Thursday, April 29, 2010

Cookie of the Month: Italian Easter Cookies

Yeah, yeah, I know Easter was at the beginning of April, not the end. So sue me; I haven't come up with a better method for picking out new recipes besides thinking of nearby holidays. (Coming in June: Flag Day cookies! :p) And these Italian Easter Cookies were not only extremely delicious, but lots of fun to make. The recipe:

½ cup butter
¾ cup white sugar
3 eggs
1 t. vanilla extract
1 t. almond extract
¼ cup milk
¼ cup vegetable oil
3¾ cups all-purpose flour
5 t. baking powder

You can see that you end up with a dough that's a little bit sticky, similar to peanut butter cookie dough, but when rolled it actually has fewer cracks and breaks. This is probably due to the oil, and is a good thing, as you'll see from the shaping. Now the details:

1. Preheat oven to 350F and grease cookie sheets. (I used my Pampered Chef stones, which don't need greasing.)

2. In a large bowl, cream together ½ cup butter and white sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time, then stir in vanilla and almond extracts, milk, and oil. Combine the flour and baking powder, then stir into the wet mixture. (Note: I used my super duper mixer, which did a great job of mixing even dough.)

3. Roll dough into 1-inch thick balls. On a lightly floured surface, roll the balls out into ropes about 5 inches long. Tie into loose knots and place cookies 1 inch apart onto the prepared cookie sheet. (Note: I didn't bother with the floured surface; I made the balls, then rolled them into ropes by using my hands, and it seemed to work fine. Of course, the cookie knots look unpleasantly like dog poop, but I figured I'd get over that once they were baked.)

4. Bake for 5 minutes on the bottom shelf and 5 minutes on the top shelf of the preheated oven, until the bottoms of the cookies are brown. (Note: in my oven, which tends to match times in other recipes, I needed around 7 minutes each on top and bottom to get the golden brown color.)

5. After cookies are cool, dip them in icing. Here's the recipe it called for:

4 cups confectioners' sugar
½ cup butter, softened
1 t. vanilla extract
1 t. almond extract
3 T. milk
3-5 drops food coloring (optional)

Cream together the confectioners' sugar, butter, and vanilla and almond extracts. (You'll think this crumble couldn't possibly turn into smooth icing, but it does.) Beat in 3 T milk, one tablespoon at a time, then stir in food coloring if desired.

My frosting technique was simple: grab the cookie by the sides and dip it directly into the icing. I got good coverage that way, and a nice amount of icing. (Enough to make the cookies look less like dog turds, but not so much as to make it too sweet. Even so, I ended up with an extra cup and a half of icing.) The icing remained pretty tacky, so I made sure to use wax paper between layers of cookies in my storage container.

And the verdict? Oh, my. These were extremely tasty, much like sugar cookies, but with a super smooth texture. I actually tried one unfrosted, and it was lightly sweet, reminding me of those Stella D'Oro cookies that were advertised all the time in the 1970s. (I don't remember seeing them recently, but since they have a website I guess you can still find them. It's not like I spend time in the manufactured cookie aisle when I shop.) Frosted, they were addictive little knots; good thing Boy liked them as much as I did, or I might have eaten the whole batch by myself.

I'm already thinking about a cookie recipe for next month ... although I may have to take a break from the feature during the summer months, or I won't fit into my shorts. Maybe I'll explore the world of diet cookies? .... Naw, that's almost as wrong as having Cookie Monster call cookies a "sometimes food."

Final verdict: nom nom nom nom nom (5 of 5 noms)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Janespotting: The Youngest Miss Ward by Joan Aiken

Last week I read a very traditional Mansfield Park sequel written by British novelist Joan Aiken in 1984; this week I read a not-so-traditional MP prequel the same author wrote in 1998. The Youngest Miss Ward centers around the family that provides MP with three characters: Lady Bertram, Mrs. Norris, and the elder Frances Price. The novel opens as Maria Ward has secured a marriage with Sir Thomas Bertram, and her father has bestowed a relatively large dowry upon her, as befits marriage to a baronet. That leaves less than expected for Maria's other sisters: Agnes, the eldest, whom they expect to match with the cleric Mr. Norris; Frances, who is beautiful but a bit flighty; and the title character Harriet, aka Hatty, who is only twelve as the novel opens.

Hatty's life becomes a series of disappointments as her relatives keep interfering in it. When her distant cousin Lady Ursula comes to visit, she convinces the family that Hatty should be sent to her uncle rather than "tire out" her mother by reading with her all the time. Hatty isn't even allowed to return home when her mother dies; she manages to adjust to the new household anyway. She comes to enjoy her practical Aunt Polly's company, finds a sympathetic companion in her cousin Ned, and helps her disabled twin cousins develop their mental capacities, despite their nurse's disapproval. She also meets the eccentric Lord Camber, a freethinker who encourages her poetic efforts. After her aunt becomes ill, Hatty ably manages the household through a crisis as measles strikes the family. After it kills the twins, however, their nurse engineers her ouster, blaming Hatty's failure to reveal cousin Ned's affair with a local girl for their illness. Although her eldest cousin, the obnoxious Sydney, offers to marry her because she is such a good household manager, she chooses to return to her father, instead.

She is caught in a snowstorm on the way back to her father's and is forced to spend time at the cottage of the very amiable Lord Camber. She enjoys her time in his household, but the snow ends and he leaves for a social experiment in America and she heads to her father's. Her father, however, has been killed in a hunting accident, and since the property is entailed to the nearest male relative (the aforementioned Sydney), Hatty finds herself without a home once again. Lady Ursula once again provides the "solution": Hatty will go to the estate of Ursula's parents, Count and Countess Elstow, and serve as governess to their two girls.

It's an even more challenging situation for Hatty: the Count is absent, the Countess cares little about the girls; the elder girl is an egomaniac and a kleptomaniac, and the younger girl is mentally disabled (although a musical genius). Hatty is cut off from the members of her uncle's family she loves—she's not even informed when her Aunt Polly dies—and bothered by the ones she doesn't, when Sydney repeats his proposals. When the elder Elstow girl steals her poetry journal, it's the last straw. She retreats to Lord Camber's cottage, where he had invited her to stay any time, only to find Lady Ursula ensconced there, claiming she owns the title.

Still, Hatty finds ways to make herself useful, and after Lady Ursula is attacked by wasps (!) it is discovered that Lord Camber actually made over the title to Hatty. She also finds a letter from Lord Camber to her aunt (one of many letters in several epistolary sections), declaring he would like to make Hatty his wife after he returns from America. So when Lord Camber unexpectedly appears at the cottage shortly after Lady Ursula's mishap, we're all set up for the traditional romantic happy ending, right?

Wrong. Accompanying Lord Camber is a young Native American woman, whom he has married to save from tribal banishment. In another case of interference, Lady Ursula had written to his compatriot that Sydney was intending to marry Hatty. Hatty, however, makes a better ending for herself: she gets her first volume of poems published (under a male pseudonym, of course), keeps the cottage for herself, and marries Lord Camber's steward, who is a much more practical man whom she has grown to love and respect.

This was another enjoyable volume from Aiken, although in tone and plot it was much closer to the Dickensian Eliza's Daughter than the more imitative Mansfield Revisited. It reminds me that Aiken is a consistently entertaining writer, and I'm really looking forward to her Emma variation, Jane Fairfax. There are a few more MP sequels to go, as well as two or three film adaptations, so that will have to wait a while. I'm definitely planning to re-read her children's books some time in the distant future, when I finally get around to that "Diane revisits her childhood favorites" feature.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Photo of the Week--4/26/10

As you might be able to tell from the giant sign reading "Tivoli," this photo was taken in Copenhagen, Denmark. And no, that's not a giant pigeon depicted in the fountain, it's a dragon fighting a bull. The pigeons were all in front of the fountain, located in City Hall Square, and you can see TSU helping Boy chase them. Either there were too many for Boy to take care of, or by this point he was started to tire of all the pigeon chasing. It did seem to be a Sisyphean task; no matter what city we visited it seemed there were fat pigeons needing exercise.