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Posts tagged ‘Cook’s Illustrated’

Mexican wedding cookies

When my brother and his new wife were married at our home this summer, our Mom brought Mexican wedding cookies. Every year they also appear at Christmas. They’re a lovely, buttery little cookie, tasting of toasty walnuts and covered with a dusting of white. They look like a snowball rolled downhill to me and seem so right on a plate of holiday cookies. But, somebody named them first, so Mexican wedding cookies they are.

We’ve had a busy four or five days. We’d feasted on Thanksgiving with fifteen around our table. Friday we finished cleaning up after the feast and then briefly braved the crowds. Saturday, after pulling boxes and boxes from the attic, our Christmas tree was lit and dressed with ornaments collected over years. Sunday, we had family for breakfast before they headed out of town. With no precise plan for the rest of the day, a little slow and easy pre-holiday baking sounded more restful than a nap.

I’d made this snowy little confection recently as part of a cookie platter we took to a party. I do remember pulling the recipe card from its sleeve inside a large binder, but its space was now vacant. I looked in files I keep near by desk, files filled with ideas to sample and recipes I intend to post. Not there. I looked in my cookbooks, thinking maybe I’d used the recipe card as a bookmark.  (Truth is: I looked in each of those places several times, disbelieving my eyesight the times before.) I looked in all kinds of unlikely places too, places I’m a bit embarrassed to confess. (Might I have left it in the laundry room on one of my many trips there? You never know.) But gradually it became clear: Mom’s recipe had gone missing.

Plan B: I’d seen a recipe for the same cookie in a special baking issue of Cook’s Illustrated and I’d wanted to sample it anyway. Thought I’d try it side-by-side my mom’s. The side-by-side would have to wait.

We’ve loved this cookie of mom’s. Trying to prepare myself for the possibility, I thought: No matter which recipe I end up using in the future, I’ll always associate this cookie with mom and the holidays. It will always be her cookie. Until yesterday, I had two unanswered questions: Can we improve upon perfection? and Why should we even try? I’ve explained the why part. Let me speak to improving upon perfection:

The Cook’s Illustrated  cookie is not overly sweet, but neither was my mom’s. And it has a wonderful texture. (Some I’ve tried are a bit dry and with no particular taste.  Again, not my mom’s.)  But where this version shone is in its walnut-ier taste and its supreme tenderness. (The secret: half of the two cups of these healthful nuts are ground, lending their good oil to the mix – and the other half are chopped, providing their softly nutty bite.)  Conclusion:

This cookie is one tender, melt-in-the-mouth, dribble-a little-powdery-sugar-on-your-sweater bite of deliciousness!

And yes, every once in a long while, we may need to update our notion of perfection.

~ ~ ~

While enjoying  a cookie or two with a cup of tea, I combed through some cookbooks that had come down through my mom’s family, some of them from as far back as the early 1900’s. Some of the ingredients, wow! At least a couple dozen updates to “perfection” have to have taken place since then!

Mexican Wedding Cookies

(Makes about 4 dozen)

  • 2 cups (8 ounces) walnuts (or pecans)
  • 2 cups (10 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • ¾ teaspoon table salt
  • 2 sticks (16 Tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/3 cup (2.5 ounces) superfine sugar (see NOTE on how to make your own)
  • 1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1½ cups (6 ounces) confectioners’ sugar (approximate) – for dusting

Adjust oven racks to upper-middle-and lower-middle positions. Preheat oven to 325°F. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper or use silicon mats.

Using a food processor, grind 1 cup of walnuts to coarse cornmeal texture (10 to 15 seconds.) Transfer to medium bowl. Using either the food processor or chopping by hand, coarsely chop the remaining cup of nuts. (5 seconds in food processor.) Transfer to the same bowl and add the flour and salt.

In a large bowl, either using hand mixer or stand mixer, beat the butter and superfine sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the vanilla extract. With mixer on low, slowly add the flour-nut mixture until combined, about 30 seconds. Scrape the bowl and beaters, then continue to beat on low speed until the dough is cohesive. (About 7 seconds.)

Working with one tablespoon at a time, press and roll dough together into balls and lay on prepared sheets, about 1 inch apart.

Bake cookies until pale gold and the bottoms are just beginning to brown, about 18 minutes, switching and rotating baking sheets halfway through the baking.

Allow cookies to cool on the cooking sheet for 10 minutes, then move to cooling rack to cool completely, about 1 hour.

Using either a bowl or a paper bag filled with confectioners’ sugar, roll the cookies to coat. Just before serving, re-roll and gently shake off any excess.

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pumpkin chiffon pie

I know you show up here mostly because you like food and because you expect that I’ll talk about food. You don’t come to hear my confessions. Yet several times in recent months I’ve subjected you to them. I sincerely apologize, I do, but I guess I’m not quite done, because here comes another: I have had a lifelong Fear of Pie. Well, it’s not the pie I fear, because that would be silly. Pie, especially fruit pie, is my favorite dessert. It’s the making of pie I’ve feared. You can trust me with the innards of any pie, I think, but the crust? I cringe. My hands go cold and clammy. My mouth goes dry.

I’ve lived with this phobia my entire adult life. I’ve spoken of it here before, and eating a bit of humble pie, I offered a compromise, a more rustic version of pie, the galette. But I’d vowed this year to meet pie head on.

For a very special girl’s 9th birthday, my gift was a series of baking dates together. Sici and I laid them all out, from most basic to — you guessed it — most feared. Kids, as you’ve no doubt experienced, are far more perceptive than we sometimes pretend, and they’re quite adept at picking up our true feelings no matter what words we speak. Point is, I think she knows. I swear, hand on heart, I’ve so not wanted to contaminate another generation with pie fear! But this girl wasn’t about to be contaminated or deterred. She’s a trooper, an adventurer, a girl with a can-do attitude, and I’m taking a lesson from her on this one! With our pie date looming, it was time I practiced.

You’re right, of course. Why would you take a lesson from me on pie crust? Why read another word? You’ve got a point. But here’s my thinking: I’ve been doing quite a bit of research on the subject. A number of sources claim they hold the secret for the perfect pie dough, and I’m not saying they don’t,  but I’ve remained unconvinced.

If you’ve ever read Cook’s Illustrated, you know that they’re renowned for making hundreds of versions of a recipe in their test kitchens in order to arrive at “perfection.” They’ll lay out a case, sometimes quite scientific, and in this instance, I was looking for science — hard scientific evidence, something to bring me back to the Age of Reason. I won’t lay it all out here, because I actually do have a life apart from this and you do too – but if you’re interested, you may be able to  locate a copy of the article Foolproof Pie Dough, published September, 2010.  I’ll give you the recipe here, but the case they made is brilliant and the article very interesting if you’re so inclined.

In brief, the secrets are three:

  1. the fats – mostly butter, and a little vegetable shortening (which I’ve tried my whole life to avoid, but finally succumbed because, for a great cause, we make sacrifices)
  2. the flour – 1½ cups blended very well with the fat, another cup pulsed in ever-so quickly afterwards
  3. the liquid – half ice water, half Vodka (the vodka burns off completely in the baking, leaving no trace of alcohol and no tell-tale taste. Vodka inhibits some of the gluten-formation that occurs when using water alone, thereby ensuring incredible tenderness!)

I summoned my inner-Sici and made the pie dough yesterday. It wasn’t picture-perfect, but everything else about it was. It was flaky, tender, flavorful. I did it! I’m still basking in euphoria.

the crust – Foolproof Pie Dough

(for one 9-inch double-crust pie)

  • 2½ cups (12½ ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon table salt
  • 2 Tablespoons sugar
  • 12 Tablespoons (1½ sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into ¼-inch slices)
  • ½ cup cold vegetable shortening, cut into 4 pieces
  • ¼ cup cold vodka
  • ¼ cup cold water

1. Process 1½ cups of flour (7½ ounces), the salt and sugar in food processor until combined, two one-second pulses. Add butter and shortening all at once and process until homogenous dough just starts to collect in uneven clumps, about 15 seconds. (All the flour will be coated and the texture will resemble cottage cheese. Some very small pieces of butter will remain.) Scrape the bowl with a plastic scraper, evenly distributing the mixture around the blade. Add the remaining cup (5 ounces) of flour and pulse until the mixture is evenly distributed around the blade and the mass of dough is broken up, 4 to 6 quick pulses. Empty the mixture into an empty bowl.

2. Sprinkle vodka and water over the mixture. With a rubber spatula, use a folding motion to incorporate the liquid, then press down on the dough until it’s slightly tacky and adheres together. Divide the dough into two equal portions, roll into balls and then flatten each into a 4-inch disk. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 45 minutes, or up to 2 days. (Dough may also be frozen, then thawed for later use.)

3. Adjust the oven rack to the lowest position and place a rimmed baking sheet on the rack. Preheat the oven to 400°F.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator and roll out on a generously floured board (using up to ¼ cup of flour as needed) into a 12-inch circle about one-eighth of an inch thick. Roll the dough loosely around the rolling pin and unroll into the 9-inch pie plate, leaving at least 1-inch overhang all around. Working around the circumference, ease the dough into the pie plate by gently lifting the edge of the dough with one hand while pressing into plate bottom with the other hand. Refrigerate for 15 minutes.

4. Trim the overhang to ½ inch beyond the lip of the pie plate. Fold the overhang over on itself, with the folded edge even with the edge of the pie plate. Using thumb and forefinger, flute the edge of the dough. Refrigerate dough-lined plate until firm, about another 15 minutes.

5. Remove from the refrigerator and line the crust with foil. Fill with pie weights, or pennies. (This keeps the crust from shrinking.) Bake on the rimmed cookie sheet for 15 minutes. Remove the foil with the weights, rotate the plate in the oven and bake for 5 to 10 additional minutes, until the crust is golden brown and crisp. Remove from the oven and set on a rack to cool completely before filling. (And if you, like me, are new to this pie-crust-baking thing, allow the room to fill with appreciative applause – be sure to add your own.)

~ ~ ~

Many pumpkin pie recipes call for pumpkin pie spice. Why buy a jar of pumpkin pie spice, use it once or twice between November and December and then store it away to use again the next year? At that rate, a bottle will last you at least half a decade. I blend my own with the spices I already have on hand and that are replenished fairly often. Nothing stale in this pie! (If you’ll make more than one pie this season, you may want to double the recipe. If you’ve got someone around who appreciates this sort of thing, here’s an idea – take the remaining pumpkin puree, the leftover pumpkin pie spice, add vanilla ice-cream or frozen yogurt and milk, whir it up in your blender, top with a dash of nutmeg and insert 2 straws.)

Pumpkin Pie Spice:

(yields 4¼ teaspoons)

  • 1¼teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1½ teaspoons cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon (scant) ground cloves
  • ½ teaspoon (gently rounded)  allspice
  • ¼ teaspoon cardamom
  • ¼ teaspoon nutmeg (freshly-grated, if possible)


Pumpkin Chiffon Pie

(serves six to eight)

We’ve enjoyed this pie every Thanksgiving for years. Mom would often bring the pumpkin custard pie, and I’d make the chiffon. But (as I’ve already made quite clear) I didn’t do pastry crusts. So this pie always ended up in an alspice-laced graham cracker crust, which though still quite tasty, always left me feeling like I was cheating.

  • 1 baked 9-inch pastry shell
  • 1 envelope unflavored gelatin
  • ¼ cup cold water
  • 3 eggs, separated
  • ¾ cup brown sugar, packed
  • 1-1/3 cups mashed, cooked pumpkin (a bit less than one small can)
  • 3 teaspoons Pumpkin Pie Spice (or for a delightfully spicier note, 3½)
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup milk
  • ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 6 Tablespoons granulated sugar

Garnish: 1 cup heavy cream, whipped with a wee bit of confections sugar and a small glug of vanilla, and sprinkled with a dash of freshly-grated nutmeg

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