://www.olincookingclub.blogspot.com if you want to see them :)

I finally got a break over Christmas vacation to go home and enjoy the pleasures of having a kitchen and all the baking supplies I could want. I certainly didn't waste a minute! So the next few entries will be catching up on a few things I made for the holidays.

One pastry that I was introduced to in college was rugelach, a Jewish pastry that is similar to a cross between shortbread and croissant, with a filling that's usually fruit preserves and crushed nuts. Its cream cheese dough is buttery and has a hint of cream cheese flavor that gives it just the right amount of tartness. The textures and flavors all come together in a pastry that is neither too sweet nor too rich, which is really nice. I have had the Costco variety that is often spiraled with raspberry jam, apricot jam, or chocolate paste. For my first try at rugelach, I made it with apricots, pistachios, and a cinnamon sugar mixture, and it was absolutely delicious. The texture of the pastry is like that of a soft (but not chewy) cookie, and it's conveniently bite-sized so it's great for impressing at parties. I made some over Christmas break to give to a friend recovering from open hip surgery, and he loved them! The dough can easily be frozen and stored for later (I baked some from a frozen batch to bring to my boyfriend in California the following week and he also loved them :) The hardest part is rolling out the dough and making the crescent shaped cookies ready to bake, but it is well worth the effort!

Rugelach with Apricot and Pistachio Filling   (makes 4 dozen)      
adapted from Barefoot Contessa and Diana's Desserts

Ingredients:

Dough:
8 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 lb. butter (2 sticks), at room temperature
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups flour

Filling:
6 tbsp granulated sugar
1/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 cup shelled unsalted pistachios, finely chopped
1 1/2 cup dried apricots, cut into halves
1 cup water
1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon milk, for egg wash

Directions:
1. In a large bowl, cream together softened cream cheese and butter with electric beater until light and fluffy. Beat in the 1/4 cup sugar, salt, and vanilla.

2. Mix in flour on low speed until just combined. Take out dough onto a floured surface and roll into a ball. Cut into quarters and shape each quarter into a disc before wrapping in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour.

3. Meanwhile, prepare the apricot for the filling. In a small saucepan, combine dried apricots and water, on low heat. Stir ocassionally until all the liquid is absorbed, about 15 minutes. Cool briefly, then puree in a food processor until smooth.

4. In a separate bowl, combine the 6 tbsp of white sugar, the brown sugar, cinnamon, and chopped pistachios. Set aside 3 tsp of this mixture for later.

5. When the dough is chilled, remove one disc at a time and roll out into a circle on a well-floured surface or between 2 sheets of wax paper, until about 1/8" thick (approximately a 9-inch circle). Spread 1/4 of the apricot puree in a thin layer over the circle, leaving a 1/2" border on the edges. Sprinkle evenly with 1/4 of the sugar and nuts mixture. Gently press the nuts into the dough to help it stay. Your dough should look much like a pizza now :)

6. Using a pizza cutter or a knife, divide circle into 12 equal wedges. To help make them even, divide circle into quarters first, then divide each quarter into 3 wedges.

7. Gently remove one wedge at a time, using a spatula as necessary, and roll from the wide end towards the pointy end to make a pastry crescent. Set onto a baking sheet lined with a piece of parchment or wax paper, with the seam side down, 1 inch apart from one another. You can curve the points on either side to get a more cresent shape if you would like. Chill for 30 minutes on the baking sheet in a refrigerator.

 

8. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Brush each rugelach piece with the prepared eggwash, and sprinkle some additional sugar and nut mixture on top from the reserved portion.

9. Bake rugelach for about 15-20 minutes, until lightly golden brown. Let cool for 2 minutes on baking sheet, then carefully transfer over to a cooling rack, using a spatula to help as needed (the filling tends to bubble out and stick to the baking sheet, so do this before it cools and hardens).

10. Dust with confectioner's sugar if desired, or serve as is. Yum!

Making rugelach takes a little bit of effort, and seems confusing the first time around. But once you get the hang of it on the first disc of dough, the rest will fly by easier, I promise. I had a little cycling system going where I would prep the second disc of dough while the first batch of cookies were chilling in the refrigerator before baking. It works out better if you can have 2 or more baking sheets ready to use at a time, but I didn't, so I had to rotate using just 1 sheet, making it a bit more time-consuming (took me the better half of an afternoon). Definitely plan ahead, you can't rush making rugelach! You'll be glad you spent that time when you take your first bite… they are simply heavenly :)


Lightened up sour cream pound cake

Catching up on a few things first that I made before my trip to China… I never realized how difficult it would be to get back into blogging once you've taken a long break heh. That plus the fact that using dialup internet to upload food photos is just a pain!

I've always found homemade pound cakes to be incredibly delicious in a way that no store-bought equivalent could match. And it was those rare moments of delight, when a co-worker or friend brought in a homemade pound cake that made me want to try my own hand at it. I have heard great things about the use of sour cream in pound cakes, so I went in search of a simple sour cream pound cake recipe. I was looking for a classic, somewhat dense cake that was moist not but greasy, and rich in that buttery vanilla flavor so typical of pound cake. Of course, the recipes I encountered all seemed a bit on the scary side in terms of the amount of butter, sugar, and eggs that were used, so I tried to find a compromise between taste and healthiness.

By cutting the butter and sugar, and boosting moistness with extra sour cream, I found the results to be a much less guilty deliciousness :) The texture of the cake was a little lighter than regular pound cake, sort of like a combination of pound cake and angel food cake, yet it was still very moist. But it was the rich vanilla butter flavor that remained that pulled everything together for a satisfying experience. I put together an effortless apricot glaze to go with the pound cake, but I actually found it to be most delicious eaten alone, especially when fresh out of the oven, when the outer crust has a light crunchiness, yielding to a warm and soft melt-in-your-mouth cake inside. Oh, it's making my mouth water just to describe it. The cake is still great after it has cooled off, though you want to keep it sealed to retain the moisture, which thus softens the crust. So choose your own adventure… or have it both ways!

Sour Cream Pound Cake                (Makes one loaf in a 6 inch tube pan: serves 6-8)

Ingredients:
1/2 cup butter
1 cup sugar
3 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/8 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup sour cream (use fat-free sour cream for less calories, may also substitute with plain or vanilla yogurt)

Directions:
1. Pre-heat oven to 325 degrees F. Grease and flour a 6 inch tube pan.

2. In a large bowl, cream together butter and sugar with an electric mixer until light and smooth, about 7 minutes. Beat in eggs one a a time, mixing for a minute after each addition. Stir in vanilla.

3. Combine flour, baking soda, and salt. Fold dry ingredients into creamed mixture just until smooth. Gently fold in sour cream. Spread batter into baking pan.

4. Bake for 1 hour and 10 minutes in oven. A toothpick poked into the cake should come out mostly clean. Remove from oven and cool cake in the pan for 10 minutes, before inverting gently onto a cooling rack. Dust with powdered sugar before serving if desired. Optionally, make an easy fruit glaze by stirring some fruit preserves with water to reach a glaze consistency, and spoon over slices of pound cake to serve.


Back from a long break

My apologies for having disappeared for so long! I went to China for a three-week trip, and it wasn't until I got there that I discovered that Vox is actually censored in China. So I had no way of writing anything, even though I really wanted to! I took lots of pictures of the wonderful wonderful things I ate though, so keep an eye out for posts to come soon :) 


Chili-topped garlic cheese grits

Story time! So I'm feeling under the weather this weekend. I thought I was getting another wave of allergies, but then my throat started to feel sore, and pretty soon I was feeling weak and mildly feverish. I realized that I must have a cold of some sort. Since I had slept my way through most of Friday night, I woke up at around midnight thinking about what I could make for a late late dinner / snack that wouldn't drain me of all my energy.

The fridge is mostly empty since I haven't gone grocery shopping in a while. But in my cupboard I had an unopened bag of fine ground corn meal that I bought back when I was getting my wisdom tooth out and thinking of making grits. Well I never did get around to using it, and now grits sounded pretty good to me. Looking online for some good recipes, I noticed that most of them were savory grits, with cheese, gravy, sausage, etc. Unfortunately for me, my fridge was so empty that I didn't even have the usual milk that goes into grits. I did, however, have a single slice of American cheese and a little bit of spam. I discussed the prospect of making spam grits with my boyfriend, who thought it sounded gross and could not find a single recipe for it online. I personally thought I could invent a really cool spam grits dish, but alas, when I went to prepare it, I noticed that my spam was spoiled. Great.

So by this point I was starving to death and really annoyed that I had water boiling for my grits, but nothing to put in it. Finally, I decided that I would make a light grits with garlic and that one slice of cheese, and eat it topped with canned chili, which would provide most of the flavor. I guess in that sense it sort of takes on the role of polenta haha. So let me tell you, this was an exercise in persistence. When my water was at a full boil, I poured in all the corn meal I was going to use, at once, before reaching for tongs to stir with. Bad idea. That corn meal puffed up in a matter of seconds, absorbing all the water and forming these giant clumps with dry corn meal still in the middle. No matter how hard I stirred it and added water to thin it out, the messy clump in the pot was just not edible. So down the garbage disposal it went…

The second time I got smarter and turned down the heat before slowly adding the corn meal while stirring, and everything came out just fine – it was nice and smooth, with no clumps. Plus, my favorite part is that using finely ground corn meal shortened the cooking time dramatically. I was done in just 10 minutes! Now that's a good fast meal I could handle any day :) It's also relatively healthy too, since I don't use any milk or cream for the grits, and the chili is quite good for you with all its beans. I used canned chili here for convenience, but I'm sure it would be even better with home-made chili, if you have the patience that is!

Chili-topped Garlic Cheese Grits       (serves 2)

Ingredients:
1/2 cup finely ground corn meal (it's like a powder rather than little gritty pieces)
2 cups water
1 slice American cheese
1 pat salted butter
onion powder, garlic powder, and salt to taste
canned chili
chopped raw onion for garnish

Directions:
1. Bring 2 cups water to boil in a small pot. Reduce heat to low.

2. Slowly add the corn meal to the water, while stirring constantly with a whisk to avoid lumps.

3. Cook on low for about 7-10 minutes, stirring often, and adding water as necessary to thin out the grits to your desired consistency (I prefer mine to be on the creamy, lightly viscous side). They absorb a lot of water so I think I added maybe an extra cup's worth of water before I reached a nice consistency. Season with onion powder, garlic powder, and salt to taste.

4. When grits is finished cooking, stir in a pat of butter and the slice of cheese, torn to pieces, stirring until melted and incorporated. Serve immediately, topped with warm canned chili and garnished with freshly chopped onions if desired.


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