Just when I was ready to give up...

As an adult, I have always loved Valentine's Day.  I know, as I have mentioned before, that it comes from years of watching kids in the classroom open their Valentines, gobble down heart-shaped cookies, and throw beanbags at cardboard hearts on the floor for prizes.  I'm pretty sure that having an obsession with chocolate also plays into it somehow, and perhaps my interest in Victorian England, having pink as a favorite color, and never needing an excuse to bake.  Oh, and my love-language is gift giving and I make no secret about loving flower delivery!  It certainly has something to do with the fact that I have been lucky in love for 35 plus years with my dear friend and husband, and that my children also hold the strings to my heart. 

Not that I look upon Valentine's Day as simply an excuse to bake, buy and eat sweets, give gifts to people that they don't really need, and hopefully get some beautiful flowers without having to go get them myself.  Surprising friends and family with whatever you feel like doing makes the day special.  That's why I'm sharing some great recipes, kitsch, and ideas for gift-giving in this year's Valentine's Day blog.  It is not possible, however, for me to just simply give you these ideas.  The teacher in me must introduce, connect, and reflect on what I am about to impart.

Everything I thought of seemed rather trite.  I didn't want to start with a quote, or wax poetic about love.  I was looking for a real heartfelt connection between the Valentine entries this year and my life, and I found the perfect one when I was least expecting it.  One of my goals for the new year is to open and sort through at least two boxes a day in our garage, which currently is doubling as a storage unit for boxes filled with years of kid, school, and handed-down family stuff.  Today as I was looking through some funky 1950's linens that belonged to my grandmother I came across some gorgeous string crocheted doilies and square woven tablecloths perfect for our round outdoor table.  Under the tablecloths were two items that made me cry when I pulled them out and realized what they were. 

They were aprons!  The first one was pristine, had probably never been worn, and belonged to my mom.  It was made from crisp, white muslin and of all things had red and silver rickrack trim and a big, red heart-shaped pocket on the side.  The front of the apron was covered with signatures in red.  As I looked them over I came across two that I immediately recognized.  Both of my grandmothers had signed the apron, as well as my great-aunt, many of my mother's cousins, and at least two of her childhood friends who were her bridesmaids.  It was obviously a wedding shower gift that the ladies had probably made at the shower.  I didn't know that they had paint pens in the 50's!  I am often frustrated when I find special things like this because my mom is not able to remember most things in the past.  Having this apron makes me happy.  It shows me that she had friends and family who supported and loved her when she was married. 

The second apron caught me off- guard.  When I pulled the blue and white striped apron from the box I immediately recognized it as my dad's, but I had forgotten that his name was embroidered on the pocket above the barbequing figure along the bottom.  I'm not sure if my dad ever wore this apron when he was grilling, but finding it packed right next to my mom's was perfect.  We decided to name our youngest son after my father.  They never had a chance to meet, but I'm hoping that when our son receives this apron on Valentine's Day that he will feel a little closer to his namesake. 

 

My mom's shower apron.

Dad's apron.

I suck at making cut-out cookies.

Martha Washington's Jumble sugar cookies.

Yes, I said that. I suck at making cut-out cookies.  I've witnessed and eaten the cut-outs made by others.  My sister, sister-in-laws, moms at school... how come they can make cookies that are the perfect shapes with piped-on frosting and I can't?  I seem to be able to do it with gingerbread dough.  I have long suspected that my mom's sugar cookie recipe was somehow lacking but I am ready to acknowledge that it must have been me... until now!  I want to make some beautiful cookies for Valentine's Day and I don't want to have to cheat and frost the bakery ones.

I hereby announce to the world that I have finally found and made the PERFECT SUGAR COOKIES!  I even glazed them and they even tasted great.  But before I impart this piece of cookiedom to you so that you too can feel the satisfaction that I feel, let me tell you about the history of the sugar cookie.

I was wondering about when western civilization began cutting- out sugar cookies, so of course I turned to the internet.  Basically, sugar cookies have been present around the world in 3 ways:  molded, cut and dropped.  They may have been originally created by a Middle Eastern baker around the 7th century who used his oven to bake and sell the small batter cakes that made to test the temperature of the oven.  The idea of small cakes migrated to Europe, for example, Springerle cookie molds in Switzerland in the 14th century and medieval German Lebkuchen made into fancy shapes and decorated with sugar.  Queen Elizabeth gave her VIP visitors gingerbread cookies that were decorated in their likenesses with cloves dipped in gold and Victorian era Christmas trees were hung with decorated cookies in the shapes of animals and gingerbread men.In the 17th century sugar cookies were called gimblettes in France and cimbellines in Italy.  In the US, Dutch and German settlers were introducing cookie cutters, molds, and decorations and drop sugar cookies called by many names such as Jemelloes, Jamballs and Jumbles were popular.  In fact, the recipe for Jumbles can be found in Martha Washington's cookbook as posted in plateandpencil.comblogrecipes.  These cookies were often heavily spiced and scented with flavorings such as rosewater, cinnamon, anise and caraway seeds.  Originally they were meant to be stored for long periods and were twisted into knots and rings.  Over time they lost their shape and recipes in colonial America called for them to be formed into rough lumps. 

*Info about the history of sugar cookies gleaned from the following websites:

Wikipedia

foodtimeline.org

Howstuffworks.com  Sara Elliott

Sugarcookiehistory.tumblr.com

Plateandpencil.comblogrecipes  Diane

Wait for it... the recipe.

Here they are.  The cut-out cookies that single-handedly turned me from cookie failure to cookie fabulous.  They also happen to be red velvet.  I wish that you could make them without the red but they also contain melted chocolate and cocoa powder which would discolor the dough without the red coloring.  These cookies are dense and are meant to be thick.  They have a faint taste of chocolate and cook up to be a glorious dark red color.  I glazed mine, but they would hold up to any frosting you topped them with.  I could not believe how easy they were to roll and cut...perfection!

Red Velvet Snowflake Cookies

Recipe from createdbydiane

Ingredients:

1 cup butter

1 1/2 cups powdered sugar

1 egg

one large bottle red food coloring

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 tablespoon dark cocoa powder

1/4 cup melted chocolate chips

3 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 tablespoon dry buttermilk

1 teaspoon salt

Directions:

See below.

  • The awesome red dough.

    Cream butter and sugar. Add egg, mix in red coloring, vanilla, cocoa, and melted chocolate. Blend in dry ingredients. Mix. Roll out on floured surface to approx.
    1/2 inch and cut.

  • These cookies are delicious and striking.

    Bake on parchment at 400F for 7-9 minutes. I baked mine for 7 minutes.

  • Glazing these cookies was relatively easy.

    Glaze Recipe:
    4 cups powdered sugar
    1 tablespoon corn syrup
    2 tablespoons water
    1 teaspoon vanilla
    food coloring to taste
    Mix powdered sugar, corn syrup and water and extract until smooth and creamy with a mixer.
    Put glaze in a shallow pan. Dip each cookie, let drip for a second, turn and let set.

  • The glaze sets and is lovely and shiny.

    I added more water to the glaze to get the consistency
    I wanted.

So I still suck at regular cut-out cookies...

No, I did not make these cookies.

For help improving my cut-out skills I went to the denison of decorating, the big-shot of baking, the Lady Gaga of culinary cookie arts... my sister-in-law, Leslie.  Every Christmas she shows up at our family gatherings with trays of fun and festive sugar cookies, decorated to perfection.  I'm talking stripes, dots, squiggles - she can do it all.  The cookies are thin yet not too crisp, slightly brown on the bottom, smooth on the top, and the shapes are cut to perfection. 

When asked about her baking prowess, Leslie, in her humble fashion, taunted me by sending the recipe and telling me that she baked them with her daughter and others every year because it was "fun." For example, the cookies in the picture are from a year when Leslie and her daughter paid homage to the Oregon Ducks and Washington Huskies, as well as the country of Ghana where her daughter was headed to work for the Peace Corps.

 Fun?  You've got to be kidding me.  Which part of this process is the most fun?  Wiping the layer of flour off of each cookie because you put too much on the board when you were rolling them?  Or perhaps it is prying them off of the counter with a spatula because you didn't ues enough flour?  Oh, I know, it's standing over the entire tray that you let get obnoxiously brown because you were folding laundry or letting the dogs out or whatever and you forgot that they were in the oven because heaven forbid you would need to use a timer... who needs to use a timer?  Wait, wait, I know what the most fun is. Trying to use a piping bag that you bought at Michaels in the cake decorating section with a little metal end that doesn't have a big enough opening and then the frosting starts squirting out of the top of the bag because you thought it would be ok to just fold it down.  YES!  That must be it.

Please excuse my snarky comments, but I just don't think I have it in me to do this right.  I will  let you in on a little secret.  I did, in fact, make Leslie's cut-out recipe. They were passable.  The dough tasted delicious.  I ate a large portion of it while it was chilling in the fridge.  It rolled and cut well, and I didn't even burn one batch.  However, it was evident by the way the cookies looked as they cooked that I had not put enough flour in them.  Ok, so I was in a hurry and I kind of eye-balled the flour.  FATAL MISTAKE!  I have realized that you should beat as much flour into a dough that you intend to roll and cut as you can.  That's what makes for the smooth, firm cookie.  At least follow the recipe accurately.  Also, I have come to the conclusion that my cookies will forever be glazed or I will simply frost them with delicious cream cheese frosting from the can.  End of story.

Elaine's Sugar Cookies  (Leslie's Mother-in Law)

Cream:

1 cup butter

2 cups sugar

2 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

Whisk together:

4 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 cups flour

1/2 cup milk

Directions:

Cream butter, sugar and eggs.  When smooth add vanilla.  Mix dry ingredients in a seperate bowl.  Add dry ingredients to creamed ingredients a bit at a time, alternating with the milk.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 3 hours.  (Try to not eat all of the dough) 

Bake at 400F for 8-10 minutes

Buttercream Frosting

Ingredients:

1/3 cup butter

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

1 to 2 tablespoons milk

Directions:

Mix powdered sugar and butter on low speed in electric mixer bowl.  Stir in vanilla or other flavoring and 1 tablespoon of the milk.  Gradually beat in just enough remaining milk to make frosting smooth and spreadable.

  • I chose to make little heart cookies.

    Leslie says that she uses a pastry cloth and a "sock" on her rolling pin to help with this process.

  • My cookies cut-out well but I didn't like the way the tops separated when they baked.
    A little stiffer dough would have prevented this.

  • I simply frosted my cookies. Leslie mentioned that it is hardest to get a true red frosting. I added a little cocoa powder to her recipe but had to use a lot of red food coloring to keep it from being brown. She mentioned that she has used Wilton paste to get a red but that good old fashioned food coloring works the best.

Happy Valentine's Day Martha

Almost as good as Martha's!

I have been called "Martha Stewart" by friends.  These are the friends who are impressed by someone who bakes a cake from scratch or who knows how to crochet.  Honestly, I really like to bake and I don't mind crocheting for babies because baby clothes are so small.  I did buy the February issue of Martha Stewart Living last week.  The soft pretzels on the cover, in various heart shapes, caught my eye.  I have a thing about soft pretzels.  For years I tried to stay away from carbs, especially the empty kind that soft pretzels represent. 

It was relatively simple.  I worked long hours, tried not to eat doughnuts for breakfast, no sandwiches for lunch, and took it easy on the french bread at dinner.  Then I retired from teaching and spent a little more time than I had before at the mall.  Yes, the mall.  The Cinnabons I could resist.  I would only buy a couple of dark chocolate almond cups at Sees Candy.  But the Wetzel's Pretzels.  You've got to understand.  I have never, ever, ever, stooped to eating a mall soft pretzel.  I looked at the light blue and yellow kiosk with disdain.  Until one day last year I was really hungry and I stopped off on my way out from Macy's and bought one pretzel without salt.  One warm, buttery pretzel.  One warm, buttery, yeasty pretzel.  You get the idea.

So when I saw the cover of Martha's magazine, I've got to admit that I started salivating.  I didn't bother to read the 4 pages of instructions.  I quickly found the dough recipe and made it.  Several hours later, I decided that my periodic stop at Wetzel's was probably my best bet.  Making homemade soft pretzels takes a long time.  The rolling, the shaping, the boiling, the baking... it's a real process.  My hands hurt from manipulating all that dough (this recipe made at least 3 dozen pretzels).  My pretzels tasted kind of funky.  You boil them in a combo of beer, water, brown sugar and baking soda.  As the water boiled off the baking soda taste became more pronounced and overpowering which I finally figured out and added more water.

Don't let me scare you away from trying these.  If you do though, just be prepared to spend 4 plus hours and invite a friend because you will need more than two hands!

**Note - if I were to make these again I would make, roll and shape the dough, put the pretzels on a baking sheet and let them rise for a bit, and simply stick them in the oven to bake.  The dough is super easy to make, really elastic and yummy, and would taste great without the boiling!

However you choose to make them, I'm confident that you will benefit from the experience and that the people you share them with will be grateful.  Plus, they are pretty easy to make into the shape of hearts.

 

  • The dough rises in the fridge!

    Ingredients:
    2 cups warm water
    2 packages rapid-rise yeast
    3/4 cup packed brown sugar
    6 1/2 cups flour
    4 tablespoons coarse salt
    1 stick cold, unsalted butter cut into small pieces
    1/2 cup baking soda
    1/2 cup pale ale-style beer
    Toppings: poppy seeds, sunflower seeds, caraway seeds, sesame seeds

  • Strips for rolling

    Directions:
    1. In a medium bowl, mix together warm water, yeast, and 1/2 cup brown sugar: let stand until foamy, 5 to 10 minutes.
    2. In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine flour and coarse salt using your hands until mixture is crumbly. Add yeast mixture and, using your hands, combine until a shaggy dough is formed.
    3. Using the dough hook on your mixer, mix dough on medium-low speed until tight, elastic, and smooth, 6 to 8 minutes. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 8 hours or overnight.

  • My take on the pretzel shape

    4. Preheat oven to 450 F and coat baking sheets with parchment.
    5. Roll out dough into a large rectangle so you can cut strips that are approx. 14 inches long and 1 inch wide. After cutting strips, roll each one from the center out and then cut in half. Shape pretzels and put on baking sheets.
    6. In a stockpot, combine 8 cups water, baking soda, beer and 1/4 cup sugar: bring to a simmering boil over medium heat.

  • This was hard for me. Some of my pretzels came apart during simmering.

    7. Simmer pretzels, one or two at a time, about 30 seconds, holding them under the water with a slotted spoon if necessary. Transfer to prepared baking sheet and reshape if necessary.

  • I topped my pretzels with sunflower, sesame seeds and designer salts.

    8. Sprinkle pretzels with toppings and bake for 5 minutes. Rotate baking sheet and bake until deep brown, 3 to 6 minutes more. Transfer pretzels to a wire rack and let cool.

  • I was extremely grateful that Martha included this diagram showing how to fold pretzels!

  • Simply Sweet Pomegranate Syrup Recipe

    This ruby red syrup would be a great gift for friends and family on Valentine's Day!
    I chose to infuse mine with rosemary from my garden.

    Simply boil 1 1/2 cups water and 1 1/2 cups sugar in a medium saucepan over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved. Reduce heat and boil gently, uncovered, for 5 minutes or until reduced to 2 cups. Stir in pomegranate juice, cool, transfer to a storage container. Will keep in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.
    *Add a sprig of rosemary or the peel of an orange or lemon to the water and sugar mixture to add extra flavor if you like. When mixture has reduced, remove and discard.

  • Use your pomegranate syrup any way you like. I chose to make a delicious drink!

    Valentine's Day Pomegranate
    Blush Cocktail

    Ok. So I like ice in my drinks. If you don't, mix this drink in a shaker with ice and you can feel smug.

    Use any white wine or champagne, I like mine sweet so I used Moscato. One cup of white wine, one shot of vodka, (I used lemon flavored) and 1/8th cup of pomegranate syrup ( or to taste). Add fresh orange slice or lemon and voila... a great drink!