I just spent one Christmas in Dallas but that was enough for me to fall in love with these Christmas cookies Cary made.
Even though Cary sent me the recipe by email a few years ago, I must confess I have never made them. Luckily for me, Cary (who is an American Airlines pilot) flights to Madrid several times a year. Last time he came, a couple of weeks ago, he brought with him his wonderful cookies for me and Paco.
As youll see, his recipe also tells how to ice them, something he didnt do this time because he feared the icing could end up all messy after such a long trip. Never mind. They are wonderful just like that, but as he says, if you want to make them pretty, ice them.
This is the email he sent me with the recipe. Well, just the cookie part, I m sure youll understand
Cary's Christmas Cookies
Measurements are all in American measures (this is why I sent you the American measuring cups and spoons for your birthday); this is a double recipe of the original, and it makes a decent-sized batch.
2 cups butter (unsalted butter works best, but you can use salted butter in a pinch)
4 cups granulated (white) sugar
4 teaspoons vanilla (use good, real vanilla)
8 cups all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
Cream together with a mixer the butter and sugar (the butter should be soft, but not melted) in a large bowl until blended. Add the eggs, mixing well. Add vanilla, mix again. In a separate bowl, mix together all the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, and salt), making sure to stir the mixture once you've added the baking powder and salt. After stirring the dry mixture together, add it into the butter/sugar/egg mixture in two or three batches (make sure to use a sturdy spoon, or you'll break the handle).
The dough will get progressively harder to stir; if you need to at the end, you can knead the mixture together with your (clean!) hands. Once all the flour is incorporated into the dough, cover it with plastic wrap or a towel (so the dough doesn't dry out) and refrigerate it for at least one hour (as long as it's wrapped, you can go a day or two before the next step; just don't wait too long though).
Take the dough out of the refrigerator and let it sit at room temp for a few minutes, the dough will be a bit easier to work with as it warms up.
Take a good-sized lump of dough and put it on a prepared surface (use an equal mixture of flour and sugar mixed together to keep your dough mixture from sticking to either the rolling surface or the rolling pin) that will give you enough space to roll the dough out (a large cutting board or a special baking mat will work, or if you have good countertops, those will work too) to an approximately 1/3 to 1/2 cm thickness.
Use decorative cutters to cut the dough into shapes, and put on a cookie sheet with parchment or Silpat sheets on it.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C).
Place the sheet into the oven, and bake until just the edges are starting to brown (actually, more like tan).
Keep track of the time it takes the first sheet to bake, then use that time for the remaining sheets; depending on your oven, it may anywhere from 8-14 minutes or so. The time isn't as important as baking the cookie to just tan on its edges, so make sure you're watching the cookies closely rather than going by time.
When I make them, I like them a little chewy, so I roll them thick, and cook them just until the edges are tanning, with the middle still white; if you want a crunchy cookie, then roll them thinner and cook them until the middle is starting to tan and the edges are golden brown.
The cookies are fine just like that, but if you want to make them pretty, then ice them. I've always had difficulty finding the right icing recipe; the last time I iced them I used meringue powder along with powdered sugar and water, and that worked really well. The meringue powder makes for a dry, hard icing, so you can stack the cookies together without them sticking together or messing up the icing. Use any recipe you can find, either on the container for the meringue powder or from online, that is called "Royal icing" and it should work (you can try the recipe at http://allrecipes.com/Recipe/Royal-Icing-II/Detail.aspx for a start). Also, to get better colors, use paste or gel-type food coloring, not the liquid kind.
Recipes are the life-blood of cooking, the backbone, the structure by which dishes are prepared in time-honored ways. They are also, for most of us who cook, unnecessary.
Unnecessary? How can that be?
Oh, recipes are important to some people. They are important to restaurant chefs and to pastry chefs. Restaurants use recipes to prepare, consistently and economically, dishes on their menus. They have to have recipes because they may cook these dishes seasonally rather than every day, and with the turnover of cooks within most restaurant kitchens, the recipe is the one way to ensure that the dish is prepared the same way in the spring of 2012 that it was prepared in the spring of 2009. Recipes are also important to pastry chefs, since the science behind the cake or pastry or cookie is as important as the art that goes into making the finished product a work of culinary art. Too much or too little of an ingredient, and the dessert is a failure.
They are also important to new cooks, people who are unfamiliar with how a dish is constructed, seasoned, or cooked. Until a cook becomes experienced, recipes are a great way to learn all the things he or she needs to learn to gain that experience.
But, recipes are most important for people who dont cook well. You know them, the people who arent into food but are forced to cook because no one else in the family wants to, who don't have a feel for food, who no matter how many times they cook a dish, can't remember the ingredients or how to cook it. These cooks follow recipes like they are law, and if they deviate even a little, then the dish will be a disaster.
But for the rest of us, those of us who like and understand food, recipes are mostly an obstacle that gets in the way of real cooking.
Think about your first cooking experiences. When you were young, you watched your mother, father, or grandparent cook a meal while the rest of your family was doing something else. You watched their process of putting a dish together, a meal together. How much of that was done by referencing a recipe? Probably very little. The cook was using their years of experience to put together a dish that they'd cooked many times before, so often they didn't need to look at a recipe to cook it. This was how you learned to cook; by example and lots of practice, not by looking at recipes.
That's basically how I learned to cook. Once I knew I was interested in cooking and had learned a few techniques, then I just started cooking more. I went through a period where I over-spiced everything, until I knew what spices I liked and what spices and ingredients went well together. Apples and pork? Yes. Poultry and sage? Yes. Tarragon and eggs? Yes. Bananas and chocolate and walnuts? Yes. Only by changing things and playing with different flavors did I learn all this, not from sticking to an exact recipe. Trial by error. Did I screw up? Make bad meals? Absolutely! There were many dishes that went straight from the pan to the trash can. But as I gained experience and confidence, I found my footing and the errors became much less frequent.
Now that I've been cooking for more than thirty years, I'll admit I do reference the occasional recipe from time to time, to find the cooking style to use for the dish, to find out the correct time and temperature to use, and so on. But, I rarely use a recipe to cook a dish from start to finish. And if I do, I usually look at it and adjust it to fit my taste or the style of cooking I like to do. Very rarely do I stick to the recipe.
So, my challenge to you is this: Use recipes when you need to, when you're cooking a new dish for the first time or are trying out a new cuisine. But, don't be afraid to experiment, to change, to deviate from the recipe. Just as there is almost always more than one way to go from your home to work, there is more than one way to prepare a dish. Make the food you want to eat, not the food someone tells you to make.
Cook well, eat well, and have fun doing it!