Mom’s Magical Christmas Cookies 2019

My mom’s cookies look like normal, boring, everybody’s-had-one frosted sugar cookies.

Then you take a bite. 

And fall off your chair.

The Kid and I discuss them each time we’re lucky enough to get our mitts on some.  We can’t figure them out.  How is it that this little, regulation baked good can pack such an extraordinary punch?  We joke that maybe she puts crack in them, or fairy dust.

When Kid was in college, Gramma baked a batch freshman year and shipped them up to our little scholar in Vermont.

Those NECI people had no idea what they were in for.

There were probably four dozen cookies in the box.  The Kid ate some and then decided to share with a few lucky souls.

Not my mother. An actual random grandmother.

Nobody was very enthused to be offered boring baked goods from some random grandmother in North Carolina.  My child didn’t try to talk anyone into a sample.  If they didn’t want one, it was just more for The Kid.

Then one person took one.  Eyes lit up, and word got around.  People came out of the woodwork wanting these miraculous confections.  Chef-instructors approached The Kid to ask when Gramma would send more.

When making them, I’ve tried to gentrify the ingredients. 

Don’t. 

Something about the synthesis of these particular components is the secret of the amazing results.  Don’t substitute butter, or cake flour, or speak with a French accent while making them (unless you legitimately speak with a French accent).

When icing the cookies; more is better.  A fifty/fifty ratio of frosting to cookie is just about right.  Sprinkle each one right after frosting it, so the decoration sticks.

These are not the gorgeous showstoppers of the cookie platter.  In fact, they kind of look like near-sighted kindergarteners put them together.  But, that’s part of the charm.  The astonishing deliciousness is all the more special for their, shall we say…rustic countenance?

About two weeks before Christmas, Mom has a frosting party. Everyone shows up and decorates hundreds of cookies.  We have lunch, and then negotiate how many cookies we can take home.

There is one rule: you break it, you eat it.

You’d think, awesome!   You’d think we break as many as we can, and gorge on frosting cloaked shards.

Yeah, not so much.

Mom’s no dummy, and she can tell when cookies are intentionally broken.  And that woman has a mom-eye glare that can chill your very soul.

So, we usually only scarf about two per session.

Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at d@bullcity.mom.

Mom’s Christmas Cookies

Preheat oven to 400°.

1½ cups all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ cup sugar

½ cup butter-flavored Crisco

1 egg

2 tablespoons milk (whole or 2%)

1 teaspoon vanilla

Sift dry ingredients into bowl.  With mixer, cut in shortening until it resembles coarse meal.  Blend in egg, milk, and vanilla.

Roll out to 1/8-inch and cut into shapes. 

Bake on parchment-lined cookie sheet for 6-8 minutes or until golden.  Remove to cooling rack.

Frost cookies when they’re completely cooled.  Makes about 1 ½ dozen.

Mom’s Frosting

1-pound box powdered sugar

½ teaspoon salt

1 scant teaspoon cream of tartar

1/3 cup butter-flavored Crisco

1 egg white

¼ cup of water (or less)

1 tablespoon vanilla

½ teaspoon fresh lemon juice

For decorating: gel food coloring & holiday sprinkles

Dump all ingredients, except water, into mixer. Beat ingredients at low until it starts to come together.  Put water in at this point, so you can judge just how much to use. Beat until it’s creamy and fluffy. Dye in festive colors.  Let the cookies sit out overnight to set the frosting.

…And See What’s On The Slab

So if you’ve been following along, you have in your fridge or freezer right now, The Kid’s cornmeal piecrust.

Now what?

Well, this week we talk fillings.

Because we want to do this crust justice, we’re making a slab pie.

It’s pie made on a sheet pan, rather than that pie tin.  It’s easier, attractive, and feeds a crowd.  It’s actually pretty perfect for a Thanksgiving feast—savory as part of the meal, or sweet, for dessert.

Both pies have no-bake fillings; which means the crust needs to be prebaked.  The pan we’ll use is a half-sheet pan.  The exact specs differ from company to company, but the approximate dimensions are 18’ X 13’, with a 1-inch lip around it.

As for pie crust, you’ll need the entire cornmeal crust, or if you’re using your own, a double crust, or for a storebought roll-out like a Pillsbury, both crusts (stack them and roll them to size).  You want to roll the crust the size of the pan, with enough to go up the sides, and an extra bit for a pretty crimp on the top.

Once rolled out and formed into the pan, refrigerate it for about an hour to reharden the pastry.  Then bake at 450° for 15-20 minutes or until it’s completely cooked through.  Let it cool completely before filling.  This will be the serving vessel, so if your pan’s a little scruffy, like mine (and frankly, me, this time of year), you can cover it with foil, and hey presto, shiny and ready to party.

Slab or conventional, homemade or store-bought, eating in or dining out, may you and yours eat some wonderful food, enjoy friends and family, and put your feet up—that holiday marathon starts tomorrow!

From the Matthews Family Band to yours, Gentle Reader, Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanks for your time.

Contact me at d@bullcity.mom.   

Mushroom Onion Filling

2 pounds mixed mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

4 yellow onions, sliced into half-moons

1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped

2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

¼ cup butter

½ cup cognac

Salt & pepper

½ pound Chapel Hill Creamery Farmer’s cheese (place in freezer for 20 minutes prior to using for easier cutting)

Place mushrooms, onions, butter, thyme, and big pinches of salt and pepper into large, heavy pot with cover.  Cook on medium and stir gently until butter is melted.  Cover and cook for 8-10 minutes until moisture has released from veg.  Uncover and cook, stirring often until veg are browned and moisture is completely cooked out.

Pour in cognac and stir, getting up bits on bottom.  Cook until totally dry.  Store mushrooms in fridge.  Cover crust and leave on counter up to 24 hours.

To serve: Turn on broiler.  Warm veg in microwave.  Spread over crust and dot all over with cheese.  Place under broiler and watching constantly, cook until cheese is melty and beginning to brown.  Scatter the fresh parsley across the top before serving.

Serves 18-24.

Now, for the sweet:

Carolina Pecan Cream Pie

2 cups heavy whipping cream

½ cup powdered sugar

4-8 oz. bars cream cheese softened

1 cup light brown sugar

½ cup dark corn syrup

3 cups finely chopped, toasted pecans

big pinch of salt

Combine heavy whipping cream and powdered sugar in bowl. Beat until stiff peaks form.

In separate bowl, combine softened cream cheese, brown sugar, and corn syrup. Beat until combined and creamy.

Fold whipped cream into cream cheese mixture until combined. Stir in 2 cups chopped pecans and salt.

Spread mixture into baked and completely cooled crust. Sprinkle remaining pecans on top. Cover and let refrigerate for 8 hours or overnight before serving.

Serves 24.

Come Up To The Lab

Pie is hard.

Oh sure, it’s got this reputation as this working-class, farmer’s wife, set out on the window sill to cool, egalitarian reputation. 

Yeah, it’s a big fat lie.  I don’t know who the marketing genius was behind this brilliant campaign, but they earned their paycheck plus a big, fat bonus. 

Ali & Ben at East Durham Bake Shop will help you get your pie on…and the scones ain’t bad, either. They’re actually the world’s best scones.

Don’t get me wrong, pie is delicious.  Made by the right hands, it is an awesome hug from a freshly baked grandma.  But those hands are few and far between.  Because pie is a full-on culinary minefield, where each step can take hope and twist it into shame.  Every procedure has the potential to become misshapen disappointment. 

And that’s just the crust.

Crust is the high school crush of pie—there are just so many ways to go wrong.  You can overwork the dough and get rubber.  If you don’t let it rest and chill, it’ll shrink and slide down the pie dish.  You might overcook the edges and undercook the bottom.  Who amongst us has had a delicious filling and raw bottom?  I know I have.

Then there are the innards.

Too wet, too dry, too sweet, not sweet enough.  Meringue that is both too wet and too dry.  Too much filling, too little.  Weird texture, weird flavor.  Fruit that tastes like it was canned during World War II, and may or may not contain botulism.

Like I said Gentle Reader, it’s a minefield out there.  So, we’ll try to break it down, and demystify and de-scarify it a touch.

Spandex

Pie crust or any baked good containing wheat, barley, rye, triticale, and oats have gluten.  Think of gluten as spandex.  This is what gives bread the ability to rise so much and become airy and chewy.

But in just about every other application, you don’t want to promote gluten.  It will make the product dense and rubbery.  And this includes pie crust. 

There are two remedies.  The first is to cut the water in the pastry with alcohol.  Water will cause gluten to develop.  Hooch will not.  Many folks use vodka because it has no flavor.  But why waste an opportunity to add flavor? 

The second way to avoid gluten development is vital.  Add liquor or not, but if you overwork the dough, it’s over.

Work the dough just, and I mean just, until it starts coming together.  You actually want to see pea-size lumps of butter in the finished dough, if it’s a homogeneous mass, it’s over.

Here is the recipe for a cornmeal piecrust The Kid invented in culinary school.  Next week, I promise I’ll be much less long-winded (as if) and give you the recipes for two different ways to fill it.

Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at d@bullcity.mom.

The Kid’s 1-2-3 Cornmeal Pastry Crust

2 cups all-purpose flour

¾ cornmeal

1 tsp salt

2 teaspoons sugar

8 ounces (2 sticks) salted butter, frozen then grated on the large holes, place on parchment, and put back in freezer for 30 minutes

¼ cup ice-cold liquor like rum or whiskey

½ cup ice cold water (approximately)

Put the first four ingredients into bowl of food processor.  Pulse three times to mix.  Add butter and pulse twice until butter’s just mixed in.

Add alcohol and a tablespoon of water.  Pulse twice, and if it hasn’t come together add a bit more water, pulse once, and check again.  When it barely holds together, turn out onto plastic wrap.  Using the wrap, bring all the loose pieces into the whole, divide if making a two-crust into separate rounds and refrigerate for at least an hour.

Or refrigerate for up to five days, or freeze up to 2 months.

Not That Cookie, The Other Cookie!

Happy Accidents:

A kid left a cup of juice out on the porch one frigid night.  The next morning, the juice had frozen solid.

The kid (not my Kid) had just invented popsicles!

Dr. Alexander Fleming mishandled one of his Petri dishes and gets a fungal growth in it.  Before tossing it, he notices the fungus has halted the growth of the staphylococcus bacteria in the dish. 

The name of that fungus?  Penicillin!

In 1947 two Bedouin shepherds in Qumran chased a wayward goat into a cave overlooking the Dead Sea.  Inside was a cache of ancient clay pots filled with blackened parchment.

Those shepherds had just discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls!

I decide to rework the dog biscuits I make Crowley into a pumpkin/peanut butter spice cookies for humans.  I planned to take them to a cookie swap at my local library.

The result?  A horrific disaster!

I racked my brain for something that would be quick, and for which I had all the ingredients.  I always have the components for meringues and had chips leftover from a batch of brownies. 

Chocolate Chip Meringues

4 large egg whites

½ teaspoon cream of tartar

1 cup sugar

½ teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

½ of 10 oz bag of mini semi-sweet chocolate chips

*The most important thing about meringues is to get them and keep them crispy.  When you take them out of the oven, they won’t be totally set.  Once they’re cooled completely, they should be totally crispy throughout.

If you cook these on a really humid or rainy day, they will likely never completely dry out.

You can also omit or change the chips, flavor with a different extract, or add cocoa or espresso powder while mixing.

For Thanksgiving, flavor with cinnamon, nutmeg, ground ginger, or Chinese 5-spice powder, and paint the pastry bag with gel food coloring stripes of fall colors, then when piped, they’ll be colorful and festive.

For Christmas, try peppermint extract and paint the pastry bag red & green.

Preheat oven to 225, and line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Place egg whites into the bowl of a stand mixer.  Beat on medium until they lighten in color and just begin to increase in size.  Slowly add cream of tartar.

When they turn white, slowly add the sugar a tablespoon at a time.  Turn off mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl.

When all the sugar has been added, slowly add salt, then vanilla.  Beat until glossy, stiff peaks form.  Very gently, fold in the chocolate chips.

Use a large pastry tip and a zip-top bag (or, if you don’t have a pastry tip, just cut about 1/2 inch off one corner of bag). Fill bag with half the meringue and pipe out onto parchment paper into circles of about 2 inches wide.

Place oven racks close to center and put one cookie sheet on each rack.  Bake for 30 minutes then rotate sheets to the other rack and spin 180 degrees.  Bake 30 minutes more.  Turn off oven and let meringues sit in oven for one hour.  Place parchment with meringues onto cooling rack for 10-15 minutes or until completely cool and crispy throughout.

Store in airtight container.  Silica gel barrels, like from pill bottles will help keep moisture from making the cookies lose their crispiness.

Makes approxamately 36 cookies.

The happy accident part?  Turns out, my favorite librarian and host of the cookie swap had just been diagnosed with celiac disease.  Even if the pumpkin/peanut butter cookies hadn’t been an abomination, she couldn’t have eaten them—she can’t eat gluten anymore.

Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at d@bullcity.mom.

Glad Day From Flat Rock

Of course, the ice cream got a little melty, the woman came from Flat Rock.

Flat Rock, North Carolina is situated about four miles south of Hendersonville and 160 miles from Raleigh.

And, Betsy Tankersley drove from Flat Rock to compete in the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission competition at the 2019 NC State Fair. 

The special contests are sponsored by organizations and companies to promote their products.  Each company and organization sets the rules for themselves.  They usually decide on a theme, like game day treats, after school snacks, or holiday appetizers.  The sweet potato folks chose “dietary restrictions”.

Betsy chose the culinary triple axel of dairy-free, gluten-free, vegan.  This should have been sad and awful.

It was the complete opposite; it was joyful and delicious.  The only sad thing was there wasn’t enough for me to have a gallon of it.  Honestly, in my five years of judging contests, this may have been the best creation I’ve had the pleasure to put in my mouth. 

Tankersly is some kind of wizard.  She mixed sweet potato, peanut butter, maple syrup, and cream of coconut.  This combination blended perfectly to form this unctuous, warming flavor that was an amazing foil for the chocolate sauce which included coconut oil.  It was topped with a whipped cream made with more coconut, in the form of coconut cream.

But here’s the thing.  Fellow judge The Kid hates coconut.  My child, if made line leader of the world would declare coconut anathema, and outlaw it.

But this amazing treat?  My favorite (and only) child would push me in front of a train for another helping of this kitchen sorcery.

Guaranteed.

Buckeye Ice Cream Sundaes (Gluten-Free, Vegan-Friendly)

Servings: 8 Prep Time: 4 hours, 5 minutes

Betsy Tankersley, Flat Rock

Ingredients:

Ice Cream:

• 1 ½ cups cooked, mashed sweet potatoes

• I cup pure maple syrup

• 3 Tbsp. vanilla extract

• 16 oz. creamy peanut butter

• 21 oz. cream of coconut

• ¼ tsp. allspice

• ½ tsp. salt

Hot Fudge Sauce:

• 1/3 cup coconut oil

• ¼ cup sugar

• 1/3 cup plant-based milk substitute

• 1 cup dairy-free chocolate chips

• 1/3 cup cocoa powder

• 1 tsp. vanilla extract

Whipped Cream:

• 14 oz. coconut cream

• 1 tsp. vanilla extract

• 3 Tbsp. powdered sugar

Topping:

• 1 cup gluten-free mini pretzels

For the ice cream:

Blend all ingredients until smooth.  Place in large plastic or metal container and lay plastic wrap on top of mixture (this’ll help keep ice crystals from forming on ice cream).

Place in freezer for 4 hours, stirring approximately every 30 minutes.

**While you’re near the freezer, place medium mixing bowl in freezer for 30 minutes, this’ll be for the whipped cream.

For the Hot Fudge Sauce:

While your ice cream forms, you can make the hot fudge sauce.

In a medium pot, mix together the oil, sugar, cocoa and milk substitute until combined.

Bring mixture to steady boil over medium-high heat, stirring until thickened (if it’s being troublesome, some tapioca or cornstarch will help). Remove from heat and stir in vanilla and chocolate chips until smooth.

For the Whipped Cream:

While ice cream forms, make the whipped cream. Drain off the clear liquid from cream of coconut (keeping the thick, white part). Remove mixing bowl from freezer and add to it cream of coconut, powdered sugar, and vanilla. Whip on medium-high speed until stiff peaks form.

Assembly:

Scoop a hearty serving of the peanut butter ice cream into serving dish. Top with spoonful of hot fudge sauce then whipped cream and then sprinkle with pretzels or another topping you like.

Gentle Reader, I am not joking—make this incredible stuff.

Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at d@bullcity.mom.

The New Gig

Hey Gentle Reader.

Today my first column for the Chatham News & Record went online. The paper is a weekly independently owned local paper that comes from Siler City. If you’ve ever watched The Andy Griffith Show, the name might ring a bell. This is where the boys took their dates when the night was more special than Mayberry, and the Blue Bird Cafe, but not quite up to Mount Pilot standards.

They decided to title the column, “The Curious Cook”. I guess that’s appropriate, most people think I’m a little curious…

The piece is a short autobiography, so you might learn a little something about the Sphinx that is me.

But even if you already know way more about me than you want, I also give out the recipe and procedure for my Extra Strength Brownies with five kinds of chocolate, so there’s actually something of value in the piece.

Here’s the link, and Happy Brownie!

Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at d@bullcity.mom.

Dinner With The Kid

The Matthews family band love Shake & Bake pork chops and eat them a couple of times a month.  But I haven’t bought a box of it for many years,

I make my own.

Every time we’re down to crumbs in a bag of chips, or crackers, or anything crunchy, I dump the remains into a zip-top bag that lives in the freezer.  Then when it’s pork chop day, I throw everything into the bowl of a food processor along with herbs, Worcestershire, parmesan, olive oil, salt, and pepper.  If the crumbs are dark, I use them as is.  If they’re pale I also toast them for color.  Then I use it just like the store-bought stuff.

Recently, I had a big bag of tiny little pretzels I’d bought to put on brownies.  They were adorable but so small they absorbed moisture from the brownies and went stale after a day.  I don’t put pretzels on brownies so they can add disappointment. 

The Kid was coming for dinner, and I was making pork chops, so I decided they’d be pretzel-ized.

Pretzel Baked Pork Chops

4 boneless pork loin chops, ½ to ¾ inch-thick

2 cups flour

1 tablespoon mustard powder

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon pepper

2 cups 2% milk

2 tablespoons mustard (your choice of style)

3-4 cups pretzels, crushed, with some larger bits left for texture

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 425.  Put oil into 9X9 baking dish.

Make three-part dredge:  Put flour, mustard powder, salt, and pepper into large zip-top bag.

In a shallow dish, mix milk and mustard.

Put crushed pretzels in second shallow dish.

Shake chops in flour, dip in milk, then coat with pretzels, pressing pretzels on to get as many as possible and make them stick.  Put in baking dish.

Bake for 10 minutes then carefully flip over.  Bake until internal temp until they reach 140° (approx 5-7 more minutes). 

Serves 4.

For a side, there was The Kid’s favorite potato salad.  Za’atar is a Mediterranean blend of sesame seeds and dried herbs like cumin and sumac.  If can be found online and at middle Eastern markets.

The Kid’s Za’atar Potato Salad

2-3 pounds of waxy spuds like red skin or Yukon gold

1 large lemon, juiced and zested

1 teaspoon za’atar spice

¾ cup mayonnaise

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon capers

1 shallot, diced

Salt & pepper

In a pot of very salty water, boil whole, unpeeled potatoes until fork-tender.  When they are still hot, but cool enough to touch, peel and cut into salad-sized chunks.

Immediately add half the lemon juice and za’atar.  Gently stir until everything’s coated.  Loosely cover and let cool completely.

Make dressing:  Whisk together mayo, olive oil, the rest of the lemon juice, and zest.  Season, taste and reseason if needed.  Cover and refrigerate for 60 minutes.

Assemble: put caper and shallots in bowl with potatoes.  Fold in the dressing, a bit at a time, until everything’s lightly coated.

Serves 6-ish.

Our veg was broccoli.

Skillet Broccoli

1 large head of broccoli, cut into large/medium florets

3 tablespoons butter

¼ cup water

Salt & pepper to taste

Put everything into skillet and cover.  Cook at medium-high (about 6 or 7) until crisp-tender, adding a little more water as needed.

Uncover, turn to medium, and cook until there’s lots of browning and crisping, turning with tongs frequently to prevent burning.  Remove from heat, check for seasoning and serve.

Serves four.

The broccoli technique works for cauliflower as well.  Just be careful that you don’t over steam the vegetables—you need that structural integrity to get a nice crusty caramelization.

Bon Appetit!

Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at d@bullcity.mom.

Shirley Temple Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

Petey and I were watching one of the new fall TV shows the other night.  A guy was in a bar drinking a whiskey on the rocks that cost $16.  Petey was shocked.

My poor spouse really needs to get out more.  Going out for a drink has become a seriously expensive endeavor.  Sixteen bucks is a touch steep, but around here, paying ten or twelve dollars for a fancy cocktail is pretty standard.

And going out for a drink is fun.  You get semi-dressed up.  A bar is a child-free environment; which can be a relief.  You’re out at night which is exciting.  And alcoholic beverages and bar food are tasty pure indulgences.

But there’s a hitch in that booze-soaked giddyup.  You’ve got to get semi-dressed up; is that sweater good for one more wear? is this the jacket the jelly doughnut exploded on? where is that other shoe?

No kids!  But that means finding a reliable sitter; not so old that the kids are taking care of them, or so young you need a sitter for the sitter, or nervous, or silly, or cranky, or insanely expensive.

There is excitement; getting lost, hunting for parking, and standing around in uncomfortable shoes waiting for a table to open up, then hoping a second drink will make the ridiculously-loud-thumping-music-induced-migraine go away.

But the drinks and eats are tasty.  And also contain enough calories, sodium, and fat to give you heartburn for a week, and make the chances of your jeans ever fitting again dicey at best. 

There is an alternative.

The Brits call them drinks parties.  Have a few carefully curated, charming friends over that will be amusing, but won’t drink so much that they pick a fight with the dog. 

Think sparkling and urbane, not drunken and naked.

You don’t need a huge buffet.  Have a cheese tray, put out a couple of bowls of Marcona almonds, and something sweet, like little shortbread rounds or chocolates.  That’s it.

Drinks are just as easy.  For the non-imbibers offer a pot of coffee and bottled water or juice.  Have an inexpensive sparkling wine, like Spanish cava.  And make one mixed drink.  Call it a “signature cocktail” and all of a sudden it looks chic and not cheap.  Here is the secret of a tasty, balanced cocktail from a former bartender: ratios. 

That’s it—ratios.  The best is 2 (alcohol) to ¾ (sweet) to ¾ (sour).  So, for something warm and comforting like Granny’s Medicine you’d mix 2 ounces Bourbon, ¾ ounces of honey simple syrup, and ¾ ounce lemon juice.

Simple syrup’s 1 cup sugar (or honey, maple syrup, or other sweetener) and one cup water, boiled until sugar’s melted.  To make an infused syrup, add the ingredient; fruit, herbs, spices like cinnamon or fennel seed, and lightly simmer for twenty-five minutes.  Then pour through a fine-mesh sieve.  A sweet syrupy liqueur counts as a sweet by itself, but you can use half simple syrup and half liqueur for more flavor.

Sour is citrus, green or black tea or water cut with some type of flavored vinegar.  Just remember to go easy at first; you want a pleasant drink, not an endurance contest.

For fall, maybe something warm like rum, apple pie spiced simple syrup and orange juice.  Or for Christmas; rye, chocolate liqueur and tart cherry juice spiked with lime.

And don’t forget a cool garnish.

Make what you like, that’s the whole point. You’re really only inviting other people so that you aren’t a poor lonely Susan, drinking alone with only your cat for company.

But that’s not us, we’ve got a social life and plenty of friends. 

Right?

Thanks for your time.

Contact debbie at d@bullcity.mom.