Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Almost done. Almost.

I feel ridiculously guilty about my lack of blog activity.  Rest assured, my adoring public, I've been elbows deep in cookie dough for days.  With 8 recipes left to complete tomorrow, I hope to have everything packaged and ready to roll on Wednesday.  Again, anyone wishing to purchase cookies, please let me know in the next handful of days.  I couldn't bear the thought of getting something that wasn't of the highest quality I could possibly provide.
It's late.  The next 2 days are jam packed with final baking, finishes, packaging and shipping.  I assure you I'll have updates and pictures ready to roll after the waters have settled.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Big 4-0

Tonight, in between dishes, laundry, dinner, Cub Scouts, and Charlie Mingus - the world's most regal beagle, I finished the 40th cookie variety.  I wrapped the evening up with a remake of 1975's Almond Bolas; the Portuguese almond cookie I made last week and entirely forgot to add the sugar to.  I was quite careful to remember it this time, and the result was a beautiful little cookie with so many interesting characteristics.  Nutty and chewy like a macaroon, the center reminding me strangely of scrambled eggs (I couldn't help but think of breakfast when I remembered the addition of breadcrumbs to these), and the crunch from the almond on top. Not too sweet, it would be a lovely cookie with some afternoon tea.

I also prepared the cookie portion of Sparkling Lemon Sandwich Cookies, a delicate little lemon shortbread rolled in sanding sugar, which I'll assemble with the filling right before they're packaged; Navette Sucre, or Sugar Shuttles, a French butter cookie shaped like a loom shuttle, coated with egg white and sugar; and Polish Apricot Cookies, a delicate cream cheese dough wrapped around a filling of apricot, golden raisins, honey, cinnamon, and orange marmalade - much like a fat, overfilled rugelach without the walnuts.  In my love affair with all things New York City, I'm enamored with rugelach.  I can't wait to get into these.

With 28 recipes left to make, I feel bittersweet about nearing the end of this project.  It wouldn't take me more than 3 days of steady work to get them done, but I find myself wanting to drag it out longer.  Despite the stress of real life bearing down on me, these cookies have become such an extension of who I am.  They've provided me with much needed discipline and focus, and an outlet for the only way, it seems, that I can really connect with people.  I spend more time with them than I do my friends, and sometimes it seems my family.  I've been so focused on ingredients, recipes, when to bake what, packaging, who will receive an insane box of cookies, etc - that finishing ends up feeling a lot like the first time I moved away from home.  I'm not sure what's going to happen next, but the future is exciting and terrifying.

In the event that anyone is interested, I have several extra boxes available.  They can be purchased for $68, in honor of 68 years of Gourmet magazine.  Please feel free to contact me at allisonpvdb@gmail.com

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Sundays Are Best

I love Sunday mornings.  Regardless of the piles of things I have to do to maintain my motherly duties, we always make what I've coined "fat kid breakfast", and we always read the New York Times.  Breakfast this morning was a baked dish of sausage, onions, green pepper, eggs and cheese with broiled english muffins.  I swear the boyfriend is a farm boy at heart, despite his crisp shoes and button-up shirts, and I love the homey simplicity of midwestern food.  Everything feels better with cheese on it in December.
My New York Times routine is always the same:  I flip through checking the headlines of the Travel section and the Week In Review, grab the magazine, and read the Modern Love article in Sunday Styles then set it aside to read the wedding announcements later.  My business in the magazine is the food article.  Amanda Hesser is among one of my favorite food writers, Cooking With Dexter is a charming account of adventures in the kitchen with the author's inquisitive young son, the other contributors always have such interesting historic and cultural information.  This week's recipe is asado negro, a Venezuelan Christmas roast braised in white wine vinegar, dry red wine, and a sultry dark caramel.  The article claims to "make a mockery of pot roast".  I want so badly to make it for dinner tonight, but was reminded that capitalizing oven space and time is not a good idea.  The day I spent making Thanksgiving dinner combined with extra work shifts and a sick kid left me feeling a little panicked and behind in cookie production.
I have 31 varieties completed, leaving me with 37.  Late into the night, yesterday, I baked 1979's Linzer Bars that filled my kitchen with the aromas of hazelnuts, raspberry and lemon.  The creamy nuttiness of the hazelnuts is perfectly balanced by the tart filling.  There were also 1994's Basler Brunsli - a Swiss chocolate almond spice cookie that reminded me of a dry French macaron.  I made 1958's Brazil Nut Crescents which showcase the rarely utilized brazil nut in a rich, delicate butter cookie.  Lastly, I put together the dough for 1996's Anise-Scented Fig and Date Swirls.  I love opening my refrigerator to find rolls, bowls, and discs of chilled dough waiting to be cut or shaped before going into the oven. 
I really do believe there to be something magical about the warmth of the oven, the mess of flour and sugar, and this time of year.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Few Of My Favorite Things

Cornetti.  Bourbon County Stout.  Beach House's Teen Dream.

Last night, rather than going to bed as I should have, I stayed up and baked Cornetti.

An old family recipe from Turin, it was featured in January 1989's issue of Gourmet, during the height of America's introductory love affair with Italian food.  Made with ground almonds and cornmeal, these cookies acquire a coarse, gravelly texture.  During the 2 day process, resting in the fridge overnight and then on parchment lined trays for 2 hours, the dough is permeated by chopped candied orange peel.  These are my new favorite cookie.  The texture lends interest and surprise, and the bright orange notes remind me of summery evenings during these blustery winter days.
As the weather gets colder, I look to just about anything to keep me warm.  I've fallen in love over the course of the summer with Goose Island's Bourbon County Stout.  A small batch beer, aged for 18 months in bourbon barrels, the warm caramel and vanilla notes alongside the rich chocolaty stout deliciousness is my kryptonite.  I find the bourbon characteristics to bring a fantastic warming quality to the palate.  One of my responsibilities at work is to keep ice cream on hand, and my latest flavor is bourbon molasses.  For the same reason that I love bourbon county stout, the bourbon in the ice cream adds such a warm feeling.

Lastly, I'm loving listening to Beach House lately, particularly the album Teen Dream.  Victoria Legrand's voice is so rich and smokey.  Add it to your collection for sure.
I've been awake since 3:30 this morning.  I baked some beautiful bread, bought a Christmas tree and all the trimmings, had dinner with my little pieced-together family, and although I didn't get any cookies done, I hope tomorrow is more productive.  Peace out, ya'll.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Remember The Sugar

Yesterday I was visited by a lovely pair of Lincolnites, curious about my cookie adventure, and looking for more information on what I was up to and whatever possessed me to put myself through the rigors of 68 varieties in such a short time.  I was working on 1975's Almond Bolas during our chat.  They're an interesting little Portuguese thumbprint cookie made from ground almonds, breadcrumbs, egg whites, sugar, almond extract, filled with egg yolk, and topped with a whole almond.

They remind me very much of a macaroon.  I had never baked anything like it, so I was anxious to try one.  After my guests left, I pulled one off the baking sheet, broke it in half, and handed some off to the boyfriend to try first.  He, more often than not, gives me curious looks or responses like, "interesting", to the things I feed him.  I can't help but still feel nervous about this.  I realized after I ate my half of the cookie that this nervousness caused me to forget, entirely, to add the sugar to these cookies.  Seriously?  Seriously.  They tasted like a macaroon, meets a piece of toast - strangely salty and coarse, but almondy.
If the worst that has happened so far is ruining 2 batches, I'm rolling at a steady clip.  23 down; 45 to go. 
I have the dough for 2007's Trios in the fridge, and plans to make 1977's Irish Coffee Crunchies, 1994's Basler Brunslis, and the cookie part of 2008's Glittering Lemon Sandwich Cookies.  I have to be up for work in 5 hours and not even Ben Gibbard (possibly my worst guilty pleasure) can convince me to stay awake any longer.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Update

I must admit, I'm terrible at keeping up with this blog.  I had every intention of writing every day, but have acquired the worst habit of thinking about things and considering that to be sufficient.  My friends and families are saints for tolerating this about me.
The combination of the holiday weekend and the elementary school crowd left to their own devices distracted me from my cookie adventure.  Although it was small- just the Mr., my kiddo, and me, it seems impossible to not have spent the entire day in the kitchen.  Thanksgiving just doesn't seem the same without the whole shebang.  So, I spent the day in the kitchen not mixing dough and rotating pans through the oven, but roasting turkey, and making more side dishes than 3 people should ever be allowed to sit down to.  I made a whiskey pear tart for dessert that turned out to be disappointing, although beautiful.

Pears, almonds, and whiskey are such soft flavors on their own and get lost with each other without an acid contribution.  Think pear and raspberry, almond and chocolate, whiskey and Coke.
I meant to get right back on my wagon, but spent the weekend entertaining.  When left to our own devices, we end up with a case of Old Style, an epic Chicago deep dish pizza and 10 people in my tiny little apartment.
A pound and a half of sausage, pepperoni, red pepper, olive, artichoke hearts and 2 POUNDS of cheese later, I think I'm still recovering.  It was my second attempt at deep dish.  Being an east coast girl, New York pizza is where my heart lies.  I was shocked the first time I picked the pan up to put it in the oven.  It must have weighed 10 lbs; I think I weigh 10 lbs more too.  Delicious is always worth it.  There's something so satisfying about giving someone 1 slice of pizza, a beer, and leaving them overfed. 
So, here I am, back on the cookie wagon and vowing to write something every day.  How do I expect to rule the world in sugar and flour if I'm not consistent?  Come back tomorrow to see what I'm up to.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

To Re-roll or Not to Re-roll & First Cookie Failure

I've baked my fair share of rolled and cut cookies.  I find myself often faced with trying to decided whether or not to keep rolling the dough to maximize my number of cookies, or just roll once and get only cookies with the best texture. 
I learned to bake primarily from my mother.  She used to bake us "breakfast cookies" when we were kids.  They were heavy and nutritious with whole wheat flour, oats, nuts, dried fruit, natural sweeteners, and for a little something special she'd toss in a few chocolate chips.  We were thrilled to get cookies for breakfast, and she could commend herself for fueling our days with more than could ever be found in PopTarts or a bowl of Cocoa Puffs.  When I started school, she went to work full-time.  I adored my mother (I still do), and could still spend an endless number of hours with her in the kitchen.  With her going to work came my opportunity to explore food.  She has always been wildly enthusiastic about our productive interests, and let me run with my desire to build my home base in front of the stove.  By the time I was 10, I was making dinner for our family, baking birthday cakes, and taking on new recipes, regardless of skill or tools required, with my "how hard can it be?" attitude - possibly my best and worst attribute.
While I was in culinary school, I worked for a semester with a pastry chef who had a long history of formal training, work in Paris, bakery and cafe ownership and was crazy in her passion for pastry.  Her enthusiasm and her expectation that the end result had to be perfect is something that I've tried to find a home for in my personality. 
Sometimes, the end result is far less than perfect.  My action plan for today consisted of 1942's Honey Refrigerator Cookies - a war-time ration-friendly recipe, 1972's Dutch Caramel Cashew Cookies, 1943's Scotch Oat Crunchies, and 2006's Chocolate Peppermint Bar Cookies.  The final cookie tonight was that first in about 20 varieties to fool me.  With a 1/2 cup of butter, flour, cocoa, 3/4 cup brown sugar, 1 egg, some leavener, salt, chocolate chips, and crushed peppermint candies, I was absolutely stumped at how I would get such a small quantity of batter into the 13X9 in. pan called for in the recipe.  I decided I would improvise and pull the foil lining up enough to prop one side up with a bread pan, making the baking area seem more reasonable.  I spread the batter in this space, popped them in the oven, and peeked 15 minutes later to find a liquefied, puffy, bubbling mess.  Did I crush the candies too finely?  Were they going to spread through the entire pan eventually?  I baked them until I guessed they would be as close to done as they might get, and am hoping that after they cool, I'll get a salvageable product.
I'm glad to have grown out of my teenage disdain for my mother's style of cookies, and just for the record, I gently re-roll my scraps once and then throw the remaining dough away.  I am, however, always open to learning something new.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Childhood Memories

My boyfriend and I have developed a great tradition of epic Sunday morning breakfasts and Mondays spent following each other around through various tasks and errands.  He'll finish grad school and start his job soon, and I have very grey ideas about what my future holds.  In the last few weeks, those Mondays have been spent exploring grocery stores in the morning, and finishing the day with baking into the evening.  Then I started this project and, well, he sits at his laptop, and I bake cookies.  Regardless of how we've ended up spending our time, its lovely to have his company and his encouragement has done wonders to get me over my hurdles of self-doubt.
I ended my return to adventures in the Gourmet Cookie Book with 1971's Speculaas, a cookie I hold close to my heart.  Traditionally served on Sinterklaas Eve, a Northern European holiday celebrating St Nicholas, they are heavily spiced - cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, aniseseed, white pepper, and clove.  My father is a Dutch immigrant and as a child I remember packages of speculaas in the shape of windmills, (like there http://www.amazon.com/De-Ruiter-Dutch-Speculaas-Cookies/dp/B000SON9I8) along with chocolate letters of our first initials, every December 5th.  Later, my parents would often bake speculaas at Christmas time.  I'm not sure when my preference for sweets shifted from an entire (and rather large in my memories of a 5 year old) chocolate letter A, to the heavy, warm spices of the cookies I turned my nose up at as a child.  The older I get the more I yearn for cold weather and warm winter spices.  No one should be eating cookies at 10:30 on a Monday night, but I couldn't resist baking the scraps of dough and sampling just one (or maybe it was 2). 
An interesting thing I've noticed in reading and rereading the Gourmet Cookie Book, and baking my way through the recipes,  is the prevalence of alcohol as a flavor component.  Generally speaking they call for rum or brandy, never more than a few tablespoons, and very little in the way of extracts.  In later recipes extracts play a more prominent role.  I wonder why this shift happened...


1961  Brown Butter Cookies

1965  Ginger Sugar Cookies

1942 Honey Refrigerator Cookie

1986  Pastelitos de Boda (Bride's Cookies)

1996  Anise-Scented Fig & Date Swirls

1967  Mandelbrot

1979  Linzer Bars

1973  Cresent Cheese Cookies

1989  Cornetti (Almond Cookies)

1998  Gianduia Brownies

1971  Speculaas

1955  Biscotti di Regina (Queen's Biscuits)

1941  Cajun Macaroons
1980  Bourbon Balls

1950  Chocolate Wafers

1959  Gingerbread Men

1956  Oatmeal Molasses Cookies

1947  Old-fashioned Christmas Butter Cookies
1992  Cranberry Pistachio Biscotti

1978  Bizcochitos

1974 Kourambiedes (Greek Butter Cookies)

1983  Spritz (Norwegian Butter Cookies)

1993  Aunt Sis's Strawberry Tart Cookies

Back in the saddle...

After a bit of a shake-up, and nearly having myself convinced that I would never complete this project and still maintain relationships or any sanity, I've decided that it has to be done.  My mother sounded so disappointed when I told her I was giving up.  We all know - if mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.  I have even more work to do after taking a week off.  The results though, I promise, will be amazing.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Day 1

The introduction to the Gourmet Cookie Book begins, "Buy a cookie, and it's just a bite of sugar, something sweet to get you through the day.  Bake a cookie, on the other hand, and you send an instant message from the moment you measure out the flour.  Long before they're done, the cookies become a promise, their endlessly soothing scent offering both reassurance and solace.  And even the tiniest bite is powerful, bringing with it the flavor of home.  For anyone who is comfortable in a kitchen, a warm cookie is the easiest way to say I love you.  There are few people who don't understand, at least subconsciously, how much a cookie can mean."
These are the words I can never find for why I fell into cooking, so far over my head.  My mom always used to tell me that she knew when I had it bad for someone, or had some sort of hurdle to jump in my mind because I left a wake of flour and mixing bowls behind my attempts to sort things out.  The best memories of mine center around birthday cakes, warm cookies, or the smell of a Sunday dinner.  
It's been interesting to see so many of these creations from a time before anyone ever imagined my existence.  I like the imagery of my grandmother flipping through the pages of Gourmet, and my mother doing the same.  For me, this project is not only a ridiculous challenge, but homage to the women who have taught me the importance of taking the time to take care for the people you love.
Tonight, the dough for 1993's Aunt Sis's Stawberry Tart Cookies is chilling in my refrigerator, with 1980's Bourbon Balls alongside it.  In 5 hours, I'll be baking gorgeous breads for the day at the restaurant, then anxiously venturing through these cookies, 1992's Cranberry Pistachio Biscotti and 1979's Bizcochitos, the first state cookie (New Mexico). 

Monday, November 8, 2010

Oh my...

The book arrived today.  My afternoon was spent making a master list of supplies and ingredients.  8 dozen eggs, 21 lbs of butter, 28 lbs of flour, and both sides of a sheet of notebook paper filled with necessities - my brain is done.

I have 5 weeks to bake somewhere around 265 dozen cookies. 

Here goes...

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

And so it begins...

The Ultimate Reference

Laying here trying to keep our Beagle puppy, appropriately named Charlie Mingus (which won when I refused to take care of a dog named Ronald Reagan). from chewing on my fingers while I type, I'm one step closer to my undertaking.  The Gourmet Cookie Book has been ordered and is on its way.  I'm already sleepless from thinking about ingredients, a schedule of baking and freezing, and shipping roughly 11 dozen cookies (2 of each kind).  How will I pay for my antics?  Where in my tiny apartment will I store my supplies?  How long will my son, boyfriend, friends and coworkers be able to put up with me?  Will the end result be as impressive as I'm hoping?  Absolutely.

Epic Cookie Adventures

When Gourmet magazine announced that they would be wrapping up their 68 years of publication, in October 2009, they issued the best Christmas cookie from every year in their history.  Having been a chef, pastry chef, and baker for the bulk of my working life, and having an innate fascination with all things baked, I managed to pull a few into my Christmas spread for that year.  If my memory serves me correctly, I made bizcochos, a Mexican cookie reminiscent of lard pie dough with anise and cinnamon.  I also threw in warmly spiced, heavily boozed, chocolaty rum balls with dark raisins; so much complexity in such a small bite.  All in all, the variety was impressive.
I've learned over time that I categorize people into two groups:  those who eat what I cook, and those who don't.  Food is at the root of who I am, so the latter are rarely invited back.  In every situation, a cake, a few dozen cookies, or some gently sauteed apples nestled into a flaky crust is the simplest way to win people's hearts.  At every opportunity; holidays, Monday afternoons, long, lazy Sunday mornings, I want to share the thing that drives me with the people I love and the people who love them. 
In honor of this holiday season, and Gourmet publishing these recipes, I'll be creating and documenting 68 different cookies for the circle of people who matter most.