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Triple Vanilla Sugar Cookies

‘Tis the holiday season and everyone who plans on making Christmas cookies (including me) is searching for cookie recipes that will impress. Sometimes it’s about putting a twist on a good thing, and sometimes it’s just about making a good thing better. You know, like amping up the special.

This recipe is not necessarily a twist on a classic. Rather a long pause — like making the dough on Wednesday and baking the cookies on Saturday. Or just a technical improvement — like rolling out the dough just after mixing, and letting it refrigerate in a thin sheet, which makes it easier to cut and helps keeps their shape.  What you will get is vanilla-packed flavor with easy cookie-cutter precision.

The trick to these rolled sugar cookies is to barely mix the dough to prevent spreading (no fluffing the butter and sugar!). Also, you will make your own vanilla sugar for coating the cookies and refrigerate the dough for a couple days so the vanilla bean aroma can thoroughly infuse the dough.

 

Triple Vanilla Sugar Cookies

1 cup sugar
1 cup butter (2 sticks), softened
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 eggs
2 vanilla beans
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
3 cups flour
1 additional cup sugar*
1 container with air-tight lid

Blend butter and sugar until just mixed. On medium-low speed, mix butter and sugar until just combined, about 30 seconds.

Mix remaining ingredients. Carefully slit the vanilla beans and scrape the seeds into the mixing bowl, reserving the pods. Add the baking soda, eggs, vanilla extract and almond extract. Mix until just blended, about 3 minutes. Then, 1 cup at a time, add the flour until completely mixed.

Roll out dough and refrigerate up to 4 days. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Gather the dough into a ball and set onto a lightly floured surface. Using a floured rolling pin, roll out the dough 1/8- to 1/4-inch thick. Transfer dough to baking sheet, cover in plastic and store in refrigerator.

Make vanilla sugar. Pour about a cup of sugar into a jar or container. Add reserved vanilla beans. Seal and store until ready to use. (Shake periodically.)
*You can make colored sugar by adding a couple drops of food coloring. Or if you plan on frosting the cookies, use powdered sugar.

Preheat oven to 350° F then bake. Line another baking sheet with parchment paper. Use the cutter of your choice to make shapes. Transfer cookies to baking sheet and sprinkle with vanilla sugar. Bake for 10–12 minutes, until edges are light brown.

P.S. Make sure there isn’t anything strong-smelling in the fridge, like bowls of chopped onions.

Makes about 3 dozen standard-size cookies, or 8 dozen mini cookies.

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Anti-Squirrel Hand Pies with Apples

Don't let the squirrels eat your apples.

Don’t let the squirrels eat your apples.

Editor’s Note: This post is not about getting rid of squirrels. If that is what you are looking for, you’re in the wrong place. Though if you find a good method, be sure to let me know.

I don’t know which story to start with first: the one about the State Fair or the one about the squirrels. Let’s start with the squirrels, because that is really where my endeavor begins.

We live in the lovely city of Minneapolis. I have lived in several other states, and have come to realize that Minnesotans live in the forest. Great emphasis is placed on keeping a diversity of tree species maintained on our boulevards and lots. Because of this, there is also an abundance of woodland creatures who have urban lifestyles. Sometimes I come home and it is like a scene from Bambi: rabbits all over the yard, squirrels scampering off, birds taking flight. Even foxes and the occasional deer. But it is the squirrels who are particularly frustrating, because their adaptation to city life is disturbing. Besides the fact that they eat our garbage and make it very difficult to compost, they also raid gardens and fruit trees.

We planted an apple tree several years back. The squirrels have always eaten the apple or two that the tree fruited. But this year was different and held much promise: there were at least three dozen apples! But as summer marched on, we noticed the numbers dwindling and half-eaten apples strewn on our yard. Last week there were ten left. Yes, it was early, but if we didn’t intervene there’d be none. So the kids and I picked the apples with plans to make apple pies with them.

Now for the State Fair part of the story. Like all good Minnesotans we spent a day at Minnesota’s Great Get Together. For the 10 days that the fair is open, all you hear about is the food. Typically, I just binge on salty and sweet foods like beer-battered deep-fried cheese curds and the real-milk milkshakes. But there are stands that sell actual food, and we wanted the kids to eat real food, so we tried some out.

While eating, what rang through my skull was the obvious challenge it must be to feed hundreds of thousands of people (quickly), and how premium ingredients are not important. Vendors produce wonderful-sounding creations, but when you take a bite there is no magic. Honestly, it’s like at weddings where they use elaborate phrases to describe green beans and an overcooked chicken breast.

So when I decided to make my apple hand-pies (which are very trendy now…though this is my first time making them), I piled on the premium ingredients: starting with the Honey-Crisp apples picked from the tree in our yard (organic, of course), Rochdale hand-rolled butter, vanilla bean and Ceylon cinnamon, with a touch of cardamom. I even used Meyer lemons for the juice. I thank goodness for The Wedge Co-op, where getting a real vanilla bean and Ceylon cinnamon from their bulk section is hardly an investment (maybe $3 for both?) and the hand-rolled butter costs the same as regular butter.

The two other fabulous components of this recipe are the crust and the quick-cooking tapioca. If you follow the instructions exactly, the crust will be beautiful and crumbly. The quick-cooking tapioca sets the filling better than any cornstarch or flour I’ve ever used.

Making Apples Hand Pies

Apples Hand Pies

Crust
2 cups flour
2 sticks butter (1 cup)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 tablespoons ice-cold water
1-1/2 tablespoons high-proof vodka, cold
Filling
1-1/2 pounds apples, peeled and diced
1 vanilla bean, scraped and beans reserved
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon quick-cooking tapioca or cornstarch
2 teaspoons Ceylon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon lemon juice, freshly squeezed
1 egg, lightly beaten
Sugar, for sprinkling

Make the crust. Mix the flour and salt in a bowl. Cut or shave the butter into tiny pieces. Place the butter in the flour and roll the bits with your fingertips until the butter is all broken up and the mix is uniformly crumbled. Add the water and vodka and, again, mix with your fingertips until it is evenly distributed. At this point, you should be able to push the dough into a ball and it should stay packed. (If not add another tablespoon of ice-cold water, mix to distribute, and try again.) Cover tightly with plastic and pound into a disk. Let it rest for an hour on the countertop if making the pies right away, store in the refrigerator if you need it later. Let the dough come to room temperature before rolling it.

Cook the apple filling, then let cool. Place all the filling ingredients in a saucepan, including the reserved vanilla beans (but not including the egg, fyi). Cook over medium heat. Using a wooden spoon, mix with effort so that the vanilla bean and spices get distributed evenly. Cook until the apples are softened, about 15 minutes. Let cool completely before using.

Preheat oven to 400° F and roll out the dough. Roll out the dough to about 1/8-inch thickness. Cut the dough out into 4- or 5-inch disks (the size of a teacup saucer). Put a spoonful of filling on one half each disk. Make sure there is at least a half-inch margin of dough on the outside. Then fold the remaining half over the top, so you have a semi-circle. Gently press the edges of the disk together and use your fingers or a fork to smoosh the edges together. Basically, you want to seal it tight. Brush the beaten egg on top and sprinkle with sugar.

Bake. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Space the pies evenly apart on the baking sheets and set in the upper and lower third of the oven. Bake for 35 minutes, or until the tops are golden brown and the filling is bubbling. Place the pies on cooling racks and let rest for at least 15 minutes.

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