At the back of our yard is an unruly patch of wilderness we loosely refer to as “our garden”. We never seem to have the time to plant and tend anything worthwhile so the patch is overrun with leggy raspberry canes and prickly thistles. As bad as it sounds, it’s not a total bust. In one small corner of the patch, four little blueberry bushes are thriving and have produced a gorgeous crop of spicy, midnight-colored gems.
This surprising bounty is due wholly to Jay’s efforts. He is the blueberry whisperer and an all-around green thumb. He grows and tends to all the things and I take that raw potential and create art with it in my kitchen. This recent blueberry windfall is the perfect example. As soon as Jay brought the berries in from “our garden” I put butter on the counter to soften and then grabbed my camera to capture the dark beauty of the tiny fruit. After about a hundred shots of blueberries from every angle and degree of magnification, I got busy making the real magic – turning these berries and a few other humble ingredients into one of the finest coffee cakes in the history of the world.
Blueberry Streusel Coffee Cake (Adapted from a recipe submitted to Taste of Home by Lori Snedden several years ago.)
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
- 1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries
- 1 cup chopped pecans
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/3 cup all purpose flour
- 1/2 cup cold unsalted butter
- Preheat oven to 375°.
- Grease a 9×9 inch baking pan.
- In a mixing bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.
- Add egg, milk and butter. Beat well.
- Fold in blueberries and pecans.
- Spread batter into pan.
- In another bowl, combine the sugar and flour.
- Cut in the butter until crumbly.
- Sprinkle over batter.
- Bake for 35-40 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted near the center comes out clean.
I can’t really tell you what it is about this cake that makes it so good. The delicate crumb topping? The abundance of blueberries? The pecan chunks in every mouthful? Who knows. Maybe it really is magic. All I can say is that I’ve eaten four pieces of this cake in the last two days and I’m about to have another and my mouth is watering just thinking about it. Do yourself or those you love a favor, friend, and make this cake.
A double dose of Coca Cola…
Same image, rotated…
My brother-in-law, John, works as a project architect and construction administrator for RLPS, an architectural firm based in Lancaster. For many, many years his firm has created a unique Christmas-themed display which is then opened to the public. After our family Christmas gathering on Saturday, John gave us a private viewing of this year’s village and of the gorgeous office space he gets to work in every day.
The theme this year is the Adirondack Mountains and all buildings are required to reflect this turn of the century (circa. 1900-1930) architectural style. Several rules accompanied the design and creation of this year’s theme: all models are at a scale of 3/8″ – 1’0″ (making people about 2 inches tall), all visible material other than windows, roof structure and lights are edible, and 75% – 100% of the exterior walls are made of pretzels. I was blown away by the precision of construction and the attention to detail – even the interiors had glowing fireplaces, Christmas trees and an occasional grand piano. With moving parts, a multitude of twinkling lights and a heavy dose of whimsy and humor, Adiron-Deck the Halls was an unexpected delight for me. I’m thankful for my connection to an insider so I could take my time investigating it.
- > 30 unique pretzel shapes used
- 40 gallons of Royal icing
- 120 12″ x 12″ sheets of gingerbread
- 15 pounds of salt
- 16 pounds of aluminum wire
- 652 trees
- > 50 pounds of candy
- 20 pounds of rock candy
- 17 houses
- > 2400 lights
This is what happens when designers, draftsmen, and architects play with their food:
Adiron-Deck the Halls
So much fun…thanks, John!
UPDATE: John sent me the link to a time-lapse photography video on Youtube showing all the prep that was involved in putting this little display together.
Baking is an exacting process. It’s one of the reasons I choose it as a way to relax. It sounds counter-intuitive, I know, but it really isn’t. Because I have to pay attention to what I am doing and follow all the steps in the recipe, I can’t multi-task and I can’t rush through the process. Baking forces me to slow down and be mindful. Plus, it is so sensually satisfying. The taste of creamed butter and sugar, the smell of vanilla and spices, the silky feel of flour, the riot of sanding sugar colors. The house smells delicious as the cookies bake and then everyone can enjoy the yummy results.
While I was writing this post, I found myself thinking about some of the cookie baking wisdom I’ve acquired over the years. My unique arsenal of tips and tricks have come from a wide variety of sources. Some have been handed down from more experienced bakers in my family (i.e., Nana and Mom, etc.) and some grew out of a desperate need to solve a frustrating baking problem. Other tips developed from happy accidents or were gleaned from baking blogs and articles. Taken together, these bits of wisdom have significantly decreased the frustration level and increased the fun factor of cookie baking for me. Since Christmas time is the zenith of cookie baking activity, I thought I’d share some of my best tips and tricks. Hopefully, you’ll find something to increase you own cookie baking pleasure or efficiency.
- Use fresh, best quality ingredients like eggs, butter, baking soda, baking powder, etc. Quality ingredients increases your chances of producing quality cookies. At least you are building a solid foundation. I put dates on my baking soda, baking powder and spices so that I can keep track of freshness.
It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway), you can’t bake well if you don’t have the right equipment. Beyond measuring cups and spoons, spatulas, bowls, a fridge and an oven, there are a few tools that are essential to my success as a cookie baker.
- Flat cookie sheets without sides. I’ve tried all kinds of cookie sheets. Hands down, I get the best results with the flat, sideless variety. Cookies bake evenly and are so easy to put on and take off the sheets. (Note: I have no preference for color or surface type because of my next tool.)
- Parchment paper. What a miracle worker! It’s the perfect non-stick surface for any type of cookie (except maybe spritz that need a sticky surface) and can be used on any cookie sheet. Because of its light color, cookie bottoms don’t brown too much. And, it can be re-used and makes clean-up a breeze.
- A variety of scoops. Drop cookies became infinitely easier to manage when varying sizes of ice cream scoops were introduced. I bought my scoops from Pampered Chef years ago; I use them all the time because drop cookies are my go-to type of cookie and they are still going strong. Using scoops increases the efficiency of the cookie baking process and the uniformity of the size of the cookies. It’s a win-win, really. I can make the cookies faster and they look better.
- KitchenAid Mixer. It’s my BFF when I’m baking. It does the heavy work of creaming the butter and sugars while I combine the dry ingredients and then tirelessly mixes everything together. I waited a long time to purchase my royal blue powerhouse. Although my kids missed having two beaters to lick at first, I have never looked back.
- Large cooling racks. Cookies need to cool completely before they are stored. They also need to get off the baking sheets so that more cookie dough can fulfill its destiny. Large cooling racks = more cookies cooling at one time = efficiency.
- Read the whole recipe before you start and then follow. every. step. Why? See below.
- Measure ingredients exactly. Although baking seems like magic (and I’d still argue that some magic is involved), it’s really about chemistry. For the chemistry to do what it’s supposed to do, you need to follow the directions and measure ingredients accurately. Period. End of story. Non-negotiable.
- Allow butter to soften on the counter. Yes, it takes time and some planning. But, on the counter, butter will soften evenly and to the appropriate temperature every time. This is very good for your cookies, so just do it.
- Bring other ingredients to room temperature, too. When all the guests at the party are warmed up, they mingle with ease. It works the same way with your cookie dough ingredients. Let them warm up so they have a better chance of getting along.
- Don’t cream the butter and sugar too long. When butter is softened correctly, 2 to 2 1/2 minutes of creaming with the sugar should be just about perfect. If you cream for a shorter time than that, the butter and sugar don’t emulsify properly. Longer than 3 minutes and too much air is introduced into the dough. Cookies will then rise extra high as they cook and then deflate when they cool. Sad, deflated cookies are just… sad. Do follow the recipe, though. There may be a very good reason you need to cream the butter and sugar for 7 minutes.
- When adding dry ingredients, only mix the dough until dry ingredients are completely incorporated, then stop. Over-beating the dough after the flour has been added can active the gluten in the flour. Instead of tender cookies that melt in your mouth, you’ll be chewing on hockey pucks. Also, use the lowest setting on your mixer as you incorporate the dry ingredients for the same reason. The best policy at this stage in the process is to treat your cookie dough with tender, loving care.
- Don’t crowd the baking sheet. Cookies need room to grow. Make note of the spacing suggested in your recipe and follow it. If no guidance is offered, 2 inches is usually a pretty safe buffer zone. If you don’t want your cookies looking like conjoined twins, pay attention to spacing.
- When making rolled cookies, keep everything as chilled as possible. Making rolled cookies can quickly turn into a nightmare. The trick is to keep everything cold so that dough keeps its shape and doesn’t stick to anything. I divide my dough in half so I always have some dough in the refrigerator chilling while I’m working with the other half. If you’re like me and don’t have a naturally cool marble surface to work on, keep your counter chilled with a gallon plastic bag full of ice when you aren’t working on it. It also helps to chill the cookie cut-outs before they go in the oven; they keep their shape better while they bake. Trust me, chilling reduces the exasperation level exponentially with cut-out cookies.
I’m going to wrap up this long-winded piece of advice now. I’m always looking for ways to improving my baking skills. Do you have any suggestions you’d like to add? Gingerbread and spritz cookies still make me want to curse and pull my hair out in clumps so advice related to those cookies would be especially appreciated. Happy baking!