Saturday, November 22, 2008

Happy Birthday To All of You!

The Birthday Cake Book, my newest cookbook, has hit the shelves and I wanted to give you a bigger peak. There are birthdays every day of the year and with my recipes you will be prepared for whatever kind of birthday is at hand. The book is roughly divided into two sections. The Basics section is where you can find cakes and frostings to mix and match to your heart's content, while the bulk of the book features complete cake recipes and ideas for you to bake for your next birthday celebration. You will find kid-friendly cakes, sophisticated cakes, a Teeny Tiny cake for small parties  as well as a super-easy Beginner Baker's Birthday Cake for those of you who think you are baking challenged. I promise that even if you have never baked before, you Can make a birthday cake! It is a moist yellow cake with a dark chocolate frosting and all you need are a few bowls, a wooden spoon and maybe a rubber spatula.

Here is my ice cream cake featuring a very inexpensive vintage toy train that I found on-line. 
There are resources in the book for
the typical cake decorating supplies but I have also included resources for candles and tiny toys and items that will elevate your cake from just a pretty cake on a plate to an unforgettable Birthday Cake. The flavors combine vanilla, coffee and chocolate, but the recipe also shows you how to customize it so you can use your favorite ice cream flavors.

Below is a pictures of my take on the typical rectangular supermarket cake, embellished with roses. Why not make your own? You can use the best ingredients, the cake will taste much better, and you can put as many roses on that cake as you like! (You know how all the kids at the party want a rose!)

To the left is a cake I call Pretty in Pink. It is a delicate White Cake (found in the Basics section) with the addition of fresh raspberries in the batter and frosting.

This Basket of Flowers cake below features a basketweave design that some people find easier than creating a smooth surface. Try it! It is an espresso flavor as I thought the beige/brown color was most reminiscent of a real basket.The photos were taken by Melissa Punch and 
you can see more of her work 

Here you can see my segment from the TODAY SHOW. Check out the caterpillar cake. It is very easy to make and perfect for a school-day party. 

As always, I love seeing pictures of YOUR birthday cakes. Send them along!

And....Happy Birthday to YOU, whenever it is.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Packing Holiday Cookies for Mailing and Gifts

Once you have made your favorite holiday cookies - or perhaps a recipe of mine - you want to make sure they get to their destination safely and fresh. Even if they are just going with you to the workplace or down the street to a neighbor's potluck, there are tried and true ways to package your cookies so that they will be as delicious as when you first baked them. And if you are sending them across the country, I've got the techniques for that too.

First of all, choose your cookies wisely. I would not try to mail delicate meringues or cookies prone to breaking. Large cookies seem to be prone to breakage, unless they are thick and very crisp, such as a shortbread type. Also, cookies with any kind of soft topping are not good candidates. So which are? Shortbreads, as mentioned, chocolate chip cookies and their brethren, certain crisp gingerbread type cookies, butterballs, blondies, some brownies, you get the drift. To make ensure that your drop style cookies are round and equally sized, do what I do - and bakeries do - and use a food disher to measure out your batter. These are like ice cream scoops in small sizes, perfect for dolling out cookie batter. I like the ones made by Zeroll.

Once you have baked your cookies, make sure they are absolutely completely cooled. Then, you will need tins or sturdy plastic containers for each kind of cookie. This is as much to prevent flavor transfer from one cookie to another as it is to protect their textures. Softer cookies will lend moisture to the air in a container and make crisp cookies go limp. Also, a firmer cookie might crush a more fragile one. For all of these reasons, I like to pack my cookies separately.

The one exception to this is if I am making a cookie tray that will be eaten within an hour or two. Then I will arrange an assortment on a platter or in a tin - BUT - never include any minty flavored cookies. Even after a short time frame, Everything on that platter will taste like mint! Holiday cookies with peppermint candies or mint flavoring can ruin an entire tray or container.

When choosing your tins and containers, lower, flatter shapes are best. You want as much surface area as possible to lay your cookies flat. Have parchment paper handy, scissors and plastic wrap.

Here is a photo of what we are about to do:

Note that the cookies, in this case Ginger Cookies with Chocolate Covered Ginger, are in a flat layer on top of parchment. You never want to overlap cookies on one another as that will lead to breakage. In this case, since the cookies are sturdy, I made three, single, flat layers on top of one another, each one separated by parchment. Sometimes, with delicate cookies, I will only make a single layer, or perhaps two. One the very bottom of the container, make a layer of parchment or plastic wrap, to cushion the first layer. 

Here is a picture through a clear container so that you can see how the cookies are layered, separated by parchment, with plastic wrap on bottom. These are Florentine Bars.

An important final step is to crumble a generous amount of plastic wrap and place it on top of the last layer of cookies. There should be enough of it so that when you close the airtight lid on top, that the plastic fills up any air space and head-room. Shake the container gently. The cookies should not move. If they do, add more plastic wrap to make a firmer fit. You do not want them to be able to move around at all. By preventing any movement, you will most likely prevent breakage.

If you are going to mail containers of cookies, follow steps as above. Then, have a large cardboard box and fill about 1/3 of the way with packing peanuts. Place your container in the center. Or, if you have several containers, have them spaced out within the box separated by plenty of peanuts, or, tape the containers together to make one large container. Either way, make sure the container or containers are surrounded and cushioned by plenty of packing peanuts. Top off generously with more peanuts. Close box and shake gently. The containers should not move within the box. If they do, add more peanuts, or even crumbled newspaper. As with our initial technique, we do not want there to be any movement. You might need more peanuts or crumbled paper than you think. Be generous.

When mailing, never mail on a Friday unless you are mailing express overnight as regular mail will most often mean the cookies will get held up over the weekend within the shipping system and this is not the best approach for a fresh cookie delivery. Same thing with holidays. Pick your ship days wisely. If your budget allows, mail priority or express. 

By following these tips and techniques your delectable homemade cookies will keep well and arrive at their destination intact and looking beautiful. Happy Holiday Baking! 

Below is a great cookie recipe that mails well. The recipe is from A Baker's Field Guide to Christmas Cookies:

Classic Rolled Sugar Cookies

Here is a basic recipe for buttery, crisp sugar cookies. While it is simple, it is quite tasty. Feel free to decorate as you wish. Versions of this cookie are often the first rolled cookie taught to American children. Recipes from the early 1800’s are very similar in that none of them use baking powder, which didn’t come into use till decades later. Also, the lack of leavener helps keep the cookies nice and flat, which yields a nice surface for whatever kind of decoration you like.

Special Characteristics: Dough may be frozen, Keep well, Mail well, Fun to Make with Kids

3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into tablespoon-sized pieces
1 1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 large eggs
Colored sugars and regular sugar

Whisk flour and salt together in a small bowl to aerate; set aside.

Place butter in bowl of mixer and beat with flat paddle on medium-high speed until creamy, about 2 minutes. Add sugar gradually and continue beating until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes, scraping down the bowl once or twice; beat in vanilla extract. Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition, again scraping down the bowl once or twice.

Turn machine off, add about one-third of the flour, then turn machine onto low-speed. Gradually add remaining flour, mixing just until blended, scraping down bowl once or twice. Form into two very flat discs, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 2 hours or until firm enough to roll. Dough may be refrigerated overnight. (You may freeze dough up to 1 month; defrost in refrigerator overnight before proceeding).

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two cookie sheet pans with parchment paper.

Remove one disc from refrigerator and roll out to 1/4-inch thickness on floured surface; you may need to flour your rolling pin too. Cut out cookies with shapes of choice. Transfer cookies to prepared pans placing 2-inches apart. Decorate with colored sugars or regular sugar either in decorative patterns or in a free-form manner. (You may also decorate with icing after they are baked and cooled).

Bake for about 10 minutes or until edges have just begun to turn light golden brown. Slide parchment onto racks to cool cookies completely. (Cookies may be stored at room temperature in an airtight container for up to 1 month).

Yield: 36, 3-inch cookies

Good Cookie Tip #1: Last Christmas I made these cookies and they were as delicious as they were easy to roll out; the dough performed wonderfully. Then, for my book, I was re-testing the recipe in July in 98-degree weather with 98 percent humidity and it was a whole different ballgame. They worked, but only after I kneaded in some extra flour before rolling out. So, my caveat is to use your sense of touch. If the dough feels too soft and sticky, just add a bit more flour and you will have success.

Good Cookie Tip #2: You will probably want to make cookies of all sizes and shapes, and I encourage you to do so! Just make sure that similarly sized cookies are on the same pan so that the baking times are even.