Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Christmas Baking Extravaganza- The Cookiepedia and Donna Hay Celebrate 2011 Review

In the past 4 or 5 years I've started the annual Christmas Baking tradition.  And every year, despite my best intentions and careful planning, it turns into some epic thing.  The first year I baked these seemingly simple snowflake cookies.  A shortbread-ish cookie that you rolled quite thin then cut out with a snowflake cookie cutter and sprinkled with coloured sugar.  They looked gorgeous in the recipe photos and seemed relatively simple, until I discovered how dastardly delicate the bloody things were.  So after hours of frustration folks got lovely jars full of stubby broken circle cookies. 

Then there was the year I did the pistachio shortbread cookies, this one had a beautifully simple recipe, but unfortunately my purveyor of pistachios had a mealy worm problem.  This is when I discovered you had to pry each pistachio apart and inspect it carefully because the delightful mealy worms would squirm through the shell and burrow in without any external sign.
Needless to say I did not share my story of the 2 hrs of pistachio inspection with those I gave the cookies too, and I opted not to eat any too. 

So this year, like every year previous, I sat down with the fullest of intentions of making this years cookies no fuss, no muss.  My good friend Hasina opted to come over and be my co-cook for the day with the simple request of something lemony or coconutty on the menu for the afternoon. I, being a good little book reviewer, and generally fairly well organised (in general terms, because lets be frank, I don't do spreadsheets and I'm never on time for things), had requested The Cookiepedia from Random House back in September with the express desire to make it my Christmas baking standby.  I also get Donna Hay's Australian cooking magazine as a yearly subscription (awesome gift idea for the cook on your list by the way, just saying), and was anticipating her Celebrate edition with her yearly Christmas baking article.

I decided to try a mix this year, and sample a broader range of cookies then I would normally do, hell I had a co-cook, so obviously I would be swimming with extra help and time right?  Que Jaws music. 

I picked four recipes, two from Donna Hay- Chocolate Peppermint creams, and Spice Cookies (a slightly updated version of an older recipe of hers that I make every year as it tends to be the popular favorite, and crazy easy to make), and two from the Cookiepedia- Lemon Chews and Cardamon Cookies. 

Hasina, like me, has a timeliness issue and was running a bit behind for our bake date, so I started in on the Spice cookies while I waited.  An easy peasy recipe with ginger, all spice, nutmeg, cloves and then the usual suspects all mixed together then rolled and baked for 8 minutes or so, the longest part of this recipe is always the act of baking the enormous amount of cookies it makes (about 25-30 but I usually double it).  She arrived just in time to start rolling them and just like that we were off and well on our way.

Next up were the lemon chews.  I'd never made them before so I started of with a single batch.  They have honey in them, very little sugar, lemon rind and then the usual suspects (eggs, flour, butter, you know the drill).  Again, super easy to make with a nice short bake time (8 mins).  The minute they were out of the oven we were sampling and swooning.  Moist and chewy, as promised, with a hint of lemon, we immediately set out to make a second batch with a touch more lemon rind.
At this point it was starting to get late, I started the Cardamon cookies (super simple assembly), but they had to refrigerate before rolling and Hasina had to move on to an early evening staff Christmas party.  So the hubby stepped into the Co-cook apron and started helping with the chocolate peppermint creams. 

They were decidedly easy to throw together, the biggest step being chopping 200 grams of dark chocolate, but they called for refrigeration also (though to be honest, they really didn't need it, as I found out later).  So we set to rolling out the Cardamon Cookies.

This is where it got a bit fussy.  The Cardamon Cookies are a bit shortbread-ish, after chilling you had to flour everything well, roll the dough out and drag out the cookie cutters.  I had learned my lesson the hard way (see the above snowflake disaster) and now own a lovely set of varying sized circle cookie cutters.  Once they're cut out you splash them with a bit of milk or egg (white or yolk I don't remember, I used milk obviously) and then sprinkle with crushed almonds. 

The recipe photo used slivered blanched almonds but I thought the brown of the exteriors of the raw almonds made a nice counterpoint to the paleness of the cookies. And dude-no slivering, talk about fusty!

I found that their timing and temperature was less perfect than the Lemon Chews.  They cooked best for me at 8 minutes and 350 degrees (instead of 375 which made them too browned and crunchy).  However, once finished they were divine and lovely to look at. 

Finally it was time for the chocolate peppermint creams.  Now these caused heart ache (there has to be one bloody difficult cookie every year I tell you!).  Mixing and refrigeration were simple, but cooking was weird.  The cookies didn't crack on top like the recipe said they would, and I quickly discovered that they should still seem undercooked when I took them out, because they really hardened up fast.  Which led to the other mini-disaster.  Once you took them out of the oven you had to give them a minute or two before taking them off the pan (they were just mudgy at first), then you had to whip those little chocolaty buggers off as fast as you could before they hardened and glued down on the surface of the pan.  There was maybe 20 seconds of wiggle room.  I also had to use a thin metal spatula on my poor non-stick pan, since the silicon ones just made mess.
There was many a taste test as I freaked out over how hard and brittle the cookies were, and how unlike the picture they looked.  However, once I slathered on the mint cream they softened up to a chewy consistency and were delicious.  So although they were wildly frustrating they were likely worth it, I guess the final word will be if I can bring myself to make more of them (the hubby is lobbying).

The final steps were the finishes.  The spice cookies got a dusting in icing sugar with cinnamon mixed in (insanely easy, pretty and added an awesome finishing touch to the flavour), and the lemon chews got a sugar icing glaze (which I added a sprinkling of lemon rind to for flavour and look). 

In the end the cookies were all pretty and delicious, though some a bit fussier than I would have liked.  For future cookie bake-a-thons I would definitely rely on the Cookiepedia.  It was a great cook book, simplistic recipes with good results, lots of unusual cookies and a nice layout.  I also loved how it was divided up- fruity, chocolaty, spicy, buttery, fancy, nutty and seedy.

The Cookiepedia: Mixing, Baking and Reinventing the Classics, by Stacy Adimando
Published by Quirk Press, September 2011
My copy kindly provided by Random House

Donna Hay Celebrate Issue 60