Monday, August 29, 2011

Week Five -- Serious Cookies

I realize that two weeks in a row of cookies is probably a faux pas, but I see last week as more of an experiment -- I mean, come on -- cookies from a mix. These are the real deal. Cookies are so often maligned as being only for an afternoon snack or just for kids, but I’m tired of going to dinner at someone’s house or to a restaurant and having some fancy-shmancy nonsense that some people call dessert served to me simply because it’s fancy or complicated. I have decided to start a movement that will hopefully help elevate cookies to their appropriate place in the culinary world. And I’m pretty sure that these cookies will go a long way toward making this happen.

Before you start these cookies, you must understand a few things. At the risk of channeling Martha Stewart, I do have to say that if you start messing around with either the ingredients or the method, you will not have the same results that I have had with these. For instance, if you decide to replace the butter with margarine, beware that these will not be the same…meaning they won’t be as delicious. Unless you have a dairy allergy or are a vegan, stick with the butter. Not only does it taste better, but it really is better for you. So, here goes… this recipe is infinitely malleable as long as you follow the principle recipe and the method. Really, your only limit is your own imagination here.

Serious Cookie Master Recipe

2 sticks butter softened (use REAL butter)
1 ½ cups DARK brown sugar
1 egg
1 t REAL vanilla extract
1 ½ cups whole wheat flour (you can also use graham flour with excellent results)
1 t baking soda
Pinch salt
1 ½ cups rolled oats

1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
2. Cream butter and sugar until it is fluffy. You can do this either by hand or with a mixer.
3. Add egg and vanilla. Cream again.
4. Sift together flour, soda, and salt or just use your hands to fluff them together in a separate bowl. Add to the wet mixture. Now, here is where things can go wrong. Only mix this until it comes together… do not over mix. If you start working the flour too much, you will develop the gluten. This is desirable in bread… not in cookies.
5. Add oats and whatever mix-in’s you choose. Mix gently.
6. If you are working in a cool kitchen, you can go straight from here. If it’s a bit warm, chill your dough first.
7. Drop spoonfuls of dough onto a parchment or Silpat lined baking sheet.
8. Bake 10-12 minutes for 2T size mounds of dough.
a. These also can be made into monster cookies… Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees. Use the 1/3 cup measure or even the ½ cup measure. You should flatten the dough blobs slightly with your fingers if you do the monster cookie method. This will help them bake evenly.

Cookie Mix-in Options:

Cherry Toffee Chocolate Chip
1 cup dried cherries
6 oz chocolate chips
1 cup toffee pieces

Toffee Pecan –
1 cup toffee pieces
1 cup chopped TOASTED pecans – Don’t be lazy. Toast your nuts first on a sheet pan in a 350 degree oven. Check them often. They will burn quickly. (You can substitute any nut… walnuts, almonds, etc.)

Coconut Almond
1 cup toasted slivered almonds
1 cup toasted sweetened coconut

1 cup milk chocolate pieces
1 cup chopped toasted peanuts
1 cup toffee pieces

Traditional Oatmeal
1 cup raisins
1 tsp. cinnamon
½ tsp. nutmeg

Other mix-in options: citrus zest, candy pieces (such as MnM’s, chopped up candy bars, bashed up candy canes), chopped dried fruit, crystallized ginger, caramels (add a little sprinkle of sea salt just before baking).

Monday, August 22, 2011

Week Four -- Car Cookies

It has been a HOT summer here in Texas. Of course my son and I just returned from six weeks in Maine, inviting much ridicule and dirty looks from friends and family. I decided not to mention that we were wearing fleece coats on a couple of particularly chilly evenings. I’m pretty sure that might have sent them over the edge. But in homage to the heat, we’ve decided to embrace it for this week’s project. The weather forecast for Saturday here in Tyler is 107 degrees. I’ve lived in the Mohave Desert, where it can reach 125 degrees and up on a summer day, but 107 is plenty hot. We are attempting to bake cookies in our car. The USDA website states that eggs should be cooked to 160 degrees for safety. So, in addition to checking the temperature of the car, I’m going to check the temperature of the cookies themselves. I’ve elected to use a mix. (I know – hush), but I don’t want to spend a bunch of money on fresh ingredients if ultimately we can’t even eat them. If we’re successful, perhaps we’ll try again with real cookies.

What You’ll Need:

• One package of cookie mix. (We are using Betty Crocker Peanut Butter.)
• The ingredients for your cookie mix. (In our case: one egg, 3T of cooking oil, and 1T of water.)
• One pack of Reese’s peanut butter cups. (A last minute addition).
• A car
• A wicked hot day.
• A thermometer – we are using a regular inside/outside thermometer and a candy thermometer. Make sure your thermometers go up past 120 degrees. Many don’t.
• A cookie sheet.
• Parchment (optional)


· Park your car in the sun approximately 30 minutes before you plan to bake your cookies. This is the preheating of the oven phase. Try and angle your car so that the dashboard is completely in the sun.
· Place your thermometer on the dashboard. Then seal up the car. No cracked windows here.
· Prepare cookie dough following the package directions.
· Place mounds of cookie dough on your lined baking sheet. We then flattened the cookies. I thought this might help them bake more evenly.
Wait until your car temperature reaches at least 130 degrees. Then place the cookie sheet on the dashboard of the car, angling them to get the most sunlight.
· Check on your cookies after 45 minutes and then every fifteen minutes or so. Use a hot pad. The pan will be much hotter than you think. We topped out our thermometer which reaches 160 degrees. Our candy thermometer showed that it was well past 170 by the time our cookies were baked. At that temperature, it took about 90 minutes to fully bake the cookies.
· Take them out, let them cool, and eat them.
· A surprise bonus…. Your car now smells invitingly of fresh-baked cookies.

Just for fun we fried an egg on the pavement. It took seven minutes.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Week Three -- Pecan Pie (The South)

This week’s project and next week’s project are an homage to both of my homes… I was born in the north, but I’ve lived in Texas longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. So, clearly I am neither a Yankee nor a Texan, but a little of both. Pecans are falling from the trees (or rather, the squirrels are chucking them at us whenever we get too close to the pecan treee in our backyard.)here in Texas, so I had to whip together a classic pecan pie. For the pie…. There are probably twelve thousand recipes for pecan pie. Some fancy (add bourbon and bittersweet chocolate and candied orange peel) and some not… corn syrup and store-bought crust. I have my own recipe. It’s (in my opinion) the best pecan pie. It focuses more on the pecans and less on the moodge that holds them together…. Now, for my Yankee friends… here in Texas you say, pee-can, (emphasis on the ‘pee’) not pe-con and never peck-ann.

Deep Dish “PEE-can” Pie


1 cup light corn syrup
1 cup dark brown sugar
1 t pure vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
3 eggs lightly beaten
3 T melted butter (cooled)
3 cups toasted pecans. (These can be halves or pieces or both)
Pie dough for a single crust pie. (Either buy this or use a half recipe of the pate brisee that I listed in the apple pie recipe. )

1. Combine the corn syrup, sugar, butter, vanilla, and salt. Add lightly beaten eggs and half of the pecans.
2. Pour mixture into unbaked pie shell. Then add remaining pecans, pressing down slightly to sink them into the pie base. (This makes certain that you have lots of delicious pecan goodness on the top of the pie. )
3. Place pie pan on a cookie sheet and bake in a 350 degree oven for approximately 50 minutes. Check periodically and cover with foil if the edges of the crust or the pecans become too dark. Tap center surface of pie lightly - it should spring back when done.
4. Cool for at least an hour.
5. Serve plain or with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Week Two -- Cheese (Mozzarella)

This week we decided to make cheese. After the obvious (and I know sort of gross) jokes about “cutting the cheese”…. (Keep in mind I am cooking with an ten-year-old), we got to work. But, let me say right up front that the work begins when you have to find milk that will work in this project. The best choice is local, raw milk. But, that isn’t available to everyone and is frankly somewhat cost-prohibitive. (The gallon my mom found at a local farm was eight dollars.) The second best choice is organic milk, but here’s the rub. It can’t be super or ultra pasteurized. While ultra-pasteurization is awesome for extending the shelf life of milk, it kills the necessary components for turning that milk into cheese. For more information on this, check out The Cheese Queen’s website. She is the best resource for making cheese. For more a more detailed explanation of the types of milk, go to: For a list of milk that might be available in your area, go to:

Like I said, we were able to find raw milk at Lucky Layla Farms. By the way, this is also the very best place to buy Dulche de Leche. I didn’t know what this was until I tried it. Imagine the best caramel sauce you have ever had, and then take it up about seven notches. Now you’re close.

With raw milk, it is suggested that you heat it to kill anything that might be lurking in its creamy depths. I poured the gallon of milk into a big stainless pot and put it on the stove with my handy dandy candy thermometer in it. (I’m serious… I’ve gotten more use out of that thing in the last two weeks, than ever before.) I really had to keep an eye on the milk. It heated up quickly. I got it up to 145 degrees for 30 minutes. Then we had to cool it quickly. I used an ice bath for this. After that, the cheese making began. The directions are pretty straight-forward, but I had to read them about seventy times. I think now I get it after having read it once. Following is the recipe from The Cheese Queen. Barbara Kingsolver mentions Ricki Carroll (The Cheese Queen) in her book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Caroll’s website, is the best place I found for recipes, sources, and help for making any kind of cheese. We started with Mozzarella because it seems to be one of the easiest. Other easy things to make include: Cream Cheese, Sour Cream, Yogurt, Fromage Blanc, Creme Fraiche, Mascarpone, Lemon Cheese, Herb Cheeses, Buttermilk, Kefir, Panir, Queso Blanco, and ricotta.

Following is the recipe that we used for mozzarella cheese. It was really easy and I’m not just saying that. Harrison wants to make hard cheeses next, but that might have to wait awhile. That seems anything but easy.

Mozzarella Cheese

The Milk:
Make sure the milk you use for this cheese is NOT
--Homogenized milk will work fine.
--Fresh farm milk will also work well but we encourage you to try with 1 gallon of store bought whole milk first.
--Low fat milk will work but the cheese will be drier and less flavorful

1/4 tablet of rennet (we used the vegetarian option)
1 1/2 tsp. citric acid
1 1/4 c. water
1 T cheese salt (although I think most any salt would do)

You will also need:

--A 6 to 8 quart stainless steel pot. Aluminum or cast iron will not work.
--A stainless steel or strong plastic slotted spoon.
--A two quart microwave safe mixing bowl
--measuring spoons
--A thermometer which will clearly read between 80 - 120 degrees F.


  • Crush 1/4 tablet of rennet and dissolve in 1/4 cup of cool unchlorinated water and set aside to use later.

  • Add 1.5 tsp. of citric acid (diluted in 1 cup cool water to 1 gallon of cold milk and stir well.
    Now pour cold milk into your pot quite quickly to mix well with the citric acid . This will bring the milk to the proper acidity to stretch well later.

  • Next Heat this milk to 90F As you approach 90F you may notice your milk beginning to curdle slightly due to acidity and temp.
    NOTE: if having problems with milk forming a proper curd you may need to increase this temp to 95 or even 100F

  • At 90F remove the pot from the burner and slowly add your rennet (which you prepared in previous step) to the milk and stir in a top to bottom motion for app. 30 seconds, then stop.

  • Cover the pot and leave undisturbed for 5 minutes.
    Check the curd, it will look like custard, with a clear separation between the curds and whey. If too soft or the whey is milky, let set for a few more minutes.
    Cut the curds into a 1" checkerboard pattern (as in photos above) and if a drier cheese is desired carefully cut and stir this curd to release more whey.

  • Place the pot back on the stove and heat to 105F, while slowly stirring the curds with your ladle. (If you will be stretching the curds in a hot water bath heat to 110F in this step.)
    Take off the burner and continue slowly stirring for 2-5 minutes. (More time will make a firmer cheese)

    Then scoop the curds with a slotted sp0on into a heat proof bowl to be used in the microwave. (If the curd is too soft at this point let sit for another minute or so)
    You will now press this curd gently with your hand, pouring off as much whey as possible. Reserve this whey to use in cooking.

  • Next microwave the curd on High for 1 minute. You will notice more whey has run out of the curd. Drain off all whey as you did before. Quickly work the cheese with a spoon or your hands until it is cool enough to touch (rubber gloves will help since the cheese is almost too hot to touch at this point)

  • Microwave 2 more times for 35 seconds each and repeat the kneading as in the last step. Drain all of the whey off as you go.

  • Knead quickly now as you would bread dough until it is smooth and shiny. Add salt near the finish. At this point the cheese should be soft and pliable enough to stretch like taffy.
    It is ready to eat when it cools.

  • Form it into a ball and drop into ice water to cool and refrigerate.
    When cold you can wrap in plastic wrap and it will last for several days but is best when eaten fresh.
    PS... I'll admit the cheese looks a little weird in the last photo, but it did firm up and get smooth as the recipe indicated and it was DELICIOUS!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Week One -- Doughnuts

Okay, I realize that there is a doughnut or donut or do-nut place on just about every corner and that they are amazingly cheap, but I’ve decided to ignore those two points. This week we are making doughnuts. (I am choosing this spelling for simplicity sake.)

I should start by admitting that I have never actually deep fried anything. It’s sort of the whole idea of food swimming in oil, but it’s also the mess that has been prohibitive. But, I have decided to be fearless this year. We’ve made baked doughnuts. I bought a doughnut pan from King Arthur Flour last year, thinking we’d be baking doughnuts all the time, but the truth is, we’ve only used it once. The doughnuts were okay, but they definitely weren’t the puffy bits of heaven that we buy down the street.

I poked around in my cookbooks and online and found what I think is an excellent recipe. (We’ll see.) It’s from Alton Brown’s show, Good Eats. I picked it because it’s simple and also because I really do think Alton Brown is cool in a geeky, smart way. Other reasons for picking this recipe: no lard (we’re vegetarians) and no off-the-wall ingredients (sweet potato, bananas, avocado???).
Mixing the dough was easy. I didn’t even bother to haul out the stand mixer. I just did it by hand. And honestly even though I spent three years as a professional baker, it makes me crazy sometimes to have measurements given by weight. I have a scale, but again… hauling it out is a pain, so I just went by feel. I added flour little by little until the dough became soft and not too sticky. (One note: this recipe makes a mountain of doughnuts! We ended up freezing half of it to use later… maybe cinnamon rolls or something.) The first rise was about an hour.

We rolled it all out and then I set my son cutting it. At first he was bummed that we didn’t have a doughnut cutter, but he rallied. We also used some dough to make impromptu twists. Then it was one more rise for thirty minutes. I took that time to make the two glazes... vanilla and chocolate... and heat up the oil. This last bit was sort of scary. I had images of kitchen fires and emergency rooms in my head. I also only used about two inches of oil. I didn't see the need for more. (And that was a good choice). I used a candy thermometer on the oil, which was a good choice as I had to keep adjusting the flame under the pot. After the oil hit 365.... which my son monitored, I slid the first few rounds of dough into the pot. They puffed immediately... which made both of us very happy. The recipe says that it takes about 1 min for each side, but it was more like 20-30 seconds. I used a long metal fork to flip everything. And then it was another 20-30 seconds before I took them out.

We drained everything on paper towels and let them cool (a bit). Then we dipped them in the glaze. The twists I sprinkled with cinammon sugar. I liked the twists the best, but my son preferred the chocolate. (Duh...) Like I said, it made a ton, so we ended up giving most of them away, but they were really, really good.... fresh eggs, good milk, good chocolate... yep, probably a bit better quality than your normal doughnut shop.

Making doughnuts was fun, but really messy and now I have a pot of oil on my stove and I’m not sure what to do with it. Yikes. But… they are wicked good. I have to say that these doughnuts beat any store-bought doughnuts hands down.

Yeast Doughnuts

recipe courtesy of Alton Brown (Good Eats, 2004)

• 1 1/2 cups milk
• 2 1/2 ounces vegetable shortening, approximately 1/3 cup
• 2 packages instant yeast
• 1/3 cup warm water (95 to 105 degrees F)
• 2 eggs, beaten
• 1/4 cup sugar
• 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
• 1 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
• 23 ounces all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting surface
• Peanut or vegetable oil, for frying (1 to 1/2 gallons, depending on fryer)

Place the milk in a medium saucepan and heat over medium heat just until warm enough to melt the shortening. Place the shortening in a bowl and pour warmed milk over. Set aside.
In a small bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the warm water and let dissolve for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, pour the yeast mixture into the large bowl of a stand mixer and add the milk and shortening mixture, first making sure the milk and shortening mixture has cooled to lukewarm. Add the eggs, sugar, salt, nutmeg, and half of the flour. Using the paddle attachment, combine the ingredients on low speed until flour is incorporated and then turn the speed up to medium and beat until well combined. Add the remaining flour, combining on low speed at first, and then increase the speed to medium and beat well. Change to the dough hook attachment of the mixer and beat on medium speed until the dough pulls away from the bowl and becomes smooth, approximately 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a well-oiled bowl, cover, and let rise for 1 hour or until doubled in size.

On a well-floured surface, roll out dough to 3/8-inch thick. Cut out dough using a 2 1/2-inch doughnut cutter or pastry ring and using a 7/8-inch ring for the center whole. Set on floured baking sheet, cover lightly with a tea towel, and let rise for 30 minutes.
Preheat the oil in a deep fryer or Dutch oven to 365 degrees F. Gently place the doughnuts into the oil, 3 to 4 at a time. Cook for 1 minute per side. Transfer to a cooling rack placed in baking pan. Allow to cool for 15 to 20 minutes prior to glazing, if desired.

Vanilla Glaze

• 1/4 cup whole milk
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 2 cups confectioners' sugar
Combine milk and vanilla in a medium saucepan and heat over low heat until warm. Sift confectioners' sugar into milk mixture. Whisk slowly, until well combined. Remove the glaze from the heat and set over a bowl of warm water. Dip doughnuts into the glaze, 1 at a time, and set on a draining rack placed in a half sheet pan for 5 minutes before serving.

Chocolate Glaze (Harrison’s favorite)

• 1/2 cup unsalted butter
• 1/4 cup whole milk, warmed
• 1 tablespoon light corn syrup
• 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
• 4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
• 2 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted

Combine butter, milk, corn syrup, and vanilla in medium saucepan and heat over medium heat until butter is melted. Decrease the heat to low, add the chocolate, and whisk until melted. Turn off heat, add the powdered sugar, and whisk until smooth. Place the mixture over a bowl of warm water and dip the doughnuts immediately. Allow glaze to set for 30 minutes before serving.

Cinnamon Sugar (My favorite)

• Ground Cinnamon
• granulated sugar

Combine cinnamon and sugar to your liking. (Duh) :)

The beginning

Who: One ten-year-old mad scientist and his eccentric, writer mother.

When: One year, starting August 1, 2011

What: 52 kitchen projects that will range from making cheese to building a gingerbread castle.

Why: Because life is too short not to do something crazy fun for no reason.

How: Who knows.

Where: Our crazy kitchen