Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Holiday Sandies... Pecaned, Zested, Fruited and Gluten- and Dairy-Free

These little treats have been toted to their fair share of cookie exchanges and holiday gatherings over the years. Dating back to the early 1950's (or, perhaps even prior), the making of these nuggets has remained relatively unchanged... a simple shortbread-like dough is dotted with nuts and then more than generously coated with confectioner's sugar once cooled from the oven. While the precise date of their original unveiling may be of question, one thing is for certain: they have been responsible for many a powder-laced mouth and cookie-crumbed lap through the years.

They aren't new or different, trendy or chic. They are just good. And they are made from quite a versatile little dough, one that will happily produce a jam-filled sandwich cookie with just another step or two, and one that readily wraps its arms around a variety of flavors. It's also a recipe that adjusts beautifully with the substitution of Bob's Red Mill Gluten-Free Flour (and a little xanthan gum) to produce a delicious gluten-free (and in this case, dairy-free) variety, as well.

Sandies have been a staple in our own repertoire of holiday baking since as far back as I can remember. The recipe I use (and the one my own mother used) comes from the Better Homes Garden (BH&G) cookbook. And while this particular recipe has you shake cooled cookies in a bag filled with powdered sugar, there are a number of subtle variations... both in how these cookies are made and what they are called.

While my BH&G cookies are referred to as Sandies, they do incorporate pecans. For many, Pecan Sandies aren't even coated in powdered sugar. Instead, the pecan-laced dough is chilled, and then rolled and cut into rounds or squares before baking, or simply baked as a drop cookie. When our girls were little they called our version of this cookie The Cookie Covered In Sugar. That seemed as good a name as any at the time so that's what we went with. Apart from loving the subtle sweetness of this cookie, their melt-in-your-mouth texture, and the wonderful caking of powdered sugar each gets, I have always loved how easy they are to make (especially appealing for a girl that might rather bake a potato than a cake). One quick mixing of just a few ingredients, and no gadgets required to roll, cut, trim, or ice. A quick 20-minute pop in the oven (8 to 10 minutes in the case of the sandwich cookie) and a shake of powdered sugar. Easy and no fuss.

In addition to calling these cookies Sandies (or Pecan Sandies), some might refer to them as Mexican Wedding Cookies, Russian Teacakes, Polvorones, Snowdrops, Snowballs, etc. Some varieties use pecans, others walnuts or almonds. For as much as I can determine, these latter terms seem to correlate to the same ball-shaped, shortbread-like cookie dotted with nuts and rolled in sugar that we make every holiday.

This year I wanted to switch things up and experiment a little with the bits of goodness added to the dough, resulting in Pecan & Orange-Zested Sandies, Almond & Dried Mixed Berry Sandies, and Pistachio & Dried Cranberry Sandies. And, of course, Jam-Filled Sandwich Sandies. All these versions were great; however, I have to admit I definitely have my favorites. First, you can't beat the straight-up, original BH&G variety Pecan Sandies. And with a bit of orange zest, they are only better... a subtle, welcomed citrusy pop that melds beautifully with the sweet powdered sugar coating. Yum!

Apart from these traditional varieties, I really like the jam-filled sandwich variety. It's basically the same dough with just a touch of maple syrup added. Once the dough is mixed and the nuts added, you pop it into the fridge to chill for 15 to 20 minutes before rolling it and cutting it into one-inch squares. After baking for 8 to 10 minutes, you remove them to a wire rack to cool. Then you spread the underside of half the cookies with a bit of jam, sandwich them with mates, and dust the lot with some powdered sugar. These bite-size cookies are a definite favorite... both using the traditional dough and the gluten-free/dairy-free batch. It's one that will be repeated in our own holiday gatherings, cookie exchanges and such... for some time to come. Not particularly new or trendy... just good.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Mushroom-Red Lentil Soup

Dependability is a noble trait, one that should be appreciated and honored. While it's wonderful when demonstrated in human form, meal dependability should not be underrated.

Translation: it's soup again!

A super busy month, holiday hosting, a steady drizzle, memories of a great lentil soup a friend made for us years ago while we were living in The Netherlands, and a heap of beautiful mushrooms all conspired in the making of this soup.

These things... and a very dependable cast-iron pot that quite likes her role as a busy girl.

It's a hearty little soup, satisfyingly rich in earthy, meaty mushrooms and bits of savory onion. And, yes, kale (again). The kale in our fridge has, I believe, become quite a brazen little thing; one that has become a bit heady in her consistent abundance compared to other veggies sharing the same real estate... pushing her way into most any coupling of ingredients that even remotely look her way. Thankfully she plays well.

This soup features red lentils which, unlike their brethren in the family of lentils, break down quite a bit while cooking. As such, they contribute to making a good, thick broth base; one with a wonderful hearth-side heartiness. It's a great soup to serve as a quick, weeknight meal, along with a side salad or slice of fresh bread; as a starter soup (simple, yet well structured); paired with sandwiches for lunch; or, as it thickens a bit the next day... I think it would be great as a base to some seared scallops.

Either way, it's a dependable dish to turn to during December's dizzying days...