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Friday, December 31, 2010

End of Year Clean Up

It's a quiet day here in the kitchen, a good time to clear out a few things and be ready for a new year of cooking and hospitality.

Sometime between Halloween and Thanksgiving, I bought a lovely little pie pumpkin for $1.88 and had used it as the center of a harvest time arrangement on my new cabinets. When the Christmas decorations took over, the pumpkin was relegated to a back corner, waiting for a time to be baked. The idea had been to tuck it into the oven when baking other things but, somehow, I always managed to forget to put it in. I did bake half a dozen of the mini pumpkins from my daughter-in-law's garden last week, and that went very well, so I certainly needed to get this full sized pie pumpkin baked before it passes its prime. With the oven on all afternoon yesterday for the last of the Christmas (or, now, holiday) sweet breads, the time was right.

Baking a pie pumpkin is really so easy, I don't know why I put it off. Today, the seeds are roasting, another easy thing to do, and timely too, just in time for New Year's Eve snacking.


Pie Pumpkin Puree

When pumpkins are in the market, look for those marked specifically as pie pumpkins for best results. (Jack o lantern pumpkins are edible, but often are more watery and less flavorful overall.) They usually run about two to four pounds each.

When ready to bake, cut each pumpkin in half and remove the seeds. I have found using a fork to run through the centers is the easiest way to pull the seeds out. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and place on a baking pan or cookie sheet with sides. If desired for easier clean up of the pan, put a small amount of water in the pan.

Place the pumpkins in a 350 degree oven for about an hour or so, until they are very soft and tender. The length of time can vary depending on the thickness of the flesh and the specific variety of pumpkin. When done, remove from the oven and keep covered until cool.

Using a large metal spoon, scoop out the flesh. Don't worry if some of the edges have gotten a little roasted looking in the cooking; that will just add to depth of flavor. (If charred, however, you probably should remove the dark parts--and turn the oven down a little next time!)

While the flesh can just be mashed with a fork or potato masher, you may also want to run it through a processor or blender for extra smoothness. Measure into one or two cup portions, depending on the recipes you plan to use the pumpkin in, and freeze.

This same method works for miniature pumpkins, but the time in the oven may be only half an hour or so.

Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

As you remove the seeds from the pumpkin, put them in a bowl and cover with water. Using your fingers, pull the seeds away from the oh so slithery fiber strands surrounding them--this is a great job for kids who are into all kinds of squishy things!

Rinse the seeds and then just cover with water. Stir in about a quarter to a half cup of salt for every two or three cups of water--don't worry about really exact proportions.

Set the seeds aside overnight; there is no need to refrigerate unless your kitchen is very warm.

In the morning, drain the seeds in a colander. Spread on a baking sheet and add about a tablespoon or so of canola oil for every cup of seeds along with seasoning of your choice--garlic or onion powder, a small amount of seasoning salt, even chili powder or cayenne pepper if you like your snacks spicy. Stir the oil and seasonings into the seeds with a wood spoon or your fingers, making sure all are coated well.

Bake at 250 to 275 about 40 minutes, until crisp and golden, stirring every 10 to 15 minutes. Store tightly covered.

As the seeds were roasting, I started soaking some black-eyed peas, using the quick method of boiling for 5 minutes and then soaking for a few hours instead of overnight. This is the first time I have ever tried them, but it seemed like a good time to try for some Hoppin' John for New Year's, since I have a beautiful bunch of collards to work with too. I must say that the aroma of the peas is much, much stronger than any of the many variety of beans and lentils I have made in the past. Maybe that is why so many of recipes pair them with strong greens and smoked pork cuts, things that can stand up to what may be a very hearty flavor. We shall see if they become an acquired taste or remain a one-time-now-I've-tried-them-so-I-know-what-they-are kind of dish.

About those holiday breads. I have been experimenting with some photos to add to a blog post to illustrate my "traditional" coffee cakes but I'm not quite ready to include the full recipe. The breads I made yesterday used the same basic sweet dough I use for everything from cinnamon rolls to these coffee cakes, but I made most of the batch into loaves with an apple-raisin-walnut filling--see the recipe below. I rolled out the dough for each loaf into a rectangle and spread it with the filling, then rolled it up like a fat jelly roll and put it in the pan. Each loaf was iced with a plain powdered sugar icing and then sprinkled with red and green sugars to keep it festive-looking. These should make some excellent breads, plain or toasted, for a couple of holiday weekend breakfasts.

The filling would be good in regular cinnamon rolls or in a filled cookie recipe as well. Cooked just a little longer in the microwave, until the apples are very soft, it could also be thinned with a little water and used as a topping for pancakes or waffles too.

Apple Raisin Walnut Filling

3 firmly packed cups apples--core but do not peel and chop finely; I used 2 Honey Gold and 2 Harrelson apples of medium size
1 c raisins
3/4 c sugar
1 T cinnamon
1 c coarsely chopped walnuts

Place all but the walnuts in a very large microwave safe bowl--the mixture will boil up so be sure the bowl is large enough. Cover loosely and microwave for 5 to 6 minutes, until the apples are just tender and the mixture has become quite bubbly. Stir once or twice while cooking.

Stir in the walnuts and allow to cool before spreading on the yeast dough. Makes enough for six to seven full-sized loaves of bread or 3 to 5 coffee cake rings, depending on their size.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Hearty Winter Meal

Here's a good meal for a snowy winter evening, a contrast to the many rich foods so common during this season. If you have leftover turkey from a Christmas dinner or turkey in the freezer from Thanksgiving, use that instead of the turkey thighs.

Southwestern Style Turkey Stew


Canola oil
2 turkey thighs, about 2 pounds
1 large onion, diced
1 c chopped celery
Garlic powder, salt, and seasoning salt to taste
1 c chopped bell pepper (optional)
Cumin and oregano to taste—a lot!!
15 oz can “chili-ready” diced tomatoes
1 c turkey or chicken broth
1 T sugar
1 T cider vinegar
2 c black beans (or 15 oz can), including liquid
12 to 16 oz frozen corn

1. Saute the onion and celery slowly in the oil. When very tender and golden, remove from the oil and put into the slow cooker.
2. Remove the skin and any excess fat from the thighs and brown them in the oil from the onion and celery. Sprinkle liberally with garlic powder and seasoning salt on both sides. Cover and simmer until the meat is very tender. Allow to cool enough to handle. Cut the meat off the bones and dice. Add to the slow cooker, along with the beans, corn, tomatoes, peppers, and other seasonings. Cover and cook on low for two to three hours.
3. Taste for seasoning after a few hours of simmering. I added about a teaspoon or two of mixed dried herbs (I used basil, marjoram, rosemary, and thyme), about a teaspoon or so, more garlic powder, more cumin, and seasoning salt.

The rest of the meal

A tossed salad or cole slaw makes a good side dish, and corn bread or rolls are good additions as well.

Dessert? I am blessed with a root-cellar-like garage, so have apples from the local orchards well into the winter. With plenty of garden raspberries in the freezer, I often turn to a mixture of these fruits for my dessert choices.

Apple Raspberry Upside Down Cake
Fruit layer:
2 c diced apples
1/2 c brown sugar
1 t cinnamon
10 to 12 oz frozen raspberries

Cake
1 white or yellow cake mix, two layer size
1 1/4 c water
2 eggs
2 T lemon juice
1 t cinnamon

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Spread the apples in the bottom of a 9 X 13 pan and cover with the brown sugar and cinnamon. Place in the preheated oven and bake about 10 to 15 minutes until the sugar has melted and caramelized over the apples. Remove from the oven and add raspberries. Stir to spread the fruit evenly across the bottom of the pan.
3. Meanwhile, combine the cake ingredients and beat as directed on the cake mix package--usually 2 to 3 minutes at medium speed. Spread the cake batter over the fruit and bake for 35 to 40 minutes. Remove from oven and immediately turn onto a platter. May be served hot or cold.

Though I have not tried it, my guess is that strawberries could be substituted for the raspberries.


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Lasaghetti--or is it Spaghagna?

I had decided on a vegetarian lasagna for dinner before realizing that I had a lot of spaghetti and no lasagna pasta. Never fear. We would just have a hybrid dish that would need some kind of new name. Whatever it would be called, it went together quickly and packed a great nutrition punch. The Lasaghetti (my choice) went well with a winter salad and then some of the ubiquitous Christmas goodies for dessert--some home-made coffee cake and cookies the boys had decorated the last time they visited. Some coffee and conversation and the evening was complete.

Lasaghetti

1 large onion--about 1 1/2 cups
2 c butternut squash puree (see NOTE)
8 oz frozen chopped spinach
28 oz can or jar spaghetti sauce with mushrooms--or your favorite sauce
1/2 bell pepper, finely chopped
1 t garlic powder (I was in a hurry so didn't use fresh garlic, but that would certainly be good instead)
1 t mixed herbs--basil, rosemary, thyme and marjoram
7 to 8 oz low fat ricotta (about half a container)
6 oz grated cheese--I used a mixture of mozzarella, parmesan, provolone, and asiago but mozzarella alone would be fine too
1 pound whole wheat spaghetti

NOTE: I would suggest that you get in the habit of baking squash (or sweet potatoes when you have extras) whenever you are using the oven for something else. When cooking squash, always cook at least twice as much as you need so that you can mash the extra and tuck into the freezer for later use.
If you don't have any squash made ahead for this dish, you can omit it OR you could grate or thinly slice a couple of carrots, microwave them until very tender and then stir into the sauce in place of the squash.

1. Cook the spaghetti as directed. Drain.
2. Meanwhile, saute the onion and stir in the spaghetti sauce and all the remaining ingredients except the ricotta and cheese.
3. In a large flat casserole--about 11 to 12 inches in diameter (or square)--spread about a third of the sauce mixture. Spread half the spaghetti over the sauce. Top with another third of the sauce and then spread the ricotta over this layer of sauce. Cover with the remaining spaghetti, spread with the remaining sauce, and then sprinkle with the grated cheese.
4. Cover and bake at 360 for about 1 hour, until bubbly in the center. If desired, remove the cover the last 15 to 20 minutes for a crustier top.
5. Remove from oven and let sit for about 15 to 20 minutes for easier serving.

Serve with grated Parmesan cheese and freshly ground pepper.
This will serve at least 6 people and could easily be stretched to 8.


Red and Green Winter Salad with Raspberry Dressing

This recipe uses the chart I included in my December 16 post. I made the dressing using some raspberry syrup prepared from the summer's prolific berries. Any purchased vinaigrette dressing could be used instead.

2 to 3 cups shredded cabbage
2 to 3 cups torn spinach leaves
1 T sliced leeks (because I had some on hand; any onions could be used in place of the leeks)
1 large or 2 medium red skinned apples, cored but not peeled and coarsely diced
1/3 c coarsely chopped walnuts
2 to 4 T crumbled feta cheese, to taste

Toss together and serve the dressing on the side. Pass the pepper grater as well.

Raspberry Vinaigrette

3 to 4 T raspberry syrup (see NOTE)
1 t dried basil, crushed
1 to 2 T olive oil
1 to 2 t balsamic vinegar
salt to taste

Combine all ingredients and taste, adjusting amounts as desired.

NOTE: I made the raspberry syrup by combining 2 cups of fresh or frozen raspberries with 2 tablespoons sugar and 1 cup of water. Bring to a boil and cook for about 2 minutes. Strain through a fine colander or sieve. If you want a sweeter, or thicker, syrup, increase the sugar to 1/4 cup. If you don't have raspberries for making this syrup, you can use frozen apple-raspberry 100% juice concentrate instead. This will be quite a bit sweeter, so you may want to substitute wine vinegar for the balsamic, and increase the amount of vinegar slightly.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Winter Salad Basics

Occasionally one of the local chains may feature tomatoes even in these winter months at a "bargain" price, and I give into the temptation to buy one to make a nice fresh salad. And almost always, I am disappointed by even the reddest, sweetest looking tomatoes because of the lack of flavor.

Over the years I am learning, thanks in large part to my daughter and daughters-in-law, that I can leave the tomatoes off my shopping list for the winter and still have some great salads--and I don't have to settle for uninspiring lettuce and little else.

The following guide is a substitute for a "recipe" for salad that should help you add variety and crunch to even the the most wintry of menus.


Winter Salad Template

1. Here is the plan. Choose one or two from
each column, depending on what is available and reasonable in cost. Don't skip any column!


Greens
Vegetable
Fruit
Other add-ins
Iceberg lettuce
Shredded cabbage, green or red--try always to include this!
Diced apples
Walnuts, pecans, almonds
Romaine
Grated carrot
Diced pears
Dried cranberries
Red or green leaf lettuce
Bell peppers, diced
Pineapple cubes, fresh or canned (and drained)
Raisins or other dried fruits you choose
Other lettuces of your choice
Jicama, turnip, or rutabaga shoestring sticks
Black, green, or red grapes, cut in half
Cheese--feta crumbles, cheddar cubes, etc.

2. Cut up your chosen ingredients and toss together.

3. Add your favorite dressing and toss again. Balsamic or other vinaigrette dressings are my favorites, and I often mix in a little honey mustard dressing for even more variety.

4. Top with grated parmesan, freshly ground pepper and/or croutons as desired.


The key is to include both some vegetable and some fruit along with the contrast of the nuts and/or dried fruits. This will give you both the color of a summer tossed salad and the variation in texture that will contrast nicely with winter menus that tend often to be "softer" in texture. Soups, chilis, and pasta dishes are all very good for the season, but the addition of one of these winter salads will give you some much needed balance.

Don't be afraid to get iceberg lettuce if that is all that is reasonably available either. We have all been so coached into thinking this is useless nutritionally that we forget it is still a lot healthier crisp side dish than chips for something like a bowl of chili. If you shred in some cabbage, add some red-skinned apple chunks, dried cranberries, and rich brown walnut chunks, you have color and plenty of nutrition even with an iceberg lettuce base. And if the prices mean that you will have iceberg or no lettuce at all, it should be an easy choice!

Another Microwave Meal

There was a time when I would often arrive home from the train well after 7:30, ready to eat without spending much time in the kitchen. Add in inviting friends over to share a late dinner, and I became adept at finding ways to make lots of foods in the microwave. The following recipe proved to be versatile enough that I called it my "starch sauce;" it could be relied on, with its various iterations, to work as well with baked potatoes as with pasta or even rice. The substantial sausage is a good flavor boost, though this could be made without any meat.


Note that many of the ingredients can be used starting in the frozen state--a great bonus if you are getting home late and don't have time for thawing anything! Even starting out frozen, the meal can come together in 20 to 25 minutes, just the right amount of time to cook some pasta or rice.

"Starch Sauce"

2 kielbasa--may be frozen (use the pre-cooked kind, not a sausage that would need to be cooked for an extended time)
2 medium or 1 large onion, finely chopped
2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced
1 large bell pepper, chopped (Trader Joe's has a nice assortment of frozen pepper strips that would work here--probably about a cup or so, cut into large chunks)
10 oz frozen chopped spinach
2 to 2 1/2 cups frozen mixed vegetables of choice AND/OR 1 15 oz can garbanzo or kidney beans, drained
2 to 3 cups prepared spaghetti sauce
Italian seasoning, cumin and freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Microwave the kielbasa for 1 to 2 minutes to thaw. Meanwhile peel, chop and mince the onions and garlic.

2. Cut the kielbasa in approximately 1 inch slices, add the onion and garlic, and microwave, covered, for 4 minutes. Meanwhile, cut the bell pepper.

3. Remove the kielbasa from the oven and thaw the spinach in the microwave for 1 to 1 1/2 minutes, until just melted through. If using frozen bell peppers or frozen mixed vegetables, thaw these with the spinach too.

4. Add the peppers and spinach to the kielbasa mixture. Stir in the beans if using, and microwave 2 to 3 minutes until the mixture is heated through and bubbly.

5. Stir in the spaghetti sauce and seasonings. Heat a few minutes more and taste for any additional seasoning.

Serve over pasta, rice, or baked potatoes. Sprinkle with Parmesan if desired.

Serves 4 to 6 people. This is easily reheated or frozen too, in case you are cooking for just one or two.

Quick Vegetable Main Dish

This is a recipe I have been using for over a decade. It's great to make when time is short, using the microwave for the full preparation. The recipe makes two main dish servings, though it could be doubled easily (adding a little more time at each step in the microwave). I have liked it because it includes foods that I almost always have on hand--though the pepperoni might end up having some leftover ham or even bacon bits subbed in. You can make this without any of these meats, but the smoky flavor adds some welcome depth of flavor.

Start to finish this could be done in 15 minutes and will help pep up your daily vegetable intake if that is sometimes a problem. To complete the meal, and make things even healthier, as well as more brightly colored, put out some baby carrots or carrot sticks and serve some seasonal fresh fruit as a light dessert.

Zippy Broccoli Au Gratin

2 c frozen, chopped broccoli--don't thaw
1 small to medium onion, finely chopped
2 T to 1/4 c diced pepperoni or other smoked meat
2 oz American cheese (Velveeta), diced
1/4 to 1/2 c salsa of your choice

Place broccoli, onion, and pepperoni in microwave safe casserole, cover, and cook 4 to 5 minutes, depending on your microwave. The broccoli should be just tender and bright green.

(NOTE: If you prefer, you may cook the onion with the pepperoni and a teaspoon or so of water in the microwave for a minute or two before adding the broccoli.)

Stir the cheese into the broccoli and return to the microwave for a minute or two, just until the cheese melts.

Add the salsa and stir the mixture until the broccoli is evenly coated with the cheese sauce.

Serve over rice OR baked potato OR serve with chunks of fresh baguette for dipping.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Quick Dessert for a Winter Night

The following recipe is a great one to keep available when you need to make a better than average dessert, either for the family or for drop in guests. I have made it with raspberries frozen from my garden, but it should work as well with frozen strawberries or peaches--the plain fruit, not sweetened or in syrup. I made it several times last winter and found it to be a nice reminder of the summer and all those wonderful fresh fruits we have then.

Why half a cake mix, and how?

This is one of those recipes that is best eaten soon after baking. Even this smaller size feeds six to eight, so I haven't seen the need for a larger cake.

Since this recipe uses the cake mix as just a crumble, there is a little room for approximation. Thus, I just dump the entire bag into a large measuring bowl, check the total amount (which is usually around 4 cups) and spoon half back into a glass canister. Cover the unused half tightly, label, and put back on the shelf or in the refrigerator for a later recipe.

The half that is left in the measuring bowl is then used for this recipe.

(In case you are wondering what you would ever do with the other half of the cake mix, look back at my January 23, 2009 post, http://frugalfastfun.blogspot.com/2009/01/yoghurt-and-cake-mix-bar-cookies.html, and you'll find another recipe using half a cake mix as well.)


5 Minute Raspberry Crisp

1 1/2 to 2 cups frozen raspberries, slightly thawed, including all juices
1/2 package yellow white cake mix
1/4 cup melted butter
1/4 c slivered almonds OR chopped walnuts
1 t cinnamon

Spread raspberries in a 7 X 11 cake pan.

Mix remaining ingredients together until crumbly. Spread over berries, pressing down slightly. Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes, or until bubbly around the edges. You may want to cover for the first 15 minutes or so. Serve warm or cold, but best when still warm and topped with just a little ice cream or whipped cream.

Apple Butter


Just days before the blizzard hit, I went out to Sekapp Orchard one more time, ready for another couple of bags of "deer apples." Alas, with December's very cold weather and their limited storage space, the only bags of these mixed windfalls and smalls had frozen. Still okay for the deer, but no longer good for applesauce or apple butter, and that was what I had on my mind.

Those over-sized bags are great not just for the bargain price but also because they mix up every variety of apple available at the orchard, a perfect mix for great apple desserts. So I had to settle for my second choice, picking up three half bushel bags of three different varieties of "seconds." I chose Harrelson, Honey Gold and Regent, all varieties that are good for many uses.

So now my garage "root cellar" is well supplied again with apples. This snowy weather is perfect for cooking up a batch of apple butter that will go nicely as small gifts along with the coffee cakes that will need to start coming out of the oven this week. Christmas carols on Pandora, the tree lighted in the corner and snow outside every window--what more bucolic time to have the spicy scent of simmering apple butter drift through the house. Now, if I could only get the motivation to finish the Christmas letters!

My sister Merry has had the luxury of an orchard of apple trees right in her back yard, and she has made wonderful use of the fruits in her trademark apple slices as well as this recipe for apple butter.

I use my 8 quart wide sauce pot and fill it to the brim with apples, with the usual yield just a little larger than the amount of pulp in her original recipe, so the amounts of each ingredient are scaled up a little; other than that, I have made few changes--kind of unusual for my free-style cooking I know.

Earlier this fall, I made a smaller batch, to fit into my 3 1/2 quart slow cooker. I used the same proportion of ingredients in Merry's recipe and tried to follow the slow cooker recipe methods I found on-line. However, it became clear that this really wasn't the wisest choice for that method of cooking, since foods prepared in these earthen pots rarely cook down very much, and that's what I was aiming for to get apple butter. Maybe I was just too impatient, but I ended up taking the mixture out of the crock, putting it in a 12 inch, deep and straight-sided, frying pan and simmering it for another hour or so on the stove top until it was just the right consistency. Today's batch is cooked from start to finish on the range. Sometimes the old ways are still the best.

Merry's Apple Butter

8 quarts apples, cut in chunks but not peeled or cored; 13 cups pulp when finished
1 3/4 c sugar
1 c light brown sugar, packed
4 1/2 t cinnamon
2 1/4 t cloves
1 3/4 t allspice
3 1/2 T lemon juice (I use reconstituted juice like ReaLemon)

Put just a small amount of water in with the apples, only enough to keep them from sticking, cover, and bring to a slow boil. Cook until very, very soft, about an hour or so depending on the variety of apples used.

When the apples are cooked, press them through a food mill. You should have about 13 cups of pureed apple pulp and juice when done.

Put the pureed apples in a large, broad pan and add remaining ingredients.* Simmer on the stove top for about an hour and a half or until the mixture has thickened. Test for proper consistency by putting a small amount on a cold plate. When watery juices no longer separate from the mixture around the edges, the butter is done. The yield is about six to eight pints.

*You may want to taste the mixture at this point and add a bit more sugar if the apples you are using are quite tart. Do remember that the mixture will cook down and become sweeter, but apples vary a great deal in their sweetness, both from variety to variety and even season to season, so the taste can vary. Because sugar does provide some preservative value, you won't want to reduce the sugar very much if you are planning to can the apple butter or keep it in the refrigerator for several weeks.

This can be processed as for any jams or stored in the freezer (or refrigerator for several weeks). In a hot water bath canner, process half pint and pint jars for 15 minutes or quarts for 20 minutes.


Now, what to do with your apple butter? Probably the very best way is to spread it over warm from the oven home-baked bread or dinner rolls, but it also makes great peanut butter and apple butter sandwiches.

Waffles, pancakes, baking powder biscuits and French toast also take well to apple butter, but there is more. I like to use it when making cinnamon rolls or coffee cake where I would have otherwise spread the dough with butter before sprinkling with sugar and cinnamon and rolling up. It adds a wonderful moisture and added flavor to any such recipe.

If you have a filled or bar cookie recipe that calls for applesauce to be cooked down with raisins and/or spices, just substitute apple butter for the mixture, adding raisins, dried cranberries, or nuts as called for in the original recipe. No need to cook down that applesauce; it's already been done when you made th apple butter. Lots of ways to experiment here!

A New Christmas Cookie, Along with an Old Standby


Yesterday we started decorating Christmas cookies, even though the weather altered the plans a little. In the middle of a blizzard, only my two youngest grandsons, ages 4 1/2 and 6, along with their parents, were here to enjoy the fun. I had planned to make cookies ahead so that there would only be decorating done with the kids, but the weather changed that too, and we ended up rolling out and cutting cookies as a group. Fortunately, the recipes I had chosen were easily worked and both proved to be "kid-proof" both at the rolling and decorating stages.

The first recipe is one that I received from my sister Alice many years ago, and it is still a handy one to keep around. This dough ends up remarkably like play dough in consistency and the cookies end up crisp and tasty. I made two batches, one with a chocolate cake mix and one with a white cake mix, the variations another advantage to the recipe.

I am not a huge fan of ginger cookies but wanted to try out something that could be the basis for "real" gingerbread men. The second recipe is an adaptation of Maida Heatter's Swedish Gingerbread Cookies that seems to be fairly common on the web. After making it, I can understand why. It met both the qualifications of ease of handling and great flavor equally well, along with being reasonable in price. This is definitely one I will plan to make again.

SPECIAL NOTE:

For either kind of cookie, or for ANY rolled cookies for that matter, here is a secret to avoid tough cookies, even with the re-rolled scraps: Spread your rolling surface with a mixture of half and half flour and powdered sugar instead of just flour. (I have also seen a recommendation to use cocoa in place of the powdered sugar for chocolate cookies, but I have never found that necessary.) If you find that you have a very flour-y surface on some of the cookies, you can lightly dampen a paper towel and brush some of the flour off before or after baking.

Frosting and Decorating!

For frosting, I make a very basic powdered sugar icing, in large quantity since I will also use this for icing the many coffee cakes that are also part of the Christmas baking here. Then I put varying amounts in resealable plastic containers and add food coloring to each. This year, we started with just red, green, and yellow--no blue for now. There is of course, lots of frosting left white, because that works best as a basis for colored sprinkles and sugars.

Ah the sprinkles.

There are all different colored sugars, chocolate and multi-colored sprinkles, mini chocolate chips, and red hot cinnamon candies for adding to the decorative creations. These are arranged on a tray in the middle of the table and each decorator also has his or her own cookie sheet or cake pan with sides to keep in stray sprinkles. The frostings are each supplied with several "Popsicle" type craft sticks, as these work far better than anything else for spreading the frosting. Toothpicks are also available for the more detailed efforts of many of our cookie designers. You will also need lots of room for the creative efforts to be spread out to dry; stacking too quickly destroys a lot of the best designs!

Never Fail Rolled Cookies

1 package cake mix, any flavor, two layer size
2 to 3 T softened butter
1 egg
1 T water

Begin mixing with a fork and then use your hands to make a ball of dough almost the consistency of Play-Dough. The dough does not need to be refrigerated. If you do chill it, remove it from the refrigerator about 15 minutes before beginning to roll. (Note that this is different from most rolled cookies.)

Using about a quarter of the dough at a time, roll it out on a mixture of flour and powdered sugar. I prefer them quite thin, but they can be anywhere from an eighth to a quarter inch thick; the key to any rolled cookie is to make sure there are no spots much thicker than others.

Cut the cookies as close to each other as possible to minimize scraps, but you can shake as much flour as possible off the scraps and press them all together into a ball before re-rolling.

Place the cookies on a greased baking sheet about a half inch apart. Bake at 375 degrees until just done. This will be anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the cookies.

Remove immediately from the pans and cool on racks. Store in a tightly covered container until ready to decorate.

NOTE: You can also shape this dough into one inch balls and then roll in chopped nuts, sugar and cinnamon, or colored sugars before baking. Press slightly to flatten before baking.

Swedish Gingerbread Cookies

2/3 cup dark molasses
2/3 cup sugar
4 teaspoons ginger
1 tablespoon cinnamon
2 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
2/3 c butter OR mixture of half butter and half rendered chicken fat
1 large egg, slightly beaten
4 to 4 1/2 cups unbleached flour

Cut the butter and/or fat into chunks in a large mixing bowl and set aside.

Combine the molasses, sugar, ginger, and cinnamon in a very large saucepan and slowly bring to a boil. When it is just beginning to boil, stir in the baking soda and continue to heat until the mixture is very light and foamy. Remove from heat and pour over the butter. Stir until the butter is melted and the mixture is evenly blended.

Beat the egg just enough to mix the yolk and white well and then stir quickly into the molasses mixture. Stir in the flour a cup at a time and mix well. Toward the end you may want to use your hands to mix evenly, gently kneading the dough to develop a smooth, evenly mixed ball.

Roll out the cookies as thick or as thin as you like. I made these about 1/4 inch thick for a very crisp cookie. Place on well-oiled pans and bake at 350 degrees for 11 to 14 minutes. Store tightly covered until ready to decorate.

Rendered Chicken Fat

Using half rendered chicken fat makes these cookies especially light and crispy, with absolutely no taste of the chicken if the fat is properly prepared. To render chicken fat:

Cut all loose, outside, fat from chicken pieces and put in a saucepan with enough water to almost cover. You may also include chicken skin in this pan. Cover the pan, bring to a boil, and cook over low to medium heat for about 45 minutes to an hour. Pour the mixture into a colander or strainer and let drain without pressing the solids. Put into a wide-mouthed container and chill. The rendered fat will harden on top of the liquid which can then be discarded.

Note that the fat and skin must be removed before any seasoning of the chicken and before the chicken is cooked, to avoid mixing any flavor of the meat to enter the fat.

Chicken fat is found in some very old-fashioned recipes and can add a light texture to many baked goods. Even though it carries little or no flavor, you may want to use it only in baked goods with other strong flavors predominating--like ginger cookies and gingerbread!