“Think Spring!” Sugar Cookies

Sugar cookies for Kate's 6th birthday party

Sugar cookies for Kate’s 6th birthday party

Here is another way to decorate my favorite sugar cookies. With yet another blizzard raging outside at the moment, it only seems fitting to put our minds and rolling pins to pretty colorful spring-like confections. I served these particular little cuties just last weekend as favors at Kate’s 6th birthday party.

This is such a useful cookie recipe to keep in your repertoire. After you have prepared and chilled the dough, you can cut and freeze the cookies for up to 1 month, baking them from frozen, or bake them first and then freeze them, again for about the same amount of time.

Although I regularly decorate my cutout cookies with colorful royal icing, I have become quite a fan of rolled fondant. The varieties on the shelves these days in craft and specialty baking stores are better than ever—smooth, easy to work with, and available in a wide variety of colors. Of course, you can simply tint plain white fondant, too, using food color paste.

To adhere cutout fondant pieces to the cookies, brush lightly with water or a combination of water and light corn syrup and press gently onto the cookies. If you wish to do so, you can also go a bit further as I have done here, and add additional elements such as royal icing letters, dots, and flowers.

These cookies will keep fresh in airtight bags at room temperature for up to two weeks.

About 30 three-inch cookies

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon sea salt

Pinch of baking powder

1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 cup sugar

1 large egg

1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract

Rolled fondant

Royal icing

Royal icing flowers (available in craft stores or prepare your own)

Whisk together the flour, salt, and baking powder in a medium bowl.

Put the butter in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and begin beating on medium speed. Add the sugar and beat until the mixture is very light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.

Drop in the egg and add the vanilla and mix just until incorporated. Gradually spoon in the flour, mixing on medium-low speed, just until the dough comes together.

Transfer the dough to a large sheet of plastic wrap, bring together to form a disc, and wrap well. Set in the refrigerator to chill and rest, at least 2 hours or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line large baking sheets with parchment paper.

Using about half of the dough at a time, roll on a lightly floured work surface to about ¼ inch thick. Cut into desired shapes and arrange about 1 ½ inches apart on the prepared baking sheets. Set in the refrigerator to chill until firm, at least 20 minutes. (The cutouts can also be arranged on a plastic wrap-lined board or baking sheet, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap, and frozen for up to 1 month. When ready to bake, arrange the frozen cutouts on parchment-lined baking sheets and bake as directed below.)

Bake the cookies (depending on the size) until light golden brown and fragrant, about 10 minutes. Transfer the cookies to wire racks to cool on the baking sheets for several minutes before transferring them to the racks to cool completely.

To make the fondant cutouts, line a flat board or baking sheet with parchment paper. Lightly dust a flat work surface with confectioners’ sugar. Using about a palm-size piece of fondant at a time, roll to about 1/16 inch thick. Cut out desired shapes (I use the same size cutter I use for the cookies) and set on the prepared board or baking sheet. You can use them immediately or when they’ve dried a bit. I suggest not waiting too long, though, as it is more challenging to adhere firm fondant to the cookies than when it is pliable.

Decorate further with royal icing and icing flowers, if desired, and set to dry for at least 4 hours or overnight.

Cream Scones

Cream scones with currants and cinnamon sugar at Kate's first Irish dance recital.

Cream scones with currants and cinnamon sugar at Kate’s first Irish dance recital.

March calls for a traditional scone recipe, bedecked as is Irish tradition, with dried currants, or sprinkled with fragrant cinnamon sugar. This recipe celebrates both preparations. Add more currants, if you want all of the dough speckled with the dried fruit, or none at all if that is your penchant. Simply brush with cream and sprinkle with coarse sugar for a plain but delightful treat, or cover all of the wedges with a coating of sweet cinnamon sugar.

The key to successful scones is to use very cold (nearly frozen) unsalted butter, cold cream and buttermilk, and to work quickly when bringing the dough together and cutting it on your work surface. This is a fairly damp dough, so don’t be afraid to use flour liberally to assist you.

These scones are satisfyingly, but not too, sweet and rise beautifully thanks to the generous amount of baking powder. Perfect for breakfast or an afternoon treat, they are sure to bring a little brightness to the cold, gray days of March.

Makes about 24

½ cup currants (optional)

3 cups all-purpose flour

½ cup sugar

1 tablespoon plus 1 heaping teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon sea salt

12 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled in the freezer until firm and cut into about ½-inch pieces

1 cup heavy whipping cream, chilled, plus more for brushing

½ cup buttermilk, chilled

Coarse sugar for sprinkling

Cinnamon sugar (prepared with raw sugar and ground cinnamon)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Arrange the racks in the middle and upper third of the oven. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper.

If using the currants, put them in a small saucepan, cover with water, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Simmer for several minutes, drain, and set aside to cool completely.

Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade attachment and pulse several times. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. While continuing to pulse, drizzle in the cream and buttermilk, processing just until the dough comes together.

Scrape half of the dough onto a well-floured work surface and, working quickly, incorporate the cooled currants. Shape into a disc, about ¾ inch high, and cut into 12 wedges. Arrange on 1 of the prepared baking sheets about 2 inches apart, brush with cream, and sprinkle with coarse sugar.

Shaping the remaining dough in the same manner, arrange the wedges on the second baking sheet, brush with cream, and sprinkle liberally with cinnamon sugar.

Bake the scones for about 8 minutes. Shift the positions of the baking sheets and bake until the scones have risen, are fragrant, and are golden brown, about 8 minutes more.

Set the scones aside on wire racks to cool on the baking sheets for about 3 minutes before transferring them to the racks cool for several more minutes or completely.

Serve warm or at room temperature. Store in airtight containers at room temperature for up to 3 days.

Dried Fruit and Nut Squares

Dried Fruit-and-Nut Squares

Dried Fruit and Nut Squares

These comfortingly sweet confections certainly seem like special treats, but they are, in fact, satisfying and nourishing as well. Prepared with organic dried fruit and nuts and gently spiced with warming ground cinnamon and ginger, they are the perfect snack, treat, or mini dessert.

I use silicone molds here, as they make removing the squares incredibly easy and foolproof. If you don’t have such molds, though, line a mini muffin pan (one with at least 16 cups) with plastic wrap before pressing the sticky mixture into them. Simply using a nonstick pan could work, as well.

Makes 16

½ cup packed pitted dates

½ cup packed stemmed and roughly chopped dried Calimyrna figs

1 cup packed dried apples

1 cup walnuts

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground ginger

Generous pinch of freshly ground nutmeg

Pinch of sea salt

Combine all of the ingredients in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade attachment. Process until the mixture forms a coarse paste that holds together when you squeeze a bit in your hand.

Press into silicone molds or mini-muffin pans. (Each cup in the mini molds I use holds about a generous tablespoon of the mixture.) Cover with a sheet of plastic wrap and set in the refrigerator to chill for at least 1 hour.

Lift each piece out of the mold and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.

J’s Birthday Croquembouche

Birthday Croquembouche

Birthday Croquembouche

Recently, when I needed to prepare a particularly special birthday dessert, this elaborate confection came to mind and I decided I simply had to master it. It had been at least 20 years since I learned the technique in culinary school, but I figured it was an endeavor worth tackling. And it was.

This French confection, translated as “crisp in the mouth,” is literally a pyramid of profiteroles (custard- or cream-filled cream puffs prepared with traditional choux paste, a.k.a. pate a choux), dipped in and assembled with hot caramel, and then draped in delicate swags of caramel or wispy buntings of spun sugar.

There are many good recipes available on-line and in pastry cookbooks for all of the components: pate a choux, pastry cream, and caramel. I have decided to formally share the recipe I used for the cream puffs, based in part on one of Martha Stewart’s recipes. You can pipe the puffs as large as you desire, although I prefer petite puffs, as they are the proper proportion to prettily cover a 10- or 12-inch Styrofoam cone (available in the flower section of most craft stores).

As for the filling, use your favorite pastry cream or even whipped cream or buttercream. For about 45 puffs (enough to cover a moderate-size cone), you will need about 2 ½ cups of filling. Fill all the puffs (piping into the flat sides) before preparing the caramel.

To make the caramel, simply stir together 2 cups of sugar, ¾ cup of water, and 2 tablespoons of light corn syrup in a medium straight-sided saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium low, refrain from stirring further, and cover, simmering for about 3 minutes. Uncover and, again without stirring, cook until the caramel is light amber in color. Remove from the stove and set the pan briefly in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Place the pan on a kitchen towel or heatproof surface while assembling the pyramid.

To assemble the croquembouche, I covered the cone and a round base with gold cellophane paper (yes, it actually withstands the heat of the caramel). Carefully dip the piped sides of the puffs into the caramel and beginning at the base, arrange them around the cone. Continue until the cone is completely covered.

For a final flourish, dip a fork in the caramel and swirl thin strands around the croquembouche, cloaking it in elegant golden swags. Reheat the caramel as needed if it becomes too thick as it cools.

Cream Puffs

Makes about 65

1 ½ sticks unsalted butter

1 ½ cups water

Generous ¼ teaspoon sea salt

1 tablespoon sugar

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

6 large or extra-large eggs at room temperature

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line 3 large rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.

Melt together the butter, water, salt, and sugar in a medium straight-sided saucepan over medium-low heat. Remove from the heat and stir in the flour. Set over low heat and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until the mixture forms a firm paste and possibly leaves a film on the bottom of the pan, about 2 minutes. Transfer to the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and begin mixing on medium-high speed. Drop in the eggs, one at a time, beating each time until the batter is smooth.

Fit a pastry bag with a round tip about 1/2 inch in diameter (I use the Ateco no. 6 round tip) and fill about half-full with the batter. Pipe rounds about 1 inch in diameter and 1 ½ inches apart onto the prepared baking sheets. Using a wet finger or pastry brush, tap down the points on the tops of the discs.

Bake until the puffs have risen and are light golden brown, about 20 minutes. If baking multiple pans, you might want to reposition them halfway through baking to ensure they bake evenly. (If you don’t have enough racks in your oven, you can set the prepared baking sheet of raw dough rounds aside until the oven is free.) Pierce each puff gently with a skewer and return to the oven to bake for another 7 to 10 minutes (this will help the puffs dry out completely).

Remove from the oven and transfer the puffs to wire racks to cool completely. Use immediately or store in freezer-safe airtight bags for about 2 months. To use, thaw in the refrigerator and crisp briefly on a parchment-lined baking sheet in a 350-degree oven for several minutes.

Mincemeat and Sweet Ways to Use It

Mincemeat Tartlets

Mincemeat Tartlets

I know it’s January and these recipes are arriving a bit late. But I still think they are worth sharing.

I am a traditionalist. With every season and every holiday, I try to follow traditions I’ve already put into place for my family, as well as create new ones that will enhance our celebrations. For a variety of reasons, this year I felt particularly compelled to hold fast to certain patterns as we prepared for Christmas. Cooking certain dishes was no exception, but this Christmas I finally decided to create a recipe I’ve been meaning to for some time: mincemeat.

I researched a variety of methods and ways of using this spicy, citrusy, fruity mixture and came up with this relatively easy combination of ingredients. Use it to make a large pie or tart or many small tartlets. Once prepared, it lasts quite a long time in the refrigerator, so even after the holidays, you can continue to create a variety of comforting desserts and confections.

Here’s to holding onto and creating new traditions.


Makes about 6 ½ cups

1 cup raisins

1 cup golden raisins

1 cup Zante currants

¼ cup dried cranberries

1 large apple or 2 medium apples, peeled and roughly chopped

¾ cup toasted sliced almonds

½ cup chopped pitted dates

½ cup chopped dried figs

Zest and juice of 2 clementines

Zest and juice of 1 lemon

1 cup packed dark brown sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

¾ teaspoon ground ginger

½ teaspoon ground allspice

½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

Generous ¼ teaspoon sea salt

3 tablespoons melted unsalted butter

1/3 cup brandy or whisky

Mincemeat when all of the ingredients are combined.

Mincemeat when all of the ingredients are combined.

Combine the raisins, golden raisins, currants, and cranberries in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade attachment. Pulse until the fruit is coarsely chopped. Transfer to a large bowl. Combine the chopped apple and almonds in the same food processor bowl and pulse until coarsely chopped. Add to the dried fruit mixture. Add the dates, figs, zest and juice of the clementines and lemon, brown sugar, spices, salt, butter, and brandy, stirring well to mix all the ingredients. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set in the refrigerator to chill for at least 4 hours or overnight. You can then use the mincemeat directly or store in glass or airtight containers in the refrigerator for up to at least 1 month.

Preparing the tartlets

Preparing the tartlets

To make Mincemeat Tartlets, butter tartlet pans, line them with Rich Tart Dough (see my recipe below from August), and fill with Mincemeat. (You will use about 1 tablespoon of Mincemeat for each 2-inch tart.) Top with cut-out pastry stars or other shapes and set in the refrigerator to chill for about 20 minutes. Arrange the tartlets on a large rimmed baking sheet, brush the stars with cream, and sprinkle with coarse sugar. Bake at 350 degrees until golden brown, about 30 minutes. Set aside on a wire rack to cool completely before removing the tarts from the pans. This full recipe of Mincemeat will make about 90 small tartlets.

Mincemeat Pinwheels

Mincemeat Pinwheels

To make Mincemeat Pinwheels, roll a piece of Rich Tart Dough to about 5-by-12-inches and about 3/16 inch thick. Spoon a line of Mincemeat (about ½ inch wide) along the long side (closest to you on the work surface) of the pastry, leaving about ½ inch from the edges of the pastry. Roll the long side over the Mincemeat and continue rolling the pastry into a log. With the seam side down, cut the log into about 1-inch pieces. Set the pieces, cut sides up, in the lightly buttered cups of a nonstick mini muffin tin. Set in the refrigerator to chill for about 15 minutes. Brush the tops lightly with cream, sprinkle with coarse sugar, and bake at 350 degrees until golden brown and fragrant, about 25 minutes. Set aside on a wire rack to cool the pinwheels in the pan for about 5 minutes before removing them to cool completely.

Meringues with Raspberry Buttercream

Tender meringues with velvety raspberry buttercream and fresh rasbperries

Tender meringues with velvety raspberry buttercream and fresh raspberries

Just in time to beat the after-Christmas and post-New Year’s blahs, here is a sweet treat for any occasion. These petite meringues are filled with a small piping of Swiss buttercream whipped with seedless raspberry jam and topped with a sumptuous fresh berry. Make the meringues ahead of time and store them in an airtight container in a dry area for up to two weeks. Of course, the buttercream can be prepared ahead of time, too, and frozen or stored in the refrigerator until needed. Top with berries just before serving.

Here’s how I make my favorite meringue shells. For every large room-temperature egg white, use 1/4 cup of sugar and a tiny pinch of salt. Whip as many egg whites (I usually do about 4) as you desire in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment until frothy. Gradually rain in the sugar (for 4 whites I’d use 1 cup of sugar). Do this slowly to give the whites a chance to absorb and dissolve the sugar. When you’ve incorporated all of the sugar, whip on high speed until the meringue is luxuriously thick and billowy, at least another 5 to 7 minutes.

Using whatever plain or star tip you like best, pipe small shells, about 3 inches in diameter and 2 inches apart, onto parchment-lined baking sheets. I usually start in the center, pipe a disc, and then pipe along the edges to create about a 3/4-inch rim. Bake at about 200 degrees until the meringues are dry and firm but still white, 50 minutes to 1 hour. If you’re preparing more than one pan, rotate the pans about halfway through baking.

Remove from the oven and set aside to cool completely on the baking sheets before storing the meringues in an airtight container.

More from the Christmas Cookie Tin

A variety of Christmas cookie cut-outs

A variety of Christmas cookie cut-outs

Here are some additional cookies to tempt you. Again, using sugar cookie cut-outs as the bases, I covered them with different colored fondant (cut with the same cookie cutters) and then decorated them further by brushing the fondant lightly with water and sprinkling it with coarse sugar or by adding whimsical details with edible markers. If you use the markers, make sure to let the fondant set overnight or at least for a few hours until it is firm. Decorating cookies with markers is particularly enjoyable for children; they feel like they are just coloring.