Cookbook focuses on flavor

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

A version of the classic vanilla sugar cookie is included among the selection of some 250 recipes in "Baking By Flavor" (Wiley, 2002, $45) by Lisa Yockelson, widely published baking journalist.

"The idea for packing as much flavor as possible into baked goods has always been a significant consideration in my baking and work in recipe development," Yockelson says.

The book offers a detailed look into how recipes that underscore specific flavors "can be highlighted, then uplifted, intensified, and invigorated."

The specific flavors that she deals with make a luscious catalog of chapter headings: almond, apricot, banana, blueberry, butter, buttercrunch, caramel and butterscotch, chocolate, cinnamon, coconut, coffee and mocha, ginger, lemon, peanut and peanut butter, rum, spice, sweet cheese and vanilla.

Among its recipes is the following vanilla sugar cookie.

"The flavors of vanilla and butter are spotlighted in this rolled cookie dough, and the two tastes are so compatible that they need little more than the basic baking staples to compose a dough," she says. "That little extra is freshly grated nutmeg, which helps cultivate the vanilla taste."

Vanilla Sugar Cookies

3 cups unsifted bleached all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg

1/2 pound (16 tablespoons or 2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

1 1/2 cups vanilla-scented granulated sugar (recipe follows)

2 large eggs

2 teaspoons intensified vanilla extract (recipe follows)

2 tablespoons milk

Granulated sugar, for sprinkling on top of the unbaked cookies

To mix the dough: Whisk the flour, baking powder, salt and nutmeg in a medium-size mixing bowl.

Cream the butter in the large bowl of a freestanding electric mixer on moderate speed for 2 minutes. Add the vanilla-scented granulated sugar; beat for 2 minutes. Blend in the eggs, vanilla extract and milk.

On low speed, add the whisked flour mixture in three additions, beating just until the particles of flour are absorbed.

To roll the dough: Divide the dough into three portions and roll each between two sheets of waxed paper to a thickness of a scant 1/4 inch. Stack the sheets of dough on a cookie sheet and refrigerate overnight. Transfer the sheets of dough to the freezer 30 minutes before cutting into cookies.

Preheat oven to 375 F. Line several cookie sheets with lengths of cooking parchment paper; set aside.

To stamp out the cookies: Working with one sheet of dough at a time, peel off the waxed paper, and place dough on a lightly floured work surface. Stamp out cookies with a floured 3-inch cookie cutter, and place them 2 inches apart on the cookie sheets. Dredge the tops with granulated sugar.

Bake the cookies in the preheated oven for 10 to 12 minutes, or until golden and set. Remove the cookies to cooling racks. Cool completely. Freshly baked, the cookies keep for 5 days.

Makes 2 1/2 to 3 dozen cookies.

Vanilla-scented sugar is such a congenial ingredient that it is at home in almost any batter or dough recipe, Yockelson says, recommending making a 5-pound quantity to have on hand.

Vanilla-Scented Granulated Sugar

3 moist, aromatic vanilla beans, split down the center to expose the tiny seeds, using a small sharp knife

5 pounds granulated sugar

Using a small, flexible palette knife (or tip of a rounded-edged dinner knife), open up the sides of the vanilla bean halves slightly.

Turn about one-third of the granulated sugar into a large storage container. Drop in one of the split vanilla beans. Add the balance of the sugar. Cover the container tightly.

Place the sugar on a pantry shelf, or in a cool place on the kitchen countertop, preferably away from direct sunlight. After 2 days, carefully spoon up the contents of the container to shift the vanilla beans, cover, and let the beans flavor the sugar for at least 2 more days.

Over time, owing to the moisture content of the vanilla beans, the sugar will be less free-flowing than sugar you dip out of a new 5-pound sack of granulated sugar, and it will compact further as time goes on. To use the flavored sugar, crush or break it up as necessary with a wooden spoon or spatula, and flick aside the vanilla beans when scooping it out. If the sugar is very lumpy, strain it through a medium- to large-mesh stainless-steel sieve before measuring.

Makes 5 pounds flavored sugar.

Yockelson says she uses a punched-up vanilla extract in baking recipes that call for vanilla flavoring, and in all vanilla-based recipes. "Think of the strengthened version as a dramatic and fluid jolt of vanilla goodness."

Intensified Vanilla Extract

Half of a small, pliant vanilla bean, split to expose the tiny seeds, using a sharp paring knife

2-ounce bottle vanilla extract

Holding one end, dip the split vanilla bean several times in the vanilla to release some of the seeds into the extract. Bend the bean in half to shorten it, then slip it into the bottle. Cap the vanilla tightly, shake several times, and store on a cool, dark pantry shelf for 4 to 5 days before using. This mega-vanilla extract is best used within 6 months, when the flavor is at its boldest best.

Makes one 2-ounce bottle vanilla extract.

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