Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Dye-Free "Painted" Daisy Sugar Cookies--Sweet Inspiration from Nature

You know what inspired these cookies from my latest book, Simply Sensational Cookies, don't you!? The daisies, black-eyed- Susans and cone flowers that flourish in spring and summer are so cheerful and pretty, they make perfect models for eye-catching seasonal cookies.

I made these to take to a birthday bash. My sister and niece were throwing themselves a joint 60-30 birthday party last spring, and, of course, I had to contribute. Later this month, I'm going to take some daisy cookies to a shower, too.

In keeping with my current interest in minimizing the use of food dyes in pastry decorations, I've gone totally dye-free in this icing recipe. The golden black-eyed-Susan icing takes its color from orange juice concentrate instead of water; the pink cone flower icing is tinted with cranberry juice concentrate. You can certainly add a drop or two of synthetic food dyes for a brighter shade, but I prefer to go completely au naturel and use either fruit juices or purchased botanical colors .  For more info/resources/options for how and why you might want to decorate the"au naturel" way, you'll find a whole big chapter with beautiful photos in my book, or for another post on my site,  go here.

BTW, the icing for dark centers  or eyes of the cookies is readied by stirring in a little cocoa powder into the mixture. Also, I have a particular way that works best for prefer rolling out dough for sugar cookies like these; check out my short, fun how-to video here.

It's best to use any not-too-sweet, not-too puffy sugar cookie dough you like for these; try my recipe here. If you don't have a daisy cutter, it's fine to use a simpler petal or flower cutter, which is not only easier to find but also easier to work with. Notice that the cookie pic below left shows both shapes.
Au Naturel Dye-Free Daisy Cookie Icing

I like this icing because it avoids food dyes, but is easy, spreads smoothly, and has a slight sheen.  For another au naturel icing that gives you green shades, check out my green tea icing recipe here.

 The recipe makes enough to decorate at least 3 dozen 2 3/4 to 3-inch cookies. Since it is sweet, add just enough to cover each cookie; don't pile it on.

The recipe calls for meringue powder or egg white powder. Wilton makes a meringue powder usually stocked with cake decorating supplies. Some supermarket baking sections include dry egg white powder.  If you can't find either, you may leave it out.
3 1/2 cups powdered sugar, divided, plus more as needed
3 1/2 teaspoons meringue powder or egg white powder, divided
1 teaspoon light corn syrup, divided
1 teaspoon vanilla extract, divided
1  to  1 1/2 tablespoons thawed orange juice concentrate, plus more if needed
1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons thawed cranberry juice concentrate, plus more if needed
1 to 2 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder, plus more if needed
Turbinado sugar or white crystal sugar for optional garnish

Stir together 1 cup powdered sugar and 1 teaspoon meringue powder in each of three bowls, then stir together 1/2 cup powdered sugar 1/2 teaspoon meringue powder and cocoa powder in a smaller fourth bowl. Add 1/2 teaspoon each corn syrup and 1/4 teaspoon vanilla  to each bowl. To the first bowl, add 1  to 1 1/2 tablespoons thawed orange juice concentrate; to the second bowl, add  1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons cranberry juice concentrate, to the third 1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons water. Stir each icing until thoroughly blended and smooth, adding in little more juice or water if too dry to mix together.  To the fourth bowl, stir in just enough water to create a spreading consistency.  Add more powdered sugar if needed to stiffen the icings to a slightly fluid and spreadable, but not runny consistency.

To decorate the cookies: Using a table knife, spread a light, smooth coating of white,  yellow, or pink icing over the cookies until all are decorated. Let stand until set, about 15-20 minutes.  Put the cocoa and yellow icings into sturdy baggies with a small hole clipped from one corner; or if preferred, use a disposable plastic piping bag. Then squeeze out small portions of either the yellow or chocolate to form “eyes” in center tops of the cookies as shown at left. Immediately sprinkle a little coarse sugar over the “eyes” to add texture, if desired.

Let the cookies stand at least 2 hours until the icing sets. Then pack, airtight, preferably in one layer or with wax paper between the layers. They will keep for 10 days. Or freeze up to 1 month.

For my food-color-free buttercream frosting recipe, go here.

For another seasonal cookie decorating idea; check out my autumn painted leaf cookies here.  Or my eye-catching,
dye-free Valentine's cookies here.
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Monday, June 20, 2011

Made in the Shade--But Is This Garden Ready for Prime Time?

If you follow my blog, you already know I'm an avid hobby gardener. You also know from some of the previous posts and pics that I have a lot of trees and woods behind my house and consequently several cool shady spots full of ferns and hostas and in early spring lovely violets.

But I have some exciting news about my garden that you don't know. In about a week, a national magazine crew will come and photograph a little alfresco summer party I'm having with my grandchildren in my back yard. We'll be making certain season-inspired sweet treats in the kitchen, then go out and enjoy them amid the greenery. (My hubby took the shot at the top from our deck as I was busily planting some impatiens. He snapped the photo to the left and below from our bedroom balcony, and I took the bottom one of the garden on the side of the house.)

I can't tell you the name of magazine at the moment or say exactly what sweets we're making, but I can share the pics of my garden as it looks right now. (Magazines like to be sure their story ideas stay secret until they're published. And this article won't appear until next summer!) I'll definitely fill you in on how the photo shoot goes and share whatever details I can.

In the meantime, I'm anxiously weeding, pruning, mulching, and sprucing up the garden as much as I can. True, the focus will be on the food and our little summer party, but I want to be sure the setting is ready for prime time, too. What do you think?

While it's fun and exciting getting ready, it's been a bit nerve-wracking as well. What if we get a hail storm? What if the marauding deer decide to meander down the path along the side of the house, merrily munching hostas as they go. Will the astilbe still be blooming when the magazine crew arrives?

Actually, I'm already looking forward to just relaxing and enjoying my oasis without worrying about whether it looks perfect or not. After all, peace and serenity are what a soothing shade garden is all about.

For my post, on the photo shoot, click here.
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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Fresh Raspberry Cobbler--& Back in My Berry Foraging Glory Again

I must have been born with the hunter-gatherer gene. Every year as spring wanes and summer heats up, I fidget and fuss and just can't stand to wait for berry season to begin. The berries shown above are the first black raspberries this  season--a small quantity, but there are more on the canes.

Inevitably, I conduct several May pre-harvest inspections of the wild black raspberries in the woods and red raspberries in my yard. Finally, in mid-June, the black raspberries finally take on enough color to be picked. At which point I grab a bucket and am off foraging again!
I've been picking raspberries since childhood, so it's a ritual now.

The wild black raspberries I forage for today grow in several patches in open space behind my Maryland house. I'm happy to say that no one else in the neighborhood seems to have noticed them, so birds are my main competition! Note that the fully ripe berries in the pic are the same color but rounder in shape (and have a different flavor) than blackberries. The partly ripe fruits are red and still sour, and the completely "green" berries are yellow and hard. Only the fully ripe fruits are easy to pluck from the tiny white caps at the ends of the stems. (Look closely, at left, and you can see these where several berries were already picked.)

The red raspberries I pick are right in the corner of my yard, about 15 feet from my front door. As the photo shows, they're just beginning to ripen, so I'll be enjoying them on and off for three or four more weeks.

Actually, I've gathered raspberries every single June since toddlerhood except for four years when I lived in Germany. There I had to settle for harvesting wild blackberries that grew along the banks of the Main River (pronounced "Mine") near my house each July. The slope was so steep and slippery I had to hang on to shrubs and tree stumps with my left hand as I picked with my right. At one point where there were no branches to cling to, I tied a rope around my waist and had my then middle-school aged son up on terra firma hold it taut so I wouldn't slide into the river below. (I can only guess what my German neighbors thought of that!)

In case black raspberries are new to you, they have a wonderful, zingy taste that's bolder than that of the familiar red varieties. I've seen cultivated black raspberries for sale in the Seattle and Portland areas, and in Pennsylvania Dutch country. But otherwise, they are hard to find except at an occasional roadside stand or farmers' market. They are so flavorful, I've never understood why they aren't more widely sold. Hopefully stories like this one will make that happen soon!

Just as I have since my mother taught me many decades ago, I made a simple cobbler with my first raspberry harvest of the season. I've baked hundreds of them over the years, and they're always as extraordinary as I remember from the summer before.

Raspberry Cobbler with Easy Crumble Crust

Assuming you can't forage for your berries, this homey, succulent cobbler is an indulgence, but it's definitely worth the splurge. It calls for a combination of red and black raspberries, which, I promise you are even better paired up than each is served alone. Don't worry if you can't obtain black raspberries; blackberries or even blueberries make a perfectly acceptable substitute, though the flavor won't be exactly the same. The recipe calls for adding a couple of more economical plums to round out the flavor and "stretch" the berries a bit.

This cobbler is easier to make than most because the topping requires no rolling out or shaping. Instead, it is prepared like a streusel, or crumb crust, and is simply crumbled over the fruit. The topping comes out slightly crisp and sweet, providing a pleasing contrast to the tartness of the filling. (For a cobbler recipe with a traditional biscuit crust, check out my blackberry cobbler or strawberry-rhubarb cobbler.)

Tip: Adjust the amount of sugar and lemon juice depending on the tartness of the berries and fruit.
2/3 to 3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch

4 cups red raspberries
2 cups black raspberries, blackberries, or blueberries
2 cups peeled, pitted (unpeeled) and chopped red or black plums
2 to 4 teaspoons lemon juice
1 2/3 cups all-purpose white flour
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1/3 cup granulated sugar
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Ice cream or whipped cream or plain heavy cream for serving, optional

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Lightly coat a 9-inch by 13-inch flat baking dish (or a similar size dish) with nonstick spray. For filling: Thoroughly stir together granulated sugar and cornstarch in a large bowl. Gently stir in berries, fruit and lemon juice until well blended. Spread mixture evenly in baking dish.

For dough: Thoroughly stir together flour, brown and granulated sugar, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl. Add melted butter to bowl, stirring until incorporated. Add egg, stirring with a fork until mixture is blended and clumped. Sprinkle clumps of dough mixture evenly over fruit.

Bake in middle third of oven for 30 to 40 minutes, or until well browned and bubbly. Transfer to wire rack and let cool to barely warm or cooled before serving. Serve with ice cream or whipped cream, if desired.

Makes about 10 servings.

Try my to-die-for red and black raspberry ice cream here.

Another berry cobbler you may like--blackberry here.

Or perhaps a bumbleberry crisp here.
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Thursday, June 9, 2011

Lime Sorbet with Fresh Mint--Stay Cool My Friends

 Lime! Mint! Icy-cold! I can’t think of more seductive words than those today because the temperature is going to hit 100 degrees F (and with the humidity will feel like 105 F) here in Maryland! I desperately NEED something to cool me off.

Actually though, other things helped inspire this super-refreshing sorbet. I was at the IACP culinary conference in Austin last week and tried a number of margaritas, including the vaguely peculiar cucumber version shown here. I liked the refreshing hue of it, but, after taking a sip, realized I wouldn’t be clamouring for more. I immediately suspected that mint would have contributed just as much attractive greenness, and, taste-wise, would have paired better with the lime. (Think mojito!)

It turns out my hunch was right. As you can see, the flecks of fresh mint do lend lovely color. And since I deliberately used peppermint leaves, they produce a unique sea breeze sensation in the mouth that makes the sorbet seems even colder and more invigorating than it would with lime alone. (I've also used peppermint to great advantage in a chocolate sorbet here).

The key to the cooling properties of peppermint is its menthol. Scientists say this remarkable element jangles the nerves that detect cold temperatures in our mouths. Menthol causes these thermo sensors to send messages to the brain saying “whooo, cool,” that can last up to 15 minutes. Be aware that there are many varieties of peppermint--the one shown from my yard is a hybrid called blue balsam, and it is particularly fragrant, tender and enticing in desserts. Interestingly, spearmint lacks menthol, so, while its taste and aroma are refreshing (and you can use it if that's what you have available), it doesn’t impart the same lingering sensation of frosty breezes when you suck in a breath.

Lime Sorbet with Fresh Peppermint
If you include the optional tequila in this sorbet, it will taste like a margarita and freeze a little less hard than the regular lime version. A scoop or two in a stemmed sorbet dish garnished with mint or lime wedges is pretty irresistible on a sticky‑hot day. The taste is clean and clear and great for reviving flagging spirits and appetites.

Note that this sorbet is readied with a food processor—no ice cream maker is required.

3/4 cup fresh lime juice, plus little more to taste
2 1/2 tablespoons tequila, optional
1 tablespoon very finely grated lime zest (green part of skin)
1 1/2 cups water
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup light corn syrup
1 tablespoon finely chopped peppermint leaves (no stems), plus more peppermint leaves or sprigs for garnish

Combine 3/4 cup lime juice, tequila (if using) and lime zest in a plastic storage container. Stir together the sugar, corn syrup, and water in a large non-reactive saucepan. Bring just to a boil over medium heat. Cover and gently boil 11/2 minutes. Remove the lid and boil 2 minutes longer. Stir the sugar syrup into the lime juice mixture. Cover and refrigerate until cooled. Taste and add a little more lime juice, if desired. Then, place in the freezer for 4-6 hours or until frozen but not completely hard. (Let mixture thaw slightly before using if it inadvertently freezes hard.)

Break up the mixture into chunks using a fork. Place a few chunks in a large, sturdy food processor. Add the chopped mint. Process until the mint is in very fine flecks. Add the remaining sorbet chunks to the processor. (Return the storage container to the freezer to stay cold during processing.) In on/off pulses, chop the sorbet until fine, stopping and scraping down the bowl with a rubber spatula several times. Then, process continuously until completely smooth, about 2 minutes longer.

Return the sorbet to the chilled container and place in the freezer to firm up at least 1 hour before serving. Store in the freezer, airtight, for up to 10 days; if very firm, let soften a few minutes before serving.

Makes a scant 1 quart.

For another beautiful, enticing blackberry sorbet you might like click here.
Or try my chocolate-mint sorbet here.
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Sunday, June 5, 2011

Random Things I Learned at the Austin IACP Conference

I learn something new at every culinary conference. So, I thought I'd share some random strange and/or interesting tidbits from the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference in Austin, Texas, last week.

Yes, that's me peering out behind the beefy boy in the picture. Finally I now fully understand why they call those big fellows "longhorns." I was standing on tiptoe and could barely reach the tip of one horn. The span to the tip of the other one was nearly six feet!

Another thing I learned was that armadillos were native to the Austin area. (At first I thought they looked cute--sort of like Piglet in the Pooh stories. I wanted to hold one, but then noticed that the little guy in the pic had large, sharp claws and that the handler was wearing very heavy gloves.) He explained that armadillos are nocturnal, which was why the ones in the pen kept trying to find a corner and just go to sleep.

Of course, I was mostly there to learn culinary stuff, so I should mention that margaritas came in some flavors I didn't expect. The ones pictured featured, um, cucumber. No doubt the idea was that it would be extra cool and refreshing, but IMHO, it just seemed a waste of good tequila! How does it sound to you--fun or just a little weird?

Every year IACP has a culinary fair for corporate members to show off new products, and I spotted these adorable little pineapples at the Melissa's produce booth. Look closely and you can see that they're just slightly smaller than the grapefruits behind them. In case you're wondering, no, I didn't get to taste, though they're supposed to be sweet-tart and golden-colored inside. Word is, the core of these babies is edible and that one fruit makes a generous single serving.

It wasn't surprising to find assorted Mexican restaurants serving chips and salsa in Austin, but they're presented with more fanfare than I'm used to. At the Casa Chapala (shown below) our server arrived with a bowl of ground chili peppers; asked how hot we liked our salsa; then stirred them in to our taste right at the table. (I told her, "medium," then cautioned that this was "tourist medium," although I suspect she'd already guessed!)

The salsa and chips were tasty, but the margarita I tried wasn't especially memorable. We did notice a heady, rich aroma of pork stew coming from the kitchen and probably would have stayed to try it, but we already had other plans. BTW, Chapala is a city and municipality in the central Mexican state of Jalisco.

I went to another conference in Atlanta recently. You may want to check out my visit to the historical Sweet Auburn Curb Market.
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