Holiday Baking Recap Part 4: Black-and-White Cookies

One of my favorite treats that's unique to Rochester is a cookie called Half Moons. They are large cookies -- their footprint is a little smaller than a CD. They can be chocolate or vanilla, and the texture is kind of like a brownie. One half is frosted vanilla, half chocolate. And they aren't cheap! A pack of four of them will put you back about four bucks at Wegmans (who makes the best ones).

I thought I'd try to replicate them as part of my holiday baking. I searched online and the closest thing I could find was Black-and-White Cookies, which are popular in New York City. The only Black-and-White Cookies I've tried in New York City have been prepackaged things at airports, which I can't believe are as good as the real thing. But they've given me a sense for what they are. My sense is that they are smaller and maybe a bit cakier than our Half Moons. But I figured they'd be a good place to start.

I chose Gale Gand's recipe from the Food Network because I've met her and she's nice. The only thing I changed is that I didn't use lemon extract, and increased the vanilla extract to 1/2 teaspoon.

The cookies themselves turned out great. They were cakey but they didn't fall apart when I turned them upside down to ice them. I didn't like her icings, though. They were too thin and hard. I ended up switching to another Food Network recipe for icings, and they were perfect. The cookies shown above use the preferred frostings. In the end, they weren't Half Moons, but they were the next best thing.

This concludes my holiday baking recaps. Come back next week, when I'll post my "Bests of 2006!"

Here are the recipes:

Gale Gand, from the TV Food Network site

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1/2 cup whole, 2 percent fat, or 1 percent fat milk
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon pure lemon extract (I didn't use)
1 1/4 cups cake flour
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

Vanilla and chocolate icing, recipes follow (didn't like these)
Vanilla Icing:
2 cups confectioners' sugar
3 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Chocolate Icing:
1/2 vanilla icing recipe
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
2 tablespoons milk

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Line a baking sheet with waxed or parchment paper. In a mixer, cream the butter. Add the granulated sugar and beat until fluffy. Add the eggs, milk, and extracts and mix to combine. In a large bowl, combine the flours, baking powder, and salt and mix well. Add the dry ingredients to the sugar-egg mixture and mix to blend. Using an ice-cream scoop, scoop the dough onto the prepared pans. With a spatula, press and spread each cookie into a circle about 2 1/2 inches in diameter and about 3/8-inch thickness. Bake for about 15 to 20 minutes, until golden. Let cool on wire racks.

For the icing: In a medium bowl, stir the sugar, milk, and vanilla together until it forms a smooth icing. Transfer half of the icing to another bowl and stir in the cocoa powder and milk until smooth.

When cool, turn cookies over, so the flat side faces up. Spread white icing on half of each flat surface, then spread the other half with chocolate icing. Let set at room temperature for 30 minutes.

The icings I preferred, also from the Food Network:

Chocolate Icing:
6 ounces semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1/2 cup heavy cream

White Icing:

2 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1 tablespoon lemon juice (didn't use -- increased water accordingly)
2 tablespoons warm water

For the chocolate icing: Put the chocolate in a medium heatproof bowl. Bring the cream to a boil in a small saucepan; pour over the chocolate. Shake the bowl gently so cream settles around the chocolate; set aside until the chocolate melts, about 5 minutes. Whisk until smooth, taking care not to incorporate too many air bubbles.

For the white icing: Whisk the confectioners' sugar, corn syrup, lemon juice and warm water together to make a smooth icing.

Holiday Baking Recap Part 3: Cookie decorating

Whenever I see photos of beautifully decorated cut-out cookies in magazines, I say to myself, "I could do that." And then I don't. Whether it's cookie decorating, scrapbooking, or sewing, I have a hard time sitting still and focusing on such things in solitude. I do much better in a class or group setting.

With that in mind, I invited three friends over for a morning of cookie decorating about a week before Christmas. I told them to bring a couple dozen of their favorite cut-outs (which could be purchased, if they preferred) and I'd supply the frostings and decorations. I also provided breakfast (quiche and fruit). I really enjoyed it. It was fun, relaxing, and even productive. Three people were just the right number of people, because we could all fit around one table and there was plenty of room to spread out. And the cookies, as you can see, came out really nice.

Here are the recipes I used for the cookies:

Shortbread cut-out cookies

I like making these because the are delicious and buttery and they don't spread. The only downside of them is that they are rather fragile. I usually double this recipe, but it doesn’t seem to work if you make more than two batches at a time.

1 cup (2 sticks butter), room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
2 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon almond, vanilla, or lemon extract, if desired

Cream together butter and sugar. Blend in flour. When dough is well mixed, pat into a ball and refrigerate for 2 hours.

When ready to make cookies, heat oven to 300 degrees. Roll cookies on floured surface to 1/4-inch thickness. (You will probably need to use flour on top of dough, too.) Cut with cookie cutters dusted in flour. Placed on ungreased cookie sheet. Re-roll dough until all is used.

Bake for 20 – 25 minutes until brown around the edges. Cool for 15 minutes. They are less likely to break if you pick them up with your fingers holding the widest part of the cookie. Decorate as desired. Makes 2 – 3 dozen, depending on size of cookie cutter.

Confectioner’s Sugar Glaze
I like to use a glaze rather than a frosting. It's not as hard as royal icing, but makes a smooth, shiny finish.

1 cup confectioner’s sugar
2-3 tablespoons milk
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract (or extract of choice)
Food coloring, if desired

Mix all ingredients together. Brush or spread over cookies. If using sprinkles, sprinkle when cookies are wet.

Martha Stewart's Eggless Royal Icing
This is great for outlining and drawing.

1 pound confectioners' sugar (aka powdered sugar)
5 tablespoons meringue powder (powdered egg whites also work)
Liquid or gel-paste food coloring (optional)

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine sugar, meringue powder, and a scant 1/2 cup water on low speed. Beat until mixture is fluffy yet dense, 7 to 8 minutes.

Test the consistency by lifting a spoonful of icing and letting it drip back into the bowl; a ribbon should remain on the surface for 5-7 seconds. If not using immediately, transfer to an airtight container (icing hardens quickly when exposed to air), and store at room temperature for up to one week. Beat with a rubber spatula before using. Makes about 2 1/2 cups.

Holiday Baking Recap Part 2: Chocolate Caramel Brownies

My Christmas baking seemed to be characterized by my screwing up recipes I've made for years. My go-to biscotti recipe fell apart as I was slicing it for its second baking. My cut-out cookies kept breaking. I even botched one of my easiest recipes -- chocolate caramel brownies. (The photo here is of them done correctly!)

This brownie recipe includes German Chocolate cake mix, evaporated milk, and so on. You are supposed to make a brownie type mixture, put half in a pan and bake it for eight minutes or so. Then you add caramel, chocolate chips, and the rest of the brownie mixture.

I hadn't made it in awhile, and layered everything in the pan at once, forgetting to bake the bottom layer first. As a result, they were much flatter than usual. The rub of it is that I had decided to bake two pans at a time -- so I messed up two whole pans of brownies. They weren't terrible, but they weren't good enough to put in gifts or take anywhere. We're still snacking on them.

For grins, here's the correct version of the recipe I use:

Caramel Brownies

1 pkg. German chocolate cake mix
3/4 c. melted butter
2/3 c. (5-oz can) evaporated milk, divided
1 bag (14 oz) caramels
12 oz. package chocolate chips (I use semisweet)

Preheat oven to 350.

Mix together cake mix, butter, and 1/3 cup evaporated milk. Pat half of the mixture in the bottom of a greased 9x13 pan. Bake for 8 minutes.

While the bottom layer is baking, peel the caramels. Place in a saucepan with 1/3 cup evaporated milk. Heat and stir until all caramels are melted.

Remove brownies from oven and sprinkle chocolate chips on top. Drizzle caramel sauce over chocolate chips. Drop the rest of the brownie mixture in dollops on top of th caramel.

Bake for an additional 20 minutes. Remove and let cool.

Holiday Baking Recap Part 1: New York Crumb Cake

For some reason, I couldn't get all that excited about Christmas this year. I have a hunch it had to do with the weather. It was very mild, with more rain than snow (I guess all our snow went to Denver). We only had one snow that covered the grass, and it didn't last for very long. I'm not complaining -- it was quite pleasant -- but it just didn't seem like the holidays. The good news is that I didn't get my usual Christmas cold, and the whole family was healthy throughout the holiday.

The boys didn't seem to miss the decorations that didn't get put up or the baked goods that didn't get made. And perhaps I was a little more easy going throughout the season. Anyway, I thought I'd recap the baking I did manage to do in a few posts.

I told my mother-in-law I'd bring some kind of a baked good for Christmas breakfast. I thought I'd bake a crumb cake like the ones they sell at Wegmans and Starbuck's. (The Wegmans ones are better than the ones at Starbuck's.) The consist of a moist yellow cake base, with a cinnamony crumb topping that's twice as thick as the cake.

I found the recipe on one of the online food boards, and it came from Martha Stewart Living. The only hitch in this recipe is that it said to use a 9 by 12 1/2-inch pan. Well, what the heck is that? Isn't that about the same as a 9 by 13-inch pan, which most people have? That is what I decided to use -- in fact, I used my 9 by 13-inch Kaiser Bakeware springform pan. When I spread the batter on the pan, it was really thin and I contemplated scraping it out of that pan and moving it to a smaller pan. But the cake part is pretty thin in the cakes I like, so I fearlessly moved ahead with the recipe.

The cake ended up tasting good, but it was too thin. I may try the recipe again, but use a smaller pan. I have to say, though, that I loved the Kaiser springform pan. The cake was perfectly level, and using the springform pan made every piece come out perfectly.

New York Crumb Cake

2 tablespoons canola oil -- plus more for pan
4 cups all-purpose flour -- plus more for dusting pan
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
1/2 cup milk
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 cup light brown sugar -- firmly packed
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup unsalted butter -- (2 sticks) melted and cooled
Confectioners' sugar -- for dusting

Place rack in center of oven and heat to 325 degrees.

Lightly brush a 9 by 12 1/2-inch baking pan with canola oil, dust with flour and tap to remove excess. Set aside. In a medium bowl, sift together 1 1/2 cups flour, granulated sugar, baking powder, and salt; set aside. In a second bowl, whisk together egg, milk, canola oil, and vanilla. Using a rubber spatula, fold dry ingredients into egg mixture until just combined.

Spread batter evenly into prepared pan, and set aside. In a medium bowl, combine remaining 2 1/2 cups flour, brown sugar, and cinnamon. Pour melted butter over flour mixture and toss with a rubber spatula until large crumbs form.

Sprinkle crumbs over batter and bake, rotating pan after 10 minutes. Continue baking until a cake tester comes out clean, about 10 minutes more.

Transfer baking pan to a wire rack to cool. Dust with confectioners' sugar. Using a serrated knife or bench scraper, cut into 3-inch squares. Store in an airtight container up to 3 days.

Worst gingerbread house. Ever.

I know what you're thinking. That gingerbread house couldn’t be the worst gingerbread house ever. It's actually quite nice. Well, that's not our family’s gingerbread house. That's the gingerbread house our friends' family created during our annual afternoon of gingerbread houses. Ours didn’t turn out this way at all.

Let me start by saying that I know something about gingerbread. I don't enter gingerbread competitions (too much work), but in addition to our annual afternoon with friends, I made houses with both of my sons’ preschool and Kindergarten classes. And I’m not talking about those stupid creations involving graham crackers stuck to milk cartons with canned frosting. I’m talking the real stuff, redolent with spices, stuck together with rock-hard royal icing.

From my experience, the critical element in successfully constructing and decorating a gingerbread house is royal icing. My tried-and-true recipe, from Martha Stewart, is like super glue for gingerbread. The recipe is at the end of this post.

The kids and I prepared for our afternoon of gingerbread. We visited the gingerbread houses at the Eastman House. We watched the Gingerbread Championships on Food TV. During the TV program, we spotted a quick shot of Snoopy's doghouse, decorated as in a scene from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” We agreed that that was what we wanted to make this year. I thought it would be pretty simple -- red walls, a white house, some Christmas lights, maybe a few assorted trees. We could even include Snoopy and Woodstock.

Our friend, Mike, is a financial planner, but he’s freakishly talented at making characters and animals out of things like Tootsie Rolls, Starburst fruit chews, caramels, etc. His wife – she’s an art director, so we’ll call her AD here – doesn’t always appreciate Mike’s efforts. She usually has a firm, clear vision of what the family will create, and his creatures and critters often don’t fit the theme. Since I try to follow a “process, not product” philosophy of family gingerbread creations, Mike’s creations often wind up on our houses. That’s his Spongebob and Patrick in front of the house we created last year. Cute, huh?

My husband, Tom, isn’t quite as talented as Mike in the creatures department but he’s no slouch either. I figured out one of those guys could fashion a reasonable Snoopy and Woodstock, and I even spent $3.99 on a can of marzipan for them to use. (Marzipan is what’s used by professional cake decorators – or, at least I think it is. I figured it would be easier to work with than Tootsie Rolls.

The one thing I didn’t do, which I usually do, is to assemble the house ahead of time and let it dry before decorating it. Looking back, I think it was my fatal flaw.

When we arrived at AD’s house, I made the royal icing, but noticed it wasn’t quite as stiff as usual. I probably didn’t beat it long enough, but we were running late and everyone was anxious to get started. Cocky with the fact that I’ve never had a problem making a gingerbread house before, I put the pieces together. (The pieces, by the way, were purchased at Wegmans for $4.99.) The house held together reasonably well, so it was on to decorating the house.

I divided out some of the royal icing and dumped in all of the red gel color I had with me. The icing was pink, not red. I decided “good enough” and sons and I proceeded to slather it all over the walls of the house. When AD saw the color, she suggested we sprinkle the walls with lots of red sugar to make them look really red. Now I should know from my years at ad agencies that the ideas of art directors are often more time consuming then they seem, but I forged ahead. We tilted the doghouse slightly to put the red sugar all over the walls. The first wall went fine, and it did look redder. B.(age 11) decided to help tilt the house, and before I could say “be sure to support the house as you tip it,” the whole doghouse fell apart.

I took a deep breath. No problem, I said, this will make it easier to put the sugar on the walls. We laid the walls flat, sprinkled all the red sugar we had on the walls, then put the house back together again, leaving fingerprint indentations in the icing. Once it was back together, we slapped white icing on the roof to resemble snow. At that, AD said “isn’t one of your walls sloping inward?” Sure enough, the house was ready to implode again. So I carefully repositioned the walls yet again, leaving more fingerprint indentations on the house.

While all this was going on, Tom worked on a marzipan Snoopy, and did a pretty good job. Since the marzipan had a brownish color, he used his fingers to spread white royal icing all over the marzipan. The icing didn’t go on smoothly, so Snoopy looked like he was part poodle – kind of a cross between Snoopy, and our dog, Charlie (left). Tom fashioned ears out of Tootsie rolls and put on an M&M nose and placed Snoopy/Charlie on top of his house.

At that, I noticed that the top of the roof had a gap and looked like it could slide off the house. I put some waffle-shaped pretzels across the top to give us a base for filling it in with icing.

B made a path out of caramel creams. D. iced some sugar cones to make them resemble snow-covered trees. He also made a dog dish and a wreath for the house. I colored the rest of the marzipan yellow and molded a Woodstock. I did an ok job on the body but couldn’t figure out how to make his feathers.

At this point, I was sick of the whole process, and it was clear that the house was going to take a long time to dry. We decided to call it quits for the day, let it dry and finish it later. Here’s what it looked like at the end of that day. We got it home in one piece and put it on the dining room table to dry.

The next morning, I decided to finish it. I went to Wegmans and brought some strawberry fruit roll-ups, which I thought would make for even better red walls. I also bought some shoestring licorice to make the Christmas lights that Snoopy hung.

When I got home, our house looked different. All but one of the caramel creams in the path was gone. So was one of the trees. It dawned on me that we left it where Charlie, also known as BD, for Bad Dog, or FD, for ... well, you can figure it out, could get at it. The stinker had snacked on our house.

Now I was in a quandary. The tradition in our family is that the kids eat the gingerbread house on New Year’s Day. Yes, I let them eat the stale, dusty candy off the house, and yes, I admit that it’s a completely gross tradition. I dreamed it up the first year we made a gingerbread house. I wanted the boys to keep our gingerbread creation intact throughout the holiday season, and I figured that if they knew they’d get to eat it eventually, they’d stay away from it. I was right. I also figured the old dusty candy would be yucky enough that they wouldn’t really eat it. I was wrong.

When the boys got home from school that day, I proposed pitching the gingerbread house in the trash and forgetting it until next year.

“What would we eat on New Year’s Day?” they protested.

“Guys, it was a gross tradition to start with, and now the house has lots of dog germs on it! I’ll put out a big bowl of candy, and you can eat it fresh out of the wrappers!” I said.

“It won’t be the saaaame,” they moaned.

The next day, I decided to finish the house – even though I’d stand firm on not letting them eat it. I fixed the snow on the roof and adhered some shoestring licorice and mini M&Ms to make Christmas lights around the roof. I ran out of royal icing and set it aside for awhile.

A few hours later, the rest of the trees were gone, Woodstock was gone, and Snoopy was missing an ear. FD.

I’m done. The damn dog house sits on a shelf in my dining room, half finished. I refuse to finish it, but can’t bring myself to pitch it either. It’s emblematic of the way this Christmas season has gone – I put up half of the Christmas lights, but didn’t finish when I couldn’t find any more extension cords. The snowmen and Santas are on display, but the Nativity scenes are still in a box (no, this isn’t about priorities ... it’s just about what boxes I randomly opened first). The gifts are half wrapped in a variety of places, and I’m not entirely sure what I’ve purchased for whom.

I think I have my solution to the whole gingerbread house/New Year's Day dilemma. I’m going to buy some graham crackers, store bought frosting, little milk cartons, and some more candy. The boys can make and eat their own houses on New Years Day. Suddenly those graham cracker houses don’t seem so stupid after all.

Martha Stewart's Eggless Royal Icing

Makes about 2 1/2 cups -
1 pound confectioners' sugar (aka powdered sugar)
5 tablespoons meringue powder (powdered egg whites also work)
Liquid or gel-paste food coloring (optional)

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine sugar, meringue powder, and a scant 1/2 cup water on low speed. Beat until mixture is fluffy yet dense, 7 to 8 minutes.

Test the consistency by lifting a spoonful of icing and letting it drip back into the bowl; a ribbon should remain on the surface for 5-7 seconds. If not using immediately, transfer to an airtight container (icing hardens quickly when exposed to air), and store at room temperature for up to one week. Beat with a rubber spatula before using.

Gingerbread Houses at the Eastman House

The George Eastman House, the beautifully restored home of the late founder of Eastman Kodak Company, has an annual display of gingerbread houses. The boys and I went for the third time this year. The houses are auctioned off and the proceeds benefit the George Eastman House.

The houses came from various parts of the community -- individuals, families, Scout troops, and various businesses all contribute. The boys were both interested in this year's exhibit, because both of their schools had a house on display. The one at right is from a class in my younger son's school.

This year, the quality of the gingerbread houses was very good. In the past, some of the school and Scout entries seemed a little slapdash, but this year even those showed thought and skill. My favorite house was the one at right. A photo doesn't really do it justice, because all the glasses had a stained glass effect, with a candle in every window.

I didn't keep track of who created each piece (perhaps I should have if I was going to put them on the blog), but I would think that this Leaning Tower of Pisa would have been especially challenging to construct.

This house was a replica of a historic building in a nearby town. It struck me as a good likeness. Based on my experience with frosting, I'm guessing it was a real challenge to get the colors of the icing just right.

The "Three Little Pigs" house was simple in construction, but clever in terms of concept. The pigs were especially well executed. If you look closely at the far left, you can see the Big Bad Wolf eating a piece of one of the houses!

This house was created to advertise a production of "Cinderella." It was impressive.

They were all impressive, that is, until we watched the National Gingerbread Championship on the TV Food Network. Those were absolutely phenomenal. We were especially impressed with three teen sisters' depiction of a town in the Harry Potter books. In the adult division, people spend hundreds of hours constructing entire villages in intricate detail. All this for a $1,000 grand prize -- they are nuts, if you ask me! I find it interesting that there are so many subgroups within the food contesting world -- areas like chili, pies, and gingerbread have die-hard competitors that often don't compete outside their specific realm.

Our family will give a gingerbread house a few hours' worth of effort tomorrow. We're going to another family's house to decorate our houses. We've been doing this with the same family for years (actually, there was a third family that started out hosting the gingerbread gathering, but they sadly moved out of the area). In the old days, we used to bake our own gingerbread. Now, we buy the pieces ready-made from Wegmans. At a price of $4.99, it's worth avoiding the hassle of baking the gingerbread. We're leaning toward a Snoopy doghouse theme, but we'll see if it actually goes that way. I'll post a photo of our results -- but don't expect anything like the creations you see here!

Adventures with Alton Brown's Pizza Dough(s)

“Family Pizza Night” is a fairly regular Friday night event in our family. Each of us makes our own pizza. When I get my act together a day in advance, I make my own dough. My usual favorite is from “Cooks Illustrated” magazine. Last time, I thought I’d use a recipe from “I’m Just Here for More Food” by Alton Brown (which I’ve had for awhile but haven’t used much).

Alton Brown is a running joke between Tom and me because of an encounter we had a couple of years ago, when we were in Hollywood for the Pillsbury Bake-off contest. We were having lunch in a Johnny Rockets restaurant that had glass walls looking out to an outdoor mall area. A nice couple that we had met walked by, and we gave them a wave. When they saw us, they excitedly ran into the restaurant toward us.

“We just met Alton Brown!” they exclaimed, and showed us the picture they had taken with him on their digital camera. We squinted at the display to admire the picture of them with a scruffy looking guy.

“That’s great! Cool!” we enthused, and they scurried off to find some others to tell.

When they were out of earshot, Tom said, “who the heck is Alton Brown?”

“I have no idea,” I replied, and we both cracked up. Guess you had to be there. Anyway, this has become kind of a running joke between us. I’ve watched Alton Brown on “Good Eats” since then, and I like it. I’m not much for all the scientific stuff he presents, but the unique way he presents information makes the show both entertaining and informative.

So back to the pizza crust. When I look at the recipe in the book, a couple of things had me scratching my head. First, it called for 8 cups (1 pound) of flour, for four small pizzas. This puzzled me, because it would seem like 8 cups of flour would weigh more than a pound, and would make more than four small pizzas. It also would challenge the capacity of my stand mixer.

Also, the recipe called for 25 mg children’s aspirin tablets, and it had notation that read “for the vitamin C.” I asked Tom to fetch me some children’s aspirin at the store, thinking all the while that I didn’t realize that children’s aspirin also contained vitamin C. Tom came home with 81 mg tablets, saying that was all he could find.

I couldn’t figure this out. Would I cut the tablet into quarters? I then looked at the aspirin box. No vitamin C listed anywhere. Huh.

I was puzzled enough that I decided to turn to the Internet. I suspected there’d be a review of this recipe or some sort of discussion about the aspirin somewhere. Sure enough, I found the information I was looking for on a couple of food blogs. Turns out, the recipe should have read 25 mg children’s Vitamin C (not aspirin), and it should have read 4 cups of flour, not 8. Whew! Saved by the food bloggers – what would we do without them?

I decided to go to the TV Food Network Web site to see if Alton Brown had a pizza dough recipe posted there. He did, but one that’s very different than the one in the book. For one, there was no Vitamin C in the Food Network version.

At this point, I looked up at the clock, and it’s now midnight. Is the Internet one giant black hole of time, or what? Still, I wanted to get dough in the fridge before I go to bed, so I decided to combine elements from both of Alton Brown’s recipes. I started by combining the following ingredients from the book recipe:

10 oz water
1 Tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 lb flour
¼ oz instant yeast (I use SAF instant yeast)

The book version said to mix for 2 minutes on low, rest the dough for 15 minutes, knead in the mixer for 5 minutes, knead by hand 30 seconds, let rise for an hour or so, then refrigerate. I didn’t have that kind of time, so I went with the Food TV version. Using the paddle attachment of my trusty KitchenAid mixer, I start mixing on low until the dough came together, then kneaded for 15 minutes on medium speed.

As directed, I then looked for the “baker’s windowpane.” I had a vague recollection of watching Alton Brown demonstrate this TV. The idea is to tear off a small piece of dough, flatten it into a disc, and stretch it until it’s thin. Hold it up to the light and look to see if a “taut membrane” has formed. I was pretty vague on what this “taut membrane” would look like, but the dough seemed ok to me. I repeated the whole process a second time (B. was having a friend spend the night, and 11-year-olds can consume a lot of food). I put the balls of dough into the fridge to use the next day. Whew!

The next day the dough had risen nicely in the fridge, and we (along with B.’s overnight guest) were ready to make pizzas.

I learned my usual method for rolling out pizza dough from “Cooks Illustrated” magazine. Basically, you roll out the dough on a piece of parchment. The uncooked dough sticks to the parchment, making it easy to roll thinly. You slide it, parchment and all, onto a baking stone. (This is much easier than using a traditional pizza peel.) When the dough bakes, it is released from the parchment.

Well, I was out of parchment, so I decided to use the Alton Brown book’s method of stretching the dough and getting it into the oven. It called for a series of maneuvers that ended with tossing the dough in the air “with a twist” and catching, a la your local pizza shop. The boys loved trying this method, and a few pieces of dough ended up in the floor (and subsequently in the garbage – trust me, you don’t want to eat off my floor).

Tom quickly abandoned this method and went back to the rolling pin. I stubbornly kept on with Alton’s method and eventually wound up with amoeba-shaped pieces of dough of varying thicknesses.

We topped them as directed. Tom and the boys went with the usual cheese and pepperoni. I used various odds and end from the fridge.

Alton Brown’s recipe called for the traditional method of getting pizzas into the oven --sprinkling cornmeal on a peel, then sliding it from the peel to the baking stone. I don’t have a peel, so I used a rimless cookie sheet.

The first time I did it, there wasn’t enough cornmeal and the pizza stuck to the pan. I managed to unstick it, but not without dislodging a lot of the toppings on the pizza. For the next pizzas, I used tons of cornmeal. The problem with this is that some stayed on the stone and some fell to the bottom my oven, and all of this excess cornmeal burnt and made my kitchen smell of burning cornmeal. In addition, some of it mounded up under the crust, making the crust bumpy in places.

Removing the pizzas from the oven was also a hassle. I grabbed a bit of the crust and tried to slide it back onto the rimless baking sheet. The hot toppings oozed around as I did so. This didn’t make for attractive pizzas. The bottom line from this experience: from now on, if I’m out of parchment, it’s Boboli crusts for us.

In the end, our pizzas were ok but far from exceptional. (Those are the boys' creations pictured at the top of this post.) I haven’t decided whether or not to give Alton Brown’s pizza dough recipes another try. If you’ve made a pizza dough using one of his recipes, I’d greatly appreciate it if you’d leave me a comment and let me know how it turned out!

Smoked Gouda and Caramelized Onion Quesadillas

My friend, Jamie, brought Smoked Gouda and Caramelized Onion Quesadillas as an appetizer to a dinner party awhile back. She thought they were just ok, but I thought they were excellent. I liked the combination of the sweet onions, salty prosciutto, and the smoky Gouda. Even though they are considered an appetizer, I make them for myself every so often, one or two at a time. I just refrigerate the caramelized onions that I don't use in the first batch. They are great with a soup or a salad. This is what I ate last night, when the rest of the family was eaten Kid Cuisines and frozen pizza.

(from -- one of my favorite sources of online recipes)

2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter (I use 1 tablespoon butter and 1 tablespoon oil)
1 large onion, thinly sliced (I usually use two, but I love caramelized onions)
1 tablespoon golden brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon white wine vinegar

1 1/2 cups grated smoked Gouda cheese
4 10-inch-diameter flour tortillas (I usually use smaller ones)
2 ounces sliced prosciutto, chopped
2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter, melted

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in heavy medium skillet over medium heat. Add onion, brown sugar and vinegar; sauté until onion is golden brown, stirring frequently, about 25 minutes. Remove from heat. Cool to room temperature.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Sprinkle cheese over half of each tortilla, dividing equally. Sprinkle prosciutto and sautéed onion over cheese. Season with pepper. Fold other half of each tortilla over cheese mixture. Brush tortilla with some of melted butter.

Brush heavy large skillet with some of melted butter (I brush the tortillas, not the skillet). Place over medium-high heat. Working in batches, cook quesadillas just until brown spots appear, brushing skillet with butter between batches, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer quesadillas to heavy large baking sheet.

Bake until tortillas are golden and cheese melts, about 5 minutes. (If the cheese melts when you cook them in the pan, which it sometimes does, this step is unnecessary.)

Transfer quesadillas to work surface. Cut each into 6 triangles. Arrange on platter and serve hot.

Red Velvet Cupcakes with White Chocolate Peppermint Cream Cheese Frosting

One of our family's traditions is to celebrate the half-birthdays of our sons. I started this tradition because my older son's birthday is right after Christmas, and it seemed like a long time for him to go without having a special day. It's just a little celebration within our family. The birthday kid picks out dinner. For dessert, I usually make one layer of a cake, cut it in half, and frost it to look like half of a two-layer cake. We light one candle and sing "Happy half-birthday." The child gets one moderately priced gift.

For my younger son's half-birthday celebration, which we celebrated today, I suggested making cupcakes instead of the traditional half of a cake. We're going to a dinner tomorrow, and I said I'd bring dessert. I figured cupcakes would be something fun to bring for the kids.

My son looked through the cupcake recipes I had collected online, and chose Red Velvet Cupcakes with White Chocolate Peppermint Cream Cheese Frosting, which is from a Cake Mix Doctor book. I thought it was a great choice, particularly for the season.

We made the cupcakes together, and I frosted them. Each of us decorated 12 of the cupcakes (half of the batch). My son decided to stick the straight part of a candy cane into each of his, because he wanted to make "the North Pole." I decided to sprinkle mine with crushed candy canes.

I'm pretty sure Red Velvet Cake is traditional in the South, but I've never had it before. The red color, produced by a whole bottle of red food coloring, is a little strange. (I actually think the original recipe had something to do with a chemical reaction between baking soda and one type of cocoa powder, but most current recipes seem to use food coloring.) The chocolate taste was mild, even with the addition of mini chocolate chips. I prefer a more pronounced chocolate flavor, but perhaps that's just how red velvet cake tastes. I liked the minty frosting, but regretted adding the crushed candy canes. I found the crunch distracting.

Oh, and Danny's choice for dinner was ... Kid Cuisines. Yep, he has a mom that will make him just about anything, and he chooses a frozen dinner. Go figure. Tom decided to have a frozen pizza and I made myself quesadillas (I'll post the recipe another day). Anyway, here's the cupcake recipe:

Red Velvet Cupcakes with White Chocolate Peppermint Cream Cheese Frosting

• 24 paper liners for cupcake pans (2 ½ -inch size)
• 1 package (18.25 ounces) plain German chocolate cake mix
• 1 package (3.4 ounces) vanilla instant pudding mix
• 1 cup sour cream
• ½ cup water
• ½ cup vegetable oil
• 1 bottle (1 ounce) red food coloring
• 3 large eggs
• 1 cup miniature semisweet chocolate chips

• Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350°F. Line 24 cupcake cups with paper liners. Set the pans aside.
• Place the cake mix, pudding mix, sour cream, water, oil, food coloring and eggs in a large mixing bowl. Blend with an electric mixer on low speed for 30 seconds. Stop the machine and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.
• Increase the mixer speed to medium and beat two minutes more, scraping down the sides again if needed. The batter should look thick and well combined. Fold in the chocolate chips.
• Spoon batter into each lined cupcake cup, filling it three quarters of the way full. Place the pans in the oven.
• Bake the cupcakes until they spring back when lightly pressed with your finger, 18 to 20 minutes. Remove the pans from the oven and place them on wire racks to cool for 5 minutes. Run a dinner knife around the edges of the cupcake liners, lift the cupcakes up from the bottoms of the cups using the end of the knife, and pick them out of the cups carefully with your fingertips. Place them on a wire rack to cool for 15 minutes before frosting.
• Meanwhile, prepare the White Chocolate Peppermint Cream Cheese Frosting. When finished, place a heaping tablespoon of frosting on each cupcake and swirl to spread with a short metal spatula or a spoon, taking care to cover the tops completely.
• Place these cupcakes, uncovered or in a cake server, in the refrigerator until the frosting sets, 20 minutes.

White Chocolate Peppermint Cream Cheese Frosting
Makes 3 cups, enough to frost 24 cupcakes (2 ½ inch size) generously

• 6 ounces white chocolate, coarsely chopped
• 4 ounces (half an 8-ounce package) reduced-fat cream cheese, at room temperature
• 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter, at room temperature
• 1 teaspoon peppermint extract
• 2 to 2 ½ cups confectioners' sugar, sifted

• Place the white chocolate in a small glass bowl in the microwave oven on high power for one minute. Remove the bowl from the oven and stir with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula until it is smooth. Set the chocolate aside to cool.
• Place the cream cheese and butter in a large mixing bowl. Beat with an electric mixer on low speed until well combined, 30 seconds. Stop the machine. Add the melted white chocolate and blend on low speed until just combined, 30 seconds.
• Add the peppermint extract and two cups of the confectioners' sugar and blend on low until the sugar is incorporated, 30 seconds more. Increase the mixer speed to medium and beat until the frosting is fluffy, one minute more, adding up to ½ cup more sugar if needed to make a spreadable consistency.
• Fold in up to ½ cup crushed peppermint candy for a crunchy and creamy frosting, if desired.