Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Christmas Baking Made Easy - How to Choose the Perfect Cookie Cutter

From the Kitchens of Cheesecake Farms

Baking cut out cookies?
Here's some tips for choosing a cookie cutter that will make perfect cookies easily.... every time!

Christmas Hearts
Both a German & Scandinavian 

holiday tradition
1. Choose a sharp edge, metal cutter
A metal cutting edge makes a clean cut.  
Plastic cutters squash the dough rather than cut so cookies don't separate easily or neatly.

Tin plated 
Most metal cookie cutters are tin plated.  
They'll last a couple of seasons if you wash them by hand and dry well.  
They'll eventually rust and that's disappointing because it's always your favorite cookie cutter that rusts out first.
Tin plated cookie cutters are inexpensive.

Expensive but so beautiful you can display them on your kitchen walls when they're not in use. 
They'll last years longer than tin but hand wash and dry these, too.

Stainless Steel 
The pro's choice.  They don't rust and you can put them into the dish washer.  
Harder to find than tin or copper and stores generally don't carry much of a selection.  The internet will be your best best.

We don't recommend plastic cutters but even we have a few in our collection.  Sometimes they're just the size and shape you're looking for.  They're cheap enough that it's OK.... just don't mention them to your gourmet pals.

Hearts, candy canes, rounds, 
stars .. any hing simple
works best... even ponies, puppies
and kitties as long as it's a simple design

2. Simple designs work best
When your cookie cutter has a large, simple overall design, the dough will easily release from the cutter. 

Intricate designs are frustrating to remove from the cutters.

Add design touches with frosting and other decorations rather than trying to get intricate detail from the dough. 

Monday, November 28, 2011

Christmas Baking Made Easy - Cranberry Shortbread

From the Kitchens of Cheesecake Farms

Cranberry Shortbread (top)
Brows Sugar Shortbread (below)

We're never met shortbread that we didn't like but this classy little recipe is one of our favorites.

Easy, yummy,and  a little unusual ... just about perfect we'd say.

A great way to begin your holiday baking.... just be sure to leave some for Christmas!

Makes 2 (7 inch round) shortbreads
Requires baking parchment paper

1 cup all purpose flour
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 stick cold butter (salted or un salted - cut into random 1 inch chunks - margarine not recommended)
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup dried cranberries

Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.  Set aside.

Pulse flour, cornstarch, butter and sugar together in food processor (using the dough blade if you have one) until it almost come together into a ball - about 1 minute. 

Add cranberries and pulse until mixture comes together and cranberries have been slightly chopped - about 30 seconds.  Do not over process.  (See Karla's Tip #1 below.)

Remove the dough (and any dough fragments) from the food processor and, using your hands, work dough briefly so it all comes together into a ball. (Do not over work or the heat of your hands will melt the butter.)  

Divide the dough in half and place both pieces onto the parchment lined cookie sheet spacing them evenly.  Circles should be centered on the cookie sheet and several inches apart.

Leave plenty of room
between the circles
of dough
Using you fingers, press dough piece into a 7 inch circle.

Use the palm of one hand to press dough making it level and uniform.
(You can also lightly roll a rolling pin over the top of each circle to level.)  

Cut each circle into 8 wedges by pressing a knife, metal spatula or similar cutter through the dough.  (See Karla's Tip #2 below.)

Use a dinner fork to make 3 sets of holes down each wedge.

Using a metal spatula, gently tap the sides of each circle all the way around.   (See Karla's Tip #3 below.)

Lightly cover the cookie sheet (with the dough on it) and place into the refrigerator.  
"Knocking Up"
the shortbread
Chill dough for at least 1 hour.  Longer is OK - up to 24 hours.

When ready to bake, position oven rack so shortbread will bake in center.
Preheat oven to 300 degrees (yes, 300 degrees).
Do not remove the shortbread from the refrigerator until the oven is preheated.

Bake the cold shortbread until lightly browned on bottom and barely brown on top - about 30 minutes. 

Remove pan from oven and immediately lightly press a knife into the slices to define the original cuts.

Using a fork, re-poke the holes in the slices. Be careful not to poke new holes.  You are just re-defining the original holes.

Slide shortbread (still on parchment paper) onto cooling rack. 
Let cool completely - about 1 hour. 

Remove the shortbread from the parchment paper for serving or gift giving. 
Leave shortbread whole or carefully break into wedges.

Karla's Tip #1 - Over processing the dough
If you over process, the dough becomes pink so you'll loose the gorgeous contrast in color between the white of the shortbread and the red of the cranberries.  

The flavor contrast is also affected - the distinctive cranberry taste becomes blended with the dough. 

Overall, the cookies will still taste OK but it's the difference between a good cookie and a GREAT cookie.

Karla's Tip #2 - Cutting Dough
Press the knife into the dough then lift the knife to move it to the next cutting point.
Do not drag the knife (the motion you use when cutting with a knife) through the dough.
Dragging results in ragged edges after baking.

Karla's Tip #3 - Knocking Up Your Shortbread
This makes the edges neat and gives a slight rise to the edge making it more professional looking.  This technique, btw, is called "knocking up your pastry" in England and is used for all kinds of doughs - especially puff pastry.  

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Christmas Baking Made Easy - Which Butter Makes the Best Cookies?

From the Kitchens of Cheesecake Farms

Brown Sugar Shortbread -
a holiday favorite at
Cheesecake Farms!

Having trouble with your tried and true holiday cookie recipes?

Cookies spread too much?


Burn quickly and stick to the pans?

The problem's not you.  
The problem is your butter.

Butter used to be consistent and reliable.   No more.

We baked with every brand of butter we could lay our hands on.
Here's the highlights:

National Brands
O Lakes (salted)
The gold standard for cookie baking. Produced a cookie that held its shape. Color of the finished cookies were uniform and not browner at the edge.

A little saltier than it used to be so you might experiment with your first batch and cut back on the salt in your recipe.

About $5.00 a pound but often goes on sale at the holidays so it's a good all around butter for experienced and novice cookie bakers alike.

Chewy Molasses Crinkles

Store Brands
As a rule, we found store brand butters OK for baking but they varied widely in their water content which made baking inconsistent. 

If you bake only one or two batches of cookies during the holidays, you'll do OK.

If you're a dedicated cookie baker you'll find store brands frustrating because even within a store brand, the manufacturers can vary from batch to batch. 

Prices averaged about $4.00 per pound.

Artisan Butter
Kerry's Gold   (salted, imported Irish butter)
So yellow it almost looks like cheese.
Our cookies never got really crisp (you could bend them), were irregularly shaped and bland.
Sold by the half pound for $3.89 (that's $7.78 per pound).
In our opinion, not worth the money.

Plugra European Style Butter   (unsalted - made in the USA)
Equally disappointing. 
Very pale in color - almost white.
Comes unsalted and has that slight tang typical of European style butters.
Our cookies spread a lot and baked unevenly.
Sold in half pound packages at $4.29. ($8.58 per pound).
Old Fashioned Raisin Bars

Organic Butter
Both Organic Valley Salted Butter (a national brand) and Nature's Promise (Giant's store brand organic butter) baked pretty much the same.

Store brands are produced by major manufacturers so it's a safe bet these might be the same butter.

Both produced a crisp, slightly greasy, slightly chewy cookie that spread a little more than we'd like. 
Edges of cookies browned more than the center.
The fact that the butter was organic had no bearing on its baking qualities.
Around $5.00 per pound.

Small Dairy
Trickling Springs Dairy (Chambersburg, PA - available in Remington, VA at the Farmer's Wife, at Lee Highway Nursery in Warrenton and lots of other places so look around at your favorite store).

We loved this butter!
Cookies were uniform, crispy and didn't spread much.
The heights of the finished cookies were even, not high in the middle and thin at the ends typical of cookies made with butter that contains excess water.
Least salty taste of all brands even when the label said "lightly salted". (Unsalted is available, too.)

Comes in a tub instead of sticks but easy to measure for baking. 
Just pop the butter out of the one pound tub and cut into four chunks making them as even as you can.

Softens very quickly and will almost melt like ice cream.

Cookies baked an even color throughout - not browner at the edges. 
About $5.85 per pound.

Don't waste these on the kiddies!

So what's our advice?
When it comes to cookie baking, it's the quality of the butter that's important.

Trickling Springs tub butter is our pick for this year's holiday cookies with Land O Lakes a close second.

But no matter what the butter, we've never met a cookie we didn't like.

Christmas Baking Made Easy - Set Up a Baking Station

From the Kitchens of Cheesecake Farms

Having all your ingredients right
at hand makes baking so
Thanksgiving is over and we're on our way to Christmas!

Holiday baking is the A#1 item on everybody's to-do list.

Make your holiday baking more love and less labor by setting up a baking station.

It's easy!
Get a sturdy rolling cart or rolling table then stock it with all your non perishable baking supplies and specialty equipment.  

Flour, sugar, chocolate, baking powder, baking soda, flavorings, a rolling pin, parchment paper, cookie cutters.... whatever you use most often.

Let's bake!
It's important that the cart or table be on wheels so you can roll your ingredients to where you want to work then roll them away when you're done.   Makes things so much easier!

A baking station makes it easy to keep track of your supplies, too.
At a glance, you can see what you have on hand.

Since you work from the cart, your counter stays uncluttered leaving you more work space. 

When you're done baking, just roll the cart out of the way. 

Once you set up a baking station, you'll wonder how you ever got any baking done without one!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thanksgiving Recipes - Cook Your Turkey in the Slow Cooker!

From the Kitchens of Cheesecake Farms

Never enough of a good thing!

It's time for that traditional Thanksgiving turkey.

Here in Virginia, the continuing controversary about serving turkey for Thanksgiving is hot and heavy with no end in site.

Purests point to the fact that ham is the historically correct entree for a southern Thanksgiving. Our fore fathers and fore mothers would not have served turkey, they say. Turkey is northern fare.

Whether it is or whether it isn't, turkey is still number one at Thanksgiving but many Southern homes give a nod to our heritage by serving both ham and turkey.

You just can not have too many good things to eat at Thanksgiving!

Slow Cooker Roasted Turkey Breast

This is an incredibly easy (and scrumptious) way to cook a turkey breast.

Moist and juicy plus it frees your oven for other yummy things like pies! Just pop it into the slow cooker and forget it!!

A great way to add extra serving of white meat.
Perfect for small family feasts, too. 

Once you roast a turkey breast in the slow cooker, you'll never cook it another way!!

1 turkey breast (4-6 pounds - thawed, if frozen)

Wash turkey well under tepid running water. Drain.

Put turkey into a slow cooker, cutting, if necessary to fit.  Cover.

Set cooker on high and cook 4-5 hours or until a meat thermometer reaches 170 degrees.

Like all slow cooker recipes, the exact time is very forgiving.

Remove from cooker and keep warm for serving.

Use the broth as part of your stock when making your gravy.

Karla's Tips
There is nothing else and no other ingredients to this recipe!  Really!!
The slow cooker was NOT preheated.
Do not add any liquid.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Thanksgiving Recipes - Fresh Ideas for Easy Home Made Cranberry Sauce

From the Kitchens of Cheesecake Farms

Waiting for Thanksgiving left overs

Skip that canned cranberry sauce for an easy, home made one. 

Almost faster than opening the can and once you make your own, you'll never go back.

Now's the time to buy extra bags of fresh cranberries and tuck them into the freezer for cranberry treats till cranberry season rolls around again next Thanksgiving.

Cranberry bread, cranberry scones, cranberry ginger bread, cran-apple pie, cranberry muffins and so many more yummy treats to enjoy all year long but fresh cranberries are only available this time of year so you have to think ahead.

No special tricks for freezing. 
Simply over-wrap the bags of cranberries (just as they come from the store) with another plastic bag and tuck into the freezer.

When ever you need cranberries for a recipe, just remove the portion you need (the berries don't stick together) rinse them under tepid running water, drain and stir into your recipe.  No thawing needed.

No Cook Fresh Cranberry and Orange Relish
Ditch that canned cranberry sauce for some honest to goodness real stuff made from scratch.

In less time than you think you'll have the shining star of your Thanksgiving feast.

This recipe is so easy and yet so gourmet!  
Best made not more than 1 day in advance.

Makes about 3 cups

1 package fresh cranberries (12-16 oz)
1 thick skinned orange (like a navel orange - about 3 inches in diameter)
Sugar to taste (about 1/4 cup to 1 cup sugar)

Wash cranberries. Remove stems and shriveled berries. Wash orange.

Cut orange (peel and all) into random chunks.  Remove any seeds and white center core. 

Using the food processor, chop cranberries and orange chunks (with peel) together by pulsing.  Do not puree.

Remove mixture to bowl.  Add sugar to taste.  Refrigerate until serving.

Karla's Tip:
Be sure to use a thick skinned navel orange.  Thin skinned oranges (like juice oranges) do not work well in this recipe.

Ported Cranberries
Prepare up to a week in advance to let the flavors mellow.

Great spooned over toasted pound cake or vanilla ice cream. 
(Or, here's a thought, put the vanilla ice cream on top of the cake and have both topped with these yummy ported cranberries!!)

Makes about 3 cups

1 (12-16 oz.) bag fresh cranberries
2 cups port wine (any type - other wines not recommended)
1-1/2 cups dark brown sugar (lightly packed to measure)

Wash cranberries under tepid running water.  Drain.  
Remove any stems or shriveled berries.

In a large pot, bring wine and sugar to a boil, stirring occassionally to disolve sugar. (This boils over like a volcano making a HUGE mess so watch carefully.) 

Add cranberries. Cook on medium/low heat till they pop - about 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove popped cranberries and put into a heat proof dish.

Continue cooking liquid (uncovered) until it reduces by half - about 10 minutes.

Pour reduced liquid over cooked cranberries. Stir. 

Cool to room temperature  - about an hour.  Cover and refrigerate until serving time.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Radical Cooking - How to Make An Apple Pie Without Sugar (or Artificial Sweeteners)

From the Kitchens of Cheesecake Farms

Can you make a pie without sugar?
Yes, you can!! 

Cutting back on sugar?
Good for you!!

But don't gunk up your good intentions with artificial sweeteners.

This pie is a REAL pie made with real fruit.  
No artificial sweeteners or other yuck-y things.  
Just the sweet taste of sweet apples.

No one will miss the sugar.
Who knew good health could taste this good?

Unsugared Apple Pie
Not a smidgeon of added sugar in this little gem but plenty sweet.... no artificial sugar either!  The sweetness comes naturally from sweet apples!!

This does NOT taste like a diet pie and, actually, it isn't a diet pie.  
It's an honest to goodness real pie that just happens to be made without sugar.

This is our most requested recipe.
You're going to be surprised!

Makes one (10 inch) pie

Pie crust for a 2 crust (10 inch) pie  (purchased or home made)
12 (4 inch) red or yellow delicious apples (peeled, cored and coarsely chopped - about 10 cups)
1/4 cup dark raisins
1/4 cup walnuts (halves and pieces)
3/4 cup unsweetened apple juice
1 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon instant or quick cooking tapioca
1/4 teaspoons vanilla

Position oven rack so pie will bake in lower third.  Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Line pie pan with bottom crust.  Fill with apples, raisins and nuts.

In a small sauce pan, heat juice, butter, tapioca and vanilla until butter melts.  Pour over apples in crust.  

Top with second crust.  
Crimp edges.  
Cut a steam hole in the center of the pie.

Bake in preheated oven 50 minutes or until crust is browned on the bottom and apples are tender.  

Cool completely before cutting so the juice thickens.  
Cutting too soon results in a watery pie.

PS.... How about a scoop of ice cream to gild the lily????

Monday, November 14, 2011

Thanksgiving Recipes - Punch with a Punch

From the Kitchens of Cheesecake Farms

Does everyone wind up in the kitchen just when you're trying to put the finishing touches on Thanksgiving dinner?

Here's an idea....... set up the bar as far away from the kitchen as you can and stock it with a help yourself hot punch.  

Both of these recipes start with apple cider which, here in Virginia, is a fall staple.  Our fresh pressed local apples make this a crisp, seasonal treat.

Add some spices and heat to steaming. The spicy scents will draw the crowd away from the kitchen and out of your way.  People love to linger over a pipping hot brew and they're likely to stay away till you call them to the table!  
Hot spiced punch will
punch up your

Steaming Cider and White Wine Punch
If you have time (and space in the fridge) you can make it a day or two in advance.  The flavors will blend and mellow.  

At serving time, ladle it into the slow cooker and reheat (covered) on low.

Makes about 16 (1/2 cup) servings

1/2 cup sugar (or to taste)
1 (750ml) bottle white table wine (medium sweet)
4 cups unsweetened apple cider (1 quart)
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground mace
4 (3 inch) cinnamon sticks
1 cup dried apple rings
1/3 cup dark raisins

Combine all ingredients in a large pot and heat, covered, until steaming.  Do not boil.  Cook 5 minutes to blend flavors.  Serve hot.  Ladle into a chafing dish or slow cooker to keep warm, if desired.

Karla's Tip:  Brown sugar, honey or maple syrup to taste may be used instead of granulated sugar.  If you prefer, sugar may be omitted entirely.

Hot Orange Cider 
Jazz things up with a jigger of your favorite spirits.... bourbon, Southern Comfort, brandy, rum... even Cointreau or other orange liquor.

For a family punch, set the bottle(s) of spirits along side to be added, if desired.

Use the slow cooker here, too!  

For each serving:
1/2 cup orange juice
1/2 cup apple cider (bottled, fresh or hard)
Brown sugar to taste (optional)
Cinnamon stick 

Mix together.   Heat to steaming.   Add the spirits after heating.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Thanksgiving Recipes - Cranberry and Crisp Apple Pie

From the Kitchens of Cheesecake Farms

Makes 1 (10 inch) pie serving 8 to 10

6 cups pie apples (peeled, quartered, cored and cut into 1/4 inch slices - See Karla's Tip below)
1 (14 to 16 oz) can whole cranberry sauce
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons instant (or quick cooking) tapioca
6 cups pie apples (peeled, quartered, cored and cut into 1/4 inch slices - See Karla's Tip below)
1/3 cup walnuts  (halves and pieces)
1 (2 crust) pie crust (purchased or home made)

Position oven rack so pie will bake in lower 1/3.  Preheat to 400 degrees.

Put cranberry sauce into a large pot.   Melt over low heat, uncovered and stirring occasionally.   Remove from heat.
Crisscross strips of dough to make a lattice top.

Stir in sugar, tapioca, apples and walnuts.

Place one of the pie crusts into pie pan (ungreased).   Pour in filling.

Cut remaining crust into 1 inch strips.

Layer half the strips left to right over the filling.

Lay the remaining strips top to bottom over the first set of strips forming a lattice (basket weave) top.

Trim edges and crimp.

Put pie on a layer pan (like a cookie sheet) to catch drips.

Bake in the preheated oven until the crust is nicely browned (top and bottom), the filling is bubbling and the apples are tender.  


Karla's Tip #1 - Apples

Pie apples hold their shape when baked.  Use them when you want to see apple slices or chunks... like for pies, baked apples, chutney and for chunky apple desserts.

Cortland,  Granny Smith, Jonagold, Greening, Winesap.

1 pound of apples = (approximately) 2 large apples or 3 medium or 4 to 5 small.
1 pound of apples = (approximately) 3 cups sliced apples. 

Eating apples (like Macintosh) cook down to pulp.  Use them when you want a smooth textures like for apple sauce and apple butter.