Tag joy of cooking

Starting a Cookbook Club, a Spicy Twist on an Afternoon with Friends

One of the things that makes the office environment at Parties That Cook so special is that we have a monthly cookbook club. Once a month, one person picks a cookbook and the first Monday of the month to hold the potluck. The rest of us choose a recipe out of this chosen cookbook and either spend the entire month pouring over how to make this recipe the best, or the Sunday evening before at 10 p.m. rushing to bake a cake. However we do it, it always ends up being an eventful lunch hour sharing our cooking stories and decompressing from a month of attempting no side conversations.

If it is just a few friends, coworkers, or complete strangers, cookbook clubs are a great way to build friendships and buff up your skills in the kitchen. No kitchen prowess is needed, so they are a fun activity for beginners but can be just as exciting trained chefs. For beginners, Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything” and any Barefoot Contessa cookbook would be great because they are so well-tested. As you become more advanced, try to challenge yourself with something like Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”.

Why limit it to cookbooks? Cooking magazines have great recipes as well as mouth-watering photographs. “Fine Cooking” and “Cooks Illustrated” are both wonderful starts. They focus more on teaching and don’t assume that you are completely experienced.

Not only could you check out magazines but also some of the chefs on the Food Network. Giada De Laurentiis and Rachel Ray would be a good start.

As you cover the more well known cookbooks, it is always fun to have a breakfast cookbook club, like we did with the “Tartine” cookbook, or a trip to Egypt over lunch, much like our “Dining on the Nile” cookbook club. It is never a mistake to choose a more specific genre of cookbooks. You may not come out with the variety you would get with something like the “Joy of Cooking”, but you’ll be surprised with all of the different flavors you can find in just one course.

Hosting a cookbook club monthly with your friends is a great way to beat the heat of the economy while still enjoying yourself.

Holiday Cookie Decorating Odyssey

We, at the Harris-Bigelow Chateau, as mother and children, have cultivated a tradition of turning each holiday into an opportunity to consume sugar.  Not just any kind of sugar either; artfully decorated sugar.  As soon as we were able and allowed to hold butter knives, we began decorating sugar cookies. For birthdays, Christmas, Easter, you name it. If the kids got to make a mess and then eat it, all was well. And with a wanna-be foodie for a mom, culinary experiments were bound to occur.  Though the tradition fell by the wayside for a few years in the “it’s awkward to bring cookies to school” phase, we never stopped collecting cookie cutters, sprinkles, and other such decorating musts.

Now, let’s talk about the sprinkles for a second:  We are crazy about sprinkles.  Don’t take this lightly.  I mean it, we are infatuated with sprinkles.  We cannot walk into a bake shop or kitchen shop and ignore the cutely shaped or crazy sparkly sprinkles that call to us from their little jars or mini ziplocs.  We take them home and they sit in the old beer box that holds all of our other sprinkles (and is now overflowing), waiting to be used on a lucky cupcake or sugar cookie.  We even have a backup sprinkle area on a bookshelf at the end of the hallway, in a tart pan.  Many of our sprinkles originate from Williams Sonoma, the holy land of baking accoutrement.  Some have been around since I was born.  And at this rate, we have enough to last my lifetime.

So, in the name of using our beloved sprinkles, we concluded that our tradition must be reinstated.  We began with Halloween this year; whipping up black, orange, white, green, red, and purple frosting for witches and bats and skulls, among other spooky cutouts.  We stayed up past midnight – on a School night – decorating; utilizing cheese knives for spreading and toothpicks for details, along with a plethora of Halloween themed sprinkles (bats, cats, pumpkins, ghosts…  shall I go on?).  We drew the line when we had about 12 naked cookies left.  We’d been at it since 6:00 – we were exhausted, and devoid of inspiration.  The kitchen table was a disaster.

I brought some to my friends at school and Mom brought some into work, shortly before the SF Food Cart Birthday Lunch – where our decorating would be called into question when compared with the likes of a professional. Our humble Joy of Cooking sugar cookies were deemed better than the pro cookies, in frosting, cookie texture, and taste!  Our lone downfall was our decorating:  It was just a little more homely than that of Batter Bakery’s.  Humph!  The challenge was on!

So what did we do? Yes, we made more cookies. Growing a little bored with the Halloween shapes at our disposal, we got the bright idea to mix in some Christmas shapes this time to create a new theme: what else but Nightmare Before Christmas?  So there were black and orange candy canes, and flying Christmas witches (whose broomsticks were frustratingly prone to breaking off). We even made a Jack Skellington head and a flaming Christmas tree (for all you fellow NBX nerds who remember Sally’s prophecy in which a Christmas tree caught on fire to symbolize Jack’s upcoming failure). Just to be fair, we also made Star of David cookies. We don’t discriminate against any religious cookies in this household.

With Nate-the-boyfriend’s occasional contribution, we finished all 48+ of them and they were still a hit on round 2 – and the decorating was a notch above our first attempts!  The tradition continues on now. We have plans for Thanksgiving weekend: Fall cookies. Perhaps we can find a turkey cookie cutter. Then Christmas, then Valentine’s, then…  Wait – do they make sprinkles for New Year’s?!

And to Bibby: We vow to put even more care into our decorating. In fact, Mom already purchased the Kuhn Rikon Dual-Chamber Squeezable Decorating Kit from Sur La Table. Prepare yourself for some crazy good cookie decorating!

For curious minds, here are the recipes we used:
Joy of Cooking sugar cookies

Whisk together thoroughly:
•    3 1/4 c. flour
•    1 /12 tsp. baking powder
•    1/2 tsp. salt

Beat on medium speed until very fluffy and well blended:
•    20 T. (2 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
•    1 cup sugar

Add and beat until well combined:
•    1 large egg
•    1 T. milk
•    2 1/2 tsp. vanilla
•    1/4 tsp. finely grated lemon zest (optional – we did not use this)

Gradually add flour mixture to butter mixture until well blended and smooth. divide dough in half and roll into balls.  Wrap dough in plastic wrap and put in the fridge until firm enough to work with, about 30-60 minutes.  Roll dough on a lightly floured surface to 1/4 inch thick.  Use cookie cutters to cut shapes and transfer to cookie sheets.  Roll dough scraps together and continue to cut shapes, briefly refrigerating dough if it becomes too soft to handle/hold the cutter shape.  Bake in a 375 degree oven for 6-9 minutes until cookies are lightly colored on top and edges are slightly darker.

Mom’s patented frosting recipe, not too drippy, not too crunchy:
•    1/2 – 3/4 c. confectioner’s sugar
•    1-2 tsp. milk
•    1/4 tsp. vanilla (optional – we did not use this)
•    food coloring
•    Mix ingredients together in a small bowl, using as much of the food coloring as desired to create your color of choice, and adding sugar/milk as necessary to achieve an elmer’s glue-like, spreadable consistency

Contributed by guest blogger Natalie Bigelow