As a scientist and as a lover of the outdoors, I own a lot of field guides because I always want to know what rocks, flowers, trees, bugs, birds, weather phenomena, and critters we encounter.
just a small sampler of my guides
Recently I added another field guide to my collection, but this one won’t help me too much in the backcountry. It’s not quite like the others…
well, hello there
Several weeks ago, my friend, fellow foodblogger, and *amazingly* talented baker, Anita Chu of Dessert First, asked if I would be interested in hosting her new book on a blog tour. Oh, absolutely! When the book arrived in the mail, it was smaller than I had expected. Upon flipping through the photographs, recipes, and the adorable icon key a lightbulb went off in my head, “it’s a field guide!” I get it now.
I am delighted to be the first stop on Anita’s blog tour. The line up is an incredible group of bakers – bloggers I admire and am humbled to be in the company of. Here is the star-studded line up:
November 11th – use real butter
November 12th – Baking and Books
November 13th – Ms. Adventures in Italy
November 14th – Cream Puffs in Venice
November 17th – Tartelette
November 18th – Veronica’s Test Kitchen
November 19th – Cannelle et Vanille
November 20th – La Tartine Gourmande
November 21st – Culinary Concoctions by Peabody
So let’s kick off the party by introducing our brilliant and lovely guest, Anita Chu, author of the very soon to be released Field Guide to Cookies.
anita! (nice shoes, hon)
Anita was gracious enough to take some time from her busy schedule to answer some questions for the first stop on her blog tour:
urb: I remember I started baking around age 9. There was no baking tradition in my family, so I did things like use a liquid measure cup for measuring flour and sugar = disaster. It wasn’t until college when I really began to explore my interest in baking. I’m curious to know if you can identify when your interest in baking began and perhaps describe how it came about?
anita: I didn’t have a baking tradition in my family either! I remember when I was little my mother had a Betty Crocker cookbook, and I would go through it staring at all the photos and wondering what all the dishes tasted like. I was the most fascinated by the desserts chapter, and I’d read all the cake recipes obsessively, trying to decide which one was my favorite. But oddly, although I did try to make a cake or two, I didn’t actually bake that much during that time – I was just content to fantasize. I think the interest never really went away though, and when I got to college and had my own apartment with kitchen, that was when I really started experimenting. So I’m a little bit of a late bloomer. I think that Betty Crocker cookbook is still at my family home – I should go back and try to make something from there again!
urb: Admittedly, I had a lot of trouble deciding on one recipe to blog from your book because I literally had a list of two dozen that I wanted to bake right away. Which cookie in the book is your favorite to make?
anita: Wow, I’m glad you found so many to interest you! :) Hmm, I think my cookie tastes vary from day to day, but I really do enjoy the linzer cookies – they’re so pretty, and I love using different fillings for the cookies. I also have a weakness for palmiers. I have to admit I get lazy sometimes and make them with blitz puff/rough puff, but it’s amazing to me that you can throw that dough together so fast and it can bake into something so delicious. (Sorry I know that’s two! :) )
urb: Sometimes the baking process is more rewarding for a baker than the consumption. Sometimes it is the other way around. Which cookie in the book is your favorite to eat?
anita: Great distinction! I was wondering if I should move palmiers here, but no, I think because I actually really like making them, they belong with the previous question :) Well, I’ll never turn down a good chocolate chip cookie, but shortbread has to one of my absolute favorites. Good shortbread, made with the best butter I can find, not overly sweet, with that perfect tenderness that just sort of disintegrates in the mouth, is on my list of top 10 food experiences.
urb: There are days when I barely have the time and energy to blog. You blog AND you wrote a book! How long did you spend on researching and developing the field guide to cookies and did you enjoy the process?
anita: Ha! Why do I feel the same way about you! I’m always amazed how you manage to post so often and every one is beautifully, wittily written and all the photos are works of art. Sometimes I feel like just aiming my camera at the food and thinking, screw it, if it looks like crap I don’t care anymore! Anyway, to answer your question, I was really quite fortunate with the Field Guide to Cookies. Quirk Books actually approached me and asked if I would be interested to doing a book on cookies, and I said yes! So the topic was already defined for me, which made it easier to organize my research. I had a lot of leeway in choosing which cookies to include, so one of the the hardest parts was deciding which to include and which to cut!
I really enjoyed doing the research. Because of the field guide nature of the book, I had to do a lot more research into cookies and their history than with most other cookbooks. It was difficult to split the time between going to the library, writing the entries, and also testing out recipes! I enlisted some very able recipe testers to help me out, since I unfortunately didn’t have enough time to test everything myself multiple times. I really would have loved several more months to refine the book even more, but you know that’s how the publishing industry works! Doing the book was one of the hardest challenges of my life, but also one of the most rewarding. I know it sounds cheesy but it’s true. Being published was a dream I’ve had since I was little and I guess like baking, it was something I originally just shelved as a faraway fantasy. To have it become a reality is so amazing, and gratifying.
urb: Okay, here is my cheeky question: does your hunky partner help in the baking? ;)
anita: Haha, I think you may be his favorite blogger, with all the ego-boosting he gets from you :) Mike is a very able prep cook – he’ll do things like chop up nuts or juice fruit while I’m doing More Important Things like checking the oven temperature :) He’s been a lifesaver more than once when I discover there aren’t enough eggs or I forgot to buy cream and he’ll make an emergency run to the store for me. He also always eats all the desserts I make, which, you might know, is pretty awesome since most guys don’t have very big sweet tooths. He especially likes it when I do desserts with fruit because he loves berries!
And most of all, he’s been incredibly supportive of my baking and the role it’s taken in my (and his) life. When I decided to leave engineering to pursue pastry, when I filled the kitchen with mixers and pans and all my baking tools, when I had to stay up late at night and work weekends to finish writing the book, he was always there to cheer me on. I feel like the luckiest girl in the world to have him around :)
urb: On your blog, you occasionally marry Asian flavors with western pastries, which I think is brilliant. While I grew up with and enjoy Chinese-style desserts, I find I swoon over desserts from several other cultures far more often. Do you have a favorite cultural influence in your baking and why?
anita: Thanks! I’d have to say that traditional French pastries influence me the most, because that was what I learned in pastry school and I think all those classic French techniques form the basis for so many beautiful desserts. I love opera cake, fruit and pastry tarts, macarons, all those French desserts. But as you mentioned, I am really fascinated with introducing new ingredients into classic recipes. I think this cross-pollination is much more common in Asia, where local flavors like mango, green tea, and red bean are used in Western-style cakes, puddings, and other sweets. I’m always really inspired after I go to Asia by how well they’ve adapted pastry to appeal to the local tastes, yet retain the qualities of the original recipe. That’s what I try to do on my blog – continue experimenting with different flavors and techniques on classic recipes to keep things interesting and new, so you might look at a familiar dessert in an entirely new way.
urb: Thank you so much, Anita. I wish you and your book every success!
Like I said in the interview, I had far too many cookie recipes that I wanted to try. Eventually I did limit myself to one recipe for this post. You can just imagine the smirk on my face when I saw the Tuesdays with Dorie group had done rugelach recently. No matter… it was a learning experience for me and a treat for all of the recipients on my cookie distribution list.
a cream cheese dough
flattened for chilling
I started with a double batch of the recipe as my intention was to try several different fillings. The traditional filling of raisins, pecans, cinnamon, and sugar sounded great except Jeremy has that fear of raisins thing going on. So I omitted the raisins.
sprinkled across the dough
The other fillings included chocolate (chocolate + sugar), apricot jam, and raspberry jam. I made all of them in the cut format, that is, I rolled the fillings and dough into a log and cut slices to bake.
rolling it up
set on their sides for baking
It’s a messy process because it seems as if more filling spills out than stays in. That might have something to do with my omission of raisins which probably helps the filling stick together. Oh, and Anita’s recipe rightly suggests setting the rugelach on parchment paper for baking, which I lazily didn’t do. There is a reason for her suggestion as I discovered caramelized jam had oozed all over my baking sheet. Yay for me.
but aren’t they lovely? (raspberry, apricot, cinnamon-pecan, chocolate)
On my second go around, I realized that the second set of instructions in the book were intended for the jam-filled rugelach. These were rolled into crescents. Hey, sometimes I’m slow on the uptake…
roll the dough into a circle and sprinkle with filling (this time, chocolate)
slice like a pie and roll
While the crescent shapes hold more filling than the sliced shapes, expect the jam to ooze and bubble all over the place. It’s important to remove them to the cooling rack immediately lest the caramelized jam foot becomes a permanent appendage to your rugelach, which isn’t so sightly. The final results were not only adorable, but tender, delicious, and not too sweet. I can’t wait to try the other recipes in the book. I am so happy to add it to my cookbook collection. You should consider adding it to yours!
brushed with egg wash and sprinkled with sugar
these held up nicely
Rugelach (rolled and crescent)
from Field Guide to Cookies by Anita Chu
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
4 oz. cream cheese, room temperature
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsps sugar
1/8 tsp salt
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/4 cup dark or golden raisins (I omitted)
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 cup sugar, plus more for sprinkling
1 egg, for egg wash
[chocolate filling: 4 oz. bittersweet chocolate (ground in food processor) plus 4 tbsps sugar]
Rolled: Beat butter and cream cheese together for several minutes until smooth and fluffy. Add flour, sugar, salt, and mix on low speed until incorporated. Turn dough out onto a clean surface and divide into two portions. Flatten each one out to about 1 inch thick, wrap in plastic, and chill in refrigerator for at least 2 hours. In a bowl, combine pecans, raisins, cinnamon, and sugar. Remove one of the portions of dough from refrigerator and roll out on floured surface to a rough rectangle about 7×14 inches. Cover the dough with the filling, leaving about 1 inch clear on one long side. Roll the rectangle of dough up like a jelly roll, ending with the side that is clear of filling. Press the seam together to seal the roll. Place the roll of dough in refrigerator, covered in plastic wrap, to chill for about 15 minutes before baking. Meanwhile preheat the oven to 350°F. Line several cookie sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats. Beat the egg with 1 tsp of water to make an egg wash. Brush lifhtly over the top of th roll and sprinkle with sugar. Using a sharp knife, slice the log into 1 inch thick slices and place cut side up on cookie sheets about 1 inch apart. Bake for 16-18 minutes (20 at 8500 feet elevation), rotating cookie sheets halfway through. The cookies should puff up and turn golden brown. Cool cookie sheets on wire racks before transferring cookies with a metal spatula to wire racks to continue cooling. Makes about 2 dozen cookies.
Crescent: Replace the filling with apricot or other jam. Instead of rolling the dough out to a rectangle, roll each disc of dough into a circle about 10 inches in diameter. Cover with the filling. Use a pizza cutter or knife to cut the dough into 16 wedges. Roll each slice up from the bottom and curve the tips slightly to form a crescent. Place crescents on cookie sheets lined with parchment or silicone mats, brush with a little egg wash, and sprinkle with sugar before baking as indicated for the rolled versions. Remove from baking sheets quickly to cool the cookies when done baking.