Christmas Gingerbread Country Church

SONY DSCGingerbread houses can be as simple as a few graham crackers propped up with frosting and candy or as elaborate as little church with stained glass windows.  Our family tradition of making a gingerbread house gets bigger and bigger with every new family member.  Many years when the kids were young, they were more mess than beauty.

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Start with a gingerbread dough

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and a pattern.

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Cutting out the pieces from gingerbread dough. We cut out the pieces and left them on the parchment paper to bake. SONY DSC

This year we had 2 mechanical engineers, a civil engineer, a food scientist, a senior actuarial analyst,  and an 18 month old working on this project.

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The structural components were designed by the civil engineer,  and one mechanical engineer was the consultant (who did lots of consulting with very little pay…. a gum drop or two).

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Andria our mechanical engineer came up with the plan to cover ice cream cones with frosting to make trees.

A little hockey player on the pond.

A gingerbread hockey player on the pond. We made the pond by microwaving sugar and water until it makes a hard candy. At the last minute we added food coloring.

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We also used hard candy with food coloring to make stained glass windows for the church.

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Some of these details required multiple talents. Royal icing in a plastic bag with the corner cut off or a cake decorating bag is used to add special touches.

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In the end, it was our replica of the church Ashley was married in. It was a weathered little church on the shores of Lake Michigan.

Gingerbread House Dough

9 cups flour
2 cups corn syrup
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1 1/4 cup margarine

Put flour in mixing bowl. Heat corn syrup, brown sugar and margarine in microwave on high for 2 to 3 minutes or until heated through. Add to flour and mix until it forms a ball. Roll out 1/4-inch thick and cut to make walls, roof, sides and other desired pieces.

Bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes or until lightly browned. Let cool and dry before putting house together with frosting or hot glue.

Royal Icing

3 egg whites
1 pound powdered sugar

Beat egg whites until foamy, add powdered sugar and continue beating until stiff peaks, about 5 to 6 minutes.  Keep covered until ready to use. Frosting will firm up quickly.

Hard Candy

1/3 cup water
1/3 cup corn syrup
2 cups sugar
Food coloring

Butter a large piece of foil.

Combine water, corn syrup and sugar in a 2-quart measure. Microwave on high for 5 to 6 minutes or until mixture reaches hard crack stage (300 degrees) stirring several times. Use a candy thermometer or drop a spoonful into ice water. If syrup makes a cracking sound and forms a brittle string, it has reached 300 degrees. The microwave cooking time is approximate, cook syrup to hard crack stage, stirring several times.

Quickly stir in food coloring and pour out onto buttered foil.  Allow to cool just a few minutes and score to desired window size. When completely cool, break candy along scored lines. An alternate method is to make a foil mold of the desired shape and size. Butter foil mold. Make sure mold has secured foil sides so hot syrup can not spill out. Pour hot syrup into the foil mold and allow to cool completely.

Blueberry Pomegranate Dressing over Salad Greens, Dried Cranberries and Candied Pecans

 

Toss pecans with a touch of brown sugar, a sprinkling of cinnamon, an infusion of vanilla and a few zests of orange for a indescribable candied pecans for this   salad. The dressing features blueberry pomegranate dressing. Salad greens can be baby field greens, spinach or a mixture of lettuces.SONY DSC

It takes only 1 1/2 to 3 minutes in the microwave for the nuts to caramelize and become toasted.

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Stir the pecans often and watch them carefully. If a smell is wafting from the microwave, chances are the pecans are  burning in the center.  Salvage them by quickly turning them out onto a foil-lined baking sheet. Spray the foil with butter to help the candied pecans to release easily. SONY DSC

Once the pecans are toasted, just add crumble blue cheese, dried cranberries and sliced green onion.  The dressing is blended in the blender and is a great contrast with the salty, tangy cheese.SONY DSC

Above,  the dressing is drizzled over each salad but it can be tossed with the entire salad to coat everything well. SONY DSC

Blueberry Pomegranate Dressing over Salad Greens, Dried Cranberries and Candied Pecans

8 ozs washed salad greens
3 green onions, sliced
1/2 cup candied pecans (recipe follows)
1/4 cup crumbled blue cheese
1 cup shredded red cabbage
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/3  cup Blueberry Pomegranate Dressing (recipe follows)

Toss dressing with all the ingredients just before serving.

Candied Pecans

1 cup pecans
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons water
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Combine all ingredients in a small glass bowl. Microwave on high for 1 1/2 to 3 minutes or until pecans are toasted and syrup hardens when tested in cold water. Spoon out onto a foil lined tray that has been coated with cooking spray. When cool, break into pieces and sprinkle over salad.

Blueberry Pomegranate Dressing

3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup blueberry pomegranate infused red wine vinegar
1-inch piece of onion
1 cup salad oil
2 tablespoons poppy seeds

Combine all ingredients in blender and process until blended, making sure onion is completely pureed.  Toss with salad just before serving.

Macaron Recipe for Andria

My daughter Andria called in a state of confusion and said, “These macaron recipes make them sound like they are so hard. Is that true?”

“Not at all. They are actually really simple.”

“They have all kinds of rules!!! Which ones do I have to follow?”

“Only a few of those rules are really important.” All of those other rules make even a seasoned food scientist question this simple combination of egg whites, sugar and almonds. Here is a recipe that gives perfect results every time. You will also find a run down of some of those rules and which ones made a difference in my experiments.

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A rubber spautla is the best tool and this is the correct motion for folding the dry ingredients into the egg whites. Some recipes say to add the beaten egg whites to the dry ingredients so the egg whites a are on top and are not deflated. I gently added the dry ingredients to the side of  the egg whites so I would not dirty another bowl and did not see any difference. I also dumped them on top without adverse results, but I don’t really recommend the dump method.SONY DSC

 

A wire wisk can be used for beating egg whites but it is not the best tool for folding in egg whites. It smashes through the batter, deflating the air that was so carefully beaten into the egg whites.SONY DSC

A pastry bag or a baggie with the corner cut off works great for forming macarons.SONY DSC

Here is the test comparing parchment paper, plain baking sheet and a silipat mat. I baked them in the oven just like you see in the picture so the cooking time, temperature etc. would not vary. All worked, but I like the parchment paper for easiest removal.SONY DSC

After I piped the white macarons, I added red food coloring to the rest of the batter and gently folded it in.SONY DSC

The red macaron batter was the same batter as the white but the red food coloring and extra manipulation made the batter slightly thinner. The thinner batter actually made a more perfect macron. I tried paste food coloring but it was difficult to stir into the batter without deflating the egg whites. I made liquid food coloring out of paste by adding a little of paste to 1 teaspoon of boiling water. SONY DSC

A look at the bottom of the macarons baked on the different surfaces. Not much difference. Notice the air bubble in the macaron on the left. The air bubbles stayed in the thicker batter even after I tapped the baking sheet on the counter. The viscosity would not allow the air bubble to rise to the surface and dissipate. I did not have a problem with air bubbles in the pink batter which was thinner.SONY DSC

The height of the macarons is noticeably different. The pink macarons had food coloring and increased stirring to make them uniform in color which made the batter thinner and they spread more when pipped.SONY DSC For the Chocolate Ganache, use a yummy tasting chocolate. Sometimes I add a  flavoring which can be stirred in at the end. SONY DSC

I heat 2 tablespoons of whipping cream in the microwave for 20 seconds or until steaming hot.  It will heat faster in a small dish than if you use a big bowl.  2 tablespoons of cream in a big bowl might take twice as long. If using light cream or milk, decrease the amount since they will thin the chocolate more.SONY DSC

The chocolate pieces are melting from just sitting in the hot cream. Stir until completely melted.SONY DSC

Smooth as silk chocolate ganache.SONY DSC

It is quick and easy to spread the ganache on the shells. Other popular fillings are jam, buttercream, salted caramel or flavored frostings.

The food science of macarons:

1. Egg whites do achieve a better volume if they are at room temperature. Warm the egg in your hand or water if you forgot to take them out a few minutes early.

2. “Do I have to weigh the ingredients? ” Andria asked.  I don’t and have never had a problem. I do use large eggs and measure accruately.  The humidity in the air makes a bigger difference than the precision of the measurements. I always make meringue, macarons or divinity on a dry, sunny day.

3. Egg whites need a mixer with a metal bowl for the best volume. (Andria is an engineer for Whirlpool who makes Kitchenaid Mixers so she will love that one). A bullet, a blender or a food processor won’t work.  Also, the oils left behind on plastic bowls prevent the egg white from beating up to full volume. Beating them by hand takes a lot of muscle, having help is essential to share the beating.

4. Andria asked, “Do I have to sift the powdered sugar and almond flour (almond meal).” I knew she didn’t have a sifter so I tested this one and the macarons came out just as well if I sifted, ran the mixture through the food processor to combine or just stirred the sugar and almond flour well with a spoon before folding into the egg whites.

5. “Do I have to use a silipat mat?” I knew she didn’t have one of these in her kitchen either so I tested it.  My preference is to use parchment paper. Silipat mats work but the sometimes the macarons did not release as well. The old fashioned method of baking right on a baking sheet works too but the hot baking sheet needs to be placed on a wet dish towel to create steam that allows the macrons to lift off the baking sheet. With this last method,  the macarons have to be removed from the baking sheet while still warm but if they are too hot they have a tendency to fall apart.

6. “Do I need to tap the baking sheet against the counter?” It does help burst the air bubbles but the macarons will still taste wonderful.  A thinner batter will not have as much of a problem with the air bubbles and you might not even need to tap the pan.

7. “Do I have to let them sit for an hour before baking?” Technically they will form nice little caps if you let them sit but humidity and the thickness of the batter are even more important. Thin batter needs to dry slightly so the hour of resting before baking improves the macarons.  A thick, drier batter sets up perfectly and really does quite well when the 1 hour resting time is eliminated.

8. Some recipes say macarons taste better the next day and my experiments showed that they definitely are just as good the next day when filled with chocolate ganache.  Some fruit fillings with lots of moisture can change the texture slightly when stored overnight.

 

 

Macrons

2 egg whites
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup powdered sugar
3/4 cup almond meal (also labeled as almond flour)

Beat egg whites and sugar until stiff peaks, add almond extract and beat for about 10 seconds later.  Mix powdered sugar and almond meal together (or sift or mix in food processor to combine well) and gently fold with egg whites until no longer any dry ingredients. Add food coloring if desired.

Pipe onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.  Let stand about an hour. Bake at 325 degrees for 10 minutes.  Let cool 2 to 3 minutes and remove from pan.  Fill with Chocolate Ganache.

Chcolate Ganache

2 tablespoons cream
1/2 cup (4 ozs) good quality chocolate

Heat cream in a small glass cup in Microwave  for 20 seconds until steaming hot. Pour over chocolate and stir until smooth. Spread between macarons.

 

 

Mini Desserts

20141203_Christmas party 2014_9999_4It was such a fun Christmas party and the Mini Desserts were a hit. We made Carrot Cake, Coconut Cream Pie, Rocky Road Brownies, Cherry Cheesecake and Raspberry Shortcake using cubes of Angel Food Cake.

Here are all the luscious desserts.

20141203_Christmas party 2014_9999_12-002And here is our Mom’s Prayer group at our Progressive Dinner Christmas Party.

Mini Desserts

Cake
Frosting
Whipped Cream
Pecans
Cheesecake and other favorite fillings

Layer the cake or a crust in the bottom of a small glass. Fill with layers of chocolate, frosting, or cheesecake. Garnish with whipped cream, coconut and pecans.