Thursday, February 28, 2013

Blossom Cookies

With Spring and Easter right around the corner I decided it was time to make some pretty blossom cookies.

I used a stiff white icing and a leaf tip to make the blossoms on these pink oval cookies. I like that the flowers have dimension and aren't piped flat onto the cookie.

To solidify the structure of the leaves and blossoms, I used a skewer to gently press the designs into the base coat. If you don't do this, the three dimensional decorations will be more fragile and could break off.

Using the same #67 Wilton leaf tip that I used for the blossoms, I added some bright green leaves for even more interest. Before you begin decorating your cookies, it's always a good idea to test the consistency of the icing and practice by piping onto a plate first.

Here's how to make them:
Outline with a #2 tip and flood consistency icing.

Immediately fill in the cookie.

Use a skewer or toothpick to move the icing and fill in all the open areas. Give the cookie a shake to help the icing settle.

Add branches using a stiffer icing and a #1 tip. You can add them while the base icing is still wet.

Using a stiff white icing and a #67 leaf tip, pipe some pretty blossoms. You can use a skewer to gently push the blossoms into the base coat.

Keep working.

Add some green leaves again using the #67 leaf tip.

Add some light pink dots around the edges. Let the cookies dry completely before packaging.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Record Month

Today at the Wednesday Community Meal we served pasta topped with a sausage tomato sauce and homemade garlic bread.

The fresh baked bread smelled so wonderful and was greatly appreciated. Guests were also offered soup, salad and dessert.
Homemade garlic bread. Making bread from scratch takes time but the results are always worth it.

We always do our best to accommodate the dietary needs of all our guests so for vegetarians we served pasta minus the sausage and oven roasted carrots and beets. The bright vegetables were were kindly donated to us by Food Front Cooperative Grocery in Hillsdale.
Bright roasted carrots.

Oven roasted beets.

We served 329 meals today which makes February 2013 our busiest month to date.  Our first Wednesday Community Meal was served in March of 2008.

At this time last year, serving more than 300 meals during our two hour lunch service would have seemed unbelievable but this month our range was between 329 and 397 meals every Wednesday.

I am so thankful that we have enough food and volunteers and have never had to turn anyone away.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Spanakopita Triangles

Crispy Spanakopita Triangles

You don't have to be Greek to love Spanakopita.

For my non-Greek family it's a favorite comfort food. Spanakopita is layers of crispy phyllo dough encased around a flavorful filling of spinach, dill and feta cheese.

Spanakopita is baked but the crispy exterior makes it seem like it came right out of the fryer. It's a delicious treat and the triangles are my go to appetizer for a crowd.

Spanakopita Triangles aren't hard to make but they do take some time. It takes about 90 minutes to get one batch ready for baking. But, it is time well spent and the triangles can be made in advance and frozen between sheets of parchment.

Then, when you get the Spanakopita craving all you have to do it put them right into a hot oven. They take just 10 to 15 minutes to bake.

When you work with phyllo dough, it's important to let it defrost in the unopened box in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours.

Then, let the box set on the counter at room temperature for at least 2 hours before using it. Phyllo dough dries out quickly so you have to work as fast as possible once you pull it out of the box.

Some people recommend covering it with a damp towel but I don't like that method. The dampness causes the layers to stick together and makes it even harder to pick up and use. I prefer to just cover the phyllo with a dry paper towel and get to work.

Spanakopita Triangles
(makes 40)

30 ounces fresh spinach, washed and dried
2 bunches green onion, chopped
1 bunch fresh dill, chopped
1 cup crumbled sheep's milk feta cheese (I like Valbreso Feta)
2 eggs, beaten
salt and black pepper to taste
olive oil

In a large saucepan over medium high heat, add 2 teaspoons of olive oil. Add the green onion and saute for a few minutes. Add the spinach in batches and saute, stirring constantly until the spinach is wilted.

Transfer the mixture to a colander and press out as much liquid as possible. Add the dill and feta and mix well. Taste the mixture and season with salt and black pepper. You won't be able to taste the mixture for seasoning after you add the eggs.

Finally, add the eggs and mix well.

Taste the filling for seasoning after you add the cheese.
Finally, add the eggs. Mix well and you are ready to assemble.

To assemble:
1 pound box of phyllo dough, defrosted for at least 24 hours in the fridge and left at room temperature for at least 2 hours before assembling.
Olive oil

Open one roll of the phyllo dough (there are two per box) and gently unroll the layers.

Lift and lay out one layer of phyllo dough and cover the rest with a paper towel.

Using a teaspoon, drizzle some olive oil on the outside thirds of the phyllo.

Fold the phyllo in thirds by folding the edges towards the center.

Place a tablespoon of filling in the lower left hand corner of the phyllo. And, drizzle on another teaspoon of olive oil.

Fold the corner towards the opposite edge to form a triangle.

Lift the bottom corner of the triangle up and fold straight up.

Keep folding up the strip of phyllo dough until you end up with a triangle. It's just like folding a flag.

Place the triangles on a parchment lined baking sheet.

When you have finished folding, brush the triangles with a bit more olive oil and put them into a 400 degree oven.

Bake the Spanakopita Triangles for 10 to 15 minutes or until they are golden brown.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Half-Pound Burgers On Homemade Buns

We served the burgers open faced with the condiments on the side so that guest could assemble them as they desired. We also served a side of chips or roasted potatoes.

I don't think I've seen bigger or better burgers than the ones we served today at the Wednesday Community Meal - a half-pound burger on a homemade bun and topped with cheese, pickles, onion and tomato.

It was so much fun treating our guests today and boy were we busy. We served 354 meals.

Pat, one of our servers said there were lots of happy guests in the dining room. "They just see the burger on the plate and they smile," she said.

When one of the guests was leaving I said "I hope you enjoyed it and I hope you come back."

"Oh man," he said,  "That was a great burger and the bun took it to the next level."

Besides enhancing the meal, the homemade buns helped us utilize the flour that we get from The Oregon Food Bank. Making the buns instead of buying them saved us lots of money.

I began making the buns just after 8 a.m. this morning using my favorite French bread recipe and multiplying it by 24. By 10:30 a.m. we were pulling trays of just-baked buns out of the oven.
Rising dough.

Fresh out of the oven hamburger buns.

There were so many volunteers who were needed to help pull the meal together in the kitchen. Thank you Cheryl, Cindy, Bill, Jay, Steve, Dave, Mary, Leah, Martha, Anne, Kate, Linda, Jeff, Gwen, Ann and Linda B. - you are wonderful!
Super volunteer Anne even smiled as she plated the burgers.

The kitchen was hopping today - we served 354 meals.

Jeff (left) cooked and assembled all the burgers, Gwen managed the ovens added cheese to the burgers and Linda (in back) sliced all the buns.

Here is  the French Bread recipe that I love:

French Bread
(makes 4 loaves)
2 packages yeast
2/3 cup tepid water
1/2 teaspoon sugar
7 cups bread flour (additional may be needed)
2 tablespoons rye or whole wheat flour
4 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 cups cold water
(cornmeal for sprinkling on sheet pan or parchment paper)

Combine yeast, sugar and tepid water. Let set for 5 minutes.
Combine the remaining ingredients then add yeast mixture. Knead.

Let rise 40 to 60 minutes in a clean, dry bowl. Then deflate and punch into a 14-inch rectangle and fold into thirds.

Return dough to bowl and let rise 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Make loaves and let rise another  1 1/2 hours.

Place loaves on baking sheet sprinkled with cornmeal or lined with parchment paper, slash and place in a preheated 450 degree oven tossed with 1/4 cup of water. Bake 20 minutes and then bake an additional 10 minutes at 400 degrees.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Easy Ombre Cookies

Besides being easy, these ombre cookies are chic and au courant.

Ombre is a French word that means "shaded" and in fashion it is used to describe the color effect of one color going from light to dark. It's taking one color and just gradually enhancing its depth.

It was a breeze to tint the royal icing to create these cookies and the results are pleasing and cohesive.

I think these would be especially nice for a wedding or an event that has a color scheme. Piled high onto a platter, they would look striking.

To ice the cookies, I just piped a border and immediately flooded the cookies using a #2 tip. The design is in the color, not the details.

Here's how to tint your icing:
Divide your icing evenly into four bowls.

Drop a small amount of coloring into one bowl, put more coloring into the next, even more into the third and finally put the largest amount into the fourth bowl.

Mix the colors well. Add a bit of water if necessary to make the icings flood consistency.

Use a #2 tip and piping bags to outline and flood the cookies. Let the cookies dry completely before packaging or arranging on a platter.
A package of cookies wrapped with inexpensive baker's twine. A homemade tag adds the finishing touch.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Whip It!

When you make a Swiss Meringue Buttercream for the first time, the look of it after you add the butter might scare you. It will look curdled and not smooth and creamy.

Just keep whipping it and it will become light and beautiful. This might take some time, but don't be afraid and don't give up.

Just whip it and whip it good.

Swiss Meringue Buttercream on a birthday cake.
Here's the recipe:

Swiss Meringue Buttercream
6 large egg whites
1 1/4  cups granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
2 cups unsalted butter, room temperature
2 teaspoon vanilla
1/8 teaspoon of fine sea salt
1 tablespoon espresso powder, dissolved in 2 teaspoons hot water.

Place the whites in a clean mixing bowl. Whisk in sugar and cream of tartar.

Place bowl over a double boiler on medium heat, stir frequently until the mixture is very hot (120 to 130 degrees Fahrenheit).

Move to mixer and whip whites on high for 2 to 3 minutes; turn down to medium low until cool (use the bowl as your guide).

In a separate bowl with a wooden spoon, stir butter to soften.

With mixer on medium/high speed, add the butter one tablespoon at a time, adding the next tablespoon just as the previous one is blended in. Once all the butter incorporated, add in vanilla, salt and coffee and whip on high speed until fluffy.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Vanilla Almond Macarons

Portland, Oregon was bright and sunny today and inspired me to make these sky blue Vanilla Almond Macarons.

I knew vanilla and almond would be great together in a macaron filling because they are the extracts I always use in my sugar cookies.

Homemade macarons make sweet gifts. Package the macarons using cupcake papers and self-sealing cellophane bags. A baker's twine bow and a homemade tag make for a nice presentation.

Here's the recipe:

Vanilla Almond Macarons
180g ground almonds, sifted
270g powdered sugar, sifted
150g egg whites, aged 2 to 4 days in the fridge and then brought to room temperature
100g granulated sugar
 Sky blue food coloring

Line four heavy baking sheets with good quality parchment paper and set aside. Also, set aside two pastry bags for the piping of the macarons.

Sift together your ground almonds with the powdered sugar and set aside.

Whisk the egg whites (at room temperature) to glossy firm peaks adding the granulated sugar gradually in four parts.  Towards the end of mixing, add the food coloring.

Incorporate the dry ingredients into the beaten egg whites using a large rubber scraper.  Mix well. 
Fold the mixture with the rubber scraper by pulling down the sides and flipping the mixture over. Do this until you have a smooth mixture that falls like a “ribbon” off the scraper.

Transfer the mixture into the two piping bags. Use rubber bands to close the piping bags. Clip the tip of the bags, one at a time, and pipe small quarter sized rounds, leaving 1-inch of space between each because they spread as they set.

Leave to set for about 30 minutes or until the top has formed a crust and is not sticky to the touch.

While they are setting, preheat the oven to 325 degrees. A convection oven is preferable. 

Bake one sheet at a time in the center of the oven for about 12 minutes or until the cookie is firm, matte and doesn't wobble when touched.

Leave on the baking tray until cool then lift them all off the parchment carefully. You may need to use a thin knife to help lift them off.

Sort into pairs and fill with Vanilla Almond Buttercream.  

To fill the macarons, pipe a generous dollop of filling in the center of half of the macaron shells.

Vanilla Almond Buttercream
3 large egg whites
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
 2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/2 teaspoons almond extract
pinch of fine sea salt

Place the whites in a clean mixing bowl. Whisk in sugar and cream of tartar.

Place bowl over a double boiler on medium heat, stir frequently until the mixture is very hot (120 to 130 degrees Fahrenheit).

Move to mixer and whip whites on high for 2 to 3 minutes; turn down to medium low until cool (use the bowl as your guide).

In a separate bowl with a wooden spoon, stir butter to soften.

With mixer on medium/high speed, add the butter one tablespoon at a time, adding the next tablespoon just as the previous one is blended in. Once all the butter incorporated, add in vanilla, almond extract and salt and whip on high speed until fluffy. 

Cookie Cutter Frustration

The cute but not practical pig cookie cutter.
If I hadn't been mesmerized by the adorableness of this pig cookie cutter, I would have realized it really wasn't a smart choice.

Because if I looked at it more carefully in the store, I would have noticed that there was absolutely no way I was going to be able to extract cookie dough from the teeny weeny tail of the pig.
The impossible tail.
I used the cutter anyways, accepting that there would be no long curly tails. But the experience helped me confirm that I don't want cookie cutters with small intricate areas. I want cutters with clean lines that are easy to use. Cookie making should be fun, not frustrating.

There was nothing I could do - these pigs were destined to have broken tails.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Valentine Pigs

Two design variations: A piped heart and a cookie heart.

My daughter Eleanor and my niece Maya asked me to make them Valentine cookies that they could give to their friends at school so I came up with these cute pink pig cookies.

The girls think the pigs are perfect - not mushy,  but fun and lighthearted and appropriate for all of their friends.

I experimented with a few designs and actually like the simplest one best (this is usually the case).

All the pigs need are an eye, bright snout and piped heart. This is a good design for beginning cookie decorators.

Here's how to decorate them:
Outline the pigs using a #1 pastry tip and piping consistency pink icing.

Flood the cookies using a #2 pastry tip and thinned flood consistency icing. Let the cookies dry completely before moving onto the next step.

Using a #1 tip and piping consistency dark purple icing, add the eye and heart. Using a small brush, add a touch of hot pink icing on the snout.