I was sent a copy of Julia Usher’s new book: Cookie Swap, a few weeks ago. The first thing that struck me about this book was the lovely photographs (by Steve Adams) of dainty and skillfully decorated cookies. This admittedly discouraged me from trying out the recipes immediately because my piping skills are average and I have a hate/hate relationship with royal icing. However, a gorgeous tome can only be ignored for so long and I finally sat down and studied the pages and browsed through the recipes to pick out the ones I was going to try.
There are important “how-to”s about planning a cookie swap party in the beginning of the book. Also, the section “That’s how the cookie crumbles” gives valuable tips and information regarding the different types of cookies and their handling. The recipes are grouped by party themes, from Valentines day to weddings and from spring flings to Christmas.
I knew without a doubt that any recipe with sour cream in its dough is like honey to my bee which was why I zeroed in immediately on the Sugar between the Sheets – an appetizing walnut filled crescent cookie. I love the subtle tanginess that sour cream lends to baked goods especially pie-like mixtures.
I was not disappointed. This is one of the tastiest little treats I have ever made. The dough is so easy to put together and roll out. The resulting crust is so flaky and the walnut-sugar-cinnamon mixture is so simple, the first crunch of walnut crescent you get fresh from the oven is such a fulfilling bite.
Julia Usher’s shortbread recipe is also a keeper. It’s obvious that the theme here is not sugar overload but a balance of flavors. The almond in the shortbread plays up the buttery taste of the basic cookie but is subtle enough to be flavored.
I’d also like to commend her guidelines on royal icing – giving approximate measurements of water to dilute this quintessential decorating medium to attain desired consistency.
Judging from the resulting cookies, I must say careful testing had gone into this book. Each recipe is prefaced with the degree of difficulty, active time and the cookie type, as well as possible gotchas – for example a 2-3 hour chilling of a dough. Let’s face it, how many of us really read the recipe 3x before proceeding? It’s very intuitive of Miss Usher to state the pitfalls in a highlighted box from the get-go. I have been guilty of giving recipes are cursory glance only to be burned later upon realizing I should have had an ingredient at room temperature or a dough needing a certain amount of chill time before continuing.
As I have mentioned earlier, the decoration of the cookies in this book is perfection – it could almost be intimidating to the average baker. The instructions for decorating are very well-worded but I am a very visual person and I would have tried the recipes sooner if there were drawings and pictures of the decorating steps.
For those who love to decorate cookies and have cookie parties, this book is a definitely must-have in your cookbook library!
My ‘Tiers of Joy’ shortbread wedding cake didn’t turn out as flawless as the one in the book – obviously perfect royal icing dots are an Achilles heel of mine, and this is why I will never do wedding cakes !
All recipes by Julia Usher from Cookie Swap
Sugar between the Sheets
Makes 4 dozen (2 1/2 inch) crescents
Sour Cream Dough
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp. salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into tablespoon-size pieces
3/4 cup sour cream
1 large egg, separated
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup walnut halves, toasted and cooled
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
Mix the Sour Cream Dough. Stir the flour and salt together in a large bowl. cut in the cold butter with a fork or pastry blender until it resembles very small peas.
Whisk the sour cream, egg yolk, and vanilla extract together in another bowl. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and gradually stir in the sour cream mixture, blending just until combined. (A few butter lumps are perfectly fine. Avoid overmixing, as it will toughen the dough.)
Divide the dough into three equal portions. Flatten each portion into a disk and wrap each disk tightly in plastic. Refrigerate 2 to 3 hours or until the dough is quite firm.
Make the Cinnamon-Walnut Filling. Meanwhile, place the sugar, walnuts, and cinnamon in a bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Process until the nuts are finely ground but not pasty. Set aside.
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line two or more cookie sheets with parchment paper.
Work with one disk of dough at a time. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough into a 12-inch circle, about 1/16 inch thick. Using a 12-inch cake pan or bowl as your guide, trim the dough to a uniform circle. Carefully pick up the edges of the dough and brush any excess flour off the back with a pastry brush. Sprinkle the top of the dough with one-third of the filling, taking care to cover the entire surface as evenly as possible. Gently press the filling into the dough.
With a sharp knife or pastry wheel, cut the circle into sixteen wedges. (For fancier effect, use a fluted pastry wheel.) Starting at the widest end, roll up each wedge to form a crescent. (After each crescent is rolled, brush any scattered sugar mixture off the work surface so that it doesn’t get on the outside of the next cookie.) Place the crescents, loose ends facing down, 1 to 2 inches apart on one of the prepared cookie sheets. Repeat Steps 5 and 6 with the remaining disks.
Whisk the egg white until slightly frothy and brush it evenly on top of each cookie. (If you plan to freeze the crescents, do not apply any egg white until after the cookies are thawed.)
Bake 15 to 17 minutes, or until lightly browned on the top and bottom. Eat warm from the oven for best flavor or transfer immediately to wire racks to cool.
Shortbread, Straight Up
Makes about 2 1/2 dozen (2 1/4 to 2 1/2 inch cookie)
2 cups all purpose flour, divided
1/2 cup blanched slivered almonds
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup sifted powdered sugar
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
About 2 tbs. granulated sugar (for sprinkling)
In a food processor, fitted with a metal blade, process 2 tbs. flour and the almonds until the nuts are finely ground but not pasty. Add the remaining flour and salt, and process until well combined. Set aside.
Place the butter and sugars in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Stir to bring the ingredients together; then beat on medium to medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 1 minute. Turn the mixer to low speed and add the vanilla extract. Gradually add the flour mixture, blending just until incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed to ensure even mixing.
Flatten the dough into a disk and wrap tightly in plastic. Refrigerate 1 to 2 hours, or until firm enough to roll without sticking.
Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Line two or more cookie sheets with parchment paper.
Roll the dough on a lightly floured surface to a 1/4-inch thickness. Cut with a 2 1/4- to 2 1/2 inch round oval, or other cookie cutter. Using an offset spatula, carefully transfer the cookies to the prepared cookie sheets, spacing them about 1-inch apart.
Sprinkle the remaining sugar evenly over the cookie tops to thinly coat them. Bake 25 to 30 minutes, or until lightly browned on the bottom and firm to the touch. Immediately transfer to wire racks with offset spatula to prevent breakage. Cool completely before storing.
*Note, for my wedding cake cookies, I rolled the dough to 3/8 inch thickness and cut out equal numbers of 1 1/2 inch, 1 1/8 inch , and 7/8 inch diameter rounds. Bake the largest rounds 25 to 28 minutes and the smaller rounds 20 to 23 minutes. For more information on how to complete this, check out "Tiers of Joy" in the Cookie Swap book.