I know it's been a while since my last post and I have a lot of things to write about this week especially after my 4 day camping trip in Acadia National Park. First though, I have an entry from a few weeks ago that I would like to post.
Since Thanksgiving I haven't really baked or decorated anything and I was itching to pick it back up again. I've been following this food blog for weeks now and I have been dying to try one of Annie's delicious-looking recipes. I decided to start with a simple sugar cookie recipe which didn't turn out to be as simple as I had hoped...
The recipe calls for real vanilla beans which cost about $13 for two beans. I decided to go ahead and buy them to see if they would make a difference in the taste. I creamed the butter and the confectioner's sugar together (this time remembering to let the butter sit out so it would reach room temperature) and then added the egg, the vanilla, and the lemon zest. I had never even seen a vanilla bean before, so I laid out a piece of wax paper so I wouldn't lose a single seed form this 6 and a half dollar bean. Contrary to what I had expected, the seeds were all stuck together like a paste inside the bean, so I just put the shell between my finger and a spoon and scraped the seeds out. Luckily, the seeds stuck to the butter in the bowl and it wasn't hard to get them off of the spoon or my fingers.
I mixed the rest of the ingredients together and was left with a big sticky ball of dough. I wrapped it in plastic wrap and stuck it in the fridge with a note that said "don't touch" and left it in there for a couple of hours. I came back from work and took the cookie dough out of the fridge and floured up a board. I had never rolled out cookie dough before so I just dove right in with my roller and used way too much flour for fear of the dough sticking to everything. I definitely didn't give the dough enough time to defrost after taking it out of my fridge and it started breaking apart in chunks under my rolling pin. I put it back together and let it warm up for about a minute and tried again. This worked slightly better and I had about 16 cookies when I was finished. I always used the non-stick tinfoil to bake on but I especially noticed with these cookies that the tinfoil would brown the bottom and the top still would be a little doughy. The cookies also spread a little and didn't have a crisp shape like the cookie pictured below. I made some cookies at a later date with one of these silpats and they came out evenly colored and cooked and slid right off the mat. And they're relatively cheap! I will definitely have to order some before my next baking extravaganza.
The next part of the process was decorating the cookies. I used this recipe for the royal icing and it's never failed me. Making royal icing with a handheld mixer is a pain. Whenever I used my mixer I would sit in front of the television for about 15 minutes waiting for my icing to stiffen up. However, I made the icing at someone else's house with their stand mixer and it was phenomenal. The trick to making royal icing perfect is to add the water 1 tablespoon at a time, which is much easier with a stand mixer. I knew the icing was a perfect consistency when I could scrape the spatula across the bottom of the bowl and the icing would stay in place. Also, when the beater pulls away from the rest of the icing it will form peaks. What I should have done next was take a spoonful and try to pipe some icing to make sure it wasn't too thick, that way I could go back and add more water if necessary. However, it wasn't until I had committed to a full bag of yellow icing that I realized the icing was way too thick. I was too stubborn to put the whole thing back in the bowl and add more water so I told myself that as I kept piping and my hands warmed up the bag the icing would be easier to work with. It wasn't. Moral of the story, just go back and add more water.
The next step was to make the color flow icing. I went back to my white royal icing that I had put aside and added a few drops of water and mixed it in. Color flow icing is used to fill a large area with an even amount of color, so it needs to have the right consistency in order to flood the area. After mixing drops of water into the royal icing, you want to pick up the spoon and let the color flow icing drip back into the bowl. When that icing disappears back into the rest of the icing within 8 to 10 seconds, that's when you know the consistency is perfect. I put the icing in a parchment paper bag and cut off the tip and let it flood the area inside of the border I had piped. I used a toothpick to pop any remaining bubbles and fill in the edges.
After letting the color flow icing dry for about 2 or 3 hours, I went back and piped some names, dates, and messages on the cookies, which was incredibly difficult since the icing was still thick. The handwriting didn't come out that great as a result.
The cookies tasted great and everyone enjoyed them, but personally, I love the taste of a chewy cookie and these sugar cookies had the texture of a shortbread cookie. The recipe called for confectioner's sugar rather than granulated, which could certainly have added to the dry consistency. I also used a lot of flour when I rolled out the dough. Also, I could not taste any strong vanilla flavor from the vanilla seeds, and I'm sure most of the flavor came from the vanilla extract anyway. Next time I make these cookies, I will be sure to try it with granulated sugar instead. And I don't think I'll be buying any more vanilla beans...