The Taste section of the Star Tribune has held its annual holiday cookie contest for the past decade, resulting in 10 winning recipes that have pleased bakers and appeared on holiday cookie platters for years.
In celebration of our 10th contest, we thought it would be fun to put the top 10 recipes to the test by having four local experts -- pastry chefs -- offer their thoughts on the recipes.
Steve Horton of Rustica bakery, Adrienne Odom of Parasole Restaurants, Diane Yang of La Belle Vie and Stephanie Schwandt of D'Amico Kitchen, pictured above, did just that as staff photographer Tom Wallace, also pictured, recorded the occasion. Find out which were the top three cookies next week (Nov. 29) in the Taste section, along with the winning recipes from this year's contest.
All the winners and finalists from the past decade will be available in the NEW e-book from the Star Tribune. "The Cookie Book" will be available on amazon.com and iTunes (and more) on Nov. 29 for $2.99.
Saturday's St. Patrick's Day celebrations always call for a warm slice of Irish Soda Bread, but the truth is that this loaf, rich with eggs and studded with currants (if you're of the Spotted Dog camp of bakers) is terrific year-round. Here's a Baking Central installment from the archives with all you need to know about this traditional bread. The recipe follows:
If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then tradition is in the mouth of the eater. This is especially true when talking about Irish soda bread.
Some say it's a brown bread, while others swear that it should be white. Raisins have both defenders and blasphemers. Most recipes labeled "American-style" include eggs, sugar, butter, caraway and currants, resulting in a slice of what tastes more like cake than bread.
Here's the real kicker: Irish soda bread didn't come from Ireland, although the Emerald Isle certainly can claim credit for popularizing the rustic, economical bread.
The Society for the Preservation of Irish Soda Bread says that soda ash was in use by American Indians when European settlers arrived. When bicarbonate of soda was introduced in Ireland in the early 1800s, it enabled a bread to be baked in an iron pot over a fire, an advantage where ovens were not widely in use.
Bottom line: For most of us, tradition means the food with which we grew up. The great thing about soda bread is that it's easily adaptable to personal tastes because it contains just four main ingredients: flour, baking soda, salt and buttermilk.
You can shift the balance of white and whole wheat flour to your liking, add raisins or currants if you please -- even mix a few tablespoons of butter or sugar into the dough, to taste.
A lesson in simple chemistry
Soda bread dough comes together quickly, and that's by design. Here's the 15-second chemistry lesson: When soda, which is an alkaline, is moistened with buttermilk, which is an acid, it immediately begins producing bubbles of carbon dioxide.
The goal is to get the dough into a hot oven while the bubbles are still forming, trapping them inside the loaf. Mix too slow, and they'll move right on up out of the dough, disappearing like Brigadoon.
If you have a box of soda that's been sitting for who knows how long on your shelf, you can easily test its strength by stirring a 1/2 teaspoon into a small dish of vinegar. It should bubble up immediately.
Baking tips for all
Here are a few tips for successful soda bread: Make sure to whisk the baking soda and salt into the flour before adding the buttermilk. Pockets of soda in a finished loaf can taste bitter and cause small brown spots on the crust.
If you want to add raisins, making a version the Irish call Spotted Dog, stir them into the flour; this helps keep them from sinking to the bottom of the loaf.
Buttermilk is the liquid of choice, but if you're fresh out, stir 2 tablespoons of white vinegar or lemon juice into a scant 2 cups of milk and let set for 5 minutes.
Once the liquid is added to the flour, stir quickly but thoroughly, making sure all the flour is moistened. You don't want to work soda-based doughs too much or they'll develop a tough texture.
Once you scrape the dough onto a floured surface, knead only briefly, then divide the dough in half and shape each piece into a round. Place on the baking sheet and flatten slightly.
Legends aplenty from across the pond
Now here is where the Irish lore truly comes into play. Each round needs a deep X cut in the top, using a sharp paring knife and cutting about 1/2-inch deep.
This, legend says, lets the devil out, although others say it's to let the fairies escape. In any case, it makes an attractive loaf, while also ensuring that the oven's heat penetrates the moist dough.
A final tip to make sure the bread is baked through: Tap the loaf on the bottom. If it sounds hollow, it's done. If you hear a dull thump, put it back in the oven for another 5 minutes and test again.
Loaves slice best after they've been allowed to cool a bit, but soda bread is best eaten soon after it's baked.
Still, should you have some left, it makes wonderful toast the next morning. (You might even put some aside for that purpose.)
IRISH SODA BREAD
Makes 2 loaves.
Note: This is a version of white soda bread. If you use raisins, it becomes a Spotted Dog.
• 3 c. all-purpose flour
• 1 c. whole wheat flour
• 11/2 tsp. baking soda
• 1 tsp. salt
• 1 c. raisins, optional
• 2 c. buttermilk, divided
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Spray a baking sheet with cooking spray.
Combine flours, baking soda and salt, and whisk until well combined. Stir in raisins, if using, to coat them with flour.
Make a well in the center of the flour and add about 11/2 cups buttermilk.
Stir quickly and thoroughly, adding more buttermilk as needed to make a moist dough.
Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead a few times until smooth. Divide in half and shape each piece into a round.
Place the round on a baking sheet and gently flatten it. Dust with flour. With a paring knife, cut an X across the top, about 1/2-inch deep.
Bake for 35 minutes, or until golden brown.
To test, tap the bottom of a loaf; if it sounds hollow, it's done. If you hear a dull thump, return the loaf to the oven for another 5 minutes and check again. Cool on a wire rack.
Stay indoors (well, almost), grab your holiday shopping list -- or your grocery list -- and head to a farmers market on Saturday.
The Mill City Farmers Market is getting together for the holidays, but not at its warm-weather location (pictured, above), outside the Mill City Museum. Instead, 19 of the market's vendors are meeting inside the museum, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. items include cheeses from Prairie Hollow Farm, Singing Hills Goat Dairy and Shepherd's Way Farms; honey from Ames Farm; jams and jellies from Lucille's Kitchen Garden; pantry items from Very Prairie, Bliss Granola, Martha's Joy, Birchberry Native Arts & Foods and Northern Lakes Wild Rice; and more. I know I'll be hoping to score some eggs from Braucher's Sunshine Harvest Farm and salmon from Wild Run Salmon.
Expect to find all kinds of goodies at the Bloomington Farmers Market, where baked goods, honey, maple syrup, nuts, strudels, jams, breads, chocolates, wild rice, cheeses, salsa and other products will be available from 9 a.m. to noon, inside the warm confines of Bloomington Civic Plaza.
The St. Paul Farmers Market continues its year-round outdoor gathering (9 a.m. to 1 p.m.), with vendors selling eggs, baked goods, cheeses, chocolates, salsa, jams and jellies, pickles, popcorn, honey, mushrooms, pasta, poultry, meats, fish and more.
The Northeast Minneapolis Farmers Market is taking its show on the road, and indoors, moving to the Eastside Food Co-op, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Look for honey, jams and jellies, kombucha, nut cheeses, gluten-free baking mixes, apples and more.
It was quite an afternoon at the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis on Saturday, when the five bakers in our 2011 holiday cookie contest gathered, baked and shared their winning cookies with an appreciative -- and hungry -- crowd.
Winner Beth Jones of Owatonna, Minn. Her cookie: Swedish Almond-Chocolate Macaroons.
Finalist Becky Varone of Chaska. Her cookie: Snowball Clippers.
Finalist Kay Lieberherr of St. Paul. Her cookie: Almond Palmiers.
Finalist Joan Hause of Lake Elmo. Her cookie: Lemon-Lime Christmas Trees.
Finalist Lance Swanson of North Branch, Minn. His recipe: Chocolate Drizzled Churros.
Almond paste is a key ingredient in our winning cookie, and also in one of our finalists' recipes. But what the heck is it? It's a mixture of blanched ground almonds and sugar, bound together with some kind of liquid, often cooking oil, corn syrup, eggs or cream.
Don't confuse almond paste with marzipan, although they are similar. Almond paste is used to make marzipan, although the former is far less sweet, typically composed of 50 to 55 percent sugar, compared to 75 percent and greater for marizapan. There are textural differences, too; almond paste is generally a bit more coarse and less pliable than marzipan.
Bottom line: Do not substitute marzipan for almond paste in our winning cookie recipe. Or in any recipe, for that matter. The results will differ, considerably.
The mostly widely available version is produced by Odense and is sold in 7-oz. tubes (pictured, above).
When it comes to buying almond paste, it pays to browse. After shopping around, we found some wiggle room in price: $5.49 at Target, $5.99 at Whole Foods Market, $6.39 at the Wedge Co-op, $7.29 at both Lunds and Kowalski's Markets and $8.75 at Ingebretsen's. (Both Cub Foods and Rainbow Foods stock a 4-oz. can of almond paste).
Once opened, almond paste should be tightly wrapped and refrigerated. If it becomes to hard, it can be softened by heating in a microwave oven for a few seconds.
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