Saturday, April 19, 2014

Tips for Cookie Decorating with the Kids

Yesterday my grandkids and I cut out, baked, and decorated sugar cookies. We've been doing this at various holidays ever since my grandson, Charlie, was 18 months old--and he is now almost a teenager! His baby sister, Lizzie, could not stand to be left out, so she started joining in when she was just over a year. (Anything Charlie could do, she had to try to do, too!)

Actually, our cookie sessions are now a favorite family tradition. We have fun making some appealing treats for most holidays, plus we all enjoy the creative, artsy-craftsy decorating part. And, as the children said yesterday, it's great just to hang out in the kitchen and be together.

One easy tip I've taught the kids  is to always lay the larger or thicker cutout cookies around the outside of the baking sheet and the smaller or thinner ones on the inside.  This helps ensure that they all get done at once. (The heat reaches the cookies on the outside first, and, being larger, they need the extra baking time.)

Like a lot of kids, Lizzie and Charlie enjoy doing a good bit of cookie and icing tasting during their decorating sessions. This is one reason I prefer to use botanical food colors in the icings and, often, I buy synthetic dye-free colored sprinkles as well. (Allergies run in our family, and synthetic petrochemical food dyes are known to be allergens for some people.)

The pic at left shows the children tinting their icings with a line of all natural colorants available online from chocolatecraftcolors; these products, including dyes and sprinkles work very well. Some retailers also sell the India Tree "Natural Color" line of botanical dyes and sprinkles. Sometimes, we use a different icing recipe that features colors from frozen fruit juice concentrates from the supermarket; that recipe is available on my site here. Some cookies using that icing are pictured at the bottom of this post.

In case you’d like to have a cookie baking session with your favorite kids, here are some of the logistical details to help things go smoothly. If you've got other tips I don't mention, please share them in the comments section below.

Make the cookie dough completely ahead, divide it into three or four portions, then roll each one out between sheets of baking parchment or wax paper. Check out my All-Purpose Sugar Cookie Dough if you need a tasty, easy-to-handle recipe. (If you've got teens on hand, have them help you make the dough or ready it by themselves.)

Use the rolling out method shown at right. Rolling between sheets of parchment means that no flour needs to be used; this keeps the dough from becoming dry and over-floured and also minimizes kitchen cleanup. (For my video detailing exactly how to do it, go here.) 

Let the sheets of dough chill on a baking sheet and refrigerate until you need them, then take them out one by one as needed. Keeping them cool makes cutting out and transferring the cookies to baking sheets very easy. (For my tips on what cutters to use and how to keep dough from sticking to fancy cutters, check my Youtube video here.)

Lay out a sheet of baking parchment or wax paper for each child to work on. This makes cleaning up icing drips easier and also gives them their own personal workspace to use.

Make a generous batch of icing that can be divided up and tinted various shades; we used the icing recipe below. Yesterday we set out six  bowls, added color to five, and then left the sixth one plain white. You can see from the cookies the kids created (in the pic below) that this yields a very pleasing array. If possible, offer decorating sugars in several different colors so the kids can add more easy finishing touches and accents to their works of art.

Have at least one spreading knife and one spoon for each bowl of icing. Otherwise, the children will be temped to dip the same utensil into different colors and the colors will end up all mixed together. 

School-age children also have enough dexterity to enjoy piping icings: If you don't have pastry bags and tips, just put icing portions into sturdy mini plastic bags with one tiny bottom corner snipped off. 

Charlie and Lizzie used piping to add eyes and centers to the bunny and daisy cookies. Charlie also added piped lines of accenting icing over top a base layer in the pic below.  Then while both icings were still wet,  he drew a tooth pick through the lines to create a design. The technique, called marbling, is one pastry chefs use, but is also one that kids can do and find great fun. The results look quite impressive but don't take a lot of skill. (The video here shows more marbling ideas.)

Whenever the kids start fidgeting or growing tired, simply wrap up while they are still enjoying themselves. After all, they don’t have to make all the cookies. You can cover and refrigerate the leftover dough and icings and finish up later on.
If the children participating are younger than about six, have at least two grownups (or one adult and an older child) involved, as little kids need a lot of assistance and supervision.

One last tip--which I always have to remind myself to follow: Let the children decide on their own colors and decorating approach. I might not choose to color a bunny bright green and give it red eyes, or put a happy face on a flower cookie, but for children being fanciful and wildly creative is a big part of the fun.

Quick All-Purpose Powdered Sugar Icing

This provides enough icing to fully decorate 30 to 40 cookies. Halve or double the recipe for a smaller or larger batch. 

Notice that the recipe gives the option of incorporating meringue powder or plain egg white powder. This addition is totally optional, but it helps keep the icing colors bright and lets them dry with a smooth, hard finish. (You can find Wilton's meringue powder with discount department store baking and decorating supplies and egg white powder in some supermarkets.)  

The recipe also calls for corn syrup, which should never be left out. It keeps the icing flowing and easy to spread, plus gives it a slight gloss and sheen. 

Tip: If using botanically-based dyes, never add any lemon juice or other acidic ingredient to the icing, as its low PH can react with the natural pigments and change the dye colors.

4 cups powdered sugar  (sift after measuring if lumpy)
1 tablespoon meringue powder or egg white powder, optional
2 teaspoons light corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon almond extract, optional
4 to 6 tablespoons water, as needed
Botanical or synthetic food dyes, as desired

In a large bowl or mixer bowl thoroughly stir together the sugar and meringue power (if it is being used). Add the corn syrup, vanilla, and almond extract (if using). Add 3 1/2 tablespoons water. Stir or beat on very low speed until it begins to blend together; scrape down the bowl sides several times. Gradually add in enough more water to yield a completely smooth spreading or piping consistency; for piping the icing should be slightly stiff, for spreading it should be just slightly fluid. Adjust the consistency as needed by thinning with more water or thickening with a little more powdered sugar.

Divide the icing among several bowls, then tint with food colors as desired. Use the icing or cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to a week. Let return to room temperature and stir well before using.

For icings that are tinted with only fruit juice concentrates, as shown at right, go here.


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Sunday, April 6, 2014

7 Ways to Tell if Your Food Photos Are Trendy

In every age, artists and their work inevitably reflect what's deemed fashionable at the time. Savvy Byzantine painters elongated human faces, rendered their backgrounds flat, and depicted halos as stylized golden pie-chart rounds. Hip renaissance artists loaded their works with fleshy females and plump, pink cherubs (think Sistine chapel), and painted in a luxe, pseudo-realistic style.

Woodland violets with violet decorating sugar.
Whatever the era, once the notion of what's "in" is in the air, almost everybody hops on board. This is certainly true of modern day food photographers and stylists, whose main business is creating arresting images that capitalize on or, better yet, set trends.

To help you assess whether your own food pics or those of others are plugged in or passe, here's a list of some of today's hot food props. Seeing them in images tells you the photographer or stylist is at least trying for trendiness. The only problem, of course, is that once everybody is following along, the real avant-garde are off to something else. (Note that all of the images here are mine, and if you want to check out the associated recipes, just click on the caption under the pic.)

Chocolate Smoothie & Strawberry Lassi
Bright colored bendable plastic drinking straws.

Truly au courant photographers and stylists today always prop beverages with eye-catching plastic straws. These must be bendable to facilitate positioning them at the prescribed jaunty, cock-eyed angle. (Be aware that older paper straws lacking flexible "elbows" are hopelessly outdated, though they can be used to lend an authentic, nostalgic touch in shots of classic soda fountain treats.) Additionally, it's de rigieur to either flavor coordinate the straws (red straw in strawberry smoothie, green straw in limeade) or color complement them (blue straw in orange soda pop, yellow straw in a purple cow). Note that vertically or diagonally striped straws are now vanguard; solid ones have peaked. Which means that my shot here at left is old hat.

Bakers' twine.  

When shooting confections, baked goods, and many other edibles, stylists and photographers in the know use bakers' twine as often as possible and in as many colors as possible: Red-white, navy-white, black-white, turquiose-white, forest green-white and chartruse-white are the bare minimum. And the more twine used, the hotter the shot. Excessively winding or tying twine around just about any subject is ultra-chic. So is lavishly draping, trailing, or looping multiple strands of bakers' twine over any surface. The twine use can be totally gratuitous; conventions don't have to make sense, after all.

Note that my use of twine here at right is so half-hearted and hard to see that it fails to win any trendiness points at all. However, for super-cool twine pics check out my trendsetter friend Irvin Lin's post here.  You'll also notice his shots include both the very latest striped drinking straws and sprinkling of herbs (mentioned below). BTW, Irvin's very funny post inspired this one.)

Citrus Vinaigrette.
Distinctive bottles and jars.

For fashion-forward food photographers and stylists, propping with the right bottles and jars is huge. Vinegars, oils, vinaigrettes, syrups, spices, seasonings and such need to be presented in glassware that appears to have come from great aunt Ida's canning cupboard, or Dr. Metzer's Medicinals & Soda Shoppe, or the planet Zerxon. As a rule, ordinary, everyday glass containers of the sort used by regular people will not do. (Note that at one time propping with a Mason jar was the rage but is now only in vogue if you spiff it up with bakers' twine or a raffia bow.)

Sugar cookies with dye-free icings.
Weathered wood, peeling paint.

Every enlightened stylist or photographer has a collection of weathered wood surfaces to shoot on, such as antique pastry and cutting boards, butcher blocks, old barn siding, and bleached boardwalk or pier planks. Usually, plain or painted wood surfaces are not sufficiently gnarly until they have spent at least 5 years out in the elements or have been chopped or pounded upon for a decade. The decrepit moss-growing picnic table featured in the violet pic at the top sat in my wooded back yard for 15 years! Weathering often takes so long that items are no longer trendy by the time they're usable, so most stylists scour junk yards, flea markets and shabby-chic shops for their first-rate pieces.

Blueberry-Apple Crumble
Weirdly shaped and colored flatware.

Clued-in food stylists or photographers routinely rely on quirky and gaudy plastic-handled flatware to add a playful funkiness and angularity to their food images. I tried to emulate their approach in the blueberry crumble shot at left and am hoping that that tacky purple spoon jutting up oddly from the bright blue bowl just screams, "I've got flair!" Frankly, I find this sort of propping a bit strained and artificial, but then, what's "in" is often contrived. (This shot has gotten a lot of looks and likes on Tastespotting, which suggests that at least some do find it hip.)

Mojitos with Mojito Mint

Fresh strewn herbs.

Today's with-it food stylists and photographers routinely fill empty space in shots with artfully placed herb sprigs and leaves. They are particularly fond of propping with hard-to-find fresh herb flowers, such as purple chive blossoms (shown at the top in the vinegar shot), or tiny blue rosemary or white oregano blooms. But be aware there are a couple of herb rules for the truly trendy: Only adorn a dish with herbs that it actually contains (no marjoram in it, no marjoram on it!). Only garnish with flat-leaved parsley; curly went out (along with broccoli) in the first Bush administration.
Best Ever Raspberry Ripple Ice Cream
Fruits and vegetables with leaves and stems intact.

Tastemakers don't shoot fruits and vegetables that appear to have been purchased from the supermarket. Their fruits and vegetables must have leaves, or stems, or roots intact and look as if they came dew-kissed from an orchard or farm. If they are baby-sized vegetables in unusual colors, so much the better; notice the chi-chi mini zucchinis and eggplants and little orange tomatoes in the pic at the very top!

Influential food stylists will spend hours rifling through piles of produce at farmers' markets for specimens that meet their exacting requirements: Raspberries or blackberries still attached to their brambles; cress with roots damp and dangling, fat cherries drooping from their stems. And stylists are not above cheating on the critical botanical elements when necessary: I've witnessed a New York stylist painstakingly gluing perfect leaves and stems brought to the studio from her New Jersey apple tree onto a basket of grocery store apples. (FYI, the apples below have not been tampered with, though I did have to hunt diligently for one fruit with both a leaf and stem.)

Choosing the Right Apples--Jonathans in a Longaberger Basket

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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Happy April Fools' Day! Enjoy Our Extreme Diet Club Video

Extreme Dieters Cooking Club Video
It's tempting to join in and try to be funny on April Fool's Day. Lots of people are in the mood for silliness and practical jokes. But being amusing is a risky business because getting a laugh is very hard. What if your audience misunderstands and thinks your jesting is serious? What if they know you're spoofing, but just don't find it humorous? What if your April Fool's joke totally flops, and you're the April fool? How do you know what's funny, anyway?

The 2 Day a Week Diet Cookbook
My co-author Ruth Glick and I mulled over all these questions the last few weeks as we began creating a special April Fool's Day YouTube video to promote our new Kindle cookbook, The 2 Day a Week Diet Cookbook. My first step was to search on YouTube for some cooking show parodies and extreme dieting spoofs. I was astonished at how many were out there, and even more astonished at how few were funny. A lot of  wannabe "comedians" aren't at all amusing and, furthermore, can't tell that they've bombed!

All this was a bit unnerving, but we truly believed our overall concept was quirky, unexpected, and far-out enough to generate a guffaw or two, so decided to press on. One interesting discovery was that we didn't always agree on what was hilarious and what was ho-hum. I, for example, thought the green teeth bit was funnier than Ruth did. And she thought the trowel bit was a real knee slapper and I was kind of "eh, it's cute I guess."

I don't want to spoil your fun so that's all I'll say except that our video spoofs extreme dieting and over-the-top cooking shows and infomercials. Basically we demo several "amazing" calorie-free recipes that use a "miracle," nutritive-free  ingredient not normally called for in dishes. No, it's not a coincidence that the ingredient is green (a color that just inherently seems funny to me, especially for food) and that one of the resulting concoctions, the smoothie shown below, looks like green sludge. 

April Fool's Day Extreme Diet Green Smoothie
At the end of our video, we get serious and wrap up by showing some of the "real" lo-cal, tasty, and doable dishes in The 2 Day a Week Diet Cookbook. If you really want to lose weight while eating well, they are an easy, healthful, satisfying option--one example is the strawberry smoothie recipe offered here below. The new book, which has 75 recipes and 50 photos,  has already garnered 21 great reviews on Amazon; ALL buyers gave it 5 stars and raved about the recipes. We are thrilled!

Please do check our our Extreme Dieters Cooking Club video and let us know what you think. Do we have a future in comedy or should we just stick to writing cookbooks? Seriously, we're thinking of doing further episodes, so let us know in the comments section on YouTube or at the bottom of this post.

Strawberry Smoothie (or Lassi)

Here's an easy, tasty smoothie excerpted from The 2 Day a Week Diet Cookbook. BTW, we provide a detailed nutritional analysis for each dish at the end of each recipe.

Tip: You'll need to add a little sugar substitute or, if you prefer, honey to the recipe--how much depends on the sweetness of the strawberries. For each teaspoon of honey added, add 20 calories to the recipe; check the label on your diet sweetener for the calories in that.

Makes 2 90-calorie servings, 1 cup each.
1 cup sliced strawberries
1 cup plain, unsweetened, reduced-fat yogurt
1/2 cup cold water
Sugar substitute or honey to taste, optional

1. Combine strawberries, yogurt, and water in a food processor or blender. Process or blend on medium speed until well combined and smooth.
2. Blend in a little sugar substitute or honey, to taste.

Serve at once, topped with a sliced strawberry, if desired. Leftover can be tightly covered and kept in refrigerator for 24 hours. Stir before serving.

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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Fine Lime-Green Tea Buttercream for St. Pat's Day

I just handed out some of these green-tea and lime buttercream-decorated cookies at a lively, information-packed DC Les Dames d'Escoffier symposium last Saturday.

Yes,  I chose these to give out partly because St. Patrick's Day is coming, and they illustrate perfectly how green tea can serve as beautiful, healthful, all-natural pastry decorating color. They were also particularly appropriate because I was moderating a session on tea, and they showed how powdered Sencha green tea could easily and effectively be used for more than just a beverage.

                    Sheilah Kaufman (left), Amy Riolo, Nancy Baggett, Najmieh Batmanglij (right)
Finally, I wanted to feature a fresh, unusual recipe I really liked from my latest cookbook, Simply Sensational Cookies, to give out samples of during the lunch time book-signing event. In the photo at right three of my Dames friends and I are actually standing in front of where my cookies and books were displayed. (Thanks to Amy I'm able to share this pic with you!)

It's always fun and gratifying to get feedback, especially when it's positive. And, frankly, tasters went crazy for these cookies and frosting last Saturday. During the book signing, attendees kept coming back for seconds and thirds (and doing a lot of lip smacking in the process!). Later, during the tea tasting workshop, helpers passed out four large boxes of the  cookies. I was stunned to see that all the containers returned completely empty--not a single crumb remained!

So, with St. Patrick's Day fast approaching, I decided to share the very doable, attractive, and delightfully full-flavored frosting recipe with you. Note that Imperial grade Sencha green tea has the brightest color, so, though it's pricey, it is usually the best choice for readying the buttercrea. For more green tea buying tips and decorating ideas, go here.

Lime, Fresh Ginger, and Green Tea Buttercream
Adapted from a citrus-green tea buttercream recipe in Simply Sensational Cookies, this recipe both spotlights the amazingly vibrant taste of fresh lime and fresh gingerroot in a frosting and shows off the naturally beautiful color of Imperial grade green tea. The batch of buttercream will decorate about 25 to 30 small cookies; double it if you need a larger amount. (The cookies shown are the Vanilla Shortbread Buttons in my Simply Sensational Cookies, but my easy sugar cookie dough here can be used instead.)
Lime-Ginger-Green Tea Buttercream Frosting
 Tip: The intensity of the green shade of the buttercream depends on how much green tea is added  and what brand you use. I usually start with a generous 1 teaspoon Sencha powder and add in a little more if the frosting looks too pale. 

1 tablespoon very finely grated lime zest (colored part of the peel)
1 teaspoon finely grated or very finely minced peeled fresh gingerroot, optional
2 cups powdered sugar, divided, plus more as needed
1 to 2 teaspoons powdered Imperial matcha green tea, or as desired
1⁄2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cool and slightly firm, cut into pats
1 teaspoon fresh lime juice, plus more, if desired

Combine the zest, ginger, 1 cup sugar, and the green tea powder in a food processor. Process until the mixture is very well blended and as smooth as possible, about 3 to 4 minutes; stop and scrape the mixture from the bowl bottom and sides several times. 

Sprinkle the butter, 1 teaspoon juice, and 1 cup more sugar, over the top. Process until very smooth and well blended, stopping and scraping down the sides as needed. If the mixture is too fluid to spread or pipe, gradually add more powdered sugar until stiffened; if too dry, gradually add a few drops more lime juice or water until the buttercream is spreadable and well blended. Let the buttercream stand at least 30 minutes and preferably 1 hour to allow flavors to blend and intensify. Use immediately or cover and refrigerate for up to 5 days. Let warm to cool room temperature before using.

To decorate cookies: Put little dollops of buttercream on the cookie tops, then swirl them slightly with the tip of a knife. Alternatively, adjust the frosting consistency so it is soft enough to pipe but firm enough to hold its shape. Then spoon the mixture into a pastry bag fitted with a 1⁄2-inch-diameter open star tip. Pipe stars by squeezing the buttercream onto the center tops or pipe rosettes by squeezing and rotating the tip at the same time. Makes a scant 1 1⁄2 cups buttercream.

 My green tea powdered sugar cookie icing is here.

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Thursday, February 27, 2014

A Fine Homemade Tomato Soup for the Winter Weary

 This morning it snowed--again! And it's cold and windy. Again! I am completely winter weary and, when stepping outside, I despair of being knee-deep in yet another icy layer that should be shoveled.

Normally, to stave off cabin fever this time of year, I go out and roam the yard to enjoy my favorite harbingers of spring. The green tops of both snow drops and daffodils are ususally poking up through the earth by now, reassuring me that, yes, the first perennials survived and their blooms will be back brightening the garden soon.While the hardy little snowdrops are up through the ice in some spots, so far I see no signs of the daffodils.

This year winter has been relentless, with snow storms constantly blowing in and repeatedly burying my treasures. Desperate for warm weather, I've turned to the seductive images in the new seed and plant catalogs. The shots of picture-perfect blackberries and raspberries have set me to reminiscing about tasty cobblers and my sunny summer days out foraging in my local woods. Both catalog portraits of glorious, vine-ripened tomatoes and my own shots have gotten me imaging the ones I purchased last summer from the farmers' market all season long. The  thought is making me drool for some now.
Last week I even bought some supermarket hothouse tomatoes still on their stems, hoping against hope that they could stand in for the ones I craved in a simple, heart-warming tomato soup. They did not! My soup looked colorful enough but had no depth of flavor and little fragrance.

My hunger for an honest, earnest homemade tomato soup actually seemed to intensify with the failure, and so I pressed on and two tries later came up with this version, which features quality canned tomatoes (of all things!). Finally, my yearnings have been satisfied, and I think I can make it through to summer. I hope the recipe will help tide you over, too.

Winter Larder Roasted Tomato  Soup
I was pretty astonished at how flavorful and fragrant a very simple tomato soup made with canned tomatoes could be. Choosing high-quality, vibrant-tasting canned tomatoes and roasting them to concentrate their juices and bring out their sweetness yielded a much more savory result than using fresh hothouse tomatoes. (Sad to say,  the latter were watery and insipid and not worth the trouble.)

The canned tomatoes were also less expensive and more convenient—I just cracked open the cans, drained off the juice, and popped the peeled whole tomatoes into the oven dish.  BTW, the smell of tomatoes, onion, and garlic roasting with a little olive oil is just fabulous!
I like some sweet red sweet pepper in the soup, but you can skip it if you wish.

2 medium onions, peeled and halved
1/2 small cored and seeded red sweet pepper, optional
2 large garlic cloves, peeled
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
2 28-ounce cans whole peeled tomatoes in puree
1/8 teaspoon each ground allspice and freshly ground black pepper
1 to 2 pinches hot red pepper flakes, optional
1 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 to 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar, to taste
1/4 to 1/3 cup heavy cream

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Spray a 9 by 13-inch glass baking dish with non-stick spray. (This helps keep the tomato juices and vegetables from burning onto the dish sides.) Add the onions, sweet pepper (if using) and garlic to the dish.

Drizzle the olive oil over the vegetables, then stir until they are coated with it. Thoroughly drain the tomatoes through a sieve, reserving the juices. Add the drained tomatoes, allspice, black pepper, and   hot pepper flakes (if using) to the dish, stirring until they are coated with the oil.  Sprinkle the sugar over top; don’t stir.

Place the dish on the middle oven rack. Roast, stirring two or three times, for 50 to 60 minutes, until the tomatoes have cooked down, the onions are soft and browned, and the vegetables are extremely fragrant.  Let cool slightly. Peel the skin from the sweet pepper and discard. If any onion pieces look burned or dry, discard them. 

Scrape out the tomato mixture into a blender or food processor. Add the reserved juice from the canned tomatoes. (If the blender or processor is small, blend or process only half the mixture, then repeat.) Blend or process until completely smooth.

 Put the blended mixture in a medium-sized non-reactive pot. Stir in the cream and balsamic vinegar to taste. For a slightly thinner soup, stir in a little water.  Heat the soup to piping hot, but not boiling, stirring occasionally. Taste and add salt, if desired. Serve immediately or cover and refrigerate for later use. Soup keeps, covered and refrigerated, for up to 5 days.

Makes about 1 quart soup.
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