Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Case of the Spurious Sprinkles
What’s cooking? Best Rollout Cookies and Powdered Sugar Icing

After Christmas, I believe Halloween must be my favorite holiday. Candles everywhere, the heady, fall smell of slowly charring pumpkin in the jack-o’-lantern, and the kids in their costumes – just thinking of it makes me want to bake cookies. I’m a huge fan of roll-out cookies, mostly because I enjoy decorating them, and the Halloween shapes are among the most fun. (You’ll notice here that I’ve included stars, which aren’t particularly Halloween, but to my mind, stars belong in every holiday celebration.) But what to do with them? I make them for any group of friends getting together – my book group, a dinner party – and then I spend an obscene amount of money sending them to my two sons, because even if I bake them with enough time to spare (the cookies, not my children – the children are still in process), that effort to package them up and get them to the post office is more than my feeble brain can schedule, so I end up at FedEx with an overnight need. Just ridiculous, but there it is. My husband, bless his heart, doesn’t bother complaining. Don’t ask, don’t tell.

My obsession with sprinkles is well-known among my friends. My builder even constructed a special “sprinkles cabinet,” recessed into the kitchen wall between studs. The door is painted just like the wall, and it closes with a press-latch, so there’s no knob or handle to stick out; it just about disappears when not in use. The shelves are only three inches deep, and the inside of the door is covered in pegboard, where I hang my cookie cutters.

Decorating the cookies is an all-day task, but with any luck, I can find a marathon of one of “my shows,” as my husband refers to them. CSI, NCIS, Murder She Wrote, Monk,... the list is fairly long and always involves a murder mystery, which I’ve been hooked on since fifth grade when I discovered Perry Mason. Something about stories in which the bad guys always get caught and the mystery solved gives me a sense of order and purpose in the world. Strange as it may seem, I’m not really into violence. By the time the story line in my shows starts, the violence is often over – at a minimum, it happens off-stage – so I can be absorbed in the solution process. This love of mystery extends to my reading habits: I started with Nancy Drew as a child, and have since devoured the entirety of Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Lee Sayers, Rex Stout, P. D. James, Ngaio Marsh – and the list goes on.

This week the marathon was Law & Order: Criminal Intent, which ran most of the day until that magical time when the USA channel runs NCIS for three hours. Sitting at my kitchen island, surrounded by sprinkles and sanding sugars and edible glitter and gold and silver dragées, with the members of the Major Case Squad making the world safe, I am a happy camper indeed.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Lee’s Best Rollout Cookies

Makes about 6 dozen.

1 cup sugar
½ cup Crisco
½ stick (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 large eggs
2½ cups flour (325 grams)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt

Cream together sugar, Crisco, and butter, letting the mixer run for a couple of minutes until the mixture is light and fluffy. (I know, Crisco is that bad kind of fat, but let’s remember, folks: these are cookies. And you need a fat with a higher melting point to keep the cookies from losing their shapes.)

Add eggs, mixing in one at a time, and vanilla and lemon juice. Sift together the dry ingredients and add them to the wet. Mix until the dry is completely incorporated, then wrap the dough in a sheet of wax paper and refrigerate at least a couple of hours. (I try to let this be overnight.) Have a glass of wine.

The dough rolling part is what always put me off until my mother-in-law suggested I roll it between two layers of wax paper dusted with flour. What a difference. And the dough is more manageable if you divide it into two or three parts, refrigerating the scraps in between working with each half. I like my cookies crisp, so I roll the dough to a thickness of about one eighth of an inch, but you should experiment and see what works for you. Bake 8 minutes at 400º.

Move cookies to a baking rack to cool.

Kitchen Goddess note: By all means, invest in a roll of baker’s parchment – you don’t have to grease the cookie sheet, and you can re-use the parchment for the whole batch of cookies. Let the cookies cool completely on racks before icing them.

Powdered Sugar Icing

1 cup sifted powdered sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla
¼ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon water

This is the best icing I’ve ever worked with, and you can use more or less water depending on how thick you want it to be. Add food coloring to suit your mood or the holiday. Add sprinkles to the cookies while the icing is still wet.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

My Own Wrecked Cake

A fun and interesting article in The New York Times this week cast a spotlight on a website – which turns out to be a blog – called Cake Wrecks (, by a woman named Jen Yates, with photos and stories of professional baking (mostly icing) efforts that went off the rails. If you’ve ever ordered a cake and had it come out not quite as you’d hoped, this site will definitely make you feel better.

Some of the featured disasters reminded me of the first cake I ever made for a boyfriend. It was Valentine’s Day and I was in college, and while my sorority house only had six women living in it, we had a full-scale kitchen that served meals every night to those six and a few other lucky seniors. But for much of the day, the place was empty, and the kitchen available for discreet projects by sorority members.

So I decided to make a Valentine cake. I had a mix, so the baking part went fairly smoothly, and I got the icing on without incident. And I had bought one of those squirt cans of red icing, with which I drew a large heart and wrote Happy Valentine’s Day on top. All that was left was to deliver it to my current heartthrob.

I hadn’t thought to get a platter for it, and I wasn’t comfortable borrowing from the kitchen, but I found some heavy cardboard that I wrapped in several layers of aluminum foil. I had placed the cake in the middle of my makeshift plate before I decorated it, and when I was done, I carried the whole thing to a corner of the kitchen where it would be out of the way. At least that was the plan. But as I crept carefully across the kitchen with my labor of love, the cardboard bent in half and I watched in horror as the cake slid onto the floor with a soft plop.

With all the time and energy I’d put into the project, I was determined not to allow this misstep to foil my efforts. Carefully avoiding any cake that was actually touching the floor, I scraped the whole thing up, put it back on its flimsy platform, and drew a giant heart with the red squirt can. And I gave it to my boyfriend.

I asked him the next day if he and his roommates had enjoyed it, and he said it was terrific. But he said it hadn’t looked like the sort of cake that one cuts neatly into pieces, so they had simply eaten it with their hands. I was glad to have missed that part.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

R.I.P. Gourmet

It’s been a week of mourning: Gourmet magazine is dead.

I’ve spent these days browsing wistfully through my collection of issues, which goes back only as far as July of 1995, and I don’t have anywhere near a complete assemblage. But I started reading the magazine back in the early ‘70s – my single days – even before I could actually cook many of the recipes. For years, I bought it to fantasize about the spectacular table settings and to try desperately to absorb the mix of colors and flavors and textures that made up their meals. Then at some point, I gave up. I despaired of ever understanding the techniques and the eye-popping lists of ingredients. I couldn’t tell scallions from shallots, and rutabaga was just a word my dad’s best friend used as an expletive. And as I moved into The Years of Small Children, anything stranger than broccoli was a waste of time.

But as the children grew up, so did I as a cook. I’d hear the magazine’s luscious covers calling to me from the grocery store checkout line, and I’d think, “Maybe.” At the same time, periodically, I’d want to expand the family palates, offering up an unfamiliar dish at dinner with the words, “Just try a bite and then I’ll tell you what it is. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to have any more.” I threw a few finished dishes out, and took comfort in the notion that not all of their ideas worked, either.

Sometime after 1991, when Gail Zweigenthal became Editor-in-Chief, I realized that the tone of Gourmet’s pages suddenly seemed a bit less elitist, a bit more accessible than in the past. It might just have been my own exposure to the world, but I don’t think so. In any case, I started noticing low-fat recipes, recipes for the time-challenged, and those little sidebars on “How to Select and Store Pomegranates” (Dec ‘97) and “Citrus Know-How” (Jan ‘99). I stopped feeling inadequate, and started experimenting more.

Then in the summer of ‘99, Ruth Reichl took over and completely sucked me in. I loved the Kitchen Notebook, which expanded on those little sidebars in a way that got me comfortable with various exotic ingredients (high-end baking chocolate, miso), unfamiliar terms (ganache, confit), and simple stuff like different cuts of beef. I soaked up the dissertations on the best knife, and a history of the fork, and the occasional essay like John Thorne’s “One Knife, One Pot.” And if my Fourth of July celebration still didn’t feature Smoked Salmon Tartare on New Potato Slices, I forgave myself.

So now I feel abandoned by Conde Nast, cast adrift on a Wasa cracker with the barest bit of smoked trout to sustain me. Must be time to go back to the beginning and see what I’ve missed over the years.