Sunday, March 28, 2010

Save the Date Cookies

A while back I started thinking about creative and thoughtful ways to ask people to be a part of our special day. Many of our wedding party are located in different states and I wanted to do something more than just a phone call. Plus it’s hard to say no when there’s a small gift involved ;)

Since I love baking and sweet treats I thought I could use cookies to ask. It’d be easy to adapt to the variety of wedding party ‘positions’ and they ship much better than cupcakes.

My vision was dress shaped cookies for bridesmaids, a ring shape for the ring bearer, flower shape for the flower girl, gift cookie for the gift table attendant, book cookie for the guest book attendant, etc. But I needed something for the groomsmen and ushers…

Then I remembered that a long while back I came across a link to a small bakery on the east coast that made ‘Save the Date’ cookies for couples to use in place of standard ‘Save the Date’ stationary. I LOVED the idea! I knew I couldn’t afford to send every wedding invitee a cookie, but I didn’t want to give up on the idea entirely. So, I thought it would be a clever way to let the wedding party know the date we selected and a not too girly cookie design to give all the guys. (Sadly I lost the link to the bakery that inspired me and cannot find it to give them proper credit…if anyone comes across it, please let me know so I can add it to this post.)

I didn’t really want to pay shipping to get the cookies from the east coast to my house and then pay shipping to get the packages sent out to all of the wedding party at their various locations. So I started thinking about other options.

Life has been a bit busy lately, so I thought I might go the outsourcing route. I remembered that there’s a chain cookie bouquet place in the area and they already offered a variety of wedding shapes and I thought they might be open to doing some custom cookies…

It started off well; they said they could make custom cookies…then it took a dive. Each individual cookie (even the standard designs they already had on their ‘menu’) would be almost $8! I’m sorry, but I’m not going to pay that much for a cookie when I can make it myself.

So I made sugar cookies from scratch for the first time in my life.

Then I got started decorating. I used the Wilton recipe for royal icing.

I used stiff royal icing to outline a border around every cookie. Then I thinned the icing out and completely filled in the outlines. I let that set-up overnight.

I also colored some more royal icing to make puddle dots. Basically, just squeeze out the royal icing onto wax paper until you get the size you want. Then just let them dry overnight. I tried to make red…but it was taking too long, so I gave up and made some purple dots also.

The next day, I used this sparkly gel in black for the month and year…however, I didn’t take into account the consistency of gel and so it didn’t exactly hold its shape, plus I was worried that it wouldn’t set-up so I went over it with gray royal icing…the same icing I used to make the calendar lines and the numbers on the dried puddle dots.

Once the writing on the cookies had set a little (a couple hours or so) I used extra icing to attach the puddle dots.

I think they turned out great! I was so excited about them.

Then I packaged them up and shipped them off.

Initial responses thus far have been overwhelmingly positive...and so far everyone that we have asked to be in or help with the wedding has said yes!

First wedding project = success!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Sugar Cookies From Scratch

This was the first time I’ve made sugar cookies from scratch; I usually buy pre-made dough at the grocery store. But this particular project called for that little something extra special…and I already had all the ingredients and didn’t really feel like running out to the store.

One of my friends recently bought Pioneer Woman's cookbook and tried out her sugar cookie recipe and said it was delicious. So, I was going to use Pioneer Woman’s recipe until I read through it and saw the warning at the end stating they were very crumbly and not intended to travel…that just wasn’t going to work this time, you’ll understand later.

So I decided to use the Wilton Roll-Out Cookie Recipe from the Wilton Cookie Exchange book. After all, a cookie exchange implies some level of travel. The recipe is also on their website:

I found it odd that the recipe only called for one egg…I also found it odd that the dough was so incredibly crumbly. As I was mixing the ingredients I realized it wasn’t really coming together… I’m used to cookie doughs (mostly oatmeal raisen, oatmeal white chocolate cranberry, and chocolate cookies) where the dough blends together into one large gooey blob. I contemplated adding another egg, but I decided to trust the recipe and make the most of it.

Is sugar cookie dough supposed to be crumbly? If anyone knows, please let me know, because I found it very weird.

I tried to knead all the crumbles together into a disk, so that I could roll the dough out…it mostly worked. Rolling the dough would make the edges start to crack and crumble so I could only get a few cookies out of the center of the dough from each roll. Eventually I got all the cookies cut out.

This particular recipe said not to refrigerate the dough…also something I found a little different. After baking, some cookies held their shape perfectly, some expanded and had some texture on top. Since all the dough was room temperature, I’m assuming it must have been the thickness of the cookies that determined the baking outcome.

Note all the different sizes, that was not on purpose.

All in all, they turned out well and they taste wonderful (I had a scrap cookie that I used as a taste test)!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Tarts: Part III

If fruit isn’t really your thing, maybe you would prefer a homemade caramel and toasted walnut tart. It's delicious!

Again, the recipes are from a pastry class that I took at Whole Foods…although I did adjust the measurements to standard cup measurements rather than grams and/or ounces (because I don’t have a kitchen scale).

Caramel Walnut Tart

2 cups toasted walnuts (To toast, place the walnuts in a single layer on a baking sheet. Place in a 350F degree oven for 8-10 minutes; checking and stirring regularly.)
3 oz. heavy cream
4 ½ oz. honey
6 tablespoons butter
½ cup + 1 tablespoon sugar
pinch of salt
vanilla (I think I used about 1/8 teaspoon)

In a heavy bottom sauce pan, cook cream, honey and butter until butter is fully incorporated. Add sugar and salt – cooking over medium heat to 238F degrees or the consistency of a softball sugar. Stir as necessary to prevent burning, but don’t stir continuously. (Softball sugar is when you use the ice water method for checking the caramel, details in the Tips section below. I don’t have a candy thermometer yet and I had never used the ice water method before, so don’t get too stressed about make sure it’s perfect, I just considered it done when I thought it was kind of close to what it should be like and it turned out great.)

Cool slightly, add vanilla.

Leave baked tart crust in the pan for support. Place the toasted walnuts in the tart shell. Pour warm caramel over the walnuts and allow to set at room temperature for a bit. (I actually served mine a little warm with vanilla bean ice cream. If you make it ahead of time, just place the completed Caramel Walnut Tart in the oven at the lowest temperature setting for 5-10 minutes to warm it up a bit and serve with ice cream.)

This caramel should remain soft but firm enough not to run when the tart is cut and should be on the transparent side.
If the caramel is opaque and runny it should be cooked longer.
If the caramel is hard and very clear it has been overcooked.
You can absolutely use the ice water method for checking the cooking of the caramel mixture, simply use a spoon to bring some of the caramel in to ice water and look for soft ball consistency (the caramel should form into a soft ball either on contact with the water or between your fingers, but be careful the caramel is VERY hot!)

Serve alone or accompanied with ice cream.


Monday, March 8, 2010

Tarts: Part II

So now that the crust is covered, what to do next?

Really, there are many options and you can be creative and create your own or search the many tart recipes that exist in cookbooks and online. So far, I have just tried two fillings; pastry cream with fruit and homemade caramel with toasted walnuts. Both were very good.

Again, the recipes are from a pastry class that I took at Whole Foods…although I did adjust the measurements to standard cup measurements rather than grams (because I don’t have a kitchen scale). My conversions may not have been precisely accurate, but they worked okay.


Fruit Tart (Pastry Cream with Fruit)

(The pastry cream does require some TLC, it’s not something you can start and just walk away from. You need to be able to give it some dedicated time.)

2 cups skim milk (the recipe just called for milk, but I used skim milk and it tasted great)
4 egg yolks (large size eggs)
2 tablespoons cornstarch
½ cup sugar
vanilla extract to taste (I think I used about ½ teaspoon or more)

Whisk yolks, cornstarch, and sugar together in a bowl.

Place milk in a sauce pan and heat over medium, to almost boiling.

Remove milk from stove, and slowly temper egg mixture into hot milk. (I actually slowly put some of the milk into the egg mixture first and then returned the egg mixture into the remaining milk in the pan.)

Return to the stove, cook stirring continuously to avoid cooking the bottom. Bring to a boil and cook at least 4 minutes at a boil. (It took quite a while for the mixture to come to a boil.)

Continue to cook and stir until custard becomes shiny. Smell should be sweet, not starchy.

Remove from heat, cool slightly then add vanilla to taste. (The pastry cream was delicious, even on its own.)

(I let it cool a little longer after I added the vanilla.)

Pour the pastry cream into the crust. (I left the crust in the pan while I poured in the filling. I also did not pour all of the pastry cream into the crust, just enough to fill it most of the way.)

Arrange your favorite fruits on top of the pastry cream. (Place the fruits in a pattern or design; or just put them on randomly, whatever you prefer.)

Brush over the fruit with a glaze. In the class they melted apricot preserves and used that, but I prefer this glaze:

¼ cup sugar
pinch of salt
½ tablespoon cornstarch
¼ cup orange juice
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/8 cup water

In a sauce pan, combine sugar, salt, corn starch, orange juice, lemon juice and water. Cook and stir over medium heat. Bring to a boil, and cook for 1-2 minutes until thickened. Remove from heat, allow to cool but not set up. Use a pastry brush to brush the glaze over the fruit.

Place the tart in the refrigerator to chill before serving.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Tarts: Part I

Finally, details on the tarts. We'll start with the basics.

First… the pan.

A tart pan has a removable bottom (in order to be able to serve the tart out of the pan) and usually has scalloped edges that are very sharp. They come in a variety of sizes and shapes. I have a 9-inch square tart pan.

My Tart Pan

Second… the crust.

The dough for the crust is ‘sucree dough’. The following recipe made enough dough for both of my tarts. I used the first half right after making the dough and then I put the second half of the dough into a disk shape, covered it in plastic wrap, and placed it in a freezer bag and froze it until Valentine’s Day. Or another option would be to use the leftover dough to make cookies or additional mini tarts.

The recipes are from a pastry class that I took at Whole Foods…although I did adjust the measurements to standard cup measurements rather than grams (because I don’t have a kitchen scale). My conversions may not have been precisely accurate, but they worked okay.

Sucree Dough

2 stick butter, room temperature (but not too soft)
½ cup sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon lemon zest (I’m not a big lemon person, so next time I’ll probably reduce this)
1 egg
3 cups flour
¼ teaspoon salt

Using a stand mixer fitted with a paddle, blend butter and sugar on low to medium speed. (Note: I do not have a stand mixer, so I used a hand mixer. It worked okay)

Add vanilla and lemon zest, mix. Add beaten egg, mix.

Sift together flour and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the other ingredients; add all at once to keep mixing minimal.

As soon as dough comes together, turn out onto a clean lightly floured surface. Blend with the heel of your hand.

Divide dough into two disks and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill dough for at least two hours before using.

Cover surface and rolling pin with flour. Roll dough and place in desired tart pan or cut into shapes for cookies. (I had some trouble getting my dough to roll into one nice smooth sheet, don’t worry, if you have to patch pieces together, no one will be able to tell, just make sure to really press any seems together to avoid gaps.)

Refrigerate the tart crust or cookies before baking, just until cold again.

(I added a step, not part of the original recipe based on steps I had seen in some other recipes…Use a fork to prick the bottom of the crust in a variety of places to prevent the crust bottom from baking up too much.)

Bake at 350-375F degrees. Bake until golden. Time depends on the size of the item.

Sucree dough should be work with cold – never hot.
If the dough is cracking, knead it to a slightly warmer, pliable dough with. (I never really got this to work perfectly, but as I noted above, no one could ever tell.)
Always chill dough after shaping, before baking.
Tarts can be filled with pastry cream or chocolate ganache for quick options.


Monday, March 1, 2010

‘You Can’t Hurry Love’…And You Can't Hurry Cupcake Pops

It’s taken me a while to get around to writing this…partly due to life being a bit busy, but probably the real underlying reason is I didn’t want to dissect all the things that went so wrong with my cupcake pops. As I mentioned in the Sweet Treat Party post, they didn’t really turn out like I’d hoped and definitely not anywhere even remotely as good as Bakerella’s.

So what happened?

I was rushing, I knew it while I was making them, but I didn’t think it would matter…WRONG. I think it did matter, a lot. Cupcake pops require much more time and attention than I had to give that day.

My biggest piece of advice, if you try to make cupcake pops, allow A LOT of time and TLC.

Primarily, do not try to save time by cutting back the refrigerator and/or freezer time. I think Bakerella recommends at least a few hours in the refrigerator (or approximately 15 minutes in the freezer) after making the cake balls AND after forming the cake balls into any desired shapes before covering in chocolate or candy coating.

Cake Balls

I did not have room in my freezer, so I stuck them in the refrigerator. But I did not have multiple hours. I think I had the cake balls in the refrigerator about an hour maybe a little more.

That part probably wasn’t as important as the refrigerator/freezer time after shaping the balls into cupcake pops and hearts, which was definitely less than an hour. I think the shorter time did not allow them to set as much as they should have and hence made dipping/covering them with the chocolate and candy coating more difficult.

On cake pops that require more than one color of chocolate/candy coating, I tried to let the first color set before applying the second (for example, I tried to do the bottom of the cupcakes before the top). Covering the bottom of the cupcakes wasn’t that bad. I dipped the bottom into the chocolate stuck in the stick and then placed the cupcake pop upside down on wax paper to set.

The tops were a completely different story :(

I didn’t have time to hold them and let the candy coating set so I just placed each stick in a Styrofoam block…but then the color on the top dripped down over the bottom.


I also had planned to put the heart-shaped cake bites on sticks, but the sticks didn’t really work with the heart size and/or shape I used, so I really ended up with heart-shaped cake bites rather than cake pops like I originally wanted.

I quickly realized I wouldn’t be able to spend enough time and attention on each one, so I just focused on trying to get them all covered in some manner.

Very Sad

The majority were not very cute or pretty.

The good news though, is that they were a hit because they tasted yummy. So it wasn’t a complete loss.