Here We Go Again: On Letting Go and Sugar Cookies

At work

No, it’s not the earthquakes.  And certainly nothing to do with ABBA.

It’s birthday time in the Fagan household. Again. And, in fact, from now through until some time in September.

Francesca has just turned 9.  I am left wandering and wondering.  Where did my little baby go? Will the next 9 years go just as quickly?  Will she still need me then?

But no time for existential crises, because the birthday party is on Saturday.

(Or could it be that the purpose of children’s birthday parties is really to distract mothers from the grief of watching their children progress along the inexorable journey to independence and their own impending redundancy?  OK, maybe not, but I’m glad of it just the same.)

Francesca would like a garden fairy party just like the one her 5 year old sister had.

If you find this at all odd, let me tell you, right here and right now, how glad I am that my little girl still wants to be a little girl, and how vast my relief that the influence of all the tweenie garbage we try hard but still fail to avoid has been negligible.  Ditto the influence of some of her more worldly friends.  Let me tell you how good it feels when she still likes to climb up on my knee for a cuddle, or gives me her hand to hold as we walk along the road together, both literally and figuratively.

So go the fairies.  Long may they last.

If you’ve been with me from the beginning (not quite two months ago), you may remember my 24 hour crisis before Lydia’s birthday. For a reminder, please read here for the crisis, or here for the aftermath.

This time I have a full three days to go.  Left to my own devices, I would almost certainly find a way to fall behind into the exact same 24 hour crisis. I always do. But, Gentle Reader, with you as my conscience, I might just manage the sensible approach this time around.

So I started this afternoon with the item I always mean to make, but seldom get around to: cut sugar cookies.

When I was a toddler my great grandmother used to make these all the time.  She would bring out her green-rimmed enamel bowl (which I still have) and a wooden spoon.  She sat in the corner of her kitchen on a stool made out of an old fruit crate with a neatly sewn cloth cover (move over Eames, we call it refugee chic).  With the bowl on her lap she would get to work creaming the butter and sugar.

My babushka’s lap was the perfect height for me.  I loved watching that mixture grow fluffier just beneath my nose.  She would even let me taste a little. Then came my favourite part, watching the eggs going in, one at a time:  the crack of the shell, the egg slopping around the bowl, separating the butter and sugar into ever increasing layers, until at last the orange of the yolk was assimilated and the two became one.

When Francesca was very small I made a batch of little doggie cookies for her party. They were white with black spots and a red collar, just like our own Brutus, the world’s friendliest dog.

Brutus

The next time I went to make them, Brutus had lost a leg after trying to make friends with a car in a 70km zone.  In addition to the fiddly icing job, there was really no choice but to go around and snap the hind legs off all the little mini-Bruti. It was a matter of solidarity. I think my husband got the off-cuts. One trusts similar arrangement did not apply at the vets.

I just managed a batch for Lydia’s party, but ran out of time to ice them. It made for a great impromptu party activity, so much so that this time cookie icing is a planned activity.  I’ve stocked up on all kinds of sprinkles and writing icing, and a big polka dot oil cloth for the kitchen table.  I’m even looking forward to it myself.

In life there are recipes you come across and then keep going back to.  Like the stereotypical adulterer, you stray once in a while, but at the end of the day, you always go home.

By the time I became a young wife, my great grandmother’s recipe was long gone, but a random honeymoon purchase while visiting my husband’s family in the US provided a very serviceable replacement.  Same smell, same taste, same texture. The dough is well behaved, you won’t need to roll out between sheets of baking paper. I still like them best slightly burnt at the edges.  And I still haven’t found a recipe to beat it.

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This book is out of print.  New copies are advertised on Amazon at ridiculous prices, but a reasonably priced second hand copy would make a worthwhile addition to the collection of a baker with an interest in Americana.

As these cookies are both very popular and keep very well, I have doubled it. My version follows. If you have a stand mixer, this is a good time to use it.

Sugar Cookies Just Like Babushka’s

A recipe with notes for the uninitiated.

  • 225g (2 sticks) butter
  • 2c sugar regular, or for a more refined result, castor
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2-3 tsp vanilla extract or essence
  • pinch of salt
  • 3 1/2 c plain flour

1. Warm the butter until it is well softened but not melted.  Beat until light in colour, then add the sugar and continue beating until the mixture is light and fluffy.

2. Add the eggs one at at time, beating after each egg until it is completely assimilated.  Add the salt and vanilla and beat them in.

3. Beat in the flour and work until you have a soft homogeneous dough.

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4. You have likely observed that this dough is so soft that it is unworkable.  Don’t worry, 1/2 an hour in the fridge is about to fix that.  First tip the dough out onto a board, divide into four even sections.  Flatten each section, wrap in glad wrap and pop in the fridge for anywhere between 30 minutes and two days.

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I emphasis this flattening part.  It is important because:

  • Your dough chills more quickly and more evenly.
  • Anyone who has ever gone up against a cold ball of dough armed only with a stubborn nature and a rolling pin can tell you this will make the rolling a whole lot easier.
  • Finally, if you are going to leave the dough in the fridge for longer than 30 minutes, you may need to let it warm up a little bit before you try to roll it (you want the dough firm, not rock hard).  This also goes more quickly and more evenly if you’ve made a disc.

5. When you are ready to roll, preheat your oven to 160 C or about 320 F.  Unless you have completely lost your mind, line your cookie sheets with non-stick baking paper.

6. Roll the dough.  You want to do this using the bare minimum of flour you need to stop the dough from sticking.  This is because the extra flour works its way into the dough and will dull the flavour and texture. Since you are working from nice flat discs, this will be easy. Dust your rolling surface lightly.  It should look something like this:

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You can add more as you go along if necessary. Rub a little flour over the rolling pin too.

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Roll in gentle increments.  Rotate dough 90 deg every few strokes, sprinkling a little more flour if it looks like it’s thinking of sticking.  Stop when it’s about 5mm or 3/16th” thick.  And yes, of course you can roll between layers of baking paper or cling wrap if you really want to, you just don’t have to.

7. Time to cut out.  This goes much more easily if the dough doesn’t stick to the cutter. Shapes with very tight angles or narrow sections are the enemy.  But regardless the shape of your cutter, dipping it in flour regularly will help.

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The other thing you can do in the war against adding too much flour is to reduce the number of times you re roll your dough scraps. Some people just throw them out, but I can’t countenance the waste.

Take care how you position each cut and you can cut down the amount of scrap and re-rolling a lot. Some shapes also make it easier.  Hearts and Christmas trees are good shapes for cutting efficiency.  Stars and shapes which are irregular or have a protruding outline, not so much.  I can see that this shoe cutter shaped cutter is going to be another good one – there’s not going to be much waste except for the gap between sole and heel and for the border around the edge of the dough..

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8.  Lay the shapes out on your baking tray well spaced in an even pattern.  This is not just because of my disturbing love of order.  It does actually help them to bake more evenly.  If you can, bake just one shape per tray. If you can’t, at least try to keep to cookies of similar size and shape.  Smaller cookies tend to brown more quickly than the big ones (yes, even when the dough is all the same thickness).  Likewise little bits around edges (things like bunny tails) will brown more quickly than plain shapes like circles.  Keeping like with like will save you a lot of uneven baking.

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9. Was a time I used to throw the first tray into the oven as soon as I could and let it get started as I frantically rolled out the next one.  And I still do if I’m in my usual last minute flap.  Be warned.  These cookies have a high sugar content.  They will look raw for so long, all of a sudden they are ready and then a moment later they are burned.  So take the pressure off yourself and get as many trays as you can ready first so that you won’t be distracted.

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10.  At this point I would like to mention my cookie sheets.  A few years ago I needed a couple of extras, and bought a couple of these Chicago Metallic trays from Moore Wilson. Since then I only use the old ones in emergency (don’t ask).

A set of 5 works well (three in the oven and two at hand), particularly when I’m doing a lot of yeast baking (it needs to rise on the sheet), or when there’s a lot of cookie baking going on.

They are relatively heavy making for more even cooking.  The rim means that baking around the edge of the sheets doesn’t catch as quickly as it otherwise might.  You can use them for jobs like roasting vegetables for big family dinners or salads. The other bonus is that you can stack them up on top of each other when bench space is at a premium.  See above.

When I’m not looking, the Sainted Husband has been known to use them to cook bacon. This has not improved the non-stick properties of the trays.  Luckily for all concerned I use the non-stick parchment anyway.  (The Sainted Husband points out that he has seen the error of his ways and no longer subjects my cookie sheets to these horrors.)

11. Bake for about 10 minutes or as long as it takes to get a pale golden cookie.  You may need to rotate your trays part way through. If your oven has hot spots you are about to find out exactly where they are.

I usually put in three trays at once. Once the top one is done, I move the lower two trays up, turning them as I go, and pop a fresh tray in the bottom rack.  Works as well as anything.  If they come out a bit over done, try and get them off the tray and on to a cooling rack as soon as you can.  They do keep cooking on the trays.

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I don’t think I turned this tray.  Cookie front right is pallid, cookie left back is overdone. Cookies in columns 2 to 4 of rows 4 and five, and in columns 1 and 2 of rows 2 to 4 look about right (columns counted left to right, rows front to back).

12.  I used to re-roll as I went,taking the scraps from my current lot and adding them to the next lot of fresh dough.  Not surprisingly my first couple of lots would be the best and by the time I got to the end, it wasn’t looking so good.  Now I put aside all the scraps as I go and re roll them together once all the first time dough has been used. I think the dough holds up much better this way.

13.  When the cookies first come out of the oven they might be quite soft.  Give them a few minutes to set, then transfer to a cooling rack.  When they are quite cool, put them into an airtight container until you are ready to eat or ice.  I like them better without any icing, but three people in my household say otherwise.

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I think these matriyoshka shapes could make good mummies come Halloween. And if I ever see more of these high rise cooling racks I’ll buy them.  Another bench space saver during baking seasons.

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Explaining the mystery of the unicorn: this is what happens when you get called away to something else.  They taste really good, but the guests won’t be seeing any.  Should we start a petition to stop the slaughter now?

14. According to the original, this recipe should make about 8 dozen cookies.  Clearly it depends on the size of the cookie.  I find it easier to think that each quarter portion should about fill a tray, and to count on about 1 1/2 trays worth out of the re-rolled scraps.

This time around the recipe yielded:

  • 16 crowns
  • 9 unicorns
  • 16 shoes
  • 12 flowers  (to form bottom half of sandwiched biscuit)
  • 12 flowers with holes cut out (to form top half of sandwich)
  • 13 small mushrooms
  • 4 teapots
  • 7 cupcakes
  • 5 medium sized matriyoshka (babushka) dolls
  • 8 little matriyoshkas

102 or 8.5 dozen cookies – one of the few recipes ever known to stipulate anything resembling an accurate yield.  Respect.

Hopefully this should be enough to keep a dozen kiddies and assorted adults out of trouble for a while.

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Survivor: The Little Kids’ Party

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They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  They say a lot of things.

We made it, but it was tight, very tight, early 80’s jeans tight.  The kind of tight where eating is ill-advised and sitting down entirely out of the question.

Now anyone who’s had a baby knows that sleep is actually optional and that 5 hours is a veritable sleep in.  Unfortunately nobody told my cough that, so I’m back to hacking like a one woman TB clinic.

Plus I might have been a bit not very nice to my sainted husband sometime (continuously) between about 11pm  Friday and 2:30pm Saturday.  That would be about the same time that I swore never even to think about entering Masterchef, My Kitchen Rules, or any other cooking competition involving time challenges, ever.  (This in case I ever suffer a moment of sufficiently complete self-delusion to think I might be a contender.)

But it’s OK because the birthday girl loved her party and my husband, may he have many good wives, has forgiven me … again.

Was it all as planned?  Not entirely, but perhaps actually better.

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The Strawberry & Sprinkles Toadstool cake turned out fine, but a word to the wise:  if you’re going to bake a pink tinted cake, forget the sprinkles.  Only the blue and green ones show up and then you get these little white dots in the crust, all contributing to the overall impression of rampant bread mould.  The cake fairy ornaments went into hiding, but Lydia was too excited to notice.  I figure no harm, no foul.

We did the chocolate cupcakes with marshmallow flowers, even if the sparkly glitter didn’t quite show up quite as much as I would’ve liked.  I was short on time to make separate chocolate buttercream, so you’ll see I used the leftover from the toadstool instead.

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The cheese and tomato baby toadstool canape worked-ish.  They were a challenge to keep upright.  I should have piped the mayo spots on with a little zip-lock bag rather than dabbing manically with a pointy teaspoon handle, but overall they were still effective. Given free will, do small children eat tomatoes and cheese sticks? Not at all. So it’s probably just as well I canned the little crackers with lady birds made from tomatoes and olives.  The dog did quite well enough as it was.

Tomato and Cheese Toadstools

I also ran out of time to do the cheesey snail pastries and the sausage rolls.  By this I mean I could have done both if I’d used the emergency back up bought frozen sausage rolls and tried making the snails using pre-rolled puff pastry and grated parmesan.  Worse things have happened.  But the yeasty sausage rolls are a bit of a favourite.

They also say that necessity is the mother of invention.  Mostly I find myself thinking that necessity is just a real mother, but sometimes they get it right.  So we had yeasty snail-shaped sausage rolls.

The dough is quick to make and very, very forgiving.  You don’t need to let it rise.  Time having been exceeding short, the snails you see below represent a very rushed first attempt.  I have no doubt that, given an extra 15 minutes they could have been much prettier.  As it was, the results were not too shabby.

Snails before

Snails after uncropped

Now what do you do when you’ve managed to bake the cookies, but run out of time to do the fancy icing?  No worries. You now have a new party activity.  The children (and some of the adults) just loved this.

Make up two or three bowls of runny icing – icing sugar with a little boiling water from the kettle will do just fine.  Put out any leftover cake icing, rifle your pantry for sprinkles, cachous, jelly (jello) crystals and tubes of writing icing, stray candies and put it all out on the bench. Use plates or cold baking trays (cookie sheets) to accommodate the new creations, but remember that a high proportion of cookies will never make it that far.  Once the kids got bored, some of the parents had a go too.  Happy guests, happy Mummy and bonus: I’ve got this week’s tick for my commitment to weekly hands on cooking for the girls.

Little hands at work

Decorated Sugar Cookies

A couple of games of musical statues, afternoon tea and present opening, and it was pretty much over.  Family and very good friends stayed on.  We got take aways, kicked back and caught up.  Once we got all the little ones to bed, I curled up on the sofa in front of TV with the sainted husband, very tired, but good tired, and drifted off to sleep.

Did the kids like it? I’d say so.  Francesca has requested an identical party when she turns nine, so that’s one fan at least.

Lydia turns 5

In case you feel like trying the sausage roll snails, or anything else where you think yeast pastry would do nicely, here’s the recipe.  It has its genesis in a recipe from one of my favourite Russian/former Soviet cookbooks, Please to the Table by Anya von Bremzen and John Welchman.

This batch yielded enough dough for about 2 dozen snails and 40 odd more conventional rolls made by taking half a cheese kransky sausgage (c. 5cm or 2″ long and about 1.25cm or 1/2″ thick) and rolling it diagonally across a square of pastry about 5cm/2″ square.

Easy Yeast Dough

Ingredients:

2 1/3c milk

4 tsp sugar

2 tbsp dried yeast

1c (225g or 2 sticks) butter (you can substitute vegetable oil in this dough, but for this I’d stick with the butter)

2 eggs

1 tsp salt

flour, preferably high grade/strong/bread flour between 6 and 8 cups (c. 750g to 1kg or 1 3/4 to 21/4 lb)

1kg or 2lb kransky, choritzo or similar thin smoked sausage

Note: If you prefer a shorter (less bready, richer) pastry, reduce the milk to 1 1/3c and increase the butter/oil to 2c (450g or 2 sticks).

Method:

1. Warm the milk until it is just blood temperature.  If you use the microwave be sure to stir  through before you check the temperature – sometimes you can miss a hot pocket and unwittingly end up milk which is too hot (kills your yeast), or which is hot at the surface, but really not very warm otherwise (yeast might not work very quickly).

2. In a large bowl, whisk the sugar into the milk until dissolved.  Add the yeast.  Just sprinkle over the surface and let it re-hydrate, or, if like me you lack the patience and want to be sure to avoid dry yeasty lumps, whisk it in.  Let it stand until it fluffs up: now you know you are working with live yeast.

3. While the yeast is doing the fluffy thing, warm the butter until it is just melted (or be prepared to wait while it cools).  Beast into the fluffy yeast mix together with the eggs and salt.

4. Once blended, add the flour, starting in 2 cup lots, then after 6 cups have been added, in smaller quantities until you have a soft dough that comes away from the sides.  Start with a wooden spoon.  Once the mixture is getting close to forming a dough, knead by hand.

5. Turn it onto a lightly floured bench and knead briefly.  Use immediately or cover and let it rise for a little. Cut into three or four sections (depending on what you find manageable) and roll out into sheets somewhere between 3 and 5mm (1/8 and 2/8″) thick.

For snails:

6. Trim the bottom edge of the pastry sheet.  Line up kransky sausages about 2cm or 1″ in from the edge, keeping them close so that there is no gap between saugages.  Trim the sides of the pastry sheet in line with each end of the sausage line up. Roll the bottom edge of the dough up over the sausage and then keep rolling the lot until the dough has wrapped around the sausages twice.

7. Trim the top edge of the pastry so that you are left with about 4 to 5cm (1 1/2 to 2″) of unrolled pastry. This will form the body and head of each snail.  Slice the dough cross wise into 2cm or 3/4″ slices.  Fold some of the unrolled pastry back towards the rolled section and pinch on each side to make feelers.  Glaze with an egg yolk beaten with a little water if you like.  Bake at about 195 C or  385 F until golden brown.

For plain sausage rolls (pigs in blankets):

8. Take half a sausage (c. 5cm or 2″ long and about 1.25cm or 1/2″ thick) and roll it diagonally across a square of pastry about the same size as the length (so in this case about 5cm or 2″ square), wrapping the dough around the sausage piece as you go. Glaze and bake as above.

9. This dough can also be used to make pizza pinwheels for school lunches (roll out dough into a rectangle, spread with a layer of tomato paste, sprinkle with cheese and sliced ham or salami, roll up tightly swiss (jelly) roll style and cut into 1.25cm 1/2″ slices.  Arrange on a tray and backe as per 7. above), or to make piroshki – but for that we need a separate post.

24: Guilt, Toadstools and Abject Panic

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Call Kiefer.  I’ve got a new story line for 24.  This one will promise pace, action, and all the stress you could possibly want.  Did I mention danger?  Just try stepping into my kitchen over the next day or two …   Forget kevlar: Jack Bauer had best wear his favourite pinny.

See, I’ve got the flu.  Well not really.  I had influenza a couple of years back and this is not it. This is, however, quite bad enough thanks. Life has been less than lavish. Bits of my face are there that ought not to be and I’ve been coughing so hard it makes me giddy.  Not in a girlish, happy kind of way.  Everything aches.  The room is too hot, no, too cold, no, too hot…  

Anyway, I’m grumpy.  The timing could hardly be worse.  Lydia turns 5 this weekend. I have already ruined her last week at kindergarten by being unable to show to do Tuesday’s star cookie baking session (to tie in with the children’s Matariki celebrations).

I spent most of the preceding Monday night worrying that I wouldn’t be well enough to perform. And guess what?   I would be, beyond any possible redemption, a really, really bad mother.  I was letting down my Lydia.  Between school and kindy, I’d done four cooking sessions with her big sister.  Lydia would think I didn’t love her as much, she would suffer middle child angst in life-changing proportions.  Yes, one batch of cookies can have that much power.

Well, in the end we figured it wouldn’t hurt for Lydia to delay her school start for one day to allow one last cookie inclusive kindy Tuesday.  Crisis averted.  Temporarily.

But it took until Thursday to be well enough to contemplate a trip out for essential supplies.  Today is Friday and I have exactly 24 hours and 36 minutes to pull a Garden Fairy Princess birthday party from nowhere.  And believe me, these babies do not make themselves.

Let’s bypass the self-recriminations about the stuff I could have made and frozen weeks ago but didn’t because I thought there was plenty of time.  (Grrrrrrrrrrr)  Let’s not even talk about the parents that have not  R.s.v.p.ed to my admittedly late invitations, leaving me with no idea how many dinky little cupcakes and treat bags I need.  (Grrrrrrrrrrissimo)

There is the special request toadstool birthday cake.  I’m cool with that, but apparently this one needs to be rainbow coloured within.  Not in layers you understand.  Just within the one cake. (No, I stand corrected.  That was last week.  Now it is to be pink and strawberry flavoured with multi-coloured sprinkles throughout, and thank goodness for small mercies,  except that now I can’t bake the blasted thing without another shopping trip.)

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There are to be ladybird crackers, little canape that look like baby toadstools, snail-shaped cheese pastries and butterfly cookies.  Sausage rolls and flower cupcakes, glittery ones.  Then, as the birthday girl is a garden fairy princess, there are the costumes, table decorations, lanterns, streamers, treat bags, all that kind of thing.

And why?

Has Lydia demanded it?  No.  She would like the cake and the butterfly cookies, but like most persons her age, as long as there is a potato chip and some sticky icing in the offing, her needs are met.

There are the pictures she has seen on my Pinterest board.  But who put them there?  I did.

Did Lydia buy and devour the Donna Hay kids edition each year for the last 6 or 7 years?  No, though the girls do like looking at the pictures after Mummy is done.  Does she troll through Martha Stewart on-line looking for cute touches?  No. That would be me.

And would I think less of any parent who ordered in pizza and chips?  No.  Do I look down on parties had at bowling allies and skating rinks?  Certainly not.

So why?  Because in a life where I constantly wish I could do more and better for my children, there is that one special day that is all theirs.  Because cooking is one particular medium through which generations of women have expressed love for their families. And because, as my mate Maryanne Cathro says, one of the best things you can hope to leave your children is a stash of good memories to see them through the sometimes dark days of adulthood.

So, once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more…