Baking Challenge!

I love baking.  It appeals not only to my sweet tooth,  but to my O/C tendencies.  Baking is very precise.  You follow the recipe, add exactly the right amount of each ingredient in the right order, and voila!  Tasty treat.  The only trick is learning when to take things out of the oven.  Baking times in recipes (much like yields) are almost never accurate, so you’ve got to watch things and learn to recognize when they’re done.  But once you’ve got that down, you’re golden.  A light golden brown, to be exact.  I haven’t found general cooking to be the same.  Cooking is more intuitive.  You can leave this out, throw that in and play with your recipes a little.  I’m not good at improvisation.  I like to know exactly what I’m doing, step by step.  So though I’m making an effort to learn basic cooking, I prefer to bake.

I was given two very nice recipe books this year:  “Betty Crocker’s Cooky Book” (a re-print of the original from 1963) and “1001 Cupcakes, Cookies & Other Tempting Treats.”  Both of them are excellent.  They have many unique recipes, and it’s fun just thumbing through them.  I’ve experimented with some recipes over the last few months, but there are still many I want to try!  So, like my good friend over at The Kelly Kitchen, I’ve decided to set a baking challenge for myself.  My goal is to try one new recipe each week, and post it here with my own notes.  I’m a terrible procrastinator, so if I actually meet my challenge, I’ll probably wind up baking every Sunday night.  If you know where I live, feel free to drop by of an evening for some sweets and a glass of milk!

I started off gung-ho, and actually did two recipes in one night, but then I stalled out and didn’t bake for two weeks, so I guess that evens out.  We’ll see how I do this week.  The first recipe is a variation on a traditional peanut butter cookie from the Betty Crocker book.  It substitutes honey for the brown sugar, and eliminates half the shortening.  I found they browned much quicker than the peanut butter cookies I usually make, and they had a more chewy texture.  They got kind of stiff after they’d been in Gladware for a week, but I microwaved them for 10 seconds, and they tasted perfect.  So here’s the recipe, as printed in the book.  My own notes are in italic.  The Betty Crocker book sometimes has amusing little commentaries and anecdotes under the recipe titles, and I’m including them just because I get a kick out of them.

Peanut Butter Cookies
So rich, good with anything; a favorite with men and children.  Many homemakers double the recipe since these cookies disappear quickly.

1/2 cup shortening
1/2 cup peanut butter
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 egg
1 1/4 cups flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. soda
1/4 tsp. salt

Mix shortening, peanut butter, sugars, and egg thoroughly.  Blend all dry ingredients; stir into shortening mixture.  Chill dough.  Skipping the chilling step makes it very sticky to work with, especially if you do the honey variation, but I’m impatient, so I did it anyway.

Heat oven to 375 degrees.  Roll dough in 1 1/4″ balls.  Place 3″ apart on lightly greased baking sheet.  Flatten crisscross style with fork dipped in flour.  Bake 10 to 12 minutes.  I don’t do the fork thing.  I roll the dough into balls, and flatten them with the bottom of a glass dipped in sugar.  It makes the cookies more uniform, and gives them a nice sugar-crystallized top.  Dip the glass in a bowl of sugar between cookies.  Otherwise they’ll stick.  Also, they don’t take nearly that long to bake.  Mine took 6-8 minutes.  Watch them closely, and when they begin to brown on the edges, take them out!  They are easier to remove from the pan if you let them cool for a few seconds first.

Honey Peanut Butter Cookies

Make Peanut Butter Cookies (above) except use only 1/4 cup shortening and use 1/2 cup honey in place of brown sugar.

The second recipe I baked that night was simple vanilla cupcakes with basic buttercream icing.  I hadn’t made cupcakes from scratch until I got the “1001” cookbook for my birthday.  I’d always used a cake mix and had good results.  I tried one recipe in the book before doing these vanilla cupcakes (peanut butter cupcakes with cream cheese icing) and they didn’t turn out particularly well because I misread the recipe and divided it into 24 cupcakes instead of 16.  They were too small, so they baked too quickly, overcooked, and dried out.  So I made sure to fill each cupcake paper 1/2 to 3/4 full for the vanilla ones so they were big enough.  These recipes yield a more dense type of cake than I’m used to from cake mixes.  They aren’t as light and fluffy.  They’re almost more muffin-like, but they’re still tasty.  Here’s the recipe:

Vanilla Cupcakes

generous 8 tbsp butter or margarine, softened
3/4 cup superfine sugar (I used regular granulated; it was fine)
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
scant 1 1/2 cups self-rising flour (if you don’t have self-rising, sift 2 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder into every 1 2/3 cups regular flour)

Pre-heat the oven to 375 degrees.  Line two 12-hole muffin pans with 18 paper liners.  I only did 13 or 14, but some of them were big; you could probably stretch to 18.  Place the butter and sugar in a large bowl and beat together until light and fluffy, then sift in the flour and fold into the mixture.  Spoon the batter into the paper liners.  Bake in the preheated oven for 12-15 minutes, or until golden and springy to the touch.  Mine took a few minutes more since I only did 13 or 14.  Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.  Top with buttercream icing.

Buttercream

1 cup butter, softened
1 tbsp cream or milk (Cream is richer, but milk works just fine.)
3 cups confectioners’ sugar

Place the butter and cream in a bowl and beat together.  Gradually sift in the confectioners’ sugar and beat until smooth.  I also added a teaspoon of vanilla to give it more flavor.

Stay tuned for this week’s challenge:  margarita cookies!  I’ve got limes chilling out in the fridge; should be quite a party!

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