Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Honey Spice Roll Out Cookies

If you live in Northern California and you're over the age of 30, you most likely remember the Nut Tree. It was just about half way from the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento and my family always stopped for lunch on our way to and from those areas. I have great memories of the "back and forth" animals, my favorite was the giraffe; watching airplanes take off from the small airport; exploring the gift shop; and eating at the Coffee Tree Restaurant across the street. As a kid I loved that they had colored crystal sugar on every table. My most favorite thing of all was the giant decorated honey cookies that were sold there. If my sisters and I were really good, my parents would buy one for each of us. There were so many designs to choose from and once you picked a cookie they would write your name on it in icing right before your very eyes. For an 8 year old, that was quite a treat.

The old Nut Tree is long gone, it's all torn down and a suburban strip mall stands where it once was. They still have the big sign but it just isn't the same. Jamba Juice, Peet's Coffee, Marshall's and other corporate strip mall standards just don't have the charm that the Nut Tree and Coffee Tree once did. But, alas, that's progress. Far be it from me to stand in the way. You can however capture a bit of the Nut Tree charm by recreating those wonderful honey cookies. I found the recipe in the newspaper several years ago and was delighted to find that they tasted exactly as I had remembered. These cookies stay soft and chewy, almost cake like, and so they pair well with the hard royal icing decoration. They are great for decorated holiday cookies, the cinnamon and clove gives them a flavor reminiscent of gingerbread. If you really want that true Nut Tree Honey Cookie, give yourself a couple of days to make these. The flavor and texture of the cookies is much better if the dough sits in the refrigerator for a couple of days. So grab your favorite cookie cutters and bring back a bit of the past. . .

For the cookies: honey, sugar, shortening*, an egg (not shown), flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and cloves.

*I really don't care much for using shortening, I prefer butter for cookies. But, for this recipe you really need to use shortening if you want them to stay soft and cake like. I DO NOT recommend swapping out the shortening for butter.

Start by forgiving me for this awful out of focus picture. 
Dang camera is giving me probs as of late.
In a small saucepan bring the honey, sugar and shortening to a boil. Start on low heat until the shortening is all melted then raise it up to medium.

When the mixture comes to a boil, cook for 5 minutes stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and let cool COMPLETELY. If the mixture hasn't cooled completely to room temperature you'll risk cooking the egg and flour when you try to add them. At this point, just walk away for a good 20-30 minutes and let it cool down.

Beat the egg and then add some water and beat with a fork until combined. It should be somewhat frothy. Set this aside.

Sift together the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and cloves.

When the honey mixture is completely cooled to room temperature add dry and wet ingredients alternately beginning and ending with the dry ingredients.
(1/3 dry, 1/2 wet, 1/3 dry, 1/2 wet, 1/3 dry)
Mix just until the dough comes together.

Form the dough into a fat disk and wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least overnight. This dough gets better with age. I usually let it "ripen" in the fridge for 2-3 days before rolling out the cookies.

When you're ready to bake the cookies, preheat the oven to 325°F.
Roll the dough about 1/4-inch thick and cut.
(See this post for more on rolling and cutting cookies.)

Lay the cookies about 2 inches apart on a lined (Silpat or parchment) cookie sheet.
Bake for 12-15 minutes until edges are golden brown. Allow to cool slightly then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. 
Note: These cookies do spread and puff up slightly. I used a 3-inch circle cutter and the cookies ended up to be about 3-1/4 inches after they were baked.

When you are ready to decorate refer to this post on how to make royal icing.
Add what ever color you like. I was making pumpkins so I used orange. Double check that the colors and/or flavors you use are NOT oil based. At this stage, you can separate portions of the icing to add different colors.

The easiest way to cover a lot of cookies with icing is with the "dip and level" method.* First thin your icing. (Just the color you want to use for the base or background, leave the other colors un-thinned.) Add a teaspoon of water at a time mixing well after each addition of water. Icing is the right consistency when a knife drug through the icing leaves a line that disappears in 20-30 seconds.
Check out "The Sweet Adventures of Sugarbelle" blog for a great explanation of this.

Lay the cookie, top down, into the icing.

Quickly but gently lift it out and use and offset spatula to scrape off any excess icing.
You want about 1/8-inch even layer of icing on the cookie.

Next, just set the cookies on a rack for the icing to dry. The icing will level itself out so don't worry too much about smoothing it with the spatula. Once the base icing is dry, use the other colors of un-thinned icing to add details.

*If you want a neater look to the cookies you can use the "outline and flood" method. Before thinning the icing, pipe an outline of icing around the edge of the cookie. Then thin the icing and flood it within your outline. Again check out "The Sweet Adventures of Sugarbelle" blog for a great explanation of this method.

Source: Nut Tree Remembered: The Cookbook by Tara Baumann, Jim Moehrke, Roy Moehrke, 1997
Makes about 2 dozen 3-inch cookies

2/3 cup dark honey
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup shortening
1 egg
1/3 cup water
4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cloves

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. 

Bring to a boil sugar, honey and shortening. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Allow to cool. Beat egg and add to water. Mix and sift the flour, soda, salt and spices.

Add the sifted dry ingredients alternately with the liquid ingredients to the honey mixture. If the dough is allowed to ripen for several days before rolling out, the flavor and texture are somewhat improved.

Roll out dough about 1/4-inch thick and cut. 

Bake at 325 degrees 12-15 minutes until edges are golden brown.

For lots of great tips, recipes and cookie decorating ideas check out "The Sweet Adventures of Sugarbelle" blog. She does a great job of explaining how to make beautiful decorated cookies and has lots of creative decorating ideas. I am addicted to this blog!

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