Friday, July 27, 2012

Wedding Colors

Colors, the choice of them, have pirated my attention this summer. I’ve spent… more hours than I care to admit, clicking through reception d├ęcor, wedding invitations, cakes, and floral arrangements in pursuit of wedding color schemes.  At my lowest point I spent an entire sunny, low-humidity Saturday—a rarity in Pittsburgh—at my desk, scanning slideshows of escort cards.  I’m pretty sure online browsing only hinders my making a decision. After a few photos, they all become a blur and I’m no better off than when I started.  Perhaps a multitude of options isn't always a good thing.  Add to that the construction of our new home and you’ve got a bride who’s tempted to devote entire weekends to looking for the perfect cabinet stain.  But I’m having a blast.  At what other time in her life does a girl get to focus on making things pretty?  Not many, I’m afraid.

  My obsession with color has found its way into the cookie table project. Early this week I realized that the cookies I’ve baked so far are the same color, a browned butter hue—cozy and appetizing but, sadly, a bit monotonous.  So this week I experimented with a recipe that would add some splash to the typical cookie table, strawberry bon bons.

Strawberry bon bons are not sophisticated cookies, I won’t pretend otherwise.   They will win you no culinary accolades nor much esteem in foodie circles.  No, these candy-like cookies belong in the category of sweets reserved for a child’s birthday party or a  girl’s baby-doll tea.  But these deterrents do not make me love them any less.

 I became acquainted with strawberry bon bons at a cousin’s wedding back in 1994.  They tasted tropical, of juicy strawberries, island coconut, and warm almond.  Like a Strawberry Almond joy (which makes me think that these cookies would be sinful dipped in bitter dark chocolate).  It was a breakthrough for me, a child whose favorite treats were coconut muffins.  I never did learn the recipe but remembered their taste and, most important, their appearance; bright red with a slight sparkle, like Dorothy’s ruby slippers.  They dominated the cookie table.

I do hope you’ll give strawberry bon bons a try at your next party or as a snack.  They are easy to make and both kids and adults love them.  They solve the color conundrum, adding a pop of brightness to any cookie display.  Happy Friday, everyone!

Strawberry Bon Bons


v  1 8 oz. can sweetened condensed milk
v  1 10 oz. bag flaked coconut
v  1 6 oz. box strawberry gelatin
v  1 cup blanched almonds, ground
v  2 teaspoons almond extract
v  red food coloring
v  1 tube prepared green frosting

1 In a large bowl, combine sweetened condensed milk, coconut, 1/3 cup strawberry gelatin, ground almonds, almond extract and enough red food coloring to tint the mixture a strawberry shade. Stir with a wooden spoon until well-combined.

2 Chill in the refrigerator until firm enough to handle, about one hour.

3 Pour the remaining strawberry gelatin into a wide shallow dish, a pie pan or square glass dish should be just fine. With your hands, form small amounts of the mixture (about ½ tablespoon) into a strawberry shape.  Roll the strawberry in the remaining gelatin to coat.  Pipe a stem with the green icing and place the finished strawberry on a cookie sheet.  Keep refrigerated until serving.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Classy Cookie Displays--From The Mansion at Maple Heights

When I was growing up in the early 1990s, cookie tables were all about, well, the cookies. Nothing was more pleasing to an eight-year-old than a card table clothed in white crepe paper heaped with iced, sugared, and chocolate speckled treats.  But times have changed and so have weddings. Gone—or at least decreased—are receptions jammed with five-hundred guests at the local fire hall. Weddings today tend to be classier affairs with pared down guest lists—often without children—for greater intimacy and quality.  In Pittsburgh, the cookie table has experienced a transformation, too.  It’s no longer enough to present Tupperware boxes full of cookies in the corner of the reception hall.  Families and wedding venues now devote attention to cookie presentation, too.

Early this summer, I asked several Pittsburgh-area wedding vendors if they would consider sharing photos of their cookie table displays on my blog.  One of the earliest responders was Nicole Pope, event coordinator at The Mansion at Maple Heights in Shadyside.  Nicole graciously sent gorgeous shots of some of the Mansion’s past cookie displays  crafted by its exclusive caterers, Big Catering.  The Mansion at Maple Heights is a lovely venue for a Pittsburgh wedding.  Its oak floors and paneling, stained glass windows, and grand staircase evoke the Victorian charm that often characterizes historic homes in Pittsburgh.  The Mansion’s cookie tables are something special too and offer inspiration for anyone organizing their own cookie display or dessert bar. 

Trays displayed at varying heights lends different focal points—and 
maximizes space.

Love this display.  Colorful icings offer a fun contrast to the white, square trays.  I’m also crazy about the different shapes and textures.

Mmm, smores.  A wonderful idea for a fall or summer wedding.  

Navy blue, any shade of blue really, is a great background for food displays since it has a calming effect on the eyes and appetite.  In this case, the dark navy contrasts nicely with the paler-hued cookies while making bright pink cut-outs pop.

A tray of traditionals.  I detect lady locks, cream wafers, pizelles, kolacki, and Russian teacakes.  Does anyone know the name of the bar cookie?

I hope these photos gave you some ideas.  More to come soon.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Nut Horns, or How I Overcame My Fear of Shaped Cookies

Nut horns, crescent-shaped and stuffed with a wholesome cinnamon-walnut filling, these buttery pastries are a hot item on Pittsburgh cookie tables.  Known as roszke, kiflik, roski and roscici, nut horns are of Eastern European origin with the Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, and Croatians all claiming the cookie as their own.  In my Slovak family we just call them nut horns and, like an aunt or uncle who lives out-of-town, look forward to seeing them at Christmas and weddings.

  I’ve wanted to make nut horns for a while now. My great-aunt Ann’s nut horn recipe was one I had hoped to master before I left Pittsburgh, to make certain I understood how the dough looked and felt before I needed to find a sour cream substitute in Greece.

 But I’ve hesitated all summer. 

You see, before I began this project, I was convinced that nut horns were for advanced bakers only.  The pastry, with its perfect balance of tender crumb to buttery density was, I thought, impossible to produce without ample trial and error and the advice of a polish-speaking grandmother.  The filling, too, seemed to require the knowledge of a quasi-professional.  Too much would result in burst nut horns, while too little would yield a cookie the flavor of Elmer’s glue paste.  I wasn’t sure my novice skills would suffice.  But on Thursday evening I told my inner critic to, please, go away.  In a year’s time I would be a wife.  I needed to overcome some of my fears, like, killing spiders, unclogging a toilet, and—in this case—baking fancy desserts.

So I got to work.  The pastry dough was simple.  I measured just four ingredients, clicked the mixer to low then medium and two minutes later, had a smooth, firm dough the size and weight of an infant.  Assembly was not impossible, either.  If you can shape Pillsbury crescent rolls on Thanksgiving, you can assemble nut horns. The only real challenge is the time it takes to fill and bake four dozen.  I began at 7:30 and pulled the last batch from the oven around 10:45.  I was sleepy but proud of the shiny, moon-shaped cookies crowding my counter.

Were they worth the effort?
Oh yes.  They tasted like gourmet Pop Tarts, the kind with the brown sugar and cinnamon filling.  I felt marginally better about eating them, too, knowing that they were preservative-free and made entirely by me. 

The next day, my sister and I organized a garage sell as a way to get rid of some of my stuff before my move to Greece.  We offered passers-by a nut horn or two.  One woman, a local nurse in scrubs on her lunch break, looked at me, wide-eyed and said, “Nut horns?  Oh my gosh, I love nut horns.”  Another woman said, “No.  I can’t.  If I have one I won’t be able to stop.” A man asked if he could buy a few for his wife.  By the end of the afternoon, half of my four dozen were gone.  Nut horns certainly don’t last long in this town.

Nut Horns
Adapted by Lauren Wadowsky
v 4 cups all-purpose flour
v 1 cup unsalted butter, slightly cold
v 1 cup sour cream
v 4 egg yolks (whites reserved)
v 1 teaspoon salt
Cinnamon-Walnut Filling
v 1 lb walnuts, ground
v 1 ¼ cups sugar
v 4 egg whites, unbeaten
v 1 ½ teaspoon cinnamon
v juice of one lemon
Egg wash
v  2 egg whites
v  3 tablespoon sugar, divided

1 In a large bowl, combine the flour and salt with a wire whisk. Work in the butter using a pastry blender, two knives, or a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment until the mixture resembles small crumbs.
2 In a smaller bowl, beat the egg yolks into the sour cream.  Stir it into the flour/butter mixture until a smooth, firm dough forms.
3 Tear off walnut-sized pieces of dough and roll into balls.  Place in the refrigerator to harden for two hours or overnight.

4 For the filling, combine the ground walnuts with the sugar, 1 teaspoon of cinnamon, and lemon juice in a medium bowl.  Add the four reserved egg whites and stir until well-combined.  Set aside.
5 Preheat oven to 350o F.  To assemble the nut horns, sprinkle a little powdered sugar on a dough-ball and roll into a flat, thin circle.

6 Drop a scant teaspoon of filling in the center of the circle.

7 Fold one side of the pastry over the filling to cover it, then fold over the remaining side.  Seal all seams well, and gently bend into the shape of a crescent.

8 Place nut horns on a greased cookie sheet.  Be sure not to skip this step, otherwise the cookies will adhere to the pan.  Brush the nut horns with an egg wash made by whisking together the two egg whites and one tablespoon of the sugar.  Sprinkle the tops of the horns with sugar for a little sparkle.
9 Bake for 15-20 minutes until the cookies are light brown.  Cool on wire racks. 

Saturday, July 7, 2012

What do in Lemon Blueberry Cupcakes and Independence Day Have in Common?

I spent my Fourth of July baking these.

While they baked, I parked myself on the couch and watched five hours of History Channel’s documentary, The Revolution.

I get giddy about historical programing.  The dramatic music, powdered wigs, and George Washington impersonators compel me to watch for longer than I really should.  The sad thing is I would gladly spend another afternoon in the same way, only next time I’d make sure to watch all thirteen hours.  That’s right, thirteen hours of Benedict Arnold, Valley Forge, and The Star Spangled Banner.  I’d relish all 780 minutes of it, just as my family and I relished these cupcakes.

 I’ve gone a little off course this week, tinkering not with a cookie but instead a recipe for cupcakes, one which I’d like to bake for my bridal shower next month.   I know I’m not supposed to interfere with the details of my own shower, that I should leave it to my mother and sister since guests might construe it as me petitioning for gifts.  But I can’t help myself.   I want to be involved.  I want to put my care into something for the ladies in my life who will lose precious time from a weekend next month, all to celebrate with me. 

So I did a trial run of these Lemon Blueberry Cupcakes with Blueberry Cream Cheese Frosting  for my parents and sister on the Fourth.  It’s my adaptation of a recipe from the Food Network’s Cupcake Wars

The cake recipe is phenomenal, kudos to Lori Jacobs, the original creator.  It is dense with just the right sweet to tart ratio.  My cream cheese frosting, admittedly, needs a little work.  While the blueberry and almond are a dynamic flavor combination, the mixture becomes soft if kept out of the refrigerator for long.  But that didn’t matter to my family and me on Wednesday.  We all reached for a second cupcake.  My father took the remaining dozen to the office the next day and as was, by his account, “…a very popular man at work.”

Still, it’s back to the inspiration board for me until I find a recipe for a blueberry buttercream frosting that can withstand at least room temperature.  I only hope The Revolution will be on T.V. as I’m going through my test-runs, too.  

Lemon Blueberry Cupcakes
Adapted by Lauren Wadowsky
v 3 ½ cups all-purpose flour
v 1 teaspoon baking soda
v ½ teaspoon kosher salt
v 1 ¾ sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
v 1 ½ cup sugar
v 3 jumbo eggs (or 3 extra large eggs)
v 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
v zest of two lemons
v 2 cups sour cream
v 1 ½ cups blueberries, washed and stems removed

Blueberry Cream Cheese Frosting
v 1 stick unsalted butter, softened
v 8 oz. cream cheese
v 1 teaspoon almond extract
v pinch of salt
v 3/4 cup blueberries


1 Preheat oven to 350oF.  Line regular-sized cupcake pans with paper liners. 

2 In a medium bowl combine all the dry ingredients except the sugar: flour, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.

3 In a large mixing bowl cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy with the paddle attachment of a standing mixer.  I recommend using a stand-up mixer because the recipe eventually yields a lot of batter, too much to stir with hand held beaters. 

4 Add the eggs one by one, stirring well.  Stir in the vanilla and lemon zest.

5 In three additions each, alternate the flour mixture with the sour cream, beginning with the flour mixture and ending with the sour cream.  Mix in the blueberries.

6 With an ice cream scoop, fill the prepared cupcake pans 2/3 full with batter.  Bake 16-20 minutes, until a test comes out clean and the tops of the muffins are lightly golden.    Meanwhile, begin making the blueberry syrup for the frosting.

Blueberry Cream Cheese Frosting:

1 In a small saucepan over medium high heat, combine fresh blueberries, teaspoon lemon juice, and sugar.  Cook the mixture until the blueberries pop and there is ample liquid in the pan.  About 6-10 minutes.   Cool completely.

2 In a large mixing bowl, combine the butter and cream cheese until light and fluffy.  Stir in the almond extract, salt and 6 tablespoons of the blueberry syrup.  Add the powdered sugar one cup at a time. 

3  Pipe over cooled cupcakes.  Store in the refrigerator. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Lemon Drop Cookies: Could Sweet and Tangy Be the New Sweet and Salty?

While I love the current trend for sweet and salty flavor combinations (it really doesn’t get much better, or weirder than chocolate-chip bacon cookies) I discovered another worthy flavor duo this week that is well suited to the hot and humid weather currently parked over the northeast; sweet and tangy, married together in this recipe for Lemon Drop Cookies.
It’s a simple recipe for an unfussy cookie, the kind you’d stick in your child’s lunchbox as a toothsome afternoon treat. I came across this recipe, written on a small notecard, in my grandma Helen’s recipe box while visiting her home in North Pittsburgh last week. “That’s a good one,” she told me, nodding.  “The dough calls for sour cream and it makes a rich, sweet cookie. Yum.” 
Lemon is Grandma’s favorite flavor so I consider her the expert on citrus baking. It’s a unique cookie, and I knew I had to share it with you.
The recipe creates a soft, airy dough the consistency of mousse.  You will fear you’ve not added enough flour but don’t despair.  And don’t, out of anxiety, place the bowl in the refrigerator for an hour.  It should be sticky and batter-like.  Remain confident.  Drop rounded teaspoons of the fluffy substance on greased cookie sheets and bake.  When you open the oven door, you will be met with rows of rounded, cake-like cookies and a waft of lemon-scented hot air.
The icing is what really makes this cookie, so be sure to include it.  After it dries, it becomes absorbed by the cookie, making it sweeter and softer still.  Lemon Drops are a refreshing summer afternoon snack, eaten on the back porch with a glass of iced tea.  It’s not one of the traditional Pittsburgh wedding cookies, but I think it would make an adorable addition to a summer wedding.  I’ve been eating these things for days and lunchtime has just arrived.  I know what my dessert will be. 

Helen’s Lemon Drop Cookies
v ½ cup butter
v 1 cup sugar
v 1 cup (8 oz.) regular sour cream
v 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
v 2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
v 1 teaspoon baking soda
v ½ teaspoon salt
v ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
v 1 ½ cup powdered sugar
v 2 tablespoons water
v 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
v ¼ teaspoon nutmeg


1 Preheat oven to 350oF

2 In a large mixing bowl, combine the butter and sugar at the medium speed of an electric mixer until light and fluffy.  Blend in the sour cream and lemon juice, scrapping the bowl often. 

3 Mix in the flour, baking soda, salt, and nutmeg until well combined.  The dough with be light and airy, like a heavy mousse.

4 Drop rounded teaspoonfuls two inches apart on a greased cookie sheet.   Bake for 14-15 minutes until edges are brown.  Place on wire cooling racks and cool completely.

5 Prepare the icing.  In a small bowl add the powered sugar, water, lemon juice and nutmeg.  Combine with a whisk or a fork.

6 Spread icing on cooled cookies with a butter knife.  Allow icing to dry, about 1 hour, and store in airtight containers.