amaretto and dark chocolate shortbread. TSP christmas cookie week

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It’s hard to believe it’s the final month of 2014. This year has flown by in a tumble of seasons and emotions, the most significant of which were two summers and two autumns (the product of a four month trip to the Northern Hemisphere, which I’ve written about in a series beginning here).

This month marks the beginning of our second summer – hot, dry and sun drenched, trademarks of an Australian December. As I write, a soft breeze drifts through the window; eucalyptus-scented and warmed by the afternoon sun.

It’s less than three weeks til Christmas. Three weeks until glasses will clink, presents will be opened and carols will be sung around gilded trees. As per usual, I’m a little behind in terms of organizing small stuff like presents, cards and, uh, turkeys, that kind of thing.

But at least I’ve baked cookies.

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Now that I’ve confessed my chronic Christmas disorganization, let me introduce you to someone who’s the polar opposite. Despite planning for the (exciting!) arrival of her very first child, my beautiful friend Erin at The Speckled Palate is again hosting a massive Christmas Cookie Week for 2014!

If you’re a long-term reader of this blog you may remember that I scraped into the last day of Christmas Cookie Week 2013 by the skin of my teeth (or rather, by furiously typing into the wee hours – read the post here). I’m pleased to say that this year’s been a little bit different. I’ve baked, jotted and photographed in time for the kick-off!

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As for the recipe? Well, after a recent trip to Scotland I couldn’t help but think of shortbread as the classic Christmas cookie. For something extra special, I’ve embellished the traditional version with almond meal, Amaretto liqueur and a drizzle of bitter dark chocolate.

The Speckled Palate‘s Christmas Cookie Week will run from Sunday, December 7th to Saturday, December 13th 2014. If you’d like to participate, you can find more details right here.

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Amaretto and Dark Chocolate Shortbread

Makes 18 cookies

  • 125g butter, at room temperature
  • 60g pure icing sugar, sifted
  • 60g almond meal
  • 115g (3/4 cup) plain flour
  • 2 tsp Amaretto liqueur
  • 50g dark chocolate (at least 60% cocoa content), melted

Preheat your oven to 180 degrees C (356 degrees f). Line 2 baking trays with non-stick baking paper, then set aside.

In a medium bowl, beat the butter, Amaretto and sugar together until pale and creamy.

butterAdd in the almond meal and flour, then stir to combine (the mixture should be cohesive but not sticky).

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Roll tablespoonfuls of the mixture into balls, then place onto your lined trays (allow room for spreading). Press down gently with a fork until the cookies are about 1.5cm thick.

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Bake in the preheated oven for 12 minutes or until golden.

Remove from the oven and leave for five minutes (the cookies will be soft when you first remove them from the oven) before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

When your cookies are completely cooled, drizzle with the melted chocolate (I just used a fork dipped in chocolate in a back-and-forth motion, however you can use a small snap-lock bag with the corner snipped off if you prefer).

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When set, store in an airtight container for up to one week.

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Thanks Erin for coordinating another beautiful Christmas Cookie Week for 2014! Now, onto my Christmas shopping…

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alfajores payes – TSP christmas cookie week

stackbutton2It’s 1.23am on Friday 20th December, 2013. Instead of getting ready for bed, I’m kneading a batch of cinnamon shortbread dough. Why? Well, firstly because I promised you a recipe for alfajores payes in this post from almost a fortnight ago. Secondly, because I kinda like my friend Erin from The Speckled Palate.

Erin’s hosting a Christmas Cookie Week this week and today’s the deadline for adding to the gorgeous stack of delights including salted caramel thumbprint cookies, vanilla bean shortbread cookies and classic coconut macaroons (all recipes available via the Christmas Cookie Week link). As abovementioned, by contribution to this week’s cookie goodness is a recipe for alfajores payes, chocolate-coated Argentinean shortbread cookies filled with thick salted dulce de leche caramel.

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The recipe I’ve included for alfajores payes was originally sourced here from The Gourmet Traveller. After completing a trial batch, I made some minor changes including a reduction in the diameter of the cookies (my first batch were 6.5cm but I found them to be a little too large, so I’ve reduced the measurement in the recipe to 5.5cm), doubling the amount of cinnamon for spiced goodness (from 1/4 to 1/2 tsp) and adding a sprinkling of sea salt atop the dulce de leche before sandwiching the cookies together (the little ‘pop’ of sea salt flakes adds a gorgeous layer of complexity to this already divine Argentinean biscuit).

I also chose to make the shortbread dough by hand rather than with a food processor, because… well, I’m a bit like that. Floured hands, cold butter and a wooden bench make me feel like I’m doing good in the world.

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You may also notice that I’ve dipped my sandwich biscuits into the tempered chocolate rather than spreading it with a pastry brush. This was mainly due to being time poor, however I have included both techniques in the recipe text below. The advantage of brush application is that the top and bottom layers of chocolate set independently, creating a neater finish. Dipping each biscuit is far more efficient but will likely create a ‘foot’ of chocolate that pools as the liquid sets.

As this will likely be my last post before the Christmas arrives, I’d like to wish everyone a blessed, merry and peaceful Christmas week. Thanks for the Christmas wishes and inspiration over the past month!

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Alfajores Payes (cinnamon shortbread with caramel filling)

Makes 24 sandwich biscuits.

*Begin this recipe one day ahead.

Biscuits:

  • 2 cups (300g) plain flour, sieved
  • 1/4 cup (40g) pure icing sugar, sieved
  • 250g cold unsalted butter
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

Dulce de leche filling:

  • 395g can sweetened condensed milk, unopened
  • 1 tsp sea salt flakes

To serve:

  • pure icing sugar, to dust, or
  • 150g tempered melted dark chocolate (65% cocoa solids), to coat

For the dulce de leche: Place the can of condensed milk in a large saucepan. Cover with cold water. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, then cook, covered with a weighted lid, over low heat for 3 1/2 hours. Do not uncover or touch the can whilst it cooks as it may explode.

Turn off the heat, then leave to cool completely (for at least 2 hours) before removing the can. Ensure that the can is completely cold before opening it. Transfer the caramel to a bowl, add in 1/2 tsp sea salt flakes and stir to combine completely. Cover and refrigerate whilst you make your biscuits.

For the shortbread biscuits: Combine flour, sugar, cinnamon and 1/4 tsp fine sea salt in a bowl. Dice the butter and add it to the dry mixture gradually, rubbing it in until the mixture comes together. Knead until a dough forms, then wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes or until firm.

Roll the dough out to 5mm thickness on a floured work surface, then cut into rounds using an upturned glass or a 5.5cm diameter cookie cutter (re-roll the scraps). Transfer to flat, even baking trays lined with baking paper, then refrigerate for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 180 degrees C. Remove the biscuits from the refrigerator once chilled, and transfer directly to oven. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until golden. Cool for 5 minutes on the tray, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

To serve: Spread half of the cookies with dulce de leche. Sprinkle on a few flakes of the extra sea salt, then top with the remaining biscuits. Place onto a wire rack.

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Temper your chocolate (I’m not going to go into the finer details here, see David Lebovitz’s guide or my friend Trixie’s blog for instructions), then brush one half and sides of each biscuit with melted chocolate.

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Tempered chocolate cools fast, so if you’ve processed your chocolate properly the coating should set within the hour. Turn over and brush the other side with melted chocolate, stand until set (as explained above, I placed all of my melted chocolate into a shallow bowl and dipped half of each biscuit into it. After allowing excess chocolate to drain, I placed the biscuits onto lined trays to set).

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Store your biscuits in an airtight container in a cool place for up to four days.

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A huge thanks to the gorgeous Erin also for the opportunity to participate in the event that is Christmas Cookie Week. Make sure you check out The Speckled Palate‘s official link for much more cookie goodness!

dark chocolate, sea salt and walnut cookies

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Get ready for an obscene statement.

I love cookies.

Okay, so that might be just slightly anticlimactic; especially seeing as almost the entire population of the Western world shares the same view. What may be a little more surprising is the fact that I love pretty much all cookies, whether they be soft or crunchy, chewy or crumbly, well-browned or pallid and slightly underdone. As long as they’re buttery and crammed with ‘the good stuff’ (e.g. chocolate chips, toasted nuts, dried fruit) I will happily consume every last crumb with a satisfied smile on my face. Cookie goodness equals happy Laura; especially when accompanied by a fresh cup of piping hot tea.

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In recent months, I’ve realised that this kind of statement may seem quite unusual to some bakers. Most cookie consumers seem to be a lot more discerning, especially when it comes to the hallowed chocolate chip variety. In fact, some bloggers have even gone to the extent of testing and comparing various recipes for flavour, consistency and texture (see here, here and here for some examples) in the hope of finding the ‘ultimate’ chocolate chip cookie. As this ‘research’ is entirely subjective, the jury remains out as to which cookie reigns supreme. However, as far as I can tell, American audiences largely favour the soft, chewy cookie varieties whilst the British prefer crunchier, crumblier versions that stay true to the original definition of biscuit. Yes, Americans and Canadians, I classify your ‘biscuits’ as ‘scones‘. You are entitled to argue.

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Anyway, moving on. You’ll find below a recipe for a chocolate chip cookie that my 20-year-old self first discovered whilst reading the January 2004 edition of Good Taste magazine in a Woolworths supermarket. The main draw card was the walnuts; I love anything with walnuts, especially when combined with dark chocolate. So, after a moment’s deliberation, I squirreled the magazine home in my handbag (after paying for it, of course), hauled out my mother’s old General Electric hand-held mixer and spent the evening covered in flour, butter and melted chocolate. By the next day, all of the cookies had mysteriously disappeared. The recipe was declared a great and glorious success.

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Fast forward, uh… nine years. I’m still baking these cookies as part of my regular rotation. Sometimes I mix things up a bit by adding dried fruit, white chocolate, macadamias instead of walnuts, sea salt (as per this more sophisticated version) or extra butter and more eggs (read on to ‘notes’ for information on how these ingredients change the consistency of a cookie). Each variation has been equally delicious and eagerly consumed by my friends, family and work colleagues.

So. If you haven’t already found your favourite chocolate chip cookie recipe, I’d encourage you to try this one. It’s not a chewy cookie recipe (unless you try one of the variations below) but you’ll end up with a deliciously crisp, crunchy cookies with buttery dough, smooth dark chocolate chunks and the bitterness of toasted walnuts. Try them on their own, with a fresh cup of char or crumbled up over vanilla ice-cream and hot fudge sauce. Either way, they’re absolutely delicious… and with the protein-packed nuts and antioxidant content, I convince myself that they’re healthy, too. Sort of.

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Dark Chocolate, Sea Salt and Walnut Cookies

Adapted slightly from this recipe by Sarah Hobbs.

  • 125g butter, softened
  • 100g (1/2 cup) soft brown sugar, firmly packed
  • 1 free-range egg, at room temperature
  • 225g (1 1/2 cups) plain flour, sifted
  • 200g dark eating chocolate
  • 150g (1 1/2 cups) walnuts, coarsely chopped
  • Murray River flaked pink sea salt (or other delicate sea salt), optional

Preheat oven to 180 degrees C (356 degrees f). Line two medium baking trays with greaseproof paper, then set aside.

Beat butter and sugar together with an electric beater until pale and creamy. Add in your egg, then beat until thoroughly combined. Sift in your flour, then stir well with a spatula or wooden spoon. Add in your walnuts and dark chocolate. Stir to combine.

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Use your hands to roll tablespoons-full of mixture into balls. Place the balls, 2-3cm apart, onto your prepared trays. Flatten slightly with your hand or a fork.

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Bake in a preheated oven for 20 minutes, swapping the tray positions in your oven half way through. When ready, your cookies should be light golden. Remove from the oven, then set aside to cool for 5 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

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When your cookies are almost cooled, sprinkle each with a few flakes of good quality, mild sea salt. This little step is entirely optional, but trust me; the crunchy, salty flakes pair perfectly with the earthy, sweet dark chocolate, butter and brown sugar. Yum.

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Notes:

  • As aforementioned, this recipe will produce thick, crunchy, crisp and crumbly chocolate chip cookies that are more in line with a traditional English biscuit. If you’d like them to be chewier, I’d suggest adding an extra egg yolk during the whipping process, alongside a teaspoon of vanilla essence. Add 1/4 tsp baking soda to the flour during the sifting process, then continue as per the recipe.
  • If you’d like thinner, crispier cookies, you need to add more butter (try 150g) and substitute the brown sugar for white, granular caster sugar. Brown sugar is more acidic and hydrophilic, which means that it retains more moisture during the cooking process. White sugar, being less dense, can help produce a crisper end product. Increasing the butter content will also add further milk protein which aids in browning and crisping.
  • If you’re baking these cookies on a warm day and the dough seems to be too sticky, refrigerate it for a while before baking. Don’t add more flour, as this will likely produce a drier, hard finished product.
  • Over-mixing your dough can also result in tough cookies (and contrary to the saying, this is not a good thing). When flour is combined with liquid, the embedded gluten starts to develop into a network of protein strands that become stronger and more elastic when mixed. This holds your baked goods together (a positive) but can also toughen them (a negative) if over-worked. In any cookie recipe, use the minimum amount of mixing required to create a uniform dough (a good indicator is that there should be no visible patches of flour).
  • I these bake cookies between two baking trays (or cookie sheets) to allow space for spreading. Even if you have room for both trays on one oven shelf, I’d suggest rotating your trays between two different oven positions half way through the cooking time to allow for better air circulation and heat distribution. Most ovens have hot spots (mine definitely do!) so this will result in a more evenly baked product.
  • Do you tend to eat left over cookie dough? I’ve recently broken the habit. Why? Well, cookie dough contains very perishable items, the most significant of which is raw egg. Consumption of chicken eggs in their raw state can lead to serious food poisoning (and death) through the ingestion of salmonella, so if you’re going to eat raw cookie dough I’d suggest making a special egg-free batch.

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End note: This recipe reminds me of my beautiful, talented and generous mother (as I continue to use her now-gifted, 25+ year old mixer; she also adores anything with nuts and will always be my first official taste tester) and my best friend, Vicky (who consumed a whole tin of these in one week whilst pregnant; she has now added this recipe to her own family’s repertoire). These amazing women are inspiring, supportive and generous with their love and time. I’m so grateful to be traveling through the ups and downs of life with them. Oh, and whilst I’m adding links, also check out the freshly minted website of my husband and new official taste tester, Aaron. He and the poker boys gave these cookies their manly endorsement last night, so they must be good.

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