23 January 2020

Chinese New Year Cookies

Happy almost Chinese new year! I celebrate all the other holidays of the year by baking elaborate cookie boxes and shaker cookies but I have never really done anything too big or extravagant for Chinese new year. I made these nian gao-stuffed cookies last year (they were so much fun!) but not much else beyond that. I promised myself that this year will be the year I do more for this special holiday because it is one of my favourite Chinese (and in general) holidays of the year. As I mentioned in the previous year, Chinese new year is celebrated with lots and lots of food — from sticky nian gao rice cake, to savoury taro and daikon cakes, and to trays of assorted sweets called Trays of Togetherness. This year I decided to make my own version of this tray of treats, but in a cookie box form (of course). This year, my tray is filled with classic stamped shortbread, shaker cookies, window cookies to represent fai chun, Chinese almond cookies, and chewy sesame cookies. 

I have shared a tutorial on my shaker cookies before but I have updated it with even greater detail this time around to make sure you end up with the shaker cookies of your dreams. Of course these Chinese new year shaker cookies are filled with gold sprinkles and topped with edible gold leaf — you cannot celebrate Chinese new year without any gold. All the shaker cookies and fai chun cookies are made with the same shortbread dough as the stamped cookies and they are adorn with lucky Chinese characters or sayings — 年年有餘 (you will have surplus every year), 心想事成 (may all your wishes come true), and 笑口常開 (may you always have laughter and happiness), just to name a few. All the writing was done with royal icing, the same way you would decorate regular sugar cookies. I loved the way the royal icing writing turned out on the shiny isomalt.

Lastly, we have one chewy cookie in the mix. I made a chewy sesame cookie inspired by crispy sesame balls you often find in Trays of Togetherness and at dim sum restaurants or Chinese bakeries. They are like a chewy sugar cookie but the addition of brown sugar and sesame seeds gives these cookies a great nuttiness. These would be just as great with black sesame seeds. All the treats are arranged in an old tin cookie box my mom saved for me (she loves saving old tins for me to use as future cookie boxes). I will keep this blog post short because I have so many recipes to share below. PS. White Rabbit candies are often found in Trays of Togetherness and these White Rabbit cupcakes would be so much fun for the new year celebrations as well. 

Blank Canvas Shortbread 
Yields approximately 2 dozen (depends on size and shape of cookie cutters)
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 cup powdered sugar
2 teaspoon vanilla 
1 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

2 cups all-purpose flour

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter on low speed until smooth. Add the sugar, vanilla, and salt. Mix on low speed until well creamy and smooth. Add the flour and mix on low speed until just uniform in texture. 

Gather the dough into a ball, divide the ball into two, and flatten each portion into a disc. Wrap tightly and refrigerate for at least 3 hours. If you are running low on time, throw it in the freezer for about 30 minutes.

Once the dough is chilled, take on of the discs and transfer it to a piece of parchment paper, cover with a second piece of parchment and flatten to form a rectangle about 1/4-inch thick.

When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Cut the dough with cookie cutters of choice and place them on the lined baking sheet. These won’t spread too much, if at all. Repeat with second portion of dough. If cookie cut outs are starting to get soft by the time you have finished cutting out all the shapes, pop the baking sheet in the freezer for 10 - 15 minutes to allow the cut outs to firm up. A chilled dough will retain its shape better when baking.

Bake until golden around the edges, approximately 10 - 12 minutes. Remove pan from the oven and allow the cookies to cool on baking sheet for at least 10 minutes before transferring them to a wire rack to cool completely.

Chinese New Year Shaker Cookies
*1/2 recipe of Blank Canvas Shortbread above
Two square cookie cutters of different sizes (I have this set!)
1/2 cup isomalt crystals
1 tablespoon water
Royal icing, for decorating
Sprinkles of choice, for filling the cookies

For the cookie squares
Make the shortbread dough recipe as listed above.  When rolling out the chilled shortbread dough, roll the dough to just a bit thinner than 1/4-inch thickness. With the larger square cookie cutter, cut out as many large squares as you can and transfer the square cut outs to a lined baking sheet. With the smaller square cookie cutter, punch out a square in the centre of each larger square. It is important that you make the smaller square cut out once the larger square has been transferred to the cookie sheet, or else the cookie will lose its shape when you try to transfer it. Gather the smaller square cut outs that you have removed from the larger square. Re-roll that dough and repeat the previous steps until all the cookie dough has been used up. If the dough starts to get soft, chill the dough again before cutting out the shapes.

Bake the squares for 6 - 7 minutes, until the edges of the cookies are golden. Keep a close eye on the cookies at the 5 minute mark because the cookies are thin and will start browning really quickly. Remove the cookies from the oven and allow them to cool completely on the baking sheet before handling. They will be very delicate. Transfer the cookies onto another baking sheet lined with a clean piece of parchment. We will be pouring the isomalt on this surface.

Keep in mind that you will need three squares per shaker cookie:
1. top cookie which will be filled with isomalt and decorated
2. middle cookie to 'raise' the cookie so the sprinkles can move freely inside the cookie
3. bottom cookie which will be filled with isomalt 

For the isomalt
Preheat oven to 265F.

Place the isomalt crystals in a small pot over medium heat and allow the isomalt crystals to melt without stirring them. Once the isomalt is boiling, remove the small pot from heat. Isomalt will be very bubbly. Hold the small pot off of the heat until the bubbles settle down. 

Once the bubbles have settled down, place the pot back down on the burner and stir in the water, a little at a time. Steam will aggressively come off of the sugar as the water is now cooling it down. Isomalt will still be very bubbly.

Reduce the amount of air bubbles in the hot isomalt by placing it in the oven at 265F for 10 minutes. If you skip this step, the bubbles will stay in the isomalt and will harden with the bubbles still visible.  After 10 minutes, carefully remove pot of isomalt from oven and use the isomalt while it is still hot. Carefully pour the hot isomalt into the centres of each cookie cut out and spread the isomalt to the edges and corners of each cookie with a small spoon. If the isomalt starts to thicken, place it back in the oven for 2 - 3 minutes until it liquefies again. Allow the isomalt to cool completely before moving the cookies, at least 10 minutes

Once the isomalt has set, take a piece of paper towel and dab it in a small dish of oil (I use vegetable oil). Gently polish the back side of the isomalt (the side that was on the sheet tray). This will make the isomalt extra clear and see through.

To assemble
Place one isomalt-filled cookie down. Apply royal icing to the edges of the cookie, being cautious to not get any icing on the 'glass.' Stack the hollow cookie before the royal icing dries. Fill your cookie with sprinkles of choice. Attach last isomalt-filled cookie with royal icing to 'seal' the cookie. Decorate the top of each cookie.

Chewy Sesame Cookies
Yields 14 - 16 cookies
1 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 large egg, yolk and white separated
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup white sesame seeds, as needed

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.

In a bowl of a stand mixer, beat together butter and sugars until creamy and smooth. Add egg yolk and vanilla and beat until combined. Add the dry ingredients in two increments and mix until just combined. Chill the dough, covered, for at least one hour.

When dough has been chilled, portion dough into 14 equally-sized dough balls. Dip each ball into egg white before rolling in sesame seeds to cover the entire ball. Transfer covered dough balls to a lined baking sheet, placed 2 inches apart.

Bake dough balls at 325F for 12 - 15 minutes until the edges are a light golden brown and the centres are just set. Allow cookies to cool on baking sheet for ten minutes before transferring them to a wire rack to cool completely.

Happy Lunar New Year!

7 January 2020

A Cookbook Celebration!

I am writing a cookbook. I am writing a cookbook! I am writing a... cookbook! No matter how many times I say it, it will forever feel surreal. I have always intended to share the news sooner, perhaps when I wrote the first recipe or took the first few photos for the book, but fear held me back. This fear almost led me to say no to this cookbook opportunity. It was a fear of inadequacy and a fear of failing but I also wholeheartedly believe it is this same fear that leads to the creation of some of the best work.

I started this book over a year and a half ago and have been working tirelessly on it since. Every moment I was not at my full-time day job, I was working on the book, whether it was recipe developing, photographing, or writing. I would be working on it on a Thursday evening at 1am as well as a Sunday afternoon at 4pm. The book has kept me plenty busy for the past 18 months. I would be lying if I said I did not get frustrated or cried due to exhaustion throughout this process. I would also be lying if I said it did not lead to some of my best work.

I am going to share more details about the book leading up to its release in late April 2020. For now, know that the book is a combination of everything I know and love. I will never forget how this blog began and this book is going to pay homage to that. I have always said that every recipe and story shared on this blog is like a love letter dedicated to all things sweet, and this book is no exception. It is collection of love letters that are sweet to read even sweeter to eat.

To celebrate this news, I created a little party scene with a three-layer cake and a dozen or so of cupcakes. There is an under the sea mermaid party on the layer cake and a group of party animals each with their own handmade party hat on the cupcakes. Originally, I wanted to share these cakes and cupcakes with a decorating tutorial but everything seemed too simple to warrant a dedicated tutorial. The little party hats are made with assorted scrapbook paper with sparkly pom poms attached to the top before they are added to the heads of the farm animal figurines. The layer cake is decorated with porcelain mermaid candles as well as macarons that have a large pearl sprinkle placed in the buttercream layer to resemble an oyster. Let these little party scenes serve as some inspiration but your next celebration that calls for cake.

Lastly, and also most importantly, I want to thank you for following along on this baking journey. Without each of you, this blog would not exist and this upcoming book definitely would not exist. This book is as much mine as it is yours. For that, I am forever grateful.

Happy baking!

23 December 2019

Gingerbread Greenhouse

It is almost Christmas! I feel like there is still so much holiday baking I want to do before Wednesday but I might have to accept that there are less than 48 hours to cover cookies in green and red sprinkles  and say I am done Christmas baking for this year. It makes me a bit sad to wrap up holiday baking every year. I live for holiday baking and I think I did pretty well this year. In the month of December, I made a fully edible cookie advent calendar, all of Bon Appetit magazine's Christmas cookies, all of New York Times' holiday cookies with a help of a friend, put together a Vancouver cookie gift guide, this shaker cookie (!!), and this gingerbread greenhouse that many of you seemed to love. To end holiday baking 2019 with a bang, I am sharing a tutorial on how to build your own gingerbread greenhouse, aka a great way to spend Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.

Before I share all the tips, tricks, and measurements for this greenhouse, I must preface it with the fact that I have never built a gingerbread house from scratch. If you have specific techniques that you have been using for years that I am missing here, please do share them with me. I would love to learn. Prior to this gingerbread greenhouse, all the gingerbread houses that I have made have come from kits from the craft store or grocery store, which I swear never have enough icing to hold the thick slabs of stale gingerbread together. They also only include six gummies and nine smarties for one to decorate half a roof. And since we are all about complaining, my last complaint is that the corners of those gingerbread cookie slabs are always rounded and never create the peeeerfect sealed edge. It. Drives. Me. Insane.

Back to the gingerbread greenhouse. It takes time and a bit of patience to make. You want to set aside some time for it. From start to finish, it took me about 8 hours (I started at 3am and finished at 11am because I am insane), BUT I did run out of parchment halfway through and had to wait for each piece of the house to bake and cool before I could use that same piece of parchment for another tray. If I was able to do two trays at once with enough parchment paper, I would assume that this would take about 4 - 5 hours. Still quite a bit of time, but not so much that it would make you go crazy the day before Christmas.

Besides the ingredients needed for the gingerbread dough itself, there are not too many other things required to build this greenhouse. What you need for this entire project are:
1. A sturdy gingerbread dough (I used this one from Food52 and made 3/4 of the amount, which was perfect for this house. I reduced the amount of dough because I knew I needed less due to all the window cut-outs) 
2. A tape measure or long ruler
3. Gelatin sheets (for the windows)
4. Royal icing (for decorating)

The hardest part of making this gingerbread greenhouse is figuring out the measurements. How big do I want the house? If I made the window cut-outs too big, will the frames snap really easily? How long should the slope of the roof be? Do I really need to do some a2 + b2 = c2 to figure it out? Yes. BUT, I have done all of the math for you. I suffered from 2:30am to 4:00am figuring out all my measurements and dimensions so when you make this, you will have lots of fun and lots of fun only. Pleasure excuse the terrrrrrible diagram but I thought this would be the easiest way to explain all the measurements. You want to have six pieces of gingerbread for the structure (two sides with pointed tops, one back, one front with door, and two pieces for the roof). Seven pieces if you want to have a base for the house. The reason why I made the base optional is because it is much easier to place little decorations and plants inside the house if you leave it open. If you do use a base, note that once you seal the house by putting on the roof, what is inside the house will stay there and you cannot go back and change it. The gingerbread greenhouse is plenty sturdy even without the base.

The dimension of the house is 10 inches by 8 inches and it is 8 inches tall at the highest point (with the two roof panels meet). You can make the cut outs for the 'glass' as wide or narrow as you like but keep in mind that the wider the glass panels, the thinner the frame, the more delicate it will be. It is also very important that you make all your cut-outs with chilled dough. Soft, sticky dough will not want to retain its shape when being trimmed and you want make the glass window cut-outs once the trimmed dough has already been transferred to a line baking sheet. It is impossible to transfer a piece of gingerbread dough that has all its windows cut out already unless you chill it until its completely frozen. For example, I trimmed the back panel to 10 x 6 on a sheet of parchment and then lifted the parchment paper onto the baking sheet, THEN measured and cut out the window panels.

This step is optional but I like to pop each tray into the freezer for at last ten minutes before they go in the oven so that the dough can firm up a bit to reduce the amount of spreading when baking. We do not want all our hard work of measuring and trimming to go to waste.

Once the dough is chilled, pop the trays into the oven preheated to 375F and bake for 7 - 9 minutes. Allow the baked pieces to cool on the baking sheet for at least 15 minutes before moving it to the cooling rack to cool completely. When the pieces have cooled, use a simple royal icing to draw designs and add any details on the panels.

After the royal icing has dried and set, flip each piece over and use the remaining royal icing to attach the gelatin sheets to the back of each cut out. You will have to trim the gelatin sheets to make them fit the side panels with the pointed top.

When you are ready to assemble the house, have a few cans of soup or anything heavy that you can use as wall support while the icing is drying. Squeeze a row of icing on the short edge of each side piece (with the pointed top) and attach to the back and front pieces. If you made a base for the house, attach the bottom edge of all four wall pieces to the base and add any decorations you want inside the house before attaching the roof. Attach the roof, one piece at a time. Add additional icing to any seams that might have a gap. Wait for the house to be dry before moving it.

Add additional decor or fairy lights your house is Christmas-ready! The house does require time and patience but to me, the result is definitely worth all the effort. I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season and if you do make gingerbread greenhouse, please tag me or show me a photo! I would love to see your take on the classical gingerbread house. Have fun!

Happy holidays!

17 December 2019

Vancouver Christmas Cookies 2019

Two years ago, I dedicated a day in early December to gather holiday cookies from a few Vancouver bakeries known for their holiday treats. I collected the cookies and assembled a large cookie box accompanied by a cookie box assembly 101, with helpful tips and tricks to answer all your questions on creating the perfect holiday treat box. Those tips and tricks still hold true so for this year’s holiday cookie round-up, we will be focusing on the cookies themselves. This past weekend, Rich and I revisited some of our favourite bakeries from two years ago and added a few new ones to our list (new to offering holiday baked goods and not necessary a new bakery that recently opened). Compared to two years ago, we doubled (!!) the amount of cookies and variety of cookies in our box to make sure there was a perfect cookie for everyone. 

A million photos later, Rich and I tasted all the cookies. We found our comfy spot on our small couch and tasted e v e r y single cookie because ~science~. I even made him (and my parents the next day) do a blind taste test. We each picked our favourites and swore we could not eat anymore cookies for the next little while. (Plot twist: we ate more cookies this evening.) Before I let you know which were my favourite ones, I need to preface it with the fact that I generally prefer a shortbread cookie over a chewy cookie. Unpopular opinion, I know. So let’s talk about every single cookie holiday cookie.

All the cookies featured in this box:

Beaucoup Bakery
A cookie box of hojicha walnut snowballs, baci di dama cookies, yuzu fennel wreaths. Comes in both small and large sizes.

Beaucoup Bakery does it again with this year's cookie box. I was so impressed by last year's holiday cookie tin and was so happy to see that they are continuing the tradition again this year. Unlike last year's box, which feature more traditional cookies like palmiers, sablés and florentines, this year tin features traditional Christmas cookies but with an Asian twist. The super tender hojicha walnut snowball was one of my favourite cookies of all the cookies this year and the pairing of bright yuzu with earthy fennel was so lovely. I was originally going to get the small tin but I am really happy that I got the large one instead.

Bel Café
Vanilla shortbread, hazelnut linzer with raspberry jam

When I was initially putting together my list of bakeries to visit, Bel Café slipped my mind. I missed Bel Café at first because I was thinking of more traditional bakeries when compiling this list but I am so glad I was able to squeeze in a visit to their Kitsilano location this weekend. I have had a few of the savoury items on Bel's menu before but this was one of the first times I am trying their sweets. These are two of their three holiday cookie options (I am missing their macaron) and I really enjoyed both, especially the vanilla shortbread. I love a piped tender shortbread in general but this one was pretty much perfect. This melt-in-your-mouth vanilla shortbread had such a good amount of salt in it that it really made it stand out among all the other shortbread cookies this year.

Butter Baked Goods
Assorted cookie box and decorated sugar cookies

Butter is always at the top of my mind when it comes to holiday cookies and treats. My favourite seasonal treats from Butter are always from Mother's Day (so pretty!) and Christmas (so festive!). This year, I opted for similar treats as the previous years — an assorted cookie box (mini sugar cookies, chocolate sandwich cookie, snowballs, shortbread cookies, and more) and two of their classic decorated sugar cookies. Butter’s sugar cookies are always tender and very (as their name suggests) buttery.

Gingerbread cookies

During the holidays, many bakeries make decorated sugar cookies but Cadeaux makes beautifully decorated gingerbread cookies. Instead of the classic gingerbread man shape, the cookies this year are gold-themed (topped with gold leaf too!) and deer-shaped. Cadeaux's gingerbread is always reliable and has everything you would want in a good gingerbread and this year is no exception.

Federal Store
Sage shortbread, orange amaretti, dark chocolate and butterscotch blondies, ginger molasses cookies, lemon sugar cookies, and salted caramels. A small box includes three of each cookie while the large box includes five of each

I think this is the first year Federal Store is offering cookie boxes for preorder. This box includes six different types of treats and a beautifully-illustrated postcard with the all the cookies and their descriptions. The packaging was also one of my favourites of the bunch. My favourite treat of the box was the sage shortbread. I love a herby cookie.

Speculoos, shortbread, crinkle cookies, ginger chews, checkerboard cookies, hazelnut jam cookies. Each box contains three of each cookie

Flourist is one of the new additions to this year's cookie round-up. I have always been a big fan of Shira's work so I was excited to see that her new bakery and flour shop Flourist was offering a collection of holiday cookies. Flourist's cookie box includes more traditional cookies, all made with their freshly-milled flour. The box includes their signature hazelnut jam cookie that I always see people ordering in the shop and at their pop-ups.

Hand-painted sugar cookie (!!), rose petal shortbread, pine nut shortbread, christmas tree lemon cookie, chocolate sablé cookies, hazelnut crescents, and snowflake cookie

Livia is also one of the new additions to this year's holiday cookie round-up but Livia is not new to the scene here in Vancouver. Livia may have only opened this year but owner Livia has been selling her baked goods in local farmer's markets for years. I love Livia's rose petal shortbread no matter what time it is in the year so I was so happy to see that she included her signature shortbread in her cookie box. The box also includes a variation of that cookie — a pine nut shortbread. What really caught my eye was her hand-painted woodland sugar cookie. Each box contains a unique cookie (I saw her painting a festive otter in her Instagram Stories) and I am so happy I got this bear. I cannot comment more on the flavour of the woodland creature sugar cookie because it really is too beautiful to eat (I might frame it haha!) but everything else was really enjoyable.

Oh Sweet Day!
Variety of shortbread cookies, ginger molasses cookies, and snowballs. Each box contains 32 cookies (8 varieties).

Like Livia, Oh Sweet Day! can be found at local farmer's market. Fanny of Oh Sweet Day is known for her cheesecakes and shortbread cookies. If you are a fan of shortbread then this cookie box is the dream box. It features six different varieties of shortbread as well as ginger molasses cookies and snowballs. Oh Sweet Day's cookies are not as sweet as other cookies, so if that is what you are looking for, you have found it. My favourite of the bunch was the cranberry shortbread.

Assorted decorated holiday macarons and mini macaron ornament

Mini macaron-filled ornaments! Ah! Should I eat it? Should I just admire it on my tree all season long? Good thing I got a box of their holiday macarons as well. Each macaron has a unique design and it’s not just a single drizzle or a brush of gold, but a full design! My favourite design is the little reindeer in the snow. Their holiday macaron flavours include: cookie dough, wildberry hot chocolate, roasted chestnut and fig, apricot vanilla bean, hazelnut pear, and ruby chocolate.

Their There (by Sweet Bake Shop)
Decorated sugar cookies

A new bakery cafe on the list! Their There has a killer coffee and pastries program (featured in Bon Appetit here!) and for the holidays they are offering detailed custom sugar cookies made by Sweet Bake Shape. Love the tt eye details (their logo!) on the snowman and the sugar cookie was delicious. The sugar cookie leans more on crisp sugar cookie side of the spectrum (compared to Butter and other bakeries) and has a perfectly light golden brown bottom. I want another one right now.

*Post blind taste test, in pure bliss*

Happy holidays!


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