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'Snow Honeys': recipes and techniques from Julia Usher's 'Ultimate Cookies'

Here's the instructions and some of the recipes involved in making the "Snow Honeys," or his-and-hers snowpeople, from Julia Usher's "Ultimate Cookies," featured in today's Buffalo News.

Note: We couldn't include every referred-to tip from her exhaustive book, but this should be enough to help you size up the project.

Charm your Christmas guests with these delightful his-and-hers snowmen and women fashioned from Goofproof Macarons (recipe below). I’ve accessorized these honeys with rolled fondant scarves, top hats, and other decorations. And in the spirit of more is merrier, I’ve made smaller snow children to complete the happy snow family!

Snow Honeys

Makes about 10 (2 x 4 1⁄2-inch) 3-macaron snowmen or about 1 3⁄4 dozen (1 3⁄4 x 2 3⁄4-inch) 2-macaron snow children

Ingredients

2 to 3 ounces dark brown rolled fondant (p. 53) or other modeling medium, for hats, arms, and broomsticks (latter, optional)

12-piece plain round cookie cutter set (Ateco #5457, p. 14)

About 1 ounce (each) red and green rolled fondant or other modeling medium, for hat bands and scarves

Less than 1⁄2 ounce orange rolled fondant or other modeling medium, for carrot noses

1 large Shredded Wheat biscuit, for broom heads (optional)

1 recipe Goofproof Macarons (see below)

Pastry bag fitted with 1⁄2-inch round tip (Ateco #806)

About 1 cup (1⁄5 to 1⁄4 recipe) Italian Buttercream (p. 257) or (2⁄3 to 1 recipe) White Chocolate Ganache (p. 259)

About 10 (6-inch) cardboard lollypop sticks (p. 268, optional)

About 1 1⁄4 to 1 1⁄2 cups (1⁄4 to 1⁄3 recipe) Royal Icing (see below), divided; quantity will vary

Parchment pastry cones (p. 13)

Assorted small (1⁄2- to 7⁄8-inch) readymade royal icing embellishments (p. 26), such as wreaths, holly, and/or candles (1 per snowman, optional)

Brown (optional) and other soft-gel food colorings (p. 14) of your choice

Powdered sugar, for display (optional)

(Stand-in: Snow Balls. No time to decorate? Simply fill the macarons with Italian Buttercream or Ganache (made with white chocolate), and you’ve got cookies that pass for little snowballs, especially when presented atop drifts of powdered sugar or an icicle-clear glass plate, as shown here.)

Prep Talk:

The egg whites for Goofproof Macarons (the snow balls) must be dehydrated for 20 to 24 hours before baking. Once baked, the macarons may be filled with Italian Buttercream or White Chocolate Ganache up to a few days prior to final assembly. (I like to use light colored fillings to keep the snowmen white through and through.) Since both fillings are perishable, be sure to refrigerate the filled macarons until you’re ready to serve. However, for best flavor and texture, bring them to room temperature before serving.

It’s also best to shape the hats, arms, carrot noses, and broomsticks, whether made of rolled fondant or another modeling medium, at least a day before assembly to give them ample time to air-dry and firm up. Avoid White Chocolate Dough for the broomsticks and arms; it is relatively heat sensitive and, therefore, less suitable for these slender pieces.

1. Shape the hats, arms, carrot noses, and broomsticks (optional). As noted in “Prep Talk,” it’s best to make these pieces at least a day ahead. They’ll be easier to place on the finished snowmen if firm. Broomsticks may need more time to air-dry, as they must be quite rigid to support the broom heads on top.

To make hats: Follow the instructions on page 54 to roll the brown modeling medium into a thin (1⁄16-inch) sheet. Cut out about 10 round brims with a 7⁄8-inch round cookie cutter. Reroll the leftover dough to a 3⁄8- to 1⁄2-inch thickness and cut out about 10 (1⁄2-inch) round hat tops to fit the brims. Stick the hat tops to the brims with a dab of water. Finish by wrapping a thin (1⁄8-inch-wide) red or green ribbon made of modeling medium around the base of each hat, where it meets the brim. See Ribbons (p. 56) for ribbon making instructions.

To make arms: Follow the instructions for Cords (p. 55) to roll the leftover brown modeling medium into small (1⁄16 to 1⁄8 x 1 3⁄4- to 2-inch) cords (2 per snowman) that taper to a point on one end. Attach even smaller twigs to the tapered end of each twig with a dab of water, as desired.

To make carrot noses: Roll the orange modeling medium into small (1⁄16 x 3⁄4-inch) cords (1 per snowman) that taper to a point on one end. Trim the nontapered ends to straighten.

Short and Sweet. (a) Fill three sizes of Goofproof Macarons with Italian Buttercream or White Chocolate Ganache. (b) Decorate the macarons with Royal Icing buttons and faces, carrot noses made of rolled fondant (or another modeling medium), and other readymade royal icing embellishments; then glue the body parts together with thick Royal Icing. (c) Once the icing “glue” is dry, add arms and scarves made of modeling media.

To make broomsticks (optional): Roll the remaining brown modeling medium into 1⁄8 x 3 3⁄4- to 4-inch cords. Trim the ends to straighten. Cut a biscuit of Shredded Wheat cereal into small (3⁄4 x 1 1⁄4-inch) rectangles (1 per broomstick, for broom heads). Leave one side of the original biscuit intact when cutting, so the broom heads don’t fall apart. Let the broomsticks dry thoroughly before applying the broom heads in Step 7.

2. Bake the macarons. Prepare 2 cookie sheets by tracing about 20 (1 7⁄8-inch), 20 (1 1⁄2-inch), and 20 (7⁄8-inch) circles on pieces of parchment paper sized to fit the cookie sheets. Use plain round cookie cutters from the cutter set as your tracing guides. Leave no less than 3⁄4 inch between circles and draw like sizes on the same cookie sheet(s). Turn over the papers and secure them to the cookie sheets with a dab of shortening or butter in each corner. Note: Turning over the paper keeps the tracing marks from being transferred onto the cookies during baking.

Prepare Goofproof Macarons as instructed. Transfer the batter to a pastry bag fitted with a 1⁄2-inch round tip (Ateco #806) and pipe it into the outlines just traced, leaving a little room to spare to allow for spreading. Air-dry the cookies as directed and then bake until set but not at all brown. To keep these cookies as white as possible, bake in a slow (275°F) oven from the start, usually about 20 minutes for the 7⁄8-inch and 1 1⁄2-inch rounds and closer to 25 minutes for the 1 7⁄8-inch rounds.

But watch the cookies closely, as they can quickly get too dark to pass as snowmen. Cool  completely  before filling.

3. Fill the macarons. Prepare either Italian Buttercream or White Chocolate Ganache (chilled to piping consistency) and transfer to a pastry bag fitted with a 1⁄2-inch round tip (Ateco #806). Turn half of the cookies (in each of the 3 sizes) upside down and pipe a small mound of filling on the back of each cookie. Top each with a macaron of the same size to make about 30 sandwiches, 10 of each size. Refrigerate the macarons in airtight containers until you’re ready to decorate in Step 5. They’ll be easier to handle if the filling is set up. Note: If you’d like to make lollypops of the snowmen, you can also sandwich the macarons around lollypop sticks (3 sandwiches per stick, 1 in each size) as in Cream of the Crop (p. 107). In this case, skip the assembly instructions in Step 6.

4. Prepare the Royal Icing as instructed on page 242. Reserve about 3⁄4 cup for snowmen details and 1⁄4 cup (optional) for “glue.” You can omit the latter if you did not make broomsticks in Step 1.

5. Decorate the snowmen’s heads and bodies. Transfer the remaining 1⁄2 cup icing to a parchment pastry cone and cut a small (1⁄16-inch or more) hole in the tip. Use the icing as “glue” to fix the hats and noses from Step 1 onto the 7⁄8-inch macaron sandwiches, or heads. You can also use readymade royal icing embellishments, such as wreaths and holly, instead of hats or to embellish the hats.

Divide the 3⁄4 cup icing reserved for details in half; then tint each portion to a color of your choice. (I usually use black for coal faces and red for buttons.) Thin both portions to beadwork consistency (p. 245) and transfer to separate parchment pastry cones. Cut a small (1⁄16-inch or more) hole in each tip. Apply dots of one color to the 7⁄8-inch sandwiches (for faces) and dots of the other color to the 1 1⁄2-inch sandwiches (for buttons). Let the icing dry to the touch before assembling in Step 6.

6. Assemble the snowmen. To make a 3-macaron snowman, arrange a 1 7⁄8-inch sandwich, a 1 1⁄2-inch sandwich, and a 7⁄8-inch sandwich in a straight line, from big to small, so that they touch edge to edge; then glue them together at the contact points using the “glue” left over from Step 5. You can also make smaller 2-macaron snow children by gluing together 1 1⁄2-inch and 7⁄8-inch sandwiches in the same fashion. Repeat to make about 10 (3-macaron) snowmen. Let the “glue” dry completely before adding scarves in the next step.

7. Add decorative embellishments. To add scarves: Follow the instructions for Plain Ribbons (p. 56) to cut small 10 (3⁄8 to 1⁄2 x 7- to 8-inch) ribbons from the leftover red and green modeling media. Cut 10 thinner (1⁄8-inch) ribbons of the same length. Keep the ribbons covered with plastic so they don’t dry out while you complete this step. Work on one snowman at a time.

(a) Dampen the back of a thin ribbon with water and fix it to the top of a wider one of contrasting color. Keep water off the top of the ribbons, as it will dry and leave behind unwanted shiny spots! Trim the scarf ends to neaten.

(b) Flip over the double-decker ribbon while still pliable and set an assembled snowman on top. Wrap the ribbon around the snowman’s neck and fix it together in the center with a dab of water or leftover Royal Icing.

Repeat Steps (a) and (b) to add scarves to all of the snowmen, as desired.

Stick arms from Step 1 into the icing between the 1 1⁄2-inch sandwich in each snowman.

To finish the broomsticks (optional): Tint the 1⁄4 cup icing reserved for “glue” in Step 4 to a brown that matches the broomsticks. Use this icing to fix a broom head, reserved in Step 1, to the end of each broomstick. Dry completely before moving.

8. Display (optional). F or an extra wintry presentation, perch the snowmen upright in mounds of powdered sugar with broomsticks nearby, as pictured on page 202. Handle the snowmen carefully, ideally with the support of a spatula.

Goofproof Macarons

Not to be confused with the chubby coconut macaroon common in the United States, macarons are sleek, sophisticated French sandwich cookies, notorious for requiring the utmost baking finesse. But have no fear! I’ve created a recipe that’s infallible, whether you weigh the ingredients (as many bakers profess you must) or simply measure everything in cups. (I’ve given instructions to do both, so take your pick.) Just heed the egg white prep and cookie drying instructions and the visual cues provided at key steps, and every macaron should end up picture-perfect with characteristic smooth top and crinkly foot. 

Makes 3 to 3 1⁄2 dozen (1 7⁄8- to 2 1⁄8-inch) rounds or 1 1⁄2 to 1 3⁄4 dozen sandwiches

Ingredients:

1⁄2 cup (about 4 ounces) egg whites (from about 4 large eggs), dehydrated for 20 to 24 hours

2 1⁄3 cups plus 1 tablespoon (about 8 1⁄2 ounces) powdered sugar

1 1⁄3 cups plus 2 tablespoons (about 5 ounces) blanched almond flour (Note: Also called almond meal, this flour is available in many organic and health food stores. Even if made with blanched almonds, almond flour can contain lots of ground skins. Choose the least speckled bag you can find, as skins leave dark spots on the cookies.)

Pinch salt

Pinch cream of tartar

2 tablespoons (about 1 ounce) granulated sugar

Flavoring(s) of your choice, to taste (optional; Note: These cookies are very almond-y as-is, so I often only add flavoring to the filling.)

Soft-gel food coloring (p. 14) of your choice (optional)

About 1 cup (less than 1⁄2 recipe) Ganache (p. 259) or (1⁄5 to 1⁄4 recipe) Italian

Buttercream (p. 257), for filling

Prep Talk:

Remember to dehydrate the egg whites, as described in Step 1, about 20 to 24 hours before mixing the batter and to air-dry piped batter about 45 to 60 minutes before baking. Once baked, unfilled macarons should be immediately stored in airtight containers at room temperature. (Because of their high sugar content, macarons can quickly get tacky under humid conditions.) However, once filled with Ganache or Italian Buttercream, both of which are perishable, macarons must be refrigerated. Unfilled cookies remain their best up to 1 1⁄2 weeks if stored as directed above. Filled macarons are best eaten within a few days. For optimal flavor and texture, bring the macarons to room temperature before serving.

1. Prep the egg whites. Place the egg whites in a bowl and cover with a clean cloth towel. Let rest in a cool area (but not the refrigerator) about 20 to 24 hours. This step essentially dehydrates the egg whites and accelerates the drying process in Step 4, which, in turn, leads to less cracking or other misshaping of cookies during baking. Don’t skip or rush this step.

2. Prep the cookie sheets following the instructions in the project you’ve chosen. Or if you’re making the macarons just to eat and have no particular project in mind, trace about 3 dozen (1 7⁄8- to 2-inch) circles on parchment paper for piping guides. You’ll need 2 pieces of parchment paper sized to fit your cookie sheets, provided you space the circles no less than 3⁄4 inch apart. Flip over the papers so the tracing marks are on the underside and use a piece to line each cookie sheet. (If you don’t flip over the papers, the tracing marks will transfer onto the cookies during baking.) Secure the parchment paper to the cookie sheets with a dab of butter or shortening applied to each corner.

3. Mix the macaron batter. Sift the powdered sugar and almond flour into a medium bowl. Discard any coarse grains of meal or dark almond skins remaining in the sifter. (Or add them to the mixture, but recognize that the surface of your macarons will end up more lumpy and freckled than pictured on page 252.) Add the salt and gently whisk to evenly distribute the ingredients.

Place the dehydrated egg whites and cream of tartar in a clean bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whip attachment. (Note: The bowl, whip attachment, and all mixing utensils should be completely free of fat, or the egg whites will not stiffen.) Beat on medium-high speed until frothy. Turn the mixer to high speed and gradually add the granulated sugar. Stop briefly, if needed, to scrape any sugar off the sides of the bowl; add any flavoring(s) and then continue beating until the whites are billowy and stiff, but not dry, usually another 15 to 45 seconds. (See “Visual Cue #1,” below.) Do not overbeat, as you’ll find it more difficult to incorporate the dry ingredients without overfolding.

Note: Now is the time to tint the macarons, if desired. If you fold in coloring after incorporating the dry ingredients, below, you risk overfolding the batter, which can result in heavy, lopsided macarons. Add no more than 20 to 25 drops coloring. If you add more or use liquid coloring (heavens no!), you defeat the purpose of dehydrating the egg whites in Step 1. Too much moisture will prolong drying time in Step 4 and/or result in macarons with cracks or overextended feet. Beat to just incorporate the coloring.

Visual Cue #1: Macarons start with meringue that is billowy and stiff, but not dry.

Visual Cue #2: The macaron batter will be quite thick immediately after the dry ingredients are added. Keep folding, but watch the texture of the batter closely!

Visual Cue #3: A properly folded macaron batter is one that has just turned shiny. Also, tracks from lifting the spatula should largely disappear after about 20 to 30 seconds; that is, the batter should flow like magma.

Visual Cue #4: Piped macarons should be very flat,without any peaks or air bubbles.

Visual Cue #5: Picture-perfect macarons have smooth tops and crinkly, but not overextended, feet.

Remove the bowl from the mixer and transfer the meringue to a large bowl. Sift the reserved almond flour mixture over the top of the meringue in thirds, folding with a large rubber spatula between each addition. It may seem as if there is more almond flour mixture than you can possibly incorporate, but, trust me, you can! It is normal for the meringue to deflate quite a bit after the dry ingredients are added and for the batter to be very thick at first. (See “Visual Cue #2,” left.)

Continue to fold until the batter just turns shiny and loosens slightly. At the ideal consistency, the batter should “flow like magma,” as other bakers before me have said, meaning that tracks created by lifting up the spatula should largely disappear into the bulk of the batter, except for a faint outline, after 20 to 30 seconds. (See “Visual Cue #3,” below left.) Again, avoid overfolding.

4. Pipe and air-dry the macarons. Turn the batter into a pastry bag fitted with a 1⁄2-inch round coupler (or tip specified in your project). Pipe the batter onto the prepared cookie sheets so it fills the tracing marks made in Step 2 with a little room to spare. (For 1 7⁄8-inch tracings, I usually leave about 1⁄16 to 1⁄8 inch all the way around.) Rap the cookie sheets on a tabletop to release trapped air bubbles in the cookies; then flatten any peaks in the batter with a barely damp fingertip. If you’ve mixed the batter to the optimal consistency, it should spread on its own into smooth, flat rounds with few to no peaks to flatten. (See “Visual Cue #4,” below.)

Air-dry until a skin has formed on the cookie tops, generally about 45 to 60 minutes. Drying time will vary with humidity, air temperature, and the length of time the egg whites were dehydrated in Step 1. When ready, the macarons will have lost their stickiness and sheen.

5. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 300°F.

6. Bake about 18 to 20 minutes for 1 7⁄8-inch rounds, or as instructed in your project. (To minimize browning, bake for 10 minutes at 300°F; then drop the oven temperature to 275°F and continue to bake for the remaining time. For some projects, I recommend baking at a lower temperature from the start in order to avoid browning altogether.) When done, the cookies should feel dry and firm and begin to lift off the parchment paper when gently nudged. They should also have risen to 1 1⁄2 to 2 times their initial height and have smooth, crack-free tops and crinkly feet. (See “Visual Cue #5,” below.)

Slide the cookies, still on the parchment paper, onto a wire rack and let cool a few minutes until they can easily be removed from the paper. If the cookies stick even after cooling, set them back in the oven on a very low temperature (about 125°F) to dry further. Alternatively, release them with a thin-bladed paring knife. Avoid abruptly pulling them because they can break.

Cool completely before filling with Ganache or Italian Buttercream, or storing.

7. Fill the macarons. Prepare either Ganache (chilled to piping consistency) or Italian Buttercream and transfer to a pastry bag fitted with a 1⁄2-inch round tip (Ateco #806). Turn half of the macarons upside down so their flat sides face up. Pipe enough filling on each cookie to just cover it; then top with another macaron, placed flat side down, to make a sandwich. Again, once filled, the macarons should be refrigerated as described in “Prep Talk” until you’re ready to eat.

Royal icing

aka “Glue ” with consistency and adjustments 

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Royal Icing is—by far—my favorite cookie decorating medium! Even if I intend to use a relatively loose Royal Icing, I always start by mixing the icing to a very thick consistency using the egg white to powdered sugar ratio below. When mixed thick, the icing ends up with fewer air bubbles and holds coloring better with less mottling. Also, the thicker the icing, the faster it dries, which makes this thick formulation ideal for securing decorations to cookie tops and sticking together compound cookies (p. 45) or larger 3-D structures. In short, it acts like “glue,” and that’s how I refer to it throughout the book. Most other decorating techniques require looser icing, which is easily achieved by thinning thick icing with water. See “Consistency Adjustments” (p. 244) for details.

Ingredients:

2 pounds powdered sugar

1⁄2 teaspoon cream of tartar

5 large egg whites, cold (about 11 to 12 tablespoons pasteurized whites, or see “Substitutions,” p. 243)

Flavoring(s) of your choice, to taste (Note: Don’t skimp on the flavoring, or the icing can taste chalky.)

Soft-gel food coloring (p. 14) of your choice (optional) royal icing

Yield: Makes about 2 pounds 4 ounces or 4 1⁄2 to 5-plus cups; yield will vary with egg size, egg temperature, and beating time.

Prep Talk:

If tinted, the icing is best used the day it’s mixed. Otherwise, the icing can be made 1 to 2 days ahead and stored in the fridge. When ready to use, bring the icing to room temperature, stir vigorously to restore its original consistency (especially if any separation has occurred), and tint as desired. Once applied to cookies, the icing should remain at room temperature so it sets into a crunchy candy-like coating. Important: Unless you’re using the icing, always cover the surface flush with plastic wrap to prevent a crust from quickly forming.

1. Combine the powdered sugar and cream of tartar in the bowl of an electric mixer. Mix in the egg whites by hand to moisten the sugar.

2. Fit the electric mixer with a whip attachment. To avoid a flurry of powdered sugar, beat the mixture on low speed just until the egg whites are evenly incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl; then turn the mixer to its highest speed and continue to beat about 2 to 3 minutes. (The icing will lighten and thicken as you beat it. However, avoid beating too long; you’ll introduce excess air bubbles, which are tough to remove and interfere with smooth top-coating.) When done, the icing should be bright white, glossy, and very thick—and at what I call “glue” consistency. At this consistency, the icing will cling to a spoon (held upside down) indefinitely without falling off.

3. Beat in flavoring(s) and/or coloring, as desired. Mix well before using or store, covered flush with plastic wrap, as instructed in “Prep Talk.”

(From "Ultimate Cookies," Gibbs Smith, 272 pages, softcover, $24.99)

 

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