Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Sugar Cookie Throwdown

Here's the low down on the throwdown: Five, really six*, contenders this time. Mixed and chilled last night, baked today.  Three called for butter, one for butter and shortening, another straight shortening and finally we substituted butter in the recipe that called for only shortening to see how it turned out.

Check out E's face. I think he's under the impression this is a test.

Jen did the mixing of all the doughs and made few alterations, which I will note. She also did nearly all of the rolling while I took notes as to the nature of the different doughs. We did three runs per recipe. First, 1/8" roll. Next, 1/4". And finally a reroll at the ideal thickness of 3/16". We did this to see how well the dough performed at different thicknesses and then rerolled, which was really telling. Now remember ladies and gents, this is coming straight from a professional and let me just say, she knows her cookies.

The cookies were all different and tasty. It was a tough decision. Let me tell you how it played out...

#1 - Better Homes and Gardens submitted by Ingrid
Pros - All thicknesses rolled nicely.
It was easy to work with and ready to roll straight from the fridge.
Very little flour was needed in rolling.
High marks all around.
Cons - The dough tore easily

Pros - Kept its shape pretty well, little puffing.
Baking time/temp. needed no alteration or adjustment.
The reroll produced a still chewy, not too tough cookie.
Cons - It was a little on the sweet side.
Not much of a crumble to the cookie; almost too moist if that makes sense.

Overall: A chewy, slightly nutty cookie. A very practical, easy to work with kind-of dough. The almond extract was a nice touch.

#2 - Martha Stewart
Pros - All thicknesses rolled nicely.
Very easy to work with. Dough was firm/stiff in rolling and cutting.
Almost no flour was needed in rolling.
High marks all around.
Cons - Tears easily
Needed time out of the fridge before rolling.

Pros - Cookie held its shape beautifully, almost no distortion in baking.
Texture reminded me of shortbread with a nice crumble to it.
Reroll produced a cookie nearly identical to the original.
Baking time/temp. were consistent with no adjustments needed.
Cons - None

Overall: Color and texture were given the highest marks. This dough by far the easiest to work with. These were first pick for two tasters.
One alteration: Recipe called for cognac, which I don't have or use. Lemon extract was substituted.

#3 - Eggnog Sugar Cookies submitted by Azure
Pros - Rolls easily.
Nicely textured dough
No tearing
Cons - 1/8" roll stuck to the board, but 1/4" was much easier to work with.
Sticky dough - needed flipping while rolling the dough to keep it from sticking
Needed more flour in rolling.

Pros - A softer cookie.
Cons - Very much a holiday cookie, not for year-round use. Medium distortion to shapes in baking. Baking time needed to be decreased a bit to prevent overbaking.

Overall: You could definitely taste the eggnog in these cookies resulting in a very unique flavor. Very festive. The color was a little different, with an almost peachy-tint to it, due to the eggnog no doubt. These were E's first pick.
One alteration: This recipe made a huge batch. We halved it.

#4 - Sugar Cookies submitted by Ronna
Pros - Very soft texture.
Delicious dough.
Cons - A fragile dough that was tricky to work with.
Very sticky, needing lots of flour to roll out.
Dough wouldn't go back together easily for the reroll.

Pros - Made an enormous amount of cookies, even with the batch halved.
Baking time/temp. needed no adjustments.
Cons - Shapes were greatly distorted in baking.
A little bland, especially compared to dough flavor.

Overall: A very cake-like texture, fluffier than the others. The flavor was subtle could support a more generous amount of frosting than the others, similar to a "Granny B's" type of cookie. It was the most difficult to work with but had the softest texture, all due to the sour cream called for in the recipe.
*One alteration: We substituted butter for shortening in a second batch and the results we very similar, only noting more of a crumble in the butter version.

#5 - Lionhouse Sugar Cookies submitted by Loree
Pros - Firm dough.
Easy to work with.
Rerolled dough was still good to work with.
Holds cut shape well.
Cons - Almost too dry.

Pros - Little distortion in shape after baking.
Baking time/temp. needed no adjustments.
Cons - None

Overall: The classic sugar cookie. Slightly crunchy exterior. Not too sweet. Holds its shape well. Easy to work with. This was the only cookie that was in all testers' top three.
One alteration: The milk (2T.) was inadvertently left out, probably making it drier than it would have been.

You can see the difference in how each cookie kept its shape during baking. 
The one in the middle (#2) performed the best in this test.

The winner, and a close one at that, #5 Lionhouse. This classic cookie was near perfect in all areas. It was tasty all on its own and would also be delicious with frosting. It looked great after multiple rollings and was very easy to work with.

The winner - Lionhouse (#5)

And of course this is all, well mostly, based on opinion. You probably love the recipe you use or you wouldn't be using it. I have found the new recipe(s) I will be using (#2 for me, #5 for the fam) which was the point to all of this. Thanks to all who submitted and allowed their recipe to be scrutinized. I'll let you know when I muster up the strength to do another throwdown. Perhaps in January. Let me know what perfect recipe you are looking for and I'll consider it for the next one.

Finally! It is finished.  Thanks to my sis Jen, the (pastry) chef, we accomplished a huge feat. So go bake a batch already would you?!

**Sorry everyone. I neglected to post the recipes earlier. The winner, Lionhouse, is now linked (above) to a blog with the identical recipe posted already. I can't vouch for the frosting recipe though. I am posting the Martha Stewart recipe (my #1 pick) and the eggnog recipe below. If you want the others, let me know and I'll email them directly to you. Thanks for your patience.

1/2 lb. (2 sticks) unsalted butter
3/4 cup sugar
2 large egg yolks
1 t. vanilla extract
1 T. orange liqueur or cognac (I used lemon extract)
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 t. baking powder
 pinch of salt

Heat oven to 350 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat butter and sugar on medium-high speed until smooth, about 2 minutes. Add yolks and beat until fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Beat in vanilla and liqueur(extract). Add flour, baking powder, and salt and mix, beginning on low speed and increasing to medium, until flour is just incorporated.

Turn dough out onto a clean surface and divide evenly into 2 portions. Flatten each half to a 1-inch thick disk, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for at least an hour.

Lightly flour a clean surface. Roll dough to 1/4 inch thick and cut into shapes. (Scraps can be combined and rolled one more time.) Bake until golden, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove cookies to a wire rack to cool.

Azure's Eggnog Cookies (direct from Azure)

2 cups butter, softened
2 cups sugar
2 eggs
1 cup egg nog
2 tsp vanilla
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
5 1/2 cups flour

Cream butter and sugar. Add vanilla and eggs and egg nog. Add flour, soda and salt. Mix. I usuallly put in the fridge for 1/2 hour or so to firm up before rolling out. But whatever works for you :)! This makes a LOT of cookies, I usually cut it in 1/2...if it's too wet, just add a bit more flour...happy cookie making!

Monday, November 16, 2009

This is why

Some days I wonder why I homeschool my kids. I never planned it. It wasn't my dream. I'm not a super ambitious person who thought I could give my kids an "edge" by teaching them at home. Life threw me a curve ball when we moved to Baltimore. It made me look at things a little differently than I had in the past. It made me want to protect and shelter my short people more than I ever had before. I recognize all of that. Still..... there are options. I see that now more than I did initially. I could have done something else. I still could I guess.

I won't lie to you. It's tough. Sometimes it's bang-your-head-against-a-wall tough. I want to scream somedays. Heck, who am I kidding? I do scream somedays. But... still. I wake up every morning, put on my teaching cap and "go to work".

Today I remembered why. This is why.

Not the clearest picture, but you get the gist.
(Middle of the day, she finds the spent plumeria leaves and decides she wants to wear them while she finishes math. 
When they got too heavy, she moved on to a lion mask.)

For now, I am going to keep on doing what I do. I threaten to quit at least once a week, but I may never have the chance to spend this kind of time with my kids again. I love my shorties. So if you ever wonder why I do this every day just like I have for the past 15 months - now you know. This is why.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Sugar Cookie Throwdown - Call for Entries

Hey all!  I'm ready for another throwdown challenge. I know what you're thinking... so soon? Yep. I have holidays on the brain already and I plan on baking all my holiday sugar cookies next week to freeze ahead. But I need to find the best recipe out there before I can do that. If you think yours has got what it takes, shoot me the recipe so I can get the ingredients. I'm going to put a cap on entries at 12 total. I have four already, so hurry, hurry, hurry! Actual baking will happen sometime early next week so don't delay.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Banana Bread Throwdown

First, the freezer in my kitchen was overflowing with bananas. (I freeze them when they are fully to over-ripened and then thaw when I am ready for baking. You probably do the same thing, right?) Yesterday I took inventory of the banana population and it was out of control.  There were 16 hiding out in various nooks and crannies and I am convinced they were breeding. I simply don't remember putting that many in the freezer.

The other thing that spurred this throwdown was the recipe problem I have been battling for too long. I simply have too many recipes - good ones. The cookie selection is out of control too. Soups and salads galore! Crock-pot ideas, difficult to sift through them all. Don't get me started on sweet breads... They're on scraps of paper, torn out of magazines, covered in fallout from repeated use and generally a mess.

Yesterday the overflowing banana population combined with the cornucopia of recipes for which to turn them into bread was the final straw. I simply had to have a throwdown.

Here's the set up: five recipes with little to no alteration of the recipe - ok, so I added chocolate chips to all but one recipe as per Jon's request - and one evening. We judged on taste, texture, appearance and then rated it overall.

Let me look at my notes...
#1, Martha Stewart Baking Handbook

Probably a little overdone even though it was baked according to the directions. This one had coconut and pecans but no chocolate. It was the only one with coconut. It had a chewy texture that we liked. It was the only recipe where I toasted the nuts before adding them to the batter, as per the recipe. It made for a more noticeable flavor prompting everyone to give them a thumbs-up.

#2, Alton Brown (my hero), I'm Just Here for More Food cookbook

I like Alton's approach, mixing his baking knowledge with a slightly unique set of ingredients. This was the only recipe calling for almond extract.  In addition to all-purpose flour he also used oat flour (which I didn't have). My substitution - ww flour instead. This recipe produced a very moist product. Jon felt there was too much chocolate (as if that's possible). E and I really liked this one.

#3, Old Fashioned Family Cookbook

I got this cookbook as a wedding present. Honestly, the only recipe I have ever used from it is the banana bread recipe. I have used this recipe a lot though and have been pleased with the results in general. However, I felt like it was drier than #2, which I don't prefer. The flavor was unremarkable. Jon liked that it was drier as he wants to eat his with a mug of milk in tow.

#4, Kristens' recipe via Ingrid - (we just call it The Ingrid around here)

This resulted in a very moist loaf. Et liked that a lot. It wasn't as sweet as the others which I liked. There were no nuts, as per the recipe. It was the only one without nuts actually. I think adding them would really give it a boost. Jon felt it was a little boring in comparison to the others, but agreed the nuts would greatly improve it.

#5, Bonn. 3rd Ward Cookbook courtesy J. Matthews

Another moist loaf. It made two full loaves which was more than the others. E liked the flavor of this one. I felt, in comparison, it was not quite as tasty or unique as some of the others.

I finished too late last night to have the judging, so it went down this morning at the breakfast table. Poor family.

After tallying up the scores, we came to a tie decision. Drum roll please - da da da da da da da da!!
The winners: (#2) Alton's and (#4) The Ingrid. Both were very moist. E and I especially liked the almond extract component in #2. I liked that the #4 was not too heavy on the sweet factor.

And to finish things off - I sliced the loaves, packed them into containers and sent them off to the freezer to be consumed at a later time. Don't worry, I left some slices out for the family to munch on now.

The recipes:

(#2) Alton's. (Someone else had already typed it in, so I just linked you to them.) This is the recipe straight from the book. Now do you see why I am smitten with Alton? I like that he gives it to you in weights and measurements. Two things: I disagree with the claim that these were better without the almond extract, but I am a sucker for the almond, so who knows... maybe they're right. Also, you absolutely DO NOT line your pan with wax paper. Parchment people! Parchment! They are not the same. Don't learn the hard way. Let me repeat - parchment.  Okay, whew! I agree with every thing else. I used pecans in my batch and I used my paddle attachment instead of a potato masher. About the bananas... My bananas have been a sorry sight scarier than the pictures they had and I think they are better that way. In my humble opinion, the darker they are, the sweeter they taste.

(#4) The Ingrid. 

4 very ripe bananas
1 c. sugar
1 egg
4 T. butter, melted
Beat those together.
1 and 1/2 c. flour
1 t. salt
1 t. soda
Beat just til mixed, not more.
Grease loaf pan.
Bake at 350 for 50-60 min or til done.
Best warm!
One of the best things is that you can do this with a small bowl (to melt the butter in), 1/2 c. measuring cup for the flour and sugar, and a 1 t. spoon.  Very few dirty things to wash when done!
If you want the runner-up recipes, let me know. Oh, and the Old Fashioned Cookbook is already in the pile destined for the thrift store. One down, 10,000 to go. Oh well.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

New Resolve on a Pretty Typical Sunday

Today started out nicely, turned ugly for a short time right before church but only got better and has actually been peaceful and wonderful to this point. I taught RS today and I think it went well. We had a lot of visitors/investigators at church today. The flu had many 'regulars' not in attendance. I always feel so tall when I teach. I think it must be the combination of me in heels, hitting somewhere in the 5'10-11" range and a seemingly very short table to stand behind.  And of course, I finished the lesson bearing testimony in tears, something I always do despite my best efforts (the tears part, not the testimony). Still, I had a wonderful time preparing and formed a new resolve to live my life better and not waste so much time. I feel like making 'New Years' Resolutions' starting tomorrow instead of waiting two months. I just need to take baby steps. (Remind me of that when I'm feeling overwhelmed, would you?)

After church, the kids and I read a few chapter in Moroni and discovered we will finish the Book of Mormon in the morning. It has been a wonderful journey, all of us reading together, taking part in the task. I look forward to reading it again and this time spending more time studying with the kids and working on scripture mastery verses instead of just reading with a bit of discussion.

I have spent much of this afternoon reading. I curled up in my room and enjoyed looking out my bedroom window. I realized that I love the view from my bedroom window. I loved it in Provo and I love it here. I see trees turning gold and a nest in the bare branches near the top. In the top corner of my view, there is the edge of a nearby building and I smile at the fact that I live in this amazing city and yet I can lay in my bed and feel like I could be anywhere. I laid in bed for awhile reading but decided I wanted to be out with the fam, so I moved to the kitchen to read awhile longer while the cake rose in the warm oven. (Jon and I made a cake from a recipe he found on the Times.) I've never made a cake with yeast as the leavening agent, but it smells yummy.

We broke our fast with an old favorite of mine, creamed tuna and peas on toast. I know, it sounds a little nasty and to be honest, it really doesn't look super appetizing, but oh my! it is tasty grub. My mom made it when I was a kid, thus transporting me to a time when I felt unencumbered by responsibility and stress. My kids cleared their plates. I love when they do this and I can see that they love what I have made. This wasn't one of those times, rather they had been fasting and were terribly hungry. Anyway, it really doesn't matter to me why. I'm just happy to not hear complaining or scrutinizing through a meal.

The cake is just out of the oven and I am going to serve it up warm, so I'll be off. This week is sure to be a good one. The kids and I are revamping school a bit. We'll finish and start the Book of Mormon. I am planting a friends' backyard. Jon and I are jumpstarting our workout beginning tomorrow morning. All in all, I look forward to a new week and all that it brings. I hope your week is great and your outlook sunny.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Project Month - Day 26 & 27 Applesauce and more Pumpkin Bread

I am too tired to post pics. I may add a few later. It's just been one of those days.

Day 26 - Impromptu applesauce making last night. Looks lovely and is as delicious as "nectar from heaven" according to Jon.

Day 27 - More pumpkin bread. Made six, but only three made it to the freezer before being eaten or given away. Chocolate chip cookies with the works tonight. Hopeful a greater percentage will make it into the freezer than the pumpkin bread.

I'm tired. I want cocoa.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

New Additions

This month has been a busy one in the niece and nephew department. My brother, B, and his wife Cindy welcomed #6 into their family on the 10th. His name, as far as I know - and I could be wrong - is Kevin. I can't believe their little family is not so little anymore. Congrats to them, especially to Cindy as she never delivers on time!  Baby #5, Alivia Estelle, made her debut - after a tough labor - on the 19th in Steev and Tam's family. (I thought that name was correct, but I am looking at an email from Steev from earlier today and he said it was Alicia not Alivia.) Who knows? Not important really though. What is important is that they are all healthy and safe and well.

As most of you know, I have two amazing kids. For some unknown reason, I have not been able to have more. In the past, hearing of others new additions has been difficult. Heck, learning about the pregnancies was hard. The last year has changed that for me. I don't know why exactly. Point is, it doesn't hurt so much anymore. I feel happy, joyful even, to hear the wonderful news from friends and family now. My heart doesn't ache as badly as it once did when I think that Sis will never have little brothers or sisters to take care of or that E will never have a little brother to teach the fine art of Lego building to. Even though as I write this I am choked up, I admit it is somehow easier now. We live in a ward with very few older kids and many more little ones. Most of the families we are friends with here have children younger than Sis and E. My sister Lou has two little ones that we love to be with too. They have become those little brothers and sisters my children don't get to have right now. They are being taught the art of Lego's by E and being carried around by Sis. They are the ones I get to carry on my back while hiking through the woods and listen to their chatter when they come into our home. God has blessed me with lots of little children and more importantly He has blessed me with two of the most amazing ones of my own. I am blessed to be spending my days with them and watching them become the most interesting and wonderful people. I couldn't ask for anything more than I already have.

So I say congratulations to my dear brothers and sisters on their new additions. And congrats to other friends - you know who you are - on their big news too! I love you all and feel blessed to have each of you in my life.

A Beautiful Spontaneous Day in Western Maryland

I love my friend Dalynn. She is always good for an adventure. A truly spontaneous kinda gal. One day we're talking about heading to western Maryland for a day trip and the next thing I know - we're there. She's just like that. Pack up the cars with kids, cameras and snacks and we're on our way.

About an hour and 20 minutes from Baltimore is a little town called Middleton. It has a charming little main street that was lined with scarecrows for a mile or more from the various civic clubs in town. Just outside of town is the Washington Monument State Park. Check it out. An absolutely beautiful place to spend an autumn day. Halfway up the trail to the small monument is a connecting point for the Appalachian Trail.

After hiking for an hour or so, we decided to try and find another state park, Greenbrier. And find it we did. Let me just say, we could not have planned a more perfect day. Here it is, late October, and the weather was mid 70's and clear as ever.

We had the beach to ourselves. If I had know there was a beach and a lake on our outing, I would have brought a suit. It was that warm. The leaves were glorious and vibrant; the water cool. We wandered about finally relaxing on the dock before heading up the hill for the drive home.

With bike trails, hiking, canoeing, swimming, camping and fishing all in one locale with flush toilets and showers to boot, I know where we're going to spend many a weekend next summer.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Project Month - Day 21 - Pumpkin Dump Cake

Today was an easy one.

It may not be pretty, but it sure is tasty!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Project Month - Day 20 - My Favorite Wreath, Renewed

Jon bought me this wreath years ago at a great little shop in SLC. Originally it was stunning - seriously a beauty. However after years of hanging outdoors on my front porch, it looked tired. It needed a little TLC.

Just black I love it!

Yes, that is a little skeleton man hanging from a noose in the center. C'mon! It's Halloween! It's supposed to be scary.

First idea, spray it to be red again. I decided against this, feeling it would lose something, as it was never painted in the first place.  Second and better idea, paint it black for Halloween then later silver for the remainder of the holidays. I finished the black layer this afternoon, using an entire can of spray paint. I added a few random skeletons I had lying around and for now, I'm finished.

I like the (for now) finished product and in a few weeks I'll give it a coat of silver to cover the black.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Fall Break in Virginia

No projecting this weekend! Good bye Baltimore. Hello Purcellville.

Sis' face is priceless!

Jays and Jon have been friends for over 30 years!

We got to spend the weekend with friends in VA. It was rainy and cold for the first two days and I didn't care a bit. We didn't go anywhere or do anything. 

I wish I had her skinny legs. What a cutie!

Okay, so we learned a few new card games, ate yummy food courtesy of Cori, went for walks, found a new way to fix popcorn - delish! and slept in. It was wonderful. Their 2 shorties and ours played together non-stop until they couldn't keep their eyes open any longer.  At church we ran into a gal from BYU who had her Senior show at the same time as Jon. We even own a few of her paintings.  I love how being LDS makes the world seem so small - and I mean that in a good way.

I like this pic even with E's bored expression, which he claims he wasn't feeling. My hair is getting long.

My little photographer

Today we drove up and down the country roads looking at all things beautiful. The lovely dry-stack walls were my favorite, but everything was gloriously celebrating fall. The colors were spectacular. Jon and I fell in love with the farmsteads and their many outbuildings and mature landscaping. There is this part of me that is so completely drawn to that life. Something about being from farming stock I guess.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


Changed to winter sheets. Weird I guess, but my mom does it and now so do I.

Love this room. Love this quilt. Love the 'I love you' heart from sis I see each night before bed. Love to linger in this bed in the morning with sis curled up next to me giggling. Love to fall asleep snuggled against Jon each night. Love the sound of rain outside this window. Love the pictures on my table of Jon and I @ graduation and the one of the kids in Venice walking with their arms around each other. Love my books. Love this room.

Don't love the cold floor.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Favorite Friday is Back with the Avett Brothers

Last night Jon and I went to the Avett Brothers with our good friends the Fugals. I had listened to their latest album online and loved it. Some of their music is really mellow and others pumped up and a little rowdy. The concert - so PUMPED full of energy and totally fun! These guys were amazing!! There were four performers on stage. There are two "true" Avett Brothers, but three men make up the actual group, the third being a bassist - who also plays guitar and sings. The fourth fellow on stage played the cello like I have NEVER before seen! Both brothers played the piano, drums and guitars - acoustic and base and one played the banjo as well. Also they both do vocals.  We were on the balcony above the stage left. I could not have asked for a better view. They were incredible. Pictures never capture the energy in a situation like this, nevertheless, here are a few to take a look at captured via my phone.

Check out the cellist. He was crazy amazing.

You can listen to their music on their website. They have full albums you can stream but not download. Check it out.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Project Month - Day 15 - Sweet Breads

Its just so cold. I finally broke down and switched on the furnace. (Our apartment has very high ceilings and therefore costs a small fortune to heat.) As the frugal gal that I am, I had vowed to keep it off until Halloween, but this cold spell means it isn't getting above 63 in here and even with a sweater and a fleece I am chilled.

Anyway days like today are made for baking. Everyone knows that. Plus, I consider a baking oven a supplemental heat source. So today I baked.

poppyseed bread with an orange almond glaze - 7 loaves

7 poppyseed + 6 pumpkin (4 of which were still baking at this point)
grand total = 13 loaves

All said, it was a very productive day. I gave one loaf away and we ate one of each of the others, so only ten made it to the freezer. Tomorrow is supposed to be another cold day, so I may venture into the world of sugar cookies. We'll see. I'm off to see the Avett Brothers in concert tonight. Should be great!