Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Gingerbread House Tradition

Here it is! The finished gingerbread house! I am so excited about this accomplishment of ours! It was two or three years ago when I first watched Gale Gand make a house like this on her Food Network Show Sweet Dreams.  I'd been wanting to make one ever since. Last year, I got as far as making the gingerbread pieces, but the hustle and bustle of the season got in the way and so we just ate them (delicious just on their own!). I think I was a little intimidated by the icing since I hadn't used it before. But since we used the same icing to finish the gingerbread bears (see previous post here), I had a bit more courage this year. I'd been saving leftover Halloween candy for at least a year with a gingerbread house in mind and the kids were begging me to make one after they saw a decorated house at the neighbor' this is the year.

I started by covering a pizza pan with foil and assembling the baked gingerbread pieces. The walls go up first, glued together with royal icing made with powdered sugar and egg whites. After the "glue" has had a chance to set, the roof goes on. We used Frosted Mini Wheats for roof shingles and Dots along the top edge.

I gave each kid a wall to decorate the way they wanted and then wrote their names on that side. I was very impressed with the ideas for decorating that they came up with, especially since our candy supply was limited. I vowed I was not buying any special candy just for this -- all the candy came from our rejected Halloween candy supply.

Ben made the marshmallow snowman using whole cloves for the face and we made a gingerbread family with the leftover dough and icing.

You can grow flowers out of the snow using M&M's and we embellished the house with some royal icing piped along the edges.
I will not be skipping this tradition again - it's so much fun! I have a friend who has been saving all of the gingerbread houses they've made for the past several years, and now she has an entire city to display at Christmastime! It's fantastic!

Gingerbread House
By Gale Gand via The Food Network

8 ounces unsalted butter (16 tablespoons or 2 sticks), softened
1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar
2 eggs
1 cup dark molasses (not blackstrap)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
6 1/4 cups cake flour
4 teaspoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
Gingerbread House Templates, recipe follows
Royal Icing:
3 cups confectioners' sugar, plus more as needed
2 egg whites

To Assemble and Decorate the House:
  • Heavy cardboard base for the house
  • Pastry bag with a medium plain tip and a small plain tip
  • Frosted shredded mini-wheats for the roof, as needed
  • Mini tootsie rolls for a fence, as needed
  • White Hershey Kisses for roof top spikes, as needed
  • Small candy canes for a lamp post outside the door, as needed
  • Granulated sugar for snow drifts, as needed
  • Necco Wafers for a cobblestone path, as needed
  • 3 large marshmallows, for snow man
  • Pretzel sticks, for snowman arms, as needed
  • 2 whole cloves, for snowman eyes
  • Graham crackers to build a shed, as needed
  • Assorted candy such as gum drops, peppermint drops, M & M's, white chocolate chips, red hots, non-pareils or snow caps, silver dragees, green mint jelly leaves, Life Savers, and Animal Crackers
In a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the butter until smooth. Add the sugar and mix until light and fluffy. Add the eggs 1 at a time until incorporated. Add the molasses and vanilla and mix.
Sift together the flour, ginger, cinnamon, baking soda, cloves, and salt. Working in batches, and mixing after each addition just until combined, add the flour mixture to the butter-sugar mixture. Shape the dough into a thick disk, wrap in waxed paper, and refrigerate 1 to 2 hours.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and grease 2 cookie sheets.
On a lightly floured surface, divide the dough in half and roll each piece out into a large 1/4-inch thick sheet. Transfer the dough sheets to the sheet pans; then cut out the required shapes with your templates (see Gingerbread House Templates below).
Bake until stiff and toast-y, about 10 to 15 minutes. Let cool completely.
Make the Royal Icing: In a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the confectioners' sugar and egg whites together. Add more sugar, if necessary, to reach a spreadable consistency.
Assemble and Decorate the House: Glue the house walls together by setting them up on the cardboard base, and piping the royal icing at the joints with a medium plain tip from the inside. Prop the sides up with wine or soda bottles and let set for 30 minutes. Attach the roof pieces, using the icing in the same way
Using a spatula to apply the icing, glue the frosted mini-wheats on the roof to look like thatching. Attach the front door, with hinges made from icing (leave it open to be more inviting).
Decorate as you like, following the suggestions in the ingredient list, using the icing as glue, if needed. Use a small plain tip for any filigree style decorative line work, you may want.
Gingerbread House Templates:
Brown paper bags, as needed
You'll need to make 7 templates, by drawing the dimensions out on brown paper and cutting them out. Use the templates as a stencil to cut the dough into the required pieces. Here are the templates you'll need:
Two front and rear walls: 5 inches high by 8 inches long. Cut out 2 windows from each wall, and 2 1/2 by 1 1/2-inch door in one.
Two side walls shaped like a house (triangle on a square): 5 inches high by 6 inches long, with a triangle 7 inches high on top (cut all in 1 piece). Cut 1 window out of each side.
Two overhanging roof pieces: 4 1/2 inches wide by 9 inches long.
One door: 2 1/2 inches high by 1 1/2 inches wide.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Pinched Orange Macaroons

This is the cookie that may not make it to see Christmas Day - I may eat them all before then! I just love almond paste and anything made with it. I first saw these cookies being made on the Martha Stewart Show and I knew had to work them into my baking schedule. They come together pretty quickly with few ingredients. The rolling in egg and sugar is the most time consuming. And then you let them sit for 30 minutes, pinch, and bake. The result is a chewy almondy-orange inside with a crispy outside. If you like almond macaroons, you'll LOVE these!

Pinched Orange Macaroons
from Patrick Lemble, pastry chef at The Four Seasons

Makes 5 dozen.
2 large egg whites, separated
1/8 teaspoon pure almond extract
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar, sifted, plus more for rolling and coating
1 pound almond paste
Zest of 1 orange
1 tablespoon orange liqueur, such as Grand Marnier

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with nonstick baking mats; set aside. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine 1 egg white and almond extract. Add confectioners' sugar and almond paste; beat until creamy, about 2 minutes. Add orange zest and orange liqueur; beat to combine, about 1 minute.
Lightly dust work surface with confectioners' sugar. Turn dough out onto work surface; roll into two 3/4-inch-thick logs, about 18 inches long. Cut each log crosswise into 30 1/2-inch pieces. Roll each piece into a ball.
Lightly beat remaining egg white. Coat each ball with egg white and roll in sugar, tapping to remove excess (I used a spoon to roll in egg and sugar); transfer to prepared baking sheets. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Pinch each piece of dough with three fingers to form an irregular pyramid shape. Bake until lightly golden, about 15 minutes. Transfer baking sheet to a wire rack and cool completely. Store in an airtight container up to 1 week.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Lime Nut Buttons

Last week was our very first annual Soul Sisters Christmas Party. I've been anticipating the party for weeks and it was so much fun! We drank mimosas, made crafts, and exchanged gifts. We were asked to pick a name and bring a handmade gift for that sister and spend no more than $10. The gifts that everyone came up with were fabulous! (see my chalkboard to the right!) We also had a cookie exchange and everyone was asked to bring 4 dozen cookies to share.
For me, a confessed cookbook and recipe addict, this was the most difficult part. Which cookie do I choose? There are so many! How can I pick just one? I definitely overanalyzed and stressed over this one little thing. I mean, I couldn't pick a cookie that was too ordinary, and I didn't want to choose a cookie that was too fancy or time consuming.
Well, it was the night before the party and I was down to the wire. I just had to choose! I pulled out my Best of Fine Cooking, Cookies Edition magazine that I picked up on impulse this year at the supermarket. (Like I NEEDED more cookie recipes!) I decided on these cookies called Lime Nut Buttons. They were not too fancy, just an ordinary-looking, unassuming cookie, but with a slight twist to make them a bit different - essentially a pecan ball with a hint of lime and coconut - Perfect! I doubled the recipe and had just enough to divide among my four fabulous friends. Is it too early to be thinking about what cookie I'll make for next year's party?

Lime Nut Buttons
Fine Cooking

4 1/2 oz (or 1 cup) flour
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup confectioner's sugar, plus more for coating
1/3 cup coarsely chopped pecans
1/4 cup sweetened flaked coconut
1/2 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
2 tsp finely grated lime zest
1 tsp vanilla extract

In a small bowl, combine the flour and salt. In a food processor, pulse the confectioner's sugar, pecans and coconut until the pecans are finely ground. In a bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter until creamy. Add the pecan mixture and beat until well blended. Beat in the lime zest and vanilla. Scrape the bowl and add the flour mixture, beating just until combined. Wrap the dough in plastic and chill until firm, 3 hours or overnight.
Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Measure the dough into heaping teaspoon-sized pieces (I used the larger end of a melon baller) and roll each piece between your palms to form a ball. Place the balls 1 1/2 inches apart on a cookie sheet lined with Silpat or parchment. Bake until the edges of the cookie barely begin to brown, 12-14 minutes. Allow the cookies to cool for 1 minute, then roll in confectioner's sugar while still very warm. Repeat the rolling if needed to coat the cookie completely. Allow to cool completely before storing in an airtight container.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Ellen's Favorite Butter Toffee

Ok girls, I know a few of you tried the caramels I posted a few weeks ago. Well here's a chance to try out that candy thermometer again. These are Ellen's absolute favorite thing that I make at Christmastime. I make at least two double batches and give some to all the kids' teachers and to friends and family. The recipe is an old one that my mom got from an elderly friend. If I were one to keep a secret recipe, this would be it, but I hate it when people keep recipes a secret. If you've got a good recipe, you've got to share it - so what if someone has the gumption to sell the stuff and make millions, you could've too! So since I'm not planning to make toffee commercially, I'm sharing this special one with you. I think the toffee is a lot tastier that caramels and easier to chew. To make these you will need:

a candy thermometer
a jelly roll pan (rimmed cookie sheet), and another cookie sheet for flipping
a silpat mat or parchment paper

Butter Toffee
from a friend of Mom's, looks like it came out of an old newspaper

1 cup butter
5 T water
1 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt
approx 1 cup ground almonds
approx 1 1/2 giant Hershey milk chocolate bars, melted in the microwave

Line a jelly roll pan with parchment or Silpat liner. Melt butter in a heavy-bottomed medium saucepan. Add sugar, salt, and water. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Heat to boiling and cook to 310 degrees on a candy thermometer, stirring constantly. Working quickly, carefully pour the toffee onto the sheet pan, spreading the candy out slightly with a silicone spatula. The liquid does not need to be spread to the edges of the pan, just spread out a little so that it's not too thick. Allow it to cool for a minute or two and spread 1/2 of the melted chocolate on top of the toffee. Sprinkle with 1/2 of the almonds before the chocolate has a chance to cool. Place the pan in a cool place (the cold garage is my cool place) and let cool about 15 minutes. Place another cookie sheet on top of the toffee and invert the toffee onto the second cookie sheet. Spread melted chocolate on the other side of the toffee and sprinkle with remaining almonds. Allow to cool completely. Break into pieces with you fingers.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Shrimp Fra Diavolo

I know, I know, we're supposed to be talking about goodies, cookies, candies, and sweets this time of year and goodness knows there's been a lot of butter and sugar used in my kitchen in the recent days. I would blog about the sweets, but since it's approaching the shortest day of the year, and I've been working, I haven't had enough natural light to take a decent photo of the goodies (sorry). But don't all those sweets have you craving something just the opposite? - a little spicy, savory, or salty? This recipe requires your full attention, so if you have some time and you're craving something not-so-sweet, give this a try. It's delicious! Also, you can cherish the huge eyes and gaping mouths your kids will have when you flambe the shrimp! Be sure to have all the ingredients ready and read through the whole recipe before you start. --oh and have a lid ready to place over your skillet just in case the flambe gets out of hand.

Shrimp Fra Diavlo
adapted from a recipe from the folks over at Cook's Illustrated

1 pound peeled and deveined shrimp
1 tsp crushed red pepper or a little less to taste
6 T olive oil
1 1/2 tsp table salt, divided
1/4 cup Brandy
4 T minced garlic, divided (I used probably half of this amount)
1/2 tsp sugar
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained
1 cup white wine
1/4 cup fresh minced parsley
1 pound angel hair or linguine

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. In the meantime, heat a large skillet over high heat for 4 minutes. While the pan is heating, toss the shrimp, 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes, 2 T olive oil and 3/4 tsp salt in a bowl. Add the shrimp to the hot pan and spread to a single layer. Cook without stirring for about 30 seconds. Take the pan off the heat, stir the shrimp, and add the Brandy. Let it stand off the heat until the Brandy warms slightly, about 5 seconds, then return the pan to high heat. Wave a lit match or lighter over the skillet until the Brandy ignites; shake the skillet until the flames subside. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and set aside.

Add 3 T olive oil and 3 T garlic to the now empty skillet, reducing the heat to very low. Cook the garlic until it's browned but not burned. Add 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes, 3/4 tsp salt, sugar, tomatoes, and wine. Increase heat to high and simmer until thickened, about 10 minutes. At this point, add the pasta and some salt to the boiling water and cook while the sauce is simmering. When the pasta is almost done, add the shrimp, the remaining 1 T garlic and the minced parsley to the tomato sauce and simmer until heated through, about 1 minute longer. Serve the shrimp and sauce over the pasta and drizzle with a bit of olive oil. Serve immediately.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Disastrous Sticky Buns

Here's to prove that not all attempts at deliciousness are successful in my kitchen. It's been a tradition at our house for the past few years to have homemade sticky buns on Christmas morning. I thought I'd be real smart and get them made almost two weeks ahead of time and put them in the freezer until Christmas. I'll chalk it up to two things which foiled my plan: 1) I have never used fresh yeast before and 2) the recipe was no good.

Let me explain for those of you who haven't used fresh yeast either. Yeast comes in a few different forms. Fresh yeast, also called cake yeast, is perishable, you find it in the refrigerated section of the grocery by the eggs, and apparently it comes in two different sizes: a cake which is 0.6 ounces and a block which is 2 ounces. Both sizes look identical except for the size and my grocery only carries the 2 ounce size. I therefore was unaware of the two sizes. Dry yeast, also called active dry yeast, is less perishable and comes in packets which are sold in the baking section of the grocery store because it does not need refrigeration (although refrigeration or freezing is recommended after purchase to prolong its life).

My recipe was vague and maybe the authors didn't know there were two sizes of cake yeast either. It simply called for "two cakes of yeast" or two packets of dry yeast. So I, unknowingly, put my two cakes of yeast (2 ounces each) in the recipe -about 4 times what was supposed to be used as I found out later. It seemed like a lot, but hey, I was following the recipe, right? What first tipped me off was when I let it rise in a bowl for the recommended 1-2 hours, I came back after 30 minutes and the dough was HUGE! It had grown so fast...but I continued with the recipe anyway.

I continued with the glaze which you typically place in the bottom of your pan and place the rolled and cut dough on top, so the sugar caramelizes in the oven and you serve the buns upsidedown with the gooey stuff on top. The recipe for the topping looked all wrong in proportion and I should have followed my instincts and reverted back to my old standby recipe to salvage what I could from all this effort. But I loved this cookbook! I'd read it from cover to cover! The photos were extremely enticing and I so wanted the first recipe from this book to work! So I continued...but as you can see from the photo, it was a FLOP!... a gooey, soggy, yeasty mess! I'll have to go back to good old Betty Crocker and my dry yeast and hopefully I'll have another sticky bun post before Christmas!


After more than 5 years of white walls, we have color! Check it out!
The family room is Southern Wood...

The dining room is Cordial...

The kitchen is Pea Soup...

And the entryway and upstair hall are Applesauce Cake...Mmmm!

The sunroom, powder room and laundry are Halcyon Green...

Yes, we finally have color and we love it! Now for the upstairs...

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Vanilla Caramels with Sea Salt

Here's something I've always wanted to try making but I've never gotten around to it until now. I saw the recipe in Pittsburgh Magazine and it beckoned me. I thought I could give them to the kids' teachers along with my usual special-recipe-toffee and various biscottis. Although I may have to make another batch because the original stash is dwindling. (Note to self: hide caramels out of the kids' sight before they're gone!)

I simply wrapped them in waxed paper which required no ties or ribbons, just a twist on either end and that's it! Basically, if you have a candy thermometer you can make these. They're easy!

I cut this recipe in half and still got plenty of caramels...

Vanilla Caramels with Sea Salt
Makes 120 caramels

4 cups heavy cream
1 1/3 cups light corn syrup
1 1/3 cups honey
2 cups sugar
8 ounces unsalted butter, softened
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 pound walnuts, toasted and chopped (I omitted these)
1/2 tsp sea salt

Grease bottom and sides of a 9x13 pan. For half recipe, use 9x9 pan. Line the bottom with parchment. Grease the top of the parchment. Combine cream, corn syrup, honey, and sugar in a large pot. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until a candy thermometer reads 260 degrees F. Remove from heat. Stir in butter, kosher salt and vanilla. Fold in walnuts, if using. Pour into prepared pan. Sprinkle with remaining sea salt. Allow to cool. Run a knife around the edge of the pan and invert the caramel onto a cutting board. Cut into 1-inch pieces with a large, sharp knife. Roll individually in waxed paper.


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