Dec 17, 2013

Bake a Better Christmas Cookie

Making tastier Christmas Cookies
Growing up, my house was not a Christmas Cookie house.  In fact, my house was not an any sort of cookie house, except for selling girl scout cookies. My in-laws, however, are the baking type.  They start baking in early December, and run straight through till Christmas.  I think there's usually at least ten types of cookies, plus pecan rolls, making up plates for offices, schools, neighbors, churches, etc.  It's an impressive sight to see.  Being back in Boston, and not in Hawaii (so having a little extra heat from the oven is a good thing) I've been having a fair amount of fun getting into the Christmas cookie habit myself (although on a much, much smaller scale).  A mug of hot apple cider, a Christmas movie marathon, and a table full of cookies, royal icing, piping bags, and candy accouterments sounds like a great way to spend an evening to me.

I am not going to be the one to tell people what recipes to use for any Christmas Cookies. Often it is much more tradition than baking, and tends to factor into the "taste" of Christmas for people.  I'd rather talk about techniques.  Anyone who has ever made cut out sugar cookies knows how finicky they can be.  There are very few ingredients, and the general flavors can be very subtle.  That tends to mean that there are an awful lot of ways to mess it up.  Cut out sugar cookies are pretty much the pie dough of the cookie world.

Life lessons that I have learned making cookies:

  1. Butter: As one of the main flavor components, I always make sure that my butter is fresh.  It should smell like butter, and only like butter (not like anything else from the refrigerator).  Also, if the recipe calls for creaming the butter and the sugar, the butter has to be the right temperature.  If the butter is too warm, the cookies will be greasy, flat blobs.  Cold butter takes longer to cream (and can be hard on a hand mixer). But as long as you keep the butter below 68 degrees (when it starts to melt), then creaming will help to add air into the cookie, providing a lighter finished product with better texture. General tip: When starting a recipe, turn on the oven to preheat, cut your butter into chunks, put it in the mixing bowl, then gather and prepare the rest of your ingredients.  The increased surface area will help to warm the butter faster, but not overwarm it.
  2. Gluten: When making bread, the goal is to work the dough a lot, to create gluten and end up with nice, chewy bread. Cookies are not bread.  While some gluten is desired to help keep the cookies together and not become crumbly (which is why most cookies call for all purpose flour instead of cake flour), over working cookie dough is much more likely than underworking it.  The result is that what should be a light, tender cookie is tough and hard.  This is also why, when making cut out cookies, the first ones tend to come out nice and pretty, and the more times the dough is rolled out, the worse they are.
  3. Oven temperature: Most home ovens are not precise on their temperature.  America's Test Kitchen has someone come in to calibrate their ovens once a month.  A basic oven thermometer can be bought for under $10, and can save a lot of heartache in poorly baked cookies.  I even go the extra step and keep a pizza stone on the bottom rack of my oven to act as an insulator, helping to keep the temperature even.
  4. Baking Process: First, every time you open the oven, you're letting heat out. And the longer the oven is open, the more heat can escape.  Therefore, when I put cookies in the oven, I usually have the cookie sheet on top of the stove, with my oven mitts on before I open the oven.  I'm losing the bare minimum of heat possible, and the cookies spend more time in the oven at the correct temperature.  This also means  I open the oven as few times as possible while cookies are in there.  Most modern ovens have a window in the front, and a light inside.  Use them.

    I have also found that, for many types of cookies, baking cookies is like cooking eggs.  When cooking eggs, always take the pan off the heat slightly before they look done.  The heat of the pan will continue cooking them.  It's the same with cookies.  It took me multiple batches of ginger cookies before I learned when to take them out of the oven.  If they looked done, the bottoms were going to be overcooked.
As far as decorating sugar cookies goes, I'm not an artist.  I can't draw, I can't paint, even my handwriting is atrocious. Bee in our Bonnet has some fabulous information on sugar cookies and decorating them. This year I tried using tricks I learned from that post for my cookies, with mixed success.  My royal icing was too firm to really "flood", but the decorating was a lot cleaner than ever before.  Any of the "mixed" part is all my skills, and not the suggestions from the site.  I did even try a little bit of this "knit" technique on one of my cookies.

Be mindful of the details, and be happier with your results.  And don't forget, most importantly, have fun!

Dec 4, 2013

Three Blind Mice Never Tasted So Good

There are many things that I dislike about winter, which is why I choose to look at the positives as opposed to hiding under my bed for multiple months, waiting for it to go away. While the utter lack of humidity leads to my hair doing an impression of a hedgehog due to static, the same lack of heat and humidity make it the perfect weather to start making chocolates again!

A friend of mine recently bought a house, and after I was lusting over the size and counter space of her kitchen, invited me over to help break it in.  She and I had originally taken a truffle class together, but where I obsessively proceeded on to make all sorts of different candies, she was happy to just go home and eat her candy. When I asked what she wanted to make in this new kitchen, she said that she wanted something with chocolate.

I think that chocolate mice are probably the least exacting type of candy that I've made. When I went poking around online to see if it were possible to make something like Mounds or Almond Joy, I came across directions that essentially said to mix corn syrup with coconut until you have about the right texture.  Cool, shape, and coat in chocolate. Conveniently, that is, in fact, about all there is to it. But, as I'm really bad about staying short winded, there's a whole lot more below.

Before we talk about ingredients, I just want to say a word about corn syrup. If you have never made candy, but have all of the talk about high fructose corn syrup, you may balk at any recipe that uses corn syrup (although High Fructose Corn Syrup and what is in the baking aisle are actually different). What's insidious about high fructose corn syrup isn't actually the ingredient on its own.  It's the fact that it's in everything, so that "moderation" that the corn refiners ads talk about gets really difficult really fast. Start checking labels.  Things that you would never expect to have sugar in them have high fructose corn syrup, like bread. In candy, corn syrup helps to keep crystals small, and helps to keep things chewy.  So it is highly advisable to not just omit it.  Also, remember, we're making candy.  We already know it's not healthy.  My advice, enjoy the treat for what it is, and keep portion sizes reasonable.  If you're still concerned about the difference, check out this article.


  • Shredded Coconut
  • Corn Syrup
  • Chocolate or Candy Melts (dark or milk, your choice, but don't use chocolate chips.  They contain anti-melting agents that will just make your life harder.)
  • Optional: almonds (or anything else that you think will taste good with coconut).

Prepare the Chocolate

In this application, the chocolate will be used as a coating over the coconut, so we need to melt it. If you have never worked with chocolate, there are two very important things to know. First, chocolate is actually very sensitive to heat. It has many different crystal states within a pretty small range.  What does that mean? If you have ever had a candy bar that has melted and re-solidified, you have experienced this.  It won't have a nice snap to the chocolate, it will melt at a lower temperature, it won't be shiny.  Just generally not as pretty.  In chocolate terms, it's out of temper.  The good news is, if you are working with a good solid block of chocolate that is already in temper, it's not that hard to keep it that way.

Secondly, water and chocolate are not friends.  They are anti-friends.  Even a tiny bit of water in melted chocolate will cause it to seize, and then you can't use it for dipping your mice.

Some people will advocate using the microwave to melt chocolate.  This can work, but I've not had much success with it.  I have the bad habit of over heating the chocolate.  So I prefer to do things the old fashioned way.

If you decide to use candy melts, there is no need to chop your chocolate. I find the flavor isn't quite as good as with real chocolate, but I will admit that they are a lot easier to use, and there is no risk or seizing.

If, instead, you are using a large bar of chocolate, get out a good solid knife to chop it down. Why?  Because as I said above, chocolate is sensitive to heat.  I want to use as little heat/time as possible to get it all melted evenly.  Smaller pieces, that have a high surface area, will melt faster.  The general goal is to get the chocolate into nice, tiny pieces that are all about the same size.

I melt my chocolate at home by putting it into a metal bowl, and putting that bowl on top of a small pot with a couple of inches of water in it.  In this case, my friend had a Pyrex bowl that would also withstand the heat, so we just used that.  Put the bowl of chocolate on top of the pan before turning on the heat.  Steam= water, and if any gets into your chocolate, that can leave you very sad with a bowl full of seized chocolate that will never be used for dipping, and little naked coconut mice.

Heat the chocolate slowly over low heat, stirring often, and turning off the heat periodically if the water in the underlying pot reaches a simmer.  The chocolate will be heated by the water under it, not by the stove.  You only need to get it to about 70 degrees Farenheit, so there's no need to rush it.

The Coconut Mixture

After trying the method referred to above, I realized that yes, there's very little actual measuring involved.  In this application, about half a bag of coconut made give or take 20 mice.  So I use the amount of coconut to approximate the number I want to make, and will mix in the corn syrup accordingly. Mix in small amounts at a time until the mixture will stick together well enough to work with.  To test it, grab a small ball from the bowl and squeeze it into a ball.  If it sticks, and isn't sprouting little coconut hairs, you are good to go.  At this point, if you just want to make little candy bars, shape them, dip them in chocolate, let them set, and you're done.  Personally, I think the mice are kind of cute.

I have a scoop that I use for this next part, for the sake of making mice that are about the same size.  But a spoon will work just about as well. Start scooping out little balls of coconut, and roll them between your hands to get it nice and compact.  This step can be very sticky, so I will often rinse my hands in cold water to help keep the coconut from sticking.

Each mouse will take 1.5 balls of mixture, so make several balls as bodies, and then half as many balls of the same size for the heads.  The balls that are made for heads, cut in half and roll them into little cones, using your hands.  To add the ears, I will take a dab of melted chocolate, and add it to one end of the body.  Take two slivered almonds that are about the same time, and use the chocolate as glue between the head and the body.  Chill the mice in the refrigerator for about 10 minutes or so, making sure that there is no residual water on the bodies (I usually will do the mice in batches, so that by the time I have finished the last bodies, the first ones to go in are ready for dipping).


Now that the bodies are chilled and the chocolate is melted, it's time to start dipping.  Take a mouse, put it into the chocolate, coating completely, then remove (a fork works just fine here), letting excess chocolate drip off.  then place on parchment paper or a silicone mat to set. The cleaner this step is, the better, but you can also just trim some extra chocolate off the edges once it's hardened.  As you can see from the photos, I'm definitely neither a professional nor perfect!

If you don't want blind mice, you can use icing, or candy googly eyes, or anything else I haven't thought of.  In my experience, they don't tend to last long enough for anyone to notice.

Most importantly, have fun. You can always eat mistakes, and cleanup can be a tasty job too! Don't forget to lick the bowl!


Financial Outlay: Under $10 for over 20 mice, each about 2 inches long
Time: About 1 Hour
Quality: Tasty!  The visual beauty may vary depending on your skill with chocolate, but these are handcrafted!  If you got one at a candy store, it would probably be at least $2 each. Also, people tend to be really impressed when the notice that it's a chocolate mouse as opposed to just a blob of a candy bar.
Fun: I like doing these. The recipe is easily scale-able, the coconut mixture is kind of like a really crumbly clay, it's tasty, and can be done with multiple people who may not have much kitchen experience.