Friday, July 30, 2010

Child's play

At the beginning of June it seems an impossibility, but by the time August rolls around you can pretty much guarantee that your children will utter that universal phrase of childhood: I’m bored. If you live in a hot climate, this boredom will probably coincide with a generalized ennui about swimming pools and other outdoor activities. Children who were desperate to play in the sun can now be found inside, lounging and listless. Maybe it’s just me, but August always seems like the burnt-out end of summer – when everything goes a bit a yellow and tired at the edges.

Since I’m no good at crafts, and quickly bore of games, I think of baking as a good indoor activity. There’s really no such thing as a surfeit of cookies, because there are always extra kids hanging around our house – and we seem to have houseguests more often than not. I like recipes that are easy (childproof, even) and give a small bored person something to do.

This summer I’ve been making that pecan-studded shortbread cookie that goes under many names: pecan sandies, Mexican wedding cookies, sand tarts. I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t love these cookies – and that includes a 13 year old boy who is firmly convinced that he doesn’t like nuts. Even better, they are super-easy . . . but everyone who eats them seems to be convinced that I’ve performed some minor miracle. Best of all, this cookie gives lots of scope for small hands: rolling the dough into balls, and later, dunking them into confectioner’s (icing) sugar.

Here is the recipe that I like: from The New Basics Cookbook.

8 ounces unsalted butter, softened
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
2 teaspoons water
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose (plain) flour
1 cup finely chopped pecans
Approximately 3 tablespoon’s confectioner’s (icing) sugar

Cream together the butter and sugars.
Stir in the vanilla and water – thoroughly blend.
Add the flour and pecans, mixing until the dough is thick and creamy.
Wrap the dough in waxed paper and chill it in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 hours.
Preheat the oven to 325 F/170 C.
Shape the dough into balls the size of a rounded teaspoonful, and drop them onto baking sheets, about 2 inches apart. Flatten them slightly with the tines of a fork. Bake until pale golden – 20 minutes. (This is the bit that children particularly like to do.)
Allow the cookies to cool slightly, and then roll them in the confectioner’s sugar.

When they are completely cool, they will develop their characteristic melt-in-the-mouth texture.
Truly, this is an easy cookie to make and it gives very consistent results.

Another cooking project that I love to do with kids is cream puffs . . . or éclairs, or profiteroles.

They have that “science project” element which fascinates children. How can those few ingredients – butter, flour, water and eggs – puff up the way they do? Non-cooks are always amazingly impressed with cream puffs, but really, they couldn’t be easier. Not only that, but you only need a saucepan and a wooden spoon to make them. I use the recipe that comes from my old, falling-apart copy of the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook.

Cream Puffs (an easy recipe for choux pastry)

4 ounces butter
8 ounces water
1 cup all-purpose (plain) flour
¼ teaspoon salt
4 eggs

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter at low heat. Then add water and bring to a boil.
Add the flour and the salt all at once, stirring vigorously. Cook and stir until the mixture forms a ball that doesn’t separate. This should just take a minute or two.
Remove from heat and allow to cool for about five minutes.
Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat until the mixture is smooth. It will have a thick, glossy texture.

Drop the batter by heaping tablespoonfuls about 3 inches apart on a greased baking sheet. You can also form the pastry into long éclair shapes using your spoon.

Preheat the oven to 400 F/200 C and bake for about 30 minutes – or until golden brown and puffy.
Cool on a baking rack.
When completely cool, split them in half and fill with your choice of: ice cream, whipped cream or custard. (I like a custard lightened with about a 1/2 cup of stiffly whipped cream).

Cream puffs are generally dusted with confectioner’s sugar while éclairs are iced with a thin chocolate frosting. I like to melt some really good dark chocolate and then drizzle that on the top.

So delicious and SO EASY! Child’s play, really.

1 comment:

TBM said...

You are such a fun mom! I'd much rather make cream puffs than play a board game any day. And of course pecan sandies are sooooo delicious. Perfect with tea!



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