Best Sugar Cookies Ever

We spent last weekend in Rockford, celebrating a very special boy’s very special first birthday. Jenn and Bill really outdid themselves with the treats, and I’ll be honest when I say that I was tempted to dig in with the same sort of abandon demonstrated by the birthday boy. It got messier from here, but I had to share the restrained cute:

In addition to Max’s chocolate-and-chocolate smash cake, Jenn and Bill made a two layer Mario cake – chocolate on the bottom, funfetti on the top – with homemade fondant, complete with Goombas, mushrooms, bricks, and pipes:

Mario Cake!

There were also homemade cupcakes, but what I really want to tell you about are the sugar cookies, decorated to look like Starmen:


and Yoshi eggs:

Yoshi Eggs!

Now, I’m usually not a sugar cookie kind of girl. When presented with your conventional cookie options, I usually go for monster cookies first, then molasses, oatmeal raisin, and last, but not least, chocolate chip. These sugar cookies, however, were just about the best sugars I’ve had. They were delicious right out of the oven – and stayed soft (but not chewy) for a few days after. I ate the last star Wednesday morning – nearly a week after they were baked – and the cookie was still soft.  That’s much better than your average store-bought cookie, which even with preservatives will be stale by the end of the day.

The weekend’s treats totally did in my diet and my sweet tooth – but I look forward to making these when both recover.  Jenn shared her recipe, which she got from her friend Robyn, and which I’m happy to share here. Jenn and Robyn note that gel food coloring will result in more vivid colors, and should be added after frosting reaches the desired consistency. Liquid food coloring, on the other hand, should be added to the frosting BEFORE other liquids, as it may affect the frosting’s consistency.

Sour Cream Sugar Cookies
1 3/4 cups sugar
1 cup butter
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup sour cream (or sweet cream soured with 2-3 tablespoons vinegar)
6 cups sifted flour – more if necessary
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat your oven to 375, and line baking sheets with parchment paper or silpat mats. Cream butter and sugar. Blend in eggs and vanilla. In a 2 cup measuring cup, dissolve the soda in the sour cream, mixture will froth and almost double in volume. Add to butter mixture and blend. Sift dry ingredients together and blend into the wet ingredients gradually. If necessary, gradually add more sifted flour until you can easily roll out the dough. Cut out cookies and bake 10-12 minutes on the prepared baking sheets. Yield will vary depending on the rolled-out thickness and size of your cookie cutters.

Buttercream Frosting
1/3 cups cold butter
1 pound powdered sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
Food coloring (optional)
1/4 cup whole milk or cream

Cream butter. Add powdered sugar, salt, vanilla, and liquid food coloring if using. Add milk or cream, stirring constantly, until the frosting forms stiff peaks. Gel food coloring will produce more vivid colors; if using, add after the frosting reaches the desired consistency.  Spread on cooled sugar cookies – or enjoy on graham crackers or straight off the mixing spoon.


Empanada Bakefest

We were supposed to get together for our regular bakefest the other weekend, but after helping Shannon and Matt move, we were more inclined to eat pizza and drink beer than to do anything useful. Which is what we did. And then I took a nap. And we didn’t get around to making these delicious empanadas until Wednesday night, when the group cleared two trays of them in no time flat – which is why the only photo I have is of the leftovers, or, more properly, leftover:


I’m pretty sure that I first encountered empanadas in Champaign – there is photo evidence of empanadas being consumed at the Capricorn birthday dinner at Radio Maria. We discovered the empanadas from Manolo’s right before we left town – in fact, the below photo is from the yard sale we held two weeks before Shane left Champaign for good. Our loss, truly.

Day 21 - 8/13/07

In general, I’m a fan of food in pockets. We made totally delightful pop-tarts at a previous bakefest. I had a serious calzone problem when I lived in Rockford – either take-out from the Logli pizzeria after a long day at Barnes & Noble, or with a beer at Old Chicago while working on the World Beer Tour. When we were serious about losing weight, we both ate A LOT of Lean Pockets, as they were an easy way to take lunch to work and control calories. I’ve never gotten into pierogies, but I loved filled pastas of all sorts. It’s hard to screw up the pocket formula: take something good, wrap it up in sweet or savory dough, bake it for a bit, and then enjoy.

Tonight’s empanadas were no exception. The dough was crumbly at first, but rolled out beautifully in Olivia’s capable hands. Shannon conveyed the discs of dough from roller to kitchen, while Susie played the very important role of cat cop. Shana and I filled the flattened rounds with a few spoonfuls of a savory chicken-chorizo stew, then rolled and crimped the edges, brushed on an egg wash, and popped them in the oven.  25 minutes later, we sat down with the boys and other friends for a fantastic spread: two dozen empanadas (including a few stuffed with sweet potato and feta), roasted asparagus with sea salt, a fantastic salad with beets and candied nuts, home brew and rosé, and ice cream eaten straight from the pint.  A fine start to the Wednesday night potluck season, and yet another successful bakefest.

Chicken empanada with chorizo and olives from Smitten Kitchen

Cooking Light is running a feature where each month is dedicated to a new healthy living challenge: exercise regularly, eat more whole grains, etc.  This, along with the 30 day trials on this site and my total inability to stick to any kind of fitness routine since 30DS, has got me thinking about taking the punch card approach to establishing good habits.  You know, sort of like a Lunch It Punch It for exercise.

I want to make my routine more, well, routine.  When I’m not sick, I will typically run about 3 days per week, and will get in something exercise-like on at least 2 of the other days.  That may be 30DS, walking home from work, digging in the garden, riding the bike, etc.  All of these are good things, but they don’t really constitute a regimen, which I’m increasingly noticing that I need in order to stay on track.

I also want to decouple exercise from indulgent eating.  You know what I mean: the “I ran 5 miles so I deserve this ice cream” or “I biked to work so I get a donut with my coffee”.  To some extent, this is fine.  I do legitimately need more fuel before and after my long weekend runs.  Eating a 300 calorie donut in place of a 300 calorie healthy breakfast isn’t the best choice, but it’s not a terrible one either.  But that shouldn’t be my mindset whenever I exercise.

I want to start exercising before work.  If I get up when the alarm goes off (instead of snoozing an additional 30 minutes), I should be able to get in a 3 mile run or a round of 30DS.  This will get my day off to a good start, and will get my workouts in before the day heats up.  I’m going to make up a punch card, and plan for non-food rewards at designated intervals.  I’m going to intermittently post about it here in hopes that it’ll keep me honest.  Wish me luck.

Spontaneous Stuffed Peppers

OK, this dish wasn’t that spontaneous as it was on this week’s menu – but it was spontaneous in the sense that I made it up as I went along. And oh my god, was it fantastic.  So fantastic, in fact, that I only have photos of the leftovers because the actual meal was devoured almost as quickly as it came out of the oven.

Spontaneous Stuffed Peppers

Yeah, yeah, stuffed peppers – total 50s housewife stuff, right? What elevates these to the sublime – or as sublime as stuffed peppers can be – is a tin of really good tuna, crumbled Pan Gallego, and a generous dollop of mascarpone left over from some pasta thing we made last week. The following recipe made enough for two good-sized dinner portions and two smaller lunch portions, but that was entirely dependent on the size of the pepper and your determination in stuffing. We’ll be making these again soon.

Stuffed Peppers E Style

4 medium-sized bell peppers
1 medium onion, finely diced
2-3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3.5 oz can good tuna in oil – do not drain
2 slices of hearty bread, shredded, or 1 cup bread crumbs
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1-2 oz cheese of your choice

Preheat your oven to 450. Remove the tops and seeds of the peppers and place them open-side up in a pan that is big enough to hold them, but small enough to keep them tightly nestled together. Stick the pan in the oven while you prep the stuffing – so around 15 minutes.

In a medium skillet, saute the onions and garlic in a bit of butter until soft and golden. Add other finely chopped veggies if you’d like – we used half a green pepper and one large mushroom, as we had both to use up. In a bowl, combine the bread crumbs, tuna and oil, and a generous amount of salt and freshly ground pepper. Remove the veggies from the heat, and toss with the bread and tuna mixture.

Spoon the mixture into the peppers, packing it in if necessary, and top each with a generous tablespoon of cheese – we used mascarpone, but cheddar, feta, chevre, or probably just about any kind of cheese would be delicious. Bake for 20 minutes, then serve with a salad and crusty bread.

24 Loaves: Pan Gallego

I’ve been on a Spanish kick the last week or two. I’ve also been thinking that if I’m going to make the 24 loaves I committed to earlier in the year, I need to move on from the perfect baguettes that I’ve been making with the basic AB5 recipe. These two factors directly contributed to me making a truly gorgeous, albeit moon-like, loaf of Pan Gallego Sunday night.

Pan Gallego

There are many variations on this loaf, but at its heart, this is a rustic, multi-grain bread from Galicia, in the Spanish northwest.  This version includes both white and whole wheat flours, with additional flavor and texture coming from pumpkin and sunflower seeds and millet, a tiny grain I’d previously only encountered in birdseed.  This was my first truly multi-grain bread, and my first experience trying to knead anything into an already risen loaf.  I’m pretty sure that more of the seeds ended up in the bread than spread across the counter and on the floor, but I’m not confident that I achieved a really good distribution throughout the loaf.

I am, however, pleased to report that our $2 paving tile has proved to be a reliable baking stone.  Instead of sliding the loaf on and off of a cornmeal-coated baking sheet and moving pans of water into and out of the oven – as recommended in the recipe – I gently transferred the twice-risen loaf to the very hot tile and added a bit of water to the broiling pan that lives in our oven for just that purpose.  In under an hour, we had an amazing 2 pound loaf of bread – more than enough for the two of us for a week, but tasty enough that it might not last that long.  I’ll definitely be baking this one again.

Pan Gallego from Spanish – the actual recipe used varies only slightly from the one linked

Household Habits

We’ve both been getting a good laugh out of this post this afternoon, and have been gently and jokingly exploring our mutual annoying habits.

I am guilty of:

  • not closing the shower curtain
  • not rinsing out lunch containers that previously contained creamy things (yogurt, salad dressing)
  • talking about teeth.  Never talk about teeth around Shane.  Ever.
  • constantly reorganizing, resulting in Shane not knowing where things are
  • leaving lights on
  • leaving stuff (bobby pins, small pieces of trash, sunglasses) in the car door handles
  • accumulating piles of stuff on the kitchen and coffee tables
  • being totally committed to my bookshelf organization even though it makes no sense to Shane
  • tolerating much warmer temperatures than Shane, but being a total baby about the cold – though in my defense, my normal body temperature is at least a degree lower than his.
  • ignoring small pieces of paper or food scraps on the floor

On the other hand, Shane:

  • gets water everywhere when brushing his teeth, washing his face, or doing the dishes.  Basically anything involving a sink will result in water everywhere.
  • accumulates an incredible amount of stuff on his desk and dresser
  • would rather wear every item of clothing he owns than do laundry
  • wipes his hands on his socks, which his brother also does
  • always sniffs the milk carton, even if the milk was purchased and opened yesterday
  • pushes the broom away from him rather than pulling it towards him while sweeping
  • is just generally chore-blind.  It’s not that he doesn’t care, it’s that other things are more important and interesting most of the time
  • cannot tolerate heat at all, but is annoyingly comfortable in the cold
  • has many good ideas about improving household workflows – except that most of them only pertain to things that I do.

Good thing we have so many redeeming and wonderful traits to balance out all of these mostly minor annoyances, right?

Happy Anniversary to us!

Mitigated Spanish Success

I knocked out two more recipes from my Spanish cookbook last week, both of which were mitigated successes. I say ‘mitigated’ because while we enjoyed both dishes, both had significant problems.

First, Lentils and Mushrooms.

Lentejas con champiñones/ Lentils with button mushrooms
Photo by Javier García

There are few things more hunger-inducing than the smell of sauteeing onions, garlic, and mushrooms – which is exactly how this recipe starts. Add in the lentils and a few other things, then cover and simmer until the lentils are soft and the liquid is almost gone – EXCEPT that that never happened. Instead of stirring Pernod and a handful of fresh parsley into the pot, we added a small amount of each to bowls of slightly drained stew, the remainder of which was left on the stove in hopes that it would reduce. It didn’t. We enjoyed the dish, but I question the necessity of covering the pot, especially since the lentils were pre-soaked and well on their way to being soft.

Second, Marmitako, a Basque stew that features tuna, tomatoes, and potatoes. I love these process photos, all shared by Flickr user BocaDorada and licensed under Creative Commons1:

Así se empieza con el marmitako

Los ingredientes del marmitako

Parte del proceso de la preparación del marmitako


We’ve been getting the occasional tuna steak from Trader Joe’s – they come frozen in packages of two, which is just the right amount for a hearty dinner. While the tuna is typically cooked in the stew, the recipe I used recommended searing it in a separate pan, then adding it to the pot, where it is then topped with potatoes and simmered for half an hour or so. In theory, this means that everything is nicely reduced and the tuna is moist and tender. However, as with the previous recipe, there was just too much damned liquid, even with the lid removed for the last ten minutes. I did scale the recipe back and used fewer potatoes than required, but I doubt that the small amount of omitted potatoes would have soaked up the extra two cups of liquid that I spooned out before serving. A fine dinner, and good leftovers, but not something we’ll make again.

Alternative Recipes:
This take on Spanish Mushrooms and Lentils from Herbivoracious looks excellent, though it lacks the anise that was so appealing for me in the recipe we tried. This version of Marmitako from Global Gourmet appears to avoid the too much liquid problem by not covering the pot and also baking it in the oven, rather than simmering on the stovetop.

1 It is worth noting that any photos shared on this site that are not ours were either shared with the explicit permission of the photographer or are licensed under Creative Commons.

Things I am Excited About Now That I’m Feeling Better and School is Out

Because seriously, I’ve been sick almost three weeks.  I’ve been on medication since Saturday and am feeling dramatically better, but until I’m done with these stupid metal-mouth meds, I’m still sick.

  1. The garden! Hoping to buy some plants and put some seeds in the ground this weekend.  Which reminds me that instead of doing crossword puzzles and eating Arctic Zero (not recommended), I should be figuring out where and what I’m going to plant.
  2. Knitting! I have barely touched my needles or my stash since finishing my socks in February, and I have a sweater all ready to start – I just have to, well, start it.
  3. Running!  This stupid sick has kept me off the roads long enough.  My last long run was the Cherry Blossom 10 Miler, which was over a month ago.  Since then I’ve put in a handful of consistently paced 3-4 milers, but nothing close to double digits, which is what I should be doing in preparation for the Dexter-Ann Arbor half in a few weeks.  Side note: when I went to the doctor last weekend, I remarked that at this time last year, I was sidelined from running and in to see her because of knee pain which, amazingly, has almost completely subsided.  Better to be sidelined for something treatable – like this stupid sick – than for a serious or chronic injury!
  4. The farmers’ market!  Seriously, we haven’t been since October – and didn’t go that often last fall because we were overwhelmed with produce from our garden – and because one or the other of us was out of town so often.  A good problem to have, but I miss the Saturday morning routine and the opportunity to bump into so many friends all in the same place.
  5. So many upcoming weekend trips!  By the end of June, we’re going to be SO HAPPY to have a weekend at home – but for now, before we’re in the middle of it, I’m eagerly anticipating a weekend in Rockford for Max’s birthday, Cleveland/Dayton for Trav + Kristen’s shower and to see Linda + Jeremiah + Milo, Chicago for Dan + Laura’s reception and to see friendos, New York to visit Carrie, and then Cleveland again for Trav + Kristen’s wedding.