cooking. baking. recipes. eating out.

cooking. baking. recipes. home economics. eating out.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Martha's Fireworks Cookies

The Fourth of July is a holiday about which I am not naturally enthusiastic and eager to celebrate. For Christmas and Easter there is such great build-up in the Christian calendar with Advent and Lent that I can hardly anticipate the actual days. The Fourth, on the other hand, can be mildly melancholy, showing up out of nowhere, a hot test of patriotic optimism for me. I look at our nation and can be easily troubled. Whether it's in regard to our radical wealth disparities - we've now surpassed all South American banana republics in making our rich richer and our poor poorer - or how we deprive the sick of health care or how we still perpetuate insidious forms of racism with sentencing disparities or how we sinfully regulate access to equality based on completely irrelevant divisions like gender and sexual orientation. These are all areas where the nation from which we won independence has unquestionably done better than us. (God save the Queen!) Nonetheless, I can just as easily see America's greatness and future promise simply by reading a little of what previous great Americans have written. Who can deny America's unique place after reading George Washington's "Farewell Address" or de Tocqueville's "Democracy in America" or Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham City Jail" or the Supreme Court in Olmstead v. U.S. (the right to be let alone) or anything ever written by Thoreau or Jefferson? Our current President is fond of reminding those who struggle and seek a better America of the words of Dr. King: "The arch of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." For this Fourth of July, I am willing to accept that, and to move on to important stuff: baking cookies.

When I saw these beautiful cookies on the July cover of Martha Stewart magazine, I couldn't resist the challenge. It turns out, these cookies are easy to make. The ingredients are all simple and accessible and the techniques are mastered on the first whack at it. The primary investment with these cookies is time. Give yourself a good five hours, including cooling and chilling time (during which you can do other things).

The recipe below makes many cookies. For me, it made 18 four inch cookies, 24 three inch cookies and (not or) 18 one and a half inch cookies.

Martha Stewart Sugar Cookie Recipe, modified

4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for surface
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups sugar
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

In a mixing bowl (or the bowl of a Kitchen Aid stand mixer using the paddle attachment) whip the butter for about a minute. Add the sugar and beat for 3 minutes on medium-high until fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat until combined. Add the vanilla and beat for a few seconds more.

Add the flour and mix on low until combined. Turn out onto plastic wrap and form into a disc or square and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Cut a maneageable piece of dough from the dough disc, about 1/4 of the total.

Roll out dough to a scant 1/4-inch thickness on a floured surface.

Cut out cookies using round cookie cutters, rerolling scraps once. When I first read the instruction to only reroll the dough once, I thought this wasteful. In practice, if you are judicious with your cookie cutting spacing, you'll only be left with a ball somewhere between the size of a cherry and a small kiwi. Transfer the cut out dough to a baking sheet and refrigerate until firm, about 30 minutes.

Bake until edges show the very first hints of turning brown, 12 to 18 minutes, depending on size. Bake the large cookies together, the medium cookies together and so on because the small cookies will cook faster than the larger ones. Transfer cookies to a wire rack, and let cool completely. Set aside until you are ready to ice them.

Martha Stewart Royal Icing Recipe, modified

5 cups confectioners sugar
5 egg whites
1 tablespoon water
juice of 1/2 lemon, strained for seeds and pulp
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine on low speed the egg whites and sugar until combined. Add the water, lemon juice and vanilla and mix until combined. Turn the mixer to high and whip the icing to the desired consistency. For these cookies to turn out right (here is theonly part requiring skill and judgment), when the beater is lifted the icing should fall in a wide ribbon but absorb back into the bowl of icing after a few seconds. If the icing is too thin, it will not stay on the cookie and the colors will not remain separate. If it is too thick, it will be impossible to make the design. However, thicker royal icing can be great for cookies where you want the icing to stay put, like with a black & white cookie or a gingerbread house.

Take about 1/5 of the icing and, in a seperate bowl, dye it red. Repeat for the blue.

Decorate the cookies: Pipe an outline of white icing around the edge of 1 cookie, leaving a 1/4-inch border, then "flood" with more white icing to cover.

Immediately pipe a red or blue dot in the center of cookie. Then pipe concentric rings of colors around the center dot (using the same color as the dot, or alternating colors). If your icing is the correct consistency, it will stay put but "melt" together to form a flat surface but with a distinct separation of colors. By no means do the rings need to be perfectly done, as you can see below.

Immediately drag a toothpick through the colors to create bursts, starting from the center dot and working toward the edge, then alternate dragging inward and outward as you work around the cookie. (Or drag around the cookie in 1 direction or curve the lines for a pinwheel effect.) Let dry. Repeat with remaining cookies and icings.

Here's how they turned out:

Kitchen Tip: Good vanilla is worth it. It is especially worth it in dishes where there are not a lot of competing flavors, like in these cookies. I prefer Nielson-Massey Vanillas' products. They are a company based in Chicago and the Netherlands. Their Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Extract is fantastic. It is also Kosher, gluten-free, organic and ranked "Superior" by the American Baking Institute. You can find it at many big-city grocers, Williams and Sonoma, Sur la Table and most baking and kitchenware stores.