As a food columnist, it's a treat for me to step out of my test kitchen and meet Daily Herald readers. The paper's Home Baking Challenge and America's Baking and Sweets Show in November gave me two opportunities to meet baking enthusiasts eager to sample new recipes and learn more about the culinary arts.
Judging from all the questions I fielded at both events, I decided to revisit some of my no-fail baking tips to help make your holiday season a sweet success.
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• Use parchment paper for even baking and breezy clean up. Professional grade sheets are available at GFS Marketplace (multiple locations) and Schweppe's, Inc. (Lombard). Rolls or parchment are stocked at most grocery stores.
• Stop cookie spread by managing baking temperature with an oven thermometer. This small investment identifies hot spots or malfunctions. If the oven is on target, try chilling cookie dough on sheets before baking. Or, employ this recipe tweak: replace ¼ of the butter with shortening. The addition of shortening slows the melting of cookie dough without compromising buttery flavor.
• Quality ingredients make the cookie. Unsalted butter costs the same as salted and allows the baker control of flavors in the recipe. This is important as the balance of salt and sweet ingredients determine the taste theme for a cookie recipe.
• Know when to substitute ingredients or flavors. My demo using homemade bourbon vanilla extract captured interest and dominated the after-event conversations. One whiff and they were hooked on the concept. Recipe is available at dailyherald.com (search 'homemade vanilla extract).
• The right small tools make the job easier. Rounded hand scrapers, available at kitchen supply stores, act like an extension of your hand when mixing and scraping bowls and you stay clean. Deep bowls prevent splatter when using a hand mixer. Cookie scoops or "dishers" as they are known in pastry kitchens, portion dough evenly and quickly.
• Plan your holiday baking like a pastry chef. Scoop or cutout dough and quick-freeze on sheet pans. Transfer to freezer containers, layers separated by parchment paper. On baking day, set up stations for cooling, decorating, drying and storage prep.
Today's recipe for Toffee and Bacon Cookies is a departure from my usual holiday cookies. One Saturday morning in October I met Jason, a Daily Herald reader, at a Palatine doughnut store. While waiting in line we struck up a conversation and he shared his dream cookie flavor with me: bacon. No way was I backing away from this culinary challenge.
Your mouth will be as surprised as mine with the chewy texture and how the savory salty flavors exquisitely balance against the caramely in this cookie. None of the powerful ingredients took over the recipe. The big secret to success lies in cooking the bacon evenly to prevent burning and enhance crispiness.
Happy holidays! And Jason, this Toffee and Bacon Cookie is my gift to you. Enjoy!
• Annie Overboe, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, lives in Villa Park. Write her at email@example.com.