Holiday Traditions: Allergy Friendly “Sugar Cookies”

website sugar cookies

“Well, they have to be the same….”

When you marry into a family who makes literally the best sugar cookies you’ll ever eat in your life, you must tread carefully about trying to revamp the recipe to be allergy friendly.

“Honey, I was thinking….”

“Yes.”

“Well, I’d really like to be able to have some sugar cookies this year… I think I could revamp the recipe to be dairy and gluten free….”

“No.”

“But what if they tasted the same?”

“Not possible.”

“Well… I think it could be possible….” I give my husband my most pleading, puppy-dog sweet face, and add… “If they don’t taste just like your family’s recipe, I’ll make another batch the “right” way.”

“Well, okay, I guess you could try….”

In the end, I only made one batch of sugar cookies because my husband and my children declared my recipe to be a success, which was good because we spent many hours baking very large batches of three different type of allergy friendly cookies this weekend, and I didn’t want to have to make any more!

So below are some hints for cut-out cookies which I’ve shared previously and my revised recipe for rolled, cut-out sugar cookies. (We’ll keep the original a family secret… *grin*)

Tips for Making Rolled, Cut-out Cookies

1.  Use wax paper to roll out the dough.  Simply cut a sheet that overlaps around a large cutting board or piece of cardboard and tape it down.  Then when you sprinkle your flour over the wax paper, your dough won’t stick to the board.

2.  Use sifter to put flour onto your cutting board and rolling pin.  If you sprinkle it on with your fingers, you’re more likely to clump the flour in places which then get stuck to your cookie dough.

3.  Use a long, thin metal spatula to periodically release your dough from the board while you’re rolling it, and before you use your cookie cutters, be sure to go completely under the entire rolled out piece of dough so that your cookies won’t stick to the board when you’re cutting the shapes.

4.  Invest in some smaller cookie shapes which you can use to cut little cookies from the dough left after you cut out the big cookie shapes.  This cuts down on the amount of dough you need to re-roll.  Put one cookie sheet aside specifically for the little cookies, which you fill up as you go along and then bake at the end.

5.  Make sure your dough for rolling is very cold and firm.  Most recipes will tell you to chill for an hour, but in reality you’re better off planning ahead and chilling your dough for several hours or overnight.  When you’re making the cookies, be sure to put the dough back into the fridge in between scooping out new dough to roll.

6.  Put all your re-roll dough into a small bowl which you then put into the freezer while you’re finishing up the regular dough.  This will make the dough firm enough for you to re-roll immediately as opposed to having to wait for it to firm back up again.

7.  Make your own colored sugars.  Put 1/4 cup of sugar into a bowl and add two to four drops of food coloring.  Carefully work the color into the sugar, using the back of a spoon to continualy “spread” the color completely into the sugar.  You can store extra, leftover sugar in a sandwich baggie for a very long time!

8.  Use parchment paper to line your cookie sheets.  Your cookies will never stick. You won’t have to clean the cookie sheets.  And you won’t have to worry about cross-contamination of your cookies.  I usually use the If You Care brand.  The parchment sheets can also be re-used over and over again on one cookie sheet.

9.  Be sure to completely cool your cookie sheets before putting new cookie dough shapes onto them.  I usually pop my cookie sheets into the freezer for a minute or two after removing the cookies.  Works like a charm.

10.  Invest in metal cookie cutters which you can use year after year. When you’re cutting out the shapes, put a pan of flour in the center which you can dip the cutters into so the cutters won’t stick to your dough.

11.  When you’re done with your cookie cutters, fill the sink with hot, soapy water and just let them sit for a while.  You’ll be able to simply rinse them off without having to try to “clean” the crevices.  Then pop them (as long as they’re metal) onto one of your cookie sheets and place the cookie sheet in the oven which is turned off and cooling down.  The residual heat will evaporate all the water, and your cutters will be sterilized and ready for next year’s use.

Allergy Friendly Rolled, Cut-Out Sugar Cookies

(This makes a lot of cookies; if you want less,

cut the recipe into thirds)

Ingredients:

3 cups sugar (This is the only time I ever use sugar because a sugar cookie just has to have sugar!)

2 cups Tofutti sour cream

2 cups Earth Balance soy free vegan butter

3 eggs, room temperature

1 tbsp ground nutmeg

6 Gluten Free Flour Blend (you’ll need just enough flour to make a soft dough – I used 6 cups of Authentic Foods brown rice gluten free blend)

Baking Instructions:  (The dough needs to chill so make the dough up the night before or several hours ahead of when you want to bake the cookies.)

1.  Mix the sugar with the sour cream and butter until well blended.

2.  Add the eggs, one at a time, and blend well.  Add the nutmeg.

3.  Add in the gluten free flour, a cup at a time, only as much as you need to make a soft dough.  Blend well.

4.  Cover the dough tightly with plastic wrap and chill overnight, or at least for several hours.

5.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.

6.  Line a board with wax paper.  Sprinkle the board and a rolling pin with flour of your choice (I used brown rice flour), and roll out small amounts of dough to a very thin thickness – thin enough to make a crispy cookie but not so thin that you can’t actually move the cut out dough to the cookie sheet.

7.  Cut out shapes with cookie cutters and place on the prepared cookie sheets.  The cookies will not spread a lot so you can put them fairly close together.

8.  Decorate the cookies with colored sugar and/or currants. (You can also just bake the cookies and then decorate them with icing when they’re cooled.)

9.  Bake in the preheated oven for 8 to 12 minutes.  Start with 8 minutes and then go up by 1 minute increments. (It really depends on how thin you are able to roll them in terms of how long the baking time needs to be.)  The cookies should be dry, crisp and slightly puffed.

10.  Let the cookies cool for a minute on the cookie sheet, and then move the cookies to a wire cooling rack and cool them completely. Once cooled, they’ll be nice and crispy sugar cookies.  If you eat them while they’re warm, they’ll be chewier.

11.  When the cookie are completely cooled, store them in a tightly covered container.  They’ll last for a few weeks, though after a couple of weeks, they’ll get a bit softer.

 

Menu Suggestion: Mini Cheesecakes

website mini cheesecakes

“You’re going to host a brunch? With everything you have going on?”

Even after 20 years together my very introverted husband doesn’t fully understand his more extroverted wife. The more he has happening, the more likely my husband is to retreat to a corner of the house for time alone because being with people drains him. For me, the crazier my life is, the more I need time with people with whom I can “refuel”. Extroverts are invigorated by the energy they get from spending time with people.

So, when I had an article due, a baking workshop to prepare for, several recitals, baseball games, and volunteer meetings to attend, my daughter’s graduation to prepare for, relatives coming in from town, and literally a dozen doctors’ appointments for myself and my children, it seemed a good time to host a brunch of some of my closest friends.

We had a great time, and I received the laughter and love I needed to sustain me through the hectic weeks to follow.

So, when I received a question this past week at a baking workshop about what I’d recommend as the perfect dessert to take to a potluck brunch if you had to make something gluten, dairy and tree nut free, I was ready with an answer: mini cheese cakes.

Mini cheesecakes are elegant, easy to make, versatile, and very adaptable for dairy, gluten and tree nut allergies.

Cheesecake Tips:

1. The crust: Crusts for cheesecake can be made from just about anything you want – honey graham crackers, animal crackers, shortbread cookies, oreo cookies coconut cookies, chocolate grahams, ginger cookies  – your imagination is your only limitation. And today we live in a time where all the above can be found in gluten, dairy, and nut free versions at the grocery store. Depending on the type of cheesecake you want to make, you can vary which type of crust you want to make.

Making crusts are ridiculously easy, too. Simply zoop up your cookie or graham crackers in a food processor to make crumbs, or if you don’t have a food processor, put the cookies or crackers into a ziploc bag, seal, and whack away with a rolling pin or the end of an ice cream scoop or a clean meat mallet. then you mix the crumbs with a little bit of a sweetener like Agave or coconut sugar and a little bit of a fat like melted vegan butter or safflower oil. A good ratio is one tablespoon each of the sweetener and fat for every 1/3 cup of crumbs.

And if you’re trying to watch your overall caloric, carb and fat content, you can always omit a crust altogether.

2. The cheesecake filling: Cream cheese is the main ingredient in cheesecake. Today, folks with dairy allergies can find vegan versions of cream cheese at their local grocery store which makes for a nice substitute. Sometimes, though, folks prefer to use straight tofu, which works well, too.

The key tip for making good cheesecake is to be sure all your ingredients come to room temperature. If your cream cheese or tofu are cold, you’ll get lumps in your cheesecake, which doesn’t affect the taste but definitely detracts from the texture. To make sure your cream cheese isn’t affected by other ingredients, all other ingredients like your eggs should be at room temperature, too.

You should always cream the cream cheese alone before adding any of the other ingredients. Sometimes an online recipe will tell you to just mix all the ingredients together. Don’t. It will affect the texture of your cheesecake. Also, if you start to cream your cream cheese and find it’s still too cold, you can then just wait a little bit and resume creaming. If all the ingredients are together, you’ll never get the lumps out, no matter how long you wait.

If you are using cream cheese instead of tofu, you should decide on the type of texture you want for your cheesecake. Using only cream cheese makes for a nice, thick, “cheesy” cheesecake. If you want your cheesecake to be a bit silkier, adding sour cream (a vegan version) or silken tofu or a dairy free yogurt will lighten the cheesecake. If lightening the cheesecake, use a 3 to 1 ratio (e.g. 3 containers of cream cheese with 1 container of sour cream).

If you’re making cheesecake with tofu, I like to use the silken tofu because it’s so much smoother. One 15/16 ounce container is about equivalent to two containers of cream cheese.

3. The flavoring: You can make just about any type of cheesecake you desire. For a regular cheesecake, you only add vanilla and some sweetener. If you want a flavor, you can add lemon or orange zest, unsweetened cocoa powder, raspberry liquor, pureed cooked pumpkin or squash, or even herbs like rosemary and basil for a more savory type of cheesecake.

If you’re in a fun mood, you can make a layered cheesecake where you layer two different flavors of cheesecake or you layer cheese cake on top of a brownie crust or layer a mousse on top of cheesecake. The ideas are endless.

4. The sweetener: Regular cheesecake will often call for about 1/4 cup of sugar per one 8 ounce container of cream cheese. If you’re watching sugar, you can always use Agave (half the amount of sugar called for) or coconut sugar (same ratio as sugar) or Truvia (half the amount you’d use for sugar).

If you’re using Agave, the best way to incorporate it into the cream cheese is to slowly pour the Agave into the creamed cream cheese mixture while the mixer is constantly stirring and incorporating the Agave into the mixture. For coconut sugar and truvia, simply follow the instructions for sugar.

5. The eggs: Most cheesecake recipes call for eggs to help give the cheesecake structure. If you’re trying to watch your cholesterol, you can use egg whites only. The cheesecake will be slighly drier and a little less creamy but some people actually prefer their cheesecake that way.

If you want to avoid eggs altogether you can simply omit the eggs, but you’ll need to add a little flour or cornstarch to give the cheesecake some structure, about a 1/4 cup of either. I make an eggless chocolate cheesecake where I mix  a 6 oz container of yogurt with cornstarch as a substitute for the eggs.

6. Making the cheesecake mini: The advantages of mini cheesecakes are several. For one, they bake up more quickly. Secondly, they are easier to serve. Thirdly, if you’re taking them to a party, they’re easy to transport. Fourthly, when you decorate them, you can vary the toppings and have a variety of cheesecakes to offer to the guests.

To make mini cheesecakes, you just use muffin tins. I like to line my muffin tins with paper liners to prevent any cross-contamination and for easy removal of the cheesecake, but you can also simply spray or grease the tins, too.

7. Baking the cheesecake: Cheesecakes are usually baked at low heat to prevent cracking and drying out the cheesecake. So, the best temperature is about 325 degrees. If you want to have extra smooth cheesecakes and really prevent cracking,it’s best to add some moisture to your oven. You can fill a pan with some hot water and put it at the bottom of your oven while the cheesecakes cook or you can put the muffin tins into another larger pan which is filled halfway with hot water. If you don’t do either of these steps, it is not a big deal. The cheesecakes just may crack a bit on top or be a little less smooth and moist. They’ll still taste good.

When your cheesecake is done, the edges are more done than the center. A knife inserted into the edges should come out clean while the middle should still be less stiff. It shouldn’t be liquidly and runny still, but it shouldn’t be as stiff as the edges. If you overcook the cheesecakes and the middles are stiff and cracked, don’t sweat it. the cheesecakes won’t be as creamy, but they’ll still be good and you can cover the cracks with your lovely toppings.

8. Cooling the cheesecakes: Cheesecake needs to cool before you eat it because it’s the coolin process that finishes cooking the cheesecake center and which solidifies the cheesecake. It’s best to let the cheesecakes cool at room temperature first and then to put them into the fridge.

9. The toppings: You can top your cheesecakes with just about anything. Slices of fruit like strawberries, kiwi or blueberries or a chocolate drizzle or crushed cookies or a whole cookie or a raspberry drizzle or shredded coconut. Your imagination is the only limit.

You can wait to add fruit garnishes until right before you’re taking them to a party or before you serve them so the fruit will stay fresh. Drizzles can be added while the cheesecakes are still warm or when they are cold. Cookies should be put on while the cheesecakes are still soft enough for you to push them down into the cheesecake.

10. Transporting mini cheesecakes: Always keep your cheesecakes in the fridge until it’s time to take them to the party. If you’re going a short distance, you don’t need to worry about keeping them cold, but if you’re going far away, pop them into a cooler with an ice pack or into a bag with a ziplock baggie full of ice.

Since the mini-cheesecakes are muffin size, you can usually fit them into a rectangular tupperware container or cupcake holder and transport them easily.

Mini Cheesecakes

Ingredients:

2 cups Smorables Gluten Free Graham crackers (about one box)
6 tbsp melted vegan butter
3 tbsp Agave
4 8 oz containers Tofutti vegan cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 cup Agave
2 tsp gluten free vanilla
4 eggs, at room temperature

Baking Instructions:

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees and line 24 muffin cups with cupcake liners.

2. Crush the graham crackers into crumbs by either processing them in a food processor or by whacking them with a rolling pin or mallet in a sealed bag.

3. Mix the melted butter with the Agave and blend well into the graham cracker crumbs until the crumbs are moist.

4. Evenly divide the crumbs among the muffin cups, about one tablespoon per muffin cup. Press the crumbs down to form an even crust.

5. Bake in the oven for 5 minutes and remove onto a cooling rack.

6. Cream the cream cheese in a mixer until smooth and creamy.

7. Slowly pour in the Agave while continually stirring until all the Agave is incorported into the cream cheese

8. Add in the vanilla.

9. Add the eggs, incorporating them one at a time.

10. Divide the cheesecake filling evenly among the muffin cups. They will be almost to the top of the muffin cups.

11. Bake until the cheesecakes are dry on the edges and mostly firm but still slightly soft in the center. This will take between 15 and 25 minutes depending on the thickness of your muffin tins and how evenly your oven is heating food.

12. Remove the cheesecakes to a wire cooling rack and cool to room temp. Put into the fridge so they can cool completely and solidify.

13. Garnish with fruit or chocolate drizzle or raspberry drizzle or cookie crumbs and serve.

Cooking Techniques: Corn Beef and Cabbage

website corn beef

“But shouldn’t we be wearing orange?  And we’re not even Irish anyway!”

When your daughter is on the autism spectrum and everything always has to be precise and make sense, it’s not always easy on the parent. My oldest was five when she learned that in Ireland, Protestants wear orange on St. Patty’s day, so she wanted to know why everyone in the U.S., whether you’re Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, etc… wore green.  She also wanted to know why we as a family would wear anything at all, given that Irish is one of the few ethnic backgrounds missing from our family heritage.

Even as bright as my daughter was at that time, trying to get her to understand the idea of a social construct evolving over time so that today basically everyone becomes Irish on St. Patty’s day, whether you are or aren’t and that wearing green is just something you do was not very easy! And to this day, she still insists on wearing orange on St. Patty’s day and explaining to people why they shouldn’t be wearing green. Fortunately, most folks extend her a lot of grace because of the autism. *grin*

This morning, however, I actually felt a kinship with my daughter when I received an emailed question about making boiled corn beef and cabbage. I was quick to point out that in Ireland folks don’t actually eat corn beef and cabbage on St. Patty’s day, that it’s something that somehow evolved as a tradition in the U.S. I also wanted her to know that folks used to boil all their meats in Ireland because of poor refrigeration and sanitation conditions. Folks wanted to make sure they wouldn’t get sick from their food, so they overcooked it.

I wouldn’t be surprised if folks are now wondering about me! Which I guess just goes to show that my daughter doesn’t fall from her mother’s tree after all!

At any rate, I started thinking about corn beef and cabbage and thought I might as well post about it on St. Patty’s Day, though I do apologize that this post most likely is not in time for today’s holiday meal.

I actually love corn beef and cabbage at any time of the year. I don’t, however, ever, ever boil corn beef and cabbage.

Boiling corn beef and cabbage just makes for a greasy, unpalatable entree in my opinion. I know some may disagree with me, but boiling cabbage turns it into an ugly shade of green which no one should ever see on their food plate, and boiling the corn beef releases the fat into the cooking liquid which is quick to congeal when cooling. Definitely not my idea for ideal presentation of food! In addition the vegetables you add to corn beef and cabbage like carrots, turnips and potatoes lose much of their valuable nutrients when you boil them.

So what should you do then? Slow cook it in the oven is my advice.

Several Tips to keep in mind:

1. The pan: You want a nice large heat proof pan with a high cover. If you don’t have a cover, you can use aluminum foil, but you should double fold it and make it into more a tent shape than flat over the pan. This will allow for more space for your vegetables and cabbage as well as allowing the heat to circulate at the food cooks in the oven.

2. The corn beef: I find that a thin cut corn beef is better than a thick cut. It’s usually more symmetrical in width which allows for more even cooking. Also, because it’s thinner and flatter, though, longer, it cooks more quickly than a fatter, rounder cut.

As a rule, unless you’re single or just a couple with no children, a four pound cut of meat is best. As corn beef cooks it actually shrinks down in size considerably and by the time it’s fork tender for eating, it’s about half its original size. A 4 pound brisket is enough for dinner for our family of five with some leftovers for lunch the next day.

Also, you should always try to cut away as much of the fat as you can. One, it helps to reduce the fat and grease. Two, it means that the spices and herbs you use to season the meat will actually reach the meat and not just rest on the fat.

As well, if you have a rack that fits into your pan, you should insert it and put the meat onto the rack. It allows the heat to circulate under the meat for more even cooking and also helps to reduce any grease from sticking to the bottom of the meat.

Finally, you should season your corn beef. Most come with a seasoning packet that usually is a mixture of chopped bay leaves and mustard corns. I like to take those and add garlic, onion powder, black pepper and oregano. Then I add the smallest amount of olive oil to make a barely moist paste which I rub all over the corn beef. After I stick whole cloves into the corn beef.

3. The cabbage: Don’t just use green cabbage. I like to mix both purple/red cabbage with the green to get a melding of flavors and colors.

Also, most recipes call for simply cutting the cabbage into quarters. I find that this makes for tougher cabbage. I cut them into 16 wedges and find that this makes for a more fork tender cut of cabbage.

You don’t want to add the cabbage at the beginning. It doesn’t take as long as the meat to cook so add it more like a third or half way into the cooking.

When you add the cabbage, put the wedges carefully around the meat so the wedges stay together.

4. The vegetables: Be creative. We have added potatoes, carrots, turnips, butternut squash, beets, etc…. My kids favorites continue to be the traditional potatoes and carrots, but even with those I vary them. Nowadays you can get a variety of colored potatoes and carrots in white, red, purple, orange, pink.

What’s important to keep in mind is that with this dish, you really should stick with root vegetables. For the length of time that you need to cook the meat, vegetables which are quick cooking really don’t work well. If you do choose to use vegetables like zucchini or broccoli or mushrooms, don’t add them until the last 15 to 20 minutes of cooking time.

Another thing to keep in mind is your size. All the vegetables should be the same size for even cooking. I like to cut everything about 1 1/2 inches in length and width. I find it cooks well in the time allowed.

Also, be sure to season your vegetables before adding them to the meat pan. If you just add the vegetables as is, they will be bland. I like to use a mixture of herbs and garlic and black pepper. I don’t ever add salt because the corn beef is salty, and you want your vegetables to complement the salty meat.

Finally, like the cabbage, the vegetables don’t need as long as the meat to cook. You should add them about 1/3 to halfway through the cooking time.

5. Cooking: As I mentioned, the method I think is best for cooking corn beef and cabbage is slow roasting them in the oven. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees while prepare the corn beef.

First, wash the corn beef with cold water and pat it dry. This helps to remove some of the excess salt on the outside of the corn beef. Remove as much fat as you can and season the corn beef with a herb paste. Place the corn beef on the rack in your pan and stick the whole cloves in.

Then, add some liquid because I find that adding some liquid to the pan helps to make for a moister piece of meat. I actually make a mixture that’s about a quarter to a half cup of honey with about one cup of water that I pour over the meat. Later when the meat is done, I turn that into a gravy/sauce by making a rue of olive oil and a gluten free flour or mixing cornstarch with water to thicken the liquid.

Cover the pan with the lid and allow the corn beef to begin cooking for about an hour. You should always begin cooking the corn beef first and add the vegetables and cabbage later. The meat takes much longer to cook and you don’t want to overcook the vegetables. Also, if you begin cooking the meat, it releases some of the grease and fat which you can remove before adding your cabbage and vegetables.

As a rule, I cook the meat for about one to one and a half hours first before adding the vegetables and cabbage and cooking for another two to one and a half hours. During that hour or so, I peel, chop, and season my vegetables and cabbage.

After about an hour, remove the corn beef and strain all the grease and fat out of my liquid, being careful to do so over a bowl so you can keep the liquid for the rest of the cooking. If I need to so do, I also wash away any grease that’s accumulated on the rack, too.

Then return the rack to the pan and replace the corn beef on top of the rack. Carefully place the vegetables around the corn beef. You should be sure to put things like potatoes and carrots first on the bottom because they often need more heat to cook. Then place the cabbage wedges on top of the vegetables around the corn beef.

Pour the saved liquid over the cabbage, vegetables and meat, and cook for another two hours or so with the lid on. When your corn beef is done, it should be fork tender. The same with your vegetables.

When the corn beef, cabbage and vegetables are done, I remove them to another pan and thicken the liquid. You can do this by making a rue of olive oil and flour that you slowly add the liquid to. Or you can mix cornstarch with water and add that to the warm liquid. Either way you need to heat the liquid on the stove top, stirring frequently until it thickens.

Then pour the sauce over the corn beef and cabbage and serve.