I have never been big on Valentine's Day.
Maybe it's because I'm not a pink and purple person. Probably, it doesn't help that I can't quite get hip to Hallmark. Also, February 14 seems to me to be marketing code for switch up the colors on the cream-filled sandwich cookies and swap out the foil wrappers on all manner of mini-chocolates and while you're at it, add hearts and cupids to eight-hundred-and-twelve otherwise entirely unrelated sugar-bombs in order to merchandise the entry of every last retail establishment to the hilt, all the better to inspire fits and florid begging sessions amongst the ten-and-under set.
Not to put too fine a point on it.
So it came as a bit of a shock when we were nibbled by the Valentine's bug, recently. It helped, I think, that for the first time, all three kiddos needed cards for school this year. I didn't actually do the math, but I think that is upwards of eighty-some love notes. (No pressure.)
Which reminds me, why is it that when they send newborns home, they only mention jaundice, car seats, colic, the simple stuff? Not one single nurse saw fit to include, 'thou shalt soon be responsible for seven dozen valentines.' It should at least have come up when they discharged Zoë, whose birthday falls exactly one week prior. This would be why I have vivid memories of toting a 6-day old baby and her 7-year-old brother to the drugstore after 8 on a school night to choose cards. Choose being a bit of a euphimism, here, since if you wait until the evening of February 13, your options are either hula-hooping squirrels in pink pajamas, or still-unsold Knight Rider cards, ca. 1982. Malpractice, pure and simple.
But I digress.
This year, we sort of hit a groove. Or rather, stumbled blindly into one. It all started when housebound a few weeks back, when we pulled out the paints, scissors and paper. We had no plan, other than wiling away an afternoon, but in fairly short order we began water-coloring hearts. Actually, I cut out hearts, small, wide, tall, and skinny, and my two brush-wielding buddies took it from there.
Henry added arms, legs, eyebrows, emotions. Zoë painted thirty, all by her lonesome. Each—despite her very own tray of twenty-four colors—and every last one, purple. (Mamo tells me purple's the new pink, and I've many, many reasons not to doubt her.)
For my part, I dotted and striped and plaided, and generally channeled my inner, much-inferior Sarah Midda. And exclaimed, until my children would hear it no more, over the extraordinary success rate of Fold-Cut-Symmetry! I learned to cut half-hearts in Kindergarten, of course, but I guess I thought the trick had expired at some point. But get this: it still works. And it turns out to be totally addictive. I don't know about you, but there are few areas in my life with such perfect balance.
We didn't really have any plans for those hearts, but they left us primed and ready for more. We twisted a few fuzzies from pipe cleaners. We decorated the class post office boxes. And when it came time to pull together those cards, making seemed the better route than buying, for once.
We kept it very extremely simple, so as not to overwhelm the more tender players. (Me.) There were construction paper hearts in a few festive colors. There was tempera paint in white and purple. Some homegrown stamps: straws, erasers, rough hearts, carved from last fall's now-sprouting potatoes.
There was glitter.
There is glitter.
There will be glitter, forevermore. Like Kudzu, that glitter. Like magic, too. I had never, if you can imagine, introduced my kids to glitter. I am already anticipating the next sparkle-fest.
There were mass-produced sugar-bombs in jolly red wrappers.
Not because they begged; I bought them on my own recognizance. Because I still remember being a kid. Because I still remember that, sometimes, being the same counts for everything.
But that doesn't mean you can't also make cookies. Cookies topped with the single best buttercream to leave my kitchen. Actually, the single best anything to leave my kitchen. In fact, if I could somehow worm my way into your brain and tempt you to make just one thing, one thing from this litany of all my most favorite things, it would be this two-minute pomegranate buttercream, no contest.
But hold up. The cookies. The underneath and above. We made sugar cookies, good sugar cookies, ten years in the making. The actual making was lickety-quick, five minutes to mix, plus chill, roll and bake. It was the due diligence that took a decade. Nearly as long as that rice pudding, except in this case, I even used recipes. At least a dozen. Duds, every last one.
Now, you may already have a dandy sugar cookie recipe, and if you do, congratulations. You are a far better baker than I. My own track record on this sorry, sore spot veers from mediocre to inedible.
I've made dough that's so soft, it melts when you roll it, sticking and tearing mercilessly. I've made dough that cuts beautifully, then spreads so awfully in the oven that every last detail is entirely lost. Amoeba cookies do not a happy Molly make. I've made cookies that go stale within the day, and others that taste only of sugar, from the get-go. I've stood at the stove, fuming over another failed tray, imploring, just exactly how hard IS IT to stay still and taste good? Out loud. After midnight. Very bad sign.
If you don't have children, this whole mission may sound bonkers. What's in a sugar cookie, anyway?
Well, I'll tell you right now, that is entirely the wrong question. It is what is on a sugar cookie that matters. Sugar cookies are a platform for frosting and sprinkles, the sine qua non of kid cookie-dom. Sugar cookies are the medium for fanciful cutters, hippos and race cars and ABC's. Sugar cookies are what's needed for class parties and birthdays and holidays and exceedingly dull afternoons. Frilly gems and rich confections are fine and all, but sometimes what you want is just good plain fun. Mothers need a good sugar cookie up their sleeve. It's actually in the official job description (they don't tell you that in the maternity ward, either). But alas, all this time, my sleeves have been empty.
Until now, that is. Thank you, Karen DeMasco.
I've adored DeMasco's nut brittle for years, so I should probably have known she'd make an ace sugar cookie. DeMasco's dough is pure pleasure to work with, rolling and cutting like a dream. No panicked race against the room temperature clock; just leisurely working, interruptions welcome. Every shape exits the oven exactly as it went in, no post-cutting chilling or mystic chants required. The baked hearts looked not like shoehorns or Grimace but rather like hearts. Imagine!
Oh. And? They are delicious. They taste first of butter, then vanilla-laced sweet, with an admirable swish of salt to offset it. They are crisp in the best possible sense, and hold beautifully for a week, anyway. They are, in other words, no mere caravan for frosting, but an upstanding cookie in its own right. (Doubly so, if you make the chocolate variation, which involves 30 seconds' extra work and instantly ups your cool). We've made these three times in as many weeks, and every last cut-out was top-of-class. At least in my book, this sugar cookie's The One. Just thought I would share, should you need The One, too.
Right. There I go, getting distracted again. Pomegranate buttercream. Be still, my heart.
I've been sitting on this frosting for five years or so, now, since it came to me in a flash many Christmases back. I was mixing up a batch of lemon curd buttercream, when my mind began wandering through other possibilities. Anything, I realized, that was tart and thick, could be added to buttercream to excellent effect. Within moments, pomegranate molasses raised its hand, and next thing I knew, I was trialing a batch. And licking the beater. And going back for more.
Pomegranate molasses, if you don't already know it, is simply seriously reduced pomegranate juice. It's texture is what the Brits would call treacly, a syrup so thick it pours in slo-mo. (I will neither confirm nor deny reports that it is extraordinary, eaten straight off the spoon.) Intensely sweet, insanely tart, it is pucker incarnate, distilled and bottled.
Which is what makes it a pitch-perfect buttercream companion. Buttercream—by which I mean the rough version, butter plus powdered sugar creamed to a fluff, as opposed to the Swiss egg white and sugar syrup number—is, by definition, tremendously rich. Add a little tart, and all of a sudden, your simple rich frosting gets suddenly interesting. Add a lot of tart, and you have an addiction.
I've used this to bind two almond macaroons (swoon), and tucked it between cardamom shortbreads (exquisite), and sandwiched many a sugar cookie heart (pink!). I highly recommend it straight off a pinky, and suspect it could make an old sneaker sing. Cupcakes are obvious candidates, but if I go down that road...
Where was I? Oh, yes. The only thing that I cannot in good conscience recommend is waiting until next Valentine's Day. Easter bunnies, after all, might look absolutely dashing in pink.
I avoid sifting at all costs, and routinely skip it in almost all recipes, except frosting. Powdered sugar invariably has lumps, and no amount of beating will undo them. A quick shake in a wide sieve is all it takes. Your frosting will thank you.
I like this frosting so tart it teeters on sour, but you may prefer something less bold. Begin with 3 tablespoons, taste as you go, and add more until you are smitten. Pomegranate molasses can be found at well-stocked supermarkets, many Indian or Middle Eastern groceries, or online, here.
Finally, on food color: I'm not normally a fan, but I've taken to adding a few drops, here. Un-colored, the frosting is pale brown, which people assume is peanut butter. It's a little too trippy, I've found, to take a bite assuming salty-bland-creamy, and come up instead with bright-pucker-tart. I find 1 tablespoon molasses : 1 drop food color (plus a drop for the pot) is all that's needed for the pale pink you see above.
1/2 cup (1 cube) salted butter, slightly softened
2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
3-6 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
4-7 drops red food coloring (optional)
Combine all ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer, and fit with the paddle attachment. Beat on lowest speed, 1 minute, to incorporate powdered sugar. Raise speed to medium, and continue beating 3-4 minutes, until buttercream is creamy and light. (Alternatively, place everything in a heavy, deep bowl, and beat with a hand mixer until fluffy.)
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Ace Sugar Cookies
adapted from The Craft of Baking, Karen DeMasco & Mindy Fox
Yield: 2 dozen medium cut-outs
Stores: at least 1 week, in an airtight container
I've used salted butter here, and so adjusted the added salt accordingly. I'm not normally a fan of chocolate cookies—the flavor's so mild—but this way is so simple, and surprisingly good. Particularly, per some chocolate-lovers I know, when sandwiched with Nutella. If you quake at the thought of rolled cookies, check out the tips and tricks at the very end of this post.
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) salted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons real vanilla extract
1 large egg, at room temperature
2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour, plus additional for rolling
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 ounce semisweet chocolate, or a shy quarter-cup of chips, melted (optional)
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter, sugar, salt and vanilla on medium speed until well combined and fluffy, 3-4 minutes. Scrape sides, add egg, and beat until thoroughly incorporated. Reduce speed to low, and add flour in three installments, beating until just combined between additions.
If making both flavors, remove half the plain dough to wax paper, pat into a 1/2" disc, and wrap. Add melted chocolate to remaining dough in the bowl, and beat briefly on low speed, just to combine. Remove, then pat and wrap, as above. Chill both discs at least one hour, or up to 5 days. (Dough may also be frozen, well-wrapped, up to 1 month.)
Preheat oven to 350º. Line two baking sheets with parchment. On a clean, lightly floured work surface, roll vanilla dough out to a thickness of 1/4", rotating dough a few times as you roll, and running under the whole with an offset (or standard) spatula, once it's flat. Cut the dough into desired shapes, and transfer to baking sheets. Because these spread very little, they can be placed close together, 1/2" apart or so. Bake 17-20 minutes, depending on cookie size, rotating trays (front to back, top to bottom) halfway through for even baking. Cookies are done when tops are golden, edges approaching caramel, and surface sheen is gone. If baking mixed sizes (i.e. large hearts and small cut-out centers), remove tiny cookies a few minutes before the large. Remove cookies to rack, to cool.
Repeat with chocolate dough, if using.
When cookies are completely cool, sandwich with pomegranate buttercream (above); boiled, sieved raspberry jam (as here); and/or nutella (oh, my). Or, for a simple icing, whisk 1 cup sifted powdered sugar with 3 tablespoons milk and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, until smooth. Spread onto cooled cookies, and add sprinkles at will.