Friday, December 13, 2013

Peppermint Candy Tray

Peppermint Candy tray. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I used to know what was happening in the world, but then I had a teenager, and suddenly I'm the last person ever to have heard of the peppermint candy tray phenomenon. I discovered the project via a Pinterest-savvy co-worker, then I mentioned it to my teen daughter. "Oh Mom, that's so 2012. You really didn't see it on Pinterest last year?"

It's true, I completely missed this easy and fun project that is simply melted and molded Starlight mints. I made the one pictured here in less than half an hour and placed it on a favorite cake plate, where it awaits the cookies and candies that will be made this weekend. Go ahead, pick up some peppermints and give this a try. I wrote up the instructions and put together a slide show on Examiner ~ please check it out here.

Peppermint candy tray. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

 This post is part of #LetsLunch a monthly global Twitter party. This month's topic is edible decorations and is hosted by Lisa Goldberg of Monday Morning Cooking Club. Take a few minutes and check out the fantastic stories from this excellent group of bloggers!

Pat's Lemongrass and Pandan Christmas Sugar Cookies on The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook
 Lisa’s Chocolate Almond Tree on Monday Morning Cooking Club
Anne Marie’s Ornament Sandwiches on Sandwich Surprise
Betty Ann’s Mini Bibingka on Asian in America
Tammy’s Chewy Gingerbread Cookies at Insatiable Munchies
Vivian’s Festive Gingerbread Cookies at Vivian Pei
Linda’s Merry Kale Trees at Free Range Cookies
Annabelle’s Pecan Caramels at Glass of Fancy
Linda’s Ottolenghi-Style Eggplant with Tahini and Pomegranate at Spicebox Travels

Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Foodie Wish List

Meridith Ford creates Greek yogurt fruit pops at Cook's Warehouse. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

A few weeks ago, over breakfast of home-baked cinnamon rolls and bacon, I got a sneak preview of the hottest holiday foodie gadgets, thanks to the generous and enabling souls of The Cook’s Warehouse. The Cook’s Warehouse is Atlanta’s premier cookware retailer, and also home to the largest cooking school in the Southeast.
Over the course of 19 years, owner Mary Moore has cultivated a fan base of chefs, gourmands, food geeks and plain ol’ home cooks like myself, who like nothing better than to browse any of the four Atlanta locations, eying the LeCreuset and All-Clad, swooning over the Vitamix and Kenwood Cooking Chef mixer.

The Cook's Warehouse, Ansley Mall location. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

At the breakfast, Pastry chef and food writer Meridith Ford baked the world’s fastest homemade cinnamon rolls while were there, and turned out a stellar frittata, among other goodies. Here’s a rundown of Mary and Meridith’s Baker’s Dozen for December 2013, a smattering of gourmet gadgetry and hardware. Consider yourself enabled.

1.     Charles Viancin silicon storage lids. These colorful lids are popular for use in the microwave and to seal bowls before storing in the refrigerator. The designs are fun, floral and funky. Prices range from $2.99 to $20.99.
2.     Vitamix 750. Well, words hardly are necessary to describe this. On sale $648.95, regularly $750.
3.     All-Clad 3 quart Sauté Pan with Lid special. On sale $99.95, regularly $225. I’ve used All-Clad for nearly 20 years and I can’t say enough good things about the pans. This deal may be all the enabling you need.
4.     Jura Giga Coffeemaker. On sale $5,499, regularly $7,500. For serious coffee hounds only, but it makes a fantastic cuppa.
5.     Tovolo Sphere Ice Molds to use with the Moscow Mule mugs below. If your special someone is into cocktail culture, then by all means, pick it up for a mere $10.99.
6.     Moscow Mule Mugs.  It may have ginger beer, vodka and freshly squeezed lime juice, but if it’s not in a copper mug, then it’s not a Moscow mule. $24.95.
7.     Zoku Slow Pop Maker. After trying Meridith’s Greek yogurt breakfast pops, I just had to have the slow pop maker. $14.99 and a great gift for a culinarily-minded kid or kid at heart.
8.     Mason Cocktail Shaker and Book. This cocktail shaker will be the talk of your next cocktail party. Charming and quintessentially Southern. $25.
9.     Nambe Cookware and Server. Pieces range from $49.99 to $242.
10.  Oliver Farm Pecan Oil for your morning biscuits. $19.99.
11.  Woll Diamond Nonstick Cookware. $69.99 to $199.99.
12.  Lekue Citrus Sprayer. These adorable little guys absolutely had to come home with me. I’m not much into cocktails, although I guess I could be, but I took one look at them and said, my kids would love them! And they do ~ we’ve skewered several lemons and limes so far and squirted away. Very effective to get a mist of citrus on your freshly grilled fish, also a  light film of acid on guacamole, just enough to keep it from turning brown. $14.99
13.  Kenwood Cooking Chef Mixer. Well, this one’s going on the bucket list. It has an induction heating element in the base,  thus turning the conventional concept of a mixer on its ear/end. Hmm, risotto, anyone? This mixer was the key to super-fast cinnamon rolls – the dough proofed right in the mixer. No slightly warm oven, no drafty countertops to worry about. There is the little matter of the price tag, but if you’re into baking, I’m sure you can justify it somehow. On sale $1,999, regularly $2,800.
14.  Thrive Farmers Coffee. $11.99 to $12.99. Fantastic coffee, sold at the store. 

Thanks so much to Jim Brams for the invitation to the breakfast and to Mary and Meridith for the hospitality!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

10 Favorite Cookie Recipes

Cookie Plate. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
It's time to fill up the Christmas cookie plate and here are my choices for buttery, sugary baked goodness from the kitchen. Many are tried and true, like my Scottish Shortbread, a recipe given to my mom from a Scottish neighbor. And Mom's Fruitcake Cookies, sure to make anyone a fruitcake believer. A few new cookies have made their way into the repertoire ~ chocolate gingerbread, absolutely lovely to decorate with pristine white icing, and Nutella cookies with cinnamon for the flavors of a Mexican hot chocolate.

1. Mexican hot chocolate cookies made with Nutella and cinnamon.

Mexican hot chocolate cookies made with Nutella. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

2. My Mom's Fruitcake Cookies These are the best ~ chewy and buttery, with your favorite candied fruits.

Fruitcake cookies. Lucy Mercer/ A Cook and Her Books

 3. Shortbread cookies with candied cherries.

This is my favorite shortbread recipe topped with traffic light-colored candied cherries. Buttery and light.

Shortbread cookies with candied cherries. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
 4. Glazed lemon thins Crisp and lemony. This dough can be refrigerated and brought out when you need just a dozen or so cookies.

Glazed lemon thins. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
5. 100 Cookies. That's the name for this everything-but-the-kitchen-sink cookie. Oatmeal, coconut and toffee bits make these cookies a sweet, sandy-textured treat.

100 Cookies. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
6. Crispy, sweet date candies. Not really a cookie, but I make them each year and hide them in the back of the fridge to bring out for special friends, or just myself.

Crispy date candies. Lucy Mercer/ A Cook and Her Books

7. Christmas Cut-Out Cookies . It's a fact that the best-tasting cookies are always the most homemade-looking. Forget trying for food magazine perfection, stir up some bowls of neon-colored icing, get out all the sprinkles and let the kids have fun decorating the cookies.

Christmas cut-out cookies. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
8. Ginger cookies with raspberry jam. My all-time favorite cookie, even above oatmeal raisin and chocolate chip. A soft, spice cookie with a chewy circle of jam, homey and utterly addictive.

Ginger cookies with raspberry jam. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

 9. Pecan tassies. These sweet, Southern treats are like mini pecan pies, plunked down in a tender cream cheese pastry. I used macadamias instead of pecans here, but just substitute an equal quantity of rich, Georgia pecans for the nuts for a delicious treat.

Macadamia-rum tassies. Lucy Mercer/ A Cook and Her Books.

10. Chocolate Gingerbread. A new favorite adapted from Food & Wine magazine ~ spicy gingerbread meets chocolate. They were meant to be together.

Chocolate gingerbread. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I hope you enjoy your holiday baking and perhaps give one or two of these a try. Please let me know your holiday must-bake cookies in the comments below.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Chocolate Gingerbread Cookies

Chocolate gingerbread cookies. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Baking is one of my favorite things about Christmas, partly because I love love love cookies and sharing them, but mostly because it's a tradition in my family, as true as putting up a tree and wrapping presents. My earliest kitchen memories are of rolling out cookie dough and selecting just the right cookie cutter, pressing out the shape and gently placing it on the cookie sheets that my Mom rotated in and out of the oven. I still bake her Christmas cut-outs every year, a tradition that has moved from her kitchen to mine. (She still bakes the fruitcake cookies, though.)

This is a new favorite, chocolate gingerbread cookies, adapted from Food and Wine magazine. Gingerbread's kick combined with rich chocolate is an inspired creation, and one that will be on my cookie-baking list year after year.

Chocolate Gingerbread Cookies

3 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tablespoon ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 tablespoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons, unsalted butter, softened
1/3 cup shortening, such as Crisco
½ cup packed dark brown sugar
1 large egg
½ cup molasses
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled


1/2 pound confectioner’s sugar
A few tablespoons milk

1.       In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, cocoa powder, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Set aside.

2.       In another bowl, beat the softened butter and shortening until smooth. Add the brown sugar and beat until light and fluffy, about two minutes.

3.       Add the egg to the batter and beat until incorporated. Add the molasses and the melted chocolate (I use the microwave to melt the chocolate, in 15 second intervals until it’s fully melted). Gradually add the flour, beating in each addition. Divide the dough into 3 pieces, shaping each into a disk, then wrap individually and chill for at least two hours.

4.       When ready to bake, heat the oven to 350. Lightly flour the countertop and roll the first disk about ¼ inch thick. Get out your favorite cookie cutters and cut the dough into shapes. Place on parchment-lined baking sheets. Re-roll the dough scraps to make more cookies (I try to keep re-rolled dough scraps together; they’re just a little bit softer than first generation dough.)

5.       Bake the cookies in a 350 oven for about seven minutes, until tops are dry. Remove from oven, let cool on pans for five minutes, then transfer to wire racks for cooling completion and icing application.

6.       For the icing: the original recipe used a royal icing with egg whites, but I went with my go-to cookie icing ~ just sifted confectioner’s sugar mixed with enough milk to get a smooth, pourable consistency. I start with a half pound bag of 10-X sugar and a couple tablespoons of milk and adjust from there.  

7.       Let cookies dry and they can be stored at room temperature in sealed containers.

 Recipe adapted from Food and Wine magazine.

Chocolate gingerbread cookies. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

What are your favorite cookie discoveries of late? Please share in the comments. Happy Baking!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Kicking up the winter garden

Pansies. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
I'm just tickled pink to announce that my post on repurposed rainboots is now live on Home Depot's Garden Club blog. The Garden Club blog is a fantastic resource for gardening advice, decorating tips, and recipes. In fact, last summer's Bucket Garden post began as a Garden Club project.

Check out my post on recycling my little girl's outgrown rain boots and let me know what you think. The Garden Club blog is focusing on stories that extend gardening from fall through spring, actually my favorite time to garden. I know, I know, giddy summer annuals and homegrown tomatoes are thrills, I guess what I mean is No Bugs and No Weeds. I'm looking forward to writing more stories for the Garden Club Blog ~ look for another story late in December~!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Butterscotch Pecan Chews Recipe

Butterscotch Pecan Chews. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
A perfect excuse to bake (as if you need one): Here's an easy blondie recipe with a surprise ~ no butter. Four eggs hold the brown sugar and flour together and pecans add texture. These bars can be assembled and baked up in under an hour. If they're not gobbled up still warm from the oven, wrap them up tight, refrigerate and send in school lunches throughout the week. Guaranteed lunchtime friend-maker.

Butterscotch Pecan Chews

Non-stick baking spray
4 large eggs
1 pound dark brown sugar
2 1/2 cups self-rising flour
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup chopped pecans

1. Preheat oven to 350. Spray 9 inch square pan with baking spray. 

2. In a bowl, stir together eggs, brown sugar, flour and vanilla until smooth and nearly lump-free. Stir in the pecans.

3. Pour batter into greased pan. Bake until golden brown, about 25 minutes. Remove to cooling rack, and cut into squares when barely warm.

Adapted from "Treasured Recipes of the Charleston Cake Lady" by Teresa Pregnall (Hearts Books, 1996)

Text and images copyright 2013, Lucy Mercer.