Night Baking: Never a Good Idea

Waker-Upper Animal Crackers

I usually don’t begin thinking abut Christmas until the day after Thanksgiving, but after stumbling upon the yuletidiest cookie I’ve ever tasted, I’m ready to start the season before we even hit Halloween. Billy the Kid has a knack for randomly remembering items we used once, over a year back, and last night while we had some “us time,” waiting up late for Mr. P after the ladies retired, BK declared he had a great idea. Indeed, it was the perfect time to dig out the five small animal-cracker cookie-cutters/stampers from Williams-Sonoma we bought two summers ago, our singular attempt thwarted by an inappropriate dough that melted over details and puffed out when baked, yielding cartoonishly cloud-shaped cookies. But Mrs. Peña runs a tight ship, and they were exactly where they should have been, as I had already learned when BK was one that throwing away anything he deemed “his” was a very bad idea.

In my end-of-day haze, I quickly scanned several holiday baking magazines until I saw a picture of a cinnamon cookie that looked like it could stand up to our stampers with a few slight modifications. I only noticed the call for espresso grounds once I had started assembling the mis-en-place, but it was already late, so how bad could one small coffee-infused cookie be for a toddler at 9:00 PM? Gleeful cries of “my feet  can’t stop running!” finally tapered off around 10:30 when BK fell asleep while talking, and a steady stream of the little “crackers” kept me fully alert until Mr. P’s arrival around midnight.

If you’ve ever been the lucky recipient or partaker of a Pepperidge Farms Entertaining Cookie Collection, you’ll recall the thin, unassuming, simple Bordeaux wafers, and the uncomfortably urgent desire to put all of them in your mouth at the same time. The following recipe produces the same flavor and crisp consistency, but with more heft than flake, and if you bake for just a minute less than indicated, a hint of chew. The combination of small and thin with the descriptor “cracker” will encourage gluttony, so keep a mental count as you visit the plate throughout the day in case you need to shame yourself into restraint.

1 stick butter, softened
1/4 C shortening
1 C sugar
1/2 C brown sugar, packed
1 tsp baking powder
1-1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp instant espresso grounds
1 tsp vanilla
1 egg
2 C flour

Assemble the dough in the standard manner. Shape it into two discs and refrigerate them for an hour. Roll out the dough to 1/4″ thickness before cutting out shapes, and bake single sheets at 375 degrees for 6 minutes (check every minute after 4 during the first batch to determine exact baking time). Cool the cookies on the pan for 10 minutes, then transfer them to a sealable plastic container or bag before hiding them under your bathing suit in the corner of your top drawer.

I hadn’t stealth-baked since I was twelve.

The Only Oatmeal Cookie

As the weather in southern New England threatens to break into the 50’s any day now, I’m wrapping up my winter bake ware, but not before a final run of my favorite waist expanders. And what do you know, after years of fine-tuning and this particularly insidious past winter, I seem to have perfected the oatmeal raisin cookie. I made the good-bye batch in secret late last night; Billy the Kid is convinced that oats are an attempt to pass off a vegetable in snack form and refuses to allow any baking time to be wasted on hippie health food. BK’s free will is coming in at full speed and it’s battle-picking season at the Peña house. I can sympathize with his resentment of vegetables (and hippies), so I’m letting him choose what we bake for now. While these contain a satisfyingly concerning amount of sugar, the salt cuts it down perfectly, encouraging a rapid cycle of consumption. I despise a cakey oatmeal cookie; this one is barely a solid when first removed from the oven. I’ll go right ahead and claim full credit for these bad Larries since a second egg apparently has never occurred to anyone else. If you’d like to comment on my method of pluralizing “Larry,” feel free to drop a hand-written note right in the garbage.

2 sticks salted butter, softened
1 C dark brown sugar
3/4 C sugar
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 C flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp cloves
3 C old fashioned oats
1/2 C golden raisins
1/2 chopped, toasted pecans

Assemble the ingredients as you would any normal cookie dough. Drop by rounded tablespoons onto cookie sheets with at least 2 inches between each pile and bake single sheets at 350 for 13 to 14 minutes. Once removed from the oven, let the cookies sit on the sheet for 5 minutes, then carefully transfer them to a wire rack for 10 more. As soon as they hit room temperature, cover them up to preserve the chew.

A note on the raisins: I prefer the golden variety, as they lend an element of surprise to each bite. Unless you look closely, they blend right into the golden-brown cookie, and I, for one, need something to look forward to.

I told you boys like pink food.

Billy the Kid’s Pink Cookies

I had a hankering for chocolate chip cookies last week. Since Billy the Kid has requested them each of the last ten times I’ve baked, I thought I’d win an easy point by letting him think it was his bright idea. “What kind of cookies should we make?” A pause and a hilarious pensive finger to the lips were followed by: “pink cookies!” I took a second to process a mental sad trumpet sound bite, then hopped on-line looking for any easy sugar cookie recipe. If I wasn’t going to get my chocolate chippers, my heart just wasn’t going to be in it. The oreo-stuffed monster-god still fresh in my mind, I started at BeckyBakes, and found this recipe for iced sugar cookies. I’ll admit the icing won me back, and both BK and I were soon groaning over the four-hour chill time. (I added two drops of McCormick red food coloring once the butter, shortening, sugar, eggs and vanilla were combined, and added two drops more to the icing to get this particular pink).

Of course we weren’t about to use any remotely Christmas-related shapes this far into the new year, so out came the bin of 101 cutters that Santa brought us, temporarily forgetting the difficulty a three-year-old has with deciding between even two of anything. The project now involved multiple days. We finally filled two cookie sheets (you’re an adult now; act like it) with five Spring/Easter-related shapes after some hardcore negotiating, and Billy went AWOL as soon as they hit the oven, regaining interest only once the final iced product was ready for consumption. I was dangerously cranky from being marooned by my sous chef, denied chocolate chippers, and faced with cleaning flour off of everything, so it was fortunate for everyone involved, including Becky, that they were surprisingly worth the effort and agonizing patience I had invested. A hint of lemon really does elevate the old girl to a new class rank. Having tried about a hundred different sugar cookie recipes, I was impressed in spite of my grim expectations, so much so that these are now my standards, though I was never completely content with my previous go-to.

A note on the quantity produced: the reasonable, slightly health-conscious (as in, what will keep me from dying this year) adult in you will appreciate the modest batch-size; the plump, sugar-addicted ten-year old girl in you who just learned how to make half a batch of vanilla cake batter to eat raw in an emergency snack-attack will curse the measly yield even as she gloms down the first dozen. I discourage you from inferring any whisper of autobiography in these last lines.

Remember when “America” was synonomous with “exotic?” Neither do I.

Charlatan Cookies

I wondered what would happen if Jess D and I ever got together and did some baking, and now I know: five extra pounds and some blood sugar tests. She posted this link from BeckyBakes to my Facebook page several weeks ago, and I had the same initial impression as the author, a Bart Simpson-like shudder at the conceived marriage of a home-made and a store-bought cookie. We agreed that they’d either be awesome or inedible. Unfortunately for our waistlines, they fall into that can’t-have-just-one category, which would be fine, except that they’re gargantuan.

I decided to attempt the recipe with mini-Oreos instead, aiming to achieve a three-inch diameter at most, but what is meant to be a cookie-covered Oreo became more of a “surprise cookie,” suggesting that the original is perfect in its enormity, rather like Jeff Garlin.

Thank goodness that’s over with.

Triple-Chocolate Bullies

Two weeks after the extraction of my new minions and I’m back to my old self, though with a bit more on my plate. My second c-section was even more pleasant than the first, if that’s possible, and I took advantage of the hospital nursery during my stay this time, returning home delightfully rested and cheerfully perc’d. I’ve just made the switch over to Tylenol, bidding adieu to the two-week prescription party, and my taste buds have fully recovered. Billy the Kid and I celebrated the grand reopening of the oven last night with a brand new cookie that quickly took all the Peñas down a few pegs. A thin crisp shell immediately yields to a brownie-cake hybrid that keeps the sweetness understated and spotlights the saltiness sublimely.

1 C butter, room temperature
3/4 C sugar
3/4 brown sugar, packed
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
2 C flour
1/2 C cocoa
2 oz unsweetened chocolate
12 oz chocolate chips

Set your oven to 375. Melt 1/2 stick of butter with the unsweetened chocolate over low heat. Cream together the remaining butter and sugar until fluffy, then blend in the brown sugar and mix until combined. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat vigorously until even. Stir in the melted chocolate and butter. Dump the dry ingredients in and mix the dough until everything’s incorporated, resulting in a rather unseemly dark brown, sticky mess. Finally, stir in the totally unnecessary chocolate chips. Drop the dough by rounded teaspoons onto sheets, and bake these bad boys one batch at a time for 9 minutes. Cool on wire racks, and impress the hell out of anyone who said you’d be too busy with babies to make any goddamn cookies.

Those 1000 extra calories aren’t going to eat themselves.

The Day Is Mine Chocolate Chip Cookies

About once a month I make an impromptu variation on the Tollhouse Chocolate Chipper. In my never-abating quest for superiority, I assume that mine will be the face behind its eventual perfection, at which point everyone will jot down my recipe and we can all move on to other culinary ventures. Usually my experiments yield cookies that are fine, but with a lowercase “f.” But endeavor is never a waste, and I’m able to take advantage of Billy the Kid’s not yet fully developed palate to move the mediocre product. This afternoon, however, I created a most magnificent monster, a complete departure from my signature butter-crisp version, but a delicious bastard indeed.

At fifteen I began a several-year career with the burger tycoon known within the industry as The Monarch, and back when a pack of Old Golds went for $1.85, Burger King’s menu offered a chocolate chip cookie that I believe was supplied by one Mrs. Fields. I spent the summer after my senior year waking up at 4 AM five out of seven mornings to scoop lard into industrial deep-fryers and ready the palace for its throngs of noble patrons. I fully believe in getting one’s due out of the employment contract, and as my morning ritual continued and I placed the mandated dozen frozen balls of dough into the very specific and very branded tiny oven, I’d throw in an extra six to hide behind the tomatoes and sustain me throughout my shift. They were the best cookies I’ve ever eaten, nuanced with the most indulgent of all secret ingredients: sneaky.

These cookies bring me right back to my bad girl days of dark lipstick, Colt 45’s, too much eyeliner and pink hair. Oh, to be young and ridiculous.

1-1/2 stick butter (3/4 C)
1/4 C shortening
3/4 C sugar
3/4 C dark brown sugar, packed
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
2-1/4 C flour
1-1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 bag Toll House Semi Sweet Morsels

I hate it as much as anyone, but for the best cookies, all ingredients, including eggs, must be at room temperature before beginning. I didn’t microwave the butter as I sometimes do, and I suggest you rock these old school as well. So, set your oven to 375, but not before the butter easily accommodates a poking.

Cream together the butter and shortening, then add the white sugar and continue mashing until completely blended. Add the brown sugar and disperse, then beat in the eggs and vanilla until everything’s consistent. Stir in the flour, salt and soda with a hefty wooden spoon, as this dough gets thick enough to snap a dollar-store utensil. Once all loose flour has been incorporated, stir in the chocolate chips until the mass has an even distribution.

Form the dough into 1-1/2″ balls and space 2″ apart on cookie sheets before flattening just slightly. Bake single sheets at 375 for 12 minutes (10 minutes for extra soft). Cool the finished cookies on the sheets for three minutes before transferring to a wire rack until room temperature. These should be stored in an air-tight container as they crisp quickly, and the chewy middle must be preserved!

I need to fill the void. Literally, my new cake plate’s empty.

The Rolo Cookie

It seldom occurs to me to combine cookies and candy, but I happened to flip past the card for these in my recipe book earlier this evening, and within half an hour Mr. P was heading out to get Rolo’s and butter while I flash-bathed Billy the Kid. My supportive and helpful husband made it to the counter with milk, paper towel, butter and the candy, when he heard “that’s a lot of Rolo’s you got there,” from the local 7/11 fly, who got so excited upon learning that they were for the cookies, Mr. P had to drive around the block twice to avoid unexpected entertaining.

Almost everyone has had these at a kid’s party or bake-sale: the chocolate, brownie-ish cookie surrounding a melted disc of caramel. I have a feeling that if these aren’t worthy of, a version substituting butter cubes for the candy would be a shoe-in. Might I suggest that you wait until an opportunity for sharing presents itself before making these to avoid serious self-loathing and distension.

2-1/2 C flour
3/4 C cocoa
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 C sugar
1 C brown sugar
1 C butter, softened
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla
40 Rolo’s

Cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy, then mix in the brown sugar until everything’s the same color. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat until the mixture is smooth. Mix the dry ingredients in a medium bowl before adding to the batter, and stir with a spoon until it’s easier to just go in with your hands. Combine and knead until a dough forms, continually rubbing the mass along the inside of the bowl to incorporate all the dry ingredients. Shape the dough into a ball, wrap it in foil or plastic, and stick it in the fridge for half and hour.

Set your oven to 375. Roll the dough into 1″ balls, then flatten slightly and press a Rolo into the center. Shape the dough around the candy so that it’s completely hidden. Roll the loaded balls in granulated sugar to coat, and place them at least 2″ apart. Bake single sheets for 8 to 10 minutes, then transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool. I’d advise you to wait 5 whole minutes before biting into recently 350-degree liquid sugar, but some lessons have to be learned the hard way.

It’s been two weeks, let’s have some cookies.

A New Class of Chocolate Chippers

Every now and then my compulsive-compulsive tendency triggers a flash frenzy of impromptu baking, and when wound adequately tight, I sometimes disregard the golden rule of preemptively laying out all ingredients. This almost always results in either disaster or overwhelming mediocrity, but my most recent bout of inappropriate zeal inadvertently delivered my Toll House Chocolate Chippers to an entirely new level. My usual variation follows the package recipe but cuts the flour by 1/4 C, increases the salt, and, if budget allows, uses the good vanilla. I almost can’t believe I notice a difference with cage-free/natural eggs, and it may be nothing more than the absence of bitter guilt, but I do.

Having creamed the sugar and butter, I opened the cupboard to grab the light brown sugar, of which there was none. I caught myself just in time with a “son of a biscuit!” as I remembered Billy the Kid’s presence, and proceeded with a stiff upper lip and dark brown instead, since going to bed early is no longer an option when I’m confronted with adversity. In an additional kick to the apron, time seemed to have gotten away from me, and the dinner hour threatened to usurp the oven mid-bake, so I made the cookies three times the standard household size. The first cynical bite unexpectedly transported me to the ultra thin, crisp yet chewy, more buttery than sweet middle-upper class, and I realized that, a: I’d like to get back there as soon as possible, and b: this cookie is screaming for branding.

2 C flour
1 1/4 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 sticks/1 C salted butter
3/4 C sugar
3/4 C dark brown sugar
2 cage-free/natural eggs
2 tsp Bourbon vanilla paste
1 12-oz pkg/2 C Nestle Toll House Semi-Sweet Chocolate Morsels

Set your oven to 375. Put the butter on a small plate and microwave it for about 25 seconds to get it soft, but stop as soon as it starts to melt. Toss it into a large mixing bowl with the sugar and cream until fluffy, then add the brown sugar and combine until the color’s even throughout. Add the eggs and vanilla, and beat by hand until it’s smooth. Stir in the flour, baking soda and salt, and mix it up until the sides and bottom of the bowl are clean, then incorporate the chocolate chips. Spoon the dough onto cookie sheets, into 2 1/2″ roundish piles. You’ll get about 6 per 14 x 16 sheet, and I highly recommend these after using the same pair for over 3 years with consistently outstanding results. Bake single sheets for 13 minutes, but check in at 10. As Mr. S would say, “when they look delicious, they’re done.”

One more cookie for the road…

Snow-Covered Chocolate Cookies

This year’s holiday baking week was unprecedentedly productive, encompassing sugar cookies, gingerbread persons, Russian teacakes, and pumpkin patties, but the diva of the whole production was definitely this little double-chocolate strumpet. Unabashedly rich, crunchy on the surface, velvety and chewy underneath, and the whole thing’s covered in a bracer of powdered sugar. We barely had enough for all of the tinned assortments, as Mr. P and Billy the Kid proved unable to contain themselves. Try as they did to be subtle, the white mustaches and black gum lines were dead giveaways.

8 oz bittersweet chocolate
1 1/4 C flour
1/2 C cocoa
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 stick/1/2 C butter
1 1/2 C packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1/3 C milk
powdered sugar

Set your oven to 350. Melt the chocolate and 2 tbsp butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Cream together the rest of the butter and the brown sugar until fluffy, then beat in the eggs and vanilla. Stir in the melted chocolate. Dump in the flour, baking powder, salt, cocoa and milk, and stir it up until it forms a sticky dough. You’ll have to dive in with your hands eventually.

Put 1/2 C sugar into a small bowl, and 1/2 C powdered sugar into another. Form the dough into 1 1/2″ balls. Roll each in the sugar, then coat completely with powdered sugar. Space at least 2″ apart on cookie sheets, and bake single batches for about 14 minutes (check the first batch at 12 just in case). Cool them on the rack for 3 minutes, then transfer them to a wire rack to cool completely.

To save you some time as Christmas nears, I’ll suggest that you double the recipe if you have any drive-by snackers on the premises. I overlooked that variable, and will be making round two tomorrow.

Never let toddlers decorate outgoing cookies.

Tastefully Understated Gingerbread Cookies

It’s extremely difficult to find a recipe for gingerbread cookies that doesn’t assume you want to bake in bulk. Merry Christmas.

3 C flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 C / 1 stick butter
1/2 C dark brown sugar
1 tbsp  cinnamon
2 tsp powdered ginger
3/4 tsp cloves
1 tsp salt
1 large egg, plus 1 egg white for brushing
1/2 C molasses (unsulphured)
nonpareils (white or multicolored)

Cream together the butter and sugar, then add the egg and, after incorporated, the molasses. Stir vigorously until the mixture is uniform in color. Mix the dry ingredients in a separate bowl. I usually omit this step if called for in a recipe, but it’s important when you have various minuscule amounts of spices. Stir the dry ingredients into the wet, using a wooden spoon as far as it will take you, then kneading with your hands to form a dough. Wrap it up and stick in the fridge for an hour.

Set your oven to 350. Once you’ve cut out cookies somewhere in the 1/8″ thickness neighborhood (I assume I don’t need to walk you through flouring a surface and using a rolling pin), place them on sheets, spacing at least 1″ apart. Lightly beat the egg white and brush a thin film onto each cookie, then sprinkle with nonpareils. Bake single batches at 350 for 10 minutes, then leave them on the sheet for 1 minute before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely. Seriously, use the rack; if you’re passing out warped cookies, you’d have been better off buying everyone a bag of Chips A’Hoy.

While baking is a wonderful activity to share with small children, we must don our USDA hats when preparing food intended for consumption beyond our immediate family. Tiny fingers are tempted easily by tiny nostrils, and every time you look away from your little angel, you risk adding nasal contents, hair, and a variety of other unsolicited enhancements to your ingredients list.

Billy the Kid has his own prep station next to, but clearly defined from mine, and he stands on a chair while we work to ensure that he can’t reach far enough over to contaminate my sterile field. When “we” make cookies, I give him a small piece of dough to play with and make his own for decorating. He seems to appreciate the independence, especially after I’ve given him the all-clear to start eating the scattered nonpareils. Once a child is old enough to process the yuck factor of germs, they can bake for an audience. Until then, I advise you to employ these or similar means of keeping adorable but potentially filthy hands off.

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