Friday, October 29, 2010

Timeless Sugar Cookies

My mom is an amazing cook and baker  (and mom and grammy for that matter).  I can’t remember when we started making these sugar cookies for holidays, but the recipe dates back about 35 years, mom says, according the timeline of people,locations and ages of my sister and me.  I can’t remember them NOT being in my life.  Mom knows all kinds of tricks for successful sugar cookie baking that she taught us along the way.  It wasn’t evident to me how important they were to pass along until I started giving the recipe to friends in college. After a couple times of making them, you will find that they are not difficult at all, albeit time-consuming!  So I wanted to share them with you.

1 cup butter, softened
2 cups sugar
2 eggs
4 cups flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. vanilla
1½ tsp. butter flavoring

Blend softened butter with sugar. Add eggs, then flour, baking powder and salt. Add vanilla and butter flavoring. Chill dough for at least 30 minutes. Roll out dough to ¼“ thick. Dust cutters and rolling pin with powdered sugar. Cut out cookies in desired shapes. Place on ungreased cookie sheet, allowing about 2 inches between cookies (they will spread). Bake at 375 degrees for about 10 minutes (or until edges begin to turn golden). Remove from cookie sheet immediately. When cooled, glaze with the following glaze or frosting of your choice.

Glaze for Sugar Cookies
3 cups powdered sugar
3 Tbsp. milk (approximately)
1 tsp. almond OR lemon OR vanilla extract

Mix all ingredients until smooth. If glaze is too runny, add more powdered sugar. If glaze is too stiff, add more milk.

Here are some of the tricks:
*Mom taught us to sprinkle our cookie cutters, surface and rolling pin with powdered sugar rather than flour.  That way it provides the dusting effect without drying out or dulling the dough’s taste.

*Make sure you space these cookies apart a couple of inches because they really grow.

*It takes a while to make the batch of these cookies, as there are several steps and it makes a big batch.  I suggest you break down the steps into different sessions if you don't have a big time block.  You can mix up the dough and refrigerate it for another day.  Or you can make the cookies and let them cool until the next day when you ice them.

*If you  don’t want to deal with icing the cookies, you can put sprinkles on them prior to baking so they can stick on by baking OR my mom, when we were young, would sometimes let us “egg paint” the cookies prior to baking them.  Mix an egg yolk with some food coloring and a little water and use clean, new paintbrushes and paint the cookies.  Then bake and they come out looking glossy and colorful.

(Do you like my chaotic cabinet?)
*Another great idea my mom had (are you wondering at this moment, like I am, why she is not the one with the food blog?) was to store her very large supply of cookie cutters in empty oatmeal cardboard containers, divided by category.  Here is my cabinet with mine.

Some things that have “evolved” over time in my kitchen with these cookies are:
*The name:  Timeless Sugar Cookies.  Growing up we always just called them sugar cookies…then my friend Karin (pronounced kuh- REN), in her creative, dreamy fashion started calling them “timeless sugar cookies” and it stuck.  They truly are timeless.  

*Since being married to a lover-of-soft-cookies-husband (with a dislike of crunchy cookies) I have worked to find the correct amount of cooking time on cookies of all kinds.  The timing makes such a difference in the softness of the cookie.  2 minutes can make a huge difference.  So I remove them from the oven at the sight of the golden edges.  It is good to note, however, that glaze added atop a cookie will soften the cookie by the next day.
Glazing the cookies with my back-of-the-spoon technique

*I started making the almond glaze when I was inspired by Ham and Goody’s bakery that makes these yummy teacakes and sugar cookies with beautiful, smooth, glossy glaze that I am in love with.  I think it is the perfect companion to this great cookie and makes them so beautiful!  Karin and I have observed the “marriage” that happens between the cookie and the glaze that makes the cookie soft and sweet and it is just mysteriously beautiful (kinda like marriage).  And I use the back-of-the-spoon technique where I blob some glaze on the cookie and then use the back of the spoon to guide my smoothing it all over the cookie.

*These cookies are fun on a stick (I use the paper lolly-pop sticks).  They are a great party favor or teacher gift (we have given “bouquets” to teachers and have given “single” flower cookies sticks to teachers).  They are BEAUTIFUL as hearts for Valentine’s Day.  When my friends, Karin and Eric, got married we made little bags of K and E cookies for the wedding guests as a favor.  Get creative.

*Some of our young friends have milk allergies and thankfully there is a margarine that is oil based rather than milk that can be used in this recipe and it works! And tastes great.  And they can have a “normal beautiful sugar cookie" just like everyone else! ( Just a good thing to know.)


Dia de los Muertos Update (refer to my last post-Pumpkins, Sombreros and Skulls for the back story)

The situation I was in this week, with 2 school-kids celebrating fall with class parties, but with one focusing on The Day Of the Dead and the other class deciding to not have food or "maybe a little healthy snack ", my pumpkin sugar cookies were not the appropriate treat.  So, I did it.  We did it.  With much support from Dave, I made cookies in the shape of colorful skull masks that are part of the typical Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration and some sombreros. ( I also made some pumpkin mini muffins to send to my daughter's "healthy class".  It just didn't feel right to not send anything).
SInce skull mask & sombrero cookie cutters were not readily accessible to me, I had to improvise and use a circle that I formed into a skull-like shape and a cowboy hat that I morphed into a sombrero with a little elongation of the crown and a "snake" of dough placed as the brim.  I used really fun, bright food coloring that Dave found at the craft store.  I tried to make the skulls at least happy little fellows, which Asher noticed first thing when he came downstairs this morning.  He said, "Oh they are great! And they are smiling! How creative!"  He is terrific.  And while I was cutting and baking I went ahead and made a pan of pumpkins....I will make more this weekend for Sunday but I just had to.  We all ate one and I gave my daughter's teacher a couple of the pumpkins because I love to give her baked goods and they are so festive.  

I never dreamed that these sweet cookies my mom taught me to make as a girl would one day resemble a brightly colored skull! But if you close your eyes it tasted just like a flower cookie, or a bowling pin cookie or a pumpkin cookie for that matter!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Pumpkins, Sombreros and Skulls

I have been so excited that the week is approaching to get to post about Sugar Cookies.  These “Timeless Sugar Cookies” are one of my favorite and most loved recipes from my mom. When I started this blog, I strategized about when it would make the most sense to write about them.  Halloween is the first holiday to come since I started Cup-A Cup-A and I always make pumpkin shaped cookies for this holiday, so I thought it was fitting to get to share the recipe for this occasion.

Last week when I saw that my kids were having class parties at school, I signed up to bring cookies for Asher’s 3rd grade class.  I thought it would be fun to share some of these with his friends and get a jump start on the baking for the weekend!
I somehow missed the line in the info email that the theme of their “fall party” this year in his class is going to be the Day of the Dead- Dia de Los Muertos (which is the Mexican holiday honoring those who have died.  The traditions connected with the holiday include building private altars honoring the deceased).  My kids go to a Spanish Immersion School so they use holidays as a chance to learn about the various Latino cultures and customs.  Which I appreciate and honor. But. Really? Let me show you the images that are associated with this holiday. These are the cutest, least scary and most colorful of the 100 images I sifted through related to the Day of the Dead.

I was looking forward to sending sweet pumpkin shaped cookies with pretty orange colored glaze but instead I am going to make skulls? I told Dave that I don’t think I can do it:  make yummy, time-consuming, spooky skulls for kids to eat…that is weird and gross!  He said he thinks the kids will think they are cool, and delicious (he's probably right).

So, I just wanted to warn you that that is what is in the works here in my kitchen.  The party is Friday and Halloween is Sunday so by the end of the weekend I will have some photos and stories and a recipe for you.  I am thinking Sombreros and Skulls (eek) for Friday and Pretty Pumpkins for Sunday.  Unless you have a better idea. If so, bring it!

(Here are a couple of photos of times when these sugar cookies have been part of our celebrations.  There are many more but we can't yet locate those photos to post).
A bouquet of flowers at a ladybug picnic
Bowling Pin Cookies to accompany the bowling ball birthday cake at the bowling alley birthday

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Special Fall Dinner

A special fall meal, including some of my favorite flavors of the season, is Pork Tenderloin and Sweet Potato Apple Scallop.  The recipes each have a different history of how they came to our kitchen. 

The Pork: When I was pregnant with Lucy (my youngest child), a few of my son’s school-mates’ mothers offered to bring meals to us when our baby arrived.  We were so thankful and thrilled to have meals brought. (I think providing meals is one of the most wonderful ways to love someone when they have a new child, or are going through any transition or tough time, really.  If you are not already in the practice of doing this I strongly consider you start today!)
One of our favorites was a meal that centered around 2 large pork tenderloins that were marinated and brought to us hot off the grill.  The meat was so flavorful and tender.  My guys went wild and I loved how well seasoned it was.  We quickly asked for the recipe.  Lissa, the giver of the meal, passed it along and we are thankful. It is a simple marinade and then the meat is grilled.  It is a winner every time.  I have cut the butter quantity from the original version and don’t notice a difference (except for less guilt).  The trickiest part of this recipe is guessing which piece of meat to buy (since it is usually bought shrink-wrapped in the store and it is hard to know exactly what you are purchasing). This dish is great year round, but I chose to post it this month because it is nice weather to enjoy grilling and it goes so well with the sweet potato/apple dish that I have been craving.

Grilled Pork Tenderloin

5 Tbsp melted butter
1/3 cup soy sauce
2/3 cup worchestershire sauce
2 Tbsp ketchup
2 Pork Tenderloins 
Combine ingredients in a glass measuring cup. Pour over 2 pork tenderloins in a dish.  Marinade meat  in a covered dish for 2 hours or more.  Grill, flipping frequently until a thermometer inserted into the largest part of the meat reads 150-155 (approximately 20 minutes).  Remove from grill and wrap in foil to continue to cook and maintain warmth.  


Our tips with the pork are:
*Use a Meat thermometer to know when it is done!  If you don’t have one, this would be a good tool to purchase.  Rather than guessing or cutting your meat repeatedly to see if it is fully cooked, the thermometer inserted can give you an accurate read that will let you know when the meat is safely cooked. 

*Flip the meat in the marinade a few times during the time it is marinating.  (I have this cool marinating Tupperware container which is really convenient and useful for meat preparing - you can flip the container and both sides have a tenderizing texture).

*Be careful when grilling, because the marinade can easily burn on the pork.  My griller-husband suggests you turn the tenderloin often while it is on the grill to prevent charring. There is plenty of marinade to continue to baste while grilling.

*If you don’t have a silicone basting brush, I recommend you get one, as it is much easier to clean and care for than a traditional basting brush.

*Make more than you think you will need, as it is a little hard to stop eating it. (My 8 year old son ate 7 pieces today when we said, "STOP! ENOUGH!")

Sweet Potato Apple Scallop
For my friend’s 40th birthday (in October) a couple of years ago, several friends gathered and cooked a meal for her.  It was a lovely occasion and the main dish was pork tenderloin (a more complex recipe than the preceding one).  I was to bring a sweet potato dish and decided that I wanted something a little different than baked sweet potatoes, or a sweet potato casserole or mashed sweet potatoes with marshmallows. Don’t get me wrong, I like sweet potatoes of all varities.

My family loves sweet potatoes at thanksgiving and we have a history of voting on “how we want our sweet potatoes fixed” each year.  I love them all ways…they are just so good! We have been known to have 3 versions of sweet potatoes at Thanksgiving dinner- my sister, who likes the marshmallow topped and the crumble-topped casserole has had the great insight to create a ½ and ½ pan and she scoops her portion down the center in order to get some of each!

But the night of the birthday dinner party, I envisioned a baked apple/sweet potato combo.  I searched around for what I was looking for and found a recipe online and adapted it my liking.  It is tasty, hearty and beautiful too.  It is one of those recipes that can be altered according to your preferences.

4 sweet potatoes
4 medium apples, peeled and cored
2 tsp. lemon juice
2 Tbsp orange juice
½ cup cranberries (as per your preference)
1 cup packed brown sugar
¼ cup chopped pecans
½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp pumpkin pie spice
2 Tbsp butter

Place sweet potatoes in a saucepan and cover with water.  Bring to a boil; cook for 20-25 minutes or until tender. 
Drain and cool.  
Peel potatoes and cut into ¼ inch slices.  

Place in a baking dish coated with cooking spray.  
Cut apples into slices.  Arrange over sweet potatoes. 
Sprinkle with lemon juice.  
Then sprinkle cranberries all around the top.

(You can alternate layering of sweet potatoes and apples, if your pan’s dimensions allow). 

Combine the brown sugar, pecans, cinnamon, pumpkin pie spice and orange juice; sprinkle over fruit. [If you are making in a pan with 2 layers of each item, I recommend you sprinkle the brown sugar mixture between layers as well as on top, so as to flavor the bottom half as well as the top.]   Dot with butter.  

Bake, uncovered at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes or until apples are tender.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Fresh Apple Cake

This is a great cake. It is really simple, full of sugar and diced apples and screams “autumn”.

This was the week to make it because David had already requested this for his “October Goody of the Month” and we went apple picking last weekend in East Tennessee. (Which is very fun although the farmer told us that actually September is prime picking month, so we were a bit late this year).

In 1996, the summer after I got married, Dave and I worked at a camp in East Tennessee. We lived on a college campus and ate cafeteria food all summer. The camp was a great experience, however, the food was lacking significantly. One of the weeks, a leader from the camp organization, Joe, came to visit with his wife, Freda, because one of their daughters was on our team that year. Freda, knowing the treat that it would be to bring us a baked good, arrived with A Fresh Apple Cake in hand. Well, I thought I would eat the entire cake! It was so moist and cinnamony with a crusty top and a moist inside. It seemed coffee cake-like. I asked Freda for the recipe so that when I returned to normal life with my kitchen, I could make it. She told me to grab a piece of paper and proceeded to quote the recipe. I think she has made it a time or two. I have been making it ever since!

My only gripe about this cake (other than it is full of calories and most great cakes) is that it chronically sticks to the pan! What a pain! The good thing is that it is forgiving. I am always able to dig out the stuck part and smush it on the cake. I have tried greasing and flouring various ways- Baker’s Joy, Crisco, butter, cooking spray, etc. I have resorted to loaf pans when I have felt discouraged. I even thought it might be my cheap-o bundt pan so I used Birthday money one year to buy a real, Bundt brand, high dollar pan at Williams Sonoma. But alas, it stuck. Nevertheless, I am loyal to this cake and think it is exceptional. So... I make it, hold my breath and prepare for surgery. It is worth it.

Fresh Apple Cake
4 cups fresh tart apples, peeled and diced
¾ cup oil
1 Tbsp vanilla

Mix together in a bowl
3 cups flour
1 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. baking soda

½ tsp. salt
1 Tbsp. (or more) cinnamon

Stir dry ingredients together in another bowl.
Add the dry mixture with the apple mixture.

In a separate bowl (you can re-use the one from earlier) mix together:
2 eggs
3 cups sugar

Combine all ingredients together and stir until evenly blended. It will be chunky and thick.

Place in a well-greased and floured bundt pan (if you dare).

Bake at 325 degrees for 1 hour 15 min- 1 hour 30 minutes. It is tricky to know when it is done because the top puffs and forms a crunchy exterior and the inside is moist.

Let cool in the pan for 10 minutes then turn out onto a cake plate.


My friend had a birthday a couple of weeks ago and asked what kitchen tools I thought should be on her wish-list. It was fun to think of “essential tools”. So, when I was baking this week I thought of a couple of cooking tools that I think are of great value in the kitchen that I wanted to mention to you. When peeling and cutting apples, a good knife is essential. It is certainly the most taxing part of the recipe and if you have a good knife it helps. My favorite knives are Cutco. They are easy to handle, sharp, effective knives with a lifetime guarantee. If you don’t have a good knife I suggest you add it to your birthday or Christmas list.

Also, I love a batter bowl. You can see in the photo my new plastic batter bowl. I have always had glass ones (1 quart and 2 quart) and use them all the time. The handle makes them so easy to use and stir, and the spout comes in handy when pouring batter is required. So, I have to confess that I am kind of a wild cook. I am messy in the kitchen (which I deem as an indicator of my creative chef-ness, when teased and criticized about this quality). And I have a lot going on in my life, and in the kitchen, and in my fridge. Because of these variables, I have shattered BOTH of my batter bowls in the past few months. My mother graciously replaced the large one for me and decided plastic would be a safer route this time. She knows me pretty well.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Fancy Tomato Soup and Grilled Cheese Sandwiches

Tomato Soup and Grilled Cheese are broad terms. Tomato Soup can be described as thin, bland, soup poured from a tin can and Grilled Cheese can be a soggy, greasy, American-cheese-filled-white-bread-sandwich OR it can be defined very differently. It can be a gourmet, craveable, comfort food delicacy! I think it was a combination of Bread and Company’s Soup and Fido’s Grilled Cheese that originally rocked my Tomato Soup/Grilled Cheese definitions.

I have tried different tomato soup recipes for years and have finally landed on the one I think is marvelous! It is well-seasoned and lightly creamy, packed with nutrients and chunks of tomatoes. There are several ways you can adapt it to your liking. It has milk in it and has cream as an option- your call on if you want it more bisque-like and can handle the fat, or if you prefer it less creamy. The original recipe calls for hands-full of fresh spinach thrown in, which is wild and I love it, but in this season of young children and many guests in our home, I omit the spinach most of the time. This recipe came from a friend of a friend and was copied from a restaurant cookbook, I believe.

The recipe is a little intimidating at first glance, as there are many ingredients listed, but with a closer look you will see that the majority of them are seasonings, and the others you can easily keep stocked in your pantry. The soup makes a vat- which I cherish as a quality in a soup recipe. It lasts a good week, freezes well and is great to share.

The Fancy Grilled Cheese is pretty straightforward. Since there are only 3 ingredients to this one, you want to choose well, because it will make all the difference. We are big fans of artisan (“crusty”) bread of all kinds- Farm, Baguettes, Tuscan loaves, something with a good crust and a chewy crumb and we like cheeses with some sharpness to them. Often times I put Cheddar and then I add a little of whatever I find in the refrigerator drawer. So, my suggestion is to choose bread you enjoy, cheese that is strongly flavored that you love, and grab a stick of butter. Butter your griddle (or a pan for the stove top), place the bread on the hot surface and add cheese to half of the pieces. Then after a few minutes, put the sandwiches together (so the cheese will melt). Cook and flip until cheese is melted and bread is golden, and you have got yourself one amazing companion to a bowl of soup.

TIP - if you are serving a big crowd you can use jellyroll pans and bake the sandwiches in the oven at 350 degrees. I suggest you melt the butter and brush on the bread when doing using this cooking method.

My son is not YET crazy about soup, though my girls love it (thankfully), but he digs these grilled cheeses! I almost always serve this meal with slices of apples. That way at least the fruit food group is represented on his plate.

We eat this soup and grilled cheese often in the cold months. We've even incorporated it into our Halloween tradition. I love traditions and I am learning how much intentionality it takes to create and maintain them. Thankfully, several years ago we began trick-or-treating and eating with a few friends, and our menu involves tomato soup and fancy grilled cheese sandwiches. We leave the soup on the stove or in the crock-pot and we run around the neighborhood with friends gathering some much-wanted-much-unnecessary candy. We then return to the house to crank up the griddle and make some grilled cheese yumminess while the kids watch Charlie Brown’s Great Pumpkin. This menu along with apples and caramel dip, and some pumpkin shaped sugar cookies make the event a sweet and simple tradition. (I'll be sure to post the sugar cookies, but wanted to go ahead and share the soup and grilled cheese...couldn't wait!)

Tomato Basil Soup (click for printable version)

3 Tbsp olive oil
½1/2 cup onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup white cooking wine
1 bay leaf
2 tsp dried basil
2 tsp Italian seasoning
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
2 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp chicken base
3 Tbsp flour
6 cups V8 juice (or the entire jug)
2 28 ounce cans diced tomatoes, with juice
3 cups milk
1 cup heavy cream, optional
1 10 oz bag fresh spinach, optional

In large pot heat oil and sauteé onion and garlic until light in color. Add wine, bay leaf, basil, Italian seasoning, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil and let reduce for 5 minutes. Next add sugar, chicken base; stir well. To thicken, stir in 3 Tbsp flour. Slowly add V8 juice, stirring over medium heat until you have a smooth sauce. Add tomatoes and milk. Simmer for 30 minutes. Add cream and spinach (if you are adding them) simmer another 10 minutes.
Serves a crowd.

Monday, October 4, 2010

October Flowers and Showers

It was a weekend of entertaining and the fall weather inspired the menu-making. We hosted a baby shower for our friends Matt and Lindsey, who are expecting their first child in a few weeks. And then I hosted a Do-It-Yourself Flower Arranging Class that my friend Melissa led. Both were such fun! You may think I'm crazy to host 2 events in one weekend, and while I might be a bit crazy, I also think it makes sense to have them both while the bathrooms are clean and the floors are mopped!
My friend Tobi has already posted about the flower event: Check it out!
And take a look at my friend, Melissa's floral design blog, Vintage Florals. If you are needing flowers for any occasion (in the Middle Tennessee area) you should look no further!

So back to the baby shower. I must say I have a thing about baby showers. Wedding showers are fun and festive but baby showers are essential! I mean, when getting married it is loads of fun to get new dishes and real flatware and nice towels. It is a great chance to “upgrade” your stuff, however, with a baby on the way you NEED everything. People typically don’t have bottles and boppys and burb cloths and onesies sitting around the house before having a baby. You have nothing and you need tons of stuff! So, anytime I have a friend who is expecting a baby I make sure that a shower is in the works and if a host or home is needed, I gladly offer.

We were so glad to help celebrate and honor Lindsey, Matt and their baby boy. It was a co-ed shower, which I enjoy. Cooking for guys is always a treat. It was great to host with other friends of theirs and Sharon and Jennifer got really creative with the decorations. We decided to go with a book theme, as Matt is an avid reader, we thought it only fitting to start baby’s library right off the bat. We asked each guest, in lieu of a card, to bring a book with their gift with an inscription written inside. So going with that theme, Jennifer cut up pages of old books and sewed them together making this adorable penent garland. She said it was simple, but she has skills!

They also made the invitations with pages of children's books and a sewing machine. Mixed with the vintage bookie theme were heirloom pumpkins and vintage toys- charming for an October Baby Boy Shower.

In addition to readying my house, my task was food. I made Texas Caviar (Bean Corn Dip) with tortilla chips. It makes a ton and we had so much left over, I was sending to-go containers home with people at the end. This recipe is simple and so yummy. I have had versions of it before but this one, from our friends Shaka & Stephanie, is the tastiest to me.

I also made 2 dips for Apple Slices and Graham Cracker Sticks: a Pumpkin Pie Dip and a Toffee Caramel Dip. The Toffee Dip seemed to be the big hit (it is so easy and people consistently love it).

And I decided to make Sausage Pinwheels, in honor of the male attendees. Guys love them. (My guys – Asher (my son) and Dave (my husband), confessed to have eaten a dozen each). To me they are a prettier version of sausage balls…and a little harder to “pop in your mouth” which helps to stretch them. I always say that people will eat as many as you serve.

Others brought veggies and dip, marinaded cheese and crackers, cookies, and assorted bars. It was a fun occasion and the parents-to-be left with lots of much needed baby goods.

A little hint: often when I am cooking, day or night, I light a candle or two, make a cup of coffee or at least fix a glass of water, and turn on some good music. Since discovering Pandora online radio (which you should check out if you don't know it) I have loved choosing my "custom station" based on my cooking mood. Friday night when I was cooking I chose Patty Griffin style music for a mellow cooking time, other times I choose Motown for a more dancy upbeat mood. These small things make the standing on my feet & "working" at night feel more like an experience than a task.

Confession: I realize that I have been posting much more frequently about baking (revealing my bias) and then today about party foods, and not real meal stuff. Tomato Soup season has officially begun at our house so I will post about it soon.