Halloween Cookiescapes

I have a love/hate relationship with baking. Probably a little more hate than anyone with a baking blog should have. I’m someone who likes cutting corners in the kitchen, and baking can be such a painstaking process. I love sweets, so it’s all worth it in the end, but I’ll admit it: sometimes I just don’t feel like putting in the effort.

These cookies, however, are the perfect cure for the this-isn’t-fun-anymore baking blues.

Here’s how it works: cut and bake a few big circular cookies along with an assortment of mini shapes; decorate with royal icing; arrange the mini pieces on the cookie ‘backgrounds’ in any way your heart desires to create a festive “cookiescape”. 

These are great as Halloween party favors, or as a one-of-a-kind Halloween activity for kids of all ages. Bigger kids can help with the rolling, cutting, baking and decorating, while the younger ones will have fun creating scenes with already-decorated cookie pieces. And don’t worry if the kids never actually get around to ‘gluing’ the pieces in place; creating and recreating is the best part!

 

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To make my mini cookies, I used a mini cutter set and a Halloween Linzer cookie set, both from Wilton (check Michael’s or Amazon); you definitely don’t need both, but I was in a cookie-cutting frenzy and wanted to try out every shape on hand.

You can use any royal icing recipe you prefer (they’re all similar) but I linked to one below, along with a tutorial on all things royal icing. One of these days I’m going to do a tutorial of my own, but this one is excellent.

 

Chocolate Sugar Cookies

Recipe from Bake at 350

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup cocoa powder, preferably dark

1 tsp. instant espresso powder

1/2 tsp coarse salt

1 cup unsalted butter

1 cup sugar

1 egg

1 tsp. vanilla

 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, espresso powder and salt; set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg and vanilla.

With the mixer on low speed, gradually add the flour mixture until the dough comes together; scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.

Lightly dust your rolling surface and rolling pin with cocoa powder, or a mixture of cocoa and flour (I like to roll my dough out onto my Silpat mats so I can simply lift away the excess dough after cutting).  Roll out the dough to the desired thickness; I recommend a 1/4 inch thickness. Cut the cookies using your cutters.

Freeze cut cookies for five minutes.

Transfer to the oven and bake for eight minutes. Let cool completely before decorating.

Meanwhile, make your royal icing and tint as desired. 

Once cookies have cooled, use your icing to decorate. For a fantastic tutorial on making/tinting/decorating with royal icing see Sweetopia’s Cookie Decorating Tutorial

When icing has set completely, create your cookiescapes any way you’d like. This is the fun part so enjoy it! Get creative with sprinkles, sugars or any other decor. When you’re happy with your layout, simply squirt a small blob of royal icing onto the back of each mini cookie and glue it in place. Let dry completely.

 

 

 

 

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Pink Vanilla Ombre Cake

Pink Vanilla Ombre Cake

 
 

 

I don’t consider myself a real girly-girl, but I’ll admit it: I love Valentine’s Day.

 

I know it’s become a commercialized holiday, but look on the bright side: it’s the perfect excuse to eat chocolate, wear red and whip up pink-frosted cakes.

 

 
 

Pink Vanilla Ombre Cake

 

Ever the Johnny-Come-Lately (heh) with anything trendy, this was my first time making an ombre cake, and while the results weren’t exactly as I’d pictured, I love the way the cake turned out. It has a sort of unpolished look to it that appeals to me, but you can achieve a smoother/better-blended appearance by using the same approach. The technique is surprisingly simple, but the right tools are essential; I used two offset spatulas – a 9-inch and a 13-inch – and a turntable, and I couldn’t have achieved this look without them. A bench scraper tool is also recommended but not absolutely critical.

Now, a word of warning: the rest of this post is going to make me look like a total Sweetapolita groupie (bloggie?). You’ll have to excuse me, but I just discovered her blog, and I’m in love; I think it’s her liberal use of sprinkles and pastel frosting that hooked me. The cake recipe, frosting recipe and frosting technique all belong to Rosie, and I’ve linked you back to each one so you can check out the originals. I highly recommend checking out the video tutorial on the frosting technique – my cake turned out a little bit different than hers, but I used her approach and the video demonstrates it beautifully.

And if you’re a cake decorating novice, I’ve also included links to two excellent tutorials on filling, crumb-coating and frosting a cake; these helped me tremendously when I was learning the basics of cake decorating.

The reason I’m linking to the cake recipe rather than posting it here is because I strive to post only ‘make-again’ recipes on my blog. And while very good, it’s not the vanilla cake recipe I’ve been looking for. The flavor was great, but it was much denser than I expected, and I prefer a lighter, fluffier vanilla cake. This is merely a personal preference and not intended as a slight toward the recipe creator in any way. If you’re looking for a nice dense cake, I encourage you to try the same recipe I used; otherwise, feel free to use your favorite vanilla cake recipe.

 

 

Pink Vanilla Ombre Cake

 
 

Pink Vanilla Ombre Cake

 

1 Recipe of your favorite vanilla cake; or try the recipe I used: Classic Vanilla Butter Cake

Note that the recipe I used yields three 8-inch cake rounds, which is why the cake is taller than a typical 2-round cake.

 

Whipped Vanilla Bean Frosting (credit: Sweetapolita)

3 sticks plus 2 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened and cut into cubes

3 cups sifted confectioner’s sugar

3 tbsp. milk

1 vanilla bean, scraped*

1 tsp. vanilla extract (I used Penzey’s double vanilla)

Pinch of salt

*If you don’t have a vanilla bean, you can use 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract instead, for a total of 1 1/2 tsp. vanilla in the recipe.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, whip butter for 8 minutes on medium speed. Add remaining ingredients and mix on low speed for 1 minute, then on medium speed for 6 minutes.

 

To assemble and frost the cake:

  1. Let the baked cakes cool completely. Wrap each layer individually in plastic wrap and place in the freezer for one to two hours.
  2. Remove the layers from the freezer and unwrap. Stack and fill the cake with the prepared frosting  (detailed instructions here).
  3. Crumb coat the cake and refrigerate for at least 3 hours (instructions here).
  4. Divide the remaining frosting into individual bowls and tint with food coloring. I used 4 colors: white (untinted), a very pale pink, a medium strawberry pink and a deep red-pink.

To create the ombre effect:

**It didn’t even occur to me to take step-by-step photos of the frosting process, which would have been tremendously helpful – I promise I’ll do it next time! So before attempting the ombre effect, I highly recommend watching Sweetapolita’s video tutorial. Her demonstration is far better than any written instructions I can offer.  But here’s the basic approach:

  1. With the crumb-coated cake on a turntable, dollop the white frosting directly on top and use your 9-inch offset spatula to smooth it out from the center until it’s just creeping over the edges. Spinning the turntable while holding the spatula in place will help create a smoother top.
  2. Dip the spatula in a bowl of hot water and wipe clean. Now dip the spatula into the darkest frosting and – inch-by-inch – cover the bottom third of the cake with a nice thick layer of frosting. Don’t worry about how it looks at this point, just work on getting the frosting on there! Repeat the process with the other colors, putting a ring of medium-pink frosting in the middle and a ring of pale pink around the top.
  3. Hold the 13-inch spatula vertically at a slight angle against the side of the cake (alternately, you could use the bench scraper for this step); the spatula should touch the surface of the frosting, but should NOT go deep enough to touch the cake itself. Without moving the spatula, rotate the turntable to smooth out the frosting all the way around the cake.
  4. If there is a ‘rim’ of frosting around the top, use your 9-inch spatula to gently smooth it toward the center of the cake, taking any excess with you.
  5. Dust the top of the cake with red and pink sprinkles.

Tips:

  • Be very generous when spreading on the frosting, especially on the sides of the cake. You’ll end up removing a lot of frosting when you smooth and blend the colors, and you want to make sure there’s still plenty leftover so the cake doesn’t show through.
  • Don’t overwork the cake! Rosie says this several times in the video, and I can’t restate it enough. My cake originally looked much more like the one in the video (i.e. smoother) but I kept trying to fix tiny flaws in the frosting, which ended up being a major mistake, and explains why my cake looks more ‘ruffly’ and textured than the one in the video. I actually love the rustic look of my cake, but that’s not how I originally intended for it to turn out!
  • Place a square of non-slip rubber mat under your turntable; otherwise it’ll be skidding all over the place when you’re trying to frost the cake.

Pink Vanilla Ombre Cake

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Hot Cocoa Cookies

 

Rich chocolate cookies topped with warm melted chocolate and toasty marshmallows…this recipe is pretty much a crowd pleaser for any winter party or get-together.

I found this one while leafing through my Rachael Ray magazine, and I bookmarked it immediately. Around this time of year, food magazines and blogs are filled with Christmas cookie recipes, but I seem to see the same recipes and ideas recycled year after year. This was the first I’d heard of hot cocoa cookies, though, so I was thrilled to see something new. And these did not disappoint!

 

 

In spite of the lengthy directions, these cookies are really simple to make. They’re also great to try when your kids are stuck inside and itching to help you out in the kitchen. From mixing ingredients to rolling the dough into balls to piling the chocolate and marshmallows on the cookies, there’s plenty for kids to do without creating extra mess for you to clean up.

The original recipe makes a whopping 5 dozen cookies, which is perfect if you’re hosting a party or participating in a cookie swap, but if you just want to have a few cookies around, you’ll want to scale down the recipe – those 7 bars of chocolate ain’t cheap! Personally, I cut the recipe down to one third of the original, and it was the perfect amount of cookies for my family of 3.

 

 

Hot Cocoa Cookies

Serves 5 dozen
From magazine Everyday with Rachael Ray

Ingredients

  • 1 stick unsalted butter
  • 7 (3.5 oz) bars semisweet chocolate (12 oz. chopped, 7.5 oz. cut into 1-inch squares, the rest for garnish)
  • 1 1/2 cup flour
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 3 eggs (room temperature)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 30 marshmallows (or one bag of mini marshmallows)

Directions

Melt the butter and 12 oz. chopped chocolate in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, stirring frequently. Let cool for 15 minutes.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and salt.
With an electric mixer, beat the sugar, eggs and vanilla on low until smooth. Pour in the chocolate mixture and mix until just blended.
Add the flour mixture in two batches, mixing on low until just combined. Refrigerate the dough for at least an hour.
Position a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.
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Use a tablespoon to scoop out the chilled dough and roll it between your hands to form 1-inch balls. Space the cookies about 2 inches apart on the parchment-lined cookie sheets and flatten each one slightly. Bake for about 12 minutes or until the tops of the cookies crack.
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While the cookies bake, cut each marshmallow in half and place a 1-inch square of chocolate on the bottom (sticky side) of each cut marshmallow. If using mini marshmallows, there's no need to cut them; just pile a few on top of each piece of chocolate.
When the cookies are done, remove the sheets from the oven and top each cookie with the chocolate and marshmallows (marshmallows on top). Bake for another 4 minutes, or until the marshmallows are softened.
Remove the cookies from the oven and grate chocolate over the top of each one.

 

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