Category Archives: tradition

Old-Fashioned Sour Cream Sugar Cookies with Buttercream Frosting

A Modern Tradition

This my mother’s sugar cookie recipe, from her mother before her. I don’t know who my grandma got it from or when it acquired the name “old fashioned.” It can’t be older than mid-19th C. because it calls for chemical leaveners.These are not, however, the softest sugar cookies I've ever made. Click on the picture for the link to that recipe. The whole point of the sour cream is to provide an acid to react with the alkali baking soda and produce a tender, puffy cookie. That makes them completely unlike really “old-fashioned” cookies, which were usually unleavened and baked until they were completely hard and dry (for more on cookie history, see foodtimeline.com). However, now that chemical leaveners have been around long long enough to be part of recipes handed down for three generations or more, I suppose they can be “modern” and “old-fashioned” at the same time.

I like this particular recipe for Christmas cookies because it’s not as sweet or rich as most sugar cookie recipes—the ratio of fat : sugar : flour in the dough is 1: 1: 3. Compare that to the “Classic Sugar Cookies” in Michael Ruhlman’s Ratio, which are 1: 1: 2, or Dorie Greenspan’s Sablés, which are 4: 3: 8. I’d go with one of the other recipes if I were going to leave them plain or just sprinkle them with colored sugar before baking, but I think the slightly less-sweet base makes them a better vehicle for frosting.

Frosting presents bakers with something of a dilemma: either you can make something gorgeous, sleek, and stylish, or you can make something delicious. In the cake world, that dilemma is primarily represented by fondant vs. buttercream. In the cookie world, it’s largely royal icing vs. buttercream. Behold Royal Icing: 

If I thought I could actually do half as good a job as Olivia does, I admit I might be a little more conflicted. dorie greenspans cookies                           From the Kitchen of Olivia                                                  Chow.com

Even though those are really pretty, and royal icing also has the benefit of setting up hard enough to handle any amount of stacking or transport, when it’s a choice between butter or no butter, I’m almost always going to choose butter.

They're cute enough, right? Although the noses almost invariably get squashed before anyone can appreciate them. In retrospect, I probably should have done a garland on the tree instead of ornaments, which have a vaguely pox-like effect.

Buttercream Nationalism

There are basically two kinds of buttercream—cooked and uncooked. However, there are varying techniques, and they’re referred to by nation. Italian buttercream is made by beating egg whites to stiff peaks and then cooking them by gradually adding a hot sugar syrup. Then you add softened butter, which will initially look curdled as it mixes with the hot meringue but eventually emulsifies. Swiss buttercream is similar, but instead of drizzling in a syrup, you cook the meringue by holding it over boiling water while you beat the egg whites and sugar together. French buttercream is made using the same technique as Italian buttercream, but with yolks instead of whites (a base called pâte à bombe).

For cakes and fillings, cooked buttercreams can’t be beat. All three versions are smooth and airy, pipe like a dream, and—most importantly—are totally delicious. They’re kind of like a custard or mousse made with butter instead of cream. But they’re not great for cookie decorating because they’re not very firm at room temperature. They’ll harden if chilled (just like the butter they’re largely composed of), but you wouldn’t be able to stack them first—you’d have to refrigerate or freeze them in single layers, which is a pain. And you’d have to keep them chilled in order to transport them without the frosting melting into goo. I make these primarily to send them to people who live across the country, so I need something with a little more structural integrity.

If you don't want to bother with all the fussy details, a slightly thicker layer plus some sprinkles can look just as festive.

The usual answer for cookies is American buttercream, which is just butter and powdered sugar thinned with a little milk or cream and beaten until smooth. It’s acquired a bit of a bad reputation because most grocery store bakeries use that technique, but they substitute shortening for the butter. The result is the flavorless, waxy, tooth-achingly sweet frosting you get on most grocery store cakes, which usually gets eaten around or scraped aside and left on the plate. But the method isn’t really the problem, it’s the shortening and the ratio of sugar: fat. 

Most recipes for homemade American buttercream call for nearly 4 : 1 sugar: fat. I cut the sugar by more than half. That makes it a little softer at room temperature, and if you’re going to use piping bags, you have to use small portions in the decorating bag to prevent the heat from your hands from melting it. But once it air dries, it’s just hard enough to stack (gently). Depending on how elaborate and delicate your decorations are, and what kind of abuse they have to withstand, they might arrive at their destination slightly squashed, but at least they’ll still taste terrific. 

Recipe: Old-Fashioned Sour Cream Sugar Cookies
(makes approximately 3 dozen)

Ingredients:

  • Sour cream1/4 c. melted butter 
  • 1/4 c. melted shortening or lard
  • 1 c. sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 2 2/3 c. all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 1/2 t. kosher salt (or 1 t. regular table salt)
  • 1/4 tsp. nutmeg or 1/2 t. cinnamon, or a dash of both
  • 1/2 c. sour cream

Method:

1. Pre-heat oven to 425F

2. Combine the melted fat, sugar, egg, and vanilla in one bowl. Whisk together the dry ingredients in a separate bowl.

3. Add the dry ingredients to the wet in 3 additions, alternating with three dollops of sour cream. Stir until well combined.

4. Divide dough in half, and cover one half with plastic wrap. Roll the other out to approximately 1/4” thick and cut in desired shapes and place 1” apart on cookie sheets lined with parchment paper.

5. If you’re not planning to frost them, sprinkle them with coarse or colored sugar. Otherwise, leave plain. Bake 8-10 minutes or until just beginning to darken slightly at the edges.

christmas cookies 019christmas cookies 022 

Recipe: Vanilla Buttercream
(makes approximately 3 cups, which is enough to frost about 3 dozen cookies) 

christmas cookies 043Ingredients:

  • 20 T. butter, softened (2 1/2 sticks) 
  • 3 1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • a pinch of table salt
  • 2 t. vanilla extract
  • 2 T. heavy cream

1. Using a stand mixer or a spatula, beat the butter until smooth and creamy—about 1 minute.

2. Add the salt and gradually add the sugar, beating slowly until incorporated. Add the vanilla and heavy cream and beat until combined.

3. Increase the speed to high and beat for 4-10 minutes, or until no lumps remain and it’s satiny smooth.

A Cure for Whatever Ails You: Chicken and Rice Porridge (aka Congee, aka Jook)

This is not really a traditional congee, which wouldn't have a mirepoix base. It's more like a cross between congee and a Euro-American chicken soup.

And Tom brought him chicken soup until he wanted to kill him.
The lore has not died out of the world, and you will
still find people who believe that soup will cure any hurt or illness 
and is no bad thing to have for the funeral either.
                              —East of Eden, John Steinbeck

Grandmothers of the World Unite

I’ve always been intrigued by parallels in culinary traditions from far-removed places. For example, almost every cuisine seems to include some kind of dough filled with seasoned meat or vegetables—gyoza, pierogi, samosas, wontons, empanadas, bao, knishes, ravioli, pasties, shishbarak, and manti are all just variations on the same basic theme. Ditto for griddled batter-based breads, i.e. pancakes—there are Euro-American flapjacks, French crepes, Italian farinata, Indian dosas, Eastern European blintzes, Ethiopian injera, Chinese moo shu wrappers, Korean jeon, etc. Commonalities like those seem to point to universal imperatives or desires that form a sort of core or essence of the uniquely human act of cooking, like, for instance, the reliance of large, settled populations on grains and starchy vegetables as their dietary staples.

this soup wants you to feel betterChicken broth-based soup is another one of those near-universal foods, and what makes it unique is that not only is the soup itself basically the same wherever you go, but its use as a folk remedy is also seemingly universal. All over the world, whenever people are feeling under the weather, tradition dictates that the best thing to feed them is rice or pasta or potato simmered until very soft in a broth made from chicken bones, often flavored with some kind of alliums and aromatic herbs.

In Greece, it goes by the name avgolemno, for the egg and lemon that are traditionally included, and it’s prescribed as a remedy for colds and hangovers. In Korea, a chicken broth soup including ginger, ginseng, and rice called samgyetang is not just supposed to cure minor illnesses, but also to prevent them—a bit like the American “apple a day.” Chicken soup, often prepared with matzoh balls, is so often prescribed as a cure in Jewish families that it’s been referred to as “the Jewish penicillin.”

And soup’s reputation for healing and restorative powers may be best represented by its metaphorical invocation in the title of the bestselling series of collected “inspirational” writings whose many iterations also serve as a catalog of demographics that marketers see as “easy prey”:

1) Women

  there is no "grandpa's" version nor is there a new dad's version no love for christian menI wholly expected this to be targeted at black women, but the cover definitely suggests otherwiseNourish your "soul" while you starve your body!

2) People who identify as “animal lovers”:

it occurs to me that there may be an entire small industry devoted to feline glamour shotsI have never seen a dog wearing clothes look this happy IRL  Way to improve all of these titles #1: replace any of the nouns with "FERRETS!" i.e. "101 stories about life, love, and FERRETS!"   Way to improve all of these titles #2: add "(not like that, you pervert)" wherever "love" or "loving" appears, i.e. "Loving Our Dogs (not like that, you pervert)" FERRET! Soup for the Horse Lover's Soul (not like that, you pervert): Inspirational Stories About Horses and the People Who Love Them (not like that, you pervert).

3) People who are especially enthused about capitalism & mass entertainment, or captive audiences:

Chicken soup for those who have no souls? This confuses me a little, because isn't shopping the chicken soup for the FERRET!...shopper's soul? I think this makes the same fundamental error as the BWW commericals based on the idea that someone might just be a fan of sports, rather than the fan of a particular team, and thus have a very specific rooting interest that has nothing to do with the game going into overtime just so they can stay at BWW longer and everything to do with their team winning the damn game. I hope this has an excerpt by William Hung. Hell, I hope the whole thing is by William HungAccording to Amazon, this is the 5th most popular title in the series and #13,101 for all books

I think animal lovers win the “Biggest Sucker” prize because of the amazing co-branding that brings us Chicken Soup for the Cat Lover’s Soul Cat Food and Chicken Soup for the Dog Lover’s Soul Dog Food. 

I don't know if this makes me feel cynical or delighted ...or if my delight is inherently cynical anyway.

Chicken Soup Science

However, as the global omnipresence of the chicken soup-as-remedy suggests, it’s not just an old wives’ tale co-opted by the self-help industry. Clear broths may actually be one of the best ways to get water and nutrients into a sick body, and bone broths seem to be especially stomach-soothing and nutrient-rich because of their gelatin, collagen, and mineral content. Adding some kind of acid like wine, lemon, or vinegar to the water as the broth cooks, as many traditional home recipes do, increases the mineral content of the final product even more. Many of the classic starches, especially rice and potatoes, are generally tolerated well by distressed gastrointestinal systems that might struggle with or reject meat, beans, corn or dairy fat. And most versions of the soup are enhanced by other nutrient-rich foods like onions and garlic and carrots and ginger and mushrooms, which are all also generally easy to digest once they’ve been cooked thoroughly, .

In 2000, some researchers at the University of Nebraska set out to test whether or not chicken soup could actually alleviate symptoms associated with the common cold and flu—particularly those in the respiratory tract—or if the oft-touted restorative effects were just the result of hydration and placebo. They studied the effects of one kind of homemade chicken soup, using a recipe from the lead researcher’s Lithuanian grandmother, and 13 commercial brands on neutrophil chemotaxis, which is probably one of the main causes of the inflammatory response that causes sputum production and coughing. They found that chicken soup inhibited neutrophil chemotaxis, and that it did so in a concentration-dependent manner, i.e. the more watered down the soup, the less of an effect it had. The commercial soups varied in their effectiveness—some showed no effect on the neutrophils at all, and others out-performed grandma’s, although they don’t say what the distinguishing feature might have been.

More chemotaxis = more inflammation, sputum, coughing. the homemade soup is the BOR They weren’t testing the soup on human subjects, but the in vitro effects at least suggest a mechanism by which chicken soup might actually make cold sufferers feel better (full published study available here).

Chicken Soup for the Congested, Nauseous, Aching, Hungover, Chronically Fatigued, Demoralized, Where Did September Go and Why Is It All So Hard Soul

Congee can be as simple as plain rice simmered in lots of water (usually at a 1:8 or 1:10 ratio of uncooked rice : water) until it’s basically the consistency of oatmeal. Like most grain porridges the world over, it’s typically flavored with either savory or sweet toppings and eaten for breakfast. However, the version made with chicken broth is nearly as common as the plain version, and is vastly more substantial and comforting. The rice is cooked until the grains begin to break down and release a lot of their starch, which makes the broth thick and creamy, almost like a loose risotto but without all the butter and cheese. If you’re ever in too bad a shape to do anything else, but you can manage to throw a half a cup of rice in a pot with 6-8 cups of broth and stir it from time to time, a couple of hours later, it’ll be a meal fit for an invalid. If you have a fuzzy logic-enabled rice cooker, it’s even easier—just put the rice and broth in the bowl and select the “porridge” option and then you don’t even have to stir.

I decided I wanted to make the most spectacularly healing soup I could possibly concoct, so I started with a basic mirepoix with some garlic and ginger, which also helps soothe nausea. If I’d been nursing a head cold I probably would have added a hot pepper, too. Once the onions were translucent, I added a splash of rice wine and then a big handful of finely diced shitake mushrooms. Then I added the rice—about 2 cups of leftover cooked short-grain rice that was 1/2 brown and 1/2 white—and 6 cups of chicken broth that had been hanging out in the freezer from the last time I had chicken bones. And then I threw in about 2 dozen knots of dried seaweed, which is also mineral-rich and supposedly helps boost immunity, and a bunch of chopped green onion to layer a brighter onion flavor on top of the cooked-onion base.

A couple of hours later, it was as thick as a cream soup and all the vegetables were completely soft. The mushrooms and seaweed make it richly umami and the ginger+garlic combination is as delicious as it is therapeutic. This is not some bland, insipid noodle broth, and really the only way to describe it is nourishing. Not a bad thing to have in your arsenal as the seasons change and winter approaches.

Recipe: Chicken and Rice Porridge drumstick bones and aromatic vegetables, the base of a stock; adding a little wine and/or vinegear will increase the calcium content of the broth

  • 1-2 T. cooking oil
  • 1 medium to large onion (or 2-3 leeks, white parts only, or 2 shallots)
  • 2 large carrots
  • 2 large celery ribs
  • 1 thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 4 oz. fresh mushrooms (or dried mushrooms soaked in hot water for 15+ minutes)
  • 2-3 T. rice wine or dry sherry
  • 2 cups leftover steamed rice or 1/2 cup uncooked rice, white or brown)
  • 6 cups chicken broth (or substitute any kind of broth)
  • 1/2 cup dried seaweed (or substitute any other cooking greens)
  • 3-4 green onions
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1-2 cups shredded cooked chicken (optional)
  • fresh cilantro or basil (optional)
  • chopped peanuts (optional)

mirepoix + ginger and garlicall the aromatics minced and sweating

1. Dice the onion, carrots, and celery ribs, mince the garlic cloves, and peel the ginger and cut it into 5-6 coin-shaped slices.

2. Heat the oil in a large pot until it shimmers, and sweat the vegetables until the onion is translucent (8-10 minutes). Meanwhile, mince the mushrooms.

3. Add a generous glug of the rice wine or sherry and let it cook off for 2-3 minutes, or until the liquid is reduced by half. Add the mushrooms and cook for another minute or two. I used about 2 cups of cooked brown and white short-grain ricegreen onions go in raw to add a brighter, grassier onion flavor on top of the sauteed onion

4. Add the rice, broth, seaweed, and green onions. If using leftover cooked rice, take a minute to break up any large clumps before adding the broth.

5. Bring to a simmer and cook for 1 1/2-2 hours, stirring occasionally, until it’s the consistency of a thin oatmeal or porridge. You don’t need to stir much in the first hour, but as the rice begins to release it’s starch, you should give it a good stir it every 10-15 minutes to prevent it from adhering to the bottom of the pan and burning. You can add more water or broth or cover the pot if it starts to get too thick or stick to the bottom too much.

6. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add the chicken, if using, and cook just until heated through. Garnish with cilantro or basil and chopped peanuts, if desired.

at first, it will be brothy, much like chicken noodle soup after a couple of hours, thickened with starch and reduced liquid